Zoot Suit

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El Teatro Campesino’s 25th Anniversary National Tour of the hit Broadway play Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez comes to the ASU’s Gammage Auditorium for one night only, Saturday, September 25th. Zoot Suit playwright Luis Valdez is our guest.

>> José Cárdenas:
Good evening. I'm José Cárdenas. Welcome to "Horizonte." The Broadway musical "Zoot Suit" comes to the Valley. Playwright Luis Valdez talks about the play's revival after 25 years and its landmark status in Latino theater. Also a woman who had firsthand experience with the case that inspired the play shares her story. You'll meet a Latina woman honored for her fight to save Valley neighborhoods. That's next on "Horizonte."

>> José Cárdenas:
It's being called one of the most important events in Los Angeles social history. The sleepy lagoon murder case was the story of Mexican-American youths brought to trial for a murder in 1942 they did not commit. We will get to the play in just a moment but first joining us to talk about the case that the play is based on is Alice McGrath. Alice was on the sleepy lagoon defense committee and got to know several of the boys that were on trial. Alice, thank you for joining us on "Horizonte."

>> Alice McGrath:
Thank you for having me.

>> José Cárdenas:
Tell us just the basic facts, what the case was all about.

>> Alice McGrath:
The case happened -- started really with a series of articles, this is before the actual trial, talking -- a series of articles saying that there was a crime wave of PACHUCOS that was terrorizing the city, setting up a whole atmosphere of anxiety and racism.

>> José Cárdenas:
This was kicked off by a stabbing of --

>> Alice McGrath:
No, no. In that period when these articles were going on, some kids called -- the 38th straight gang, inaccurately calling them a gang, went to a party, crashed a party, where there was fighting and drinking and it was at night and in the morning a Mexican national by the name of Jose Diaz was found dead. The police rounded up hundreds and hundreds of young Mexican-Americans, some nationals, too, and the grand jury sat to determine if this case should go to trial.

>> José Cárdenas:
There were, what, 12 young men charged with the killing?

>> Alice McGrath:
Well, 24 were indicted by the grand jury, and of the 24, two asked for a separate trial and were never heard of again, and 22 went on trial, and it was a mass trial. 22 young men who were seated in two rows opposite a very, very clearly hostile jury. The case took three months, and there were no evidence -- in that three-month period -- that any of the defendants had been near Jose Diaz.

>> José Cárdenas:
How did you come to be involved in the case?

>> Alice McGrath:
Well, I was -- I was at that time very much involved in social justice issues, in many, not just that. But when I find out about this case, I was just horrified, and I knew one of the attorneys, the only attorney who understood the meaning of this case and who laid the groundwork for the legal appeal. So after -- three of them were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life, nine of them were convicted of second degree murder sentenced to five to life, and then they were sent up to San Quentin. At that point, a former committee, which was an ad hoc committee, was reformed to be the sleepy lagoon defense committee.

>> José Cárdenas:
And you were on it?

>> Alice McGrath:
I was on it.

>> José Cárdenas:
What did the committee do?

>> Alice McGrath:
The committee had the project, a very, very clear project, which was to publicize the inequity of the case and to raise the money for the legal appeal.

>> José Cárdenas:
How much money did you end up raising?

>> Alice McGrath:
We raised what would not seem like very much money for now, but it was about $25,000, which covered lawyers' fees and so on. But the way the money was raised, it was so significant, because during the trial all of the newspapers were -- ran terrible stories convicting them during the trial, but when the trial was over and the guys went to prison, that stopped, and we were able to work in an atmosphere of being able to tell people what had actually gone on in that trial, and the support was tremendous, and it came from many populations, not just Los Angeles, but California, the country, we even had people sending us dollars from overseas.

>> José Cárdenas:
And was it principally the Latino community sending the money.

>> Alice McGrath:
It was the black community, it was the Jewish community, it was the labor community, and the film community in Los Angeles. There were just all kind of people from --

>> José Cárdenas:
Tell us about Hollywood's involvement, because the incident later became the basis for a play and a movie. Tell us about Hollywood's involvement at this time.

