Luis Valdez, El Teatro Campesino, & Karl Marx
Chicano theatre experienced a rebirth in the 1960’s, when Mexican-American farm-worker turned playwright Luis Valdez founded El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, California. Though he had been raised in the States, Valdez remained faithful to his Chicano roots, as he recognized the U.S. social, political, and economic abuses of Mexican-Americans and fought against such oppressions through theatre. As a result, Valdez wrote plays that were both relevant and relatable to his audience of huelgistas (“strikers”) (Copelin 73), always calling for social change and action—for a Chicano revolution. More than a form of entertainment, Valdez realized that, “for the Chicano, teatro is both a witness to social change and an active propagandist for that change” (Copelin 89). Among his actos (short, bilingual plays) is Los vendidos, a play in which Valdez satirizes the U.S. use and stereotyping of Chicanos. Although Los vendidos can be read through many lenses, I argue that a Marxist framing of the play is most revealing, since the play is a “discurso teatral que se teje en el universo socio-economico de las relaciones humanas en general y chicana en particular” (Peña 161). Though in his essay “Wage Labor and Capital” Marx argues that labor power is commoditized and abused in capitalist society, applying this theory to Valdez’s Los vendidos reveals that it is an entire class/race of people which are commoditized by not only the United States, but by themselves. It is through applying a Marxist reading to Luis Valdez’s Los vendidos that the deeper meanings of Valdez’s nationalistic and revolutionist outcries are revealed.
Chicano: “The Race of Workers”
In “Wage Labor and Capital,” Karl Marx identifies two socio-economic camps in capitalism: those of the capitalist and of the laborer, or worker. Marx then claims that capitalism is structured not to “hold good for the single individual but for the species” (Marx 662). In this way, the laborer is not important as an individual, but as a class. Though Marx argues that the laborer is defined by the exchange of labor power for capital, Marx refers to the working class as a “race of workers” (Marx 662). For Valdez, Marx’s wording is significant, as the worth of Chicano laborers is determined by their ethnicity, and Valdez argues that Chicanos are not only depreciated but racialized as well. Marx claims that the wages that laborers receive are determined not only by the skill required in performing the task, but by “the cost of existence and reproduction of the worker” (Marx 662). Valdez agrees with Marx’s reasoning, though he adds that there is an inherent racialization in defining the laborer as Chicano.
For example, in describing the Farmworker “type,” Honest Sancho notes that the model is economical, since “one plate of beans and tortillas will keep him going all day. That, and chile” (Valdez 224). Here, the wages of the Chicano are racialized, as Valdez uses the simple yet traditional Mexican meal to tie the Chicano’s poor socio-economic status to his race. Furthermore, Honest Sancho notes that all of the models are economical—except for the more refined and costly Mexican-American. In this way, Valdez reveals the dichotomy of Chicanismo: for while Chicano means Mexican-American, there is a distinction in treatment between those of working class who are considered to be more “Mexican” Chicanos, and those more “suave, debonair” Chicanos who are, therefore, more “American.” Valdez employs Marx’s logic to show that the more “Mexican” Chicano is, indeed, grouped into a racialized laboring class, and that the bare minimum is employed to keep this class of working Chicanos alive, not the Chicano worker himself. However, Valdez argues that the economic aspect is not the sole racial signifier of the Chicano. When asked about storing the model, Honest Sancho replies that the
new farm labor camps [built by] our Honorable Governor Reagan… were designed with our model in mind. Five, six, seven, even ten in one of those shacks will give you no trouble at all. You can also put him in old barns, old cars, riverbanks. You can even leave him out in the field over night with no worry! (Valdez 224)
Here, it is clear that Valdez is commenting on the political and social treatment of the Chicano Farmworker by insinuating that this mistreatment has racial roots which are not accidental. It is obvious that the “types” which Honest Sancho sells are not really models, but stereotypes of the Chicano. I argue that Marxism informs the reading of Valdez’s Los vendidos by further highlighting the Chicano’s position in relation to U.S. socio-economic structuring.
