Popular Performance I

Michelle Zubiate

"Zoot Suit and the politics of identity"

(Spanish abstract)

The 1982 film/musical Zoot Suit visually opens with the sign of "Hollywoodland." Immediately it paints the Chicano landscape of the 1940s - a mixture of mystery and reality, fantasy and fact, fear and desire. It recalls the commercialization of their culture in the landscape of greater Los Angeles and California. It conjures the creation of those hegemonic ideals delivered by the movies and popular culture - the ideals that shape the guidelines for success and happiness. Gliding the camera onto the Earl Carroll Theatre, where a neon woman's face and large mural of El Pachuco sit largely on the roof, the pan recreates the images of romanticism and pain in the formation of the Mexican American identity. Polished cars with license plates reading "ZOOTER" belong to wealthy Latinos who proudly adorn them with emblems of the "38th Street Car Club." These symbols of affluence and style slip into the seats of the theatre where the Pachuco meets them with an opening number in a dance hall celebrating the zoot suit's creation of mythical and real identities. As the song ends, El Pachuco rips through the newspaper backdrop to the applause of the entertained, multicultural audience.
Musically, he delivers his lines, "Ladies and Gentleman, the moment you are about to see is a construct of fact and fantasy. But relax, weigh the facts and enjoy the pretense. Our pachuco realities will only make sense if you grasp their stylization." El Pachuco will act as the film's narrator, snapping the quick change of scene as the narration twists and unfolds on itself in the barrio during World War II. The Mexican American community faced anxiety and fear in the face of this war but they did not face it alone. Just as they were not completely isolated in the barrio, the symbolic interaction and negotiation of meaning was created in the fight for physical and psychological space of their community; and, it was this constant antagonism that founded the need to represent this moment in art. On the stage and on the silver screen, this recreation of pain and pleasure was met with both praise and scorn. In decoding its contribution to the understanding of the factors that went into identities of Mexican Americans, pachucos, adolescents and all victims of a society in conflict, the viewer can understand the facts and the fantasy that build its warring interpretations. Why did this musical find such success in its Los Angeles venues but never translated well to the Broadway scene? The myth of zoot suit never belonged to pachucos alone yet the film never found an audience outside the memories of pachucos past. This paper attempts to understand the complexities of symbols that go into constructing self within the film and how these symbols succeed or fail to resonate with the viewer then and now. We will look at the symbols of style, war, race, language, music and economic success to pick apart each fabric that weaves the identities of the characters represented on Zoot Suit's stage and in its audience. By recognizing the whole of the drapes by the symbols of its accessories, it may be possible to understand the acts of negotiation that make up culture.