>> Alice McGrath:
There were people in Hollywood, Josefina Debride was a woman married to a screenwriter and she was the one who energized that community to support the sleepy lagoon defense committee to come to fund raisers, to be interviewed and in general gave us a lot of support.

>> José Cárdenas:
Who were some of the stars involved in the fund raising?

>> Alice McGrath:
Orson Wells, Rita Hayworth, Canada Lee who is not well-known -- they were the main ones because they spoke out. They actually came to our fund raisers and spoke.

>> José Cárdenas:
And Anthony Quinn also --

>> Alice McGrath:
Anthony Quinn, too.

>> José Cárdenas:
Tell us about the issues that were raised on the appeal.

>> Alice McGrath:
The appeal was overturned principally on the grounds that the defendants did not have access to their attorneys during the trial. They were not allowed to talk to their attorneys during the trial, and they were not even allowed to talk to their attorneys during recess. The judge says this is a small courtroom and we can't have people running around all over the courtroom. He was very, very hostile.

>> José Cárdenas:
So you had these 20 men on trial for their life -- 22, and they weren't allowed to talk to their lawyers?

>> Alice McGrath:
That's right, that's right. And he was very, very helpful to the prosecution and consistently rude and insulting to the defense lawyers, and he always granted the motions of the prosecutors and almost always failed to grant the motion of the --

>> José Cárdenas:
As I understand it, his bias turned out to be one of the bases for the Court of Appeals --

>> Alice McGrath:
That's right. It was one of the major reasons for overturning and his bias and the failure to -- and the failure to be in touch with their attorneys.

>> José Cárdenas:
Now, I know this didn't happen in the trial, but it did happen in the grand jury proceedings. Tell us about the famous Aztec sacrifice references.

>> Alice McGrath:
Oh, when the grand jury convened to decide if there was going to be an indictment, there were people who came from various parts of the community, and one of the people who came was from the sheriff's office, and he had a title, foreign relations, which seems very odd, and he assumed that there was a crime wave, which really did not exist, and then he went on to explain why there was a crime wave among the PACHUCOS, and his --

>> José Cárdenas:
For the benefit of our audience, tell us what Pachuco meant at that time.

>> Alice McGrath:
Pachuco meant at that time a Mexican, Mexican-American "Zoot Suit" or, the kids who wore the drapes.

>> José Cárdenas:
What was he saying about them?

>> Alice McGrath:
He was saying about them, but also not just about them specifically, but this element among the Mexicans because their ancestors were Aztecs and pulled the hearts still beating hearts out of living people and practiced ritual sacrifice, because of their background they were biologically programmed to have no respect for human life and that they were like a species apart. They were no more like -- he compared them to a wildcat and a domestic cat.

>> José Cárdenas:
Alice, we're just about out of time. You saw the play. Tell us how accurately it portrays the events that took place?

>> Alice McGrath:
The play "Zoot Suit" is the best thing that's ever been written about the play. In terms of accuracy, it is a drama, and it doesn't pretend to be a documentary, and some of the things that have been written about the sleepy lagoon case have not been accurate, but the play --

>> José Cárdenas:
Captures the sense of what happened?

>> Alice McGrath:
The play is the most truthful thing in the sense of getting the issues and the atmosphere and the importance of this event.

>> José Cárdenas:
Alice, thank you for joining us on "Horizonte." It's a fascinating story and we're glad you could be here to tell us about it. The play "Zoot Suit" is based on the sleepy lagoon murder case and the "Zoot Suit Riots" that followed in Los Angeles in 1942. Luis Valdez originally developed the play for El Teatro Campesino, a troupe that set the standards for Hispanic theater in the United States. Here's a look at some scenes from "Zoot Suit." (inaudible).

>> A group of Mexican-Americans is dancing. Two men start to fight: I'm going to kick your ass.

