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When music, fashion and politics clashed

Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to the Book Review, is the author of the forthcoming "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

Playwrights and pop singers -- from Luis Valdez (“Zoot Suit”) to the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies (“Zoot Suit Riot”) -- have elevated the 1942 slaying known as the Sleepy Lagoon murder and the so-called Zoot Suit Riot of 1943 to mythic status in the popular culture. Now Eduardo Obregon Pagan deconstructs the myth and decodes the social, cultural and political meanings that can be read in virtually every detail in “Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon,” a brilliant and ultimately persuasive effort to explain the function of music and fashion in shaping how Americans see themselves, then and now.

“I ask how popular culture both articulated and shaped the tensions that exploded into riot,” explains Pagan, “how jazz facilitated the negotiation of place for working-class youths, and what their engagement with jazz meant to Mexican Americans and white Angelenos.” What we persist in calling zoot suits, for example, were actually known as “drapes” by the young men (and women, too) who wore them so defiantly in the streets of wartime Los Angeles. The zoot suit was borrowed from the “African American hipsters” of New York, Pagan explains, and adapted into the more conservative garment known as the drape, favored by West Coast swing jazz aficionados of all ethnicities, who donned it as “an empowering re-creation of the self.” Nor was the drape uniquely a badge of identity as a Pachuco, as rebellious young Mexican Americans came to be called. "[M]any of the characteristics attributed to Pachucos were not limited to the confines of the Mexican neighborhoods of Los Angeles,” insists Pagan. "[W]orking-class Mexican American, African American, Asian American and Irish American youths in the Los Angeles area shared a kind of syncretistic fashion and manner through their music, dance, clothing, and language.”

Still, Pagan concedes that the zoot suiters were engaged in an act of defiance, “transforming cultural expression into a form of resistance,” and that’s exactly how the authorities and the Anglo majority of Los Angeles saw the phenomenon. And so, when a young man named Jose Diaz was bludgeoned to death near the Sleepy Lagoon reservoir in East Los Angeles and 17 young Mexican American men were put on trial on murder charges, the prosecution was styled as “the first heavy gun fired in the war of youthful gangsters,” according to one newspaper account. “We ought to shoot every Mexican dog like you,” one of the arresting officers told defendant Angel Padilla during the beating that passed for an interrogation.

Within five months after the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial ended in convictions of all but five of the defendants, the same ugly passions erupted in the streets of downtown Los Angeles, when sailors from a naval training facility in Chavez Ravine set upon young men from the local Mexican American neighborhoods. While white civilians cheered them on, the sailors stripped off the “drapes” worn by their victims -- yet another moment in which a garment served as a glyph for racial and cultural conflict -- before beating them up. “We’re out to do what the police have failed to do,” said one petty officer of the motives for the mob violence against Mexican Americans.

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Pagan, a program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities, refuses to provide simple answers to the troubling questions he raises about the root cause of these acts of violence. The California historian Carey McWilliams and the novelist and screenwriter Guy Endore argued at the time that the Zoot Suit Riot was provoked by “anti-Mexican hysteria” stirred up by William Randolph Hearst in the pages of his L.A. newspapers, but Pagan discerns a “complex social dialogue” in the warring of sailors and zoot suiters on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. “Although the Zoot Suit Riot initially broke out as an act of vigilantism in direct response to the confrontations between sailors and local youths,” he writes, "[it] was at once a contest between the military and civilians, between whites and Mexican Americans, between social conformity and individuality, between men as men, and between competing fictional geographies that shaped their sense of place and their responses to each other.”

The convictions of the Sleepy Lagoon defendants were overturned on appeal in 1944, and the final irony, Pagan notes, is that the efforts of police, prosecutors and rioting sailors to “rid Los Angeles of the Pachuco presence ultimately guaranteed its longevity.” Nowadays, the zoot suit itself is merely a matter of costumery for the makers of movies and music videos, but “the Pachuco lived on in barrio lore and in time rose immortalized in the dramatic and scholarly works of Chicano artists and intellectuals.” Pagan has made an important and illuminating contribution to that body of scholarship, while at the same time giving us a wholly compelling glimpse of the reality behind the myth.

While Pagan focuses on events that took place a half-century ago, his book is also a lens through which to examine recent and current conflicts. “The nation celebrated a kind of patriotism that was layered with troubling assumptions about power, race, and culture,” he writes, referring to World War II but reminding us of the current war against terrorism at home and abroad. "[T]hose who looked too foreign or who failed to conform to the celebrated ‘American’ ideal often paid the price. Cultural difference was confused with political dissent.” Thus does he remind us that the same tragic misperceptions continue to bedevil us today. *


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