For more than a quarter-century, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television Professor José Luis Valenzuela has championed Chicano theater in Los Angeles. He has directed critically acclaimed works at the Mark Taper Forum, where he established the Latino Theatre Initiative, and the Los Angeles Theater Center, where he created the Latino Theatre Lab. “If we go to the theater to see people besides ourselves,” he says, “we begin to understand them.”

You grew up in Mexico?

Yes. I was born in San Francisco, but my father took us back to his native country.

That’s where you came to love theater?

Yes. My school had “Social Fridays,” an assembly where we performed. I always recited poetry, and I won a state competition.

Did you study theater in college?

Yes. I graduated from high school at 15 and wanted to go to Mexico City to the university, but my parents said I was too young. I went up on the roof and said I’d kill myself if I didn’t go. I went and studied acting.

What brought you back to the U.S.?

In Mexico, if you had an American citizenship, you had to give it up when you turned 18. So I went to San Jose State to get my master’s, thinking I’d return to Mexico. I wasn’t interested in American culture.

How did that go?

The United States was very different. In Mexico City, the students would show up at 7 a.m. and talk about the latest book, but people here weren’t reading. Also, I didn’t know I was Mexican; in Mexico, no one asks. I was well-educated, but here, Mexicans were expected to be ignorant. So I changed my major to learn the history of Mexican people in the United States. I started working with people in the Chicano movement who were doing plays about immigration, anti-drugs and police brutality. The company was El Teatro de la Gente. I got interested in American culture because of the conflicts.

When did you discover Los Angeles?

When we came to L.A. to perform, I saw the Chicano murals. Mexico City also has the Siqueiros and Rivera [murals], but they were very formal. I was excited about the L.A. murals, which were explosive and political. I was young and wanted to change the world.

How long did you work with El Teatro de la Gente?

About seven years. At that time, around 1977, everything was political — the Marxists, the Maoists, the Vietnam War. The arts were amazing; everybody was creating. Zoot Suit premiered at the Mark Taper. I moved to El Teatro de la Esperanza in Santa Barbara, which was doing documentary theater.

How did you break into theater in L.A.?

My wife and I moved here in 1984. She’s an actress and needed to be here. I’d been doing political theater since I was 19; I was going crazy without it. I had brought two plays with me. One was Kiss of the Spider Woman, which had never been done. Nobody liked it when I presented it to them. It’s hard when you’re young and nobody knows who you are. The other was Hijos, which I brought from Santa Barbara. I had $150 in savings. A tiny theater in East L.A. let me do Hijos, and they split the box office. It became a big success.

Where did that take you?

Two producers came to the play and invited me to visit the Los Angeles Theater Center they were building downtown for multicultural programming. They gave me a rehearsal room and a job in their accounting department. I didn’t know anything about accounting, but I knew I could learn. At night I put the Latino Theater Club together. The cast was multiracial. We did nine plays from ’85 to ’91. We did August Wilson, some Sam Shepard, plays about AIDS and transgender issues.

Why did you leave LATC?

In ’91 the theater declared bankruptcy and chained the doors closed. I said we should stay, because the building belonged to the city and should be open for the people. The revolution was happening onstage. We stayed locked in for 11 days. People handed us food through a window. We gathered a lot of support.

And then you moved to the Mark Taper Forum?

Yes. Gordon Davidson, the artistic director of the Taper, asked us to move there. We created the Latino Theatre Initiative to feature new Latino writers and raised around $5 million. The Taper had not done a Chicano play in 20 years. We did four, but the environment was corporate, a little big for me. So in 1994 I resigned, and [I] got a call from UCLA asking me to run the directors’ program in the theater department.

But you eventually returned to the LATC?

The city’s Cultural Affairs Department had been operating the LATC, and it was in terrible shape. I rented it to do a play, and a friend suggested we take it over. We assembled a board of directors and submitted a proposal to the city. It was very competitive, very political, for three years. In 2005, they gave us a 25-year lease. We opened in 2006. By then our group had been together for 30 years.

Has L.A. been conducive to your work?

When I got to L.A., I began to see that it’s a different type of city — the city of the future. The diversity here is huge. My directing students are from Switzerland, China, Lebanon. One is African-American, one is a Latino. We have a beautiful, diverse group. We program people from around the city and the country. But in L.A., we haven’t learned how to appreciate our diversity or expose it to the world.

Can theater bridge the gaps?

Theater humanizes people. When you sit in the theater, you begin to learn more about the humanity of this community. We hear so much about division and separation, but this city is going to break that mold.

Yet in our current national climate, how can we tell our students the world is going to be open for them to have a global career? The night of the presidential election, I was devastated. I thought, was it worth it — all the work I’d been trained to do for the last 40 years? Did it matter? I started thinking that we need to have circles, and sing, and read poetry, because we’re going to need so much healing; the damage that is happening to us is so big. Did we create a society that is so vicious? What happened to the artists? We’re supposed to be humanizing the world. We enlighten people. We teach people about beauty and compassion and tolerance and love. What happened to all of these things that we were working so hard for?

But now it’s more important than ever for us to be out there, creating the theater that matters and debating the great issues.