Brechtian and Aztec Violence in Valdez’s Zoot Suit

Mark Pizzato. Journal of Popular Film & Television. Volume 26, Issue 2. Summer 1998.

Playwright Luis Valdez categorizes the plays has developed with El Teatro compesino (Farmworkers Theater Company) as actos (political agitprop to organize migrant farmworkers), mitos (mythic works to focus indigenous identity), and corridos (musical ballads acted out). His bilingual musical Zoot Suit combined all three forms as it moved from page to stage to screen.’ Zoot Suit was a tremendous hit on the Los Angeles stage in 1978 and became the first Chicano play on Broadway, though it played much less successfully in New York. When Valdez made the musical into a feature film (1981), on a modest budget, he created a unique mixture of stage and cinema production. The outside and inside of the Hollywood theater in Los Angeles, where the play had been so popular, are seen on-screen, yet the film’s clothing and cars set it in the 1940s, the time of the historical Sleepy Lagoon murder and zoot-suit riots. In significant ways the film reaches even further back to the Amerindian roots of Chicano culture, connecting the zootsuited pachuco to Aztec mythology, as well as showing the modern influence of European theater through Brechtian techniques. It raises a powerful image of ethnic identity yet critically questions the sacrificial urge in Chicano machismo.

The phenomenal success of Zoot Suit raised critical questions about Valdez as a leading teatro (theater) artist-although his grassroots credentials were impeccable. He had been a campesino, working as a migrant farm laborer in his childhood, and he developed the leading Chicago theater company of the 1970s in affiliation with the United Farm Workers union of Cesar Chavez. He then led El Teatro Campesino toward a search for ethnic identity in Aztec and Mayan mythology. This paradoxical combination of revolutionary activism with ethnomythic nostalgia became further complicated when Valdez developed Zoot Suit as a feature film. In the decade since the film was made, critics have accused Valdez of selling-out to the white, mainstream, mass audience; presenting reactionary stereotypes in his female characters; and idealizing violence in the gangster paradigm of his male zoot-suited pachucos. Yet, it is through these flaws that Zoot Suit expresses a still current struggle within Chicano identity. The film is valuable in a Brechtian sense because it prompts various political views-even while it shows an opposite, Artaudian desire for a primal, unifying contact with lost, spiritual forces.

Valdez’s Zoot Suit developed as a very personal work, out of the collective practices of Teatro Campesino. The film focuses more than the play on the interior dialogue between the main character, Henry Reyna (Daniel Valdez), and his alter ego El Pachuco, who also addresses the audience as narrator. The film is concerned with the social relations and historical events of the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and zoot-suit riots. Zoot Suit reveals a great deal about the drive toward violence, creative and destructive, in ghetto generations of the 1940s and in generations since then. In its use of theatrical and ritual techniques, as well as historical and mythical images, Zoot Suit offers a rare example of how cinema can display violent stereotypes in complex ways, provoking critical thought in the audience while also evoking ancestral passions-especially through the troublesome figure of El Pachuco.

Valdez has been praised by prominent male scholars (see Huerta, Brokaw, and Elam) as the main leader or father of the Chicano teatro movement. But he has been criticized by feminist scholars (see the works of Broyles-Gonzalez, Fregoso, and Yarbro-Bejarano) for misrepresenting Chicanas and for usurping the collective work of the teatristas in El Teatro Campesino through his patriarchal control and his publication of the company’s collaborative actos as his own. These positive and negative aspects of Valdez’s patriarchal leadership culminate in the production history of Zoot Suit: he was hired as an individual playwright and director by the Mark Taper Forum and Universal Studios, but the film draws greatly on prior techniques and images of the Teatro Campesino collective.

