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ZOOT SUIT. Tin Tan and the pachucos…

On November 27, 1943, the Diario Fílmico Mexicano, published: “So that everything would be complete in the summer hotel an individual with a bizarre appearance, dressed in the purest Los, that is, Los Angeles style, and chewing a language he called tatacha... The pachuco gave his name: My name is Tin Tan or Germán Valdés, carnal. I'm looking for a chantre, you know?”… A few days earlier, Germán Valdés and Marcelo Chávez were hired to perform at the Follies cabaret and the famous nightclub El Patio. Vicente Miranda, El Patio's owner, thought about inviting the Cuban filmmaker René Cardona to witness the extravagant comedy of Tin Tan, who at the time was the talk of the town.

Cardona was very impressed with Tin Tan so he offered him a special cameo in the film he had just finished: Hotel de verano (1944). Germán charged 350 pesos and managed to impose Marcelo. The previously mentioned text from the Diario Fílmico Mexicano concluded:  “… the pachuco stared a zapateta with the guitar, singing in Southwestern style, crooner, and nicely, he talked about the episode he gave them to two marinolas...".

Zoot Suit/Fiebre latina (1981, dir. Luis Valdez)

The "two marinolas" reference is crucial, as it connects Tin Tan to the famous murder of a young Mexican man in Sleepy Lagoon in 1942, and the extremely violent Los Angeles riots documented in the film Zoot Suit/Fiebre latina (1981) by Chicano filmmaker Luis Valdez. The film was about the "Zoot Suit Riots", a growth of the intermittent violence that occurred between June and August 1943 in several U.S. cities, particularly in Los Angeles, against those who wore pachuca attire and/or the emblematic brightly colored zoot suit, with outlandish and very wide and pronounced pants, starting at chest level, thick suspenders, baggy jacket with large shoulder pads and lapels, two-tone shoes, a long pocket watch chain tied to the pants, an exaggerated necktie, and a wide-brimmed hat with a peacock feather.

Those vicious xenophobic acts stemmed from racial tensions during the movement of troops amid World War II, the bases were located near Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and the events of August 1942 at Sleepy Lagoon, a reservoir along the Los Angeles River frequented by young Mexican Americans. Young Chicano Jose Gallardo Diaz had gone to a party the night before with his friends Luis Cito Vargas, and Andrew Torres. They were confronted by a Chicano gang from 38th Street, who were seeking revenge for the beating of one of their friends.

Gallardo was found unconscious, with two stab wounds, and a skull fracture. Later, he died. Police arrested 17 boys of Mexican origin. Without enough evidence, they were imprisoned without bail and charged with murder. At the trial held in January 1943, twelve of them were charged with second-degree murder and sentenced to San Quentin. The others were prosecuted for misdemeanors. However, the convictions were overturned in 1944.

The Sleepy Lagoon events prompted an ethnic persecution in which there was talk of crimes provoked by Mexicans. At the same time, the powerful influence generated by the Chicano movement and the zoot suiters was the excuse to look down on this new cultural style. It captured the attention of American girls fascinated by these young Mexican American women as a symbol of feminism, with their colorful clothing style, extravagant hairstyles, and dances. Hence, the smear campaign against the young Chicanos and their bloodthirst, which supposedly emanated from their Aztec roots as expressed during the trials.

These events are the starting point of the vigorous 1979 staging of Zoot Suit written and staged by Luis Valdez with his Teatro Campesino, adapted to film by the author himself in 1981, under the title Zoot Suit/ Latin Fever, starring Edward James Olmos as El Pachuco, Daniel Valdez as Henry Reyna, Tyne Daly in the role of social advocate Alice Bloomfield, Charles Aidman as the lawyer George Shearer and Tony Plana as Rudy, Henry's younger brother, among others. Filmed in less than two weeks and on a shoestring budget, Valdez's film is not only an entertaining recreation of the musical films of the 1940s and the social stories of young gang members and their purgatory through the racist prison systems, but a sensitive reflection on the brutality exercised against minorities in the United States in that context.

Luis Valdez takes full advantage of this poverty of means, even integrating scenes of the play and the theater with the audience, reconstructing the various locations on the same stage. Not only that, but the charisma of its protagonists is also undeniable: the young Reyna, for example, played by Daniel Valdez, younger brother of the director and responsible for several of the unique musical themes, along with others, composed by Lalo Guerrero, including the interpretation of Sleepy Lagoon by Harry James and his orchestra. Above all, the powerful dances staged by choreographer Patricia Birch, creator of the musical numbers of Grease (1978). Let's not forget the presence of the somber pachuco characterized by Olmos, who represents the worst and the best parts of that lifestyle that somehow embodied  Germán Valdés Tin Tan in his beginnings, even years before the Sleepy Lagoon case and the Los Angeles revolts.