The first Chicano play on Broadway, Zoot Suit incorporates bilingual dialogue and alienated Mexican Americans. The play grew out of California Chicano guerrilla theater. Luis Miguel Valdez questions newspaper accounts of the Los Angeles zoot-suit-Columbus Day riots and the related Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial (1942). The drama uses song, dance, and a unifying narrative based on the traditions of the Mexican corrido (a ballad form that often reflects on social issues). Newspapers described zoot-suiters knifing and killing until stopped by the U.S. Navy and Marines and deservingly imprisoned (“Police Nab 300 in Roundup”); Valdez contrasts this yellow journalism with a very different reality: lively, harmless singing and dancing interrupted by police violence (“Marines and Sailors . . . stomping like Nazis on East L.A.”), mass arrests, and brutal police interrogations.
A zoot-suiter “master of ceremonies” called Pachuco narrates the action, dispelling illusion, showing reality, and providing flashbacks that characterize the protagonist, Henry Reyna, who is vilified in the white media, as heroic. This defiant, existential street actor wears the colors of Testatipoka, the Aztec god of education.
Reyna, a loyal American about to ship out for the war in the Pacific, becomes a scapegoat for the Los Angeles police. When a minor scuffle with a rival gang interrupts his farewell celebration with his girlfriend, he bravely steps in to break up a one-sided attack. Newsboys shouting inflammatory headlines and a lawyer predicting mass trials prepare viewers for legal farce. The prosecution twists testimony proving police misunderstandings and Henry’s heroism to win an unjust conviction. White liberals distort the conviction of the zoot-suiter “gang” for personal ends, and even the Pachuco narrator is ultimately overpowered and stripped by servicemen. The play ends as it began: with the war over, the incarcerated scapegoats released, and police persecution renewed. Leaving viewers with the choice of multiple possible endings, Valdez not only reflects the Mayan philosophy of multiple levels of existence but also offers alternate realities dependent on American willingness to accept or deny reality: a calm Henry and supportive family group united against false charges, Henry as victim of racist stereotypes reincarcerated and killed in a prison fight, Henry the born leader dying heroically in Korea and thereby winning a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor, Henry a father with several children, Henry merged with El Pachuco, a living myth and symbol of Chicano heritage and Chicano oppression. Thus, Reyna the individual portrays Chicanos in crisis in general. The plays shows Chicanos undermined by a prejudiced press, racist police, and an unjust legal system that distorts facts. The play shows how American society denies Chicanos an opportunity to live or even sacrifice for the American Dream.
Zoot Suit Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)
A large newspaper hangs in place of a curtain. Its large bold print reads Zoot Suiter Hordes Invade Los Angeles and US Navy and Marines Are Called In. The narrator, El Pachuco, dressed in his traditional zoot suit, enters from behind the newspaper, ripping it with his switchblade. Speaking in English and Spanish, he tells the audience how every Chicano fantasizes about putting on a zoot suit. He also cautions the audience that the play is both fact and fantasy.
El Pachuco is next seen singing at a barrio dance. The members of the Thirty-eighth Street Gang are present, including Henry Reyna, a twenty-one-year-old Chicano who is the leader of the gang, and his girlfriend, Della Barrios. A rival group, the Downey Gang, comes into the dance hall. Harsh words are exchanged, and at that moment, the police arrive and detain those at the dance hall. Lieutenant Edwards and Sergeant Smith arrest Henry. It is Monday, August 2, 1942.
Alone in a room at the police station, Henry and El Pachuco have a conversation. El Pachuco comments to Henry about the problems facing zoot-suiters. He tells Henry that the war is not overseas but on his own home turf, and he reminds Henry of Chicano pride. Edwards and Smith want Henry to confess to the murder of Jose Williams at Sleepy Lagoon; they believe that Henry is guilty of the crime. They interrogate him, but Henry does not talk.
Sergeant Smith beats Henry unconscious, and the scene shifts to Henry’s home on the Saturday night of the dance. Henry tries to reassure his mother, who fears his wearing the zoot suit because of all the trouble zoot-suiters have been having with the police. Henry pays no attention although the newspaper headlines are reporting a Mexican crime wave.
The scene shifts back to the present. Henry and his friends are angry and worried because they have been accused of murder. They all agree not to squeal on one another. George Shearer, an attorney, is hired to defend the boys. At first Henry does not trust him, but George speaks convincingly of his sincere belief in the justice system. Henry then begins explaining the events of that Saturday night. According to Henry, his brother Rudy, who was quite drunk at the time, got into an argument with Rafas, the leader of the Downey Gang. Henry defended his brother. After a near-fatal fight, Henry and Rafas both claimed that their insult had been revenged.
As George prepares the boys’ defense, Henry is introduced to Alice Bloomfield, a reporter. They argue in their first encounter, but she and George reassure Henry of the fairness of the justice system. When the trial begins, however, George realizes the difficulty he faces as the judge denies his motions and overrules his objections.
The first person on the witness stand is Della, who recounts the events after the Saturday-night dance. She testifies that the Downey Gang went to Sleepy Lagoon and beat up Henry. Instead of going home, they then went to the Williams ranch and were attacked. As the gang members headed back to their cars, Della saw a man repeatedly hitting another on the ground with a stick. During cross-examination, the prosecutor succeeds in twisting Della’s story. With all his objections being overruled, Shearer is not able to present his case adequately. The boys are found guilty and sent to prison for life, and Della is ordered to a state girls’ school. El Pachuco calls for a break.
Henry and his friends are next seen doing time at San Quentin. Henry, feeling hopeless, decides to drop his appeal, but Alice is able to talk him into continuing with it. After a visit from George, Henry argues with a guard and is sent to solitary confinement for ninety days. Alice does not know about the solitary confinement and believes that Henry is dropping the appeal. While in solitary confinement, Henry again talks to El Pachuco, who tells him not to hang on to false hope. Henry turns against El Pachuco. Alice continues to bring Henry optimistic news. At one point, feeling happy, Henry kisses her. While Henry awaits word on the status of his appeal, his brother Rudy joins the Marines.
More than a year later, Henry and the boys are acquitted on the charges of murder. On his return home, Henry’s parents throw him a party to celebrate his freedom, and at the party he makes amends with Della. The party does not last long, however, as the police begin to harass his friend Joey. Henry, filled with rage, tries to intervene, but his father holds him back, not wanting Henry to confront the police. Henry, at first ready to strike his father, instead embraces him, and, one by one, the whole family joins in the embrace. As the play ends, various versions of Henry Reyna’s fate are offered.
Zoot Suit Summary
Zoot Suit, though perhaps Valdez’s most commercial play, retains the political spirit of the early actos and anticipates the struggle for Chicano identity of Valdez’s later works. Because it is a musical, with terrific song and dance throughout, it is his most conventionally entertaining play, but because it dramatizes an overlooked episode in American history that reveals a pervasive racism against Chicanos, it is also one of his most powerful and socially relevant plays.
