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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.


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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.

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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.


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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.