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The Murder of José Díaz | Zoot Suit Riots | American Experience | PBS

On a clear night in August of 1942, a group of Mexican American teenagers from LA’s 38th street headed to party at a swimming hole called Sleepy Lagoon.

Hank Leyvas and his girlfriend arrived with . Earlier that evening, Hank and his girlfriend had been beaten up by kids from another neighborhood. Hank was determined to defend his sweetheart’s honor. As they approached Sleepy Lagoon, the sounds of a party filtered through the trees… and Hank Leyvas thought he had found the boys he was looking for.

The ten-minute fight at Sleepy Lagoon had all the markings of a typical teenage rumble, except for what neighbors discovered later that night. Jose Diaz, a twenty-two-year-old about to go off to war, lay dying.

“When the Sleepy Lagoon case broke, and Jose Diaz’s body was found,” says historian Edward Escobar, “ it came at exactly the right moment for the hysteria to erupt.”

Official Website: https://to.pbs.org/3CqUxdB | #ZootSuitPBS

In June 1943, Los Angeles erupted into the worst race riots in the city to date. For 10 straight nights, American sailors armed with make-shift weapons cruised Mexican American neighborhoods in search of “zoot-suiters” — hip, young Mexican teens dressed in baggy pants and long-tailed coats. The military men dragged kids — some as young as twelve years old — out of movie theaters and diners, bars and cafes, tearing the clothes off the young men’s bodies and viciously beating them. Mexican youths aggressively struck back. The fighting intensified and on the worst night, taxi drivers offered free rides to the riot area. One LA paper even printed a guide on how to “de-zoot” a zoot-suiter. When the violence ended, scores of Mexicans and servicemen were in hospital beds.

Zoot Suit Riots is a powerful film that explores the complicated racial tensions and the changing social and political landscape that led up to the explosion on LA’s streets in the summer of 1943. To understand what happened during those terrifying June nights, the film describes changes in the city’s population — the influx of new immigrants, the booming war-time economy, the huge number of service men on their way to the Pacific theater and a new generation of Mexican Americans who were more conspicuous, more affluent and more self-confident than their parents had ever dared to be.

Decked out in wide brim hats, baggy pants, high boots and long-tailed coats, these “zoot-suiters” called each other “mad cats.” They were “Terrific as the Pacific” and “Frantic as the Atlantic.” Crossing cultural lines and pushing the boundaries of race and class, they were trying to define for themselves what it meant to be an American in 1942 Los Angeles. Even though there was no evidence to connect “zoot-suiters” to crime, the kids’ posturing and self-assurance made Anglos nervous. Many Mexican American parents even agreed that something was wrong with their young people.

At the heart of this story lies an unsolved murder. On August 1, 1942, a 22-year-old Mexican American man was stabbed to death at a party. To white Los Angelenos, the murder was just more proof that Mexican American crime was spiraling out of control. The police fanned out across LA, netting 600 young Mexican American suspects. Almost all those taken into custody were wearing the distinctive uniform of their generation: zoot-suits. The tragic murder and the injustice of the trial that followed, coupled with sensational news coverage of both, fanned the flames of the racial hostility that was already running rife in the city. Within months of the verdict, Los Angeles was in the grip of some of the worst violence in its history.

With stunning film noir style recreations of Los Angeles in the 1940s and with eloquent first-hand accounts from key participants — sailors and the white citizens who supported them, suit-zooters and their families — the program deftly conjures up the flamboyant world of a Mexican American subculture, the bigotry and hatred of much of the white establishment, and the dedication of a few liberals who pressed for justice in the face of overwhelming opposition.

In exploring the shocking outpouring of hatred and resentment in wartime Los Angeles, this film teaches us about race relations in the United States today.
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