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El Teatro Campesino

El Teatro Campesino
Theater in the Chicano Movement

This study demythologizes and reinterprets the history of a Chicana/o performance ensemble.

January 1994
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304 pages | 6 x 9 | 31 b&w photos, 8 line drawings |

Born in 1965 as an organizing tool within César Chávez's United Farm Workers union, El Teatro Campesino became the premier Chicana/o performance ensemble to emerge out of the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s. This study demythologizes and reinterprets the company's history from its origins in California's farm labor struggles to its successes in Europe and on Broadway until the disbanding of the original collective ensemble in 1980 with the subsequent adoption of mainstream production techniques.

Yolanda Broyles-González corrects many misconceptions concerning the Teatro's creation and evolution. She draws from a rich storehouse of previously untapped material, such as interviews with numerous ensemble members, production notes, and unpublished diaries, to highlight the reality of the collective creation that characterized the Teatro's work.

Writing within contemporary cultural studies theory, Broyles-González sheds light on class, gender, race, and cultural issues. Her work situates the Teatro within working-class Mexican performance history, the Chicano movement, gender relations, and recent attempts to mainstream.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. El Teatro Campesino and the Mexican Popular Performance Tradition
  • Oral Tradition: Human Memory, the Body, Community
  • The Political Economy of Chicana/o Comedy
  • Rasquachi Performance Aesthetic and Historical Memory
  • El Teatro Campesino and Mexican Sacroprofane Performance Genres
  • Conclusion
  • 2. Theater of the Sphere: Toward the Formulation of a Native Performance Theory and Practice
  • On Formulating an Indigenous Alternative Performance Aesthetic
  • Theater of the Sphere: Affirming the Chicana/o Axis
  • The Formation of the Spherical Actor: A New Chicana/o Humanism
  • Theater of the Sphere: The Twenty Steps
  • Theater of the Sphere: The World of Performance
  • Theater of the Sphere: Liberation or Mystification?
  • 3. Toward a Re-Vision of Chicana/o Theater History: The Roles of Women in El Teatro Campesino
  • Introduction
  • The Roles of Women in El Teatro Campesino
  • Breaking the Mold: Creating New Pathways
  • An Epilogue: Chicanas Onstage in the 1980s
  • 4. El Teatro Campesino: From Alternative Theater to Mainstream
  • Introduction
  • El Teatro Campesino in the Mainstream
  • Rose of the Rancho: Validating Chicana/o Oppression
  • The New Professionalism: Zoot Suit in the Mainstream
  • Chicanas/os on Broadway: To Be or Not to Be?
  • Zoot Suit: The Film
  • Mainstreaming and the Dissolution of the Teatro Campesino Ensemble
  • Conclusion: Whither El Teatro Campesino?
  • Chronology
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Yolanda Broyles-González is professor and chair in the department of Chicano studies and professor of German studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


The numerous social and political struggles of the 1960s and the 1970s—such as the civil rights movement, the United Farm Workers movement, the antiwar movement, and the women's liberation movement were intimately bound to a multifaceted cultural renaissance. Perhaps the single most inspirational struggle for Chicanas/os was the David and Goliath standoff between the United Farm Workers Union and the agribusiness giants in California and other states.

That first successful farm labor union in United States history began in 1962, when, against all odds, César Chávez, Helen Chávez, and Dolores Huerta began to organize farm laborers. That struggle—which continues into the present—created a national and international support coalition in an effort to end the multiple abuses of farm laborers and consumers. For farm labor, those abuses included exploitation by growers, crew leaders, and parasitic labor contractors; the widespread use of child labor; pesticide and herbicide poisoning; substandard housing; generally inhumane working and living conditions; and no health or other benefits (McWilliams 1939, 1973; Daniel 1981). For consumers, the struggle is against contaminated food and water supplies.

The injustices against farm labor manifested themselves in a life expectancy of 54 years, an hourly wage of 85 cents, annual income well below the poverty level, as well as through the indignity of racial and sexual harassment. The 1965 grape strike and boycott, along with the UFW's 1966 landmark 280-mile pilgrimage for justice (from Delano to Sacramento) highlighted the political determination and moral strength of the nation's poorest. The United Farm Workers' strikes were to become the longest and most dramatic in US. labor history (Nelson 1966; Dunne 1967, revised 1971; Matthiessen 1969; Day 1971; Levy 1975; Ross 1989; Leggett 1991). These events inspired and directly influenced all sectors of Chicana/o artistic and political activism, such as opposition to the war in Vietnam; efforts to secure equality before the law; and demands to end discriminatory practices in the schools, universities, and labor market.

One manifestation of that spirit of activism was the Chicana/o theater movement, which spread across the Southwest, the Northwest, and the Midwest in the 1960s and the 1970s. In virtually all centers of Chicana/o population as well as on campuses everywhere, theater groups sprang up dedicated to portraying the life, heritage, and problems of Chicanas/os in this country.