>> Yeah, you and how many --

>> Just you and me

>> All right!

>> Let's see if you can push me around like you did my brother. Come on, come on!

>> José Cárdenas:
Here with us is playwright Luis Valdez. Luis, welcome to "Horizonte."

>> Luis Valdez:
Thank you.

>> José Cárdenas:
It's an honor to have you here. You're a legend in the industry and we're glad you could join us. You have some Arizona connections. Tell us about those, first.

>> Luis Valdez:
My dad was born in Nogales when this was the Arizona territory. My mother was born in Tucson. And they spent their childhood essentially in Tucson and made their way to Mesa, Arizona, at least my dad did, and that is where his dad, my grandfather is buried. He died of double pneumonia in 1924, as a young man, he was 36, but the family then followed one of my uncles into Los Angeles and then California.

>> José Cárdenas:
Well, welcome home. One of the things Alice talked about was the atmosphere at the time of the sleepy lagoon killing. Can you elaborate on that?

>> Luis Valdez:
Well, one of the things that you have going on in 1942 is war hysteria. As a result of Pearl Harbor, which -- to some people was comparable to 9/11 or vice versa, what you had on the west coast was a feeling of panic, really, in the general populace. So the sailors and marines and soldiers coming through on the way to the Pacific entered a region that was already on its toes and looking everywhere for enemies and spies. The Japanese-Americans had been rounded up that spring of 1942 and put into are location camps, and the press and the public in general began to notice these young "Zoot suitors" on the streets of Los Angeles… the so-called Pachucos. Actually they were wearing the uniform of the youth of that area. It was a uniform a suit that was extra baggy so that it's wearers could dance jitterbug and the swing music of the era. It was an outgrowth of the big band.

>> José Cárdenas:
People like Frank Sinatra were dressed in "Zoot" suits, too?

>> Luis Valdez:
Actually some ascribe the design to Clark Gable in "Gone with the Wind" which came out in 1939. So it was of mysterious origin, zoot suit, together with its named and the name Pachuco. These are names that emerge out of the public imagination on the street and become part of the popular culture. So the Pachuco is this mysterious figure. From my perspective it was the first sign of the urbanization of the Mexican-American.

>> José Cárdenas:
How so?

>> Luis Valdez:
Well, because what are people in the city supposed to wear, and the formal wear of the time. They weren't going to do Edwardian dress. It was a matter of wearing clothes were stylish, comfortable. It was the minority kids who took to it with great enthusiasm. But what they were saying essentially is, hey, we're from the city and we are Americans and we dance swing music. For that they were ostracized. It is no mean coincidence that one of the results of the "Zoot Suit" riots of 1943 was that service men stripped the suits and left them naked, naked and beaten in the street in some instances. That is to me someone wanting to strip away your identity. In spite of the fact my family game from Sonora into Arizona over 100 years ago, and that my parents were born in Arizona, and I was born in 1940, too young to have witnessed directly the "Zoot Suit Riots," nevertheless I felt in the 1950s that my identity and my citizenship was always questioned. Now, I did not take a violent route to claiming that identity, I chose the arts, I chose the nonviolence of Cesar Chavez. El Teatro Campesino, my theater company, which is presenting "Zoot Suit", was born on the picket lines of grape strike as a non-violent instrument. What we wanted to do was educate the people. We wanted to do educate the farm workers that were breaking the strike and eventually all those people that could support the grape boycott, et cetera, to understand what Chicano culture was all about. I have always focussed in on the issue of cultural fusion, that the progress of America has been to blend the cultures of the world, and the "Zoot Suit" appeared the music of the period is the example of this cultural fusion that's at the heart of the American experience. Unfortunately there are people that don't see it that way, that resent any new group that comes in and adapts the American culture to its own lifestyle.

>> José Cárdenas:
How did you come to do to "Zoot Suit"?

