Since its debut at Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1986, Luis Valdez’s I Don’t Have To Show You No Stinking Badges has been performed on stages around the US, including San Diego Repertory (1987), Burt Reynolds Jupiter Theatre in Florida (1988), Marines Memorial Theater in San Francisco (1990); and Su Teatro in Denver, CO (2007).
Now the play is about to return to LA, opening Friday at Josefina Lopez’s Casa 0101 in East LA, directed by Hector Rodriguez.
“I will be there opening weekend,” says Valdez. “In fact, I’m participating in a Q&A after the Sunday performance with Josefina and Dr. Jorge Huerta. I’m really looking forward to this.”
In his treatise, Chicano Drama, published in 2000, Huerta put Valdez’s work in historical perspective. “I Don’t Have To Show You No Stinking Badges is unique in the development of Chicano dramaturgy as the first professionally produced Chicano play to deal with middle-class Chicanos rather than the usual working poor or working class characters and situations that concerned most Chicano/a playwrights.”
Speaking from San Juan Bautista, where he founded Obie-winning El Teatro Campesino in 1965, the much-lauded playwright and director Valdez reveals he is happy to have another company producing his work. Other than the talkback on Sunday,Â “I’m not involved at all in this staging. I just gave permission to Josefina and her company. I have not updated it. Basically, I think it is what it is. The original play doesn’t need to be upstaged. The fact that it is still relevant from 1986 is a commentary on what the [commercial entertainment] industry was and continues to be.
“The play in ’86 was highlighting the situation 20, 30 years before that, in terms of the Latino experience in Hollywood. And here we are today.Â I think it has really become critical in terms of Hollywood and Los Angeles, and even New York. There seems to be a ceiling, a wall that closes in when Latino subjects are concerned or Latino writers and directors.”
Valdez speaks as one who has broken through the wall. Following his establishment of El Teatro Campesino, which became one of the most influential Latino theater companies in the US, Valdez made his way to LA, writing and directing the landmark dramatic musical Zoot Suit, which premiered at CTG’s Mark Taper Forum on Aug 17, 1978. It launched the career of Edward James Olmos in the role of El Pachuco. And in March 1979, it became the first Chicano work to open on Broadway. Valdez segued smoothly into feature films, adapting and directing Zoot Suit (1981), writing and helming the blockbuster La Bamba (1987) and directing the 1994 TNT television film, The Cisco Kid, starring Jimmy Smits and Cheech Marin.
Badges, Valdez recalls, “came out of my experiences working as a writer and actor on the Richard Pryor movie, Which Way Is Up? (1977), directed by Michael Schultz. I rewrote some dialogue so that the Latino characters sounded more authentic, and I played the role of Ramon Juarez, based on the real-life César Chavez.Â Michael was very open to letting me hang around the set, observing the shoot. This was my first exposure to the Hollywood moviemaking system. The Latino extras and bit players I met became the inspiration for the characters in Badges. On the film set, they worked within the realization they would never be cast in major roles, so they tried to squeeze themselves into as many crowd scenes as possible whether they belonged in them or not.
“With the success of the stage play at LATC, I was encouraged I might be able to move it on up to network television. In the early ’90s, I received an option from NBC actor/producer Ted Danson and Robert Benedetti, whose company was producing television shows. They wanted to turn it into a sitcom.Â I wrote a pilot script for them but it didn’t get too far.Â I thought something was happening with it and then it was dropped like a hot potato.
“I also probed the possibility of making it into a film but the prevailing powers-that-be declared, “˜Hollywood hates movies about Hollywood.’ That was the line. I don’t think it helped that my proposed film was actually critical of a real problem of inequity within the industry. But what I really think killed it was the belief, at the market level, among too many producers and executives in the studios in Hollywood, that so-called Latino/Hispanic material is not marketable to the general public.”
