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Zoot Suit Luis Valdez

Zoot Suit Luis Valdez

Zoot Suit (1979) is a play by award-winning American playwright and poet Luis Valdez. The first Chicano play to be professionally produced, Zoot Suit is a historical fiction based on the Zoot Suit Riots and Sleepy Lagoon Murder trials. Exploring young Chicano (Mexican-American) culture and identity, the play's inaugural production was sold out for weeks, breaking Los Angeles theater records.

Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez

Luis Valdez wrote and directed the first production of Zoot Suit in April 1978 in East Los Angeles, a largely Mexican-American area. The initial run was sold out for weeks. It was the first-ever Chicano production, marking another high point in Valdez’s theater career.

Chicano refers to a social movement led by Southwestern Latin American people of Mexican and indigenous descent who self-identify as Chicano. The movement emerged in the 1960s as a coalition of organizations. This included El Teatro Campesino, a theater company started by Valdez that sought to promote Chicano cultural awareness and fight for the civil rights of Latin American people. The initial short plays, known as actos, focused on farmworker labor and unity in the fight for better wages and working conditions.

Valdez cultivated Chicano theater with the founding El Teatro Campesino, or The Farmworker’s Theater, in 1965. The theater company focused on organizing farmworkers and providing culturally significant works that reflected the reality and celebrated the culture of Chicano people, specifically American people of Mexican descent in California and the Southwest. After Valdez left his position as artistic director, he continued to focus on Chicano identity and culture in his following works. Zoot Suit’s debut was when Chicano identity and culture reached mainstream America.

Zoot Suit, portrait of Luis Valdez, StudySmarterFig 1 - Luis Valdez believed theater could be used as a tool for social justice.

Significance of the Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez

The zoot suit, while worn by many ethnicities, specifically serves as an identifier for Henry and the young Mexican-American people in the play. The Pachuco style, embodied by El Pachuco, is a collective and cultural sense of style and attitude. Outsiders, such as the news media and the police, associate it with Mexican-American people. Due to their racism, they perceive it as representing juvenile delinquency and potential criminality. Often people fear that which they don’t understand. While it is a popular style among gangsters, not every zoot suit wearer is involved in a gang. The zoot suit serves simultaneously as a cultural symbol of pride for the Mexican-American people and a stereotype to weaponize them.

The play Zoot Suit is based on the true story of the Sleepy Lagoon Trials. When the body of José Gallardo Díaz was found near Sleepy Lagoon in 1943, police arrested seventeen young Mexican-American men without due process or incriminating evidence. The trial was highly covered by the news media, and it perpetuated the zoot suit as the stereotypical clothing of violent young Mexican-American people rampant on the streets. The tension escalated into the Zoot Suit Riots, where white servicemen and citizens made people who wore zoot suits targets for misplaced retribution and violence. While the riots started in Los Angeles, they spread to other major American cities.

Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit: Summary

It’s 1943, and an enlarged newspaper hangs as a backdrop. The headline reads, “ZOOT-SUITER HORDES INVADE LOS ANGELES. US NAVY AND MARINES ARE CALLED IN”. A switchblade slices through, wielded by the character El Pachuco. He speaks in Spanish slang and models his fabulous zoot suit attire. He sees the audience and switches to English, demonstrating his perfect bilingual diction. He breaks character and explains that Pachuco style is myth-building and an identity performance.

El Pachuco often breaks character to address the audience.

El Pachuco begins to dance and sing. Henry and the 38th Street Gang, all dressed in zoot suits, burst in dancing and singing. The stage becomes a party. Their rivals, the Downey Gang, join shortly after. Their leader Rafa pushes Henry’s brother Rudy, and Henry intervenes. Police bust into the party with Lieutenant Edwards and Sergeant Smith, who apprehend all the zoot suit-wearing Chicano men while they let a white soldier and his girlfriend go.

Henry wakes up in jail. El Pachuco fills him in on the racist headlines condemning “zoot suiters” for a murder. Henry just signed up for the Navy and is worried about making his deployment for World War II. El Pachuco tells him to worry about the war at home between the racist state and the Chicano community.

El Pachuco often acts as the collective conscience of the Chicano community, and only Henry can see and hear him.