Zoot Suit looks back to a time when young urban gangs were forming as an alternative ethnic ideal, prior to today’s drug dealing, automatic weapons, and drive-by shootings. This nostalgic ideal is exemplified onscreen with the highly stylized pachuco walk, the zoot-suit costume, and choreographed switchblade fights. As El Pachuco explains in his introduction to the audience (in a line added in the film), “Our pachuco realities will only make sense if you grasp their stylization.” Zoot Suit hits at the heart of minority desires and mainstream fears in today’s audience, using the Brechtian distancing effects of historification (displaying a current problem through a parallel situation in the past) and gestus (showing a critical social attitude through an ironic stage gesture).

El Pachuco appears as a purposefully problematic character in Zoot Suit.9 As narrator he controls the sequencing and editing of scenes as they appear by snapping his fingers, and thus he becomes, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, a figure of the playwright within the play. But he is also vulnerable to the actions of other characters. As Henry’s alter ego, he pressures him in various directions, stirring rebellious violence or coaching with ca/ma, or stopping the action in a Brechtian manner to make Henry (and the audience) think. Except for another allegorical character named “the Press,” only Henry Reyna can see and talk to El Pachuco, but El Pachuco incarnates the spirit of pride and defiance, violence and “cool” in all the zoot-suiters. He is directly affected when Henry and others embrace the pachuco style or turn against it. When the zoot-suit riots take place in the film, El Pachuco embodies Henry’s many zoot-suited peers, who were attacked by uniformed sailors and marines in the streets of Los Angeles in 1943, while the historical Henry (Leyva) was imprisoned in San Quentin for the Sleepy Lagoon murder.’o In the climactic scene of the film, a group of sailors and marines, led by the character “the Press,” overpower El Pachuco and his switchblade, then strip him of his zoot suit, although he then arises in Aztec guise, turning a gestic moment into a mythic one.

Zoot Suit prepares the audience for this complex climax through earlier Brechtian gestic twists and ritual moments. In the first scene after El Pachuco’s introduction in the film, he reminds Henry and the watching audience of the historical circumstances of the drama. Although Henry has just been arrested for the Sleepy Lagoon murder of 1942, he had already volunteered to join the U.S. war effort: “I’m supposed to report for the Navy tomorrow.” El Pachuco mocks this potential change of costume, from the zoot-suit uniform to “tight puto pants” and gives Henry more ethnic-oriented orders: “Rommel is kicking ass in Egypt but the Mayor of L.A. has declared all-out war on Chicanos. On you! … Forget the war overseas, carnal. Your war is on the home front.” A little later in the film, after Henry is beaten up during a police interrogation, El Pachuco takes him, with a snap of the fingers, to a flashback of home, “a lifetime ago, last Saturday night,” prior to the Sleepy Lagoon murder of which Henry is falsely accused. There, as Henry proudly dons his zoot-suit uniform, ostensibly for the last time, El Pachuco hands him a switchblade to take to the dance. This is a glaring misrepresentation of the historical event, according to one of Valdez’s strongest critics, because the actual 38th Street Gang, led by Henry Leyva, did not carry switchblades, nor did most pachucos at that time (Broyles-Gonzales 183). Yet this prop of the phallic switchblade figures prominently in the film, like El Pachuco’s snapping fingers, as an instrument symbolizing the perverse, ritual power of the zoot-suit image-and the exposed cuts (or switches) in the drama-rewriting memory and history to express the current, violent desire for a distinctive, costumed identity.

The flashback of home also shows Henry being lured way from his father Enrique and his mother Dolores, from their ambiguous desires and lowerclass status, through the “diamondlike sharpness” (as ElPachuco calls it later) of the zoot-suit image and costume. Henry’s father, a garbage man, is proud that his son will soon join the Navy and assimilate as an American hero. Just before Henry leaves home for a last night out as a pachuco, Enrique tells his son to take the switchblade from his pocket and “rip apart that goddamn silly zoot suit.” This paternal desire takes an uncanny turn, later in the drama, when the zoot suit of El Pachuco is ripped from his body as he loses the switchblade fight with the uniformed American servicemen. In the earlier scene at home, Henry’s mother also expresses a desire that foreshadows his path: “Bendito sea Dios. I still can’t believe you’re going off to war. I almost wish you were going back to jail.” The film retains this prophetic line, showing that the perverse pachuco route that Henry takes, one too many times, arises from the mother’s desire and father’s rule, even as it defines them.