One of the points Valdez made in Badges is that if Latino artists are going to have a fair shot at professional equality, Latinos would have to start producing their own works. Today, even with the increase of creative product brought on by digital technology and the explosion of social media, Valdez still feels Latinos are hemmed in by the unyielding mindset of the mass populace.Â “In the US, there seems to be this barrier that exists because of the unrelenting, century-old profile of what is American, who is American. That basically is still an Anglo American stereotype. What Hollywood projects, whether on stage, on television or in the movies, is an untrue, unbelievable representation of who we really are as a people. So, getting back to a basic truth, Latinos need to become more adept at getting their own images up there on stage, on TV and in film. It is sad to say, but what we needed to do a quarter of a century ago is still what’s needed today.”
Valdez initiated a personal retreat from the Hollywood battlefields in 1992 when he faced opposition from Latino activists for casting a non-Latina — Laura San Giacomo — as Mexican icon Frida Kahlo in the bio film, Frida and Diego, co-scripted by his wife Lupe Trujillo Valdez and scheduled to co-star Raul Julia as famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. If the project had moved forward, it would have marked the first major film screenwriting credit for a Latina writer.
“I decided to come back home. Because of all the attention I’ve gotten due to Zoot Suit and La Bamba, people forget that my original activities were as a civil rights activist, as an educator, holding classes and workshops out in the fields, working with the workers in the San Juan Bautista farmlands. This has been my home for almost 50 years. And my commitment and work has never stopped.”
Valdez has been working on a memoir for the last few years, but he has also continued writing plays. His anthology Mummified Deer and Other Plays was published in 2005 by Arte Publico Press. As an educator, he has taught at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz and Fresno State University, and he was one of the founding professors of CSU Monterey Bay. In 2007 he was awarded a Rockefeller fellowship as one of 50 US Artists so honored across the United States.
“I am writing a new play that will premiere in May or June.Â There is also the possibility of a Zoot Suit revival in Los Angeles that is in discussion.Â I am aware that there is a whole wave of Latino writers, directors and producers who have the talent to make serious changes in our industry. I expect they’ll receive the credit that is due in the final analysis. But it has been and will continue to be an uphill struggle all the way. We still lack opportunities — not talent. I encourage these younger people to launch themselves into all these new frontiers that are opening up. Take command of them and change America’s complacent image of who we are.”
One young woman who heard Valdez’s clarion call was Josefina Lopez, who had been an undocumentedÂ immigrant when she was brought to the US (she is now a US citizen).Â In 1987, Lopez was a member of the first graduating class at LA County High School For the Arts (LACHSA). “I was in my senior year at LACHSA,” she recalls, “and I had just been told by my teacher that I was a very good actress but if I wanted a career I was going to have to lose weight. I just didn’t fit into the status quo of the industry. If I couldn’t fit into the ingénue mold, I had no future.
“I saw I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges and it made me stop and say, “˜Wait a minute. I am witnessing a different reality on stage.Â This is the first time I am seeing Latino characters on stage conducting real lives, conducting lives that I recognize.’Â Seeing these Chicanos on stage made me realize I was real.Â There was nothing wrong with me.Â There is something wrong with the picture. Change the picture. Just because there is no one writing for full-figured women, it doesn’t mean I have to adhere this reality.
“The night I saw the play, I decided to become a writer. I was determined to tell people what reality really is: about Latinos, about women.” Lopez took the challenge of being told she had no future in show business by writing the stage play, Real Women Have Curves (1989), which was later adapted into the hit film, starring America Ferrera (2002).
Lopez’s Casa 0101 production brings a new generation of thesps to Valdez’s work.Â The four-hander stars Carmelita Maldonado, Daniel E. Mora, Elizabeth Pan and Alex Valdivia. The production team includes Sohail e. Najafi (sets), Bill Reyes (lights), Carlos Brown (sound), Claudia Duran (costumes) and Edward Padilla (video specialist).
Valdez’s play is presented in conjunction with an art exhibition. Coalescing — The Sleeping Giant, “a visual account of the Latino experience, exploring the theme of identity and the process of unification from the past, present and future,” is open at Jean Deleage Art Gallery at Casa 0101 Theater.
I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges, Casa 0101 Theater, 2102 E. First Street (at Louis Street), Boyle Heights. Opens Friday, Feb 8 at 8 pm. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 5 pm, through Mar 10. Tickets: $20.Â E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or buy online at www.casa0101.org. 323-263-7684.
***All I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges production photos by Ed Krieger