Mexicans immigrating to California and the Southwest had increased after the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 and the end of World War I. In Los Angeles in the 1940s, racial tensions escalated with the arrival of numerous minorities who traveled to the West Coast in search of wartime work in the shipyards and industrial factories. By 1945, Los Angeles was second only to Mexico City as the urban center with the largest population of residents of Mexican heritage.
In that era, a Los Angeles neighborhood known as Chavez Ravine was home to thousands of Mexican Americans. Many teenagers living in the barrio escaped the summer heat with a visit to the local swimming hole, known as the Sleepy Lagoon. On August 2, 1942, the body of 22-year-old Jose Diza was found with a fractured skull. There had been some fighting between two local gangs, but there has never been direct evidence of murder or witnesses to the crime. Nonetheless, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested more than 300 Mexican-American youths. Detectives eventually singled out 23 Mexican-American youths for what remains the largest mass trial in California history. Seventeen young men were convicted.
Throughout the trial, local newspapers incited the public with headlines about the "Sleepy Lagoon murders," "boy gangs," and "pachuco terrorists." Pachuco, a Spanish word that became synonymous with juvenile delinquent, also described the great number of young men who wore distinctive clothing called zoot suits. Originally created as a costume for jitterbug dancing, the suit was an expression of identity, style, youth, and sexuality. The clothes were characterized by extra-wide shoulders, wide-lapelled jackets that tapered sharply at the waist, and baggy slacks that pegged narrowly at the ankles, and this outfit was often topped off with a wide-brimmed hat. As with any distinct fashion, the zoot suit called attention to those wearing it and made them easily noticed by outsiders.
Some historians say that stationed at a Naval armory near Chavez Ravine were white sailors who had grown up in more conservative regions of the Midwest and could not cope with the cultural diversity already present on LA's streets in the 1940s. Others say that newspaper headlines created a feeling of hysteria. Whatever the reason, violence broke out one year after the Sleepy Lagoon trial on June 3, 1943, with mobs of white sailors, soldiers, and citizens physically attacking men and boys wearing zoot suits. Bundles of zoot suits were burned in the streets. The race riots continued for six days until the Navy finally forced its personnel off the city's streets. LA city officials made it a crime to wear a zoot suit.
With the end of World War II, the riots became part of history. The residents of Cesar Ravine barrio were uprooted and the neighborhood destroyed to build a new baseball stadium for the LA Dodgers.
But the story of the riots was recalled for a new generation of Californians through Zoot Suit, a groundbreaking play written in 1978 by Luis Valdez and staged by the group Teatro Campesino. It premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and Edward James Olmos played the role of the pachuco narrator. This role turned Olmos into a star, and the drama became the first Chicano play ever produced on Broadway.
- Students analyze America's participation in World War II. (11.7.5)
- Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights. (11.10.5)