Commoditization of the Chicano
The action of Los vendidos takes place in “Honest Sancho’s Used Mexican Lot and Mexican Curio Shop,” where “owner” Honest Sancho sells “all types [of Mexicans]” (Valdez 223). Here, Mexicans like the Farmworker and the Pachuco are commonly sold for purposes ranging from cultivating crops to the “[training] of rookie cops” (Valdez 226). In Honest Sancho’s descriptions of the uses for the Chicano “types” that he sells, Valdez reveals the objectification of the Chicano: the Farmworker can be used for “cutting grapes… [picking] cotton” (Valdez 224), the Pachuco as an “escape goat [sic]” (Valdez 226), the Revolucionario as an “International Harvester of Mexicans” (Valdez 226), and the Mexican-American as a “political machine” (Valdez 228). Through this description, Valdez claims that that the Chicano is a commodity in U.S. society—a thing which is and can be mishandled, “beaten,” “killed,” used for both political and working means, a piece of merely replaceable “merchandise” (Valdez 226). And though Marx argues that solely labor power is bought and sold in the exchange between capitalist and laborer (Marx 660), Valdez’s portrayal of the Chicano as “merchandise” reveals the dispensability of the Chicano individual; the Chicano, therefore is a commodity of “human flesh and blood” (Marx 660) which can be used not only for its labor power (in the case of the Farmworker models), but for the sake of abuse as well (in the case of the Pachuco models which are bought to be beaten by LAPD rookies). Through Los vendidos, Valdez clearly portrays Mexican-Americans as products of double-meaning—for the Chicano is not only a good himself, but the product of the U.S. political and socio-economic systems.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the play hinges on the title: Los vendidos, translated, means “The Sell-outs.” I claim this titling is Valdez’s answer to Marx’s problem of the “Negro slave” (Marx 662). Marx argues that a laborer is not a slave, for a laborer continuously sells his labor power, whereas the slave himself is sold “once and for all to his owner” (Marx 661). In order to truly understand the commoditization of the Chicano, we must first ask, “What is a sell-out? And who is selling whom?” In the Oxford English Dictionary, a “sell-out” has several meanings; however, there are two that are most helpful in interpreting Los vendidos. The first definition states that a sell-out is “an agreement or contract corruptly made by a public body, involving sacrifice of public to private interest” (Def. A); the second definition is “a completely disposable commodity” (Def. B). In applying both of these definitions as well as Marx’s theory to the play, I argue that Valdez is claiming that the Chicano himself is a “sell-out.” For that reason, Valdez’s text is able to answer the Marx’s problem of slavery by stating that the Chicano individual is not a slave, but a commodity in that he willingly and continuously sells himself.
Valdez poses multiple instances in which Chicanos have “sold” themselves. The first lines of the text reveal that Honest Sancho was once a contractor but now owns his own business of selling Chicano “types” (Valdez 223). Sancho, then, has made a living by selling his own people, whom he realizes can be marketed as “completely disposable commodities” (Def. B). In addition, the Anglicized Secretary Miss Jimenez [sic] identifies herself only as an American, thereby betraying her Chicana roots and “selling out” to the mainstream American culture (Valdez 223). Furthermore, Miss Jimenez is a sell-out in that she seeks to purchase one of her own people to be a “Mexican type for the [Reagan] administration” (Valdez 223). Lastly, the models themselves are sell-outs both in their stereotyping of Chicanos and in their business transactions. For example, when Sancho notes that the Farmworker, in addition to striking, also scabs, the Farmworker cries, “Me vendo barato, ¿y qué?” However, the most striking instance of selling-out is the when the selling-out of the Chicanos who play the “types.” In his portrayal of these vendidos, Valdez notes that they have perpetuated stereotypes about their people, sacrificing their people for their own monetary advancement. Clearly, for Valdez, it is the Chicano’s willing to sell both himself and his race to the corrupt American systems that is most disturbing.
A Call to Action
Through applying Marxism and Chicanismo to Los vendidos, it is obvious that Luis Veldaz is highlighting the need for change amongst Chicanos themselves. Valdez clearly highlights the abuse of U.S. politics and socio-economic structuring through applying Marxist theory of wage minimum. However, perhaps the most important call to action that Valdez makes is the cry for a Chicano revolution of the self, in which Valdez shows the brokenness of Chicano self-selling and self-commoditization. It is through reading Los vendidos through a Marxist frame that Valdez’s argument is most poignant and relevant: for the Chicano is not a victim of socio-economic structures alone, but of his own willingness to become a Chicano vendido.
 Trans: theatrical discourse that is woven into the socio-economic universe of human relations in general and, in particular, of the Chicano
 Trans: I sell myself cheap, so what?
Copelin, David. “Chicano Theatre: El Festival de los Teatros Chicanos.” The Drama Review: TDR 17.4 (1973): 73-89. JSTOR. Web. 4 Dec 2009.
Marx, Karl. “Wage Labor and Capital.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan.Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004. 659-664. Print.
Peña, Luis H. “Praxis dramatica, praxis politica: Los actos de Luis Valdes.” Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana 10.19 (1984): 161-166. JSTOR. Web. 4 Dec 2009.
“Sell-out.” Def. A. The Oxford English Dictionary. Second ed. 1989.
