I was called for jury duty yesterday and wanted to post something today about how it felt to be a part of that process, that history. Instead I ran across a photo of the Sleepy Lagoon defendants and followed my curiosity. I googled Sleepy Lagoon and learned about the Zoot Suit Riots (Until today, I would have sworn that “Zoot Suit Riots” was a song…)
The Zoot Suit Riots are summarized as follows thanks to PBS:
May 1943, Zoot Suit Riot. For the better part of a week, sailors and other servicemen dragged (Mexican and African American) kids off streetcars, from restaurants, and out of movie theaters. The boys were beaten and often stripped of their zoot suits. Thousands of white civilians cheered them on and helped the sailors. As the riot progressed, Mexican American boys moved to defend their neighborhoods, setting traps for sailors and assaulting them in their cars. The L.A.P.D. let the riot continue for the better part of a week. After the riot ended, the Los Angeles City Council banned the wearing of zoot suits on Los Angeles streets.
Oh yes, and the Sleepy Lagoon Murder., for those who are interested.
This is also a great site about the history of the Los Angeles area with more info about the Zoot Suit and riots- as well as this very graphic reminder that blatent prejudice existed not so long ago.
A zoot suit has high-waisted, wide-legged, tight-cuffed pegged trousers (Spanish: tramas), and a long coat (Spanish: carlango) with wide lapels and wide padded shoulders. Often zoot suiters wear a felt hat with a long feather (Spanish: tapa or tanda) and pointy, French-style shoes (Spanish: calcos). A young Malcolm X described the zoot suit as: “a killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell”. Zoot suits usually featured a watch chain dangling from the belt to the knee or below, then back to a side pocket.
Zoot suits were for special occasions, such as a dance or a birthday party. The amount of material and tailoring required made them luxury items, so much so that the U.S. War Production Board said that they wasted materials that should be devoted to the World War II war effort. This extravagance during wartime was a factor in the Zoot Suit Riots. Wearing the oversized suit was a declaration of freedom and self-determination, even rebelliousness.