Set in Los Angeles in the early 1940’s, the play centers around the trial and wrongful murder conviction of Henry Reyna and three other Chicano gang members, or pachucos. Act 1 explores the trial and, through flashback, the violence that leads up to it; act 2 deals with the efforts to appeal the conviction and free the pachucos. Throughout the play, Valdez gives the action an added dimension through the use of two extraordinary devices. One is the mythic figure of El Pachuco. He is larger than life, the zoot-suiter par excellence, the embodiment of Chicano pride, machismo, and revolutionary defiance. He dominates the play, though he is seen only by Henry and the audience. Indeed, he may be understood as a layer of Henry’s personality externalized, a kind of alter ego who continually advises Henry and comments on, at times even controls, the play. The second device is El Pachuco’s counterpart and antagonist, The Press. In Zoot Suit, the news media functions as an actual character who symbolizes the racist hysteria of public opinion during World War II. Significantly, it is The Press, rather than a prosecutor, that tries and convicts Henry.
This racist hysteria (“EXTRA! EXTRA!, ZOOT-SUITED GOONS OF SLEEPY LAGOON! . . . READ ALL ABOUT MEXICAN BABY GANGSTERS!”) provides a crucial context for understanding the play. As the United States fought Nazis abroad, it imprisoned Japanese Americans at home, denied African Americans basic human rights, and harassed Mexican Americans in Los Angeles. The irony of Henry’s being arrested on trumped-up charges the night before he is to report to the Navy to join the fight against racist Germany is cynically pointed out by El Pachuco, who says that “the mayor of L.A. has declared all-out war on Chicanos.” In this climate, racial stereotypes, media-inspired fear, and repressive forces unleashed by war are quite enough to convict the pachucos, even in the absence of any real evidence.
The trial itself is a mockery, a foregone conclusion, and thus Henry finds himself at the mercy of forces he did not create and cannot control. Even those who try to help him—his lawyer, George, and Alice, a reporter from the Daily People’s World—earn Henry’s resentment, for they, too, seem to be controlling his fate. In this sense, El Pachuco represents a compensating fantasy. He is always in control and indeed is able to freeze the action of the play, speak directly to the audience, rerun dialogue, or skip ahead at will. He is a kind of director within the play, and however vulnerable the other young pachucos are, El Pachuco remains invincible. Even when he is tripped and beaten by Marines, he rises up undaunted, clad only in a loincloth, like an Aztec god.
Henry Reyna and the other pachucos are vindicated in the end, winning their appeal and a provisional kind of freedom. Yet Valdez presents multiple endings to Henry’s life story. He does so to make the audience see that Henry’s character still exists, as do the forces of racism that torment him, and the defiant spirit and cultural pride that will not allow his will to be broken.
Zoot Suit Summary
Act I Summary
A backdrop of a giant newspaper headlines announces an invasion of “zoot-suiters,” or pachucos, young Mexican-American men who wear slicked-down hair and suits with long, exaggerated coattails; armed forces are called in to handle the problem.
A switchblade rips through the newspaper to reveal El Pachuco, the epitome of a zoot-suiter, assuming the usual posture of defiant coolness. He begins speaking in Spanish, then switches to perfect English. In a cocky beat, he describes the Pachuco style. He exits, swinging a long watch chain.
Act I, scene i
The scene is a dance floor in the barrio, or Spanish-speaking neighborhood, in the 1940s. Couples from the 38th Street Gang dance, led by Henry Reyna with his girlfriend, Della Barrios. A few Anglo sailors dance nearby, as El Pachuco sings. The rival Downey gang enters and the dance turns violent when the rival gang leader, Rafas, shoves Henry’s brother Rudy.
Act I, scene ii
The dance/brawl is interrupted by sirens, detectives with drawn guns, and a reporter snapping pictures. Sergeant Smith and Lieutenant Edwards make arrests, but they let the Anglos go. The scene dissolves into a lineup.
Act I, scene iii
El Pachuco comes forward to the pacing of Henry and gives him a dose of reality: innocent or not, he will go to jail. He also tells Henry that his plans to join the Navy will not come to fruition. Henry’s war is in the barrio, not overseas.
Act I, scene iv
The ever-present Press continues to update the headlines: twenty-two members of the 38th Street Gang held on “various charges,” including the murder of Jose Williams. The policeman Smith beats Henry, trying to get him to talk. The stubborn Henry only passes out. As Dolores, Henry’s mother, enters, time slips back to the Saturday before the gang fight. Dolores and husband Enrique quibble with Henry over his tachuche, his zoot suit, or “drapes,” but they let him wear the outfit because he is a man (“es hombre”), whereas they refuse to let Henry’s sister, Lupe, wear a short skirt to the dance. Enrique announces a Navy send-off party for Henry next weekend. The family bids a respectful and affectionate adieu as the young people leave for the dance.
The scene shifts to the dance floor, where El Pachuco sings and the 38th Street Gang members dance.
Act I, scene v
Back in the present, the public reads newspapers and litter the streets with them. All exit, except for one figure, a street sweeper. It is Enrique. When he has finished cleaning up, he pauses to read the news.
Act I, scene vi
The gang nervously awaits the outcome of their arrest. Joey has been beaten but hasn’t told anything, and Smiley realizes, too late, that he is too old for all of this: he’d rather be with his wife and child. A “People’s lawyer,” George Shearer, meets his new clients and wins their trust.
Act I, scene vii: “The Saturday Night Dance”
As the boys recount the story of the dance/ brawl to George, the events are portrayed on stage. Henry takes Della to Sleepy Lagoon to tell her “something.” The Downey Gang is there, but the groups co-exist peacefully until Rafas, the Downey leader, pushes Rudy to the floor. Henry and Rafas are instantly in a knife fight, which El Pachuco magically interrupts, saying to the audience, “That’s exactly what the play needs right now. Two more Mexicans killing each other.” Henry lets Rafas go. The Downey gang leaves and the dance continues.
Act I, scene viii: “El Dia de la Raza” (The Day of the Knife)
The Press enters, building a jail of newspaper piles, while the couples recite headlines of the War and the zoot suit “crime wave.” A friend of George’s, Alice Bloomfield, surprises Henry with her interest in his case. George discovers that the boys have been denied the right to change their clothes or wash, an infraction of their civil rights. El Pachuco refuses to let Henry be as optimistic as his two Anglo defenders, but Henry insists he is not the “classic social victim” and will be freed.
Act I, scene ix
The “largest mass trial in the history of Los Angeles County” opens “to put an end to Mexican baby gangsterism.” George raises his objection against the clothing restriction, but the Judge overrules him, saying it is a useful way to identify the witnesses. Furthermore, each time a defendant’s name is mentioned, he is required to stand up. El Pachuco encourages the boys at least to sit up straight. Della takes the stand.
Act I, scene x
The lights change to create a reflection like a lagoon on the floor. Henry and Della enact their walk along the reservoir listening to the music of a party at the Williams ranch in the distance; Della narrates. Henry is promising Della a big Pachuco wedding upon his return from the War when the Downey gang suddenly appears and proceeds to smash up Henry’s car. Della cannot prevent Henry from confronting them and getting beaten senseless. When he comes to, Henry’s organizes eight cars of his gang members to retaliate, but finding no Downey boys, they crash the Williams Ranch party. They don’t know that Rafas and his gang have already terrorized the party. The party members react violently when they perceive a fresh attack. As Henry’s gang retreats, Della vaguely sees someone brutally hitting a man on the ground with a stick. The victim is presumably Jose Williams, who will die from the attack.
