DENVER — Daniel Valdez — much like the lowriders, zoot suits and huaraches on display at the Denver Art Museum — is an icon of Chicano culture.
That’s why Valdez was honored this week at an Hispanic Heritage Month event hosted by US Bank, the sponsor of the Denver Art Museum’s “Desert Rider” exhibit, which closes September 24.
Valdez’ music, acting and activism have brought Mexican American heritage to the masses for more than 50 years.
Denver7 spoke with Valdez in an exclusive interview about his history-making career and his deep ties to Colorado.
"It's been amazing,” Valdez said. "I've been in theater and music all my life.”
Valdez was born and raised in California, but he has a special connection to Colorado.
“I've been coming here since 1970,” he said.
Between protests in the Delano Grape Strike of 1969, the Valdez brothers created a Chicano performance group that would accomplish many historic firsts.
“The theatre bug bit me,” Valdez said. And it took him all around the world, including Denver, where he's performed and composed music for Su Teatro.
“I keep coming back [to Denver] because this is a very special place and I love the people here,” he said. In the 1970s, “we were hosted here by Corky Gonzales and the Crusade for Justice... I came here for the Chicano conference. My wife and I fell in love here; we were both 19 years old. So, it really became part of the fabric of our family.”
Soon after, Valdez’ artistic career took off.
He starred in and composed music for a play written by his brother: Zoot Suit. The play was based on the 1940s Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the ensuing Zoot Suit Riots in southern California.
Zoot Suit became the first play by Latinos to make it to Broadway.
“We've gone from farmworkers who are performing in the fields on the flatbed trucks, to theatres, to the national stage: Broadway in New York,” he said. “Next thing you know, we're being pulled left and right for movies.”
It started with a film adaptation of Zoot Suit.
Then Valdez was invited by Jane Fonda to join the cast of The China Syndrome. “I met Jane on the picket line in Delano in 1971. So, there was a connection,” he said.
Valdez also appeared in Cheech Marin’s movie Born in East L.A. as part of the Norteño Trio. He met Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong while they were all on the A&M Records label, where Valdez released Mestizo, the first Chicano album produced by a major label. “They were very good friends of mine," Valdez said. “It was an incredible time.”
Next came a film Valdez calls “a personal dream:” La Bamba, a biopic about Chicano rock and roll pioneer Ritchie Valens, whose life and career were cut short by a deadly plane crash.
“He was a hero I grew up with,” Valdez said. “I spent 13 years researching who he was. And I mean, the way divinity works, man. I end up finding out that Ritchie Bradley Valenzuela, who was Richie Valens, lived 60 miles away from my house in California. It was a crazy connection. I met the father, the mother and the brothers and the sisters. And it took me five years to convince them to allow us to do the movie.”
La Bamba was released to critical acclaim in 1987 and launched the career of actor Lou Diamond Phillips.
In recent years, the U.S. Library of Congress added both Zoot Suit and La Bamba to the National Film Registry, calling the films "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" and worth preserving.
When it comes to his music, Valdez said a high point in his life was singing with Linda Ronstadt. “We did Canciones de mi Padre, and that was only because we got to be friends during Zoot Suit,” he said. “We toured for 12 months through 52 cities, and it was an unbelievable experience.”
Canciones de mi Padre went on to win a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Album in 1988.
During his visit this week to the Denver Art Museum, Valdez, now 74 years old, admired the way “culture speaks for itself” and can reach people around the world; whether it manifests itself as a movie, a lowrider or a zoot suit.
“It’s class, it’s an artistic expression all to itself,” he said. "There’s a pride that comes with it. I actually connect it with the zoot suit period... That group of people didn’t identify as Mexicanos. They were Mexican Americans, but they didn’t like that either. So, they called themselves Chicanos.”
And all these years later, the art made by Chicanos like Valdez continues to inspire.