Against the backdrop of World War II, the term zoot suit emerged in reference to Hispanic, Black, and Filipino youth who sported ostentatious, oversized men's suits, featuring high-waisted trousers and long, wide coats and colorful threads. The term “pachuco” (for gang members) came to identify young Hispanics who wore this style.
The gang reference intensified in 1943 with media coverage and public commentary surrounding the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial or People v. Zammora. In that case, zoot suits and Pachuco hairstyles served as evidence of guilt in hearings where the court reporter randomly chose one defendant, Gus Zamora, and misspelled his name on this historic case involving the murder of José Diaz, who police found dead at the Sleepy Lagoon reservoir.
While investigating the case, police rounded up hundreds of young Latinos for questions. They charged 22 with murder and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder. The jury found 12 defendants guilty of all three counts, with three found guilty of murder in the first degree and nine guilty of murder in the second degree. The jury acquitted five defendants on all counts and five additional defendants of the murder charge. A successful appeal in 1944 reversed all convictions.
The trial and anger surrounding related events intensified tensions between zoot suiters, who saw their attire as source of community pride, and service members stationed in southern California, who in saw the suits' abundant fabric and showy nature as rebuffs to wartime austerity measures. Violent tensions erupted around a series of related altercations throughout June of 1943, leading to additional arrests, continued unrest, and exacerbated conflict in what history calls the Zoot Suit Riots.
|August 2, 1942||José Gallardo Díaz is found dead at the Sleepy Lagoon.|
|August 10, 1942||Police round-up of Hispanic youth.|
|October 13, 1942||After being held in prison, 22 Hispanic boys are tried.|
|January 13, 1943||Trial ends, with 3 first-degree and 9 second-degree convictions.|
|June 3–8, 1943||Zoot Suit Riots.|
|October 1944||California Court of Appeals reverses all 12 convictions from 1943.|
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