In Los Angeles now, a play called Zoot Suit is a sellout hit, and Californians are re-discovering an episode from their recent past, the existence of and the events surrounding the zoot suitor Mexican-Americans. The zoot suits themselves, sartorial symbols of rebellion against traditional authority, as well as affirmations of pride and difference, ar enjoying a resurgence of popularity in the barrios, where many Chicanos have taken to wearing them again. However, Thomas Sanchez, a 34-year-old third-generation Californian and author of Zoot-Suit Murders (Henry Robbins/Dutton) conceived of his novel four years ago, before it was evident to many that Hispanics would soon be emerging as California's majority once again. Sanchez, who is not Mexican-American-his forebears came from the mother country, Spain, has spent many years studing and writing about the history of California. He's not prolitic: in the last 13 years he has produced only tow novels-Rabbit Boss , about the settlement of California and the consequent destruction of the Washoe Indians and, this season, Zoot-Suit Murders , based on the "lost" historic events of the zoot suit riots in Los Angeles in 1943, when the battle between the suitors and the servicemen became so bloody that the entire city of Los Angeles was declared off-limits to military personnel. It's also a novel about the penetration of the barrios by political groups and religious cults, hoping to manipulate the Chicanos for their own ends.
"I had a sense that apocalyptic cults probably reached their zenith in California during World War II, because California is synonymous with this kind of cult, and I had a deep, abiding feeling when I began this novel that cultism was the ultimate extension of the American dream," says Sanchez.
He adds, "The book is a work of fiction. It is a heavy story. But my feeling, after working seven years on Rabbit Boss , and dealing with a country that had really had enought of being hit over the head with guilt, and that didn't want to have any more color guilt laid on it, was that the only way I could possibly get to the larget audience was that old Shakespearean trick. If you want to talk about the ultimate vanity and pride and how it will destroy man, family and nation, you don't write a thesis on it. Instead, you write Romeo and Juliet . So I wrote a love story, a detective story, that works three-dimensionally. You have to entertain people on a very visceral leve."
When I saw Sanchez in L.A., he was deeply absorbed in the writing and filming of "Nuestra Historia," a 30-minute news documentary that was scheduled to be broadcast the following week. The documentary traces the roots of Spanish history in California, its growth together with the state's, and the problems facing Hispanics today, illegal aliens in particular. "We are seeing right now the greatest immigration that this country has seen since its birth, coming in from Mexico. And the total victimization of these people, and the shameless way that they're being used as pawns, political and economic pawns, is such a powerful, powerful story.
"I wanted to match the style of the book to the subject matter. We're talking about an urban book, and I wanted the sentences to be as short as city blocks. And every time you got to the end of a sentence, you were going to turn a corner and your didn't know that the hell was around that corner. And it needed that kind of energy, because it takes place in less than a year, and I wanted the kind of energy and kinetic sensation that war brings on. When you're involved in a war, the entire country is on an adrenalin high, and, at the same time, in war rumor is fact. War is the moral collapse of entire countries. When the Vietnam war was over , we had become the greatest race of hunters ever to prowl the earth. We had the capacity to annihilate ourselves at any given moment. But where we had lost our innocence was not Vietnam. It really began with the westward expansion, the territorial imperative, continental integrity. But to me that loss came in World War II. Therehs an old Indian saying that when you destroy your enemy you take your enemy inside of you. And we became a country that had to be more duplicitous than the Nazi, more tenacious than the Japanese, whom we had to burn out of every little nook-and-cranny coral hole in the South Pacific, and all came home to roost. The innocence was lost there in World War II, and it's had its historical consequences.
"And I wanted to find the last innocent man. That's where the concept of Zoot-Suit Murders came from. I wanted to find him.And I wanted to kill him."
Over the years, Thomas Sanchez has proved that he can detect new directions which our popular histroy may be taking. As he might say himself, he has his ear to the rail. So, what's next, Sanchez?
"Oh, I know," he tells me, his green eyes mirthful, "but I ain't giving it away."