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Frontera Project

Zoot Suit: Music, Drama, and an Enduring Social Message
agurza | Friday, February 3 | 0 comments

It’s been almost four decades since the Los Angeles debut of Zoot Suit, the groundbreaking musical about overt racial hostility facing Mexican Americans in Los Angeles during the 1940s. The Luis Valdez play opened at the Mark Taper Forum on July 28, 1978, and a year later had a short run on Broadway. Unless you experienced it at the time, it’s hard to appreciate just how much this cultural milestone meant to Mexican Americans, striving for a more respectable place in American society. The first professionally produced play by and about Mexican-Americans, Zoot Suit shattered cultural and social barriers.

And it was indeed a smash, at least in L.A. Zoot Suit was the talk of the town. It made us feel we had arrived. The fact that Valdez had started his theater career as founder of El Teatro Campesino in the 1960s, associated with Cesar Chavez’s farm-worker movement, made his play’s mainstream success even more meaningful.  As I wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2001, "Zoot Suit continues to be a play about possibilities, about individuals from clashing cultures finding common purpose. It's about becoming American, a story perhaps more important today than ever before.”

I remember watching the play during its run at the Aquarius Theatre on Sunset Boulevard. What a thrill. I’ve seen hundreds of live artistic performances in my career as a critic and culture writer. Zoot Suit still stands out as one of the most memorable, right up there with Los Van Van at Marina Hemingway in Havana (1988) and the Beatles final concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco (1966).

Zoot Suit comes back to mind this month as the Center Theatre Center Group prepares to stage its first revival of the Chicano drama. It returns to the Mark Taper Forum starting January 31, with Luis Valdez again in the director’s chair. The role of El Pachuco, which originally launched the career of a young and charismatic Edward James Olmos, will now be played by Oscar-nominated actor Demián Bichir. And actress Rose Portillo, who was barely out of college when she starred in the original production as Della Barrios, girlfriend of the falsely imprisoned protagonist Henry Reyna, will be back as Reyna’s mother. (Portillo was recently featured in the alumni magazine of Pomona College, her alma mater where she now teaches theater.)

The play is both instructive and entertaining. It taught us about the era’s shameless assault on Chicano youth, persecuted for their ethnicity and their jazzy zoot-suit style, featuring long coats, feathered hats, baggy pants, and long chains looping down their legs. In what became know as the Zoot Suit Riots, young Chicano men were attacked and stripped on the streets of L.A. by servicemen stationed in Southern California. The mob hysteria against the so-called “pachucos” was stoked by a sensationalist press, with headlines fanning the animosity towards Mexican Americans. The drama itself is based on another historical event, the Sleepy Lagoon murder case of 1942, in which a group of young Mexican Americans were wrongfully convicted of murder.

Pretty heavy stuff for a musical. Paradoxically, however, the play is brimming with spirited songs that capture the exuberant spirit of the community in the face of overpowering antagonism, from both the Establishment and the majority white population. The soundtrack reflects the effervescent cultural fusion of the 1940s, mixing mainly swing and mambo, two dance styles which fed the bicultural passions of mid-century Mexican-American youth.

The Frontera Collection contains many examples of that musical style, and specifically several songs featured in the play. The most famous tracks are by Lalo Guerrero (1916-2005), the singer/songwriter known as the father of Chicano music. His song, “Los Chucos Suaves,” is prototypical of the era’s pachuco style and became the play’s signature song.

On the original Imperial 78-rpm recording, featuring Lalo Guerrero Y Sus Cinco Lobos, the songwriter speaks during instrumental breaks in the pachuco slang known as caló, which is used prominently in the play’s dialogue. Unlike the modern, more densely produced version on the soundtrack, Guerrero’s early recording features a sparse production that highlights the steady rhythm of the maracas and snappy timbal accents, along with tasty, Cuban-style horn and piano solos. The recording on the soundtrack sounds more heavily arranged in a 1970s salsa style, as you might expect from salsa superstar Tito Puente, who is listed in the credits.

Guerrero wrote two other songs included in the play. “Marihuana Boogie” is a straight-up boogie-woogie which he also recorded on Imperial with his Cinco Lobos. The updated version on the soundtrack features lyrics by playwright Valdez. The third song by Guerrero is the swing number “Vamos a Bailar,” also on Imperial but this time backed by his orchestra rather than the quintet. This arrangement shows how smoothly the American and Latin styles work together, weaving mambo and danzón breaks into the jazz format.

In his long career, Guerrero recorded music in a wide variety of styles, including classic boleros, rancheras with mariachi, and folk songs with his own guitar accompaniment. He was also known for novelty tunes, including a series of children’s songs performed as Las Ardillitas de Lalo Guerrero, a Spanish takeoff on Alvin & The Chipmunks. His most famous novelty number is also his most controversial. “Pancho Lopez,” sung to the tune of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” was criticized by Chicano activists for allegedly promoting stereotypes, reportedly leading Guerrero to stop singing it in public.

The Frontera Collection includes more than 500 individual recordings by Guerrero, including many 78s on both national and regional labels. In addition to the compositions Guerrero wrote and performed himself, the archive holds several recordings by other artists playing his songs. Guerrero’s music is also featured in a 2002 Arhoolie Records compilation appropriately titled Pachuco Boogie, featuring a Mexican-American bassist, composer, and arranger from El Paso named Edmundo Martinez Tostado (aka Don Tosti, aka Don Ramon). That same year, I interviewed the retired musician, aging but still irreverent, at his retirement home in Palm Springs. The LA Times story (“For Tosti, the Zoot Suit Still Fits”) ran two years almost to the day before he died, at age 81.

The other leading musical figure in the play is the creator’s brother, singer/songwriter Daniel Valdez, who starred in the original production as Henry Reyna. Both Valdez brothers came up through Teatro Campesino’s scrappy school of guerrilla theater. But while Luis went on to limited success in Hollywood by directing La Bamba, the biopic about rock star Ritchie Valens, little brother Daniel’s career faded.

Daniel, who performs on the original Zoot Suit soundtrack, released an earlier album of his own songs titled “Mestizo,” released in 1974 by A&M Records, the major independent label owned by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. Along with that album, the Frontera Collection also includes a rare single by Daniel Valdez called “Richard Campos,” a folk ballad about a Chicano soldier killed in the Vietnam War. The 45-rpm disc was produced by El Teatro Campesino de Aztlán and released by Fresno-based Cucaracha Records.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed Luis Valdez a few times. When I was still a journalism student at UC Berkeley in the 1970s, I wrote a cover story for our Chicano newspaper, La Voz del Pueblo, visiting Valdez at his Teatro Campesino compound at San Juan Bautista. Thirty years later, I interviewed him for the aforementioned L.A. Times story on the occasion of the first Zoot Suit revival in Los Angeles, though this one was a reading for radio broadcast performed at the Skirball Cultural Center in Brentwood.

That was in July 2001, and Valdez said the themes of the play were still relevant. He cited campaign ads that "criminalized" former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa by falsely linking him to gangs, an echo of the Sleepy Lagoon injustice.

“The physical damage that was done [during the Zoot Suit riots], the humiliation the Mexican community felt, was still there in 1978 when we debuted the play," he said. "It contributed to our success. And it continues today. The law continues to crack down on our very appearance. Plus, there's been a hardening of ethnic stereotypes."

Today, sadly, with Mexico-bashing raised to an official level in our national politics, those themes are more relevant than ever.


--Agustín Gurza


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