Zoot Suit is a fast-moving, didactic play in a variety of styles that protests Chicanos’ treatment in America. Based on incidents that occurred when Pachuco gangs stirred hostility in Los Angeles during World War II, but concerned with the 1970’s as well, the play lashes society for abusing its own children. For poor, dark-skinned Mexican-Americans, injustice has become a way of life.
Products of slums and victims of discrimination, Chicanos seek escape wherever they can find it—in music, dancing, drinking, and extravagant display of costume. Even Lt. Edwards, a Los Angeles policeman, discerns the root of their problem. “Slums breed crime, fellas,” he announces to an assembled group of reporters, waiting eagerly to chronicle the latest Chicano excesses for a bigoted readership. “That’s your story.” The idea that depressed surroundings produce angry, scared people, that vice and crime can be extirpated only if the environment that breeds them is abolished is hardly a new or radical notion: Benjamin Franklin taught it more than two hundred years earlier in Philadelphia.
As foreigners in their own country, Chicanos suffer not only the arrogance and rejection of Anglo society but also great psychic stress as they struggle, half-unwillingly, to observe the customs of their persecutors, to accept a way of life that they do not really understand. Attempting to adhere to strictures they recognize as socially approved but unwilling to abandon their own language and culture, they find themselves caught in the middle.
When young men such as Hank don the zoot suit, however, and leave the city in their jalopies for romantic spots such as Sleepy Lagoon, they are able to put behind them the tedium of the barrio and the stultifying pressure of conformity to another culture: “Put on a zoot suit, makes you feel root like a diamond, sparkling, shining ready for dancing ready for the boogie tonight.” As preposterous as it may appear to others, the zoot suit helps the Pachuco achieve pride and self-respect. Its ostentation demands recognition. Rather than hiding, “keeping his place,” he flaunts his presence. On the other hand, he knows that duck-tail haircuts, platform shoes, and pegged pants arouse antagonism more often than they command respect.
El Pachuco’s role in the play, then, is ultimately ambiguous, since as the “cool” side of Hank and the incarnation of Chicano pride and defiance, his sardonic advice and encouragement lead always away from the mainstream of American life toward the alienation of a subculture. Zoot Suit proclaims that the treatment people receive will determine the direction they take and suggests that for Chicanos it may be too late; the gap between the barrio and Main Street may be too wide. El Pachuco’s seductive and convincing voice urging the integrity of La Raza and distrust of the Anglo often seems to be the right one.
Culture Clash Henry and his gang are charged with the murder of a fellow Mexican-American, Jose Williams, not because there was convincing evidence of their guilt, but because of their ethnic identity and their radical style of dressing and behavior. The underlying conflict that leads to their arrest and unfair trial is a clash between Mexican-Americans and the dominant Anglo culture. The zoot suiters represented a small population of Mexican-Americans. They sported ducktailed haircuts and slick suits and promenaded with swaggering coolness, affectations which were seen by some Anglos as an affront to mainstream society. More common were the assimilated Mexican-Americans of the 1940s, who accepted being segregated in barrios, Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, and who held low-paying, low-status jobs. They were tolerated in society as long as they limited their...
(This entire section contains 779 words.)
aspirations and kept out of the way. Enrique is a fully assimilated Mexican-American, who works as a street cleaner and is proud of his son for joining the Navy to fight as an American; for Henry to do so would indicate that he would also be assimilated.
Trouble comes when groups of Mexican-American zoot-suiters, or pachucos, congregate in dance halls and begin to get rowdy. With the war hysteria of the 1940s, such rowdiness was seen as an imminent threat, and the death of Jose Williams seemed proof of the violent nature of the pachucos. The historic 38th Street Gang did not actually carry switchblades, but Valdez portrays them as quick to brandish and use such weapons; thus they seem to fulfill the violent nature suspected of them. Lt. Edwards and Sergeant Smith arrest only Mexican-Americans at the dance, automatically letting the Anglos, including the violent Marine, Swabbie, go free. From this point on, the harsh treatment of the prisoners is shown to emanate from ethnic hatred and distrust. They are treated like—even called—animals. The problem is perpetuated when the pachucos return the hostile treatment by distrusting Anglos.
It is not until George proves his dedication and the boys accept his help that a bond is formed across the two ethnic groups. Yet culture clash rages on while he fights for their release, and Rudy is attacked by twenty marines and stripped of his zoot suit. Even the hard-won freedom granted to the boys does not signal a resolution, since the clash continues at their celebration, when cops assume that Joey has stolen George's car. The problems of the barrio transcend the problems of one gang: El Pachuco announces that "The barrio's still out there, waiting and wanting, / The cops are still tracking us down like dogs, / The gangs are still killing each other, / Families are barely surviving."
Civil Rights For Mexican-Americans like Henry, the issues is not just ethnic conflicts, but actual civil rights abuses, and his trial is not unique in its judicial travesties. The Chicano Movement sought to correct these and other wrongs, as part of the tide of the larger Civil Rights movement taking place in the 1960s. The battle had many fronts: from the courthouse to the schoolhouse, Hispanics, African Americans, and other ethnic groups educated themselves and the public on the daily injustices committed in the United States. For Hispanics, the separate and unequal education system (there were separate, poorly equipped, schools for Mexican children), lasted far beyond the Brown v. Board of Education case that won legal equality in schooling for blacks. Hispanic children did not attend integrated schools until a federal ruling in 1970 forced the Texas school system to eliminate segregation.
Police brutality was another alarming civil rights issue. A group of prominent Mexican-American citizens, who created a forum in 1948 to pursue delays in veterans rights for Mexican-Americans, shifted their focus to actively expose and prosecute police brutality cases. Police raids and wholesale roundups of Mexican-Americans were commonplace at social gatherings, where women and children were beaten along with men; the mass arrests depicted in Zoot Suit were not an exaggeration. In addition, urban renewal programs targeted barrios, which were called "blighted" areas. In these "slum clearance" programs, whole neighborhoods were wiped out to make way for freeways and other works projects that, while beneficial to the dominant culture, did little to improve the lives of the Hispanic community; the uprooted Mexican-American families were often fraudulently displaced and not properly compensated for their losses.
Various groups within the Chicano movement both initiated legal reprisals and attempted to educate the American public about these civil injustices. In a 1969 conference, attendees wrote a manifesto entitled El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan, in which they sought restitution for "economic slavery, political exploitation, ethnic and cultural psychological destruction, and denial of civil and human rights." Valdez was a leading artist who contributed to this effort.