The month-long Encuentro Theater Festival is underway in Los Angeles. The festival has brought together 19 companies from around the country for performances and workshops at an historic gathering of Latino theater artists.
Kinan Valdez and Richard Montoya are among the participants. Valdez is an artistic associate with El Teatro Campesino, the famed company that was founded by his father, Luis Valdez. Montoya is a member of the theater trio Culture Clash, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
Valdez and Montoya spoke with The Frame's John Horn.
On the significance of the Encuentro festival:
Montoya: [It's] a chance to talk openly in front of our colleagues that have gathered nationally and internationally. It's a rare moment that we get to be in conversation and look at the work critically, seeing where we're at and, perhaps, maybe where we're going. Our elders are gathered, lots of young, new companies, lots of energy, but I think we need to take a critical look as to the state of Chicano theater — Latino theater — not just Los Angeles, but nationally.
Valdez: There's been this wide push nationally to bring back all the Latino theater-makers and practitioners into a circle of conversation. That is something that has been lacking for a couple of decades now since the political activism of the '70s and '80s. So last year we had this national convening that brought together a bunch of people just to once again discover the sense of we. This is the second phase of that that's actually an opportunity for us to see each other's work, to celebrate the work, but also as Richard's suggesting, to look at it critically, but also to inspire each other.
This encounter's happening on numerous levels. It's not just about the presentation of new works, but it is an encounter of 150 artists who will be spending and sharing space together for a full month. During the weekdays we'll be actually generating new work together, and on the weekends everybody will be performing. Interlaced will be a series of conversations called tertulia events — which is sort of a literary salon — for us to be able to critically address the issues of aesthetics for Latino theater and pushing forth and changing the American narrative.
On whether it's impossible to separate political theater from Latino theater:
Montoya: No, there's a ton of Latino Christmas plays or plays that celebrate Day of the Dead or pageants that I've seen. Some are worthy, but I think the deeply political act is a deeply human act, and it wasn't just Che Guevara who said that. Whenever I hear a great Rage Against the Machine song, I think of Zack de la Rocha as a very human voice crying out to be heard ... [regarding] anti-immigration fervor, I tend to look at a folklorico [dancer] or a mariachi singer differently now, because they're festooned almost as a target that says, I'm right here, you must see me, I've got a red flower in my hair, I look like Frida Kahlo. And I'm diggin' on that a little bit more than I used to ... As the crosshairs of anti-immigration fervor ratchet up, I'm looking to see what our response as artists can be.
On being second-generation artists from families with deep activist roots:
Montoya: We just passed the first anniversary of my father, José Montoya. It's not too far-reaching to say he was the godfather of Chicano poetry. My dad and Kinan's dad, Luis Valdez, had worked together on a few poems. One was a poem called "El Louie," about a pachuco from the San Joaquin Valley that later became a staged work and traveled the world ... In the last couple of months I've been going through thousands of my dad's works on paper and letters, and what struck me most is that he came from a collective called the Royal Chicano Air Force, and they mixed performance, theater [and] poetry, and would descend upon a conference and take it over. They were always known as unruly and unorthodox, certainly, but the thing about going through my dad's decades of papers was that actually he was very methodical. His skill set was incredible. The Beats are present in his work and these jazzy riffs of sketches and cantinas and churches and the factories.
And what I find most stunning about the work and what echoes into my work is this idea of finding grace and elegance in a violent world, so that barrio elegance is not a contradictory term at all; it's actually a very beautiful term that says: Maybe a pachuco spoke like this, or a street poet, or a homeboy or homegirl ... I want to be that person that rushes in and says, "You know, I want to humanize you. I don't want to romanticize you, but I want to humanize you and not paint you away." And I have only my father's work there to look back at. And those are the shoulders I stand on, absolutely.
Valdez: I spent my first days on the road with El Teatro Campesino, and so I ended up in this cultural milieu where art and activism were just pouring like water — it was in the blood itself. That carried on for numerous generations. I remember even Richard rolling through with Culture Clash, and they were a tremendous influence on me in my early days when I saw them perform their first comedy routines. And then suddenly they emerged with this play called "The Mission," and then that eventually became something else here in Los Angeles. I remember ... seeing [Culture Clash's] "Bowl of Beings," and it blew my mind. I still carry the memory of watching that show to this day, and so I think it's very similar. My father has created a space for others and that torch has been passed on, but that doesn't mean that he's stopped doing his type of work.
The Encuentro Theater Festival runs through Nov. 12 at the Los Angeles Theatre Centre.