Edwards enters in with Smith and a reporter. They try to intimidate Henry into incriminating himself, but he refuses to talk. El Pachuco warns Henry he will be treated unfairly, and Smith beats him until he's unconscious. He awakes to a memory of home, which El Pachuco informs the audience is happening in the past. Henry, his little brother Rudy, and his sister Lupe are getting ready to go out. Their parents, Enrique and Dolores, critique their outfits, warning that the police are targeting zoot suiters, and insist they be careful. They all say goodbye, and a dance scene ensues.

The dance scene fades as Edwards talks to a group of reporters asking about the “Mexican Crime Wave” ravaging Los Angeles. He explains that the murder took place near where the Chicano community like to go for a swim. Alice, a reporter, asks if it’s because Mexican-American people are banned from public pools, which draws the ire of the rest.

Back at the jail, Henry talks with the rest of the gang about how often the police falsely arrest them. They note that Rudy was not arrested this time. George Shearer enters, claiming to be a lawyer hired by Henry’s parents and a citizen’s committee to defend him. At first, Henry declines his help, saying public opinion is against them. George says having a good defense matters more, and ultimately Henry agrees to share the details of the fateful Saturday Night dance.

That Saturday night before the murder, the 38th Street Gang are dancing and partying. The Downey Gang shows up, and a brawl quickly ensues. Henry and Rafas, the leaders, face off, with Henry gaining the upper hand. With his knife at Rafas' throat, El Pachuco snaps his fingers, and everyone freezes. He says two Mexican people killing each other is precisely what the audience wants. Henry lets Rafas go, the Downey Gang retreats, and the 38th Street party resumes.

Present day, at the jail, Henry is greeted by George and Alice. He complains he hasn’t received clean clothes like the other prisoners. George leaves while Alice presses Henry for his collaboration, insisting she’s there to clear his name. He’s cautious but eventually shares about the Chicano community. He’s done bad things, but he is not guilty of murder.

Zoot suit, Sleepy lagoon murder trial defendants were released, StudySmarterFig 2 - The real-life zoot suiters were eventually acquitted of all charges.

The court proceedings begin, and the audience learns that the Chicano inmates were intentionally deprived of clean clothes and fresh haircuts to remain “identifiable” to the jury. They make more exceptions to incriminate the defendants. El Pachuco appears and fast-forwards to Della’s testimony. She explains she was with Henry the entire time. They reacted to a provocation from the Downey Gang while unaware that José Williams, a nearby property owner, was beaten to death in the scuffle. The trial proceeds with clearly unfair bias, and the judge concludes that letting the Chicano men free would be a danger to society and sentences them to life in prison.

In the following weeks, Alice is writing a story on the trial, while George has filed for an appeal. A romance forms between Henry and Alice. At first, he gives up on justice and argues with Alice. She laments her situation as a self-identifying communist Jew, to which Henry sympathizes as an ostracized member of a minority population.

The play reaches its climax as Henry is thrown into solitary confinement against the backdrop of the zoot suit riots. While the riots ravage the Chicano community, Henry and the rest win the appeal. After their release, the Reyna family holds a party, but the ending is left ambiguous. Different cast members individually recite contradictory endings for Henry, representing how a life of racial persecution and discrimination impacts a Chicano person's life prospects after prison. The play closes with El Pachuco declaring that the Pachuco myth will live on.

Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit: Characters

Zoot Suit follows the story of the character Henry Reyna and his gang, his rivals, and the people who defend him against the false charges issued by the police.

  • El Pachuco: embodies the Pachuco subculture of the Chicano community. He is wearing a zoot suit and acting as the conscious of Henry and the narrator of the play.
  • Henry Reyna: the twenty-one-year-old leader of the 38th Street Gang. He has just enlisted in the Navy to fight in World War II. He loves to wear zoot suits and dance with his friends. He is looked up to as a role model and moral compass. He is accused of killing José Williams and arrested.
  • Rudy: Henry’s impulsive younger brother. He aspires to be like Henry, who offers to give him his zoot suit once he ships out for war. Often he gets the gang into brawls.
  • Della: Henry’s new and loyal girlfriend. She is shrewd and refuses to answer the prosecutor's questions in order to defend Henry.
  • Dolores: Henry’s loving and caring mother. She understands how important it is for Henry to express himself, despite her disapproval of his attire.
  • Enrique: Henry's loving and protective father. He supports Henry and defends him, even against his wishes. Henry’s name is the anglicized form of Enrique.
  • Rafas: the jealous and unruly leader of the Downey Gang who shows up uninvited to 38th Street Gang parties.

Zoot Suit, police officer hassles a young Mexican American man in a zoot suit, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Mexican-American people dressed in zoot suits were racially profiled by police.

