Zero holds major significance for El Teatro Campesino founder

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Juan David Correa/Courtesy

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“The power of zero is the power of all human beings,” said Luis Valdez.

As the founder of El Teatro Campesino, a theater company extremely influential in the farmworkers’ movement and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the 1960s, Valdez has a long history of activism — if anyone knows something about the power of human beings, it’s him. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of his work, Valdez delivered a UC Board of Regents keynote lecture, “The Power of Zero,” on Nov. 18 at Zellerbach Playhouse.

El Teatro Campesino is well known for performing improvisational works and theatrical short plays to support activist movements — fittingly, Valdez started his lecture with a skit. Opening with a depiction of a grinning, mustachioed “patron” exploiting a group of farm workers, the scene quickly morphed to a more familiar situation. The workers became students facing drastic tuition hikes; the patron took the form of the UC president.

Tracing historical and cultural ties from the Mayan number zero to modern activism, Valdez remodeled the concept of “zero” — a symbol that to most people means “nothing” — to a symbol of potential and strength. Throughout the lecture, Valdez followed that theme and tied it to current social justice movements.

Valdez began with an account of the geographical origins of zero; zero was discovered in precolonial North America, where Nahuatl was spoken from Central America to the southwestern United States. According to Valdez, despite their treatment as aliens and immigrants in the United States, Chicanos are rooted in the history of this continent as a whole; their power as a people is the power of zero, the concept that they discovered on the land of North America before the U.S.-Mexico border existed.

From there, Valdez moved to more modern times, recounting his experience as a child living in migrant farm worker camps. Severely burned by boiling water as a toddler, Valdez had been rushed to the hospital when the skin sloughed off of his back. There, the doctor treated him with merely a salve and sent him back to the farm, where his family slept on a dirt floor and the risk of infection was high.

That early encounter with racial discrimination was only the beginning. Valdez told stories of his experience in elementary school, where he was cast as a monkey in the school play. “I was in heaven,” he said. “I was 6 years old, and I got to star as a monkey.”

But the night before the play, his family was evicted from the camp. As they left the town, he “felt a hole opening up in (his) chest.” This, too, was zero  — “zero” was the hole in his chest, but it was also “the hungry mouth of (his) creativity,” which Valdez described as the groundwork laid for his future work as a playwright. Zero, said Valdez, is neither positive or negative, but the place where negative things must go through to become positive.

Throughout the lecture, Valdez emphasized Chicano pride despite the pressure of racism in America, stressing the importance of resisting the white supremacist illusion of Chicano inferiority. After all, the power of the Mayan zero is the ability to make something: the potential for change.

Contact Lindsay Choi at [email protected].