Monday, April 3, 2017

"Zoot Suit"

The current revival of Luis Valdez's "Zoot Suit" in Los Angeles has turned into quite a phenomenon, as if something has been brought back from the dead, still a little musty maybe, but thrilling as heck to see and hear, reanimated, again. ¡Que Viva!

The video is a high school production in Monterey, CA in 2008. I'll have more to say about it later.

I had to brush up my 'Chuco slang (Caló) because I didn't think I remembered much, but I was surprised in the end at how much I did remember, including being called a bolillo or even a weddo once or twice. Well, I'm white, tending toward unnaturally pale sometimes. What can I do?

I grew up -- at least until I was ten years old -- among Chicanos, Filipinos, African Americans, immigrants from Europe, Asia, Latin America, some Natives mixed in -- some of whom were Pachucos or would be 'Chucos --  and I've always felt a kinship to the people and the culture. It's not mine, and I make no claim to it, but it is a comfort nonetheless.

El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista was a big thing when I started working in theater in Central California in the early '70s, and there was plenty of farm worker resistance and agitation throughout the state. It was difficult at the time, however, to integrate the campesino back-of-the-truck morality and experimental plays Luis Valdez and his troupe were doing primarily for the farm workers (anybody could attend, though) with the Shakespeare and standard musical theatre offerings we were churning out by the great-gross, with the occasional Chekhov and Ibsen and Strindberg and whatnot for "diversity." (Seems so funny now...) So while we knew about Teatro Campesino, and some of us had seen their works, we couldn't do them in our repertory.

That changed (somewhat) when Luis was commissioned by the Mark Taper Forum (Center Theatre Group?) in Los Angeles to create a Hispanic play for a broad audience. I think it was in 1976 or 77. Hispanic was considered exotic as heck. Luis didn't disappoint. The result was "Zoot Suit," a ground breaking theatrical exploration of Pachuco culture during WWII, the Sleepy Hollow murder and subsequent trial and conviction of numerous Chicano youth and the "Zoot Suit Riots" that followed.

"Zoot Suit" exposed the deep seated prejudice against Mexicans in California and throughout the Southwest, and it demonstrated the "cool" and the strength of Pachuco culture even as it was being violently suppressed during World War Two.

I remember zoot suits and 'chucos and all that from my childhood, but just how I knew about them, I can't say anymore. In Los Angeles, some of our neighbors were Mexican or Mexican-American, and my mother's closest friend was a woman named Ignacia who lived in Chavez Ravine until they were thrown out so the City Fathers could build Dodger Stadium. Were they the source of my memories? I don't know. Maybe.

I don't recall whether I saw "Zoot Suit" onstage. It wouldn't have been at the Mark Taper. I only saw a few things in Los Angeles in the Seventies (one I do recall was the "Rocky Horror Show," featuring Tim Curry at the Roxy on Sunset Blvd.) But I may have seen it later in either San Juan Bautista or in San Francisco. I know I have met Luis at least twice in my wanderings, in Sacramento and San Juan.

The video above of the high school production in Monterey evokes many memories for me, so I feel I must have seen the stage version of "Zoot Suit" but where and when, I can't remember. The  production is rough, of course, but it's high school students, and it's remarkable for what they were able to accomplish. Luis Valdez apparently advised on the project and thought highly of it. This story in the Monterey Herald gives a fuller picture about the production than I can here. Some of the commentary on the YouTube video is harsh -- because the play isn't like the movie (no, no it isn't; the play is different, sheesh) or because the actors aren't all raza (no, they aren't; but they don't have to be, and some of them probably shouldn't be, eh esé?)

When Ms Ché was young, she said she was forbidden to use terms like "pachuco" and such -- probably because they were dangerous. Prejudice was strong in California -- in many areas it still is -- and it wasn't considered worth the trouble to get the Anglos upset. Well, not until César Chavez and the Farm Workers Movement overturned many long-standing California discriminatory practices. As we got to know more Chicano artists and writers, "'chuco" lost its taint.
Dolores Huerta was honored Saturday at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. She's a survivor from the campesino days, no doubt about that, and she is a magnificent presence, an abulelita you don't mess with. She talked of what's been gained and what still needs to be gained. (Oh so much.) During the presentation that I heard on the radio while stuck in traffic over Sedillo Hill on Saturday (there were snow flurries, oh my!) music from "Zoot Suit" was played (sounded like both live and recorded pieces.) That's part of what brought all this to mind. They didn't identify the music as from "Zoot Suit" -- but I recognized it. So my memory isn't completely shot. Not yet!

Que rico.

¡Que viva!

Deleted guero (weddo) zoot suit dance scene from 1943 movie, "I Dood It" featuring Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra.

The Zoot Suit Riots were in the summer of 1943. Thus the deletion of this number from the movie.

[Note: the necessary and continuing farmworker struggle is another topic for another day.]


  1. Well, it's just about a week too late for me to catch the revival at the Mark Taper Forum. But thank you very much for the cultural reminder.

    I'll just be doing the Jersey thing by checking out Southside Johnnie in San Juan Capistrano. Fuck, I guess it's tomorrow night. Time to get some sleep.

    Happily, I know where to look for the swallows!

    A. At the Tree of Life Nursery on the Ortega Highway.

    1. I started writing the post on the 1st, but I am so slow these days, I didn't get it posted till after the revival had closed. I understand it was sold out the entire run.

      South Side Johnnie in San Juan Capistrano sounds interesting... ;-)

    2. Che,

      You're such a great pal. It isn't really your fault for when you posted this. I wasn't checking in regularly. Who could have known, anyway? I have been in various tangles both good and bad for the last two weeks.

      You are someone that I either enjoy very much or someone who provides me with much needed information.

      The last time I successfully brought Mrs. Junior to Los Angeles was on New Year's Day, 2013. She was my guide. (She knows Manhattan as well.)

      We rode the Surfliner Amtrak Train to the Union Station. Then we depended solely on Los Angeles City buses for transpo. It was quite interesting and a deal cheaper than riding the bus in San Diego.

      I wanted to take her to "The Conga Room," a stylish venue in downtown L.A. co-owned by Jimmy Smits, amongst other luminaries.

      We made it the the Conga Room, but it was closed on Sundays. We still had fun watching the outdoor ice skating. Then we hung at a very nice Karaoke Club in the downtown complex. An incredible brother along with an Alesia Keyes lookalike sang, "Empire State of Mind," by Jay-Z.

      Then some of the local youngsters sung various categories, including Disney songs.

      We stayed at the Days Inn in Santa Monica right on the bus line. Squares don't get it. The next morning we walked down to the promenade where all the streets are closed to automobiles and enjoyed the street performance artists, jugglers, one-man-band, you know.

      Then we ate at a extremely trendy bistro. In my entire life, I have never seen two such handsome/pretty Kool Fags! Only in Santa Monica.

      Southside was an incredible performer. He has a big following in California because he lived five years in San Onofre. He knows us like the back of his hand. He is so funny. He is a tireless bandleader. He had a really big guy, (athletic,) who played at least two saxophones, (one clearly a bass sax,) a trumpeter, (incredible,) and a tall man who played the shit out of the trombone. He hit on his important numbers from the past and featured some of his new tracks from last year's album.

      That's one hard-working musician. He is more famous than truly successful. He is hilarious.