A major theme in the play revolves around the wrongful imprisonment of the members of the 38th Street Gang, who are persecuted primarily because of their race. The police force has a bigoted attitude towards the Hispanic gang members and characters regularly make reference to the second-class citizenship of the Hispanic characters.
In addition to the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, the play also looks at the Zoot Suit Riots, which took place during the same time, in which servicemen stationed in Southern California committed racially motivated violent acts against local Hispanic residents.
Prejudice and the Law
As the murder trial winds to a close, the DA flatly states that in his opinion the actual details of what happened, which remain ambiguous at best, are ultimately irrelevant in the face of the real threat that the murder exposed: the tough, young, flashy Mexican immigrants “in our midst.” These stereotypes about Pachuco culture and how it relates to the larger Mexican immigrant culture expands to become the premise upon which the police decide the killer was wearing a zoot suit. Even though there is a lack of strong evidence, the courts and the law professionals involved in the case believe that, for symbolic purposes, the arrest of the 38th Street Gang members is completely necessary.
Rewriting the Narrative
The play looks at actual historical events in Mexican-American history and tries to present them in a way that makes room for the perspectives of the Hispanic people involved. The figure of El Pachuco acts as a kind of narrator in the play. As a manifestation of the Pachuco archetype, a kind of allegory for Chicano excellence—at once impressive, all-knowing, tricky, and disruptive—he makes sure that the Chicano perspective is getting adequately represented in the narrative.
El Pachuco contains many different facets and guides Henry Reyna along his journey. His highly theatrical persona onstage has the effect of both clarifying as well as confusing the narrative. Nowhere is this more evident than the end of the play when three different possible endings are presented to the audience. Henry's fate remains ambiguous, as the audience must ponder whether he met a happy and glorious or a tragic one.
Passion & Romance
Henry Reyna, as the leader of a gang, is quite the ladies' man, but he holds a special place in his heart for his girlfriend, Della. Della is willing to rebel against the wishes of her father to be with Henry, and testifies on Henry's behalf in court.
Additionally, Henry falls unexpectedly in love with Alice Bloomfield, the white activist who works on his behalf while he is in jail. They have a letter correspondence and even kiss passionately during visiting hours at one point in the play. While Henry's romantic life is not shown that much in the course of the play, he is portrayed as a passionate and seductive figure.
Two characters who are instrumental in the case for the 38th Street Gang are George Shearer and Alice Bloomfield, two white people who have chosen to help the members of the gang. They are, in some respects, typical examples of "white savior" figures, an archetype of a white person who has chosen to help a non-white person (sometimes with the implication that they are serving themselves). In the course of the play, the Chicano characters are, to varying degrees, skeptical of George and Alice. In the beginning, the boys refuse George's legal help until he speaks Spanish to them and tells them not to assume anything about him without first giving him a chance to help. In a confrontation with Alice, Henry accuses her of being disingenuous in her desire to help. It is not until she breaks down and admits that she gets exhausted by her work as an advocate that Henry trusts her. The play represents several examples of the "white savior" archetype, and these figures are important parts of the 38th Street Gang's victory, but they are also met with some resistance from the people they are trying to help.
The Press and Media Scrutiny
Another major theme in the play is how the media scrutinizes and puts a spin on events. The whole stage is filled with newspapers and stacks of newspapers that represent other props onstage, and the 38th Street Gang must contend with perceptions about them that have a prejudicial rhetorical bent. Indeed, many times, the press is represented by one character or a chorus of voices that shout out information about the case that clearly has a strong bias. Alice Bloomfield, as a member of a more left-leaning publication, seeks to combat these misrepresentations and advocate for the 38th Street boys with her own journalistic powers. Thus, the play shows that the press influences public opinion, and that many people do not realize how skewed or biased it can be.
The archetype of the "Pachuco," in his zoot suit and his flamboyant adornments, is an image of confident and smooth masculinity. The Chicano men in the play pride themselves on their masculinity, their prowess with women, and their ability to lead with a certain amount of machismo. Thus, when the figure of El Pachuco is stripped and humiliated in the course of the "Zoot Suit riots," left naked on the stage, it is particularly striking—the image of a man who is stripped of his masculine embellishments.
Zoot Suit Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Zoot Suit is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
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