The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

From start to finish, the audience’s attention is riveted on El Pachuco, the quintessence of the “cool” Chicano. Not only does he comment on the action in chorus-like fashion but he also shares Hank’s role as protagonist. In effect, El Pachuco is master of ceremonies, a leading figure, and an interpreter of what is seen. Dressed in a zoot suit to end all zoot suits, he carries himself, as a New York reviewer said, in a “backward tilt that suggests he is suspended by a wire from the navel.” He is outrageously self-reliant and unintimidated by anything Anglo authority can invent. Unsinkable, unfoolable, unflappable, he wins first grudging admiration, then affection, and finally a sort of respect as he rallies flagging spirits.

The play is openly partisan in its celebration of El Pachuco as a hero of his people, striving—in Luis Valdez’s words—to be “theater as beautiful, rasquachi, human, cosmic, broad, deep, tragic, comic, as the life of La Raza itself.” Maintaining “beauty and spiritual sensitivity” inside this ethnic context has been difficult in a production designed for general audiences, and Luis Valdez has revised his play for many years, hoping to strike the right balance between pessimistic naturalism, joyous affirmation, and folkloric theatricality.

To complement its ethnic quality and provide authenticity, a large portion of Zoot Suit is spoken in calo, or street Spanish—so much so that an audience...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Los Angeles

*Los Angeles. Sprawling Southern California city in which the play is primarily set in 1942—a time when the city is preparing for war, divided by race, and filling up with military personnel getting ready to ship out to the Pacific. Tensions are high, the mood among military personnel is hyper-patriotic, and the city has no tolerance for anyone who appears to be an unpatriotic slackard. When hundreds of servicemen and party-going Mexican Americans accidentally clash, the result is a large-scale riot that results in hundreds of arrests, including one for murder.

The play’s bilingual dialogue, flamboyant “zoot-suit” costuming, energetic dance hall settings, Latin rhythms, and references to Mexican cooking convey the strongly Mexican flavor of Los Angeles. The play’s experimental staging, echoing Chicano street theater, moves rapidly from set to set, from past to present, and from mainstream perspectives to Mexican American perspectives. Meanwhile, the play’s master of ceremonies, El Pachuco, pulls everything together through his onstage narration.

Newsboys shout inflammatory headlines on city streets, describing armed zoot-suiters knifing and killing until stopped by the U.S. Navy and Marines and deservingly imprisoned. In one fight scene in an unnamed city bar, Anglo servicemen overpower and strip the Pachuco narrator.

Scenes in the play alternate rapidly among a police station, a courthouse, a jail, and a prison, and the homes, parties, dance halls, and city streets. Flashbacks merge past and present,...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Sleeply Lagoon Murder and the Zoot Suit Riots
Valdez's play is loosely based on the events of a 1942...

(The entire section is 654 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Valdez's Mexican Theatre Forms
Zoot Suit is a combination of actos (or "protest skits"), mitos...

(The entire section is 868 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1940s: The Hispanic community and other ethnic groups suffer obvious racism at the hands of the military, the police force,...

(The entire section is 347 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

What kind of influence does El Pachuco have over Henry? Is his a positive effect or a negative one?

Revolutionary theater...

(The entire section is 95 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Zoot Suit was filmed on stage in 1981 by Universal Pictures at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood with segments of cinematic material...

(The entire section is 33 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Julia Alvarez's novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent chronicles the experiences of four sisters who immigrate from the...

(The entire section is 275 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Barrios, Gregg. "Zoot Suit: The Man, the Myth, Still Lives: A Conversation with Luis Valdez" in Chicano...

(The entire section is 561 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Davis, R. G., and Betty Diamond. “Zoot Suit: From the Barrio to Broadway.” Ideologies and Literature 3, no. 15 (January-March, 1981): 124-132. Analyzes the social and historical influences on the play. Zoot Suit is traced from the historical event through the creative interpretation made by Valdez. The differences between history and the drama are noted and explored.

Huerta, Jorge A. “Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit: A New Direction of Chicano Theatre?” Latin American Theatre Review 13, no. 2 (Summer, 1980): 69-76. Explores the influence Zoot Suit has had on Chicano theater. Tracing the history...

(The entire section is 241 words.)