San Juan icon Luis Valdez has his heart in the valley

Luis Valdez is considered the father of Chicano literature in the United States. He is also the founder of El Teatro Campesino. Valdez poses for a photo in front of a poster for his new play Valley of the Heart that runs through Oct. 12 at the El Teatro C

Most think of San Juan Bautista resident Luis Valdez as the American playwright who wrote such classics as the play “Zoot Suit” and the film “La Bamba.”
A lesser-known story is that Valdez spent part of his first year of life sleeping on his mother’s chest above her beating heart, after he suffered life-threatening burns from scalding hot water while his family was living in a San Martin barn.
“For the next month, I slept on my mother – heart to heart,” said Valdez, who recalled his mother was just 20 years old and didn’t want her young son to roll over on his healing back. “I got the benefit of my mom’s attention, love, and I think that started me off in life.”
That year was 1941 – the same one in which Valdez’s newest play, “Valley of the Heart,” begins its own story about love, courage and humanity in the face of World War II’s beginnings.
The play, which opened Aug. 30 and closes Oct. 12, tells the story of Mexican-American sharecropper, Benjamin Montaño, who falls in love with Teruko “Thelma” Yamaguchi, the beautiful daughter of the Japanese-American family who owns the farm where he works. There are just two problems: The Yamaguchis have promised Thelma to a proper Japanese-American suitor, and World War II – with all its Japanese-American internment camps – is about to begin.
Still, it’s a love that blossoms, perhaps partly because it is forbidden.
“I know I’m not rich or educated but I’ve loved you since the first day I saw you,” Benjamin tells Thelma after she returns home from an awkward date with her future fiancé.
“It’s an impossible love, Ben,” she answers.
But the scope of the story is larger than the two main characters after World War II begins, as both families deal with internment camps, racism and the horrors of war. The play’s deep social justice themes resonate with Valdez’s other works. After graduating from San Jose State University, Valdez discovered he could write actos – or 15 minute skits staged out of the back of flatbed trucks – to help educate farm workers about their rights during the Delano Grape Strike. The theater productions started as a cultural offshoot of Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union but eventually they grew into their own independent theater troupe – El Teatro Campesino.
“There aren’t too many playwrights in America, anywhere, that deal with the whole issue of agriculture, and El Teatro Campesino has been doing that for almost 50 years – writing plays that deal with the rural aspects of America,” Valdez said.
Valdez’s most recent play draws deeply on his personal experiences. Perhaps the most autobiographical part of the story is that Valdez’s own father took control of a farm owned by a Japanese-American family during World War II, just as the Montaño family does in this play.
“The themes and the stories of this play are things that have touched me directly,” said Valdez, who noted that not everything in the play is biographical. Still, Valdez read about 25 books on the era to make sure he told a story that was steeped in the history of the time, even if parts of it were fictionalized.
Even the names of the characters in the play have special meanings to Valdez. The character “Benji” – who becomes Benjamin and Thelma’s son – was named after one of Valdez’s childhood playmates from the days when he lived in the migrant farm worker housing in Delano. The real Benji’s parents were Benjamin and Thelma – the names of young lovers at the heart of this play – and just like the couple in the play, they combined their Japanese and Mexican heritage to form a truly American family.
“There’s a triangulation in the play (in) that if you take the Japanese-American’s experience and you contrast it with the Mexican-American experience, what ties them together is the American experience,” Valdez said.
Since his days in Delano, Valdez has made San Juan Bautista his home of 45 years where he and his wife, Lupe, raised three sons. His oldest two children graduated from San Benito High School, while his youngest finished school at Gilroy High School.
“This is where I write,” said Valdez, as he reflected on the mission town.
This play is still in its fledgling stages, which means that on any given day, Valdez might stand beside one of the actors after a performance and suggest a new line or two. A true artist at heart, Valdez encourages people to engage the world with their talents.
“I think that one of things that the arts give you is a sense of self-confidence because once you discover your artistic talent, no one can take them away from you,” Valdez said. “It’s a form of expression but in that way to you get to define yourself.”
Fun Fact:
Luis Valdez’s “Zoot Suit” was the first play written by a Latino that was presented on Broadway.
See the play:
“Valley of the Heart” will run at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at the El Teatro Campesino playhouse at 705 Fourth St. in San Juan Bautista through Oct. 12. There are matinee performances at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $12 for children, $15 for students and senior citizens, and $20 for adults for Thursday shows. Tickets to all other performances are $20 for children, $25 for students and senior citizens, and $27 for adults. For more information, call the El Teatro Campesino box office (831)623-2444 or go to elteatrocampesino.com or valleyoftheheart.com.

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