The history of Chicano theatre that led up to the creation of Zoot Suit began in the sixteenth century with the performance of religious dramas as a means of educating natives first in Mexico and then throughout the Spanish colonies. Fast-forward to the nineteenth century and many acting companies would travel to the Southwest from Mexico and Spain to flourish professionally until eradicated by the advent of radio and television. In 1965, Mexican American theatre was revived again by El Teatro Campesino, a new company connected to the farmworker's Union with an initial mission to expose the injustices in the fields (Huerta, 69) and, in 1967, left the Union to broaden their scope in order to include the variety of political, social and cultural issues pertinent to Chicanos in the United States (Ramírez, 194). The form of El Teatro's agit-prop theater took on was the acto, short one-act scenes that would highlight a certain issue through improvisation and then give a solution towards its injustices. Soon, Valdez began to introduce more cultural elements to the theater through the style of mitos so that in the combination of actos and mitos they could distinguish themselves through a rejection of the Western proscenium stage and present theatre "one through the eyes of man: the other through the eyes of God" (Ramírez, 194). Together, combined with the corrido, or ballad in which the story is told in musical form, the beginning ingredients were arranged towards the evolution of the film Zoot Suit which would contain elements of all these styles in a large, popularized performance. While all these early performances were created specifically for La Raza, after a decade of taking their work around to colleges and international festivals, Valdez began to see the potential to reach a broader audience. Also, Valdez began to recognize that his style was evolving away from the politics of many Chicano theater organizations as he developed his mito connections believing that a Chicano must return to his/her indigenous roots while critics believed that we must learn from political analyses of the Chicano's condition and not look to the spiritual as a solution (Huerta, 73).
Soon Valdez made the decision to create a professionally produced play and so, in 1978, Zoot Suit was produced by both El Teatro Campesino and the Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles, commissioned by Gordon Davidson for the Mark Taper Forum. Davidson originally wanted the play to be endemic to Los Angeles and since Valdez had long been fascinated by the so-called "zoot-suit riots" of the 1940s, he began to write a drama set to music to capture that moment along with the preceding Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial. First produced as a work-in-progress during the CTG Mark Taper Forum "New Theatre for Now" series, its ten-day run sold out in two days. The play then started the new season in August of 1978 with a six-week run but it was also extended and moved to a larger venue after selling out in record time (Huerta, 74). After eight months, the Shuberts picked up the option for the play in New York and Zoot Suit opened in the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway on March 25, 1979. Opening night, however, was met with overwhelming negative reviews by critics. It closed in April 29th, after 17 performances at an $800,000 loss (Davis, 125). Believing that the play had cinematic qualities to it, and because of the inability to afford the cost of touring such a large production, Valdez and Universal filmed Zoot Suit in 1981 on a modest budget of only $2.5 million believing the audience was out there and, in Universal's studio executive Ned Tanen's hope, would break into the Hispanic market through the feel of attending an evening's performance of the stage play.
The drama's narrative revolves around the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial but Zoot Suit is not entirely built on facts. Rather, the characters are loosely built composites of the real 38th Street Gang that became entangled in the World War II system of chaotic and circus-like structures of legal, governmental and media institutions. Twenty-two Chicano youths were arrested after the unexplainable murder of José Diaz on August 2, 1942 near the popular barrio swimming hole, the "Sleepy Lagoon." Twelve of them were sentenced to San Quentin before being release on appeal in October1944 -- three found guilt of first-degree murder and nine for second-degree murder. The East Los Angeles community created the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee to appeal the conviction based on the absurdities and injustices that occurred throughout the mass trial. As a result of the tensions and anti-Mexican sentiment created from the trial, squirmishes and fights broke out beginning in June 1943 between military soldiers stationed in the city and the barrio youth (Ramírez, 196). The play, instead of becoming a docu-drama, focuses on the social relations and symbolic historical events around the trial and the riots. The main character Henry Reyna (built on the real leader of the 38th Street Gang, Henry Leyva) interacts with his environment and his psyche, the narrator El Pachuco, to build a myriad of symbolic meanings about the identity of a Chicano at this moment in time. For Valdez," Henry is the core of the piece and he was very difficult to trace. I knew I didn't want too deal with the whole story from the outside looking in: I wanted to take the audience inside and then look out" (Barrios, 163).

