by Celina Fernández-Ayala
Fifteen-year-old Angel Fernández-Chavero knew nothing about the play that Father Hernandez invited him to see. It was a reward for the teen’s job as a typist for the Immaculate Heart of Mary. As a good Mexican Catholic boy, he looked forward to visiting the Mark Taper Forum with his parish priest.
Angel Fernández-Chavero did not anticipate how important this outing would be. The year was 1978, and he was to see “Zoot Suit”.
Famed Chicano playwright Luis Valdez wrote and directed the play. This piece is based on the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder, in which members of the 38th Street Gang were convicted of José Gallardo Díaz’s death. The production focuses on Henry Reyna and his friends’ struggle for justice within an overtly racist justice system.
Fernández-Chavero was stricken by Edward James Olmos’ performance as El Pachuco. “He really had an impact just on my seeing this live show and him just being this character I couldn’t totally figure out, because one minute he’s being this good guy and the next minute he’s a jerk.”
“I didn’t understand for a while how he was Henry’s alter ego. And then suddenly a representative of the Chicano Nation”, he stated.
Angel Fernández-Chavero is my father, and he introduced me to the 1982 film as an 11-year-old. A movie on a school night was a big deal. It is one of my favorite memories.
As a preteen, my father did not expect me to take anything away from the film. New England, my birthplace, is no hub of Chicano culture. Even so, I grew up calling myself a Chicana.
“Whether you would totally understand [the film] or not actually wasn’t too much of the point. I just wanted you to be exposed to it” said Fernández-Chavero. “I hoped you would like it. I hoped that the music or the ‘cha-chas’- or whatever- something would hit you, but that was it.”
I loved “Zoot Suit”. The film spoke to my nascent skepticism about the U.S.’s judicial system. Reyna’s treatment angered me, and I remember telling my father that “there were so many things Henry could have been.”
Despite Fernández-Chavero’s statement that comprehension was a concern, I learned a lot that evening. I never forgot the line about the “blood thirsty Aztecs”. Or my father’s response that it came straight from the court records.
I did not expect to watch the play as a Chicana/o Studies major nearly 40 years after my father. This time, under the current political climate, “Zoot Suit” felt even more personally relevant. The courtroom script could have been pulled from today’s headlines.
After the performance, I concluded that “Zoot Suit” serves today’s Chicana/o/x community as a reminder that racism never dies, but manifests differently each generation. My father added its value as a production about “The struggle of young men trying to figure out who they are and the lies that society’s institutions will tell you. I really think it should be part of the standard high school curriculum.”