Born to farmworkers in California, Luis Valdez's upbringing profoundly shaped his artistic, social, and political views. As a child, he began working in the fields alongside his family. Within the migrant camps, despite moving so much, Valdez began telling stories and putting on puppet shows. By the time he reached high school, Valdez was an active member of his school's theatre program, as well as the speech and debate club.
In the early 1960s, Valdez attended San Jose State University. Following his graduation, he joined the San Fransisco Mime Troupe. While working with this group, he discovered guerilla and agitprop theatre, which would become vital in his development of Chicano theatre. In 1965, Valdez returned to Delano, California to join Cesar Chavez and the movement for farm worker unionization. During this time, Valdez founded the first Chicano theatrical organization in the United States: El Teatro Campensino.
El Teatro Campensino, translated to "the farm worker's theatre," produced works in both English and Spanish. The forms and subjects were based on a variety of dramatic influences: commedia dell'arte, guerilla theatre, agitprop theatre, Mexican folk tales, Spanish mission dramas, and more. The original plays from El Teatro Campensino were socially and politically motivated, designed to tell the stories and experiences of Chicano farm workers. The farm workers themselves were the actors (even Valdez's brother Daniel began his acting career with this company). Valdez's mission for Chicano arts and theatre grew, and he estalished Chicano cultural centers and groups in several California locations.
Valdez's most significant play is Zoot Suit (1978), the first Chicano play to go to Broadway. It is inspired by 1940s Los Angeles, racial tensions, the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial, and the Zoot Suit Riots. In 1981, Valdez directed the film version of the play; his other famous Hollywood directorial turn is La Bamba (1987), the tragic biopic of Ritchie Valens.
Called the "Father of Chicano Theatre," Luis Valdez continues to write, teach, and advocate for Chicano arts. Among his many awards, in 2016 President Barack Obama honored Valdez with the Presidential Medal of the Arts.
More about Luis Valdez