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Luis Valdez, Force Behind 'La Bamba', Hailed at Film Fete

May 03, 1990|SUAD McCOY | McCoy is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer

MEXICO CITY — At the first gathering of the Who's Who of Chicano Filmmakers, all eyes were on Luis Valdez.

Valdez, the founder of El Teatro Campesino and creative force behind "Zoot Suit" and "La Bamba," was honored, together with his Mexican-American colleagues, by his Mexican counterparts at the first Week of Chicano Films and Videos in Mexico City.

He met with Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was told of a plan for Mexican-Chicano cooperation in the arts, was declared a distinguished visitor of Mexico City, and felt, " pleno, satisfied, in my spirit and my heart" for the love he had received. Valdez talked of making "La Bamba II," as he participated with 10 other Mexican-American filmmakers at last February's "Chicanos '90." His films were screened and he met with Mexican producers of lucrative hit films as well as with the avant-garde.

Intellectuals, such as Nobel laureate author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and legendary figures such as 82-year-old Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa came to meet Valdez. Valdez was visibly touched, especially by the presence of Figueroa, whom he called " mi tata" ("my grandpa") and "the man who filled the dreams of my youth."

The young were there too. Two hundred of them, mostly aspiring filmmakers, overflowed a classroom of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico to listen to Valdez.

In response to a student's question about what happened to Ritchie Valens' brother, Bob Morales, Valdez told of his plans for making "La Bamba II." He said this film sequel would tell the lives of Bob Morales and his father, and it would include '60s music composed by Carlos Santana and Valdez's brother, Daniel.

Valdez said the concept of "La Bamba II" hit him in Mexico like a bolt of lightning. He said he had come to Mexico to get inspired and he did. Not that he is ever short of inspiration or " focos prendidos " (light bulbs), as he calls his ideas.

Earlier this year, in an interview in San Juan Bautista, Calif., where he founded and still directs El Teatro Campesino, Valdez talked about his plans. He said he hopes to stage a revival of his 1979 theatrical hit, "Zoot Suit," but other projects will come first.

"Zoot Suit" is Valdez's best known stage production. He grew up with the idea, and when he wrote it, he dedicated it to an older cousin, a zoot suiter, who had dazzled Luis as a child with his pride in his identity, his flair and his suit. With Edward James Olmos playing the lead of "El Pachuco," "Zoot Suit" opened at the Mark Taper Forum in 1979 to great applause. It also had a highly successful run at the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood.

"Zoot Suit" moved to New York's Broadway, where Valdez feels the short-lived production was not understood. Later, a film version fared better.

At the time, Valdez had already been honing his artistic spurs for more than 15 years. During the grape strike of the mid-1960s, Valdez, who had picked fruit as a child, had returned to Delano to start his Teatro Campesino in a gesture of support for Cesar Chavez and the farm workers. The teatro just celebrated its 25th anniversary.

One of his upcoming projects is a movie based on German composer Carl Orff's theatrical cantata "Carmina Burana," a 13th-Century tale of decadent monks. "I'm about to shoot a project with the Germans," and take on new challenges like opera, Valdez told the students in Mexico.

Filming in Germany is not alone in Valdez's mind. He also sees Japan in his future and says that he has been "thinking globally these days."

As for Japan, he said, "I like (its) energy," and part of his next project, a 21st-Century science fiction movie, will involve Japan. It will be an epic, already written, that "talks about the roots of America, the Mayan philosophy and deals with issues like learning to live with each other."

For all of his projects, Valdez found ample support in Mexico during "Chicanos '90" week.

On the last day of that week, Valdez, together with Hollywood filmmaker and friend Moctesuma Esparza, met with the Mexican president. Salinas, Valdez said, recognizes the positive link between Chicanos and Mexicans at all levels and sees how those links may extend into co-production arrangements that will improve the quality and marketability of Mexican cinema.

Valdez received an endorsement from Salinas to co-produce films in Mexico.

"It's a wonderful thing to receive the support of an entire country through its leaders and people," Valdez said. "There are more forces that unite us than separate us," Valdez said, "and we all have a responsibility to achieve an American glasnost ."

After his meeting with Salinas, Valdez went to the City Hall on the Zocalo, the city's main square, to speak at the week's closing ceremonies. "Every day our people die up there because they feel lonely," Valdez told the city hall audience. "We have the right to feel completos , to be part of Mexico. . . . I came to the Zocalo in my youth and dreamed of this day, the day has come."

It had. Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis offered to host a yearly Chicano film festival and honored Valdez and his colleagues with plaques declaring them visitantes distinguidos.

Valdez concluded his speech in the Zocalo: "I feel more awake than ever, more alive than ever, full of hopes. I'm an idealist, I'm an optimist, but not a fool. I'm a dreamer, but I'm awake. Viva la Raza! "

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