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Depiction of Racial Prejudice in America in Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez

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Luis Valdez, the author of the play, Zoot Suit, introduces the struggles of being a Mexican American during World War II. Valdez writes about a real-life incident associated with the Sleepy Lagoon murder court case and how many Pachucos were being intentionally prosecuted because they were Mexicans. In Zoot Suit, Luis Valdez argues how marginalized youth struggle to form an identity resistant to hegemony because of the justice system, the media, and society. He uses characterization, imagery, and conflict to reveal that regardless of one’s character, the color of their skin will always be a factor in the way Americans perceive them. This perspective is relevant today because racial prejudice is practiced in America, with police brutality against African Americans and President Donald Trump banning Mexican immigrants from coming into the United States.

The significance of the zoot suit was entirely different for the youth compared to society. Young adults wore the attire because it was, “ … a symbol of love and joy or of horror and loathing, an embodiment of liberty, of disorder, of the forbidden”. Many teens wore the zoot suit because it explored the idea of juvenile rebellion against the justice system during a chaotic time for America. The author uses “an embodiment of liberty, of disorder, of the forbidden” to emphasize America’s reaction to zoot suiters in the United States. The Mexicans were given freedom, however, the migration leads to chaos in society and denied Pachucos to rise in a flourishing economy. And because the zoot suit came from a time of prosperity and rebellion in the 1920s many ignore its political and social significance. The purpose of the zoot suits was to allow Mexican Americans to identify with their culture and to rise and fight against the racial tensions in America. However, society thought otherwise, “… the zoot-suit became the means by which that difference was announced. Those ‘impassive and sinister clowns’ whose purpose was ‘to cause terror instead of laughter, invited the kind of attention that led to both prestige and persecution”. The author mentions “impassive and sinister clowns” to suggest that Mexicans are callous failures whose objective was to create a societal frenzy. And suggests that most Americans consider Hispanics as individuals who attract negativity in their safe neighborhoods with criminals and the constant presence of the police force. Since the United States was going through a difficult stage they had to implement rules of rationing. The zoot suits were a sign of contempt to the nation and its servicemen because they blatantly represented a disregard to support the rationing regulations.

The author uses characterization to display how marginalized youth fight to develop a rebellious identity to hegemony because of the press. Valdez uses indirect characterization in the form of thoughts to introduce Henry’s alter ego, the Pachuco. For example, “Why don’t you tell them what I really am, ese, or how you’ve been forbidden to use the very word… Like ‘pachuco’ and ‘zoot suiter?’… The press has distorted the very meaning of the word ‘zoot suit.’ All it is for you guys is another way to say Mexican”. Valdez uses the Pachuco to highlight the negative presence of labels against Mexicans in the press and uses his thoughts to reveal his character as enraged and brave for standing up to the media when no other Mexican could. Additionally, Valdez utilizes indirect characterization in the form of actions to demonstrate how a Mexican witness’s testimony is being manipulated by the press. For example, “Now, after Henry Reyna hit the old man with his closed fist, is that when he pulled the knife? The old man had the knife. So Henry pulled one out, too?… Your Honor, I object. The witness is obviously afraid her testimony will be manipulated by the Prosecution”. Della Barrios was testifying on the behalf of Henry, however, every time the press would ask the questions her answers would be misinterpreted as a confession to Henry’s crimes. On numerous occasions, George calls for an objection against all questions, however, the judge regards them as overruled and continues to allow the press to manipulate the boys’ images. Even though Della is disclosing the truth about the night at Sleepy Lagoon the press takes her statements and spins it just to imprison the boys. Equity will never be served for those of color because of the discrimination that operates in the media with bias and cultural tension.

Furthermore, Valadez uses imagery to display how marginalized youth struggle to create an identity resistant to hegemony because of the justice system. For example, Sergeant Smith forcefully asks, “What happened at Sleepy Lagoon? Talk! Talk! Talk! (SMITH beats HENRY with a rubber sap. HENRY passes out and falls to the floor, with his hands still handcuffed behind his back)”. The Sergeant has no concrete proof that Henry murdered Diaz but is going on speculation, he is dehumanizing him because he would not admit to a crime he did not commit. Because Smith is an oppressor, civilians don’t challenge that he is in violation of Henry’s civil rights and is causing him physical and mental harm based on rumors. Because the justice system was corrupt by white people, white Americans beat on Mexicans and were never found guilty for assault but the victims were immediately sent to jail. Another example of imagery is how the press describes the defendants’ appearances as, “… the thick heavy heads of hair, the ducktail comb, the pachuco pants… Their appearance is distinctive, Your Honor. Essential to the case”. The court forbade the defendants from changing their clothing for the trial so they can be seen as dirty mobsters who go around killing anyone. By treating the pachucos this way the court system hopes that society will see them as violent gangsters who do not belong in America. Valdez uses a description of the boys to reinforce the idea of the system taking away the little dignity, identity, and equality they have so the jury can find them guilty of murder. The use of imagery allowed the readers to emotionally connect to Mexicans and witness the discrimination that cultured individuals faced regularly.

To add, Valadez uses conflict to demonstrate how alienated youth compete to create a defiant identity to hegemony because of society. For instance, “Your Honor, I can only infer that the Prosecution… is trying to make these boys look disreputable, like mobsters. I don’t believe we will have any difficulty if their clothing becomes dirty”. Henry and the boys are struggling with an external, man vs. society conflict, where George Shearer, the lawyer, expresses that the defendants should receive new outfits and haircuts but the press disagrees, they believe that this is relevant to the decision making process about the trial. Their representation is what allowed the jury to understand their persona and make the conclusion of guilty for charges of murder. Another example of conflict is, “There’s still a chance I’ll get out. Fat chance. I’m talking about the appeal! And I’m talking about what’s real! Que traes, Hank? Haven’t you learned yet? ”. Henry is struggling with internal conflicts as he holds hope that he will be a free man, the Pachuco believes differently. Because the Pachuco truly embodies the Chicano culture he is aware that he cannot expect society to accept immigrants who have produced havoc. However, if Henry went on to become a serviceman he finally would have prospered in America and gotten away from the dangerous life of a Mexican. Being culturally diverse in America means being discriminated against by society. In the play, Mexicans were arrested and prevented from receiving legal rights and fair decisions because society manipulated their image into the way they want others to perceive Mexicans as, in this case, ruthless, violent, gang members.

To conclude, in Zoot Suit, Luis Valdez reveals the struggles of creating an identity resistant to hegemony for marginalized youth because of the media, society, and the justice system. The author uses characterization, imagery, and conflict to reveal obstacles Mexican Americans had to face to receive justice. The play mimics the harsh presence of society today like discrimination in the workplace, in the justice system, and hate crimes against African Americans/LGBTQ community to cast attention to the bigotry that goes on worldwide. It introduces police brutality with Sergeant Smith beating Henry, racial discrimination/inequality by forbidding the defendants the opportunity for fresh clothes and a haircut, and alienation by isolating Mexicans from becoming successful in America, all issues that occur in today’s society. 

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Depiction Of Racial Prejudice In America In Zoot Suit By Luis Valdez. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 16, 2021, from
“Depiction Of Racial Prejudice In America In Zoot Suit By Luis Valdez.” GradesFixer, 06 Aug. 2021,
Depiction Of Racial Prejudice In America In Zoot Suit By Luis Valdez. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 16 Oct. 2021].
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