The Play (Masterplots II: 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...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: 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...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*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...
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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...
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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...
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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.
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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.
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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.
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...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Barrios, Gregg. "Zoot Suit: The Man, the Myth, Still Lives: A Conversation with Luis Valdez" in Chicano Cinema: Research, Reviews, and Resources, edited by G. D. Keller, Bilingual Press, 1985, pp. 159-64.
Berg, Charles Ramírez. Review of Zoot Suit in the Bilingual Review, Volume 10, nos. 2-3, 1983, pp. 189-90.
Eder, Richard. Review of Zoot Suit in the New York Times, 1979.
Simon, John. "West Coast Story" in New York, April 9, 1979, p. 93.
Watt, Douglas. Review of Zoot Suit in the New York Daily News, 1979.
Acuña, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, 3rd edition, Harper & Row, 1988.
Traces the development of Hispanic-American playwrights.
Alvarez, Lizette. "Spanish-English Hybrid Is Spoken with No Apologies" on LatinoLink, http://www.latinolink.com/ life/life97/0324lspa.htm, December 15, 1998.
This website discusses the use of "Spanglish" as well as the employment of alternating English and Spanish in conversations and writing.
Bruce-Novoa, Juan, editor. Retrospace: Collected Essays on Chicano Literature, Arte Público, 1990.
Essays on Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Hispanic literatures....
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Davis, R. G., and Betty Diamond. “Zoot Suit: From the Barrio to Broadway.” Ideologies and Literature 3, no. 15 (January-March, 1981): 124-132. Analyzes the social and historical influences on the play. Zoot Suit is traced from the historical event through the creative interpretation made by Valdez. The differences between history and the drama are noted and explored.
Huerta, Jorge A. “Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit: A New Direction of Chicano Theatre?” Latin American Theatre Review 13, no. 2 (Summer, 1980): 69-76. Explores the influence Zoot Suit has had on Chicano theater. Tracing the history of Chicano theater, Zoot Suit is analyzed as a turning point at which Chicano concerns were brought to wider public attention.
Lubenow, Gerald C. “Putting the Border Onstage.” Newsweek 109 (May 4, 1987): 79. Explores the influence Zoot Suit has had on the perception of Hispanics. A short biography of Luis Valdez is also included.
Martin, Laura. “Language Form and Language Function in Zoot Suit and The Border: A Contribution to the Analysis of the Role of Foreign Language in Film.” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 3 (1984): 57-69. Explores the usage, function, and meaning of the language in Zoot Suit....
(The entire section is 241 words.)