Warrior from Oblivion

— When I asked Luis Valdez, the playwright and filmmaker, about his creative process, he said his work is often influenced by the Mexican muralists of the 1920s -- Siquieros, Orozco, Tamayo. "The murals of these three dramatize history, have a tremendous impact, and they tell a story, in the same way that I seek to tell a story." Valdez said his work has always been influenced by Mayan philosophy. About his new play, The Mummified Deer, which opens this weekend and runs through November 19 at the San Diego Repertory Theater, he said, "I see very clearly that my theatrical roots go back to my Yaqu� roots."

"When I write I feel like a painter. I build a scaffolding from historical fact, bits and pieces of music, costumes and masks; I gather as extensive a collection of artifacts pertaining to the script idea that I can. I use all this as a scaffolding to build the play. A play will run under a hundred pages, but the notes I make can run up to a thousand. I literally had to go back to Sonora, to the birthplace of my grandparents, to get pieces of history, pieces of my own history, to write this play." As Valdez spoke, I saw antlers, flutes, drums, I saw Diego Rivera on a scaffolding, painting indigenous people with large green eyes. As the mosaic of his images coalesced, I saw the ingenuity of his process.

Plays written by Valdez, such as Zoot Suit, employ various techniques introduced by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. I asked Valdez if this new play would reflect the Brechtian connection. "Brecht was a huge influence on my life. His style was an antidote to the soap opera that American theaters were inclined to at that time. But over the years I have traversed other territories. My attempt to try to deal with political and social histories has caused me to do a lot of experimenting and inventing. This play is the least Brechtian of my work." Then he paused and added, "At what point do you stop being a disciple?"

Like Valdez's other plays, The Mummified Deer is social and historical, but it is also his most personal. "Every playwright writes out of his or her own life," Valdez assured me. The loss of Valdez's mother in 1994 and his father in '96 sent him on a search into his family history. First, he contacted his cousins and other immediate relatives, but "no one seemed to have the hard-core truth. The only thing I knew for sure was that we were descended from Yaqu�s on both sides. My mother always reminded us that we were Yaqu�, and it's clear she took secret pride in that. But we never knew anything beyond that." As a child Valdez remembers that his grandmother would care for him while his parents were working in the fields. His grandmother, who died in 1954, used to scold him with the name "Cajeme," but until recently Valdez never knew why. "I thought she was insulting me, but she knew me better than I knew myself."

Now he understands that it was a gift of sorts and a bit prophetic. Cajeme was both a community in the fertile Yaqu� River delta and the name of a Yaqu� chief and warrior. According to Valdez, "Cajeme was a contemporary with Geronimo -- and ultimately their fates were the same." Though many people were introduced to the Yaqu�s through Carlos Castaneda's Teachings of Don Juan and perhaps associate the tribe with the calm, wise, aged Don Juan, in reality the Yaqu� tribe has long been synonymous with a fierce bravery. The Yaqu�s were a horticultural tribe situated in the Yaqu� Valley, in what is now the Mexican state of Sonora. According to Valdez, the fertile land in the Yaqu� Valley, like the land along the Nile, supported and sustained the Yaqu�s since pre-Colombian times. The Yaqu�s resisted first the Spaniards and then the Mexicans; they continued to maintain a degree of autonomy and control over the valley through the 19th Century. It was under the Mexican president Porfirio D�az that the Yaqu�s were almost decimated.

After years of war between the Mexicans and the Yaqu�s, around 1900, the Mexican government determined to put an end to Yaqu� rebellion. According to Jane Holden Kelly in the introduction to A Yaqu� Life, "On January 18, 1900, several military detachments converged upon the Yaqu� stronghold at Mazocoba." After the battle was over, General Torres, the general in charge of the attack, "estimated that 400 Yaqu�s were killed. Approximately one thousand women and children were taken prisoner. Of these, the 'major part' died on the march from Mazocoba to Tetacombiate.... It seems clear that the Yaqu�s were virtually unarmed as General Torres reported that '35 firearms of all classes' were taken from the Yaqu�s." After the attack, Valdez said, the remaining Yaqu�s were sent on a death march to Oaxaca and the Yucat�n. They were sold as slaves for what would amount to $60 today. During this time Arizona became a sanctuary for many Yaqu�s.

"The Yaqu� wars were the opening shot of the Mexican Revolution, which generated another wave of immigration to the United States. All of this," Valdez continued, "is the background to how my family came to Arizona." Valdez has made several trips to Sonora to find out more about his family history and to research the new play. Though Valdez located the town of his grandparents' birth, he could find no official record of those events. Moreover, he found "a strange reluctance on the part of the Yaqu�s who still lived there to talk about the genocidal wars against them.... I understood much more clearly why the Jews who survived the Holocaust, who saw daily executions, were often hesitant to speak about the experience."

I asked Valdez if he felt any contradictions in researching and writing about the annihilation and diaspora of the Yaqu� people at the hands of the Mexican people; as an American playwright and film director, he has often written out of his Chicano heritage. "The whole question of nationality is suspect," he answered, "and this information underscores that Mexican nationality was not confirmed until the 20th Century." This research and his play "point at the state of indigenous people in all of Latin America."

Another twist in the new play is the role of women. "I'm entering the new century with a new approach," Valdez said. "All the major characters in the play are women. That's important to me, and that, too, is a function of being mature. Women are to be envied in some ways because of the relationships they form. Men are hermetically sealed; we can have friends, but the friendship often stays on the surface." Valdez said that writing the play "was very much a healing process for me; to capture elements of my mother and my grandmother -- especially my mother's spirit -- has given shape to one of the characters. My mother was self-educated, and she was a spiritual counselor. Her main work was her spiritual work, but she had never had an opportunity to attend school. So her namesake is a Berkeley student studying to be a social anthropologist." This female emphasis in The Mummified Deer mirrors the position of women in contemporary indigenous communities. "On an international scale, it's the women who have established and maintained the communities. Currently, the women are becoming more vocal, and there is more gender balance in the original communities."

I watched Lakin Valdez, Luis's son, pose for a photo. Lakin Valdez will dance the sacred Deer Dance in the play. I sense from his dramatic posture and commanding presence that he will be perfect in the part. Jane Holden Kelley comments on the origin of the Deer Dance, "The special religious significance of the deer...predates the arrival of the Spanish. Invested with a wealth of supernatural beliefs and ritual, deer-hunting occupied a role of ongoing importance in the supernatural and psychological areas of the world of Yaqu� men." The dance represents both the deer and the hunter -- life and death.

In order to complete this play, Valdez was given a two-year residency by the San Diego Repertory Theater. This seems appropriate, given the play's content and the special relationship Valdez has with San Diego, which he sees as culturally rich. "You have people from every conceivable background. There are areas in San Diego that are fully integrated. Many people can see across the Mexican border from their houses. All these contrasts provide opportunities for contrast and fusion. The people from Tijuana and San Diego have created a region that is dynamic and prophetic." The play covers a century of Mexican and California history, and it opens in a hospital in San Diego in 1969.

It's said that artists are the antennae of society. Valdez's work has always anticipated the future while annealing the disparate and painful aspects of the present. Now he wants "to try and recapture what was lost. We, who lived and matured in the 20th Century, can provide the histories for the next generation."

At 60, Valdez is still as political as when he created Teatro Campesino in the mid '60s to advance the cause of striking farmworkers. Most amazing, Valdez has retained his optimism. He says his family history is no different from others who have suffered racial and genocidal oppression. "I am trying to make a hopeful connection; we are really striving for a better world and to acknowledge our sameness through human confrontation. We're trying to get together, to come at last face to face."

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