In Zoot Suit, why does El Pachuco claim the police are detaining Henry unlawfully, and what advice does he give him?

Quick answer:

El Pachuco says that the police are holding Henry because he is a zootsuiter and a Chicano gang leader. Henry's reputation gives the police what they need to hold him, even though he didn't commit a crime. El Pachuco's advice to Henry is to stick with his community.

Expert Answers

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In Zoot Suit, Luis Valdez examines the discrimination that Chicanos faced in Los Angeles during the 1940s. The plot of the play is based on the real-life Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the Zoot Suit Riots. The main character, Henry Reyna, is Chicano and a leader of a gang.

When Henry is arrested, he questions why he is being held by the police even though “they got nothing” on him (act 1, scene 3). El Pachuco tells him,

You’re Henry Reyna, ese—Hank Reyna! The snarling juvenile delinquent. The zootsuiter. The bitter young pachuco gang leader of 38th Street. That’s what they got on you. (act 1, scene 3)

With this statement, El Pachuco implies that all the police needed to hold Henry was his reputation and his ethnicity. El Pachuco is an allegorical figure within the play who embodies the Chicano culture of this setting. From El Pachuco’s perspective, Henry’s entire identity should be derived from his culture.

While being held by the police, Henry tells El Pachuco that he’s supposed to be reporting for the Navy in the morning. El Pachuco is disappointed that Henry would enter the war because

This ain’t your country. Look what’s happening all around you. The Japs have sewed up the Pacific. Rommel is kicking ass in Egypt but the Mayor of L.A. has declared all-out war on Chicanos. On you! ... Is that what you want to go out and die for? Wise up. These bastard paddy cops have it in for you. You’re a marked man. They think you’re the enemy. (act 1, scene 3)

El Pachuco urges Henry to fight the war in his own backyard against his racial group instead of going across the ocean to fight in a war for a country that discriminates against him.

Whether or not this is good advice is your opinion. You need to ask yourself what matters more: defending your community or defending your country? Once you have an answer to that question, then you can judge the path that Henry takes from this point forward and if El Pachuco’s advice helps Henry in his situation with the police.

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