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Diane Rodriguez's new play explores labor politics and personal sacrifice

The chant, Sí se puede — loosely, Yes we can — has been adopted by many social movements.

But it’s closely tied to the difficult effort to organize California farm workers in the 1960s and '70s. And that movement is at the center of a new play written and directed by Diane Rodriguez. It’s called “The Sweetheart Deal.”

The play, set in 1970, focuses on a Mexican-American couple who trade their cozy lives in San Jose for a small, dusty Central Valley town to volunteer for the United Farm Workers. The story draws directly from Rodriguez and her family’s history of political activism at the time.

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(Courtesy of Grettel Cortes Photography)

Rodriguez is an associate artistic director with Center Theater Group, one of the leading regional companies in the nation. But she got her start in theater with El Teatro Campesino, Luis Valdez’s company that was founded to support the UFW cause, often performing shows on the back of a flatbed truck as farmworkers toiled in the fields.

When Rodriguez joined us at The Frame studios, she talked about her personal and familial connection to the UFW and El Teatro Campesino, and the movement's relevance to today's political landscape.

Interview Highlights:

This play comes from a really personal place for you. Can you talk about your history with El Teatro Campesino?

In 1970, my aunt and uncle, Liz and Frank Rodriguez, went to volunteer for the UFW and they ended up working for the paper, El Malcriado, which was the UFW's organizing tool. And they took my four cousins, who were very young. And they were there for two years, and that was the impetus of my play.

But I first saw El Teatro Campesino when I was in [college], and my cousins, Pancho and Felipe Rodriguez, were in the show and touring with the company. So it was part of my family history — I saw my cousins and it was like, That's what I want to do! It was a natural evolution to join the company after I finished school.

Let's talk about the newspaper, El Malcriado, because it's a central focus in your play. For people who don't know Spanish slang, how would you define malcriado?

Malcriado is an ill-bred kid, spoiled kid, rebel kid. [laughs] The newspaper was a troublemaker, it stirred up, it gave farmworkers issues to fight about, to picket about, and it gave them knowledge as the tool with which they could fight.

There was also a central element, which were these cartoons that were drawn by a man named Andy Zermeno. And Luis Valdez was inspired by them. [Zermeno] drew Fat Cat, the boss or the grower; the Coyote, the middleman who's always cheating the workers; the Scab; and he drew them in a way that was really entertaining, but also made you understand the power dynamics. They resulted in this live art form called the actos.

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(Geoffrey Rivas, David DeSantos, and Valente Rodriguez star in Diane Rodriguez's new play, "The Sweetheart Deal." Courtesy of Grettel Cortes Photography)

The play revolves around a Mexican-American couple that's left a relatively comfortable life in nearby San Jose to become UFW volunteers in the Central Valley. They give up a lot in terms of lifestyle, but they believe in the cause. Was that a common occurrence, that people felt they had to join the farmworkers' revolution?

Yes, I mean, look at my aunt and uncle. My uncle literally watched television, saw what was unfolding, and convinced my aunt to go, that these were our people and we had to support them in their fight.

I think the reason there was so much empathy was because my family had been farmworkers on both sides — for my mother, migrant workers, and for my father, it was dirt farmers in Texas, picking potatoes there. When it's a family legacy, it's about you and your community.

And they weren't just giving up quality of life, they were also taking on danger. Going up to the Central Valley, being a union organizer, walking with farmworkers wasn't just a political act — it was a risky, personal act.

That's right. In 1970, the tension was growing between the growers and the farmworkers. The Teamsters were brought in, and at that time California's Teamsters were totally rogue. So, even though the UFW was nonviolent, the opposition was not, and there are numerous accounts of beatings and slashing of tires throughout the period. So it was a very sketchy time.

But there was this notion of sacrifice that we've lost sight of in 2017 — that in order to fight for a social movement, there's sacrifice that needs to take place. And we don't even say that word in relationship to social movements and trying to create social awareness and justice.

"The Sweetheart Deal" is at the Los Angeles Theatre Center through June 4.