>> Luis Valdez:
I was invited by the Marque Perform, Gordon Davidson, the artistic director invited me to write a play about the history of Los Angeles, and I was aware of the sleepy lagoon case and I was aware of the "Zoot Suit Riots" had read books such as "North from Mexico" by Carey McWilliams. I went to New York City and interviewed Carey McWilliams in his apartment across street from Columbia University, he had been the editor of the Nation for years. He presented me with the facts, the arguments the outline of the historical case. It was great. But I said, I'm a playwright, I want to tell a story, I need a heart line. I need someone who can touch the hearts of the guys. And he says, do you know Alice McGrath? I said, who is Alice McGrath? So he gave me her phone number. She lived -- still lives in Ventura outside of Los Angeles, and I went to see her, and she indeed was the heart line. She was the lead to the guys. She was still in contact with the guys. It was through her contacts that I was finally able to talk to the actual participants and the families and be invited into their homes. Alice has been instrumental in the -- not only the rememberance of this case, but also in the creation of this play.

>> José Cárdenas:
Is there a character in the play that's based on Alice?

>> Luis Valdez:
And that is why Alice Bloomfield, is one of the chief characters in the play, the one that really maintains the contact with the guys. I was limited by the fact that it was a play, I couldn't put 22 young men on the stage. I was given a limit of 12 characters, and so I had to begin to make composite characters, and so I did change some names. The first names I kept. Alice, the real Alice, gave rise to Alice Bloomfield on the stage. She is truly a heroine. I think she is one of the sources of social activism in the community and she is still there --

>> José Cárdenas:
Now, you have the characters who represent the people who were on trial. You also added EL Pachuco.

>> Luis Valdez:
EL Pachuco is the sort of mythical stage manager of the play. He runs the show. He snaps his fingers and the scenes change. His colors are black and red. I saw the Pachuco as having heroic dimensions. Actually, I dedicated the play to my cousin Billy who was a Pachuco. He unfortunately died here in Phoenix in 1955. He was knifed to death. He had a running partner, a guy named CC, and as a kid they used to come in their "Zoot" suits. He survived, outgrew the "Zoot Suit" and the world knows him today as Cesar Chavez. The experience gave fruit and rise to many positive things. It wasn't all negative even though the press at the time represented it as such.

>> José Cárdenas:
In the movie that followed a few years after the play, it has Edward James Olmos playing that character.

>> Luis Valdez:
It turned him into a star. He was nominated for a Tony on Broadway. The movie was nominated for a best musical Golden Globe award in 1982. So had its own little impact. The fact is it still circulates. People still see it from time to time on television and the DVD is out by Universal Pictures. The thing is that the only way to deal with some aspects of the Pachuco experience was to treat it also as mythology, as modern popular mythology no different than, say, the cowboy is. It's urban mythology with the swing music of the period and the songs of Lalo Guerrero--

>> José Cárdenas:
Also an Arizonan, Lalo --

>> Luis Valdez:
Yes, very much a part of Arizona in roots and history and he was one of my father's cousins.

>> José Cárdenas:
Let me ask you this, 25 years since "Zoot Suit" was first performed and the events it depicts were 20-some-odd years before that. Is it still relevant today?

>> Luis Valdez:
It's one of the functions of theater to remain relevant for as long as people are willing to revive the piece. This is a revival. There's no question about this. It's significant that kids that weren't even born when the play first appeared are finding it meaningful. I think there is a parallel to be drawn from the war hysteria on the West Coast in 1942-43 and the kind of hysteria we're seeing in certain parts of the country today. Again, not only -- we're going into a thing called War on Terrorism, which is very different than the war of World War II. However, it's still war and it's still quite capable of inspiring a lot of hysteria.

>> José Cárdenas:
You think that's what we're seeing today?

>> Luis Valdez:
I think we saw it right after 9/11, that people -- anybody that looked vaguely middle eastern was even killed from time to time. The Sikh or a Hindu who was wearing a turban.

>> José Cárdenas:
Here in Mesa, Arizona.

