L.A. as Borderland: Teaching Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit

Grade Level: 11-12
Subject Areas:  US History, English Language Arts, Spanish  
Time Required: One and a half to two eighty-minute sessions in blocks for each lesson.
Prepared by: James Huerta; Garland, Texas
Keywords: LA History, WWII, US History, Chicano, Caló, Identity, Language, Post-Colonial

Download Full Lesson Plan
*Please note that only Part One can be displayed--to view Part Two, please download full lesson plan.*


Liz LaClaire

James Huerta lives in Claremont, California. He works at the Webb Schools where he teaches in the Humanities Department. James loves sports and coaches girls’ soccer and baseball. He has taught in China, Ecuador, and México. James will be using the Summer Institute in preparation for a class on the politics and culture of the border. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  

Curriculum Vitae


In order to understand the border, students can take an initial step in realizing that the Customs and Border Patrol define the border, and are able to enforce their jurisdiction, within 100 miles of a boundary of the United States. This opens the idea of places not normally thought of as borderlands and more specifically places like Los Angeles, that do not exist on the border like Nogales, Arizona or El Paso, Texas, to be thought of as borderland.

Luis Valdez’s seminal work Zoot Suit is just one example of the ways in which the culture of the borderland far extends the reach of what may be considered borderlands. His play is an important work that demonstrates the use of Caló, a Spanish patois used by Mexican Americans typical of the early to mid 20th century. Also, his play contextualizes the experience of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, and the greater United States, within the imagination of the press and centers of power during World War II.








1. What was Los Angeles like during the WWII era for Mexican-American/Chicano youth?

2. In what ways were some Mexican-American/Chicano youth portrayed in the media?

3. How does the portrayal of Mexican-Americans, Chicanos, or Latinx communities play a role within society today?






California History and Social Science Framework

  • Industrialization, Urbanization, Immigration, and Progressive Reform
    • Who came to the United States at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century? Why did they come? What was their experience like when they arrived?
  • America’s Participation in WWII
    • How did WWII serve to advance movements for equality back home?
  • Movements for Equality
    • What does “equal rights” mean?
  • Contemporary American Society
    • In what ways have issues such as education; civil rights for people of color, immigrants, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, and disabled Americnas; economic policy; recognition of economic, social and cultural rights; the environment; and the statues of women remained unchanged over time? In what ways have they changed?

Common Core Standards for English

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3








Internet Access

Zoot Suit, By Luis Valdez

How to Tame a Wild Tongue, By Gloria Anzaldúa

Ignacio Gómez Art - El Pachuco

Zoot Suit Discovery Guide from Pomona College

Images of Pachucos as linked in lesson

Caló Glossary








Lesson 1: The History of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trials and Zoot Suit Riots Objectives:

  • Students will be able to understand the historical context of the play Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez.
  • Students will be able to analyze the depiction and portrayal of Mexican-American/Latinx youth across time.
  • Students will be able to describe the significance of the portrayals of Mexican-American, Chicano, Latinx youth across time.

Instructional and Lesson Activities

1. Engage

  • Begin by having students do a quick write on their own. Answer/Brainstorm the following question: How are youth portrayed in the media today?
  • After they write about this. Allow them to share with a partner. Then, ask them: How are Latinos in America portrayed?
  • Students can share with a partner.
  • Students share out and discuss with the entire class. This can be a short discussion of 10-12 minutes.

2.  Explore

Introduce the play Zoot Suit, Author and year written. Tell students that the play takes place in Los Angeles during WWII.

  • Ask students to discuss how they think Latinos in the United States were portrayed in the media in that era.
  • Allow students to explore newspaper articles from Pomona College Zoot Suit discovery guide. Also, articles can be chosen specifically and divided.
  • Ask students to choose one article and answer the following questions: Who is the article about? What event is the article reporting on? Does the writer have any bias, how do you know? What are three words that stick out to you, highlight them. Why do these words stick out to you?
  • Discuss as a group the articles that students chose, or the articles that have been given to the students.
  • Discuss, who are these articles about? How do these articles portray those who are at the center of the articles? Students, with the help of the teacher need to arrive to the point that Zoot Suiters, or Pachucos, are Mexican American/ Chicano youth.
  • Show images of Zoot Suiters/Pachucos: KCET Article, Ignacio Gomez Painting, David Williams Contemporary Pachucos.

3.  Explain

  • In pairs, students create a t-chart that compares and contrasts the ways in which Pachucos and Zoot Suiters were portrayed in the photographs along with those of the newspaper articles.
  • Discuss and share out the comparisons that are made. Discuss and share out the reasoning why there may be similarities and differences.
  • Explain that the play that they will read will offer another portrayal of Zoot Suiters/Pachucos




Students can read about Sleepy Lagoon Murder trial. Resources: Pomona College, LA Law Library, Online Archive of California, UH Digital History

Students can read about the Zoot Suit Riots. Resources: Pomona College, LA Times, National Geographic,

Read Octavio Paz’s essay that criticizes Pachuco youth Pachucos and Other Extremes.

Read excerpt from Kathy Peiss book Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an extreme style

Read article from Laura Cummings Cloth Wrapped People

Read article from Luis Leal on Paz’s perceptions of Pachucos and Chicanos

Students can make predictions about what they think the play will be about.



Students will work on their own, or in pairs, to create a presentation that analyzes the ways in which Latinos are currently portrayed in the media. Students will have to research at least three current news articles. They will be evaluated using a presentation rubric.



Lesson 1 Modifications

Student choice of readings can be purposely limited by the teacher. For example the sources from the media linked to above can be chosen by level. Readings can come with glossaries for ELL

If specific readings are assigned, specific guiding questions can be given to

For discussions accomodations can be made depending on the teacher’s need to guide the discussion. A more socratic method can be used with the teacher asking specific questions. Or, a more open and student led discussion can be used through Harkness Discussion for more advanced

See, Think, Wonder can be used as a strategy into the photographs and painting by Ignacio Gomez.

