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In June 1943, Los Angeles saw a series of riots known as the Zoot Suit Riots involving American sailors and Mexican American youths. The riots were named after the Zoot suits, which were baggy suits worn during World War II. While clothing seems an irrational point to start riots, during the war rationing fabric was required therefore the excessive cloth was seen as unpatriotic to the war effort. The combination of this unpatriotic sentiment and deep-rooted racism against Mexican Americans gave white Americans the ammunition to unjustly attack them. In the midst of the riots, many Mexican American youths were beaten and stripped of their clothes with little to no consequences for the sailors/civilians. A year earlier, in the same city, Jose Diaz was murdered during an altercation between battling groups. Jose Diaz’s death became an example of the growing gang violence and gave white Americans the chance to push their fear-mongering into American society. Despite this, the Sleepy Lagoon Murder investigation saw a unique situation where Latino men were convicted for the murder with little evidence backing this. A humiliation of this magnitude, created an exasperating environment fueled by racism and discrimination. A couple decades later, the formation of the Chicano/a movement began to systematically fight for Latinx civil rights. Luis Valdez is one of the pioneering figures of the Chicano/a movement and through his literary work “Zoot Suits” brought attention to the unfairness Latinx people were subjected to. Valdez uses this play to educate the audience about the cultural importance of zoot suits, to bring to light police brutality towards Mexican Americans, and to create an enduring message that Mexican Americans are people who fight and are unwilling to diminish their identity despite the racialization/discrimination in the U.S.
Valdez’s play is based on the Sleepy Lagoon Murder of Jose Diaz and draws inspiration on the Zoot Suit Riots. The play centers on El Pachuco also known as Henry Reyna, who embodies the idea of Mexican American youths living in the turbulent and hostile atmosphere of the U.S. in the 1940’s. Valdez titled his play Zoot Suits to bring to the forefront the cultural impact of the suits within the Mexican American community and how it created dialogue of discrimination and representation in American society. As mentioned earlier, zoot suits were looked down upon because they were seen as excessive and unpatriotic. It is difficult to understand why a piece of clothing held so much threat, but we need to view it in a social and historical context. The suits originated within the African American jazz community. In Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon, Eduardo Pagan explains that the suits “was part of a larger complex of ideas and practices that the white middle class of Los Angeles found threatening to social order…summed up in a single word: ‘jazz’”. Jazz in the 1940’s was promiscuous, defiant, and at its core different from the norm. White Americans attached their discriminatory assumptions to the suits giving it the negative image. Moreover, the suit was the physical embodiment of being different and unique with its wide lapels, pegged trousers, and overall extravagant style, which was another reason for it to be seen as something bad. Despite this, Mexican Americans wore the zoot suits because their emotional value outweighed any bad perception they heard. An example of the importance of the suits is seen early on in the play. The actors establish a sense of togetherness through their banter and comfortable nature with one another. In the opening scene, the Pachuco says “Put on a zoot suit, makes you feel real root, look like a diamond, sparkling, shining”. The Pachuco is demonstrating how they identify strongly with their zoot suits by singing about the way the suits empower them. Valdez chooses to open the play with these words to give the suits liveliness. For the Pachucos, wearing their suits was a part of their identity that they were proud of. The time period is important as well because the ongoing war created a gray and somber environment. The suits gave people the chance to be unique, confident, and a space to explore themselves through fashion. However, in the words of Eduardo Pagan, “What educators, policy makers, social workers, law enforcement authorities- even members of their own community – were unable to see in viewing these children through the lens of social propriety was that part of their failure to conform came from a direct refusal to accept racialized norm of segregated America”. Keeping the play in mind, looking back to the 1940’s, we can gain insight to the prevailing fashion trends within the Mexican American community and how they chose to express themselves. While the suits were largely thought to be defiant rebellion and synonymous to criminal behavior, for Mexican Americans it was a public exclamation of their latinidad in a country that tried hard to remain homogenous.
