PUT ON A ZOOT SUIT
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.