The Zoot Suit Riots


On a clear night of August 1942, a group of Mexican American teenagers from LA’s 38th street headed to a swimming hole called sleepy lagoon. Riding in the car was Hank Leyvas, earlier that evening Hank and his girlfriend had been beaten by Mexican/American kids from another neighbourhood. Hank was determined to defend his girlfriends honour.

As they approached sleep lagoon, the sounds of a part filtered through the trees and Leyvas thought he had found the boys he was looking for. The ten minute fight at sleepy lagoon had the markings of a typical teenage rumble, except for what neighbours discovered later that night. In the light of the full moon José Díaz, a 22 year-old about to go off to war laid dying. He had been beaten and stabbed.

In the 1940’s, one Mexican kid killing another didn’t attract a lot of interest from authorities. But in wartime Los Angeles José Diaz’s murder would play out differently. The police department stormed the Mexican community, Hank Leyvas was the main suspect. The arrest and trial of Leyvas and others from the 38th street neighbourhood raised fears that Mexican youth were out of control. Within months the city would be gripped by brutal racial rioting. The American Mexican community would point to the riots of 1943 as the darkest days of their long history and the city of the angels.

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