Homegrown Revolution: Magdaleno Rose-Avila Offers a Historical Perspective on the Social Action Theater of Teatro Campesino

By Rose-Avila, Magdaleno | Colorlines Magazine, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Homegrown Revolution: Magdaleno Rose-Avila Offers a Historical Perspective on the Social Action Theater of Teatro Campesino


Rose-Avila, Magdaleno, Colorlines Magazine


When I was growing up in a farm-worker family in southeastern Colorado, I never thought one day I'd end up being el patron (the boss). But in 1994, I came full circle when I found myself bellowing at a group of underpaid day laborers to "hurry up." My hero and brother Cesar Chavez had died in 1993, and in his honor, the United Farm Workers organized a massive effort in 1995 to bring the organizing struggle again to Sacramento. We were retracing the 340-mile march he'd led in 1966 from Delano to Sacramento. The first march had been a historic pilgrimage by farm workers asking for an end to violence and recognition as a legitimate union. Back then, a young Chicano theater group had performed teatros (dramas) that talked about the plight of the workers and their vision of hope. They did this on the back of a flatbed truck stopping in towns along the route. This time around, it was my turn to take the stage playing the evil boss in a Teatro Campesino production. After many years as an organizer, I had to admit I loved being the villain.

Organizing is tough work. You have to be a tremendous speaker to enthrall and captivate the crowds day after day, week after week, and month after month. Like lots of veteran organizers, I found you could lose otherwise supportive folks if you always came off somber and serious about your causes. Too many rallies and marches have the same set up--banners, posters, flags, puppets, bull horns, buttons, chanting--and way too many speakers. With teatro, people laugh, sing, and enjoy a few moments of levity. Teatro is like a blood transfusion, a good bowl of chili, an energy bar--it gets the endorphins going in your heart and your spirit. It is easy to forget a speech but not a scene from a teatro play. This past week I attended a youth conference and watched students perform a good teatro on drugs. The youth were the most attentive that I had seen them be. They were on the edge of their seats listening, laughing, and in the end, cheering. The room came alive because of teatro.

El Teatro Campesino (The Farmworkers Theater) began in the late '60s as an organizing tool of the UFW, which gave comic relief to workers amidst the mounting tensions of a labor strike and ongoing organizing efforts. In the midst of a struggle, it offered new ways to educate the members and to re-energize all of them. This magical group was founded by the master of Chicano and campesino theater, director Luis Valdez. Valdez became better known by big city audiences when he directed Zoot Suit and La Bamba, but this theater group opened their acts in small rural towns with the express purpose of educating and activating the farm workers. Because of low overheads, Valdez could take his productions anywhere and to anyone.

Teatro Campesino began reaching out beyond the farm workers, and began performing at colleges, universities, and community centers first around California and then the country. They took the message of the union to the progressive movements, including the budding Chicano Movement. They opened up the imaginations of many, and soon small teatro groups were popping up all over. Teatro Campesino initiated a cultural renaissance in the Chicano community. For teatro, you didn't need a lot of lights or props; you just needed some good stories to tell and some enthusiastic actors. The theater was--and is to this day--of, by, and for the people. It was about their tragedies, their lives, their friends, their families, and their archenemies.

Most teatro groups begin with a core group of actors pulled directly from the affected community. Many have never performed in public. Together they develop the storyline, and they practice. They test their actos (skits) on a variety of local audiences and adjust the action to better get the message across. The more established groups have a core of performers, including musicians so that they can lead the group in songs and chants. But often one or more of the actors is purposefully unavailable. …

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