El Teatro Campesino: The Q&A

Q&A with Martin Unzueta of Chicago Community and Workers’ Rights, Marcopolo Soto of Aguijón Theater and Contratiempo, and Jacqueline Lazú of DePaul University, following an October 19, 2016 screening of El Teatro Campesino at La Catrina Cafe.

Watch a video of this Q&A on our Youtube channel.

Jacqueline Lazu (JL): First of all, [I’d like to] introduce our two panelists with us today. And then I thought that we could open up the discussion for questions. I have a couple of questions myself that I wanted to use to get the conversation started, but then also this is very much a dialogue about the issues. Really looking at, especially the role of the arts – theater, film – in conjunction with social movements and how they function together.

So, first of all, I want to introduce Marcopolo Soto, who is an actor and a writer. He studied at Act One Chicago and has participated in many plays, in both English and Spanish, throughout the city. Recently he played José in the Main Street Opera Company’s zarzuela La Dolorosa. Other Chicago credits include: Una hormiga en la 26, Los carralejas and Colján by Raúl Dorantes with Colectivo el Pozo. He was recently welcomed into Aguijón’s ensemble, as Mike mentioned before. His credits with the company include: Adentro|Within by Abel González Melo and La Chunga by Mario Vargas Llosa. He studied philosophy in the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo in Morelia, Mexico; and he published his first novel, Sociópata, in 2013. He’s currently an active member of the editorial group of Revista Contratiempo.

We also have with us today Martin Unzueta, the executive director of Chicago Community and Worker’s Rights, who work primarily with Latino immigrant workers in the Chicagoland area, whether they are undocumented or documented. Martin plans activities and facilitates meetings with the collaboration of the community defenders and other volunteers. He also coordinates information from and in collaboration with other organizations. He and the community defenders do weekly outreach on the radio around Chicago Community and Workers’ Rights, and they offer people advice and guidance about labor-related issues. And I’m sure they would be happy to talk a little bit more about their work specifically.

But I wanted to start out the conversation by asking – when I was brought into this conversation, I was thinking about this summer, and just recently, just in August, Illinois became the sixth state to pass a comprehensive domestic worker’s bill of rights, and only the seventh state to extend rights to domestic workers. So the bill was signed in August, and will take effect in January of 2017. So this film and the work of El Teatro Campesino, especially as a product of this highly mythologized era of the 1960s, it could seem very outdated to people, and oftentimes talking about the 60s, especially to young organizers, can seem kind of outdated. And yet, in light of the fact that we’re just seeing these policies happening now, not even quite put into effect yet, how relevant do you see the objective of El Teatro Campesino to today’s political environment?

Martin Unzueta (MU): Today? (Laughs)

JL: Yes, today.

MU: Yeah, what we saw just right now, I think it’s a reflection of what is happening in this moment with the campesinos, with the Mexican and Mexican-American people in different places overall in the south side of the United States. And I think this is so very important for many people to try to understand what is happening, what people are thinking, the reflection. Because in the film you have different representations, of the Mexican that just came here to the United States, the Chicano, many other things. So it’s trying to say something about what we are seeing right now, and the arts in the communication with it. That’s all very important in this moment for these people, and I think this is going to be something that now is happening in other places with other different nations.

Marcopolo Soto (MS): I think it’s very relevant because the main issue is a protest. That is something that is coming from a place of suffering, coming from a place of sacrifice. And even though it’s still in black and white, and even though we didn’t see it, because of the logistics, or because of the material, we’re always suffering, and we’re always trying to do something better. The world does not stop, right? The Teatro Campesino was founded by Luis Valdez, and to understand Teatro Campesino you have to understand also its founder. Luis Valdez was a person that was born in the uva, in the grape picking; his family was from there. They were migrant pickers, so they were going from one place to another. They were basically campesinos, agricultors, right? So he starts creating this theater based on that suffering. So he starts worrying about other people’s feelings, he starts worrying about all the sociological problems they were facing at that moment. And it might not be the same sociological problems that we have right now, but we have so many others. Because the world has moved on, has advanced. So if we still have the same issues, or so many other problems, then this will always be relevant. This will always be on time. This type of film, no matter when, and no matter where, there’s always somebody who is going to relate to that.

JL: And, actually, along those lines, we were talking – Mike mentioned when I came in that he had a couple of films that he had considered as part of the series, and what made this one special was the fact that it actually, you know, it was a rare moment of highlighting the role of arts within social movements. It’s always present, but often marginalized from the narrative of what social movements are, especially around the Civil Rights movement and 60s movements. Can you talk a little bit about the role of the arts, and maybe even a comparison of theater versus film – this is a representation of a theater group, of a theater movement, through film – in terms of how it engages people to action and social change?