  • Lieutenant Edwards: a racist cop with a history of arresting Henry for crimes he did not do. He remains unsympathetic despite Henry’s enlistment in the Navy. He tries to manipulate Henry by pitting his affection for his father against him.
  • Sergeant Smith: a subordinate cop that works with Edwards. He’s even more racist and violent than Edwards, not hesitating to beat Henry.
  • The Press: played by a rotating set of actors who represent the "press" as reporters who are all racially biased against Henry and his friends.
  • George Shearer: a white lawyer who seeks social justice and offers to defend the 38th Street Gang.
  • Alice Bloomfield: a reporter that self-identifies as a communist Jew. She has experienced discrimination and sympathizes with the young Chicano men.
  • The Judge: played by the same actor as Edwards, they have no interest in a fair trial.
  • The Public Prosecutor: a different character that's played by the same actor as a press member. Does whatever he can to frame the young Chicano men as disreputable, dishonest, and dangerous.

Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit: Themes

The purpose of Valdez’s Zoot Suit is to challenge and educate the American people about the Chicano identity and culture. Major themes that explore this are cultural identity and presentation, racial profiling and scapegoating, and public image.

Cultural Identity and Presentation

The zoot suit is the foremost symbol of the Chicano culture in Zoot Suit. El Pachuco is a personification of the Pachuco style, which is unique to Chicano culture. While zoot suits were not exclusive to Chicano people, they presented their own version with bright colors, flair, and distinct jewelry, as displayed by El Pachuco. Even though they represented a small portion of Mexican-American people, the look became iconic.

El Pachuco shows the nuance and complexity of a culture that was simplified into stereotypes by the media. He effortlessly switches between Spanish and English, challenging the racist notion that Chicano people are uneducated or unable to be articulate. He shows self-awareness and admits that the style is a performance. Yet, this style is an intentional form of self-expression for young Chicano men, and he encourages white society to understand it as this.

Racial Profiling and Scapegoating

Throughout the play, the Chicano characters are subjected to racist epithets and stereotypes. Often they are treated like animals and denied rights enjoyed by white people. Henry and his friends, once imprisoned, are repeatedly punished for standing up for themselves. They also recount the times they have been wrongly arrested, which even Edwards once admits was a mistake (though without remorse).

The scapegoating, or placing blame on Chicano people for the murder and crime in general, is due to fear of uncertainty. America is experiencing an unprecedented era of insecurity against the backdrop of World War II. The war effort brings shortages of goods and ships out huge numbers of young men. Naturally, society becomes anxious. To relieve this fear, white people search out targets to blame, and the Chicano community are unfortunate victims, some easily identifiable by their zoot suits.

Public Image and News Media

The main reason the zoot suit-wearing Chicano men get a bad reputation is because of the news. Fear sells and makes headlines. People desire relief from their anxieties, and a domestic distraction can seem more real than the abstraction of a war overseas. The press is well aware of this and peddles headline after headline of a fabricated crime wave and targets Chicano people as the perpetrators.

Henry and his friends are well aware of how the public perceives them. The double standard and extra work of managing a public image of a community are exhausting for the characters in the story, and at times they want to give up. Often they would like to rebel, but El Pachuco serves as a collective conscience to remind them that they should fight for themselves. While unfair, they do have agency in shaping their image.

Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit: Quotes

Three quotes exemplify the three main themes of Zoot Suit.

Ladies and gentlemen

the play you are about to see

is a construct of fact and fantasy.

The Pachuco Style was an act in Life

and his language a new creation.

[…]

I speak as an actor on the stage.

The Pachuco was existential

for he was an Actor in the streets

both profane and reverential.”

(El Pachuco, Act 1, Scene 1)

El Pachuco shows the audience that the Pachuco style is a performance of identity. Young Chicano men dressed this way to make a statement about their lifestyle. Unfortunately, this iconic image was weaponized against the Mexican-American community by the police and news media. Valdez draws parallels between the stage performance and life on the streets. He is telling the audience that an oversimplification—the stereotype of the zoot suit as a gangster—robs the Chicano community of their self-expression.

All the prosecution has been able to prove is that these boys wear long hair and zoot suits. And all the rest has been circumstantial evidence, hearsay and war hysteria. The prosecution has tried to lead you to believe that they are some kind of inhuman gangsters. Yet, they are Americans. Find them guilty of anything more serious than a juvenile bout of fisticuffs, and you will condemn all American youth. Find them guilty of murder, and you will murder the spirit of racial justice in America.”