Under the wing of the United Farm Workers Union based in Delano, California, El Teatro Campesino (The Farm Workers' Theater) emerged in 1965, conceived as a union tool for organizing, fund-raising, and politicizing. In its beginnings El Teatro Campesino performed numerous highly improvisational skits (called actos), which expressed the exploitative living and working conditions of farmworkers in boldly satirical words and actions. All of the early skits also underscored the need to unionize against the abuses of agribusiness. In addition to regular performance—often on the backs of flatbed trucks—before farmworkers, the group also played college campuses and toured Europe repeatedly. A group viewed and appreciated by farmworkers simply as an effective organizational tool, became, curiously, idolized in intellectual circles and was converted into a Chicano icon for the academy. Euro-American scholarship and the press followed suit. Today the name Teatro Campesino enjoys almost mythical status, even though the ensemble that established that reputation no longer exists. (El Teatro Campesino, Inc., exists only as a production company.)

This book tells the story of the Teatro Campesino collective ensemble, which is not the same as the story of Luis Valdez, nor the story of the post-1980 production company. I distinguish between the 15-year period of the collective ensemble and what came afterward. The ensemble years extend from the group's beginnings in 1965 to approximately 1980. In retrospect it is fair to state that the ensemble years were the most dynamic, inspirational, and creative years of El Teatro Campesino.

Much has been written concerning the Teatro Campesino, mainly in the press and in scholarly articles. Only a few sustained analyses exist, consisting for the most part of unpublished dissertations. Published materials on the Teatro share three characteristics: they are chronological, text-centered, and male-centered. The text-centered approach is closely related to the chronological approach. El Teatro Campesino's work and development are examined only in terms of textuality and of how texts changed over time. These treatments usually include a discussion of how Chicana/o social issues are reflected in Teatro Campesino texts as "content." In other words, the discussion of Teatro Campesino productions or plays has wholly obscured the living relations of production which enabled those texts and are encoded in them. A third dominant strain in the writings on El Teatro Campesino is an absolute male-centeredness. The history of the company has been constructed as the history of the life and times of Luis Valdez. As such, El Teatro Campesino history has been shaped into a male-dominated hierarchical structure that replicates oppressive dominant tendencies within society.

That historical construct un-selfconsciously replicates patriarchal structures and correspondingly eclipses any oppositional dynamics as well as broader historical contexts and the collective accomplishments of the Teatro Campesino ensemble.

The great-man/text-centered/chronological-linear approach, a construct predominant in Eurocentric history and print culture, in fact obscures more than it reveals. In contradistinction I position El Teatro Campesino within the Mexican working-class tradition of orality and oral culture. Within oral culture, performed words make sense only as communal creations and as part of a larger historical performance context. In the absence of that greater communal performance context, only the great man—and not the community—becomes identified with the written text.The communally created text is thus reduced to an act of individual authorship or individual genius; a community's cultural practices become the intellectual private property of one man. Within this great-man/text-centered/chronological-linear approach to history many dimensions of the company's history recede into oblivion: the reality of collective creation; the contributions of women (and other men) ; the entire Mexican working-class experience and popular tradition of performance, which nurtured the collective work mode and the irreverently humorous Rasquachi Aesthetic; and the material social process of production. These are among the elements I seek to bring back into the company's history.

A great deal has been said about the writing of history, be it theater history, political history, literary history, or any other. That discussion extends to include all forms of representation. In the tow of the Chicano movement of the 1960s, an emergent Chicana/o scholarship sought to overturn existing models of thought and writing-models considered at odds with Chicana/o community interests. Ethnocentrism (usually Eurocentrism) and elitism in scholarship were both questioned and challenged. Yet the reality of Chicanas/os breaking into print and the dynamics of Chicano (mostly male) institutionalization bred new forms of academic tunnel vision. Among the most glaring of Chicano scholarship's omissions has been the dismissal of the work and experience of women, and an inability to perceive and valorize age-old popular forms of discourse and self-representation—most notably the working-class culture of orality.

The present study is born of a different time and spirit than that which informed much of Chicana/o theater historiography of the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s. Earliest Chicana/o theater historiography (discussed at various points in this book) displays both the strengths and the weaknesses of pioneering work in the field. It manifests a strong descriptive tendency, a tendency to present basic facts to Chicana/o readers. Yet the approach to "facts" was in most cases naïve, that is, without benefit of theoretical perspectives. Facts were (as is always the case) gathered, arranged, and presented along particular lines reflective of the author's unconscious yet very real politics, be it of gender, of class, of race, or of culture. Most early writings share a strong sense of advocacy for Chicanas/os and Chicana/o creativity. Yet at the same time they variously reveal deep-rooted and subtle elements of gender discrimination, Eurocentrism, or even classism. Positioned as it is within dominant academic institutions, we cannot be surprised that so much of Chicano research has internalized elements of the oppression it seeks to contest.

