Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 622
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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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1290
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.