El Picket Sign

Luis Valdez, 1965

Who is Luis Valdez? What is a picket sign?

Where was "El Picket Sign" written to have been performed, and why was it performed there?

The song refers to farmworkers "from Texas to California." Why was the song (and the UFW, initially) concerned with workers from this particular part of the United States?

Who are the people who "don't understand"?

Verse four refers to Benito Juárez and Emiliano Zapata. Who were these men, and what is the meaning of the line that says "Juárez was my uncle" and Zapata was "my father-in-law"?

What elements of the music made it an effective song for union activism?

"El Picket Sign" performed by El Teatro Campesion on The Best of Broadside (1962–1988), © 2002. Available on Itunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

 

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. For the lyrics please consult this online source:

https://libraries.ucsd.edu/farmworkermovement/media/
Scott/SONGLYRICSWITH
TRANSLATIONS(COMBINED).pdf

El Teatro Campesino sign
El Teatro Campesino poster.

"El Picket Sign" was written by Luis Valdez (b. 1940), who is known as the "Father of Chicano Theater." Valdez was one of the cofounders of El Teatro Campesino in 1965, which inspired the founding of Latin American theater and cultural groups throughout California and the Southwest in the 1970s. Valdez is also known for having written the Broadway play Zoot Suit (1978) and the popular film La Bamba (1987).

El Teatro Campesino was created by Valdez with Agustin Lira and Felipe Cantu to fulfill a strategic need in the formation and success of the United Farm Workers, which was founded by Cesar Chávez. Chávez believed that carpa performances, or comedic traveling tent shows, could be beneficial to the union. Valdez created short, fifteen-minute plays, called "actos," to entertain and educate workers. Performances sometimes took place in the backs of pickup trucks.

"El Picket Sign" was written for such performances. It had two purposes: to maintain morale among striking workers and to recruit scab workers into the movement by informing them about the inequalities and injustices suffered by the migrants. Valdez wrote the lyrics and set them to the music of "Se va el caiman" ("The crocodile goes away"), a popular Colombian song composed in 1941 by José María Peñaranda. The repetitive nature of the song invites participation from the audience, increasing its effectiveness among workers.

By using traditional Spanish-language songs and adapting them as huelga (strike) songs or songs of the movimiento (the movement), the founders of El Teatro Campesino tapped into cultural associations that strengthened and unified the workers. Originally "El Picket Sign" was intended for migrant workers in California, but later it appealed to the Chicano Movement on a national level. It is still frequently sung at Chicano protests and rallies today.