MU: I think this question is for him because I created the movement, so I push all the time for people to fight for the rights that they have, but I’ve never done a film, or if you want a point of view about the film, and –

JL: I’ll let him answer but I’m not letting you off the hook, because the question is really about, is it an effective tool for organizing and inspiring people for social change? Especially as an organizer, what role can it play still, in today’s context, or even then? What’s the power of it? How can it be used as an effective tool, because it’s done, right? Each time that we look at social movements, and even within today’s context, when we think about organizers today, there’s always an artistic element. Why? What role does culture play in mobilizing people? I’ll let Marcopolo begin if you want, but we’ll go back to that.

MS: Alright, I don’t think I’m the right person but I’ll just… (Laughter)

JL: Anybody in the audience want to take it?

MS: First of all, in form, the cinema is much different than theater. From the acting background, in the theater you’re always acting for the people and to the people, and the people have energy. So it’s a retroalimentación [feedback] there of energy with energy, and just creates this beautiful communion, with acting in theater. And in film, you’re acting for a camera, to a camera, right? So the representation is, just by making it, it’s very different. The message could be the same, however theater is art in movement. The person who is looking at theater is looking at art being made at that moment. And I don’t know if there’s any actors here; there’s so many actors that make mistakes on stage, and the spectator doesn’t notice, because we’re just going with our feelings. And there could even be big monologues that are improvised without us knowing, just because some actor forgot one line or things like that. So, in regards to message, I feel that it’s more personal having to make theater for the people. Because the people give you that energy to keep on making theater, than in making films. Now, if you want to talk about what has more acercamiento [approach], I think film is more broad, or a lot more people can see it, can experience it, than theater. But I think theater is a much more live performance than anything else.

JL: Any thoughts?

MU: Well, yeah, when we have the opportunity to see something that is trying to reflect the reality, this is a point that you need to use in order to educate people and say, “Okay, look, this is something that we use,” or whatever. I remember I was making a presentation in Universidad Popular for immigrants, and the organizer for the event, he picked some person from the audience and said, “Okay, what are you going to do if this is the owner, you are the worker, he owes you money, what are you going to do?” And they are making something like popular theater, because they are using people from the audience. And well, after that I said, “Well, you need to fight, you need to do that, whatever you need to say,” but that was something that was important for us, in order to create the environment in order to talk with the people and to get different exchanges of opinions.

JL: And that’s actually a really important point. I’m not really sure if this was captured completely in the film, but you mentioned that Teatro Campesino was very rooted in the popular theater tradition. The theater of the oppressed in Brazil. So there was a lot of interaction, obviously, between these popular theater movements. Breaking the fourth wall of the Brechtian theater, all of that was very purposeful. But another thing that’s really important about the improvisation style of Teatro Campesino is that the purpose of it was not to sort of maintain the action within the ensemble. The idea was that eventually they would also bring in the campesinos, the workers, to actually be a part of the drama, so they could actually see themselves. Not only see themselves, but then sort of replace and lift through and practice the actions that hopefully they would be able to then take with them in praxis, right? So there’s that part of it that I’m not sure fully came through in the film, but that’s a really important part of it, because that’s where the drama translates into action, and that was a necessary step.

MS: An important thing is that we have to understand that these guys were making theater to convince the oppressed that they were being oppressed. Because all they knew was the picking life, all they knew was that. So they didn’t even know if they were being oppressed or not. Some other guys from the same town are coming to do theater, to your work, to tell you that you’re being oppressed. Now, another important thing is that sign, the sign that he put on the actors. I think what it said is that, we put on the sign, and the spectator noticed or knew what the actor was reflecting. However, the actor, once he put on that sign, he started acting more like what the sign said. So that was like a double game, a little bit magic there. Because once you, an actor, you put that sign on, it’s like, okay, I’m the boss, or I’m the mejicano, you know, things like that. That is very interesting, and maybe this is another conversation, on labeling. Labeling the facts, labeling the people, labeling the actors, labeling the action, you know? So when these guys were going to the farm, or to the picking lines, to convince the oppressed that they were being oppressed, what happened is that the coyotes were brought in to bring more workers. And the people from Mexico were coming in to feed their family from Mexico, also being oppressed by another corrupt government. So it was like, and we talked about it earlier, it’s like, stop drinking your coffee because I’m thirsty. Don’t eat because I’m hungry. So the theater had to have that responsibility of saying that, and how crazy of a message was that? Just stop eating because I’m hungry. Or, stop eating because you don’t know you’re hungry. So they were getting into this battle of two ways. They were trying to stop the workers from working and they were trying to stop the imported workers from working as well, and that got into a big mess. But they made it. They did a good job.