In the film Henry argues more with El Pachuco than in the stage play, and a revealing line is added, giving a further gestic twist to the zoot-suit ideal. Henry angrily asks, “Whose pinche side are you on?” El Pachuco responds, “The side of the heroes and the fools, Hank. Which one are you?” Henry is on his way to becoming both hero and fool in the theater of the law, as he accepts George as lawyer for himself and his gang, while exchanging angry looks with the imaginary Pachuco.

This contest of wills between Henry and his ethnic gangster superego intensifies in subsequent scenes, building to El Pachuco’s zoot-suit sparagmos and Aztec reincarnation. Yet, as Henry’s awareness of his own split subjectivity grows, he is more and more able to use his raging ressentiment, as oppressed, lower-class minority, to fight judiciously rather than self-destructively. Using El Pachuco’s wisdom and passion, Henry becomes heroic, although still playing the seemingly foolish scapegoat of American racism and injustice. And this leads to potential insight for various types of spectators-through the ritual passion, yet Brechtian distancing effect of El Pachuco’s influence and Henry’s shifting awareness.

For example, in the gang fight scene in the film during the Saturday night dance (prior to the Sleepy Lagoon murder), Valdez reminds the watching Latino and American audience of their participation in the theatrics of ethnic violence. The dramatic interest grows as tensions in the barrio dance hall increase, between male and female and among Henry’s gang, a rival Chicano gang, and uniformed servicemen. Then the choreography of a mambo switches into that of a knife fight, as Henry takes the place of his younger brother Rudy to tangle with the rival gang’s leader. But at the climax of their sacrificial contest, with Henry’s switchblade at the rival leader’s throat, El Pachuco snaps his fingers and freezes the action. Here Valdez willingly unsuspends disbelief, in a Brechtian gesture that makes both Henry and the audience pause to think. With the other characters frozen, El Pachuco says to Henry: “Que mamada, Hank. That’s exactly what the play needs right now. Two more Mexicans killing each other. Watcha … Everybody’s looking at you.” El Pachuco then refers to Henry’s sacrificial desire, which also reflects the watching multicultural audience and El Pachuco’s own role:

HENRY: Don’t give me that bullshit, ese. I got this stiletto from you. PACHUCO: Did I tell you to kill the bato? Control yourself, Hank. Don’t hate your raza [race] more than you love the gringo.

Henry chooses to let the rival gang leader go, which disappoints the pachucos and pachucas in his own gang and eventually plays into the prejudice of the white legal system. Henry’s gang is arrested for the murder at Sleepy Lagoon, where they had met to take revenge on the rival gang, after Henry had been caught alone and beaten up.

The actual killer at Sleepy Lagoon is never clearly revealed in the film. But El Pachuco is shown as representing Henry’s gang and “hitting a man on the ground with a big stick,” as Della, Henry’s girlfriend, testifies during the courtroom scene. The clearly biased judge pins the guilt on Henry, as leader of the gang. The film makes this prejudice explicit through the testimony of a police officer, who compares the Anglo gangster’s use of “fisticuffs” to the pachuco’s weapon of choice: “All he knows and feels is a desire to use a knife to kill or to at least let blood. This inborn characteristic comes down from the bloodthirsty Aztecs.” Similar testimony was given during the actual trial of the 38th Street Gang (see Davis and Diamond 124), but Valdez does not simply ridicule this racism and its legal unfairness. Instead, he presents El Pachuco with his switchblade as incarnating an ancient Aztec spirit, both violent and wise.