Act I, scene xi
In an unfair trial, the whole gang is committed to life imprisonment at San Quentin. George vows to appeal the decision.
Act II Summary
Act II, scenes i through v
The gang members are in prison, where they receive letters from loved ones. Alice visits Henry and they form a tense relationship that is veering toward romance. George’s announcement that he has been drafted devastates the boys, even though he assures them that other competent lawyers are handling their case. Henry’s temper lands him in solitary confinement. When El Pachuco tries to console him, Henry lashes out at his alter ego, sending him away.
Act II, scene vi
In Los Angeles, the Zoot Suit Riots take place between marines and zoot suiters. Rudy is being terrorized by a gang of marines when El Pachuco takes his place. Swabbie accuses him of trying to “outdo the white man” with his clothes, and then El Pachuco is overpowered and stripped down to a loincloth. Henry watches in shock as El Pachuco exits humbled but maintaining his dignity.
Act II, scene vii
Alice and Henry’s attraction intensifies, but Alice recognizes it as a culmination of cultural forces as well as chemistry. She intends to get the court decision overturned, although Henry has given up hope.
Act II, scene viii
Rudy enlists, and then the Press announces a turning point in World War II as the Pachuco boys gain their freedom.
Act II, scene ix
The boys and Rudy return to the barrio, amidst much celebration. The lights dim and the play seems to end on this happy note, but El Pachuco flicks his wrist and the lights come back up. The barrio still has its problems, and Henry must decide between Alice and Della. Surrounded by a cacophony of voices and demands, he chooses Della. Rudy and Joey get into a fight, then Rudy emotionally relates the horrors of being stripped in the zoot suit riots. In the meantime, the police are busy arresting Joey for stealing a car that actually belongs to George. Enrique restrains Henry from protecting Joey, and the entire family embraces. The Press, Rudy, Alice, and others narrate various possible futures for Henry, finishing with El Pachuco’s announcement that the myth of Henry Reyna—El Pachuco—lives on.
Themes and Meanings (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)
Zoot Suit is a fast-moving, didactic play in a variety of styles that protests Chicanos’ treatment in America. Based on incidents that occurred when Pachuco gangs stirred hostility in Los Angeles during World War II, but concerned with the 1970’s as well, the play lashes society for abusing its own children. For poor, dark-skinned Mexican-Americans, injustice has become a way of life.
Products of slums and victims of discrimination, Chicanos seek escape wherever they can find it—in music, dancing, drinking, and extravagant display of costume. Even Lt. Edwards, a Los Angeles policeman, discerns the root of their problem. “Slums breed crime, fellas,” he announces to an assembled group of reporters, waiting eagerly to chronicle the latest Chicano excesses for a bigoted readership. “That’s your story.” The idea that depressed surroundings produce angry, scared people, that vice and crime can be extirpated only if the environment that breeds them is abolished is hardly a new or radical notion: Benjamin Franklin taught it more than two hundred years earlier in Philadelphia.
As foreigners in their own country, Chicanos suffer not only the arrogance and rejection of Anglo society but also great psychic stress as they struggle, half-unwillingly, to observe the customs of their persecutors, to accept a way of life that they do not really understand. Attempting to adhere to strictures they recognize as socially approved but unwilling to abandon their own language and culture, they find themselves caught in the middle.
When young men such as Hank don the zoot suit, however, and leave the city in their jalopies for romantic spots such as Sleepy Lagoon, they are able to put behind them the tedium of the barrio and the stultifying pressure of conformity to another culture: “Put on a zoot suit, makes you feel root like a diamond, sparkling, shining ready for dancing ready for the boogie tonight.” As preposterous as it may appear to others, the zoot suit helps the Pachuco achieve pride and self-respect. Its ostentation demands recognition. Rather than hiding, “keeping his place,” he flaunts his presence. On the other hand, he knows that duck-tail haircuts, platform shoes, and pegged pants arouse antagonism more often than they command respect.
El Pachuco’s role in the play, then, is ultimately ambiguous, since as the “cool” side of Hank and the incarnation of Chicano pride and defiance, his sardonic advice and encouragement lead always away from the mainstream of American life toward the alienation of a subculture. Zoot Suit proclaims that the treatment people receive will determine the direction they take and suggests that for Chicanos it may be too late; the gap between the barrio and Main Street may be too wide. El Pachuco’s seductive and convincing voice urging the integrity of La Raza and distrust of the Anglo often seems to be the right one.
Zoot Suit Themes
Henry and his gang are charged with the murder of a fellow Mexican-American, Jose Williams, not because there was convincing evidence of their guilt, but because of their ethnic identity and their radical style of dressing and behavior. The underlying conflict that leads to their arrest and unfair trial is a clash between Mexican-Americans and the dominant Anglo culture. The zoot suiters represented a small population of Mexican-Americans. They sported ducktailed haircuts and slick suits and promenaded with swaggering coolness, affectations which were seen by some Anglos as an affront to mainstream society. More common were the assimilated Mexican-Americans of the 1940s, who accepted being segregated in barrios, Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, and who held low-paying, low-status jobs. They were tolerated in society as long as they limited their aspirations and kept out of the way. Enrique is a fully assimilated Mexican-American, who works as a street cleaner and is proud of his son for joining the Navy to fight as an American; for Henry to do so would indicate that he would also be assimilated.
Trouble comes when groups of Mexican-American zoot-suiters, or pachucos, congregate in dance halls and begin to get rowdy. With the war hysteria of the 1940s, such rowdiness was seen as an imminent threat, and the death of Jose Williams seemed proof of the violent nature of the pachucos. The historic 38th Street Gang did not actually carry switchblades, but Valdez portrays them as quick to brandish and use such weapons; thus they seem to fulfill the violent nature suspected of them. Lt. Edwards and Sergeant Smith arrest only Mexican-Americans at the dance, automatically letting the Anglos, including the violent Marine, Swabbie, go free. From this point on, the harsh treatment of the prisoners is shown to emanate from ethnic hatred and distrust. They are treated like—even called—animals. The problem is perpetuated when the pachucos return the hostile treatment by distrusting Anglos.
It is not until George proves his dedication and the boys accept his help that a bond is formed across the two ethnic groups. Yet culture clash rages on while he fights for their release, and Rudy is attacked by twenty marines and stripped of his zoot suit. Even the hard-won freedom granted to the boys does not signal a resolution, since the clash continues at their celebration, when cops assume that Joey has stolen George’s car. The problems of the barrio transcend the problems of one gang: El Pachuco announces that “The barrio’s still out there, waiting and wanting, / The cops are still tracking us down like dogs, / The gangs are still killing each other, / Families are barely surviving.”
For Mexican-Americans like Henry, the issues is not just ethnic conflicts, but actual civil rights abuses, and his trial is not unique in its judicial travesties. The Chicano Movement sought to correct these and other wrongs, as part of the tide of the larger Civil Rights movement taking place in the 1960s. The battle had many fronts: from the courthouse to the schoolhouse, Hispanics, African Americans, and other ethnic groups educated themselves and the public on the daily injustices committed in the United States. For Hispanics, the separate and unequal education system (there were separate, poorly equipped, schools for Mexican children), lasted far beyond the Brown v. Board of Education case that won legal equality in schooling for blacks. Hispanic children did not attend integrated schools until a federal ruling in 1970 forced the Texas school system to eliminate segregation.
