El Pachuco stood center stage, bathed in a spotlight. He arched himself and leaned back. A felt hat rested on his head at a rakish angle, and a gold chain dripped out of one pocket.
"Andale, pues" (loosely translated as "Alright, then"), he drawled in Spanish. He was scary and charismatic at the same time. Then the lights went out, and the audience at the Mark Taper Forum exploded. "Viva la raza!"
I was in junior high in 1978 when a new play premiered at the Music Center downtown. It was called "Zoot Suit," it was about cholos. Although I had been to the Music Center before, with my Aunt Emma, to see shows like "The Sound of Music" and "Pal Joey," "Zoot Suit" was different. My dad told me it was a play about Mexican Americans, written and directed by a Mexican American, with Mexican American actors. This seemed unbelievable to me.
My entire family drove from our home in Monterey Park to the Music Center, and from the moment we arrived, I knew the evening was going to be different. Usually Aunt Emma and I were the only brown faces. Tonight, the theater was full of families like mine, with different generations sitting together and people speaking Spanish. Aunt Emma nudged my mother. "Have you ever seen so many mexicanos at the Music Center?"
"Looks like all of Boyle Heights is here," Mom said wryly.
"No, all of East L.A. is here," Aunt Emma corrected her. "This is our moment."
"Zoot Suit" dealt with part of L.A. history that I had never heard about -- the 1943 Sleepy Lagoon murder case and the ensuing riots between Chicanos and white servicemen. It was a riveting story of racism and injustice, with the lead role played by an intense young actor named Edward James Olmos. At the end of the performance, the crowd roared and stamped its feet, so much that for a few seconds I thought that an earthquake was happening.
Back at home, my relatives gathered around the kitchen table for a huge discussion. "What a great show!" Aunt Lola exclaimed, "Finally, our stories are being told."
"And it was a Mexican director!" Aunt Emma added. "He did a wonderful job!"
Everyone enjoyed the play except my father. "I don't like seeing those good-for-nothings glorified," he said. "They're nothing but hoodlums!" When my mom reminded Dad that "Zoot Suit" was based on real events and real people, Dad was annoyed. "How come no one ever wrote a play about Cesar Chavez or [federal] Judge Harold Medina?"
Every year when Hispanic Heritage Month rolls around in September, I think back to that night when I watched "Zoot Suit" with a mixture of wonder, anger and pride. It was a seminal moment in my cultural consciousness. Although my parents had raised me to be proud of my Mexican background, it was the first time I felt connected to something bigger, something outside my own family.
Growing up in a Mexican family on the Eastside, I never experienced discrimination. Prejudice was something that happened to black people, not us. "Zoot Suit" opened my eyes. Like my mom and aunts, I was glad that Chicano history was being presented to a wide audience.
Yet like my dad, part of me wished that the play didn't have to center on cholos. No one in my family had ever been in a gang. My relatives were teachers, nurses and social workers.
"Zoot Suit" was a landmark event in L.A. theater history, the first time a play had drawn a significant Latino audience, as well as the first time a Latino-themed show had been a mainstream hit. I can still recall leaning forward in my seat, mesmerized by the actors. I saw the value and power of stories of people like me, for people like me. As my Aunt Emma said, it was our moment. And that was only the beginning.