(George, Act 1, Scene 11)

George, as their lawyer, is defending the 38th Street Gang. He hopes to win the sympathy of the jury with his comparison to American culture. America values individualism, and the zoot suits are simply an expression of identity. He also connects the fear of the zoot suiters with the anxiety created by World War II. This is merely the result of racial profiling and scapegoating for a larger, unrelated, and external problem.

The Press distorted the very meaning of the word ‘zoot suit.’

All it is for you guys is another way to say Mexican.

But the ideal of the original chuco

was to look like a diamond

to look sharp

hip

bonaroo

finding a style of urban survival

in the rural skirts and outskirts

of the brown metropolis of Los, cabron.”

(El Pachuco, Act 2, Scene 6)

El Pachuco is commenting on how the news media has weaponized the iconic imagery of the zoot suit. Originally, it was about self-expression, specifically Chicano culture. It’s a reaction to the segregation of Mexican-American people from the rest of America's population. Rather than feel subordinate to mainstream white culture, Chicano people were expressing pride in their own culture. The news media has co-opted this from the Chicano community. The purpose of the play Zoot Suit, through El Pachuco, is to bring back control of the meaning of the zoot suits to its origins and reaffirm what it means to be Chicano.

Zoot Suit Luis Valdez - Key takeaways

  • Zoot Suit is an award-winning play by American playwright and poet Luis Valdez.
  • Zoot Suit is a historical fiction based on the Zoot Suit Riots and Sleepy Lagoon Murder trials.
  • The play explores young Chicano (Mexican-American) culture and identity.
  • The story follows the main character Henry Reyna, his friends, and family, and the turmoil of his false arrest.
  • Three themes found in Zoot Suit are cultural identity and presentation, racial profiling and scapegoating, and public image and the news media.

References

  1. Fig. 1 - Luis Valdez 2008 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Luis_Valdez_Chicano_Playwright.jpg) by James Jeffrey (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jjeffreys/2317327080/) is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
  2. Fig. 2 - A man in a zoot suit is inspected upon arrest by LAPD on June 7, 1943. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_man_in_a_zoot_suit_is_inspected_upon_arrest_by_LAPD_on_June_7,_1943.jpg) by John T. Burns (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/en:Associated_Press) is licensed by Public Domain (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)
  3. Fig. 3 - Defendants in the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sleepy_Lagoon_murder_case_acquittal.png) by Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee (https://digital.library.ucla.edu/catalog/ark:/13030/hb158003tz) is licensed by Public Domain (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Zoot Suit Luis Valdez

The purpose of the play Zoot suit is to bring back control of the meaning of the zoot suits to its origins, and reaffirming what it means to be Chicano.

The themes of Zoot Suit are racial profiling and scapegoating, public image and the news media, and Chicano culture and identity.

Henry is accused of killing Jose Williams in Zoot Suit.

Zoot Suit is based on the true story of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder trials and the Zoot Suit Riots

Zoot Suits were controversial because the news media stereotyped Mexican Americans wearing zoot suits as dangerous criminals.

Final Zoot Suit Luis Valdez Quiz

Question

Zoot Suit is

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a play by award-winning Chicano playwright and poet Luis Valdez

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Zoot Suit has the honor of being

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the first Chicano play to be professionally produced

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What is Zoot Suit about?

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Answer

Zoot Suit is based on the Zoot Suit Riots and Sleepy Lagoon Murder trials. It explores young Chicano (Mexican-American) culture and identity.

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Question

Zoot Suit’s debut was a significant moment because

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Answer

It marked when Chicano identity and culture reached mainstream America.

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Question

What is the significance of the zoot suit?

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Answer

The zoot suit serves as an identifier for Henry and the young Mexican-American men.

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What historical events are the basis for the play?

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The Sleepy Lagoon Murder trials

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El Pachuco

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embodies the Pachuco sub culture of the Chicano community, wearing a zoot suit and acting as the conscious of Henry and narrator to the play.

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Henry Reyna is

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the young leader of the 38th Street Gang

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Rudy is

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Henry's impulsive younger brother

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Della is

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Rudy's ex girfriend

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Henry is falsely accused of

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murdering José Williams

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Alicia and George try to

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help clear the name of Henry and the 38th Street gang

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The three themes are

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Racial Profiling and Scapegoating

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The parents of Henry are

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Dolores

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The racist police officers are

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Lieutenant Edwards

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