The Sleepy Lagoon Murder
Zoot Suit is based on the Sleepy Lagoon Murder of 1942 and the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 in Los Angeles, California. On August 1, 1942 José Díaz was at a birthday party at the Williams Ranch. A disturbance occurred around 11:00 p.m. when a group of twenty white men from the Downey suburb arrived uninvited, complaining about a lack of beer. The group from Downey Gang were kicked out of the party after demanding more beer.
Meanwhile, a group of men and women from 39th street drove their cars to the nearby swimming hole and lovers lane, dubbed "Sleepy Lagoon," also on the Williams Ranch. Among the group were Henry Leyvas and his girlfriend Dora Baca, from whom the characters Henry Reyna and Della are contrived. Also with them was friend Bobby Telles. As the group socialized, three men pulled up and began yelling insults, met equally with words from Leyvas. The three drove off. The 38th street group wandered off until they heard a commotion from the parked cars, where Leyvas and Baca remained. A group of about sixteen men from the Downey gang were beating Leyvas and Baca, prompting members of the 38th street group to defend their friends. After the Downey group left, the group from 38th street gang left to gather more of their group, prior to returning to the Williams Ranch.
The group arrived at Sleepy Lagoon around 1:00 a.m. on the morning of the 2nd, to find no one, so someone suggested the Downey gang had moved to the party at the bunkhouse nearby at the Williams Ranch. At the party, the Downey gang was not to be found. Yet, somehow a fight broke out between the party goers and the 38th street gang. The fight was brief, ending when someone yelled the police were coming. In the aftermath of the fight, the party-throwers, the Delgadillos, discovered the body of José Díaz along the road, who had left the party shortly before the 38th street group arrived. His pockets were turned inside out. He was rushed to a hospital where he died an hour and a half after admission, with a concussion and two stab wounds. The circumstances around Díaz's death still remain undetermined.
The People v. Zammora et al.
In the process of investigating the murder of José Díaz, hundreds of young men and women in the L.A. area were brought in for police processing. Among the suspects arrested, several were severely beaten during questioning, including Henry Leyvas, Lupe Leyvas, Benny Alvarez, and Eugene Carpio, and Manuel Reyes. Twenty-two men were placed on trial as a group, under the defense of seven attorneys in the People v. Zammora et al. George Shibley later joined as an attorney on the case, winning favor from the defendants and their families for his attempts to communicate in Spanish. Alice McGrath was hired by Shibley to take notes on the trial. Though the murder weapon was never produced, after six days of deliberation, only five of the twenty-two young men were found "not guilty." The other seventeen young men were convicted of murdering José Díaz, including Henry Leyvas, who with José Ruíz and Robert Telles, was convicted of murder in the first degree and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. Leyvas, Ruíz, and Telles were sentenced to life in prison, while the other young men were sentenced to one to five years.
The ruling was reversed in October 1944 and the men were released, due to the efforts of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, with Alice McGrath as executive secretary. However, many of the young men returned to prison, including Henry Leyvas.
The Zoot Suit Riots
With rising tension between the zoot suiters and military servicemen in the L.A. area, what is known as the Zoot Suit Riots began on June 3, 1943 when a group of sailors claimed to have been robbed and beaten by Pachucos. Provoked by a Nazi salute, servicemen beat zoot suit wearing civilians with clubs and other makeshift weapons, and stripped them of their suits. Approximately ninety-four civilians and eighteen servicemen were treated for serious injuries, with all of the ninety four arrested, but only two of the servicemen. One source claims the Riot continued for five nights, when military and police efforts ended the violence. However, a second source states that the span of the Riots was nine days.