Growing up in California, Luis Valdez held a strong passion for theater and began organizing and directing puppet shows and plays as a child. While in college at San Jose State University, Valdez won a playwriting contest and then wrote a second play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa (1963) that was performed by the drama department of his school. Following his graduation from college Valdez joined Cesar Chavez’s Chicano Movement and founded El Teatro Campesino, a farm worker’s theater troupe which entertained and educated members of the movement on the plight of farmworkers. Valdez continued to direct theater and created his own professional theater company, TENAZ.
It was during this time that he directed the television film El corrido: Ballad of a Farmworker (1976) as well as an episode of the series Visions in the same year. His first theater work that gained mainstream attention was his 1978 play Zoot Suit which played first in Los Angeles and then in New York, making Valdez the first Chicano director to have a play on Broadway. The success of the play caused it to be adapted in to a feature film, which Valdez directed, in 1981. This began a long career in film and television. His next film, Chicanos Story, released in 1982, and was followed by the television movie Corridos: Tales of Passion & Revolution (1987) which was adapted from one of his plays. His next project, and arguably his most successful and well-known film, was La Bamba (1987), which told the story of Chicano rock ‘n’ roll star Ritchie Valens. Valdez’s later work has included directing episodes of CBS Summer Playhouse and Great Performances, as well as a Chicano re-telling of The Cisco Kid in 1994. For his directorial efforts Valdez was nominated for “Best Musical Picture” at the Golden Globes for both Zoot Suit and La Bamba.