Politics and Chicano Culture: The Case of El Teatro Campesino
This study of El Teatro Campesino begins by developing an historical framework within which Chicano culture and politics may be analyzed. I argue that culture and politics share a reciprocal relation in capitalist society, in that each influences and shapes the other. Moreover, other forces play a role in joining these activities together, while at the same time contributing to the dialectic of multiple factors having multiple influences in each sphere. Ultimately, the parameters which many scholars assume “contain” cultural activity are shaped by the dynamic interplay of psychological, cultural, political, as well as economic forces. Within this framework, cultural expression enjoys moments of relative autonomy, and thus the opportunity to develop its own interests and influence human behavior. When art is created in the vortex of a political movement, as was the case of EL Teatro, its impact can be traced both in the range of its vision and in the degree to which it attempts to establish political agendas. Implicit in this view is the assumption that artists respond to political and economic developments in a variety of ways: at times in an accommodating manner, sometimes seeking autonomy, at other times resisting change, and still at other times in active opposition to change. This study argues that the relative autonomy of certain Chicano artists allowed them to create new cultural forms which were intended to have a direct impact on key issues in the Chicano movement. This paper argues that EL Teatro developed in dialectical relation to Chicano political activity, in that the theater grew from and helped shape the intellectual currents of the Movement. At the same time, the plays of Luis Valdez developed the capacity to “distance” audiences from the dominant ideology through humor and satire.
Note: This paper was originally published in 1985 by the Chicano Latino Policy Project, which evolved into the Center for Latino Policy Research, one of the centers of the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues. It was later published as “Politics and Chicano Culture: Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino, 1964 – 1989” in the anthology Chicano Politics and Society in the Late Twentieth Century, edited by David Montejano, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1999.