Luis Valdez

A hurricane of change swirls through California. From San Jose to San Diego, Los Angeles to San Francisco – the four winds sweep through points north, south, east and west. Yet while they arguably blow with no less force or urgency in Monterey County, I prefer to entertain the notion that this region, through the blessing of historical accident or the grace of natural history, occupies the metaphorical eye of the storm.

For the last 42 years, my wife Lupe and I have peacefully made our home in the historic mission town of San Juan Bautista. There, while raising our three sons from birth to manhood, we have also sustained our extended theatrical family of El Teatro Campesino, faithfully performing our annual Christmas plays at the Old Mission while originating new works in our converted packing-shed playhouse in town. Born on the picket lines of the 1965 Delano grape strike led by Cesar Chavez, our company now anticipates a year-long celebration of our 50th anniversary in 2015. From our original rudimentary plays by striking farm workers to the high-tech production of my latest full-length play, Valley of the Heart last month, our creative trajectory is long and unprecedented.

Learning from Cesar Chavez long ago how to make something out of nothing, out of our humble origins we have extracted the creative riches of our own self-determination. Our work takes us from the backs of flat-bed trucks in Delano to the lights of Broadway and the sound stages of Hollywood. We have performed on classical Greek and Roman amphitheaters and before the Pyramid of the Moon in San Juan Teotihuacan, Mexico. Yet we always come back. Since 1971, the quiet spiritual vibrations of San Juan Bautista – of the Monterey Bay area – has fed our creativity. I am grateful to live in the eye of the hurricane.

When I was born (a lifetime ago), California only had 6 million inhabitants. The Golden State was then predominantly white, Anglo Saxon and Protestant. Today we are pushing past 35 million, hurtling toward 50 million in 20 years, with at least half the population comprising Latinos, Asians and African Americans. By 2040 they will be the majority, a fact that sits well or not so well, depending on your presumptions. The word that springs to mind for the future is “vibrant.”

English-only is hardly the key to the future. English-plus is. It is incumbent on our young to learn English – plus another language.

We are, after all, Californians. While some citizens may feel somewhat alienated by an imagined cultural onslaught of “non-white” influences, no immigrant wave has ever come to our shores without quickly or gradually acculturating to the national lifestyle. As their children have become increasingly American in language, attitude and taste, every generation of immigrants in U.S. history has experienced this social transformation, vying to hold on to their mother cultures while simultaneously embracing their new nationality. Remarkably California, like New York, has served as the impetus for this cultural diversity and as the template of its cultural fusion.

Despite the naysayers, English-only is hardly the key to the future. English-plus is. It is incumbent on our young to learn English – plus another other language they can master. Being monolingual is already an unnecessary handicap.

Yet in Monterey County, there are other immigrant languages afoot that speak to a startlingly different perception of America. I refer to the migrant farm workers from Oaxaca, Mexico, who arrived to the Salinas Valley with their children in tow, speaking neither English nor Spanish, but rather Mixtecan or Triqui, two of the native tongues of the ancient inhabitants of this hemisphere.

Amazingly, after 500 years, some indigenous peoples have steadfastly refused to learn either of the two languages imported by dominant Europeans. The human implications of this cultural resistance are enormous, particularly for their children.

Almost a decade ago, working in tandem with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, El Teatro Campesino began using actors to teach young people respect for our profoundly delicate environment. Similarly, working with the Monterey County Office of Education and the Migrant Ed summer program, El Teatro began offering “vibrant being” workshops at CSU-Monterey Bay to the children of farm workers in the Salinas Valley.

While our theater workshops are wildly popular with the very young, it is with our digital video workshops that the technological promise of teenagers becomes obvious. The majority of farmworkers in America today are not only faceless immigrants from Mexico; they are descendants of the solar lords, architects and mathematicians of Ancient America. They are, by odd coincidence, both the newest and the oldest Americans. This is their humble yet exciting promise.

While our beautiful yet vulnerable Monterey Bay may someday be called home by millions yet unborn, it is comforting to imagine that our multilingual, globally sophisticated, technologically adept future Americans may also be imbued with a natural love and spiritual respect for Mother Earth.

LUIS VALDEZ is founder of the Obie Award-winning El Teatro Campesino and a playwright whose Zoot Suit was the first Chicano production to appear on Broadway.

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