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Ethnic Identity in the Zoot Suit

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Zoot Suits

Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez explains the racially charged trial of Sleepy Lagoon in 1942 in which the court of California charges a group of Chicanos with the murder of another Mexican-American man. For Chicanos, 1940 was an era of discrimination so the trials were unfairly biased against them. To fight against this discrimination, many Chicanos wore an exaggerated suit, referred to as a zoot suit, that included a long, loose jacket with padded shoulders and high waisted trousers. This choice of wardrobe earned the Chicanos a name of “zoot suiters”.

Ethnic identity is an important role in this play because the men on trial were accused of murder for their cultural background, choice of clothing and biased media influence rather than evidence. Ethnic identity is the way in which one regards himself and also how he is perceived by others. Judgments of another person begins at the first glance. Hairstyle, clothing, shoes and cleanliness are all tied together in the representation of oneself. The Zoot Suit was a choice of fashion by the Chicanos because it represented rebellion against both American and Mexican cultures. These suits were prohibited during the duration of World War II as they used too much cloth, making it an easy and fashionable way to show their rebellion.

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Unfair Disadvantage

While on trial, the Chicanos were denied access to clean clothes and haircuts, which negatively altered the way the judge and jury saw the men. The judge states, “The zoot haircuts will be retained throughout the trial for the purposes of identification of defendants by witnesses” (Valdez 53). This gave them an unfair disadvantage as the judge and jury would be looking at the men after they’ve slept, eaten and worn the same clothes for days prior. El Pachuco, the alter ego of Henry Reyna, sees that the men do not look up to standards in court, “Look at your gang. They do look like mobsters” (Valdez 54). Henry knows that as for appearances, him and his men are at a loss but when he sees his men slouching in their chairs, he tells them to sit up straight.

Biased Information

From 1942 through 1943, the zoot-suiters were publically portrayed as dangerous gang members by the news media. With this powerful influence, more and more people began to believe the lies told about the zoot-suiters. While in court, the press states, “The Zoot Suit Crime Wave is even beginning to push the war news off the front page” (Valdez 80). This is big because World War II is happening yet people are still interested in this case. The press is in charge of knowing what the public is interested in and what they need to know. The problem though, is the biased, unjust information being published to the public.


Although the Chicanos referred to themselves as pachucos, they did not live life like them. Henry uses the term pachuco lightly. He uses it in the sense of rebelling rather than identification. Pachuco/Pachuca defines the men and women who rebelled against social conventions. This group was created due to their ethnic backgrounds and youth by claiming the zoot-suit style. They set an example of rebellion and developed a style for their generation. This generation went unnoticed until the Sleepy Lagoon murder in 1942. The subculture would be brought to attention, and soon be disapproved by the public, and also within their own mexican communities. After the trial emerged, negative image of the Mexican American youth would come into the spotlight. Mexican men would be known as troublemakers and women as promiscuous. The actions of pachucos earned the subculture a bad reputation that worried the mexican culture and paved a rough path for the Chicanos involved in the zoot suit riots. El Pachuco, Henry’s alter ego, states, “The City’s cracking down on pachucos… You’re Henry Reyna… the snarling juvenile delinquent. The Zoot suiter” (Valdez 29). El Pachuco is the Mexican, American, zoot suiter and pachuco that lives inside Henry. He brings out his various identities and encourages Henry to act upon them. After listening to his thoughts throughout the story, Henry recognizes that he must act differently in order to be released from prison. Henry states, “I’d got you all figured out. I know who you are, carnal. You’re the one who got me here. You’re my own worst enemy and my best friend. Myself” (Valdez 76).

Modern Day Situation

Rosa Linda Fregoso, author of “Intertextuality and Cultural Identity in Zoot Suit” writes about the modern day media portrayal of Chicanos. She states, “Part of the official race-relations narrative in the United States, the claims about “gang incidents as a major social problem”, have dominated media portrayal and the social science literature since the 1960’s. From greasers to bandidos to gangs, dominant culture characterizes Chicanos and Chicanas as “culturally deficient”, “Inherently violent” and “sexually and morally pathological” (Fregoso 29). Twenty years after the Sleepy Lagoon case, the Chicanos are still under attack by the media. The media stereotypes the Chicanos as deficient, violent and morally wrong. They make it seem as if a pachuco individual has no option to be different from previous Chicanos, they are born the same so they will grow up the same. Again, the public will be influenced by the choice of words used to describe people of the Mexican descent.


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