ORALE!

Re-creating Zoot-Suit culture

When you walk into El Pachuco, you half expect Edward James Olmos to slide out from behind the racks of zoot suits. He would, of course, be decked out in a black oversized and extremely wide-shouldered coat hanging down to his knees covering a red dress shirt (with an open, wide collar surrounded by a gold chain and crucifix). A black belt and suspenders would hold up his black "drape" (trousers that start below his chest, get baggy around his legs and are then pegged tight at the ankles). Treading like a cat in his "Stacy Adams" (the name brand of his distinctive patent-leather wingtip shoes), the narrator of Luis Valdez's stage and screen musical Zoot Suit would use one hand to swing the long gold chain fastened to one of his belt loops while using the other to tip his black "tando" (broad-brimmed hat).

"¿Orale Carnal?"

Located along South Harbor Boulevard in an older part of Fullerton that should appreciate the customer traffic the clothier generates, El Pachuco seems as if it has been around as long as zoot suits. It hasn't. No one knows exactly when the first zoot suit was made, but they became popular during the 1920s among Harlem jazz musicians, most notably Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton and Chick Webb. Wool rationing by the War Production Board in 1942 made them contraband items. Production went underground, and Southern California's pachucos—the old-school term for Chicano zooters—eventually took over the fashion statement. There would be sad consequences.

With Japanese-Americans safely tucked away in internment camps, white Southern California looked for another group on which to project its racial fears. Pachucos fit the bill. On the night of Aug. 1, 1942, some Mexican-American zoot-suiters got into a fight with another group of pachucos by a lagoon in Los Angeles. The next morning, a man was found bleeding and unconscious on a road in the same area. He later died.

The autopsy revealed that the man was drunk at the time of death. A medical examiner stated that his injuries were consistent with those of being hit by a car. But 25 members of the "38th Street Gang" (as the group of zoot-suiters had been dubbed by the local tabloids) were arrested and charged with the man's murder.

During the time leading up to the trial and for two weeks into the proceedings, the defendants were not allowed to change their clothes by order of Judge Charles Fricke, who believed the jury should see the defendants in their zoot suits, which were obviously worn only by "hoodlums." On Jan. 15, 1943, nine defendants were found guilty of second-degree murder, given prison terms of five years to life, and shipped off to the infamous San Quentin Prison.

The incident was the basis for the spring of 1943's notorious "Zoot Suit Riots," which were not really riots but large-scale fights between Mexican-Americans and sailors on shore leave in LA. It was also the inspiration for Valdez's play in 1978 and movie in 1981.

Phyllis and Ray Estrella saw the stage version of Zoot Suit 20 years ago. Phyllis was so impressed by the clothes that she came up with the idea to create a business that would sell and rent zoot suits. Friends told her she wouldn't be able to pay her rent. She proved her critics wrong—El Pachuco now fields orders from all over the country and as far away as Japan and Germany.

The shop makes all of its own suits, tailoring them to each customer's (male or female) specifications and in any color or fabric. Suits are also rented out for special occasions such as proms, weddings and quinceañeras.

The inside of the store is deceptively small because of all the stuff crammed onto the showroom floor. Besides the racks of clothes, you'll find zoot-suiter T-shirts, sweatshirts, art prints, calendars, clocks and more.

But it's the mannequins decked out in the wildest threads ever imagined that turn the shop into a virtual zoot-suit museum. The one wearing the matching cheetah print on the collar and tando bandanna is a sight to behold. Standing tall—well, actually, leaning back like he's checking out the scene—in the middle of the room is one that looks an awful lot like Olmos' character.

Business is booming at El Pachuco thanks to the swing-music craze, which has also created considerable competition, according to the Historia Del Pachuco Web site (freeweb.digiweb. com/people/pachuco). "[A] lot of people are selling and pushing imitation zoot suits," the site warns. One of the only two retailers site author Dick Sanchez trusts for "high quality, real zoot suits" is—you guessed it—El Pachuco of Fullerton.

 
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