JL: That’s a good point, and one that I think that we could definitely transplant over to the role of unions in general. Unions and sort of the complexity of what it represents for workers. On the one hand, your rights, but on the other hand, you have to give something up, there’s a sacrifice. So that’s a whole other conversation. But I also want to open it up to the audience for your questions on this discussion.

Mike Phillips (MP): I had a question about – this is sort of to Martin. The use of the signs that they were carrying, and the fact that they were portraying these intentionally one-dimensional characters, I’ve seen that a lot in protests. Like, if you want to say something about a banker, you build a giant puppet of a banker, and you have him with these huge arms, grabbing things. Or, you remember Stand Up Chicago? To protest the Board of Trade redecorating their bathrooms with TIF money, they presented a golden toilet and left it in the lobby of the Board of Trade. In what you do every day, do you use theatrical gestures like that to make a point? Or do you see that in groups that you work with?

MU: Well, I think you need to communicate with your audience when you are talking. When somebody gives you a microphone and says, “Talk.” Well, they can not say that to me because I can be talking for three hours and it doesn’t stop. The thing is that, yeah, you only need to pass your knowledge to the other person. You need to get connected with them, in order that they know what you are saying. And of course, you need to make some gestures. “Hey, listen to me!” Whatever you need to do in order that they keep their attention and stay connected with you. But I have never thought that was theater. But, yeah, maybe it’s some kind of connection that you are looking for to get other people’s attention.

Audience Member #1: I’m Martin’s wife, so I work also with Chicago Worker’s Rights, and we organize against deportations. And I know this question is a little hard to answer, but I have seen Martin using theater, even when he says probably I’m not. Because I remember a big rat in front of a protest. It was a protest in front of a company that didn’t want to pay workers, and it was a big rat there together with the rally. And also, like three years ago, that’s what I remember, it was wintertime in a hotel outside of Chicago. They fired the workers right before Christmas, and I remember children going with families, not having gifts. I remember there was a Santa Claus, and I don’t remember the details –

MU: They had stolen the Christmas –

Audience Member #1: Stole the Christmas, right? So maybe we don’t see that as theater, more as a dramatization of what is happening around the families. But in a way, it’s using the same tools that theater is using to make a point. And maybe for us it’s more dramatic, because we are feeling what is happening. We know families that don’t have nothing to eat or pay the rent, around wintertime. Children don’t have gifts. Maybe we don’t see that as theater, right, because we are feeling that pain, like he was mentioning. But we are using tools to make a point, and I think that’s something that maybe –

JL: Absolutely, I think that’s absolutely right.

Audience Member #2: I think that going back, you know, to oral histories, and the morality plays of the Middle Ages, the Teatro is in that tradition. And I think that part of what it did for farm workers, it exaggerated. He used the word one-dimensional, I would use the word stereotypical. Where it empowered the workers to laugh at it, and diminish their fear of the strike and the risk that they were taking, and it emboldened them to see that they could fight back. And so I think it was a very effective tool. And I think each age adjusts and evolves into what’s current for the struggle that you’re facing. So, I don’t know that putting “contractista” on a sign would be as effective in the city of Chicago fighting the school issues, or whatever. But I think the power of symbols unlocks something in people in a way, and particularly with the campesinos, who weren’t incredibly educated, many of whom couldn’t read and write. And yet they could relate, and they could be emboldened and strengthened to face this struggle.

JL: I think that’s a really good point. I think that the use of the archetype also allows people to see how things are systematic, right? You might recognize some of the characteristics of that archetype, but then once it’s presented, or even once you participate in playing that role, then you really understand how it is that it exists within larger systems. And that’s a really important step toward that kind of critical consciousness part of the popular education. It’s an important step.

Audience Member #3: Well, I don’t think it’s a question where I’m coming from, but I’m a teacher, and going back to the question of would this be successful, I think so. At my school we don’t have theater, I’m not an art teacher. It is a Mexican and African-American community, so I’m thinking about my students, I’m like, how can they be exposed to something like this? Because they’re not. They don’t have that knowledge. So I would love for them to be activists and just do stuff like this, in the arts for example. And it sucks that we don’t have those resources for the community. It’s just a statement, I don’t really have a question.

JL: But it’s interesting. It’s actually an interesting answer to the question about art and film too, though, because while you don’t have a theater program, certainly, and maybe this particular technology is a little harder for you to incorporate, but you can incorporate films into your classes a lot easier than to launch a theater production, maybe. So there is something to be said about the formats, and how they might facilitate that learning process and the pedagogy. So I think it does kind of address what I was thinking about when I talked about theater versus film, and what capacities it allows us. What tools it allows us today to be able to use, that maybe we might be more limited in terms of the theater.

