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 their hands raised. When they turn around, they form a line-up inside a police station. In a series of barked messages, headlines, and press releases, the audience learns that a Chicano has been killed and hundreds have been arrested.
Hank remains on stage as the others are marched off. El Pachuco, the ever-vigilant observer, now makes it clear that he is, among other things, Hank’s alter ego—his other self. Hank is convinced that the police mean to charge him with the murder although he is innocent and had planned to report for duty to the Navy the next Monday. El Pachuco warns, “This ain’t your country,” and Hank, acknowledging brotherhood with him, resolves defiance.
Left alone after the police interrogate him, attempting to wring a confession, Hank’s thoughts travel to his barrio home shortly before the killing, to his loving, good-humored Mexican family. It is a bit macho in the men’s insistence—Hank and his father’s—that a stricter standard of behavior and modesty applies to sisters and girlfriends than to the men. Hank’s father Enrique, although slightly puzzled by the young people’s American ways, is proud of his manly son and remembers his own youth as a revolutionary in Mexico. Hank, he thinks, is made of the same stuff.
Meanwhile, the yellow press is stirring up Los Angeles against the “Mexican Crime Wave” and “Zoot-Suited Goons”; in this play headlines, reporters, and newspapers themselves take on symbolic dimensions as they contribute to racial prejudice. The jailed Pachucos maintain their bravado under Hank’s leadership, though they have little confidence in Anglo justice. Consequently, they are as mistrustful as El Pachuco when George Shearer, a “people’s lawyer,” offers his services. Convinced that they face the gas chamber, they accept the gringo’s offer and narrate to him the events of July 21, 1943.
Pachucos and Pachucas dance again. Rudy is drinking heavily when Rafas and his gang appear. This time Hank and Rafas pull switchblades: El Pachuco abruptly halts the play. “Two more Mexicans killing each other” is just what the Anglo audience “paid to see,” he says. When he “unfreezes” the action, Hank lets Rafas go with a kick.
Bundles of newspapers mark the cell where Hank now receives a new visitor, Alice Bloomfield, who tells Hank that Pachucos are now being accused by the newspapers of taking orders from Japan. Hank is dumbfounded, but he distrusts the alluring do-gooder and her social worker’s jargon.
The trial of the gang, presided...
(The entire section is 4,855 words.)