115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Pachuco Poetics: The Posture of Resistance and Lyrical Remembering

Clarissa Castaneda, University of California, Riverside

This paper examines Luis Valdez’ Zoot Suit as a text which time travels into the past and future along a continuum of mestizaje, from indigeneity to the post-colonial body of resistance.   The mestizaje of El Pachuco remembers the Aztec warrior, the Mexican, and America-at-the-fringe by translating and decolonizing the trappings of the status-quo.


The politics of song, drama, the brown body, and brown spaces cannot be adequately negotiated solely by theoretical perspectives that stem from a labeling framework of study.  Baudelaire’s flâneur, Benjamin’s translative flowerings, and Lefebvre’s lived space each proffer useful architectural elements for processing a text like Valdez’ Zoot Suit.  However, to study and reflect on the annexed history and contemporary sociopolitical relevance within Valdez’ seminal drama only through lenses of Western theory would be to fail to respond to the text’s formal elements that demand to be read as theoretical expression in their own right.  Anzaldua’s borderland theory of la facultad is designed of and for mestizaje; it references an embodied way of knowing that circumvents social conditioning and “reality” as it is held in place by the status quo.  When placed as the organizing theoretical principle of my examination of El Pachuco and his lyrical expressions in Zoot Suit, the aforementioned concepts serve to elucidate the Western landscapes which other Henry-El Pachuco et al, and those which are coopted and woven into the transformative drape and stance of the zooter.  La facultad is more than a theoretical label; it is a mode of knowing that acknowledges and depends upon the break-down of colonial categories and the epistemic supremacy of monolithic American-ness.  While Zoot Suit in its many incarnations has been both reviewed (e.g., published play, performed play, musical, cinematic drama, soundtrack) and studied (e.g., a counter-historical text, Chicano text, and barrio narrative) since its 1978 stage production, the contemporary relevance of the musical drama has yet to be examined in terms of how Valdez’ play annexes and produces knowledge.  The nascent events of the Trump-era that ushered in the 2017 revival of the play at Los Angeles’ Taper Forum cast the Pachuco poetics of Zoot Suit into a narrative of resistance that carves la facultad into a map of consciousness that resists being defined by virtue of its otherness alone.  Like oral histories passed down from generation to generation, Zoot Suit establishes a mode of knowing, a sequence of events, a cultural ethos, and a sensual experience that is validated and inscribed through a mestizo sense of musicality.  The songs of Zoot Suit are as archetypal and subversive as Whitman’s 19th century lyrics on the body electric and the Westward-expanding American self.  Yet, where Whitman erases difference under the guise of transcending it, Valdez’ musical drama places the disparate Pachuco in front of the chorus and outside of the confines of its host—El Pachuco is neither erased nor subsumed.  In this paper, I argue that inclusion of Lalo Guerrero’s original Pachu-corridos in Zoot Suit—“Los Chucos Suaves,” “Marijuana Boogie,” and “Vamos a Bailar”—serve to establish a lyrical palette for fringe-oriented cultural production that relies on intertextuality  as a mode of time travel and counter-historical archiving; as El Pachuco resists the straight-and-narrow of the status quo with his angled stance and the lyrical elements of each song remember the past in embodied terms, the poetics of the zoot-suiter become an atlas through which Latinidad may contend with the past, resist in the present, and build into the future by simultaneously unraveling official history and weaving  fringe perspectives into the discourse of a hybrid lyrical tradition.