Luis Miguel Valdez is one of the most prominent figures in Chicano theater. In 1965, Valdez formed El Teatro Campesino, a theater group founded to help striking farmworkers in Delano, California. The popularity and immediacy of Chicano theater grew as similar groups formed on many college campuses and produced one-act plays. The vital social and political themes addressed by these groups and their plays led Valdez to write his most widely acclaimed play, Zoot Suit, in 1978. Soon after, the play made its debut at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where it received overwhelmingly positive reviews. In 1979, it traveled to Broadway, and in 1981, Valdez wrote and directed a motion-picture adaptation of Zoot Suit. The play is an important part not only of Chicano literature but also of contemporary American drama.
Set in the 1940’s, the narrative lies between “fact and fantasy.” The narrator, El Pachuco, cautions the audience that the work is only a play. The play has, however, a true historical backdrop: the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder trial. Henry Reyna, a twenty-one-year-old member of the Thirty-eighth Street Gang, finds himself accused of murder, and after a blatantly biased court trial, he is sentenced to life imprisonment. With the help of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee and Alice Bloomfield, reporter-turned-advocate, the district court of appeals reverses the decision in 1944. After spending more than a year in prison, including the last three months in solitary confinement, Henry Reyna is released. The trial, however, is what creates the passion within the play. The boys of the Thirty-eighth Street Gang are looked upon as social delinquents, as foreigners, and as criminals. At no point during the proceedings do the boys or their attorney, George Shearer, get a fair opportunity to present their case. The trial is presented in only two scenes of act 1, but it propels much of the conflict of the play. Valdez recounts a period—one that was well documented in the Los Angeles daily newspapers—of police brutality, civil unrest, and violation of basic human rights within the Chicano community. The dramatic action of Zoot Suit allows audience members to enter a world that many may find too familiar in present-day American society.
The central figure of Zoot Suit is the narrator, El Pachuco, who is dressed in a zoot suit—a suit with a wide-shouldered, long, draped coat, and pegged pants—accessorized with a four-foot watch chain hanging from his waist, a hat, and shoes with metal taps. El Pachuco is the commentator and remains present onstage throughout the play. He reminds the audience of the fantastic element of the play but also of the history that informs the play. El Pachuco interacts with characters and the audience. He sings a song in act 1, scene 7, as the couples dance. El Pachuco speaks directly to the audience in English and in Spanish, even in caló, a Chicano dialect. He gives the audience background information and provides commentary as he participates in the dramatic action. He also sometimes stops the action to emphasize statements made by others.
The most poignant role El Pachuco plays is in his relationship with Henry Reyna. In act 1, scene 3, El Pachuco acts as a consoler to Henry after his arrest for the murder of Jose Williams. Then, in act 1, scene 6, El Pachuco becomes the voice of caution to Henry when George Shearer, an Anglo attorney, wants to represent Henry and the rest of the boys. The relationship between El Pachuco and Henry develops more on a psychological level in act 2, scene 5. It appears...
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that El Pachuco acts as Henry’s conscience as Henry, in this act, thinks aloud. The frustration and anger built up inside Henry are vocalized by El Pachuco as he antagonizes Henry. In a tense moment, Henry lashes out at El Pachuco, who laughingly reminds him and the audience not to take the play so seriously. El Pachuco, in addition to being a chorus, is something of a trickster figure.
Henry Reyna takes on a symbolic role as well. Henry, the Chicano from the barrio, is part of the generation in the 1940’s who faced harassment and persecution related to their mode of dress, the zoot suit. He endures a humiliating court proceeding and is sentenced unjustly. Henry knows he cannot fully participate in a world that does not see him as an equal. His dreams of enlisting in the U.S. Navy are dashed. Still, Henry is representative of young Chicanos who seek justice despite the odds. Zoot Suit offers no resolution to Henry’s situation. Rather, it points to various possible fates for Henry, indicating Valdez’s view that Chicano youths have many paths from which to choose, both good and bad.
One of the innovative stylistic achievements of this play is the backdrop of newspapers. The Press, personified, heightens the emotional context as it brings to light the events that took place in 1942 at Sleepy Lagoon. The Press continues an antagonistic role as prosecutor in the trial against Henry Reyna and his friends. As indicated in the stage directions, the audience’s attention is drawn to the newspapers throughout the play—for example, when Dolores Reyna, Henry’s mother, folds newspaper sheets as she would clothes. The influence of the press is shown to be pervasive.
The variety of languages and dialects used provides Zoot Suit with a richness in tone. Spanish and English are sometimes mixed, and the use of Spanish reaffirms the cultural affinity in the Chicano community. When the Anglo characters George and Alice speak Spanish, they are seen as more approachable and trustworthy. Caló is a direct presentation of the zoot-suiter or the pachuco. Its private usage is indicative of the pachuco. The use of caló sets the zoot-suiters apart from others in the Chicano community, the separation in this case being an article of distinction, not of alienation.