E1 Pachuco, as on-screen editor of the film, then cuts, with a finger snap, from the officer’s racist testimony to a romantic song about marijuana, with himself playing the piano and singing, while a chorus of pachucas surrounds him. In this Brechtian ge st, Valdez juxtaposes the sacrificial prejudice and scapegoating of a white legal system with an ironic self-questioning of the Aztec heritage of sacrifice inside Chicano culture, which El Pachuco himself represents. Between the verses of his song, he says to Henry: “This is 1942, or is it 1492? Something inside you craves a punishment, a public humiliation, and a human sacrifice? There’s no more pyramids, carnal, only the gas chamber.” Henry responds, “But I didn’t do it, ese. I didn’t kill anybody!” But El Pachuco only continues his song: “Mari … marijuana, that’s my baby’s name.”

As Valdez has made clear in interviews, Zoot Suit’s El Pachuco represents (and re-presents) the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, with the red and black colors of his costume, his magical cutting and ordering of scenes, and his mirroring of Henry’s sacrificial impulses. Tezcatlipoca, whose name means “smoking mirror,” was the Aztec god of sorcery and prophecy (Clendinnen 122). For the feast of Toxcatl, in honor of Tezcatlipoca, a captured warrior, dressed in the symbols and colors of the god, was sacrificed at the top of a temple pyramid. But first that captured warrior was trained by temple personnel and performed the character of the god for an entire year, playing a flute and carrying flowers and a “smoking tube” in many processions throughout the city streets (Sahagun 65). “Women with children in their arms came out, placing the little ones before him, greeting him like a deity, and this was done by most of the people” (Duran 126-27). Twenty days before the ultimate sacrifice of this god-actor, he was given four women to enjoy as his wives. They also accompanied him on the day he was to die, “consoling him and keeping him merry,” until he reached the temple (Sahagun 68). There he shattered his flute at the base of the pyramid and walked up its steps alone. At the top of the pyramid, temple priests held him by the arms and legs, with his back arched over the sacrificial altar, and another priest cut open his chest with an obsidian knife, “seized his heart, and raised it as an offering to the sun.”

Zoot Suit suggests certain parallels between the sacrifice of pachuco characters and the Aztec ritual theater of human sacrifice. The play shows the Chicano gang fights of the 1940s as a stylized spectator sport (and dance), feeding the show of the judicial trial. This is somewhat akin to the ritualized “flower wars” that the Aztecs conducted to capture enemy warriors from neighboring city-states as future sacrificial actors. El Pachuco embodies the mythic role of the most ideal captured warrior, who was given the costume, character, and respect due to the god he played as he was sacrificed. El Pachuco’s specific relation to the god Tezcatlipoca, and to the captured Aztec warrior who performed the god, is shown through his colors, his magic, his giving of visions to Henry, his joint as a “smoking tube” during his song about marijuana (with pachucas accompanying him), his sacrificial knife, and his proud procession toward the rite of sacrifice, in spite of his apparent god-like ability to turn the film another way. Although El Pachuco critiques the sacrificial imperative within Henry (“There are no more pyramids, carnal”), he also walks proudly up the pyramid steps to be sacrificed.

Valdez attributed the success of Zoot Suit to the mythic power and ancestry of the Pachuco figure, both as character and “master of ceremonies.” “That’s why a half-million people came to see [the play] in L.A. Because I had given a disenfranchised people their religion back” (qtd. in Savran 265). In the film version, Valdez plays up the Brechtian critique and metatheatrical reflection along with the religious deja vu. When El Pachuco visits Henry in solitary confinement, he gives him a vision of the family and past reality that he has lost. In the movie El Pachuco tells Henry-a la Calderon” that he is “just a dream.” He shows Henry his family members (and his lawyer) seated in an otherwise empty theater auditorium. Then he snaps his fingers and they disappear. Then Henry sees who El Pachuco really is, as smoking mirror: “You’re the one that got me here … You’re me. My worst enemy. And my best friend. Myself. So get lost.” Zoot Suit may give Chicanos a glimpse of their lost religious and ethnic heritage, but it also unveils El Pachuco’s machismo as a dangerous illusion, with the potential for fatal self-destruction as well as rebellious, creative power.

