Los Angeles’s Zoot Suit Riots were an incident Latinx writer/artist/teacher Marco Finnegan says he remembered from watching the play Zoot Suit on PBS., But he didn’t see the riots get attention very often — beyond popping up in the ’90s swing revival song, “Zoot Suit Riot,” and being seen from the perspective of white cops in the film, L.A. Confidential.
“It was just this weird thing in Chicano culture that you didn’t really hear about,” Finnegan said.
While L.A. had the largest population of Mexicans outside of Mexico in the 1930s and ’40s, Finnegan didn’t see that reflected in books or movies. So he ended up doing a deep dive on the Zoot Suit Riots, and the result is the new graphic novel he spent the past three years on, Lizard In A Zoot Suit. It tells the story of two Latinx teen girls going up against racist servicemen and a government-funded scientist — with the help of a mysterious creature.
The project began with Finnegan talking with his mom about family memories of what happened. The riots happened over a week in 1943, when Navy servicemen and other white Angelenos attacked young Latinos who wore elaborate “zoot suits,” a popular fashion at the time.
Finnegan’s project could have been a non-fiction history — but as someone who enjoys the more fantastical, he decided to add a fable-like element to the story.
“I never saw kids like me having adventures,” Finnegan said. “So many of the stories that feature Chicanos usually are about trauma, or oppression, or gangs, or overcoming something. And I didn’t want to negate or diminish any of that, but I also wanted to say that adventures can happen to kids like us too.”
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That’s when Finnegan got the idea of combining the riots with the efforts to drive Latinos out of their Chavez Ravine homes, as well as a significantly lesser-known myth from L.A. history: underground Mayan lizard people.
OK, there were no actual lizard people, but geophysicist/mining engineer George Warren Shufelt did get permission from the city in the early 1930s to explore an old legend: under the city of L.A. were supposedly tunnels — and treasure — allegedly left behind by a race of… well, lizard people. Shufelt had promised that any treasure he found would be split with the city 50/50, and the effort was approved amidst the depths of the Great Depression.
“And I said, well, let’s just assume that there really were Mayan lizard tunnels underneath L.A., and let’s say that we fast-forward this, and they’re using the riots as a way to dig up these people’s homes and to hunt these creatures down,” Finnegan said.
It’s a departure from real life — and yes, there is a literal lizard in a zoot suit at one point in the story — but it’s rooted in the real Chicano experience of the early 20th century.
The story also centers around twin sisters Cuata and Flaca, with Cuata fitting more traditional gender norms while Flaca is a zoot-suiter herself. Each is rebelling in her own way. Finnegan was inspired after seeing “pachucas” of the time wearing those suits.
“Not every girl at every time falls into a category,” he said. “These girls were tough, man. They were out there pulling cops off of their boyfriends, and getting into fights, and sticking up for themselves. And they were painted very poorly at the time — they were either ignored, or they were painted as ‘loose,’ or ‘gangsters.’ I don’t feel like there was a lot of support coming for them from either side.”
Another piece of real-life history that gets rolled into the story: the “Sleepy Lagoon murder.” It was a gang fight that resulted in one man’s death, and gave authorities reason to believe young Chicanos were a menace. The case was seen as a precursor to the Zoot Suit Riots, fueling racism against Mexican-Americans. Finnegan uses the lagoon setting to dovetail with his story featuring a lizard person.
While filled with historical context, Finnegan’s graphic novel is aimed at the young adult audience. The violence is shown as real, but not graphic, and there’s a sense of uplift throughout. He hopes that the representation seen in his book can inspire others.
“I wanted it to be something that maybe these kids who were in the book would have enjoyed at the time,” Finnegan said. “It becomes detrimental to your self-esteem to only see yourself as the gardener, as the maid, as the bad guy, as the thug.”
He hopes that kids reading the book will see young people who look like them and families that speak like them. The book uses a mixture of Spanish and English, and doesn’t translate for those who don’t speak the language, using context clues in the artwork to communicate meaning. He also hopes that the book will inspire readers to dig deeper themselves.
Finnegan also sees the book as being more relevant now than when he started working on the project.
“You could set that story in the riots of the 1990s in South Central, and change some styles, and change maybe a couple of demographics, and the story would still resonate,” Finnegan said. “You could fast-forward that story to last month, and that still resonates.”
The Zoot Suit Riots had two different ideas of what being an American means coming to a head.
“And I think that’s a lot of what we’re doing now,” Finnegan said “You have these extremes of, well, does being an American mean being silent? Or does it mean speaking up?”
Lizard In A Zoot Suit is available this Tuesday, Aug. 4. You can read a sneak preview of the new graphic novel below: