Set in the 1940s against the backdrop of The Sleepy Lagoon murder and the subsequent Zoot Suit Riots in LA, Latinx cartoonist Marco Finnegan explores history, racism, and classism in his new young adult graphic novel, Lizard in a Zoot Suit from Learner Publishing Group. Despite the zoot suit being a major element of Black and Latinx culture, it is rare for Black and Latinx people to see just what the Zoot Suiters were about beyond the negative stereotypes portrayed in the media. Inspired by Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit play and the film of LA Confidential, Finnegan adds a science fiction twist when he introduces us to twin sisters Flaca and Cuata and their very big problem: an anthropomorphic lizard named Chulito — who happens to look very dapper in a zoot suit.
Prior to the August 4 release of Lizard in a Zoot Suit, Finnegan answered a few questions for WWAC:
First of all, do you own a zoot suit? What does it look like. If not, what would your ideal zoot suit look like?
I wish!! I really don’t think I could pull it off, but if I did, it would be a sweet red one, long jacket and nice gold watch chain. The second I walk out of the house in one, I think my children would all hide from embarrassment. We all can’t be Edward James Olmos unfortunately.
The Zoot Suits and the Pachuca style are like a badge of honor for Flaca and Cuata in this book, which is why I think it works as YA book so well. Kids have always worn a “uniform” that identifies their crew and I think the Zoot Suiters weren’t any different, except that they had to buy the suits from a bootleg tailor. That’s why Chulito being given a Zoot really makes him a part of the crew.
Was there a particular moment in LA Confidential or the Zoot Suit play that fuelled your desire to represent the Zoot Suiters in ways they have largely not been represented before?
L.A. Confidential and Black Dahlia really got me, because it was such a bad representation of what the riots were about…. These were mostly young men and women whose only crime was dressing flamboyantly. Seeing and reading those scenes really made me realize how that stereotype of Zoot Suiters as baby gangsters and thugs was still being perpetrated today. Luis Valdez is a hero of mine and Zoot Suit is endlessly watchable. Wonderful play — I wanted Flaca and Cuata to be a part of that culture but still be their own kids. I think so little has been done about this time that it was fun to carve a tiny little niche in such a big untold story. Rather than have this be another footnote in a LA period piece, I wanted the girls to feel real, to worry about getting grounded, being asked on dates and just being seen as individuals.
Why a lizard?
Chulito the Lizard and his family came about after I read a news story that talked about a miner named [Warren] Shufelt who, in the 1930s, was convinced that he had found the lost city of Mayan lizard people under Los Angeles. He even convinced the city to let him dig and that he would share the gold he found there with them. I loved the bizarreness of this story and moved it forward in time and made it a top secret scientist and Chulito was born! I think Chulito is also a distant cousin of the creature from the Black Lagoon, he’s the Pachuco from the Sleepy Lagoon.
Are Flaca and Cuata modeled after anyone in your life? How did these main characters evolve as you began writing this story?
Cuata and Flaca are modeled after what I imagine my mom and her sisters were like growing up. They were very close but very different, my mom was athletic and well-read and her sisters were a bit wild. Cuata and Flaca really became their own characters as the story went along, one thing that I wanted to show was that even though being a Pachuco was tough, being a Pachuca was even tougher. The girls were simultaneously rebelling against what was expected from them as young Mexican American women and how mainstream America felt about them. The girls are living in this tumultuous time but still worry about getting caught sneaking out, they are regular kids in a unique situation.
Why do you feel it’s important to introduce a younger audience to the Zoot Suiters?
I think that a lot of kids can see themselves in these Pachucas, especially in light of what is happening today. Many of my students have participated in protests, signed online petitions and staged walkouts, these kids are informed and aware of injustice. The girls in the book were rebels and just wearing a Zoot was a sign of protest.
I also think that beyond the historical aspect of the riots, it’s important for kids to see Chicanos and Chicanas on adventures and being the heroes all while trying to figure out who they are as young people.
What would it have meant to you to have a story like this available to you when you were younger?
Growing up I never saw myself in any of the comics I read. I mean never. Hispanic characters were either the thug or a victim. Not even a super villain! The same could be said about movies and TV. Seeing two kids from the barrio who speak Spanglish like we did at home, rescue a monster would’ve meant the world to me and I hope a kid sees themselves in these characters.
Lizard in a Zoot Suit will be available on August 4. Check out a preview below!