“Sell-out.” Def. C. The Oxford English Dictionary. Second ed. 1989.
Valdez, Luis. Los vendidos. Herencia: The Anthology of Hispanic Literature of the United States. Ed. Nicolás Kanellos. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2002. 222-230. Print.
In “Drown,” the title story of his narrative collection, Junot Díaz recounts the story of a Hispanic youth growing up in New Jersey. Though Díaz explores issues of queerness, desvergüenza, and familial relations within this selection, perhaps the most intriguing topic in the short story is that of language. Díaz employs the languages of Spanish and English, often using Latino street slang to further the story’s urban tone. At a Drue Heinz Lecture in which the author was featured (and which I attended), Junot Díaz explained his understanding of the languages from an immigrant perspective, as well as his uses of the languages in his short stories. Moreover, rather than simply recounting the struggles of adapting to a new language or customs, Díaz recounted how, at an early age, he used language as a tool to makes sense of his new hybrid identity. Díaz further revealed the importance of a third language: the language of Silence. It is this language that proved to be the most powerful means of exploring issues of self. Through applying Díaz’s uses and understandings of Spanish, English, and Silence to his short story “Drown,” I argue that the Hispanic immigrant experience can be understood through an establishment of a “third place” (Reagon). This third place allows for the immigrant, like Díaz, to make sense of his mezcla of identities; for Junot Díaz, this third place was found in literature.
In order to explore the third place that exists in “Drown,” I will first analyze Díaz’s understandings of language in relation to his immigrant experience. Junot Díaz was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; in 1974 at the age of six, Díaz and his family immigrated to “the absolute frontier of Spanish in America… New Jersey” (Díaz). It is a known fact that second-language acquisition is easier for those in their youth, like Díaz was at the time of his own immigration. Díaz, however, still found himself in a struggle between Spanish and English. During the Drue Heinz lecture, Díaz remarked that “it was not just a matter of learning a new language,” for he “found [him]self in 1974 plunged into a language war” (Díaz). From his exposure to differences in treatment and use of the two languages, Díaz noted that his younger self soon realized that “Spanish was a form of abuse… It was discouraged, a stigma,” whereas English was “the language of [his] acceptance—it was the language of [his] future” (Díaz). From these two “warring” worlds, Díaz drew upon the language of Silence to make sense of his situations and, indeed, of himself. For the young Díaz, “Silence [was] a way of communicating, of organizing identity” (Díaz). It is through this Silence, present in both real-world relationships and in literature, that Díaz discovered himself: in order to cope with his two colliding worlds—those of Spanish and English, Latino and Anglo—Díaz turned to literature. For Díaz, literature was clearly an escape: “I dealt with the malignancy and uselessness of Spanish by getting into reading, to engage in reading so that you feel safe, confident [sic]. Reading was that safe space” (Díaz). It is obvious, then, that the silent acts of reading and writing provided Díaz with a third place, a retreat, which existed outside of the conflicting worlds of Spanish and English.
But how was this silent sanctuary of reading transferred into the act of writing and, thereby, into his short stories? I argue that it is through layering the worlds of Spanish, English, and Silence that Díaz first made sense of his surroundings; writing then became a mode of continued self-discovery and self-invention. For the young Dominican, “reading [was] understanding the language and culture [he] was living in” (Díaz). It is obvious that the young Díaz first interpreted his immigrant experience through literature. If reading was the act by which Díaz first processed his hyphenated existence, then writing was the means by which he reclaimed himself. For Díaz noted that “it was in… writing that [his] true self cohered: [he] wasn’t just reading or speaking. For an immigrant kid who had lost his tongue on the flight from Santo Domingo, writing gave [him] a way to discover and make [him]self anew ” (Díaz). Though the silent act of reading was the way in which the self-proclaimed “immigrant kid” made sense of his bi-lingual and bi-cultural world, the act of writing allowed Díaz to reinvent himself. For, as Bernice Johnson Reagon notes, “there are those of us who straddle. We are born in one place, and we are sent to achieve in the larger culture, and in order to survive we work out a way to be who we are in both places or all places we move” (Reagon 114). Through writing, Díaz was able to bridge the divides that his biculturalism and bilingualism had created. Díaz remarked during the lecture that he was able to “[speak] the language of elisions” and that “in many ways, silence is the writer’s material” because “writers often say, ‘there is a silence, there is a gap, there is a lacuna, and I want to speak to it’” (Díaz). Writing, then, allowed Díaz to create for himself a third place in which he could straddle and make sense of his Anglicized Latino identity.