Police brutality was another alarming civil rights issue. A group of prominent Mexican-American citizens, who created a forum in 1948 to pursue delays in veterans rights for Mexican-Americans, shifted their focus to actively expose and prosecute police brutality cases. Police raids and wholesale roundups of Mexican-Americans were commonplace at social gatherings, where women and children were beaten along with men; the mass arrests depicted in Zoot Suit were not an exaggeration. In addition, urban renewal programs targeted barrios, which were called “blighted” areas. In these “slum clearance” programs, whole neighborhoods were wiped out to make way for freeways and other works projects that, while beneficial to the dominant culture, did little to improve the lives of the Hispanic community; the uprooted Mexican-American families were often fraudulently displaced and not properly compensated for their losses.
Various groups within the Chicano movement both initiated legal reprisals and attempted to educate the American public about these civil injustices. In a 1969 conference, attendees wrote a manifesto entitled El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan, in which they sought restitution for “economic slavery, political exploitation, ethnic and cultural psychological destruction, and denial of civil and human rights.” Valdez was a leading artist who contributed to this effort.
Characters Discussed (Great Characters in Literature)
El Pachuco (pah-CHEW-koh), a mythical figure, the zoot-suited spirit of the Pachucos, alienated gangs of Mexican American youth living in the Los Angeles area. A rebellious, street-smart, young Chicano, El Pachuco is master of ceremonies of this play set in the World War II years, as well as a leading figure, chorus, and the alter ego of Hank Reyna. In his “cool” outfit (long jacket, baggy trousers, and lengthy watch chain), El Pachuco preaches, with bitter humor, fidelity to one’s own culture and language and defiance of the Anglos. It is the Anglos, Americans not of Mexican origin, who seek to control the lives of his people (la Raza), robbing them of ethnic pride and manhood while exploiting them and discriminating against anyone with a brown skin.
Henry (Hank) Reyna
Henry (Hank) Reyna (RRAY-nah), a twenty-one-year-old Chicano with Indian features, the gang leader of the Thirty-eighth Street Pachucos. Hank is arrested on the eve of joining the Navy, along with a number of other gang members, for the alleged murder of a Chicano one summer night in 1943 at a lakeside gathering spot. He is convicted in a rigged trial. Rebellious, angry, and resentful of authority, which represents for him discrimination against Chicanos, Hank does nothing to placate those in control of his fate. Although he presents an impenetrable façade to his persecutors and jailers, Hank is extremely confused about his own identity as an American in a country at war that regards him, too, as a foreign enemy. In his puzzled state, Hank seeks guidance from El Pachuco, who urges rejection of America and faith in his own heritage. After a successful appeal and release from prison, Hank remains uncertain whether integration into American life or rejection of it is the answer for himself and his people.
George Shearer, a dedicated yet realistic young public service lawyer. George volunteers to defend the Pachucos in their murder trial, convinced that they are victims of racial prejudice and irrational war hysteria. He finds, however, that before he can help them he must first overcome Chicano mistrust of him; he is, in their eyes, just another “gringo.” During a ludicrously one-sided trial, the judge badgers George mercilessly, making no effort at impartiality, while the Press convicts the young Chicanos in the pages of Los Angeles newspapers. When a guilty verdict is handed down despite his best efforts, George plans an appeal but is drafted into the Army before he can proceed.
Alice Bloomfield, an attractive young Jewish activist and leftist reporter who organizes the Pachucos’ defense effort after their original conviction by raising funds and enlisting the support of American liberals, including prominent Hollywood figures. An uncertain relationship begins between her and Hank in the months she works in behalf of his cause. The gap between their backgrounds, Hank’s alienation and anger, and his commitment to Della, a Mexican American girl, make it unclear whether the two young people have a future together.
Rudy Reyna, Henry Reyna’s hero-worshiping younger brother, who longs to don his own zoot suit, which for him is the symbol of manhood and defiance of Anglo hegemony. A marauding band of servicemen strip Rudy of his flamboyant zoot suit and his dignity as they rampage through the streets looking for brown-skinned “foreigners” who, they believe, do not sufficiently respect the American way of life in wartime.
Enrique Reyna (ehn-REE-keh),
Lupe Reyna (LEW-peh), and
Della Barrios (DEH-yah BAH-rree-ohs), Hank’s family and girlfriend, who support and sustain him.
The Press, the malevolent forces of yellow journalism that perpetuate feelings of Anglo racial superiority against Chicanos and incite injustices.
Zoot Suit Characters
See Della Barrios
Henry’s twenty-year-old current girlfriend, who sports a mini-skirt and fingertip-length coat, is prettier than Henry’s last girlfriend. At Sleepy Lagoon, he proposes to marry her after he returns from his Naval duty. Although Della does not write to Henry while he is in prison, she herself serves a jail term for her involvement in the gang fight and would have had time to write. When her parents ask her to choose between home and Henry, she chooses to move into Henry’s place and wait for him. Even so, she does not pressure Henry into the marriage the gang expects but lets him make his own choice.
A reporter for the Daily People’s World newspaper, Alice heads the campaign for the gang’s release. As a Jew, she insists that she understands their predicament, and that she fights for them because of the oppression of her people. Her temporary passion for Henry emanates as much from the intensity of their shared political goals as it does from the chemistry between them.
Judge F. W. Charles
Judge Charles conducts a biased case, overruling justified objections by the gang’s lawyer and imposing unfair restrictions, such as not allowing the boys to cut their hair or change clothing and seating them apart from their attorney.
Cholo, a younger member of the gang, gets left behind after the arrests. He and Rudy get into their own brawls with the Anglos one night, in which Rudy does the fighting while Cholo escorts the women out of harm’s way.
A rival gang who go to the dance, start fights, and later join Rafas in terrorizing the party at the Williams Ranch.
Lt. Edwards is the tough cop who tells the press he refuses to “mollycoddle these youngsters anymore” as he puts the gang under arrest. He tries—and fails—to bribe Henry into squealing on the other gang members. He does so by offering to let Henry off in time to report for Navy service.
The Guard at San Quentin calls the gang “greaseballs” and puts Henry in solitary confinement for calling him a “bastard.” He pantomimes reading the letters the boys receive while the writers narrate them. He is not so much an individual character as a part of the system that oppresses the pachucos.
See Smiley Torres
The newsboy hawks the papers whose headlines move the plot along. He provides the voice of the media.
El Pachuco (pah-choo-ko) presides over the entire play, acting as Henry’s alter ego. In the plays Brechtian moments, Pachuco interrupts the action or speaks to the audience directly, and he also sings accompaniment to the action. El Pachuco is the consummate Mexican-American pachuco figure, a zoot-suiter who is tough, cool, slick, and defiant. He tells it like it is and is meticulous and vain about his appearance.
In a 1988 interview with David Savran, Valdez explained the role of El Pachuco: “The Pachuco is the Jungian self-image, the superego if you will, the power inside every individual that’s greater than any human institution…. I dressed the Pachuco in the colors of Tezcatlipoca, the Aztec god of education, the dean of the school of hard knocks.” El Pachuco achieves mythic proportions when he is stripped of his zoot suit by the Anglo rioters. Dressed only in a loincloth, he adopts a regal majesty as he exits, walking backward, from the stage. When he returns, he is not content to accept the Press’s damning prediction that Henry will return to prison. At his prompting, the other characters recite alternative futures for Henry. He controls the action of the play and embroiders the events of Henry’s life.