MS: Luis Valdez used to say we have force from the nothing. So that valley, there was no theater at that valley, there was nothing in that valley. There were just huelguistas [strikers] and grape pickers. So he said, we got the force from the nothing. Where there’s nothing, there’s not nothing, there’s something. There’s something to be built from. So maybe if you can get some force from that nothing on your school, maybe you could do something. Maybe, I don’t know, examples like, show movies, do some theater.

Audience Member #3: I’m a history teacher, that’s what I do. I show films and whatnot. But theater like that, like what I saw here, I just feel like it could make such a difference in the community.

MS: Yeah, I totally agree.

Audience Member #3: But due to the fact that the students don’t have knowledge, they just don’t have this knowledge. Including myself, I do find it a little bit intimidating.

JL: We are losing it. These are knowledges that we are sort of letting go of, even at the university level. It’s not being taught as much. So we do have to be conscious about that. We’re running out of time, and I saw a couple of hands up, so why don’t we hear the questions out, all of them, and then the panelists could respond if necessary. So we’ll start in the back.

Audience Member #4: Two questions, actually. If we don’t have time, you can just answer one of them. So the first one, I also saw a lot of elements from Boal’s theater of the oppressed in this art form. Do you know how much of their work was directly influenced by Boal, and how much they actually came up with by themselves? And second question is, are there any theater groups in America right now, five decades later, that are still doing that work, or that are working with an influence like Teatro Campesino?

JL: Did you have a question too?

Audience Member #5: Just some side comments to things. So I wanted to share – what she said about it being intimidating, and what you said earlier – the arts, theater, film, it’s all this elitist ways of entertainment, right? And we don’t realize. This style of theater breaks it down. It’s people’s realities, anyone can be an actor, you don’t have to go to school to be an actor, there’s not a certain way you should act. And it’s reflective of their style. So I got the opportunity to go to NDLON, which is the National Day of Labor Organizing Network, that does a lot of popular education trainings. They do popular education skits. They were mentioning that they went downtown, and there were workers who were having issues, and that style of engagement is what people do, right? So, in NDLON, you had people who wrote songs about their situations. That’s a way of getting a message across. People wrote poetry about their situations. And it’s always constantly trying to use any way to persuade people, right? That’s what we do on a daily basis. Marlene’s trying to teach her students about history. There’s different ways you could do that, right? The traditional teacher, “Here’s the book, here’s this worksheet, do it.” Or there’s, “Let’s watch a movie.” Or there’s, “Okay, let’s do a skit of your realities.” But you’re using different forms. So I think the organizers of the farm workers were using tools that they could use to change the messaging. For some people, conversation might be like, “Alright, I’m done, I’m ready to go with you, I support your cause.” Other people might need a different way of looking at it, and that’s what the arts do, having those different ways for people to understand and get their message.

JL: Absolutely.

Audience Member #5: I don’t know if that was a question or not.

JL: No, thank you for that. Did you want to talk about the theater?

MS: Yeah, I think Luis Valdez had his influence with Brecht, and he had a little bit of Sartre in there. He started working with the wine pickers as a political movement, but he did study theater. He went to theater school. He grabbed the political movement with Cesar Chavez, and he started doing that type of theater. After a while he went south, went to do Zoot Suit, right? And this was a play based on the Zoot Suit riots in LA, correct? And he’s been doing so many plays, I don’t know if they’re totally original, but they are his, you know, most of his work. And I don’t know if there’s any Latino theater companies with such a renombre [renown] like Teatro Campesino based on the political process. There should be, but I do not know. We’re always processing something, there should be.

Audience Member #2: When we first came to Chicago there were several groups, here in Chicago, Grupo la Trucha and Jessie Negrete.

JL: Teatro Luna, yeah.

Audience Member #2: There were a number of them.

MS: Teatro Luna was never political.

JL: Some of their program was actually very influenced by Luis Valdez, which is interesting. They did a lot of archetype work. But even something like Free Street Theater, right now. Not exactly the same, but.

MS: Yeah, there’s so many performers out there, they’re just unknown. And they come in like that and they leave in a couple months. Because, like she said, in order for you to make theater, you gotta spend money. And theater does not give you money. Theater is not going to give you any economic force. Theater is going to suck your life. (Laughter) As a performer you’re going to become an addict to it, and you just do it because you love it, because you feel it, and because you’re an artist. You live by it. So, you gotta make a choice at one point. Are you doing it for the money? You’re doing it for the wrong reasons. But theater is to give out the message. Theater is to give, not to receive.

MP: That’s a good stopping point.

JL: I think that’s all the time we have.