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In Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit, the zoot suit has many conspicuous and inconspicuous meanings. The zoot suit is an ostentatious outfit that many Chicano gangsters wore in order to gain recognition of the police and the people of Los Angeles. The boys’ family members believe that the zoot suit symbolizes insubordination while police offers and press view it as delinquency. The boys of the Thirty-eighth Street Gang, who admire the zoot suits, regard the zoot suit as empowering. In the play, there is a clash of opinions as to whether the zoot suit represents power or delinquency.
The zoot suit helps many chicano boys of the Thirty-eighth Street Gang identify themselves with the other boys as they face discrimination and aggression from the Downey Gang and police officers. In the beginning of the play, El Pachuco, who is Henry Reyna’s alter ego, expresses his appreciation and passion for the zoot suit. He describes putting on a zoot suit, “…makes [Chicancos] feel real root look like a diamond, sparkling, shinning…” (Valdez 1.1.3). Rather than hiding, El Pachuco displays himself as if he is a radiate gem that all can fawn over because he dresses in style, and therefore should commands respect. The zoot suit gives the boys the confidence and swagger to gain esteem from their fellow boys and the Downey gang, a rival group. The boys use the zoot suit as a uniform symbolizing the ideology of a group of individuals fighting for common goal which was Chicano pride. Even more, El Pachuco, who dons the zoot suit, epitomizes the Chicano spirit because he reminds Henry Reyna to not waver from trying to gain respect from the police. In the end, El Pachuco states he is, “…the ideal of the original chuco was to look like a diamond to look sharp hip bonarro” (Valdez 2.6.16). Therefore, the boys looks up to Pachuco as a genuine symbol of what they are fighting for. The boys feel more formidable when the other boys put on the zoot suit because it gives a sense of brotherhood and community. In packs, the boys feel comforted by the numbers but with the zoot suit, the boys feel invincible.
In the eyes of the police and the press, the zoot suit is seen as a symbol of misconduct and malice. After the police disperses the barrio dance and Sergeant Smith detains Henry and the rest of the boys who are main culprits of the Sleep Lagoon murder case, Smith interrogates the boys, and sarcastically comments, “you pachucos are regular tough guys” (Valdez 1.3.1). By sarcastically insulting the boys for being a bunch of tough guys, Smith is in actuality calling the boys weaklings and therefore, considers the zoot suit powerless and only a symbol of rebellion. Sergeant Smith believes that the zoot suit is just a mere ostentatious attire that makes the boys a target of discrimination. He goes further and declares, “I hear you pachas wear these monkey suits as a kind of armor. Is that right? How does it work? This is what you zooters need – a little old-fashioned discipline” (Valdez 1.4.41). Smith again uses name calling instead of properly addressing the boys. The “zooter” signifies that Smith utterly shuns the zoot suit and thinks its so ridiculous that the boys wear them. He even goes as far as to question the secret powers of the zoot suit as if to play of the boys emotions and taunt the zoot suit further. Clearly, the police don’t take the power of the zoot suit seriously. Even the headlines of the Los Angeles newspaper articles “Zoot-Suited Goons of Sleepy Lagoon” (Valdez 1.5.15) shows the yellow journalism uses zoot suit in a derogatory term and labeled all Mexicans as Zoot Suits. The press goes further and comments that, “the Zoot Suit Crime Wave is even beginning to push the war news off the front page” (Valdez 2.6.15) in order to reveal to the audience that wearing zoot suits and being seen in them was considered a crime and a rebellious action that cannot be ignored by even the news.
The symbol of the zoot suit bring depth to the play as so many different individuals perceive the zoot suit in their own way. For the boys of the Thirty-eighth Street Gang, it defines their group and intentions. By wearing the suit, the boys make a single stance against the oppression and discrimination by the press and the police officials. However, for the press and police officials, the zoot suit only symbolizes the crime and wrongdoing. They believe that the zoot suit only affirms their beliefs that the boys are reckless. The zoot suit is truly a symbol of the disagreement of individuals within the Los Angeles community.
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