The Press plays the role of an antagonist in the play, as it is the headlines that inflame the Anglos to riot and biases the public’s perception of the gang’s innocence. When the sailors taunt Rudy and the gang members left after the arrest, the Press eggs them on, calling the zoot suiters, “gamin’ dandies.” The Press also plays the unprecedented role of prosecutor in the trial, further emphasizing the damaging effect of the media.
The leader of the Downey gang, Rafas pushes Rudy down at the dance and gets into a knife fight with Henry. Henry gets the upper hand, but El Pachuco prevents him from killing Rafas. Humiliated, Rafas takes his Downey Gang to the Williams Ranch and terrorizes the people holding a party there.
Henry’s mother is a traditional Mexican mother who lovingly teases Henry about his zoot suit but allows him wear it. She refuses, however, to let her daughter leave the house in a short skirt because it makes her look like a puta (whore). The trial is devastating to her, and she is elated when her two boys return home, one from prison and one from the war. She thinks the solution to Henry’s problems is to marry Della and throw away his zoot suit.
Henry’s father, Enrique is a first-generation Mexican American. He represents traditional values of family, honesty, hard work, infinite patience, and personal integrity. He wants his son to stay home and avoid the inevitable conflict with the police that will get Henry re-arrested, but he wisely knows that he cannot protect his son from the fate that circumstances and his son’s character hold in store.
The play’s protagonist, Henry is described as “twenty-one, dark, Indian-looking.” He becomes the primary suspect for the murder of Jose Williams because he is the leader of the 38th-street gang. The arrest spoils Henry’s plan to join the Navy, and he is forced to face the problems of the barrio. His stoical resistance to interrogation only gets him beaten up, and he discovers that, guilty or not, he will pay a tremendous price for his ethnic heritage and pachuco style.
Henry’s younger sister, Lupe, at sixteen, wants to adopt the pachuca style, with a short skirt and fingertip coat, but her parents forbid it.
Rudy is Henry’s nineteen-year-old younger brother. He wants so much to follow in his brother’s footsteps that he fashions a make-shift zoot suit out of his father’s old suit. He drinks too much at the dance and gets into a fight with Rafas. After the mass arrests, he endures attacks by the Anglo sailors, who strip him of his zoot suit. He enlists in the War and returns a hero.
George is a middle-aged public defender assigned to the pachucos by the courts. He is athletic, strong, competent, and dedicated to his clients. He refuses to give up on Henry and the gang and finally his associates wins their release, although he himself is drafted and sent off to war at a critical moment in the trial.
Sgt. Smith is even more brutal than his partner, Lt. Edwards. Smith tells Edwards “you can’t treat these animals like people,” and beats Henry senseless, trying to get details about the Sleepy Lagoon murder out of the young man. Smith represents the oppressive members of the anglo majority who malign the Hispanics.
Swabbie is an Anglo sailor who frequents the dance hall that the pachucos frequent. It is he who strips El Pachuco of his zoot suit.
One of the members of the 38th street gang, aged twenty-three. He had started the 38th street gang with Henry, but now he has a wife and child. After getting arrested, he regrets having joined the pachucos: he feels too old for parties and jail.
Henry’s former girlfriend, who sports a tattoo and is not as pretty as Della. Rudy dates her after Henry is imprisoned.
Luis Valdez coined the term acto to describe a short play in which reality and performance are barely distinguishable—its performers are shown “in the act” of living as well as performing. His first acto was The Theft (wr. 1959), a symbolic one-act about the harassment and crucifixion of a beatnik. Later, stirred by social action plays he had seen on a 1964 visit to Cuba, Luis Valdez began writing actos as an organizer for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers about the time of the 1965 Huelga (strike). Starting with the short “message” playlets, many of them broadly comic, performed outside by volunteer actors, he went on to organize El Teatro Campesino and to write more ambitious short plays such as Los vendidos (pr. 1967; the sellouts), an agitprop (agitation and propaganda) performance about intimidation and racial stereotyping, and Bernabe (pr. 1970). The latter, about man’s relationship to the earth, draws on the Chicano’s pre-Columbian heritage and introduces a zoot-suited pachuco as well.
Zoot Suit shares the legacy of modern protest drama, much of it propagandistic and leftist, extending from central Europe between the world wars to America during the Vietnam War era. The play’s influences range from the expressionist theater of Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller to such antiwar efforts of the 1970’s as David Rabe’s The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (pr. 1971), which also features a dark-skinned choral figure, brutal realism, free form, and an even more unrestricted treatment of time and events than Valdez attempts.
Zoot Suit is agitprop drama meant to depict social injustice as Bertolt Brecht’s plays did, making use of rapid scenes performed on a nearly empty stage where locations change swiftly, with little transition. While the play refers to incidents that occurred historically in the Los Angeles of the 1940’s, it seeks to combat the racial prejudice of any era. It depends to a great extent on the semi-documentary technique used by the “living newspapers” of the Depression; like them, Zoot Suit dramatizes injustice in order to educate and awaken responses, and it “reports” its story in fragmented scenes. Newspapers serve symbolically as furniture, as a drop curtain, even as laundry hanging on a barrio clothesline.
The Play (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)
A huge switchblade stabs through a giant newspaper. Headlines read: “Zoot-suiter Hordes Invade Los Angeles, June 3, 1943.” The knife slashes down, and a young Chicano steps through the hole in pegged trousers and a four-foot watch chain. Reaching back into the slit, he finds his knee-length jacket and pork pie hat. Slipping into this “zoot suit,” he steps forward, assumes a “cool” stance and begins to speak in Spanish.
He is El Pachuco, the spirit of the Pachucos—gangs of young, alienated Mexican-Americans living uneasily in a country which regards them with suspicious distaste. A play about these Pachucos is about to unfold, he says, switching easily into English, realizing that Anglos—Americans not of Mexican descent—may not otherwise understand what they are about to see and hear.
When El Pachuco finishes, the curtain flies up to reveal a lakeside dance in progress a year earlier. Jitterbug rhythms fill the July night air as El Pachuco and the dancers salute the zoot suit, singing of how it establishes their identity and brings romance and excitement into their lives. Suddenly a rival Chicano gang, the Downey Gang, appears at Sleepy Lagoon. Hank Reyna, the leader of the 38th Street Pachucos, yells a warning to Rafas, his opposite number of the Downey Gang, who has begun to manhandle Hank’s brother Rudy.
A moment later sirens sound from all directions—la jura, the law. Pachucos are rounded up and stand with their hands raised. When they turn around, they form a line-up inside a police station. In a series of barked messages, headlines, and press releases, the audience learns that a Chicano has been killed and hundreds have been arrested.
Hank remains on stage as the others are marched off. El Pachuco, the ever-vigilant observer, now makes it clear that he is, among other things, Hank’s alter ego—his other self. Hank is convinced that the police mean to charge him with the murder although he is innocent and had planned to report for duty to the Navy the next Monday. El Pachuco warns, “This ain’t your country,” and Hank, acknowledging brotherhood with him, resolves defiance.
