In 1942, the United States was under a great deal of stress. Pearl Harbor had recently been attacked and the nation was mobilizing, becoming increasingly involved in World War II. Due to the fact that men were leaving their homes and being drafted for war, a large number of domestic industries were in great need of labor. One such industry was the agricultural industry. Therefore, beginning in 1942, the United States Government responded to this need with the Bracero Program, a program that imported mexican labor in order to support the nation’s agricultural needs.
While the labor needs were filled, a social crisis arose. The importation of mexican workers led to a large spike in the mexican population during a time in which the nation was still segregated and racial prejudice was abundant. Therefore, there was a great deal of tension between mexican laborers and white servicemen stationed in Southern California. While this tension was primarily racially driven, the nationalism of the servicemen contributed to the state of social unrest as well. Immigrants no longer considered themselves mexican; however, they could not assimilate into the world of the privileged white Americans; therefore, they formed their own cultural identity, an identity centered on and represented by the zoot suit. Mexican-American youth wore this style of excessively baggy clothing in order to gain a sense of belonging, but during a time when fabric was rationed, this lavish and excessive use of material was seen as an act of defiance. Servicemen who were raised with a strong sense of national pride and were currently fighting for their country saw this expression of a cultural identity as “un-American,” further increasing resentment toward the Mexican-American youth culture. In the context of this powder-keg, it was no surprise that one little spark, the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial, set off an explosion, the Zoot Suit Riots.
In this era, minority citizens were denied access to public parks, lakes, and other recreational facilities, ergo they established their own locations for socialization. One such location was the Sleepy Lagoon Reservoir located on William’s Ranch. Mexican-American youth considered this location a watering-hole by day and a lovers’ lane by night. On the evening of August 1, 1942, a leader of the 38th Street Gang, Hank Leyvas, and his girlfriend, Dora Barrios, were at the Sleepy Lagoon Reservoir when an attack from a rival gang occurred. Infuriated that his girlfriend was physically harmed, Leyvas called upon gang members to assist him in retaliation. In search of the attackers, the 38th street gang descended upon a party on the William’s Ranch residence and a riot broke out for a brief period of time. As a result of the violence, Jose Diaz lost his life.
The following morning, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested approximately six-hundred young men and women wearing Zoot Suits. In the following months a highly sensationalized trial occurred in which media maligned and severely persecuted the Mexican- American youth population known as Zoot Suiters. By the conclusion of the trial, an excessively biased jury and judge found twenty-one Mexican-American individuals guilty of being involved in the murder of Jose Diaz.
In the following months, the Mexican-American community banned together to form the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee (SLDC) under the leadership of Carey McWilliams in order to appeal the case. During this time period however, civil unrest broke out; What would become known as the Zoot Suit Riots began.
White servicemen, raised to hate and resent other races and fed by the prejudiced media frenzy that occurred during the Sleepy Lagoon Trial, began to attack, strip, beat, and publicly shame Zoot Suiters. Again, the Mexican-American community banned together. This time however, it was for a destructive rather than constructive purpose. Zoot Suiters worked together to defend their neighborhood from the attacks of white servicemen using violent means. The Zoot Suit riots were short-lived; however, their effects were long-lasting.
In October of 1944, the convictions of the Sleepy Lagoon Trial were overturned on grounds of insufficient evidence, the failure to provide the defendants with legal council, and the fact that the presiding judge, Charles W. Fricke, was openly biased.
The failure to deliver justice during the Sleepy Lagoon Trial was not an isolated event but rather an exemplary case overtly displaying the influence race had in a legal system that was supposed to be blind. The magnitude of this trial and the media attention that it captured turned it into a large scale revelation of the unjust treatment minority groups received. This however did not phase the white population, for racial prejudice was part of the social norm and therefore socially acceptable. Newspapers and publications written by the white man supported this “crack-down on juvenile delinquency in minority groups” (Lawrence), and white servicemen felt justified in exerting their racial superiority through acts of physical violence and humiliation.
In the past, members of minority groups reacted to abuse through small scale rebellions and demonstrations; however, they were easily distinguished and too ineffective to be considered noteworthy. In 1942 however, the Mexican-American community forged together to send a notable response to the abuse and attacks of the white community. Groups of Zoot Suiters resorted to physical violence in order to convey their message. When they were attacked, they fought back and protected their neighborhoods. They also fought the injustices levied by the white community in the legal arena. The SLDC put together an effective case and succeeded in having the conviction of the twenty-one zoot suiters involved in the confrontation at Sleepy Lagoon overturned. For one of the first times in history, a minority group came together to send a message and ultimately have their voices heard. This was by all accounts a significant step in launching the Civil Rights Movement which wouldn’t reach its height until approximately fifteen years later.