In departing from and challenging the established and accepted male-centered history of El Teatro Campesino I experienced a gender dynamics similar to that which this chapter describes and analyzes. My decision, for example, to publish the chapter on the women of El Teatro Campesino prior to the publication of the book met with considerable resistance and resentment (from male colleagues) at what was perceived as iconoclastic treatment of Luis Valdez. The 1982 Renato Rosaldo Lecture Series monograph editors who commissioned my essay on the Women of El Teatro Campesino subsequently stopped its publication, while also eliminating any reference to my Renato Rosaldo lecture from both the 1985 introduction to that lecture series as well as from its published list of lectures. Ironically, this lecture series was ostensibly seeking to stimulate "interest in the story of las mujeres de Aztlán." The earlier version of this chapter on the women of the Teatro Campesino, ready for publication in 1982, thus went unpublished until its inclusion in the 1986 anthology Chicana Voices and its further circulation in the 1989 book Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre, published by the University of Michigan. These attempts at censorship were based on certain gender based forms of ideological blindness. What was not understood is that a more inclusive and nonlinear treatment of El Teatro Campesino serves to empower the collective while in no way diminishing the important contributions of Luis Valdez or any other individual.

Finally, during my research residency with El Teatro Campesino I was presented with a contract requiring me to submit my work "for review and approval by Luis Valdez before handing it over to any publisher." This requirement, insofar as it assumes the ability to edit or censor the findings of a study, is not acceptable in the academic world; naturally I never signed the contract. In the end, Luis Valdez denied his permission to quote from any Teatro play as well as from the oral histories with him, after I refused to submit the final study to him for his approval. El Teatro had also contacted the University of Texas Press in an effort to obtain a copy of this study and inspect it prior to publication. The gendered politics of citation and publication can be understood as efforts to control the direction of scholarship, particularly the feminist scholarship of Chicanas. While the omission of certain material does not detract from my analysis, such controlling efforts to direct scholarship raise very serious questions about established principles of academic freedom and First Amendment rights. These are only minor examples of the overriding conditions for the production and circulation of knowledge that affect the scholarly work of Chicanas in the academy.

My own writing emerged in dialogue with what came before. Each chapter reveals facets of that dialogue. Yet beyond that I seek qualitatively to broaden our understanding of teatro Chicana/o by analytically probing four key (and neglected) areas in depth. They represent a departure from the bulk of Chicano theater research. In my research and writing I have been guided more by a concern with the dynamics of the Teatro Campesino's creative production process than with a harvesting of seemingly discrete "facts" or the formal properties of individual works. I am more concerned with examining crucial ruptures and contradictions than with constructing a homogeneous chronological and linear continuum; more concerned with group and collective movement than with individual achievement (or the myopia of approaching history solely through the study of individuals); more concerned with a broader performance history than with a reductionist textual history; more concerned with unveiling various realms that dominant male-centered perspectives have obscured than with affirming the "official" academic story of the Teatro Campesino. Issues of class, gender, and ethnicity are the key guideposts.

I have correspondingly departed from the beaten path of Chicano theater history and from conventional politics and practices of citation and credibility snowballing: the first researcher is quoted by the second researcher; the third bases her or his work on that of the first two; the fourth uses the first three as sources but adds quotes by Luis Valdez; and so forth. Existing research was of little benefit in providing data for my own research. Asking new questions has required the designing of a new informational politics. Scholars whose research involves gender, class, or race can attest to the lack of sources and the barriers to obtaining basic information. The parameters of what is considered information or information worth collecting are among the first limiting factors in Chicana/o studies research. Creating new sources remains the laborious task of any Chicana/o studies research that wants to chart new pathways.

In the first twenty years of Teatro Campesino research only one person, Luis Valdez, was quoted or interviewed. The implications of that are far-reaching. In an effort to expand the limits of information available on the Teatro Campesino I began to collect oral histories of the ensemble members. Although I initially imagined this process as one that would take a few months, the richness of ensemble members' narratives led me to continue the oral history and transcription process over a ten-year period. None of the persons interviewed had ever been approached for an oral history. The classism and sexism that informs the production of knowledge made it unnecessary to approach those ensemble members for an oral history. Long-standing members of the ensemble had never been viewed as legitimate or necessary interpreters or experts of their own work and life experience.