Left alone after the police interrogate him, attempting to wring a confession, Hank’s thoughts travel to his barrio home shortly before the killing, to his loving, good-humored Mexican family. It is a bit macho in the men’s insistence—Hank and his father’s—that a stricter standard of behavior and modesty applies to sisters and girlfriends than to the men. Hank’s father Enrique, although slightly puzzled by the young people’s American ways, is proud of his manly son and remembers his own youth as a revolutionary in Mexico. Hank, he thinks, is made of the same stuff.
Meanwhile, the yellow press is stirring up Los Angeles against the “Mexican Crime Wave” and “Zoot-Suited Goons”; in this play headlines, reporters, and newspapers themselves take on symbolic dimensions as they contribute to racial prejudice. The jailed Pachucos maintain their bravado under Hank’s leadership, though they have little confidence in Anglo justice. Consequently, they are as mistrustful as El Pachuco when George Shearer, a “people’s lawyer,” offers his services. Convinced that they face the gas chamber, they accept the gringo’s offer and narrate to him the events of July 21, 1943.
Pachucos and Pachucas dance again. Rudy is drinking heavily when Rafas and his gang appear. This time Hank and Rafas pull switchblades: El Pachuco abruptly halts the play. “Two more Mexicans killing each other” is just what the Anglo audience “paid to see,” he says. When he “unfreezes” the action, Hank lets Rafas go with a kick.
Bundles of newspapers mark the cell where Hank now receives a new visitor, Alice Bloomfield, who tells Hank that Pachucos are now being accused by the newspapers of taking orders from Japan. Hank is dumbfounded, but he distrusts the alluring do-gooder and her social worker’s jargon.
The trial of the gang, presided over by a judge who is recognizable as a policeman seen earlier, is a travesty. From his bench—a bundle of newspapers—he humiliates the defendants while smiling on the prosecutor—the Press. Hank’s girlfriend Della testifies damagingly, in a flashback to the confusing events of the Sleepy Lagoon killing, and the kangaroo court hands down a verdict of life imprisonment for Hank and the gang as the first act concludes.
Attacks on Chicanos by sailors and Marines in weeks succeeding the trial do not discourage Alice Bloomfield from organizing a defense committee to seek an appeal, but Hank remains suspicious, and El Pachuco warns him not to expect much. In addition, George Shearer has been drafted into the Army, and a tangle with a guard lands Hank in solitary confinement.
Alice Bloomfield deluges Hank with letters reporting the enlistment of Hollywood celebrities to support his cause. Hank finds himself attracted to her, but he has doubts—and his feelings for Della offer more conflict. Similarly, Alice’s Jewish sensibilities respond to Hank’s plight, but she is alienated by his explosive anger, his commitment to Della, and her awareness of his deep-rooted prejudices against the Anglo society to which she belongs.
America’s war abroad passes in a flurry of shouted headlines while Hank waits in prison. On the heels of American victory comes triumph for the Pachucos, too, when their appeal succeeds and they are released. The final scene of the play, “Return to the Barrio,” is left deliberately ambiguous. Hank must resolve his relationships with Alice and Della. Rudy appears unable to forget the humiliations received at the hands of servicemen during the war. Suspicious police still dog the Pachucos, and the euphoric moment of Chicano pride and unity felt by the Pachucos at their release quickly vanishes. The future for those with brown skins, the play seems to say, may lead either uphill or downhill: to integration into American life or to more violence, prison, and even death.
Zoot Suit Dramatic Devices (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)
From start to finish, the audience’s attention is riveted on El Pachuco, the quintessence of the “cool” Chicano. Not only does he comment on the action in chorus-like fashion but he also shares Hank’s role as protagonist. In effect, El Pachuco is master of ceremonies, a leading figure, and an interpreter of what is seen. Dressed in a zoot suit to end all zoot suits, he carries himself, as a New York reviewer said, in a “backward tilt that suggests he is suspended by a wire from the navel.” He is outrageously self-reliant and unintimidated by anything Anglo authority can invent. Unsinkable, unfoolable, unflappable, he wins first grudging admiration, then affection, and finally a sort of respect as he rallies flagging spirits.
The play is openly partisan in its celebration of El Pachuco as a hero of his people, striving—in Luis Valdez’s words—to be “theater as beautiful, rasquachi, human, cosmic, broad, deep, tragic, comic, as the life of La Raza itself.” Maintaining “beauty and spiritual sensitivity” inside this ethnic context has been difficult in a production designed for general audiences, and Luis Valdez has revised his play for many years, hoping to strike the right balance between pessimistic naturalism, joyous affirmation, and folkloric theatricality.
To complement its ethnic quality and provide authenticity, a large portion of Zoot Suit is spoken in calo, or street Spanish—so much so that an audience gradually becomes familiar with oft-repeated words and phrases. Spanish is not used merely as flavor, as so often is the case of foreign languages in Hollywood films or television programs. Further, it is calo, not readily comprehensible even to many Hispanics. Cubans, Puerto Ricans, even native Mexicans may have great difficulty in catching the meaning of lines.
Because the unrelenting enemy of the Chicano in Zoot Suit is the Press, representing biased Anglo opinion and racial superiority, newspapers are treated as nearly animate things. Valdez uses the papers much as Elmer Rice used numbers in his expressionist classic, The Adding Machine (pr., pb. 1923). Beginning with the newspaper/curtain that first reveals El Pachuco, newspapers both define and confine Chicano lives. When reporters rush out of a press conference, they leave the street littered with newspapers from which Hank’s father Enrique, a municipal street sweeper, learns what is happening to his son.
Other devices used by Valdez that are associated loosely with the expressionist theater are the flashback, the split stage, and a robot-like behavior that is introduced at critical points. The courtroom scenes make use of the latter to suggest the mechanical administration of justice and a lack of human feeling. When Alice “sends” letters, she reads them aloud to recipients who reply in like fashion. Near the end of the play, when Hank struggles to decide which woman has the better claim on him, his barrio girlfriend Della or the advocate in his legal battle whom he has come to love, each woman stands at an opposite end of the stage in a visual reminder of the conflict Chicanos face between two ways of life.
Zoot Suit Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)
*Los Angeles. Sprawling Southern California city in which the play is primarily set in 1942—a time when the city is preparing for war, divided by race, and filling up with military personnel getting ready to ship out to the Pacific. Tensions are high, the mood among military personnel is hyper-patriotic, and the city has no tolerance for anyone who appears to be an unpatriotic slackard. When hundreds of servicemen and party-going Mexican Americans accidentally clash, the result is a large-scale riot that results in hundreds of arrests, including one for murder.
The play’s bilingual dialogue, flamboyant “zoot-suit” costuming, energetic dance hall settings, Latin rhythms, and references to Mexican cooking convey the strongly Mexican flavor of Los Angeles. The play’s experimental staging, echoing Chicano street theater, moves rapidly from set to set, from past to present, and from mainstream perspectives to Mexican American perspectives. Meanwhile, the play’s master of ceremonies, El Pachuco, pulls everything together through his onstage narration.
Newsboys shout inflammatory headlines on city streets, describing armed zoot-suiters knifing and killing until stopped by the U.S. Navy and Marines and deservingly imprisoned. In one fight scene in an unnamed city bar, Anglo servicemen overpower and strip the Pachuco narrator.
