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LA Public Library's archival photos show the real people who inspired ‘Zoot Suit’

by Jesus Ambrosio | Off-Ramp

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Police officers are shown on the way to court with a group of Mexican youth who assertedly took part in a gang war in which a 17-year-old boy suffered bullet and stab wounds. The youth were scheduled for arraignment on this day, Tuesday, March 27, 1945. Los Angeles Public Library Herald-Examiner Collection

"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.

Dora Barrios, witness who said she was not a member of any of the youth gangs. She testified that the "boy gangsters" got into fights for lack of recreational facilities.
Dora Barrios, witness who said she was not a member of any of the youth gangs. She testified that the "boy gangsters" got into fights for lack of recreational facilities. Los Angeles PublicLibrary Herald-Examiner Collection

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 Leyvas was the first witness in grand jury probe into ranch killing.
Henry Leyvas was the first witness in grand jury probe into ranch killing. Los Angeles Public Library Herald-Examiner Collection

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.

Photograph caption dates August 3, 1942 reads, "Weapons believed used in a bloody birthday party melee are held by Deputy Sheriffs E. M. Smith, left, and Foster Kellogg. The chains were used as flails to strike down youths, victims of the battle declared." Photograph caption dated April 14, 1953 reads, "Brutal weapons used in gang wars. Deputy sheriffs examine broken chairs, chains, and crowbars used by teenagers in wars without reason." The melee referenced in the 1942 caption was tied to the death of José Gallardo Díaz.
Photograph caption dates August 3, 1942 reads, "Weapons believed used in a bloody birthday party melee are held by Deputy Sheriffs E. M. Smith, left, and Foster Kellogg. The chains were used as flails to strike down youths, victims of the battle declared." Photograph caption dated April 14, 1953 reads, "Brutal weapons used in gang wars. Deputy sheriffs examine broken chairs, chains, and crowbars used by teenagers in wars without reason." The melee referenced in the 1942 caption was tied to the death of José Gallardo Díaz. Los Angeles Public Library Herald-Examiner Collection

When the rumble was over, Mexican born José Díaz had been beaten and stabbed. He died  that night at Los Angeles General Hospital.

Defendants and witnesses of the "Sleepy Lagoon" gang murder of Jose Diaz in an unusual mass oath-taking. Armed deputies guarded the inquest room.
Defendants and witnesses of the "Sleepy Lagoon" gang murder of Jose Diaz in an unusual mass oath-taking. Armed deputies guarded the inquest room. Los Angeles Public Library Herald-Examiner Collection

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.

In an unusual procedure, 23 youths were indicted by the County Grand Jury for the gang murder of Jose Diaz, 22, near "Sleepy Lagoon," an abandoned gravel pit near Slauson and Atlantic boulevards. On August 10, 1942 they were arraigned in Superior Judge E. R. Brand's court.
In an unusual procedure, 23 youths were indicted by the County Grand Jury for the gang murder of Jose Diaz, 22, near "Sleepy Lagoon," an abandoned gravel pit near Slauson and Atlantic boulevards. On August 10, 1942 they were arraigned in Superior Judge E. R. Brand's court. Los Angeles Public Library Herald-Examiner Collection

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. After the riot, the Los Angeles City Council banned the wearing of Zoot suits on Los Angeles streets.

Donald Jackson, a 20-year-old sailor, who was slashed in the abdomen in a riot between servicemen and zoot-suiters on Thurday, June 3, 1943, is shown being treated in the hospital.
Donald Jackson, a 20-year-old sailor, who was slashed in the abdomen in a riot between servicemen and zoot-suiters on Thurday, June 3, 1943, is shown being treated in the hospital. Los Angeles Public Library Herald-Examiner Collection
Henry Leyvas, 21, and Gus Zammora, 22, two of the eight youths who were released from the County Jail, Monday, October 29, 1944 with all charges dismissed, after serving two years on conviction in the "Sleepy Lagoon" murder, are shown as they were greeted by relatives and friends. Left to right, Mrs. Lupe Leyvas, Seferino Leyvas, Henry Leyvas, Alice Greenfield, Gus Zammora and Ruth Amparay.
Henry Leyvas, 21, and Gus Zammora, 22, two of the eight youths who were released from the County Jail, Monday, October 29, 1944 with all charges dismissed, after serving two years on conviction in the "Sleepy Lagoon" murder, are shown as they were greeted by relatives and friends. Left to right, Mrs. Lupe Leyvas, Seferino Leyvas, Henry Leyvas, Alice Greenfield, Gus Zammora and Ruth Amparay. Los Angeles Public Library Herald-Examiner Collection

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.

Luis Valdez (center right) with the cast of the 1978 production of “Zoot Suit” at the Mark Taper Forum.
Luis Valdez (center right) with the cast of the 1978 production of “Zoot Suit” at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Jay Thompson

 

 

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