Last week, Chicano actor Edward James Olmos reprised the role of El Pachuco from the play Zoot Suit for a political ad created by the Lincoln Project, a group of former Republican political operatives who are opposed to Donald Trump’s reelection and have endorsed Joe Biden.
The codes-witching ad ends with Olmos saying, “This election we’re dodging you, pinche Trump. ¿Qué nos crees?¿Pendejos? Pos órale.”
The short spot lasts only 1 minute and 17 seconds, yet shows the befuddling state of Mexican American male politics in the age of Trump.
The ad deploys masculinity and nationalism as primary themes to attract Latino voters.
Olmos explains in a pachuco patois, “We’re proud to be part of the greatest country on the earth, the United States of these Américas. We pay our taxes, vato. We serve our military… We don’t dodge trabajo duro. We don’t dodge the military, ese. We don’t dodge taxes.”
To be sure, Olmos isn’t the only Chicano celebrity to trade gendered jabs at Trump. George Lopez has done so with Trump and with George W. Bush.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the operatives at the Lincoln Project intentionally invoked gender in their spot. Trump is appealing to Mexican American males because they see him as tough, business savvy, and independent. Olmos’ reprisal of El Pachuco is meant to question Trump’s masculinity. Compared to Olmos and other Mexican American men, Trump isn’t streetwise or tough. He’s a coward. He’s weak. He shirks responsibility and hard work. In short, Trump’s no Pachuco, he’s a pendejo. And if you are gullible enough to buy his shtick and believe his lies, then you are not manly enough and should be ashamed.
While this ad has thousands of likes and could be very effective, the reprisal of the Pachuco character by Olmos is contradictory. Luis Valdez’s original play was performed at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1978 (it went to Broadway in 1979 and was made into a movie in 1981) and was steeped in the ideas of the Chicano Movement.
Zoot Suit was a dramatization of the murder at the Sleepy Lagoon and the ill-named 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in which American servicemen attacked Mexican American zoot suiters, or as they called themselves pachucas and pachucos. The play focuses on Henry “Hank” Reyna, the protagonist, and El Pachuco, the alter-ego/id of Reyna. Nobody in the play sees El Pachuco but Reyna. Throughout the play, it is the invisible figure who shows Hank what was real, exposing the injustice of the cops, the courts, the military, and the justifications for war. All of Reyna’s ideas were illusions. At the end of the play, El Pachuco drops his switchblade while sailors come to beat him to show Reyna how this nation and its institutions will leave him stripped, exposed, naked, and emasculated.
In 2020, El Pachuco does not cut the same silhouette that he did in 1978, or 1979, or even in 1981. He is an anachronistic masquerade for a masculinity of what should be a bygone era, devoid of his anti-war and anti-establishment politics. In his current iteration, emasculation is the biggest threat to Mexican American men, not systemic injustice.
It could be argued that this is a pragmatic spot for a targeted audience. These gendered politics may even work in convincing middle-aged Mexican American men to vote for Biden, which is important in an election that will be won at the margins. But as young Latinas vote at higher rates and influence their families’ votes more, they won’t need relics of the past to get out and vote.
Aaron E. Sanchez is a Texas-based writer who focuses on issues of race, politics and popular culture. He is a happy husband, proud father and an avid runner. He blogs at CommentaryandCuentos.com. You can connect with him @1stworldchicano.