One of the key things Valdez teaches us is that Mexican Americans were victims of highly publicized police brutality and ostracizing from the judicial system. Valdez brings attention to police brutality and how people in the justice system took advantage of their power. In the play, El Pachuco and his friends known as the 38th Street Pachucos get into a fight with the Downey Gang resulting in the death of a Chicano and hundreds of youth getting arrested. It becomes apparent that the police intend to blame Henry for the murder despite his innocence. With a tone of lamentation, Henry exclaims, “They’re going to do it again, ese! They’re going to charge me with some phony rap and keep me until they make something stick” indicating that he is not naïve to the way police scheme against people like him. El Pachuco follows with a quick retort of “So what’s new?” further reinforcing the notion that they are used to being mistreated and feel trapped in a system that is built to be against them. Valdez sheds light on how police did not hide from exploiting their privilege out in the open because there were no repercussions to their actions. When Henry is questioned by Lieutenant Edwards and Sergeant Smith, the policemen adopt a tone of pretentiousness as a way to separate themselves from Henry and establishing that they see him as lesser. They use intimidation tactics on Henry to coerce him into a confession. Their language is derogatory calling Henry and Mexicans Americans “malcontents…draft dodgers…squealer…animals… [as wearing] monkey suits” and so on. Their view of Mexican Americans is one of disdain and inconvenience. Valdez plays on this to show that if police were not able to beat a conviction out of a Pachuco, they would use anti-Mexican hysteria to get their convictions. The play is a demonstration of how Mexican Americans were often brutally beaten both physically and mentally by policemen. I believe they became scapegoats to ease the fear of gang violence in the 1940’s. With little to no Latinx representation, criminalization of the Latinx community was an easy target that police took advantage of. Valdez also brings forward the sentiments of the Chicano/a movement by showing how the judge and jury convict the Pachucos to murder. In the closing statement the lawyers gives a moving speech about how there are forces of racialization and totalitarian ideals that are working against the criminalized youth. He calls out the prosecution for deducing the youth to “some kind of inhuman gangsters” when condemning them would be like condemning “all American youth” and murdering “the spirit of racial injustice in America”. Shortly after his closing statement, the jury finds them guilty. They are incapable of seeing past their judgement despite the lawyers attempt to reason with their humanity. Valdez is implying that it is actions like this wrongful conviction, that later led to mobilization of the Mexican American community to make changes in civil rights. The injustices created sentiment amongst the community which allowed them to come together for the Chicano/a movement.
Lastly, Valdez leaves the reader with a message about what kind of people Mexican Americans are in the midst of adversity and racism. He shows the strength of a community that is marginalized and their relentless persistence to be seen/heard. Throughout the play, there is a dichotomous nature to the Mexican American community that Valdez wants to speak on. On one hand, they want to feel like they rightfully belong within American society. On the other hand, they understand the harsh reality that they are seen as lesser than and even unworthy for being different so they oppose everything and anything dealing with white American society. Henry clearly shows this when he reveals that he wishes to join the Navy and fight for his country. He believes that by joining the army, he is solidifying his status as a true American. He is proving his loyalty to his country in hopes of gaining equality for himself. El Pachuco tells him that America is not his country because Los Angeles “has declared all-out war on Chicanos”. El Pachuco is painfully aware that there are people in America that do not want them to prosper. The lives of Mexican Americans as described by El Pachuco are that of a war, bringing images of bloodshed, devastation, and murder. As readers, we know that Henry and El Pachuco are the same person. Valdez creates an inner dialogue showcasing how one person can often be at odds with themselves. During a conversation with Della, Henry wishfully says “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had this feeling like there’s a big party going on someplace, and I’m invited, but I don’t know how to get there. And I want to get there so bad, I’ll even risk my life to make it”. The party he talks about is most likely an ideology of a place of celebration where he doesn’t have to be subjected to racism or injustices. It is a place where he can be happy, dancing and singing to the joys of life. He laments that he doesn’t know how to get there, showing how he is lost and does not have the tools to get to where he wants to be. He wants to get there so bad that he is willing to die for it. His reality is filled with discrimination so in turn he creates an ideal world where he feels accepted.
Today, Valdez’s Zoot Suits, is just as crucial and necessary as when it was first performed in the 1960’s. It speaks on the mistreatment of a community, the imbalance of power, and the idealization of a better world. Valdez educates readers on matters that are not talked about enough. We need to be aware of how Mexican Americans were criminalized and diminished in order to keep alive the fight for equality. We are still fighting the war on the home front because there are still racial injustices seen today. The immigration reform taking place now has brought out deep-rooted racialization. Racist motivations for “kicking out” those who came to the U.S. illegally are blanketed under notions of keeping America safe from criminals. This is the exact same rhetoric that Valdez used in his play. The parallels between language in the play and the immigration issues demonstrate that there are people who still believe America is an “us” vs “them” culture. It is important to remain aware of past injustices so as to not repeat the same mistakes again. History is there for us to learn from it and fight to be better because of it. Valdez was a pioneer in bringing awareness to the Mexican American community and giving us a chance to make a choice. His play was a question, asking “What are you going to do about these issues?” and personally, it is empowering to have literature that makes people question the current state of society and be a catalyst for change.
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