Teatro Campesino Theater, resistance, and civil rights

In this lesson you'll learn

  • Review Rhetorical Situation and Elements of Fiction
  • Context behind Teatro Campesino
  • Art for social change

You'll need

  • Read, Los Vendidos, p. 91 in Mexican American Literature: A Portable Anthology
  • Pen and paper for notes
  • Understanding rhetorical situation and the elements of fiction

Review: Rhetorical Situation

Below are the five questions to answer to be able to consider the rhetorical situation. This allows us to interpret pieces and gain a more in-depth understanding of the work.

Our lesson will be structured by these questions to help with your review of them.

  1. What is the writer's purpose
  2. Who is the audience
  3. What is the topic
  4. What is the context
  5. What is the strategy used?

Review: Elements of Fiction

We're going to use the element of fiction for this play because we want to analyze the narrative of the play to understand the argument of it.

These element should be identified during the last question of the rhetorical situation, the strategy used. We'll be using these elements plus some other literary terms in our analysis in this lesson.

Below, click on each element to help refresh your memory.


Teatro in Spanish means theater. Campesino means a person from the fields or a field worker. This is where we start our context of Teatro Campesino. Founded by Luis Valdez in 1965, it was an outlet for those fighting for the rights of farmworkers.

Luiz Valdez, is the creator and founder of Teatro Campesino. He is considered "the father of Chicano theater." Here's some basic biography info:

Born: June 26, 1940. Birthplace: Delano, California. Family: second of 10 children, joined his parents and worked in the fields at age six, following the crops throughout central California. Graduated high school in San Jose, CA. Majored in theater at San Jose State College (now University). His first play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, was produced in 1963. He graduated with a B.A. in English in 1964.

A year after graduation, Valdez joins César Chávez to unionize farmworkers. Here's Valdez talking about his humble beginnings and the idea for Teatro Campesino. He also speaks to the writer's purpose.

"Initially performed on flatbed trucks in the fields of Delano, the actos dramatized the plight of the farmhands with slapstick humor, satire, role reversal, allegorical strategies, and straightforward language "to present a clear and concise social or political message" writes historian Nicolás Kanellos." Source: Bloom's Literature.


During it's beginnings, the audience was other farmworkers and those who were sympathetic to the United Farm Worker's cause. It became, rightfully so, a tool to educate and expand the message of the union. (More about United Farm Workers in the context section)

In the video below, Valdez speaks more about the theater. As he speaks about its history, he speaks about the audience.

Eventually, and almost accidentally, the theater troupe became the fundraising arm and the marketing arm of the UFW. Not only did they entertain but educated the public the farmworker's plight. Sometimes, the plays moved people to act or to donate money to the cause.

According to research from Jorge Huerta, "they had a cause, and their performances of huelga (strike) songs and actos motivated farm workers to join the union. When they left the fields to take their message to other audiences, the group’s performances moved people to donate money to the cause as well as to boycott grapes and other non-union produce in support of the union


The theater was part of the United Farm Workers union and was instrumental in the Chicano Movement. As you saw in the videos above, you know that the background to the theater's start is the Delano Grape Strike and the United Farm Workers.

Delano Grape Strike

The year: 1965. The place: Delano. Valdez returned to his birthplace finds a way to combine social activism and literature. Remember, during this strike and this time, the Civil Rights movement is also happening.

Click the button below and read more on the Delano Grape Strike before learning about the United Farm Workers.

United Farm Workers

In 1962, Cesar Chavez, Helen Chávez, and Dolores Huerta, three activists organized Mexican-American farmworkers in California. They wanted to "expose worker and consumer abuse by large businesses and landowning groups in the United States." Source: Bloom's Literature

Who is Cesar Chavez?

During this time, Chavez emerged as the leader of the union. His work, along with the work of Dolores Huerta, were the roots of the Chicano Movement. Below, watch the short bio of Cesar Chavez.


Valdez's work popularized actos, "short, comic sketches that satirized enemies," researcher Jose Huerta wrote in his article The Campesino’s Early Actos as Templates for Today’s Students.

The actos were written short because of the audience's needs. Farmworkers didn't have much time to watch so it was performed as quickly as possible. It also lended itself to improvisation by the actors.

