Valdez spoke to the packed audience not about his many awards or achievements, but the simple events that shaped his life while growing up.
“I have always believed that you can turn any negative into a positive,” Valdez said.
In many ways, Valdez’s life is living proof of this statement. In 1940 he was born to migrant worker parents in Delano, Calif. and by 1965 he was marching with Cesar Chavez, founding the theater group El Teatro Campesino and using a flat bed truck as a stage to voice the struggle of Chicano rights.
“For 24 years I have taught Valdez’s works in my classes because he represents a point in history and an important facet of Chicano and American history,” modern languages and literature professor Gloria Velasquez said. “And if we don’t know our history we don’t know ourselves.”
His internationally-known play “Zoot Suit” was the first play to appear on Broadway by a Chicano. The play was eventually made into a motion picture. He also wrote and directed the motion picture “La Bamba.”
You could say that Valdez discovered theater through the art of papier-mâché. His teacher was making a monkey mask out of the material for his school’s production of “Christmas in the Jungle,” which he tried out for. He was cast as a monkey but never set foot on stage, since his family was evicted from the labor camp they were living in and had to move.
Valdez was heartbroken, and had what he referred to as a “hole in his soul.” He re-framed that experience and now credits that “hole” as the source of his creativity. He also credits that teacher, who forever influenced the life of a first grader she only taught for 30 days.
“Teachers don’t know what they do for their students,” Valdez said.
As a teacher, Velasquez is trying to do everything she can for her students by bringing people like Valdez to Cal Poly.
“At Cal Poly, underrepresented students need more role models and successful examples,” Velasquez said.
“This is just another example of making our campus more diverse. It is not just for Chicano students. It is for students of all backgrounds who can benefit from this; we learn from each other,” she added.
Debra Valencia-Laver, associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and secretary for the Chicana Latino Faculty Staff Association, was also excited to have Valdez speak.
“We are trying to celebrate Chicano culture and contributions both at the university and in the community,” Valencia-Laver said. “Someone like Luis Valdez is the perfect person to come have because he showcases the important contributions that Chicanos have made to California and the United States in general.”
The event ended with a standing ovation. After speaking, Valdez signed books and posters for audience members waiting in a long line that stretched to the door of Philips Hall.
The event was sponsored by the Chicana Latino Faculty Staff Association, Cal Poly’s College of Liberal Arts, the modern languages and literatures department, ethnic studies department, theatre and dance department, the Division of Student Affairs and the Movimiento Estudiantil Xicana/o de Aztlan.