El Pachuco responds to Henry’s rejection with a Brechtian gest: “Don’t take the pinche play so seriously” (78). But the next scene brings El Pachuco’s mythical role in the drama to a serious sacrificial climax, as the historical zoot-suit riots arrive on-stage. In the film Valdez shows the action taking place in a theater to stress how the performance of violence implicates the desires of others who watch, on-screen and off. During a debate with the allegorical figure “the Press” about its misrepresentation of the zoot-suit identity, El Pachuco chases the Press through the theater seats and watching audience. After he and Henry suddenly appear in the seats with the audience, El Pachuco is pursued by the Press and rioting servicemen to the merry beat of Glenn Miller’s “American Patrol.” The soldiers chase him up the aisle and eventually catch him on top of a lobby bar. He waves his switchblade at them but then, with a look at Henry, lets it drop. The soldiers pull him to the ground and strip him. His nearly naked, shivering body then reappears on the stage floor. When Henry reaches down to touch the body, it becomes his younger brother Rudy, who says that he was wearing Henry’s zoot suit when “they stripped me.” Valdez thus intersects the historical riots (of servicemen attacking anyone dressed in a zoot suit, sparked by a racist press and wartime xenophobia) with the specific drama of Henry’s imprisonment, the judicial marking, yet stripping of his zoot-suit identity, and the separation from his family, as Rudy asks: “Why didn’t you take me with you?” However, this loss of family and pachuco identity catalyzes a resurrection of indigenous ancestry, as El Pachuco stands, wearing only a loincloth, and blows an Aztec conch. He then exits backward calmly.

El Pachuco reappears in a subsequent scene wearing a white zoot suit to question the historical, happy ending of Henry’s successful legal appeal and his release from prison: “But life ain’t that way, Hank. The barrio’s still out there, waiting and wanting.” This eccentric Brechtian gesture, connecting the historical drama and its mythical power to the complications of the present social reality, continues at the postmodern conclusion of Zoot Suit. After the Press announces the tragic end of the historical Henry, El Pachuco and other characters offer the audience various alternative identities and endings for the fictional Henry and his life story. This “dis-closure,” with a doubly tragicomic, historical, yet fictional, finish to the drama, may serve to inspire further critical thought in the audience-in the anti-ritual way that Brecht desired. That is, how can tragic fate be changed, in real life, through future political action? But it also involves the spectators, whether they identify themselves as the white majority, Chicano/Chicana, or another minority, in the ritual worship of a transcendent pachuco hero, who transforms his role and costume as “classic social victim” (51) through the traces of Aztec god-actor sacrifice. Each spectator thus experiences a varying degree of ritual involvement or Brechtian distance, which reflects his or her viewpoint as well as cultural identity.

But can Valdez-and his implied audiences-really have it both ways? Can El Pachuco effect both a Brechtian critical conscience in the audience (questioning the performance of violence) and an inverse Artaudian morality of participatory cruelty? Valdez has insisted that El Pachuco is not simply a perverse alter ego, but also Henry’s alter(native) superego, “both the devil and the angel” at his shoulder (Orona Cordova 100). Yet, if Valdez presents a native Aztec superego to counter the flawed father figures and racist judicial system in Henry’s drama, then Pachuco as Tezcatlipoca bears some heavy sacrificial baggage along with his legal briefs. Unlike Valdez’s invocation of the more “positive” and “kinder” Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, through the character of Ritchie Valens (Lou Diamond Philips) in the subsequent film, La Bamba (1987), El Pachuco as a reincarnation of Tezcatlipoca reveals the fetish of the switchblade (linked to more recent gangster weapons of choice) at the heart of Chicano machismo. 19 But with either of these Aztec gods as an alternative superego, returning after the 500-year repression of the Conquest, there is a deceptive nostalgia-a mournful idealization of lost ethnic figures and rites that masks the sacrificial impulse of today’s multicultural superego.