The assessment can be given specific parameters depending on student population. It canbe shortened. A teacher can also use this as an opportunity to use notes and practice simple constructions by providing suggest sentence constructions and even suggested presentation structure.


















Broyles-González Yolanda. El Teatro Campesino Theater in the Chicano Movement.

University of Texas Press, 2006.

Charles River Editors. The Zoot Suit Riots: The History of the Racial Attacks in Los Angeles

during WWII. Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.

Huerta, Jorge. “The Legacy of Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino: The First Fifty Years” [speech]. HowlRound, 2015.

This is Us! – Luis Valdez.” YouTube, uploaded by KTEHTV, 20 Jan. 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=isPFm9A_xRM.

Weitz, Mark A. The Sleepy Lagoon Murder Case: Race Discrimination and Mexican-American Rights. University Press of Kansas, 2010.




Alvarez, George R. “Caló: The ‘Other’ Spanish.” ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 24, no. 1, Mar. 1967, pp. 7–13.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. “Chapter 5: How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Borderlands / La frontera: The New Mestiza (2nd ed.). Aunt Lute Press, 2012, pp. 75-86.

Bourton, Lucy. “David Williams Photographs the Vivacious Style of Mexico's Pachucos and Pachucas.” It's Nice That, 11 May 2017, www.itsnicethat.com/articles/david-williams-photography-110517.

Cummings, Laura L. “Cloth-Wrapped People, Trouble, and Power: Pachuco Culture in the Greater Southwest.” JSTOR, Journal of the Southwest, 2003, Cloth-Wrapped People, Trouble, and Power: Pachuco Culture in the Greater Southwest.

Drama, Monterey High, director. Zoot Suit . YouTube, YouTube, 8 Jan. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQEmR2ey_5Q.

Gerber, Marisa. “Zoot Suit Riots: After 75 Years, L.A. Looks Back on a Violent Summer.”

Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 4 June 2018, www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-zoot-suit-riots-anniversary-20180604-story.html.

“Glossary for Zoot Suit.” ZootSuitDramaturgy. University of California Santa Cruz, 23 July 2019, zootsuitturgy.sites.ucsc.edu/got/

Gomez, Ignacio. Zoot Suit, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1978, Ignacio Gomez, Gift of Ricardo and Harriett Romo, 2002, americanart.si.edu/artwork/zoot-suit-82158.

Leal, Luis. “Octavio Paz and the Chicano.” Latin American Literary Review, vol. 5, no.10, 1977. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20119068.

Licón, Gerardo. “Pachucos: Not Just Mexican-American Males or Juvenile Delinquents.”

KCET, 12 Feb. 2018, www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/the-history-of-pachuco-culture.

National Geographic Society. “Zoot Suit Riots.” National Geographic Society, 6 May 2014, www.nationalgeographic.org/thisday/jun3/zoot-suit-riots/.

“Newspaper Articles :: Zoot Suit Discovery Guide.” Zoot Suit Discovery Guide RSS, research.pomona.edu/zootsuit/en/resources/newspaper-articles/.

“Pachuco Portfolio.” Vimeo, 23 July 2019, vimeo.com/203508260

Paz, Octavio, “The Pachuco and Other Extremes.” The Labyrinth of Solitude ; and, the Other Mexico ; Return to the Labyrinth of Solitude ; Mexico and the United States ; The Philanthropic Ogre, Grove Press, 2001, pp. 9–19.

Peiss, K. Excerpt from Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style. Journal of Transnational American Studies, 4(2). Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/78k1r8vc

“Sleepy Lagoon Trial :: Zoot Suit Discovery Guide.” Zoot Suit Discovery Guide RSS, research.pomona.edu/zootsuit/en/trial/.

“Sleepy Lagoon Murder and The Zoot Suit Riots.” LA Law Library, www.lalawlibrary.org/pdfs/grants/Sleepy_Lagoon_Murder.pdf.

SLEEPY LAGOON CASE - Chronology.” Online Archive of California, oac.cdlib.org/view?docId=hb5c6011c8&brand=oac4&doc.view=entire_text.

“Sleepy Lagoon.” Edited by Citizens' Committee for the Defense of Mexican-American Youth, Digital History, www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=605.

“SOAPSTone: A Strategy for Reading and Writing: AP Central - The College Board.” AP Central, 27 June 2017, apcentral.collegeboard.org/courses/resources/soapstone-strategy-reading-and-writing.

“Zoot Suit Riots :: Zoot Suit Discovery Guide.” Zoot Suit Discovery Guide RSS, Pomona College, research.pomona.edu/zootsuit/en/riots/.





In the creation of my lessons I really wanted to contextualize the borderlands within the context of Los Angeles. I was really drawn to the policy implemented by the Border Patrol that outlines the jurisdiction of this entity up to 100 miles from any international border. This includes places we typically think of as being border cities, but it also includes places that we do not include in our traditional notion of borderland.

Also, I want to contextualize a specific place for my student population that may, or may not, be from Los Angeles and have them understand the influence and experience of specifically Mejicanos and Mexican Americans in the past and up to the present. I believe that in some ways, the border exists everywhere immigrants are, as such, the complexities of their lives demand that they navigate these borders constantly.

At times, irregardless of actual proximity to a border. I hope that my students gain a better understanding of Los Angeles, the influence of Mexican Americans, and the ways in which all Latino youth may negotiate the borders they carry.




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R. Joseph Rodriguez &
Ignacio Martinez
UTEP NEH: 2021 Summer Institute for Teachers
(915) 747-7054

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