Scenes in the play alternate rapidly among a police station, a courthouse, a jail, and a prison, and the homes, parties, dance halls, and city streets. Flashbacks merge past and present, as a zoot-suited “master of ceremonies” identified only as “El Pachuco”—a term for a street tough—wearing the colors of an Aztec god, narrates the onstage action, connecting the disparate settings and providing multiple interpretations of onstage reality.
At the end of the play, playing with the Mayan philosophy of multiple levels of existence, El Pachuco calls forth a series of vignettes representing alternative futures for the murder suspect, Henry Reyna: a supportive and united family scene in a family living room; a prison scene with Henry killed in a prison fight; a Korean War scene, with Henry dying heroically; a public political scene with Henry awarded a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor; a family vignette of Henry as a father surrounded by several children; and a mythic Aztec scene, with Henry transformed into El Pachuco, a symbol of Chicano heritage and oppression.
Reyna house. Lower-middle class home of the family of Henry Reyna, who is arrested for murder during the riots. His family sits around a kitchen table, the mother cooking, the father sharing a first drink with his son, as the three youngsters prepare for a night out.
Dance hall. Scene of Reyna’s farewell celebration before he is to ship out for the Pacific the next day. Bright colors, lively Latin music, zoot suits, and fast-paced dancing signify a nonmainstream culture. A minor scuffle with a rival gang pushes dancers into the streets, where gang territory and switchblades turn Reyna’s brave attempt to end a one-sided conflict into police violence and mass arrests.
Sleepy Lagoon reservoir
Sleepy Lagoon reservoir. Romantic spot in East Los Angeles where young couples meet, and near which the Mexican Americans, attracted by lively music of a birthday party, are mistakenly attacked. The Mexican American youths tell one story, the Anglo youths another.
Courtroom. Place in which Reyna is tried for murder. His trial is a legal farce. The deck is stacked against Mexican Americans, who are regarded as unpatriotic outsiders, and the judge prejudges Reyna’s guilt. The trial itself creates the passion within the play. The boys of Reyna’s gang are looked upon as social delinquents, as criminals, and even as foreigners. At no point during the proceedings are they or their attorney allowed a fair opportunity to present their case. The trial is presented in only two scenes of the first act, but it propels much of the conflict of the play.
Zoot Suit Historical Context
The Sleeply Lagoon Murder and the Zoot Suit Riots
Valdez’s play is loosely based on the events of a 1942 murder, which came to be known as the “Sleepy Lagoon Murder.” On August 1, 1942, a man named Jose Diaz (renamed Jose Williams in the play) was found by the side of a road, bleeding and unconscious. He later died of head trauma; he had been drunk at the time of his attack. Although his wounds could have been inflicted by an automobile, it was determined that he had been the victim of a gang fight that had occurred nearby. Public outcry, fanned by the headlines of the newspapers, resulted in a roundup of hundreds of Mexican-Americans. Henry Leyvas (Henry Reyna in the play) and twenty-one of his friends, who had participated in the fight, were arrested and charged with the murder of Diaz. The young Chicanos sported “zoot suits,” long, baggy trousers topped with long-tailed coats and long “ducktail” hairstyles, the fashion for pachucos or teenage Mexican gang member.
In an outright violation of the gang members’ civil rights, the district attorney requested, and the judge ordered, that the defendants be required to wear their zoot suits during the trial and not be allowed to cut their hair, so that the jury would see that they were “hoodlums.” Further, they were required to stand up whenever their names were mentioned, even when the statements were inflammatory or indemnifying. They were also denied the right to speak with their lawyers. E. Duran Ayers, the Head of the Foreign Relations Bureau, was brought in as an “expert” witness to attest to the “bloodthirsty” nature of Mexicans, descendants of the Aztecs, renowned for their practice of human sacrifice. Ayers’s formal report stated that “the Mexican would forever retain his wild and violent tendencies no matter how much education or training he might receive.” Nine of the men, including Henry Leyvas, were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for second-degree murder.
About six months after the end of the trial, riots broke out in Los Angeles. The riots, known alternatively as the “Zoot Suit Riots” and the “Sailor Riots,” were a xenophobic reaction to the Mexican-American youth gangs, made all the more intense by the events of World War II. In the summer of 1943, a large group of sailors traveled through the Mexican-American community in East Los Angeles in rented cabs, beating up every “zoot suiter” they encountered, including women and young boys who really didn’t fit the pachuco image. In response, the police went after the victims: scores of Mexican-Americans were rounded up in mass arrests. Although a handful of Anglos were arrested, none were charged. The local press fanned the flames of the riots by reporting a “Mexican crime wave” that was being valiantly controlled by the service men. It was not until military officials declared the city of Los Angeles off limits for all military personnel that they riots diminished. In October of 1944, the Court of Appeals unanimously overturned the Judge’s decision on the Sleepy Lagoon case due to legal misconduct, and the 38th Street Gang members were released.
World War II
It is not a coincidence that the Zoot Suit Riots occurred during the heat of World War II. Xenophobia, undue contempt or fear of foreigners, was exacerbated by a perceived threat that Americans of foreign heritage would turn against Anglo-Americans. To prevent this occurrence, thousands of Japanese-Americans, including two hundred Japanese-Latin Americans, were herded into internment camps throughout the West. It was not until 1988 that restitution was made to those who suffered physically, emotionally, and financially from the relocation.
In the 1940s, fear of foreigners extended to numerous cultural groups; Los Angeles had many ethnic neighborhoods, and the presence of military bases full of personnel readying themselves for war made Los Angeles a hot spot for culture clashes and violence. Ironically, of the ethnic groups who enlisted in World War II Mexican-Americans suffered the most casualties.
Zoot Suit Literary Style
Valdez’s Mexican Theatre Forms
Zoot Suit is a combination of actos (or “protest skits”), mitos (“myth”), and corrido (“ballad”); the combination draws upon traditional Mexican songs and dances, traditional stories, and the political activism of Valdez’s previous work with the socially active El Teatro Campesino. The play also has a strong documentary element with its basis in historical events. The result is musical docudrama of epic proportions.
In the beginning of his career, Valdez wrote, or rather orchestrated, since he did not always commit the actos to paper, simple and brief political protest pieces aimed at audiences of migrant workers. Most lasted only fifteen minutes. These actos used masks, simple but exaggerated storylines, and minimal settings and props. Often the actors sported cards proclaiming their generic roles—”worker,” or “patroncito” [manager]—rather than adopting an actual character. Characterization is not important in social protest plays, since the purpose is to condemn acts committed against a people, not a person. Thus Henry Reyna “is” El Pachuco, representing the tragic and self-destructive genre of pachuco gangs as well as their victimization by a xenophobic society.
