Zoot-Suits, Root Root!
“Dies irae, dies illa calamitatis et miseriae;
dies magna et amara valde
Day of wrath, this day of calamity and misery;
a great and bitter day”1
While the world was at war during the 1940s, the Latinos back in Los Angeles were waging a war of their own. From the beginning of American history, racism has always been haunting the lives of countless people. Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A. is a book that provides a more modern look at the struggles of Latinos who were discriminated and judged for things as simple as the clothing they wore, also known as the “Zoot suit.” In Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon, Eduardo Obregon Pagan delves into the roots of the battle of racism versus pride during this time of disunity and irrational anger between minorities and the majority.
Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon is split into four parts. The Prologue provides the backbone in this book, the murder trial of Jose Diaz. Jose was a young Mexican American who was planning enlist in the army and fight in World War II for America. However, he was murdered. Pagan points out that reporters telling the story were concerned over the blossoming aggression between Hispanics and Angelenos in Los Angeles, but they did not really pay mind to one more Hispanic death. This was due to the racist hatred towards Hispanics by Angelenos, and in 1942, after there was an order to crack down on these “delinquents,” police were seen as heroes for making as many arrests as they could. They could often be unreasonable and would arrest Hispanics for the most unimportant “offenses”. In Part I, called Make Noise Broken Windows, the author establishes the cultural and political views that gave led up to the reaction to the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and to the rioting which came after it. The first chapter in this book observes how patriotism in World War II created nativist and anti-immigrant feelings towards minorities. These Angelenos targeted Zoot suited young men to harass and beat up. Chapter 2 explores how, while Mexican refugees and expatriates in Los Angeles created the romanticized discourse that Arturo Rosales termed “Mexico Lindo”, or Beautiful Mexico, white city boosters and politicians created their own version of the lost Mexico. He showed the architecture and the ways that Mexican culture in cities had to appeal to the white man’s eye during this time. Chapter 3 expresses the different views between city boosters and Mexican expatriates on the cultural life of Mexican American youths on the street level. Wartime production created newfound opportunities for young working-class people to try new fashions and lifestyles that were heavily influenced by the Jazz Age, thus the Zoot suit was born. Pagan describes the Zoot suit as: “… a fad that pushed at the edges of social convention, playing on fashion mores by mixing gender styles and flaunting consumption beyond the unspoken limits of tolerance. The Zoot suit produced a striking silhouette, exaggerating the upper male body by high-lighting wide shoulders and tapering dramatically down to what Davenport described as ‘a girlish waist… snug as a pre-war girdle.’ From the mid-section down, the Zoot utilized a more overt symbol of female fashion in the length and shape of the jacket skirt. The jacket flared out from the waist to the knees enough to allow sufficient movement and looked like something between a formal day coat and a fitted overcoat. It was a garment that could be worn by either men or women. When men wore the drape, the jacket concealed flowing, pleated pants that flared at the knees and angled dramatically down to a tight fit around the ankles. Some women in Los Angeles took to wearing pleated skirts underneath the Zoot jacket with hosiery and huarache sandals.”2 Lastly, in the chapter, it is observed that for the young people on 38th Street involved in the Sleepy Lagoon Trial, they would quickly grow up when they were accused in court, and the author recreates the fight as described by the accused.
In the second part of this book, called “La Vida Dura”, the author focuses on how the falsehood of the perceived culture of Mexico in America was brought down and how Americans disapproved of the blossoming minority personalities. Americans therefore tried to shape Mexican personalities into what was “socially acceptable” in the white man’s world. Pagan also shows how the state saw the incident at Sleepy Lagoon and how the police twisted the trial. Moreover, the trial wasn’t accurate because, since the accused couldn’t afford better lawyers, the lawyers that they hired were not suited for defending them. Chapter 5 shines a light on how the Angeleno’s disapproval of the “Pachuco problem” made Mexicans out to be juvenile delinquents and thus a scum to society. The term “Pachuco” became a derogatory term that’s meaning changed from what it originally was. In other words, “The imagined Pachuco as a Zoot-suited delinquent took on life and meaning independent of the young people who inspired the myth.”3 The Zoot suit, in fact, was not tied with delinquency as whites assumed, which leads to Chapter six. The author explains here that zoot suits were invented from the jazz artists that Mexican Americans admired so much, and they therefore adopted, modified, and wore their version of “the drape”. However, the most important idea that came out of this was not just a simple copying of African-American culture; the Mexican youths of this time created a culture that was uniquely their own, combining African, Mexican, and American cultures. The “Mexican-American” was thus born, and this new culture challenged the stereotypes of social standing, race, and gender roles.
