Places: Zoot Suit

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1992

First produced: 1978

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Historical

Time of work: Early 1940’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Los Angeles

*Los Zoot SuitAngeles. 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, as a zoot-suited “master of ceremonies” identified only as “El Pachuco”–a term for a street tough–wearing the colors of an Aztec god, narrates the onstage action, connecting the disparate settings and providing multiple interpretations of onstage reality.

At the end of the play, playing with the Mayan philosophy of multiple levels of existence, El Pachuco calls forth a series of vignettes representing alternative futures for the murder suspect, Henry Reyna: a supportive and united family scene in a family living room; a prison scene with Henry killed in a prison fight; a Korean War scene, with Henry dying heroically; a public political scene with Henry awarded a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor; a family vignette of Henry as a father surrounded by several children; and a mythic Aztec scene, with Henry transformed into El Pachuco, a symbol of Chicano heritage and oppression.

Reyna house

Reyna house. Lower-middle class home of the family of Henry Reyna, who is arrested for murder during the riots. His family sits around a kitchen table, the mother cooking, the father sharing a first drink with his son, as the three youngsters prepare for a night out.

Dance hall

Dance hall. Scene of Reyna’s farewell celebration before he is to ship out for the Pacific the next day. Bright colors, lively Latin music, zoot suits, and fast-paced dancing signify a nonmainstream culture. A minor scuffle with a rival gang pushes dancers into the streets, where gang territory and switchblades turn Reyna’s brave attempt to end a one-sided conflict into police violence and mass arrests.

Sleepy Lagoon reservoir

Sleepy Lagoon reservoir. Romantic spot in East Los Angeles where young couples meet, and near which the Mexican Americans, attracted by lively music of a birthday party, are mistakenly attacked. The Mexican American youths tell one story, the Anglo youths another.

Courtroom

Courtroom. Place in which Reyna is tried for murder. His trial is a legal farce. The deck is stacked against Mexican Americans, who are regarded as unpatriotic outsiders, and the judge prejudges Reyna’s guilt. The trial itself creates the passion within the play. The boys of Reyna’s gang are looked upon as social delinquents, as criminals, and even as foreigners. At no point during the proceedings are they or their attorney allowed a fair opportunity to present their case. The trial is presented in only two scenes of the first act, but it propels much of the conflict of the play.

BibliographyDavis, 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 of Chicano theater, Zoot Suit is analyzed as a turning point at which Chicano concerns were brought to wider public attention.Lubenow, Gerald C. “Putting the Border Onstage.” Newsweek 109 (May 4, 1987): 79. Explores the influence Zoot Suit has had on the perception of Hispanics. A short biography of Luis Valdez is also included.Martin, Laura. “Language Form and Language Function in Zoot Suit and The Border: A Contribution to the Analysis of the Role of Foreign Language in Film.” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 3 (1984): 57-69. Explores the usage, function, and meaning of the language in Zoot Suit.Oroña-Córdova, Roberta. “Zoot Suit and the Pachuco Phenomenon: An Interview with Luis Valdez.” In Mexican American Theatre: Then and Now, edited by Nicolás Kanellos. Houston: Arte Público, 1983. In this interview with the author, the historical influences on the play are discussed. The development of the play and its social messages are also discussed.
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