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Lights, Camera, Acción:

Date: 
Fri, 2015-08-14
Blog Images: 
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Exploring Mexican-American Hollywood

 

Karen and Lisamarie are here again to explore the nitty gritty details on historical events, locations, and people that have inspired some of the most iconic Mexican-American films to date. 
 
This week’s film is Zoot Suit (1981) featuring LA’s own, Edward James Olmos.
 
 
Zoot Suit (1981)
 
Zoot Suit adapted from Luis Valdez’s play of the same name, starring Edward James Olmos, Daniel Valdez, and Lupe Ontiveros, recounts the Zoot Suit Riots and Sleepy Lagoon Trail. These events are told through a series of facts and fantasies as explained by the film’s narrator. This week we spent some time looking closely at the facts and fantasies portrayed in the film.
 
Fantasy:
There never was a Hank Reyna, but there was a Henry Leyvas charged with the murder of Jose Diaz on August 1, 1942, now known as the Sleepy Lagoon Trial.
 
Fact:
The Sleepy Lagoon did exist. In the movie it’s where Hank and Della go after the party and are attacked by members of the Downey gang. The Sleepy Lagoon was a reservoir used to irrigate crops in what is now the city of Bell.
 
Fantasy:
Only four members of the 38th Street gang were charged for murder in the film. In reality, 22 young men were tried for the murder after a county wide hunt for Mexican American zoot suiters. Over 300 people were arrested and harassed based solely on their ethnicity and style of dress.
 
Fact:
The defendants during the trial were denied access to proper hygiene from changing their clothes to getting haircuts. The reasoning behind this was to negatively sway the jury’s perception of the defendants.
 
Fantasy:
Judge F.W. Charles never existed. His character was based on Judge Charles Fricke, known for sentencing defendants to San Quentin, the state’s high-security prison, and who was responsible for denying the defendants basic rights.
 
Fact:
The defendants were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Two years later, after a lengthy appeal they were released from prison due to the obvious legal negligence they experienced during their trial.
 

This was a very dark time for Mexican Americans in Los Angeles who were seen as criminals, thugs, miscreants, and unpatriotic in their style of dress. Tensions ran high in the United States as WWII put pressure on the public to conserve everyday goods, such as food and cloth. Zoot suits were seen as disrespectful to the war effort and those who were sacrificing their lives to serve their country. It was easy to discriminate and criminalize Mexican American youth because they were different.

 
Though the film utilizes facts and fantasies to recount these events, it sheds light on the experiences of Mexican and Mexican Americans during this time period and is a definite must-see film!