Part III, Shouting Curses on the Street, examines how rising hostiles went from verbal to physical due to the defiance of social conformities. Pagan explains, “The Zoot Suit Riot was a contest between the military and civilians, between whites and Mexican Americans, between social conformity and individuality, between men as men, and between competing fictional geographies that shaped their sense of place and their responses to each other.”4 Because Mexican Americans chose to defy white people’s expectations, and this led to tensions between the two races. This was the cause of the rioting that occurred in the summer of 1943. In Chapter 7, Pagan links the murder of Jose Diaz to the “Mexican problem”. The reasons for Mexican anger were because of the invasion of what they viewed as their territory by military men. This is why in chapter 8, Pagan explains that the riots occurred from “a particular kind of vigilantism that was designed not only to reassert the authority of the state but also to shore up the segregated boundaries of race and class transgressed by an increasingly assertive generation of young people.” 5
Part IV, called “The Violent Poetry of the Times”, examines how the riots affected people short term and long term. People in power covered up how racist the riots were to the public, but behind closed doors, these people tried to calm the rising tensions for the less ignorant. They did this by hand picking leaders from African Americans and Mexican peoples to explain the reasons for the rioting. In chapter nine, Pagan explains how the riot helped Mexican American activists to work inside the sphere of city government and civic organizations that they didn’t have before. It also sparked renewed interest in solving the problems of minorities who wanted to appeal the conviction of the accused men in the Sleepy Lagoon Trial. After the war ended, the Zoot suits became less fashionable as jazz evolved to be-bop instead of swing. “The mystique of the Pachuco changed through the years, however, from a symbol of derision and fear to a symbol of heroic defiance. Jose Diaz and the youths of 38th Street faded from view in barrio lore, and instead the Zoot-suited Pachuco evolved within Chicano literary and scholarly production as a Chicano freedom fighter who struggled to defend what one Chicano poet described as a ‘will-to-be culture’.” 6 The final chapter, the epilogue, completes a circle that started at the beginning of the story, but with new evidence to re-create what happened on the fateful night of Jose Diaz’s death. We learn that Jose Diaz was not the victim of gang violence that the Los Angeles authorities made him out to be. He could have been killed for revenge or robbery. However, we will never know, as the killer or killers have never been found. “What was hailed as ‘the opening salvo in the war on juvenile delinquency,’ which inflicted a punishing blow to the young men and women of 38th Street and their families, was, in truth, an appalling system wide failure of justice.”7
Pagan’s thesis is that Mexican Americans, due to their mixed culture and ways of thinking and living, were considered a threat to the Angelenos of the 1940s. They were discriminated against just for the clothes they wore and the color of their skin. Pagan states, “Through my exploration of popular culture, I shift the origins of the trial and riot away from a monocausal explanation toward a multivalent theory that looks at competing social tensions deriving from demographic pressures, city planning, racism, segregation, and an incipient, street-level insurgency against what Tomas Almaguer called ‘the master narrative of white supremacy.’” 8
Eduardo Obregon Pagan’s point of view is influenced by the fact that he is Hispanic himself. Growing up, he listened to his parents, who more than likely were directly or indirectly involved with the growing tensions in the 1940s. He was born and raised in the Mesa, Arizona, whose Hispanic community was the second largest population in the city. This would have a massive influence in his way of thinking and influence, and is the reason why he decided to stay in Arizona to teach Hispanic History at Arizona State University. In addition, he was born in 1960, during the Chicano Movement. This was a time where Mexican Americans were fighting for their rights in American society; therefore, Eduardo Obregon Pagan was heavily influenced by the attitudes of fellow Hispanics. He concludes that “the anti-Mexican hysteria thesis does not account for why rioting sailors targeted Zoot-suited young men across the color line, and not all or even most Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles. Nor does it account for why some Mexican Americans responded at least in tacit support of the sailors.” 9 Instead, it was a pent up rage of several different factors, including anti-Mexican hysteria and anger towards invasive Angelenos.