Five Characteristics of Actos:

  • Inspire the audience to social action.
  • Illuminate points about social problems.
  • Satirize the opposition.
  • Show or hint at a solution.
  • Express what people are feeling.
Satire: a technique employed by writers to expose and criticize foolishness and corruption of an individual or a society by using humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule.

By the time of "Los Vendidos", the theater had broken off from the UFW and became it's own entity (1967). However, they continued to use satire to expose and show "foolishness and corruption", but now it turned its focus to class struggles.

In the link below, read more about how the theater troupe used actos for social justice.

"Los Vendidos" plays on and satirizes Mexican-American stereotypes. It uses characterization in its narrative to add to the comedic satire. Without characterization or the audience's assumption of the stereotypes, the play wouldn't be as powerful in its argument.

For example, each of the "models" are Mexican stereotypes -- the bandit, the docile farm worker, the sauve pachuco, and the palpable Mexican-American. While all of them have "desirable" qualities to the person purchasing them, it's the "undesirable" qualities -- the realness-- that turns Miss Jimenez off.

Miss Jimenez is looking for a "model" Mexican, hence the metaphor to a car dealership,( i.e. the setting) an item that can easily be purchased and customized to one's liking.

Miss Jimenez herself is a symbol. She, as the secretary of the governor, represents the government (as the "model" is for a press conference.) Her interest and disinterest in things, and how she views each model, is how government (in this case state government) sees Mexican-Americans. This, again, was during the time of the Chicano movement and the United Farm Workers' strike.

The more Miss Jimenez considers the model the quicker she says no, accelerating the plot. This quickness aids the acto since actos are short anyway. That makes the plot lean. There's not a lot of extras in the play, therefore, the plot moves quickly.

We get a good sense, or at least another sense of this challenging time, with the allusions made in the play about policies and politicians.

President Ronald Reagan. Before he became president, he was the governor of California.

Then-Governor Reagan was mentioned a couple of times in the play.

"You know these new farm labor camps our Honorable Governor Reagan has built out by Parlier or Raisin City? They were designed with our model [ farm worker ] in mind. Five, six, seven, even ten in one of those shacks will give you no trouble at all. You also put him in old barns, old cars, riverbanks. You can even leave him out in the field over night with no worry!" -- "Los Vendidos"

This quote alludes to the governor as being anti-labor union.

Let's talk about the point of view of the play, narrated by the Honest Sancho. Even this, the name of the narrator, is satire and ironic. Sancho means, in slang, the other man. Sancho has connotations of dishonesty, a slick liar, a con-artist. He is an honest liar, but a liar nonetheless. That means that the narrator is unreliable.

And in these ways and many other ways that we'll explore in our discussion boards, the play is a social justice play that touches on politics, social injustices (stereotypes) and issues of class of an emerging Mexican-American citizenry. That means they gained a power and voice that their parents and grandparents before them never had.

Below, watch the taped stage play of "Los Vendidos". Notice the differences between the stage play in your book and the performance below. Why do you think that is?

What's with Teatro Campesino now?

The show goes on!

A couple of years ago, Teatro Campesino celebrated its 50th Anniversary. It still continues.

And in true Mexican-American style, a corrido giving the history of Teatro Campesino, the Delano strike, and the Chicano Movement. (You can press play, the video is active.)

What did you learn?

  • How to use the rhetorical situation to understand the argument of a piece of work
  • The context and history of Teatro Campesino
  • The beginning of the Chicano Movement and the Dolores Grape Strike
  • How to apply the elements of fiction to the narrative in "Los Vendidos"
  • The goal of actos and how that applies "Los Vendidos"
  • Some new terms: acto and satire

What's next?

Check out your Checklist for the next thing on your list.

Remember that you have something to do and that is due every day this week.

Presentation researched and created by Icess Fernandez, assistant professor of English, Lone Star College-Kingwood


Created with images by Free-Photos - "sign door sign stage door" • AndyRobertsPhotos - "Theatre" • LeWeb14 - "Audience @ LeWeb 11 Les Docks-9319" • FotoGuy 49057 - "Great Gobbs Of Grapes" • AmberAvalona - "car show yellow antique car" • WikiImages - "president usa ronald reagan" • DEZALB - "venice masks shop"

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