The Pachuco Image

Who does the Pachuco image style belong to? Does it only belong to the young or the old? Or does it belong to black, white or the Latino culture? When Edward James Olmos appears on stage, fully adorned in his black and red zoot suit, the most striking idiosyncrasy is his age. With his machisimo mustache and leathered skin, we seem to be peeking into the "Pachuco Future" ghost of Henry Reyna's subconscious. Most pachucos and zoot suiters were young men, not the weathered soul embodied by Olmos. Is this older man a future that Reyna hopes to become or is doomed to become? Is The Pachuco a static figure of criminality or does this apparition of the future point to the socialization that racializing pachucos can lead to? Here we can begin looking at the style of the pachuco as more than the peacock feathers of Mexican American males. It is the active negotiation of identity that takes the normalized markers of success such as clothes and accessories and makes them their own. It is not simply an appropriation of the costumes of the rich, rather it is an invention of a new class that both accepts and rejects race, wealth and style. This is a concept that Stuart Ewen and others would call the "democratizing of wealth" where minorities either reproduce the images and styles of the dominant hegemony in order to gain respect or else produce an alternative to the dominant as a site of subversion (Ewen 1998). Most likely, the zoot suit is a combination of both.
In his examination of Zoot-Suit Culture and the Black Press, Bruce Tyler looked at the ways in which zoot suit culture formed in the media's consciousness and how these images from the outside conflict with the expression created from the inside, an "invented tradition" by the youth:
Several reasons were basic for youths wearing Zoot-Suits. Some were declaring their independence from parents, society and their social and cultural norms. For others, it was a spontaneous youth movement. Some youths adopted it as the proper costume for jitterbugging on the dance floor. A very small minority used it as a cover for crime and gang activity. (21)
He goes on to quote Horace R. Clayton as understanding this culture to have a "Bigger Thomas" mentality that links youth criminality among blacks as a result of anti-social behavior brought on by racial discrimination and segregation which restricts opportunities for employment and social mobility.
His essay examines the culture primarily within the scopes of its black origins in Harlem "considered by some the Zoot-Suit capital." Harlem, just a few subway stops from Broadway, should have been the perfect audience for a musical recognizing its historical style embraced by many prominent figures in their youth such as Malcolm X. But how often do the steep prices of a Broadway ticket lure black audiences south of 125th Street? Reinforcing the economic segregation of Broadway theatre reinforces the racial ties to the diversity of the house seats -- something that may not have been deeply considered by Luis Valdez until he realized that there was a large audience for the play but not necessarily within the theatre genre since not only were ticket prices steep, the amount of money needed for touring such a large production created new discussions on how to develop the play into something more accessible. (Barrios, 160) Though connected by a style and therefore by a certain facet of identity, these two coasts of marginalized minorities would continue to be alienated in art and in history.
Tyler's essay also brings up a symbolic point of the racialization of the zoot suiters -- the inevitable tie between the style and the criminality of the racialized youth who dons the baggy pants with the tapered cuffs and puffy shoulder long coats. Here it may be important to understand that while the zoot suiter and the pachuco are not the same person, they are both linked together by the ideological values of those in the center. R.G. Davis and Betty Diamond reinforce these deeply rooted beliefs in failing to understand what zoot suit culture brought symbolically to the youths in order to break down the socially constructed barriers to upward mobility. They write, "The pachuco is also presented as a defender of Chicano pride and culture, as a rebel. He is meant to be seen, as we are repeatedly told, as the 'homefront warrior.' But to what end? The only value he articulates is that he 'takes no shit from anyone.' True, the pachuco possesses a rebelliousness, but it is totally without direction, it is a blind lashing out." (128) How is this rebelliousness blind, when the style and the role of pachuco constantly recognizes their status as "other" and in direct opposition to those who racially and economically segregate them from a relative affluence? Those who wore the zoot suits often wore them in leisure contexts - while lindy hopping in Harlem or jitterbugging in Los Angeles. They were never a type of gang uniform and the style never implied a violent motive. Zoot suiters most often were not affiliated with gangs or violence and it even exploded into mainstream style when worn by figures such as Frank Sinatra. But, again, when embraced by the pachuco culture as their style, the symbolic construction of the fabric's shape takes on whole new meaning that encourages the oppression of those who do not fit a hegemonic ideal.
The genesis of the zoot suit style remains unclear, some say that it was a derived from Clark Gable's character Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind while others say it originated among African Americans in Harlem. All these moments point to the fact that its beginnings do not indicated a racialized originary moment, rather the appropriation of the style by youth culture began to be named by the center as "other." The reaction to the youth wearing these clothes shows how then the zoot suit began to take on a symbolic presence in the minds of a war torn country during World War II - leading to bans on the wearing of the zoot suit by government officials who justified their actions by calling for a rationing of cloth. The recreation of the moment in history during the late 1970s and early 1980s points to the continuous failure by society to break down the source of their anxieties about difference and embrace the style of each individual.

