Zoot Suit Essays and Criticism
by Luis Valdez

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Treatment of the Love Relationship Between Henry and Alice

(Drama for Students)

Zoot Suit is a tightly written drama with each element contributing to its overt demand for social reform, specifically a correction of the social injustice suffered by Henry Reyna and his gang. Luis Valdez conducted thorough research on the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial of 1942 and the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 in order to present the facts responsibly, but he also wanted to present the psychological and mythical truths of the Chicano experience. As a result, his work is a combination of documentary and myth, fact and fiction, instruction and entertainment. On the whole, both the play and the later film version succeeded beautifully in accomplishing these goals, especially in the popular arena.

Criticism was leveled at Valdez's portrayal of women (stereotypical) and complaints were leveled that the playwright turned his back on his roots with the farmworker's theater and had somehow "sold out" to the expectations of Hollywood and Broadway. To this criticism, Valdez turned a deaf ear. He did admit, however, that he had to revise the story's plot between the stage and film versions to correct a flaw that misled audience members. In a 1982 interview two weeks after the opening of the film adaptation, Valdez told Roberta Orona-Cordova in Mexican-American Theatre that he struggled with his portrayal of the love affair between Henry and Alice Bloomfield. The historical Henry had fallen in love with Alice, and Valdez wanted stayed true to history in his dramatic version of the story. The inclusion of this cross-cultural affair hampered what he wanted his play to communicate, however. It alienated some members of the audience, who could not accept a white woman falling in love with a Chicano, "They didn't like the romance or the politics of it: a white woman falling in love with a pachuco." The same issue came up in another interview with Gregg Barrios, who told Valdez "The love angle between Henry and Alice Bloomfield bothered me in the play." Valdez responded:

Actually, that angle in the play got me a narrower audience, especially in the confrontation scene and when Henry makes a choice between the two girls. I think what it is that led a lot of people astray was that point. That was really not the point I intended. Again, it was the play trying to decide what it was going to say after all... when I began to transfer the play to a screenplay ... I focused more on Henry and this business with Alice was put into its proper perspective.

The affair between the historical Alice Bloomfield and Henry Leyvas (Valdez changed the name to Reyna), took place through their letters. Valdez includes fictional versions of these letters in the play, but they culminate in an intense physical encounter in the prison and the incident provides a pivotal moment in the plot. Alice's belief in Henry revitalizes his hope for release, just when he is ready to give up. Her commitment is not just to obtaining justice in his particular case but because she has "never been able to accept one person pushing another around." At that moment, they understand each other, but their rapport quickly conflates with passion.

Why is this passion bothersome or "alienating" to some members of the audience? It would be overly simplistic to dismiss these viewers' concerns as evidence of their own prejudice. There is also the matter of Henry's obligation to Della. On the eve of the arrests, Henry promised her a big "pachuco" wedding when he returns from his tour in the Navy. She is not simply awaiting him patiently at home; she shares his misery, having been committed to a year at the Ventura State School for Girls—a prison of sorts—for her ostensible participation in the murder. Two brief scenes before his tryst with Alice, Henry complains to El Pachuco how much he misses Della. This love relationship seems permanent: for Henry to betray Della with any other woman seems unpardonable. That he would betray her with an Anglo woman complicates matters considerably.

In addition, a love interest...

(The entire section is 3,323 words.)