By Cathleen Miller
Fifty years ago, student Luis Valdez made his theatrical debut on the San José State campus as a playwright-director. From there he graduated and went on to Broadway with his famed play Zoot Suit, the story of the zoot suit riots in Los Angeles.
In the theme of “write what you know,” Valdez remembers as a high school student walking through his East San José neighborhood, lugging a stack of books under his arm. He was accosted by members of the Blue Velvet gang, so named because of their stylish blue velveteen jackets emblazoned with their symbol: a red heart with a dagger through it. The leader called out: “Are you just showing off carrying all those books? You lifting weights?”
“I knew they were going to kick my ass,” Valdez determined, so he began chatting with the pachucos using their own slang, which he’d learned from his wild cousin, Billy Miranda. “I explained that I was studying so I could go to college, and then I was going to go to law school, and after graduation I would come home and defend them when they wound up in jail.” This bit of fast-talking earned him a hall pass through the ‘hood that day, but this same depiction of how two cultures collide would later earn him the moniker “Father of the Chicano Theatre.”
Before the Valdez clan moved to San José, they had lived in the central California town of Delano. Here Billy provided his younger cousin Luis with another important gift. “I remember he was a cool guy. When I was six he was sixteen, and he had a running partner we called C.C. Back then the movie theaters were segregated, with the white folks sitting in the center section and Latino and black patrons sitting on the sides. C.C. had been in World War II, and when he came home he decided he was going to sit in the middle with the whites. He was actually arrested, and the police questioned him for a couple of hours. But since he hadn’t broken any official laws, they had to let him go. The next week all the Mexicans were sitting in the middle section of the theater.”
One day when Valdez told his mother that he was returning to Delano to join the farm workers’ struggle, she said: “Oh, you’re going to work with C.C.?”
“C.C.?” he replied. “Is that guy still around?”
“Mijo,” she smiled and added, “don’t you know who C.C. is? He’s César Chávez.”
Thus, through this family connection Valdez began working with Chávez, and formed El Teatro Campesino. C.C. also would make his way into Valdez’s writing as an inspiration for Zoot Suit. In the end, cousin Billy wound up with eighteen stab wounds in his chest, and Luis dedicated the play to him. In 1981 Zoot Suit became a Hollywood movie directed by the SJSU alum, starring his brother Daniel.
Now Luis Valdez comes full circle, returning to campus for a production of Zoot Suit that will be directed by his son Kinan Valdez. The play will be in the University Theatre April 23, 24, 28, 29, 30 and May 1 & 2 at 7 pm, with Valdez giving a talkback on opening night. Tickets available here soon.