Sailors versus Pachucos

To further understand how this identity suggests subversion, rebellion or whatever form of counterhegemonic motive one would like to deconstruct or celebrate, it is important to look at the country during the time of the Sleepy Lagoon case and the "zoot suit riots." Mauricio Mazón best outlines the symbolic significance that overshadows the tangible effects of the "riots" in the 1940s. The nation was at war but without any sort of real enemy to face on their soil. Tensions and anxiety ran high for the many groups that composed Los Angeles, from the youth to the adults, the whites, the Latinos, the Japanese (who were already facing very real attacks on their identity), the sailors, the press, the pachucos, the barrio citizens. In particular, the barrio faced its own sort of warfare as each group that lived within the defined boundaries lived with their own pressures from fear. Mazón likened this symbolic response to difference as a creation of what Victor Turner would call communitas, "Communitas identifies the group's release from the formal structures of society. To an important extent the concept of communitas represents the externalized form of the internal experiences of a group. Communitas generates a plethora of images and symbols and lacks the cognitive qualities associated with structured relationships." (Mazón, 18) One way this collapse of structure would manifest itself was in the actual Sleepy Lagoon trial that will be discussed soon. But surrounding that specific moment were the palpable racial tensions that shifted to the Mexican Americans of Los Angeles after the Japanese were put into internment camps.
But the isolation of war in the barrio was not exclusive to Mexican American adults or even to simply Mexican Americans. Parallels can be drawn between the experiences of the zoot suiters, the adults and the sailors that would surface in different ways. The young members of the barrio community would form a new order in the customs and norms of the jitterbug and zoot suit culture. As for the adults, as Mazón articulates, "Where the adolescents found structure in clothes, music, and dances, the adults (along with many youths) found similar outlet in bond drives, patriotic rallies, volunteer organizations, etc." (13) Servicemen went through similar transitions during boot camp where an extreme form of control and order forced them to be initiated through haircuts, uniforms and military drills. These different categories of transition and change to new roles during the war time era came together and moved apart in a variety of ways. None of these roles were mutually exclusive. For instance, in the film, Henry Reyna was one day away from becoming the serviceman. The servicemen often entered the zoot suit dance halls to join the women and immerse themselves into a new form of structure.
When all these anxieties and role confusions finally came to head during the "riots," the actions committed by the opposing parties did not result in massively violent consequences. As Mazón argues, the symbolic annihilation of identity reigned supreme as sailors stripped the zoot suiters of their clothes and cut their hair, very much the same way they had been stripped of their individualism during boot camp. The adult population of Los Angeles, who saw in the Chicano youth another form of wartime enemy, even further encouraged these actions. As Raul Homero Villa says in Barrio Logos, "…these offensive actions by 'our boys' were inspired and supported by the conjoined effects of ideological and repressive urban state apparatuses, as the military vigilantes were lauded by the press and largely left to their actions by observing police and sheriff's departments officers." (70) All under pressure from a lack of structure and a desire for order, the community of Los Angeles staged symbolic moments of stripping and rebirth to grasp a hold on the tangible signifiers of clothing in order to understand the intangible creation of meaning in their lives of constant fear, anxiety and powerlessness.
The film grapples with this moment in a rush of magical realism that constructs symbols and meaning not always tangible to the average viewer. If the film was made in an effort to bring some sort of access to a mass audience, the codes introduced into many parts of the film were often beyond their reach. Many of these symbolic codes were derived from the mythical world, as developed from the mito genre of theatre. The sailors do not attack the real characters - they attack the symbolic Pachuco figure. They strip the identity before hurting the biological being underneath the style. What is left of the Pachuco is a man simply clad in a loincloth. Even many analytic viewers of the film failed to grasp the underlying meanings created through the Pachuco's new appearance. Even those who halfway understand the symbolism seek to simplify and undermine its representation in order to gain control over their own ambiguities over the religious undertones. Davis and Diamond write, "The loin cloth is supposed to represent, if you know Campesino's mitos, the Indian under the clothes of the city dude. The image is barely understood by those of us who know, giggled at by Chicanos in the Los Angeles audience, and viewed as melodramatic and confusing in New York City. Thus the confused politics produces confused art." (129, my emphasis) While it is true that many viewers will not recognize the significance of both the loin cloth and the Pachuco's zoot suit's original colors (black and red as both the colors of the UFT and of the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, the god of sorcery and prophecy), the presence of being "stripped bare only to reemerge nobly" (Ramírez, 198) poignantly draws the viewer in as the Pachuco slowly and proudly backs into the dark, deep recesses of the stage and the pachuco's inner psyche.

