Themes and Meanings
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.
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 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...
(The entire section is 1,250 words.)