In addition to collecting oral histories I spent one and a half years as a participant-observer with the Teatro Campesino. During that research residency, I not only closely observed the company's functioning (onstage, backstage, and offstage) but also had access to all Teatro Campesino theater artifacts: scripts or scenarios, production notes, diaries, publicity materials, letters, archival material from the press, and so on. Very helpful were the work diaries that various ensemble members shared with me. This book could not have been written without the treasure house of oral histories and extensive documentary material, and without the benefit of an extended research residency with the Teatro Campesino.

The exploration of new sources enabled me to write a qualitatively different history. The four chapters of this book avoid the distortional linearity of "chronological" history, of male-centered history, of text-centered approaches. Instead, each chapter treats a particular stratum of roughly the same temporal experience or period of the Teatro Campesino's history. I seek to expose various layers of the material social process, of the living circumstances and concrete human work that informed all ensemble productions. Without an understanding of that material social process our understanding of the Teatro Campesino ensemble and its performance pieces must remain a truncated understanding.

in the first chapter I examine the elements of continuity (and difference) between the working-class Mexican oral performance tradition and the collective performance practices of the Teatro Campesino. More specifically, I situate El Teatro Campesino historically within the comedic performance tradition of the Mexican carpa (itinerant tent shows) and discuss the Rasquachi Aesthetic common to both. Rasquachismo, or the Rasquachi Aesthetic (all spellings are acceptable), encompasses a shared memory system of performance elements grounded in a working-class, underdog perspective. The second chapter discusses the Teatro Campesino's Theater of the Sphere project, a theory and practice of communicative action based in Native American (Mayan and Aztec) knowledge. Theater of the Sphere is a method of performance and life training developed by the ensemble after 1970. I describe the Theater of the Sphere as an alternative pedagogy or new Chicana/o humanism that sought to explore and foster not an abstract human potentiality but a Chicana/o human potentiality rooted in the Americas. In the third chapter I explore the gender politics operative within the Teatro Campesino. The ensemble's most enduring contradictions are revealed in the company's gender relations.Yet the chapter tells not only a story of oppression but also one of resistance and of the women's contributions to the company. I illustrate how women creatively challenged and circumvented patriarchy in an effort to establish their dignity within a context of confinement. This third chapter dates back to a 1982 Renato Rosaldo lecture (University of Arizona), reworked for the 1984 National Association for Chicano Studies conference (Broyles-González 1986). This is the only chapter published previously, and I include the original here with only minor changes. In the final chapter I analyze the dynamics of the mainstreaming project: of Zoot Suit in Hollywood, on Broadway, and on film. That analysis serves to illustrate how changes in theatrical relations of production (i.e., "mainstreaming") have an impact on theatrical work. On the one hand, I examine the many transformations (i.e., rewrites) of Zoot Suit as it moved to ever bigger houses or production contexts. On the other hand, I demonstrate the long-term effects of that mainstreaming on the Teatro Campesino ensemble: the ensemble's process of disbanding beginning in 1979 and the transformation of "El Teatro Campesino" into a production company patterned after Euro-American corporate proscenium theater.

Readers will note that the Chicana/o construction is used throughout. Standard Spanish language subsumes women within masculine adjective endings. That practice has been part of the process by which women have historically been blurred, erased or negatively represented. I depart from standard usage in order to overtly reference Chicanas and foreground gender. Chicano is left unchanged when it references something male or malecentered: hence Chicano Movement.

Among the most difficult challenges I faced in writing this book was the desire to balance two competing urgencies: (1) the need to reference and elaborate on theoretical and critical perspectives and (2) the need to tell a good story. Early in life I learned, principally under the auspices of my maternal grandmother and my father, the importance of telling a good story. Yet popular forms of communication and academic ones are indeed at odds. That tension is reflected in this manuscript, which seeks to tell a good story while also adhering to certain standards of academic research. In an effort to write in a manner comprehensible to as broad a readership as possible I have cultivated a style of writing that deemphasizes scholarly jargon and emphasizes clarity. Theoretical perspectives inform the text from beginning to end. Yet for the sake of readability I give sources in the text and confine virtually all theoretical discussion, crediting, and "academicized" discourse to the notes.

I view my own work on El Teatro Campesino as an invitation to other writers and researchers. Each chapter treats an area of the ensemble's work activity never before explored in depth. Each chapter seeks to open a door to a new realm of Chicana/o performance history in need of both critical examination and recognition.


“This welcome addition in critical theory about the Chicana/o theater movement is recommended for those researchers interested in theater practice and performance, women's studies, and cultural studies.”

“An excellent work in Chicano historiography and performativity. . . . Broyles-González does not merely intend to de-mythologize the [Luis] Valdez-centered cultural history of the Teatro; more importantly, she begins to explore a specific period and scope of a collective performance practice in the Teatro.”
Theatre Journal

“I cannot overstress the significant contribution this book will make to the field of Chicano literature and the humanities in general. To date, there is no book-length study of this seminal and controversial theater company.”
Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese, Stanford University