Language Use in Zoot Suit

Much of the play's symbolic use of language had the intentions of universality so it was not surprising that Valdez may have expected a warm reception on Broadway. Perhaps, thinking that it would appeal to both Anglos and the large Latina population in New York City, the film contains much use of Spanglish. Its use and meanings attempt to include both English and Spanish speaking audiences into the symbolic creation of a culture that is both specific and universally suggestive of a minoritarian subject's subversive action against hegemonic ideals. Yet, in the process, Zoot Suit alienates both viewers. For the Spanish speakers, it alienates those Spanish speakers who do not understand the specificities of pachuco and Chicano language. It also alienates a majority of Spanish speakers who believe that only a "pure" Spanish fully celebrates their culture. For the English speaking viewers, they feel symbolically alienated from the parts of the play conveyed only in Spanish without translation as if they were simply allowed to peek into the culture without being invited into the joint creation of meaning.
For those Spanish speakers who view Spanglish as "tainted" language, Arlene Dávila looks at its avoidance in mainstream culture as an attempt to promote "'cultural citizenship' whereby the maintenance and protection of Spanish are construed as central to the Latinas' right and entitlement to maintain their culture in the United States." (Dávila, 165) However, its use also acts to subvert the hegemony that created this need for protection in the first place. The use of a "pure" Spanish emphasizes the values of mobility that come only with regard to certain class, education and background at the expense of representing language in its everyday use. Some believe that the use of Spanglish forces the viewer to accept the existence and even celebrate the culture of all that use it including the educated, the artistic, the upper class as well as the under class and assimilated Latinas. Dominant, Western based, nationalist readings of language that is creolized or mixed, however, view this as a decay of the nation's language and culture in effect creating hierarchies and marginalizing those who speak these languages (Dávila, 254). "Zoot Suit" attempts to deconstruct these hierarchies by celebrating the breadth of expression afforded those who speak Spanglish. Unfortunately, this type of Spanglish does not often translate well to non-California Latinas who do not understand the idioms of pachucos such as órale!
For the English viewers, they are witnessing a pachuco language. Its creation has much to do with the celebration of in-group identity and solidarity at the expense of outsiders' comprehension. However, the way Valdez chooses to incorporate Spanish and pachuco elements in the dialogue serves to symbolically uphold these values while keeping the language use to a level where nothing much is lost to the English speaking viewers. An analysis by Laura Martin finds that almost no passages in the film are entirely in Spanish (1998). A vast majority of Spanish is found in single, popular Spanish words such as raza, muchacho and familia. Other words that have Chicano origin are simple words such as carnal (pal) or chale (enough) whose meaning adds cultural and texture to the text but are not necessary to the comprehension of the narrative. In fact, only two entire Spanish phrases are used without translation during the whole film and neither of them is essential to the plot. In one, for instance, the tough pachuca Bertha says to Henry's new girlfriend, the timid Della Barrios, "She doesn't know the difference between being cool and being culo (butt)." This example shows the way pachuco slang and usage reflect a sort of sparring and jargon that give the language an edge of subversion.
Finally, Martin makes the claim that Zoot Suit is not a "bilingual" play but instead a "bicultural" one. Its intentions are to create an environment where difference is celebrated and recognized but not in its entirely exclusive element. Had this effect been carried out successfully, we not only would have seen the popularity the play received in its Los Angeles venue but its themes should have ran well with New Yorkers - a multicultural urban setting where issues of assimilation and success are met by countless citizens everyday. The movie, however, shows that the specificities of the pachuco language and culture are not ones that can easily transcend into a universal language of plurality and so the audience unfamiliar with this culture is left comprehensive to the plot but alienated to its message and its spirit. Unfortunately, the members could never grasp the pachuco's stylizations in language.

