The story of how Agustin Lira became an award-winning playwright and civil-rights activist has a dramatic plot, but it is not the path he originally envisioned. "All I wanted was to go to college and earn enough money to buy my mother a house," said Lira, the son of migrant laborers.
Instead, Lira's interest in theater and his love of reading enabled him to answer a higher calling. While employed as a farm worker in Delano in 1965, Lira co-founded El Teatro Campesino with actor Luis Valdez ("Zoot Suit," "La Bamba"). The guerrilla-theater troupe rallied farm workers by performing in the fields during the Delano grape strike and alerted city-dwellers of the farm workers' plight with off-Broadway productions in New York. In 1968, the troupe was awarded an Obie for its body of work; the following year Lira was honored by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle for "demonstrating the continuing vitality of theater as an instrument of social change."
For the past few years, Lira has concentrated on composing songs and performing with his musical group, Alma, which performs Saturday at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library. The performance, "The Story of the Chicano," chronicles the Latino civil-rights struggle and is part of a series he's doing as a 1992 California Arts Council artist-in-residence.
Alma, which includes Lira on vocals and guitar, guitarist and vocalist Patricia Wells Solorzano, bassist Ravy Kaypstra, percussionists Harold Muniz and Beatriz Godinez, has recorded several albums and performed at the Festival of American Folklife at the Smithsonian Institution in 1990. At Saturday's performance, Alma will perform songs in Mexican traditional, African-Latin, American folk and contemporary styles. The group's next album, "Songs of Love & Struggle," will be released this summer.
"Lira arrives at the perfect time," said library director Jose Aponte. "His life is an example of how to achieve social change through nonviolence. After the catharsis of racial tensions in Los Angeles last week, it's time for healing and constructive work," Aponte said.
Performances by groups such as Alma "serve as a model of what is needed to make us more aware of each other's humanity," Aponte added.
Lira, 47, is no stranger to injustice, racism and anger. But instead of being consumed with rage, he threw himself into creative work. "I studied and I read, and that empowered me," he said. "I knew that theater was not just for entertainment, that it could overturn people's lives."
Lira was born in Torreon Coahuila, Mexico, and followed the harvests through Texas and New Mexico with his migrant-worker parents. When he was seven, his mother left his father and moved to California with her children.
"Our money ran out in Bakersfield. It was like the 'Grapes of Wrath' all over again," he said. "We slept outside, in barns and in people's houses, following the crops. The small growers saved us when we had no place to go. That experience taught me that there are good people everywhere, and I always try to convey that during my performances."
Lira's mother enrolled him in school under a series of aliases to hide his status as an illegal immigrant. She took in laundry and harvested crops to support her eight children after settling in Selma, near Fresno. "I owe my strength to her," said Lira. "She taught me to survive and to have a good sense of humor."
Shortly after Lira graduated from high school, his mother died. "That was a turning point for me. At her grave I wondered why people like us worked so hard and got nowhere," he said.
"I needed work to survive, so I applied for jobs around town with a couple of white friends. They got hired and I didn't. I was shocked that America would stand for such injustice. I became homeless, rootless and ended up in Delano about the time Cesar Chavez was organizing. I read, I picketed and I wrote poetry."
Lira hooked up with Valdez and the two began writing plays. Using a commedia dell'arte style of broad caricature, the troupe staged dramas in the fields that lampooned the growers and ended with the farm workers gaining better pay and living conditions. "The farm workers had never seen these powerful people made fun of before," said Lira. "We showed them they could fight back."
The troupe's actos, or little skits, were a cross between Brecht and Cantinflas that utilized music, melodrama and humor to convey pain and disillusionment. Eventually the troupe left the fields to perform in nearby cities, taking their message about the farm worker's plight to new audiences.
They ended up in New York, staying in borrowed apartments and existing on the $5 a day paid them by the farm workers' union, the same wage allotted pickets. Their off-Broadway performances were reviewed in Newsweek, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The company resurrected the kind of people's theater, that Clifford Odets had used to rally urban factory workers in the 1930s.
"Dozens of other teatros sprang up, and the art form became essential to the Chicano movement," Lira said. "We must keep doing this work to make the word democracy really mean something in this country."
Alma performs Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, 31495 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano. Seating is limited and concert-goers may bring lawn chairs. $2. (714) 493-3984.