The mitos moves the allegorical agenda of the actos into the spiritual realm. Valdez created mitos to fulfill his vision of “a teatro of legends and myths.” He told David Savran in an interview for American Theatre that to him, myth is “so real that it’s just below the surface—it’s the supporting structure of our everyday reality.” In a Valdez mito, a mythical character interacts with the other, human, characters and sometimes takes controls the play like an onstage director. El Pachuco was not the first mythical character Valdez used: the Aztec god Quetzalcóatl and a precursor to El Pachuco, La Luna (“the moon”), appear in his allegorical play Bernabé (1970), and a child named Mundo (“earth”) is born to skeletal figures in El fin del mundo (1976; the title means “The End of the Earth”). Comet sightings and symbolic sets and rituals further underscore the presence of myth in these plays. The mythic quality of El Pachuco in Zoot Suit is signaled by his ability to stop and start the action with a snap of his fingers; it is confirmed when he rises, Christ-like, wearing the Christian cross but also dressed in an Aztec loincloth, in Act II, scene vii.
The corrido has a long history in Mexican culture; its presence adds an element of folk art to Valdez’ s plays, being the Hispanic version of the American musical. Valdez’s fusion of these unrelated theatrical forms into a fresh, new, dramatic concept put Chicano theater onto the American theatrical map.
Brechtian Influences and Epic Theatre
In addition to historical and traditional Hispanic elements, Valdez also looked to the Epic Theatre technique pioneered by German playwright Bertolt Brecht (Mother Courage and Her Children). Brecht’s best-known plays were socially conscious works that sought to make audiences think about the playwright’s political agenda. To achieve such results, Brecht turned to “alienation” techniques that prevented the audience from judging his plays on an emotional level, thus freeing them to judge a play’s concepts in a purely intellectual, empirical manner. These techniques included placards that informed the audience of the major plot points that would be unfolding within each act. Brecht also broke up his narratives with satirical songs that jarringly diverted the audience’s attention from episodes that might allow them to form an emotional connection to characters. El Pacucho functions as an alienating device in Zoot Suit, often stopping the action and directly addressing the audience. Valdez’s play also qualifies as Epic Theatre in its use of a wide range of characters across a considerable time period.
Mixing Spanish and English
In areas of the United States with significant Spanish-speaking populations, the practice of mixing Spanish and English in newspaper journalism, radio programming, public signs, and schools as well as in drama has become a hotly contested topic, raising issues of cultural hegemony—whether one language should dominate another. In 1978, to use whole lines of Spanish in a play was to address it primarily to a bilingual audience, although the non-Spanish-speaking members of the audience had little trouble understanding the context of the Spanish. In Zoot Suit, the characters switch to Spanish in moments of intimacy, teasing, and emotional outbursts, as when the 38th Street Gang routs the Downey Gang, and Tommy elatedly proclaims the victory in mixed Spanish and English: “Orale, you did it, ese! Se escamaron todos! [you ran them all out!].”
Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, mixes English with Spanish in her novels. She explained that Spanish is “the language of sensations and emotions, of the day to day.” Duke University professor and poet Gustavo Perez Fermet, author of a collection of poems called Bilingual Blues agreed, saying that “English is very concise and efficient,” while “Spanish has sambrosura, flavor.” In Zoot Suit, the scenes of the trial and the boys’ discussions with George are primarily in English, while the dance and fight scenes have whole passages in Spanish, especially the insults. Official business is communicated in English, while “street” business is communicated in the gang’s vernacular Spanish, which is not formal Spanish but “pachuco” Spanish, full of slang expressions.
Zoot Suit Compare and Contrast
1940s: The Hispanic community and other ethnic groups suffer obvious racism at the hands of the military, the police force, the press, and the judicial system during the xenophobic years of World War II.
1978: Student movements of the last fifteen years seek equal opportunities in education for Chicano children and an end to civil and human rights abuses of Chicano people in the United States. By 1978, however, the Chicano movement is in decline.
Today: Most people uphold their legal and moral obligation to treat all Americans equally. The sense that equality has been achieved has led some institutions, colleges and universities, to remove their Affirmative Action programs, even though true equality does not exist for all ethnic groups or all U. S. citizens.
1940s: The United States joins World War II in 1941. At the time of the Zoot Suit Riots, enlistment in the armed services is at a fever pitch as military bases across the country prepare men and women for the war. There is almost universal support for the United States’ involvement in the war.
1978: After tremendous public pressure, the last U.S. troops left Vietnam in 1973. Anti-war sentiment is still high in 1978, and many veterans are still seen as butchers guilty of horrible war atrocities.
Today: In the last twenty years the United States has been involved in several military offensives but no large-scale wars. Hand-to-hand combat has given way to remote weaponry. Military personnel and veterans are viewed neither as heroes or scapegoats but as people performing assigned jobs.
1940s: Fashions are fairly conservative and universal; there is not much variety in clothing styles for mainstream Americans. Zoot suits are a conspicuous marker of otherness, an attempt by Hispanic men to set themselves apart from Anglo society.
1978: Dressing differently is a fashion rage, from paper dresses to hippies’ bell-bottom jeans. Conventional fashions such as the standard business suit are considered “square” or “uncool.”
Today: Dress is much more casual than the 1940s, yet more conservative than the 1970s. Radical trends, such as body-piercing and tattoos, proclaim the wearer’s statement of opposition against mainstream society.
Zoot Suit Topics for Further Study
What kind of influence does El Pachuco have over Henry? Is his a positive effect or a negative one?
Revolutionary theater attempts to move the audience to reform social injustices. What techniques does Valdez’s play employ in its attempt to sway the audience?
What is the impact of the bilingual aspect of this play on Spanish-speaking and non-Spanish speaking audiences? What does this device say about American culture?
Compare Henry Reyna’s fictional life with the historical Henry Leyvas’s life. Speculate on why Valdez made the choices he did in fictionalizing Henry’s life for the stage.
Zoot Suit Media Adaptations
Zoot Suit was filmed on stage in 1981 by Universal Pictures at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood with segments of cinematic material interspersed, lending occasional moments of realism. It is widely available on VHS.
Zoot Suit What Do I Read Next?
Julia Alvarez’s novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent chronicles the experiences of four sisters who immigrate from the Dominican Republic to the United States, losing their Spanish language and culture before they fully acquire fluency in English. In a similar vein Sandra Cisneros recalls her childhood in a Spanish-speaking section of Chicago in the lyrical vignettes of House on Mango Street.
Ernesto Galarza’s 1971 novel Barrio Boy and Jose Antonio Villareal’s 1970 Pocho both explore growing up in a barrio from a young boy’s perspective.
The 1997 novel Macho! by Victor Villaseñor describes Cesar Chavez’s strike efforts through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old boy who migrates to California from Mexico.
The poems of Ricardo Sánchez in 1971’s Canto y grito me liberación (title means “The Liberation of a Chicano Mind”) explore the ambiguities of living in two worlds, while Rodolfo Corky Gonzales’s epic poem, “I am Joaquin” explores the Chicano identity. Lorna Dee Cervantes’s poems address the erosion of ethnic identity in transplanted families; her “Freeway 280” expresses frustration over urban renewal programs that razed Chicano neighborhoods.
Several films also explore territory similar to Zoot Suit: Robert Redford produced and directed The Milago Beanfield War (1988), an endearing comedy about a group of Mexican-American citizens who resist oppressive big business owners out to abuse the farmers’ civil rights; Edward James Olmos, who plays El Pachuco in Zoot Suit, stars in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982), a film about a Chicano murderer that allows the audience to believe in Cortez’s guilt until the last moment; Olmos also directed and starred in a stunning film portrayal of a hardened Chicano prison inmate and his family: American Me (1992).