Musical Swing Themes

And as with language, the music and the rhythm of the play carry their meanings throughout the lyrics of the song. The bilingualism of these lyrics, in particular, show certain affect characteristics that point to a social attitude towards the linguistic codes used by the pachucos and Mexican Americans in general. As Martin mentions, the opening number's form is not commonly held throughout the song as it is the only truly bilingual piece of the whole movie. The first verse is in English and the second verse is in Spanish. And although one is not a translation of the other, the words of the songs reflect the stylizations of the zoot suit and their popularities within the dance halls and pachuco hang outs of Los Angeles in the 1940s. Written by the star of the film and the brother of Luis Valdez, the songs of Daniel Valdez, however, do set the symbolic tone of how language will be used throughout the film. The song itself is a site where the different languages clash and negotiate for space within the overall composition and together they paint the symbols of what the zoot suit means for the youth culture. These symbols are neither solely celebratory nor cynical - they are both. But as Martin points out, the rest of the songs will show language correlating with a specific mood or emotion. Those songs in English such as "Handball" and "Marijuana Boogie" express a cynicism and frustration within the Anglo institutions of law and prison. However, the songs sung in Spanish create a festival atmosphere that focuses on pride and cultural solidarity. As with the bilingual usage in the film's dialogue, the Spanish again serves its symbolic purpose of uplifting cultural specifity while viewing English as the language of hegemony and oppression. But when the two languages meet at the start of the play, you see how their interaction creates the real form of the Chicano's identity - a combination of influences that reacts and works within an oppressive framework of institutions but still finds agency in the assertion of their own cultural heritage and beliefs.
This agency can also be found in the musical styles that connect the poetry of Zoot Suit's cultural image. This swing music adds the influences of salsa and traditional Mexican folk rhythms. As Daniel Valdez puts it, "I don't think you can invoke the zoot suit without leaving the music in, because it's really part of what was coming out of the '40s. Without it, I don't think the film would have gotten that flamboyant look." When looking at the development of swing, you must first recognize its jazz roots in the African American culture. But as Amiri Baraka describes in his book Blue People, the white commercial appropriation of jazz created a homogenized displacement of a once diverse genre. What Daniel Valdez creates in the film, however, reappropriates the swing style to include its original moments of agency by adding new meanings and new styles such as those of salsa and folk music. This, in turn, reverses the static effects of simply popular swing tunes into the force that Nathaniel Mackey describes in his essay "Other: From Noun to Verb." Though he wrote about the artistry of black artists such as poet/scholar Kamau Brathwaite and bebop jazz artist Thelonious Monk, these same principles can be applied to the Latino creation of sound that moves its style from passivity and "othered" to action, creation and "othering":
Such othering practices implicitly react against and reflect critically upon the different sort of othering to which their practitioners, denied agency in a society by which they are designated other, have been subjected. The black speaker, writer or musician whose practice privileges variation subjects the fixed equations that underwrite that denial (including the idea of fixity itself) to an alternative. (Mackey, 267).
The word "black" here, in the context of Zoot Suit can be effectively substituted by pachuco or Chicano or any other minority that utilizes the power creativity can have on the creation of meaning.

Relationship with Press

Both the pachucos of the 1940s and the plays and film that would derive from their cultural wake had to endure misrepresentations and cruelties from the popular print media. In the 1940s, this came in the form of newspaper articles glorifying the acts of violence committed against the zoot suiters of Los Angeles and the constant criminalization and racialization of the Mexican Americans. Douglas Daniels, for The Journal of Negro History, examined the Los Angeles phenomena in terms of how these events shook up the normative ideas of racism as a black/white binary. By looking at a content analysis of local newspapers in 1942, he noticed that newspapers stopped using the term "Mexican" to report crimes involving people with Spanish surnames in certain sections of the city. So as not to jeopardize President Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy in the Americas, they resorted to a new expression which everyone understood referred to Mexican-Americans. They filled Southern California newspapers with headlines about "zoot-suit gangsters," or "zoot-suit fracas," and similar expressions:
In the northern, southern, and eastern United States as well, identification of criminals and suspects as Negroes, the failure to identify whites as such, and frequent reporting of petty crimes involving blacks, served the same end. A minority group was presented as inherently criminal, while those employers, landlords, merchants, loan sharks, and servicemen who preyed upon them were accorded the respect reserved for heroes. (123)

In turn these naming devices would have a profoundly racist effect in targeting the Mexican American community as a scapegoat for World War II anxieties and these built associations with the community would outlive the war into decades to come. In the film and play, the entire press is represented in a single character who provokes and agitates the pachucos throughout the entire film. Also, the play incorporates a "living newspaper" style in which large headlines and front pages serve as much of the backdrop emphasizing their prominence and intrusion into the pachucos' daily lives.
To further add to the animosity between these two worlds, the negative reviews of the play on Broadway were largely responsible for the show's failure. In New York City, reviews often make or break a production and the word of mouth was not powerful enough to negate the harmful effects the critics had on ticket sales. The film was met with the same cynicism by the popular press. Vincent Canby of the New York Times refers to it as a "a holy mess of a movie, full of earnest, serious intentions and virtually no achievements." (1982, 10) Interestingly, Canby misinterprets the play's intentional overblown feel and understands the pachuco's demise as being attributed entirely to the press and its lord in San Simeon. He fails to understand the symbolic makeup of the press as interacting with all of Los Angeles' institutions and its collective social psyche. Also interesting to note, is the only source of praise for the entire film rests on Tyne Daly as both actor and character of Alice Bloomfield, the white woman who helped secure the release of the boys from San Quentin. He writes, "She is flesh and blood. The others are marionettes." I think there is little more to be said about the ironic symbolism of this statement about a film that attempts to bring real injustice to flesh and blood and free from the puppet master of white hegemonic ideals.


