‘Valley of the Heart’ Tells Story of Japanese, Mexican Immigrant Farming Families

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From left: Randall Nakano, Andres Ortiz, and Cara Mitsuko in Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart.”

SAN JUAN BAUTISTA — “Valley of the Heart,” Luis Valdez’s first new play in 13 years, is running through Sept. 22 at the El Teatro Campesino Playhouse, 705 Fourth St., San Juan Bautista.

This is a love story about the dramatic interaction of two sharecropping families – the Yamaguchis and the Montaños — during the trying days of World War II, from the foothills of Northern California’s Santa Clara Valley, “the Valley of Heart’s Delight,” in 1941 to the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming in 1945.

Ichiro Yamaguchi (played by Randall Nakano), an Issei, is a strawberry farmer working the land with his family.Cayetano Montaño (Gustavo Mellado), a first-generation Chicano immigrant from Mexico, lives on the Yamaguchi ranch with his family as neighbors and sharecroppers. Coming out of the Great Depression, both families struggle to provide for the future of their American-born children.

The Montaño’s oldest son, Benjamin (Andres Ortiz), and the Yamaguchi’s daughter Teruko, aka Thelma (Cara Mitsuko), fall in love, despite her father’s wishes and her mother’s plans to arrange her marriage to Calvin Sakamoto, a young, middle-class suitor. The emotional stakes are further heightened when Pearl Harbor attack throws both families into uncertainty, then chaos. Battles both on the home front and overseas fragment their lives from inside out. 

While the Yamaguchi family, subject to President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, is forced into a concentration camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo., the Montaño family struggles to keep the Yamaguchi farm operating. Issues of loyalty and patriotism provoke both rebellion and heroism among young, imprisoned Japanese Americans.

With their brothers and sister off to war, Benjamin and Thelma fight to maintain their dignity, identity, family, and love in the face of fear and separation. Born in the internment camp and named by his Issei grandmother, their son is called Benjirou — “born of two languages” in Japanese.

The cast also includes Christina Chu, Justin H. Min, Steven J. Young, Rosa Maria Escalante, Eduardo Z. Esparza, Christy Sandoval, Ken Chang and Hannah Woehrmann.

The musical score combines elements such as “Cancion Mixteca,” a Mexican folk song, with Japanese flute and drums. PJ and Roy Hirabayashi, the founders of San Jose Taiko, worked with El Teatro Campesino’s Noe Yaocoatl Montoya.

In a message to those who supported production of the play by donating online through Indiegogo, Valdez said, “Almost 50 years ago, El Teatro Campesino was born on the picket lines of the Great Delano Grape Strike. We have never forgotten the challenge brother Cesar Chavez laid before us: ‘If we don’t help the farm worker, who will?’ Today, as we continue to create new works in our ex-packing shed playhouse in San Juan Bautista, our mission has expanded to tell the whole history of farm labor in America.

“‘Valley of the Heart’ addresses one of its most important chapters: the link between Mexican and Japanese American families on California farms before, during and after World War II. It is a love story — not one without all the comic irony, tragedy and triumph that flesh is heir to — but we call it a ‘kabuki corrido,’ because there is music in the universal soul of all human beings. With that song in our heart, we gratefully thank you for helping us once again to act and sing.”

Valdez, the founder and artistic director of El Teatro Campesino, is known for such plays as “Zoot Suit,” “Mummified Deer,” “Mundo Mata,” and “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges.” He also wrote and directed the movie “La Bamba,”adapted his play “Corridos: Tales of Passion and Revolution” for PBS, and co-wrote and directed “The Cisco Kid” for TNT.

Mas Hashimoto of the Watsonville-Santa Cruz JACL said, “Please come to see this wonderful new play by Luis Valdez … that’s a must-see for all Japanese Americans — those of us who were incarcerated can relate to this story, those engaged in farming before and after World War II, and those youngsters who need to know something more about our struggles … You won’t be sorry. Bring all members of your family.

“Luis grew up in Cupertino, Calif. in a farmworker’s family and graduated from San Jose State a few years after me. Luis is an internationally recognized artist, actor, producer, director, playwright. Most important? He’s a friend of the Nikkei community.

“I was incarcerated, with my family, in Poston, and I’m a farmworker, too, having worked beside Mexicans and Mexican Americans.”

Remaining dates:

Friday, Sept. 6, at 8 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 7, at 2 and 8 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 8, at 2 p.m.

Thursday, Sept. 12, at 8 p.m.

Friday, Sept. 13, at 8 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 14, at 2 and 8 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 15, at 2 p.m.

Thursday, Sept. 19, at 8 p.m.

Friday, Sept. 20, at 8 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 21, at 2 and 8 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 22, at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $15 to $22. For more information, call (831) 623-2444 or visit http://elteatrocampesino.com/.

From left: Hannah Woehrmann, Andres Ortiz, Randall Nakano, Cara Mitsuko, and Ken Chang in Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart.”

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