Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - DEPARTMENT OF EVERYTHING - —DAHLIA GROSS­MAN-HEINZE

This sum­mer marks the 74th an­niver­sary of the Zoot Suit Ri­ots, and this year, al­most four decades af­ter the play’s orig­i­nal pre­miere, Zoot Suit re­opened in Los An­ge­les. Writ­ten and di­rected by Luis Valdez, the play— a fic­tion­al­ized ac­count of the 1942 Sleepy La­goon Mur­der Trial—pre­miered in 1978 to huge ac­claim.

Af­ter a mur­der near the Sleepy La­goon in South Los An­ge­les, 600 Mex­i­can Amer­i­can youths were rounded up and arrested. Twenty-two of them were tried for mur­der in the largest mass trial in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory. Dur­ing the trial, the de­fen­dants were not al­lowed to com­mu­ni­cate with their at­tor­neys. They were re­quired by the judge to wear the dirty clothes in which they had been arrested and weren’t per­mit­ted hair­cuts, all the bet­ter for the jury to view them as “hood­lums.” The dis­trict at­tor­ney brought in an “ex­pert wit­ness” who tes­ti­fied that Mex­i­cans had “blood­thirst” and a “bi­o­log­i­cal pre­dis­po­si­tion” to crime and killing be­cause of the hu­man sac­ri­fices prac­ticed by the Aztecs. An all-white jury con­victed the teens.

A few months later, the Zoot Suit Ri­ots broke out. When cul­tural norms dic­tated that youths of color re­main un­seen and un­heard in pub­lic, the zoot suit’s ex­ag­ger­ated shapes and unique style were a re­fusal to play by the rules. White ser­vice­men roamed the streets of Los An­ge­les look­ing for “zoot suit­ers,” and

at­tacked and stripped the youths while white crowds watched and cheered.

This is a coun­try that says over and over to youths of color: “You do not be­long here.” Valdez has said that Zoot Suit is an at­tempt to re­cap­ture his­tory, and when speak­ing about the re­vival, the life­long so­cial-jus­tice ac­tivist out­lines a path from Ja­panese-amer­i­can in­tern­ment camps to the Zoot Suit Ri­ots and Black Lives Mat­ter to Is­lam­o­pho­bia. It is a call to re­mem­ber our sto­ries in order to in­spire our re­silience.

This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared on­line. Read the full ver­sion at bitch­me­dia.org.

Photo: cen­terthe­atre­group.org

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