>> Luis Valdez:
Exactly. You have an innocent person who is tending the counter at a liquor store, grocery store and they become the object of this war hysteria. I think we need to be very careful because what goes with it also is -- as in the case of the Patriot Act is that you have a curtailment of civil rights, and that's one of the things as Americans we must defend. We must defend our constitutional rights. When you go back to the sleepy lagoon case, what you have there is a violation of their basic civil and constitutional rights, state and federal. You had a denial of due process. You had use of hearsay. You had innuendo coming from the judge. He was making jokes from the bench. All of this is really part of a period of ignorance with respect to Latinos. They were looked at as objects of fear and derision. And what Latinos proved in World War II we were just as patriotic. We bled and died just as bravely on the battle fields. How much it going to take for America as a whole to recognize us as a legitimate participants in the American experiment?

>> José Cárdenas:
Luis Valdez, thank you for joining us on "Horizonte." It's an honor to have you here. Once again, "Zoot Suit" is here one night only by El Teatro Campesino for one night only at the ASU Gammage auditorium.

>> Valle Del Sol is a community organization that serves the behavioral health needs of the Valley's Hispanic community. Each year it honors people with the profiles of success award. One of those honored is Helen Trujillo. 12 News anchor Faye Fredericks brings us her story.

>> Congressman Ed Pastor:
Helen is a small woman, kind of -- but she's a woman that has energy that will never quit and you ask her to do something, she does it.

>> Mayor Phil Gordon:
I started with Helen back in the late '70s. She was a central city activist for the kids. She still is an activist. And she's never slowed down.

>> Congressman Ed Pastor:
She testifies against drug dealer in court. She testifies against prostitutes in court. And she works very close with the police to make sure that the community is safe, that people are secure.

>> Assistant Police Chief Silverio Ontiveros:
And Helen has seen the gang problems, the violence involving narcotics and also the guns issues in her neighborhood. She said she had to finally do something to turn things around.

>> Mayor Phil Gordon:
It's just been this spark and this synergism that Garfield and the community and the city has needed.

>> Ruth Osuna:
You don't have to be the strongest person. You don't have to be the most educated person. You have to be the person with the commitment and with the courage and with the will to get out there and make a difference.

>> Congressman Ed Pastor:
She's from Kearny, and so she comes with good blood in her and a lot of determination. She has that sulfur smoke in her lungs and copper in her blood and she is one tough lady but everybody calls her nana because she's a very caring woman.

>> Reporter:
Helen's energy is contagious and she inspires others to help her causes.

>> Congressman Ed Pastor:
Well, Helen has me working all the time.

>> Assistant Police Chief Silverio Ontiveros:
She's held us accountable as representatives of the police department and city government.

>> Ruth Osuna:
And while I go to her home, she always says, you know, are you hungry? Do you want something? It's not so much as I think about it, the nourishment of me, but the nourishment of my soul and what she has done for me to make me a much better person and more committed.

>> Mayor Phil Gordon:
The kids see that somebody cares and then the city employees see that somebody cares. I've learned a lot from her.

>> Congressman Ed Pastor:
We can all learn from Helen. She's a woman that believes in her family, in her neighbors and in her community.

>> Reporter:
And Helen's legacy will continue long after her work is done.

>> Ruth Osuna:
A lot of times people talk about the transformation of neighborhoods in terms of the infrastructure, the housing that's built or the parks that are built or the streets or the streetlights. But one of the great things that comes out of that community development is the human infrastructure, the human spirit that grows and Helen Trujillo is a great example of that.

>> Mayor Phil Gordon:
Her legacy is going to be about people and children that she and I will never have met but will benefit from her work.

>> Congressman Ed Pastor:
And many of us wish that we could do something and many of us wish we got more involved, and Helen is a good example of what can be done at the very local level and to make sure that the neighborhood is safe and secure.

>> José Cárdenas:
That's our show for tonight. Thank you for watching "Horizonte." I'm your host, Jose Cardenas. Have a good evening.

Alice McGrath: Sleepy Lagoon defense committee;

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