Although there are “no more pyramids” today, inner-city pachucos continue to sacrifice one another through their machismo and gang rituals, as if to prove that Tezcatlipoca along with “El Pachuco … The man … the myth … still lives.” This final line of Zoot Suit refocuses the various potential endings for Henry’s drama to show the lure of a lost myth reborn. Yet that ideal also runs the risk of fitting Chicanos, as pachucos, into a sacrificial rite in service of the gringo law in the sense of the Lacanian “Law of the Father”–obeying the Other’s desire through defiant violence. Rather than recovering a lost father-figure or superego, Valdez’s multi-ethnic mix of stage and screen viewpoints demonstrates the dialectic between dominant and lost fathers as a perpetually shifting sacrificial demand. Zoot Suit provides Brechtian mirrors and Aztec ghosts, at various historical distances, to reflect the sublimation of identity today by Chicanos and other Americans, as actors and spectators in ordinary life-refashioning identities and roles through skin color, class heritage, and the double bind of familial desire for both assimilation and difference.

Using the terms of Hegelian/Lacanian theorist Slavoj Zizek, El Pachuco might be viewed as the “non-sublated” part of Henry’s Mexican and American sense of a father, arising from the lack in both Enrique and George to offer a more transcendent identity (134). Yet, in his zoot-suit sacrifice, El Pachuco also seems lacking, as he perversely induces, then submits to the Press and pressing rioters. In that sense he is “the obscene, cruel and oddly impotent agency of the superego.” But when resurrected in his Aztec loincloth, Pachuco as Tezcatlipoca becomes “the symbolic father [who] is a symptom,” more powerful dead than alive, like the victim of primordial patricide, in Freud’s Totem and Taboo (Zizek 134-35). However, the return of this repressed Aztec father/god, “the obscene and traumatic Father-Enjoyment,” is a retrospective projection: “[I]ts original status is that of a leftover produced by the failure of the operation of sublation [Aufhebung] which establishes the rule of the Name-of-the-Father; its allegedly ‘original’ status (‘primordial father’) results from an illusion of perspective by means of which we perceive the remainder as the point of origins” ( 135). To his credit, Valdez shows the stripped Pachuco wearing a Christian cross at his neck-as he had throughout the film-along with the Aztec (or Christ-like) loincloth, thus recognizing a sticky mixture of egoideals.zo The Aztec “Father-Enjoyment,” with his “alternative” sacrificial rule, emerges through a “structural insufficiency” in the Christian, Euro-American, legal order and symbolic network? He does not overturn it, nor return as purely prior to it.

Valdez’s complex Brechtian and Artaudian presentation of the perversely moral Pachuco, as resurrected Aztec god, desiring yet transcending sacrificial violence, has received mixed reviews from academics. Various scholars-white, Chicano, and Chicana-while applauding Zoot Suit’s postmodern ending, have criticized Valdez as modernist, patriarchal, and essentialist in his macho idealization of El Pachuco. Although the film version enhances the roles of Della (Henry’s Chicana girlfriend) and Alice (Henry’s Anglo love interest who helps raise money for his appeal), the roles of his mother, his sister, and the pachucas remain slight. Zoot Suit onscreen continues to be a male-centered, father-son-brother story. However, through that limited focus, Valdez brings together diverse historical, mythical, and cultural elements, challenging audiences in multiple directions. In contrast to his earlier, agitprop plays for farmworkers, Valdez may well have been seeking a larger mainstream audience with Zoot Suit. However, he also raises ethical, political, and aesthetic questions about the audience’s desire for violence with this unique mixing of theater, cinema, and ritual sacrifice. The lack of similar films, from Valdez or others, in the two decades since Zoot Suit was made, also shows its sacrificial significance.