Coz every girl's crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man'
84-year-old Edward Hernandez has kept the historical legacy of 'Zoot Suits' alive, and done it with style
By Jason P. Smith
MILLIKEN -- It all started back in 1945, just a few years after the famous "Zoot Suit Riots" of Los Angeles. Edward Hernandez of Milliken got his first suit, and he's been the best dressed man at the party ever since.
Living in Austin, Texas, at the time, Hernandez got his hands on a new black suit and loved the attention it brought him. Despite his age and a recent heart attack in July, Hernandez, 84, still dresses up and goes dancing every Saturday night in Greeley.
"I now own 18 different suits," he said with a laugh. In addition to his suits, sunglasses, and long chains, he also owns seven hats, four pairs of shoes and 75 different pairs of suspenders. Over the years, he's had time to collect different outfits and perfect the art of getting ready.
"It only takes me about 15 minutes to get dressed," he said.
Spread around his apartment are pictures of him in his suits with family, friends, sleek cars and, of course, women. After showing a picture of his wife and him dressed up, he mentioned that she had passed away a few years ago.
"I'm single now," he said as he pulled out more photos.
Aside from photos, he's also happy to show off trophies he has won over the years for being "best dressed." Even though he has brothers, he said he's the only one who dresses up regularly. People he knows do, however, ask to borrow suits for things like high school dances and other events, he said.
"He gets a lot of attention when he walks into a room dressed up," said Andrea Villalobos, Hernandez's granddaughter. "Not too many people dress like him anymore, so when they see him, they're always in awe."
The fact is, aside from movies and special events, people don't wear Zoot Suits much anymore. But the style is still alive and well. Where and when did it start?
"That depends on who you ask," said Craig PeÃ±a, co-owner of Suavecito's in Denver, where Hernandez gets all of his suits and accessories. "We believe it's a compilation of styles that came together in the 1930s and was picked up and popularized through music, just like most styles are."
PeÃ±a, who has seen suits from his store worn by a number of celebrities such as rapper Snoop Dogg, said no one culture really came up with the style, but it is rooted in the practicality of the dancing of the time, which was swing.
"When you're swing dancing, you want something that does not inhibit movement," PeÃ±a said. "The pants are high-waisted, so they never catch, and the long jacket gives you the flash and the flair."
Although PeÃ±a believes the clothing style came out of several cultures, he said it has really been embraced by the Latino community. "Latinos have a strong sense of family and history -- I think the Latinos who wear Zoot Suits today understand the history behind it. People come in the store all the time and talk about how they've always wanted a Zoot Suit because they remember their dad, or grandpa, or uncle wearing one."
According to Dr. Genie Canales, associate professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Northern Colorado, Zoot Suits came into their own in the 1940s as a result of Mexican-American youth feeling alienated from both the Anglo culture and Mexican-American culture.
"Some scholars believe these youth were experiencing psychological and cultural marginalization," Canales said. "They did not identify, nor did they want to identify wholly with either culture. However, other scholars believe these young people were cultural innovators. That is, they created a distinct culture: neither Anglo nor Mexican, but a unique cultural product."
This separation and desire to be different caused conflict and ultimately resulted in violence. The "Zoot Suit Riots" of the early 1940s were sparked after the murder of a young Mexican-American in Los Angeles. During World War II, there was a growing tension between Latinos and Anglos, and there were conflicts between the men of military uniform and those of Zoot Suit uniform.
"During these riots, Anglo sailors and army men attacked Chicanos and Chicanos, who were wearing Zoot Suits," Canales said. "The former ripped the attire off the youth and brutally beat them. It was essentially an act of racism. The local authorities did nothing to stop the physical violence against these Chicano youth. It is not commonly known that young women and men from other ethnic groups also wore Zoot Suits."
Regardless of where they started, everyone seems to agree on one thing -- they look good. "Women check out a man in a suit," PeÃ±a said. "You wear a Zoot Suit and you really get looks -- it definitely sets a man apart.
"Zoot suits were a counter-culture thing, just like urban styles of today and the hippies of the 60s and 70s," PeÃ±a said. "Zoot Suits were seen as kind of a caricature of a real suit back then, and some people still see them that way -- but the suits blew people's minds."
The Zoot Suit today, rather than making a statement opposing specific ideals, conjures up images of fun and style from times past. Hernandez has been getting "all flashed out" for years now, but his main goal each time he gets dressed up is to have fun. According to his daughter, Rosalinda Hernandez of Milliken, her father plans to pass his legacy on after he's gone.
"He has been wearing those suits as long as I can remember -- those suits are the most valuable things he owns," she said. "My dad told me that when he passes to have the Zoot Suits split up with the family and people who want to wear them."
Although he had a brush with death last July, Hernandez is still going strong. "You'd never know he had a heart attack recently," his daughter said. His recipe for health? It includes dancing, pin stripes, cool shades, good dance music and, of course, some pretty women for dance partners.
"I want to be the best," he said when asked what keeps him dressing up and dancing each week. "No one can beat me -- I'm number one in Colorado now."