LOS ANGELES — When “Zoot Suit” made its debut in New York in 1979, it was the first time a Chicano show had made it to Broadway. But the musical, by Luis Valdez, was a distinctly Los Angeles production: It was commissioned by the Mark Taper Forum and portrayed a 1940s murder trial involving zoot-suit-wearing Mexican-American youths known as pachucos. The trial is set against the backdrop of the infamous Zoot Suit riots, a series of racially motivated attacks against Mexican-Americans in summer 1943.
To help mark the Los Angeles Center Theater Group’s 50th anniversary, the show returned recently to the stage here for the first time since 1978. Tickets went on sale late last year and sold out quickly. The production has since been extended three times, a rare occurrence at the theater. The acclaim and the enthusiasm demonstrate that the play touches a deep nerve in this city, particularly at another moment of political upheaval.
Some of the shows most devoted fans are showing up to the performances dressed in their own zoot suits and vintage attire. We spoke to some of them to find out what the play means to them. These interviews have been condensed and edited.
Photographs by Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times
Luis Guerrero, 25, of Wilmington
When I first saw the movie in high school I felt really inspired. The pachucos loved the United States, but they did not want to give up their own culture. They created this subculture that was mixing all these backgrounds and creating this culture of resistance and their own identity. They were some of the first people who stood up for the Chicano community. When I wear a zoot suit I feel empowered, kind of like it’s a suit of armor. It’s not only honoring those in the past, but it makes you look sharp even though it doesn’t follow the norm of what a suit is supposed to look like.
Valerie Munoz, 51, of Riverside
You can feel all of the racism, the oppression that we felt back then. Even as a child growing up all over L.A., I remember going to school, I remember not being able to speak my language. We were hit on the hand with a ruler if we spoke Spanish. My mom was a pachuca, and before I saw the play I would be very embarrassed, I would be ashamed of my own skin. Then she took us to the play, and what stood out to me most was that most of the audience was Anglo and they were shouting and embracing what was going on. I remember feeling kind of proud, finally. I thought, Wow, this is my culture and where we come from.Continue reading the main story
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Maya Chinchilla, 41, of Oakland
The show really fought against how Latinos were portrayed at the time, in this one-dimensional stereotype of overly exaggerated criminal. These were violent stereotypes that really didn’t treat them as humans and in many ways that reflected society. Both in the 1970s and 1940s, Latinos were portrayed as a scapegoat. Even now, it’s only once in a while that I see Latinos as the primary characters who are more than one-dimensional. The pachucos are somewhat involved in gang activity, but that’s not even the primary story. Seeing this now is like hearing from other generations. No matter what kind of negative experiences we have, there’s a connection to a different style and flair, and it then gets copied by the mainstream.
Tanya Lara, 38, of Los Angeles
My father dressed in a zoot suit and later became an advocate for immigration rights and participated in a lot of the picket lines for unions. Our parents really helped us understand that nothing is free and we’re not entitled to things, that it’s a privilege to be a citizen. It was a little strange to see how similar it was back then as it is now. The pachucos weren’t given a chance to prove themselves. Back then your word wasn’t as valid, and you had to be careful what you signed. That’s still what we see now, when we’re talking about deportations and explaining why we are not a risk for others’ security.
Cathy Navarrette, 53, of Baldwin Park
My older brother made us go when it was here back in the ’70s. We were just teenagers at the time, but once we got there we realized how hard it was for the Latin community, for the people in our town. I saw my parents differently at that time. They were born in an agricultural camp in El Monte. Back then I don’t think I realized how discriminated against they were. They couldn’t walk to the store without being looked at differently. I never had to experience that. But right now, with the Trump administration, I worry that we’re seeing some of that coming back.
Leka Im, 33, of Los Angeles
The first time I saw the movie I was in high school and was immediately obsessed. It just connected me to this history of Los Angeles I had never heard before, even though I grew up here. The costuming is really powerful. I always dress up in vintage, that’s my fashion sense. We still have some of the same problems, with people assuming something about you by the way you dress. Maybe it’s not as in your face, but there’s racism, police brutality and the court system is not always fair. We’ve definitely come far, but there are still a lot of problems. This is something we all need to see to understand L.A.