Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, September 6, 2008
When Dorothy Martinez was growing up in San Juan Bautista, she says,
"enrichment was fed to us like menudo in our household." While most
kids were absorbed with video games, hip-hop and fads, Martinez and
her three younger brothers had a steady diet of politics, current
events and activist theater with a Latino slant.
Martinez, 29, is part of a four-generation family of actors in Luis
Valdez's bilingual theater troupe, El Teatro Campesino, in San Juan
Bautista. Her late grandfather, Guadalupe Serna, was a songwriter,
migrant worker and activist who marched alongside Cesar Chavez in the
United Farm Workers grape pickers strike of the late '60s. He wrote a
song, "El Corrido del Cortito," about the short-handled hoe that
created debilitating back problems for hundreds of farmworkers before
it was banned in 1975.
Her mother, Graciela Serna Nutter, is an actress, producer and stage
director. Martinez's brothers Juan and Jeremiah, 28 and 25, are both
actors, poets and musicians, and her three children, Adrian, 15,
Anais, 10, and Atlixcatzin, 8 - the family's fourth tier of actors -
are "theater babies" who started their stage careers in El Teatro's
Christmas productions when they were toddlers.
"Everyone in the immediate family is a performer," says Nutter. Each
has worked in El Teatro Campesino productions; and six of them -
Graciela, Juan, Jeremiah, Adrian, Anais and Atlixcatzin - are core
players in Indigenous Chaos, a political performing collective.
Martinez is their manager. On street corners, in cafes and theaters,
the family advocates for ballot initiatives, promotes women's and
children's rights and satirizes the U.S. government's immigration policies.
"It's really hard-hitting political stuff," Nutter says. "We all
write the dialogue. We're a team. Right down to the little ones."
Nutter, 50, spoke on a recent hot afternoon at a friend's bar on
Third Street, the main drag in San Juan Bautista (population 1,600).
This is the town, 45 miles south of San Jose, where Alfred Hitchcock
filmed the climax of "Vertigo" at Mission San Juan Bautista.
Everything close by
Nutter lives on the main drag above a Mexican restaurant. The mission
is one block away, and Teatro El Campesino's playhouse, a former
packing shed where potatoes, spinach, garlic and tomatoes were once
prepared for shipping, is three blocks away.
Nutter is the eighth of 15 Serna children, but she's the only one who
stayed active in theater. "My mother is energetic, explosive
onstage," says Martinez. Nutter directs community theater (recently,
"Sound of Music" at San Benito Stage Company) and last appeared with
El Teatro Campesino in a 2002-03 revival of "Zoot Suit," the
company's signature piece.
"(Graciela) is a strong-minded person," says Luis Valdez, 68, who
founded El Teatro Campesino in 1965 and is still the artistic
director. "She sings lovely; she's a strong performer. She's carried
forth with her family, the four generations, which is great. We
consider that generational continuity to be an offshoot of what we do
with El Teatro."
Martinez - unlike Nutter, who has a girlish laugh and spirit - comes
across as grounded, in charge. It's her job to book gigs and gather
her family. She and her three children live in Daly City. Brother
Juan, whom she calls the group's "comic relief," lives in Pleasanton.
Jeremiah, who plays lead guitar and sings with a Latin funk band
called Somos, is in Hollister, near to San Juan Bautista. A third
brother, Cody, lives in Oregon.
"I'm a behind-the-scenes gal," Martinez says, adding that she'll
sometimes go onstage "in the heat of the moment" or "if someone
coughs." She has worked with El Teatro as a costume coordinator,
scene and production coordinator and box office manager.
"It goes back to our roots," says Martinez. The family's theater
tradition was seeded when Martinez's Mexican-immigrant grandparents,
Guadalupe and Julia, started their family in Texas and moved to
California in 1954. The driver they hired took the family to the
Central Valley town of Gonzalez - and literally left them on a street
corner. A local church took them in, Guadalupe found work and 20
years later the Sernas relocated to San Juan Bautista after Guadalupe
met Valdez and got involved in El Teatro Campesino.
Song was recorded
His song "El Corrido del Cortito" was included on "Huelga en
General," an album recorded by Valdez and his brother Danny Valdez in
1975 at El Teatro's recording studio in San Juan Bautista. He sang
the ballad during "countless" United Farm Workers protest matches,
Nutter says. "He didn't care whether he had a guitar or not. He'd
sing it a cappella."
Guadalupe and Julia, who died in 1979 and 1990, respectively, acted
in an El Teatro Campesino video for PBS, "El Corrido," in 1974. "We
shot that in Los Angeles," Valdez says, "and they were dressed as
themselves as farmworkers in the back of the truck. Some of their
kids with them.
"The thing about the Serna family that's absolutely unique is that
they were a large family to begin with - 15 kids. And when they moved
to San Juan Bautista, they lived right on Third Street in a big,
rambling house. It was just wonderful to go there and see them
carrying the workload of preparing the dinner. It was a very familial
atmosphere. But at the same time, it was political, it was cultural.
It was Teatro."
E-mail Edward Guthmann at firstname.lastname@example.org.