Díaz’s understandings of language and literature in relation to the immigrant experience have undoubtedly transferred into his own writings. Díaz himself confessed that “immigrating in 1974 must play a tremendous role in why I am a writer. I’m struck by how little we know about young immigrants” (Díaz). This fixation on the immigrant experience fueled Díaz’s desire to write about the topic. Though Díaz avoids autobiographical conversation pertaining to his short stories, it is clear that Díaz’s writings are informed by his own process of self-discovery. In this way, Yunior (the protagonist of many of Díaz’s writings, including “Drown”) can be understood and analyzed as Díaz’s literary device of introspection. In “Drown,” Díaz (through Yunior) recounts relationships with his mother, his friend Beto (who complicates the introspection with issues of queerness), and urban life, mainly through the English language. And though the short story uses some Spanish, the majority of “Drown” (and, indeed, the collection itself) is written in English. Why does Díaz not write in his native tongue of Spanish? And is this lingual choice significant in understanding the writing or the content? I claim that, yes, Díaz’s avoidance and occasional use of Spanish are both choice-specific and informative. As I noted earlier, the young Díaz recognized Spanish as “a form of abuse” (Díaz). For this reason, when Spanish is used in the short story, it is employed as a tool of denigration, a signifier of shameful identity, or a source of brutality: Yunior refers to Beto as a “pato” (Díaz 91), himself as a sinvergüenza (92), and the “Spanish-language news” as “violence” (95). It is also interesting to note that Yunior’s drunkard of a father, whom he describes as “a real asshole” (Díaz 98), lives in the Spanish-named, Floridian city of Boca Raton (Díaz 107)—a name which, when translated to English, literally means “Mouse Mouth.” In Spanish, a “ratón” (rat) can be either an insult or a hangover—a description of a bibulous or unruly person; similarly, in English, “mouse” can be used to describe a cowardly person. Clearly, Yunior, like Díaz, locates the Spanish language as “not only a national identity, but [as a means] to hurt each other” (Díaz). Furthermore, the importance of Silence in Díaz’s own life and immigrant experience is conveyed through Yunior’s encounters with himself as well. In “Drown,” Yunior plunges into a pool, and he describes the experience of being underwater as follows:
The water feels good. Starting at the deep end I glide over the slick-tiled bottom without kicking up a spume or making a splash. Sometimes another swimmer churns past me, more a disturbance of water than a body. I can still go far without coming up. While everything above is loud and bright, everything below is whispers. And always the risk of coming up to find the cops stabbing their searchlights out across the water. And then everyone running, wet feet slapping against the concrete, yelling, Fuck you, officers, you puto sucios, fuck you. (Díaz 93).
Here, Yunior’s submersion in the pool offers a literal “third place.” In describing “everything below,” the tone is peaceful: the word choice denotes a sense of calm, and the structuring of the sentences is simplistic and grammatically correct. However, Yunior’s description of a hypothetical disturbance from this third place drastically changes the writing style: sentences are short, rushed, and grammatically incorrect; more notably, Spanish is, once again, re-introduced into the hectic narration as a means of insulting, a “form of abuse” (Díaz). Finally, in Yunior’s description of his mother, he notes that “she has discovered the secret to silence… [She’s] like a shadow warrior” (Díaz 94). Díaz, like Yunior’s mother, has discovered the “secret of silence” through writing. For it is through Silence that Díaz and “Mami” have transformed themselves into “shadow warriors”; in this way, they are able to cope with and battle the warring worlds of Anglo and Latino that threaten identity.
It is through living in the third place—the realm of Silence—that both Díaz and Yunior have made sense of their immigrant experiences. For Díaz, writing and reading have proven to be secret sanctuaries through which he may rediscover and reinvent himself. Yunior, then, is Díaz’s primary method of introspection, a personification of Díaz’s personal third place. Furthermore, Yunior is emblematic of the Hispanic experience in America, for the character creates identity and self-understanding through assigning both language- and culture-specific meanings. As Díaz noted in the Drue Heinz lecture, “We all have three or four identities at once, some of us just don’t get carded at the door” (Díaz). It is through literature that Díaz analyzes this mezcla of identity. Exploration and recreation of self through writing works such as “Drown” is clearly the method through which Díaz has made sense his own Hispanic-American and immigrant experiences.
Díaz, Junot. “Drown.” Drown. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group. 91-107. Print.
Díaz, Junot. Drue Heinz Lecture Series. Carnegie Music Hall. Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, Pittsburgh. 16 Nov 2009.
Reagon, Bernice Johnson. “‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I See’; or, ‘By and By I'm Gonna Lay Down My Heavy Load’.” The Journal of American History 78.1 (1991): 111-119. JSTOR. Web. 15 Dec 2009.