1943 Los Angeles erupts into the worst violence in its history as one murder incites a police dragnet that lands more than 600 Mexican-American youths in jail. Twenty-one of them are subsequently indicted for the murder and seventeen were quickly found guilty and sent to San Quentin. In the streets, Anglo servicemen gather nightly to corral Mexican-American men wearing the infamous Zoot Suit, considered unpatriotic and not in line with the "War Effort." The youths were stripped and their clothes burnt on the streets as LAPD stood by. When more than 5,000 civilians showed up to join the servicemen in their gruesome tasks, Mexican-American kids organized and fought back. The Zoot Suit Riots were on! After several days of violence, military authorities declared Los Angeles off-limits to servicemen and the City Council banned the wearing of Zoot Suits on LA streets.
The critically acclaimed series American Experience will present "Zoot Suit Riots," a new documentary by Latino filmmaker Joseph Tovares, which vividly captures the moment when racial tensions boiled over and the City of Los Angeles exploded into a wave of violence rarely seen throughout its history. The one-hour program, narrated by Hector Elizondo, airs on PBS Sunday, February 10, 2002, at 9:00 p.m. ET).
"The zoot suit riots are today more significant than ever," says Tovares. "Since September 11, America has seen a rise in racial profiling, hatred and suspicion towards those considered "un-American" or foreign. The riots were about racial profiling [in a time of war]. The riots were about xenophobia. They were about the ingrained fear of people of color."
"Zoot Suit Riots" is the first major documentary on the subject and contains evocative original photography, archival footage and interviews with a wide variety of eyewitnesses. The film deftly recreates the world of a volatile wartime Los Angeles, about to be engulfed by a dark chapter in its history.
The mood in wartime L.A. was one of fear and suspicion, especially of foreigners and outsiders. Less than a century before, Mexicans had been the elite of the city. But by 1942 Mexican-Americans were seen as racially inferior and vulnerable to manipulation by enemy agents. At the same time, Mexican-American youth were rebelling against the culture of the tight-knit barrios in which they lived. They punctuated their speech with jazz phrases like "hip" and "cool" and took fashion cues from African-Americans, favoring the zoot suit's exaggerated baggy pants and long jackets. Shocked by the outrageous clothes and cocky attitudes, their parents feared that they would become pachucos, Spanish for "punk." For many Angelenos, especially whites, "zoot suiters" had become a symbol of all that was wrong with the city.
Wartime racial tensions, overzealous authority, rebellious youth and 50,000 sailors itching to blow off steam before going off to war brought Los Angeles to its breaking point. In this charged atmosphere, one hot August night in 1942, 19-year-old Hank Leyvas and his friends crashed by a party given by a Mexican-American family from another neighborhood. The gathering was situated near a well-known swimming hold dubbed the "Sleepy Lagoon." Leyva had a score to settle: He claimed the partygoers had beaten him and his girlfriend earlier and he was determined to get revenge.
After a ten-minute brawl, Jose Diaz, a 22-year-old who had attended the party, was found dying nearby. LAPD, for whom Mexican-American youth crime had been a growing concern, took Diaz's death as a call to action. "It came at exactly the right moment or the hysteria to erupt," says historian Edward Escobar.
Within 48 hours, a police dragnet snagged 600 young Mexican-Americans; Leyvas and 21 others were indicted for Diaz's murder. When the Sleepy Lagoon trial began in October 1942, it was the largest mass trial in California's history. The Honorable Charles Fricke, known as a prose-cutor's judge, presided over the case. Overruling objections from the defense, he sat all the defendants together, isolated from their lawyers, and refused to permit them to clean up or change their clothes for the trial. "They were no longer those young men who took pride in their clothes and their shiny shoes. They didn't have that," says Lupe Leyvas, Hank's sister.
The 38th Street kids, as they had come to be known, testified that when they arrived at the party near the Sleepy Lagoon, two girls in their group found Diaz, beaten and stabbed, lying in the shadows. They attended to him while Leyvas and his friends fought with others at the party. After the fight broke up, the defendants admitted, one boy hit Diaz, but they denied responsibility for his death. Neither the press nor the jury believed their story.
On January 12, 1943, seventeen defendants were found guilty. Leyvas was sentenced to life in San Quentin prison, 400 miles from his home. Believing the boys had been railroaded, a group of intellectuals and Hollywood celebrities -Orson Wells and Rita Hayworth among them- lent their names to organize the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee to lobby for the boys' release.
In the months following the trial, sailors and zoot suiters squared off in regular skirmishes as tensions in the City of Angels mounted.
On June 3, nearly 50 enraged sailors armed with belts and clubs left the armory to revenge an attack on one of their own several nights before. The bloody confrontations between servicemen and zoot suiters that followed marked the beginning of the Zoot Suit Riots. Over the next five days, the sailors gathered reinforcement from as far away as Las Vegas. At first they focused their attacks on zoot suiters; then they unleashed their rage on any Mexican American in their path. The fighting spread from downtown Los Angeles into the barrios of East L.A. The sailors stripped zoot suiters and burned their Clothing in the streets. On the fifth day of the riots, 5,000 civilians showed up to assist the servicemen. Mexican American kids organized and fought back.
For days, the LAPD hung back. Finally, on June 8, military authorities and civilian leaders declared the city off-limits to servicemen, ending the rioting. The next day, the city council banned the wearing of zoot suits on L.A. streets.
Ironically, Hank Leyvas, and the 38th Street boys were sheltered from the Zoot Suit Riots in prison. The Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee successfully appealed their case, providing that they had been denied a fair trial. The 38th Street boys were released in October, 1944, after serving two years in prison. Although the boys were not cleared of the murder charge, the L.A. authorities decided not to re-try the case. In 1944, a still-defiant Hank Leyvas walked out of prison wearing a zoot suit. But the Sleepy Lagoon episode would mark him and the other boys for life as many of them returned to prison not long after their release.
Decades later, Lorena En-cinas, who had been at the Sleepy Lagoon, revealed a long-held secret to her children. She said her brother Louie and his friends had attacked Jose Diaz and left him to die before Hank and his friends arrived at the party.
Hank Leyvas died in an East L.A. bar in 1971. Jose Diaz's murder remains officially unsolved.
Joseph Tovares is managing producer of La Plaza, the long-running series about Latinos from WGBH Boston, and is director of new media for television stations at WGBH, the flagship PBS station. Prior to his work at La Plaza, Tovares was series editor of American Experience.
Veteran documentary television producer, Tovares came to American Experience from Blackside Productions, Inc., of Boston, where he produced the program "Science and the American Dream" for the Breakthrough science series. He also worked as a producer of the ten-part WGBH series Americas in 1992.
A native of San Antonio, Texas, Tovares attended the School of Public Communication at Boston University and graduated in May of 1979 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Broadcasting.