Two book reviews of Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon were found. The first one was written by Paul A. Gilje, from the University of Oklahoma. In his review, Gilje states that Pagan produced a powerful and well written book about the tensions growing in society during this time. He summarizes the book and also notes that, although Pagan tried not to portray the Mexican Americans as victims, it was impossible to do so; therefore, one can see the bias in this book. This, in fact, is what made the book strong because of the portrayal of the Mexican Americans as both victims and actors. He raves, “Although the introduction of the book suffers from a bit too much academic language, most of the book is clearly and compellingly written. Pagan does a wonderful job of making the 1940s come alive, while providing the kind of research base that we would expect from any good social history. The book deserves a wide readership, not just among students in Chicano history but among anyone interested in understanding the cultural roots of ethnic conflict in mid-twentieth century America.”10
The second review, by Ian F. Haney Lopez from the University of California, Berkeley, offers a different view of the book. Lopez first summarizes the book, bringing in key points such as the Sleepy Lagoon Trial and attitudes of Angelenos towards the minorities. He praises how well the book is written and how in depth the Mexican culture is examined. However, he has a more negative approach towards it than Gilje. “… Two key weaknesses surface. The first is methodological: though Obregon Pagan has done extensive archival research, he rarely provides excerpts from original material. Rather than allowing key protagonists to speak in their own words, the author often offers what seem like conclusory assertions about their thoughts or statements. The second is substantive: while race figures centrally in Obregon pagan’s account, he seems to understand race primarily in terms of white racism. Thus, he does not adequately explore the role of race in the elaboration of a Pachuco identity… [Pagan] opens up new ground, raising in turn important questions for further research.”11
Mexican Americans were, in fact, victims most of the time. Pagan proves to be agreeable on many points because history has shown how irrational whites could be with their racist attitudes. However, Hispanics were at fault too and could be just as irrational and violent. Also, it can be agreed with Lopez that Pagan seems to assert his ideas quite a bit, which is hypocritical because he accuses the Angelenos of forming and asserting their own conclusions about the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial. All in all, it was an informative and interesting book that, although had some faults, was better than most other books on this particular subject.
To answer the question on how the 1940s was a watershed in American history, a reader can observe throughout the book how Pagan emphasizes racism as a huge problem in America. Throughout history, racism has always been a part of America, and the riots in the 1940s were a signal to Americans that this problem needed to be addressed at that moment. He repeatedly makes reference to several mounting racist tensions and problems throughout the entire book, so we see that the 1940s were a stream that fed into the river of the racist problem.
Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon scrutinized the society of the 1940s. It showed the different worlds of Mexican Americans and Whites, and how these worlds clashed to fight for their beliefs. “In learning to negotiate American culture on their own terms and in their own ways, second-generation Mexican-Americans increasingly undermined the norms of segregation and white supremacy through cultural expressions of their own choosing.”12 As stated before, the main problem was racism and the riots of this time showed the world the problems with American society.
1. Pagan, Eduardo. 1.
2. Pagan, Eduardo. 108.
3. Pagan, Eduardo. 17.
4. Pagan, Eduardo. 146.
5. Pagan, Eduardo. 18.
6. Pagan, Eduardo. 18
7. Pagan, Eduardo. 227
8. Pagan, Eduardo. 10
9. Pagan, Eduardo. 9
10. "Reviews of Books and Films." Rev. of Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon, by Paul A. Gilje. (n.d.): n. pag. Print.
11. "The Journal of American History." Rev. of Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon, by Ian F. Haney Lopez. (n.d.): n. pag. Print.
12. Pagan, Eduardo. 19-20