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For Mexico, 'Zoot Suit' still relevant after 30 years

Luis Valdez's play, which premiered in Los Angeles in 1978, has finally reached Mexico, where it has struck a chord in light of Arizona's recent law against illegal immigrants.

July 01, 2010|By Daniel Hernandez, Los Angeles Times

De Tavira expressed immediate interest, and the wheels began turning for a full staging in Spanish. It's no easy task in any language. "Zoot Suit" requires a large, physically agile cast, with many roles requiring singing or dancing in genres such as mambo and swing.

The play also serves as a milestone on a long journey for Luis Valdez, now 70. The playwright, director and filmmaker is a native of California's Central Valley and founder of the Teatro Campesino, the agitprop performance arm of the United Farm Workers movement led by Cesar Chavez.

Valdez still expresses indignation over what he calls a "lockout" of a "Zoot Suit" revival in Los Angeles. (He directed the film version of "Zoot Suit" in 1981 and the biopic of musician Ritchie Valens, "La Bamba," in 1986, but he has not made a major studio-produced film since.)

"They really ignore what's going on in the Latino theater," Valdez said.

Yet in Mexico he is referred to as "maestro," a term of deep respect that is not used lightly. Staging his play in Mexico City, Valdez said, and watching it unfold in Spanish, is particularly moving for him.

"I feel it's more real than the English version. As a Chicano, I feel the characters are more real, the pachucos are more real, in their interactions."

Bringing "Zoot Suit" here is a sort of homecoming, the playwright said. Valdez first visited Mexico City in 1963, while studying for a theater degree at San Jose State.

"I had this weird sensation that here I was in Mexico, and I saw faces all around me that looked familiar, looked like relatives, but I knew no one, and no one knew me," Valdez said. "They were all busy, going about their lives, rushing about, talking in Spanish. And so it was very odd."

Yet, "I knew that I would come back in some way, shape, or form."

Hernandez is a staff writer in The Times' Mexico City Bureau.

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