"Zoot Suit," the 1978 Luis Valdez musical being staged anew at the Mark Taper Forum, was based on the real story of the Sleepy Lagoon case, the Zoot Suit riots, and the anti-Chicano hysteria of the time. The Los Angeles Public Library’s extensive photo archive tells that story in gritty black and white reality.
The Sleepy Lagoon was a reservoir at the Williams Ranch used as a swimming hole, in what is now known as Commerce, California. It was frequented mostly by Mexican-Americans kids who were often denied entrance to public pools. The reservoir got its name from the popular song, “Sleepy Lagoon” written by Jack Lawrence. It was also known for being a lover’s lane by night.
On August 1, 1942, several young couples from L.A.’s 38th Street neighborhood spent the evening at Sleepy Lagoon, among them Henry Leyvas and his girlfriend Dora Barrios. They were both beaten by a group of boys from a rival neighborhood as they sat in their car.
Henry and Dora returned to 38th Street that night bruised and battered, and gathered reinforcements to get back at the rival gang. Henry was able to rile up about 30 people to head back to Sleepy Lagoon.
The spot Henry and Dora had been beaten was abandoned, but he and his friends could hear the sounds a party at the Williams Ranch. Henry and his friends were convinced that the guys who has assaulted him earlier were at this party, and they headed to the ranch, and there was a ten-minute fight.
When the rumble was over, Mexican born José Díaz had been beaten and stabbed. He died that night at Los Angeles General Hospital.
The murder of José Díaz resulted in a crackdown by police on “Zoot-suiters,” who were primarily young Mexican-Americans who wore long coats and ballooned pants. During this time, over 600 Zoot-suiters were rounded up by the LAPD. And the LAPD charged Henry Leyvas and 21 others for the murder of José Díaz.
The headlines of the trail dominated Los Angeles news publications for months, and many of the articles reflected racist sentiments. Eventually, Henry Leyvas was sentenced to life in San Quentin, and his friends from 38th Street were also convicted.
In June of 1943, Los Angeles erupted in the Zoot Suit Riots, when servicemen and sailors attacked Zoot-suiters and often stripped the suits off the people who wore them.
The Sleepy Lagoon convictions were overturned on appeal in October of 1944. The court ruled that there was several issues with the case including: lack of evidence, the denial of counsel, and a biased judge.
"Zoot Suit" at the Mark Taper Forum is based on this contentious trail, blending fact and fiction, opening a window to the past, and shedding light on a few current issues as well. The run at the Taper has been extended through March 26. To see the story come to life for yourself at the Mark Taper Forum, visit their website.
(Note: A previous version of the story indicated that after the Zoot Suit Riots, the Los Angeles City Council banned the wearing of Zoot suits on Los Angeles streets. But the City Council only voted to have an ordinance prepared so they could officially ban them. The file went to the Police Commission and was never enacted by them.)