Thursday, April 3, 2008

Zoot Suit Boogie

Over the last six months I worked on a project for César Chávez celebrations on campus. My contribution was writing and editing a discovery guide for the theatrical production of Zoot Suit. The purpose of the guide was to introduce high school audiences to the context of the production—including everything from Immigration waves, Los Angeles history, to cultural language and customs of the time. *

Hailed as the first Chicano production to hit Broadway, Zoot Suit conflates events of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial and the Zoot Suit Riots, which terrorized the Mexican American community in Los Angeles during the 1940s, in order to create a production that both uplifts and ignites social consciousness.

While the project gave me many headaches, as I dug deep to find everything from accurate information to photographs, plus figuring out how to make everything accessible for young minds, the one thing that pushed the project forward was this:

Little is written on the role of pachucas, women who donned the Zoot Suit attire, slang, and behavior of the 1940s. Yes, there are a few scholars who have written several scholarly pieces, who I can count on one hand: Catherine Ramírez, Elizabeth Escobedo, and Rosa-Linda Fregoso, but little attention is given to them in other forms of media. Zoot Suit, itself, was criticized for the masculinist portrayal of zoot suit culture.

The reality is that young women also dressed in full zoot suits, spoke in Caló (a dialogue referred to as pachuco slang--though it wasn’t slang at all, but an entire new language that Mexican American youth created out of their multi-cultural/lingual backgrounds), and hung out on street corners alongside their male counterparts. For the 1940s, this was seen as an extreme violation of social norms. Pachucas, seemed to care little about keeping a socially-accepted “feminine” appearance. Instead, they broke cultural and gender norms, forging an identity of their own.

Most def a source of inspiration.

[*In case you didn’t know, Chávez was a zoot suiter in his young life. This play is performed in honor to his life during an era of turmoil in the United States. Moreover, many of the people who contributed to the production of Zoot Suit, including the playwright, Luís Valdez, composer, Daniel Valdez, and the theatre trope, El Teatro Campesino, grew out of the Farm Workers Movement. Theatre, comedic satire, music, and dance were important tools used to organize people in support of the farm workers movement.]


Jamilah said...

interesting. i definitely hadn't heard of women's roles in the zoot suit era -- thanks for the info :)

unlikely said...

Thank you so much for writing this up! We just saw "Zoot Suit" and despite being really enthused by it I was disappointed in the portrayal of Chicanas and the role of pachucas. It was odd that the only woman character who puts on the Zoot Suit pants was Alice Bloom.

Anonymous said...

Took me time to read the whole article, the article is great but the comments bring more brainstorm ideas, thanks.

- Johnson