As José Muñoz writes, "the story of 'otherness' is one tainted by a mandate to 'perform' for the amusement of the dominant power bloc…The minoritarian subject is always encouraged to perform, especially when human and civil rights diminish." (Muñoz, 1999, 187, original emphasis) In the introduction to this paper, I sought out to look for what problems inherit in the play caused its ultimate failure on Broadway. I looked in the wrong place. The symbols and norms that create the success or failure of any Broadway production occur in the minds of those facing the proscenium stage. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the play did so well in its Los Angeles venues when, to leave its home field, means to face a audience that wants to deny its ontology a history or a future. As Muñoz later writes, "Thus, performing beyond the channels of liveness and entering larger historical narratives seems especially important." (188) This is exactly what Zoot Suit attempts to do. So its value cannot be measured in its monetary success but rather in the deconstruction of the tropes of criminalization, poverty and anti-American stereotypes that have guided popular thinking for the entirety of their interaction with the dominant Anglo blocs of power. Valdez attempts to give his people a history throughout the entire performance. His own disconnection with the larger organizations of Latina theatre resulted from their rejection of his use of mythical symbols in his work. But he acknowledges that the Chicano's identity ultimately depends on the recognition of historical life beyond the current political moment. Just as Spanglish represents for the Chicano an embrace of the past and the present, so do the stylizations of the pachuco reflect a minoritarian subject's negotiation with the "lack" imposed upon them through the eyes of those elites in power.
The symbols of the play were also not the Chicano's to share alone. When conjuring a period of American wartime, it is important to understand the parallels of identity shaping through fear and anxiety that shaped all of society's members. Unfortunately, these meanings kept missing each other in space as Valdez's attempts at universalizing his content ultimately convoluted these greater parallels through his mired attempt at meshing it with a culture prided in its specificity and cultural solidarity. The pachucos never wanted to be understood. Their clothes, their music, the jargon were all specifically celebrated as sites of contestation with the outside world that rejected their inclusion. Yet suddenly, the pachuco spirit was wrested away from its curmudgeon-like past and held up as a display of subversion and cultural pride. While Chicano audiences appreciate this move, larger audiences disconnect immediately and focus on the alienation they feel from the characters on stage.
Much of this alienation comes from a narrative, a history and a performance of identity stuck in the liminal. The viewer faces characters trying to understand their role as citizens made enemies in their homeland. They deal with life as Americans whose Mexican background makes them "different." The push and pull of commercialism and culture trap and constrain movement in the ideological realm of Los Angeles. These tensions are not easy ones to grapple with nor do they provide simple entertainment for a Broadway audience. They require mental action - transcendence from normative ideals constructed for the success of any Broadway show. The performance on stage is the grandiose hyperbole of these negotiations within the mind of the pachuco, the contemporary Chicano and the audience member alien to both groups but connected within the larger social stage. The failure to for these groups to meet in the liminal and celebrate Zoot Suit's creation highlights the continuous friction between entertainment and cultural meaning and the rigid categorizations people place on both. Viewing Zoot Suit as an effective cultural event requires a blur of space and time to break former boundaries in order to imagine new worlds of meaning. Stepping into the zoot stylizations would be the first step in realizing a past, present and future for Latina popular performance on Broadway.
Works Cited

Canby, Vincent. "Zoot Suit: Filmed for the Stage." The New York Times. Jan. 22, 1982.
Section C; pg. 10.

Daniels, Douglas Henry. "Los Angeles Zoot: Race 'Riot,' the Pachuco, and Black Music
Culture." Journal of Negro History, 82.2. (spring1997), 201-220.

Dávila, Arlene. Latinos Inc.: The Marketing and Making of People. U of California P, 2001.

Davis R.G., and Betty Diamond. "Zoot Suit: From the Barrio to Broadway." Ideologies and
Literature 3.15 (Jan.- Mar. 1981):124-33.

Ewen, Stuart. All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. Harper,

Huerta, Jorge. "Luis Valdez' Zoot Suit: A New Direction for Chicano Theatre?" Latin American
Theatre Review 13.2 (summer 1980):69-76.

Jones, LeRoi. Blues People. Quill, 1963.

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
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