' Skip To Content
Zoot Suit Riots | Primary Source

Letters from San Quentin

Group photo of the Sleepy Lagoon boys sent to Alice McGrath | Special Collections, UCLA Library

Letter from Henry Leyvas to Alice McGrath

Henry sent Alice this note the day after being sentenced to life in prison — a conviction that would later be overturned on appeal.

Los Angeles
LA-CA, 1-13-43

Dear Alice,

I hope you will pardon me for this very short letter, but I hope you will understand my feelings. As you know the outcome of my trial, I will not go into the details. I am sorry that things turn out the way they did as I had very rozy expectations for the future. Did you ever make a castle out of sand or mud when you was a very small girl in pigtails and took much pains and trouble to erect it and all of a sudden a bigger kid came over and destroyed it for you? Well my feelings are somewhat similar? It seems like the whole world just folded up on me, and there is nothing I can do about it. 

I only hope that our friendship will be on the same par as before. I don't know what else to write excepting of course to thank you again for your kind interest and your very nice letters. Until I hear from you again I will remain 


Yes please try and come and see me. My tank now is 10-131 (on 10-B1)

Letter from one of the Sleepy Lagoon boys to Jaime [...]

Coming in from the yard in the evening we are locked up in our cells, then the clash and locking of the doors leaves one in a rather lonesome, empty feeling of being alone. You are standing up to the iron door waiting for the guard to come along and take the count. Listening as his footsteps fade away in the distance, by this time there is a tense stillness that seems to crawl over the cell-block. Then you realize that you are alone, so all alone...

But to have such a busy man (Margolis) take time out to write a personal letter and say a few kind words makes a fellow like me take an added interest in life and want to make a success of my life after this nightmare of an existance is over with.

I am not wasting my time here. I am attending school and improving my English and Arithmatic. Also I am learning watch repairing.

Letter from Henry Leyvas to Alice McGrath

Box 69487
San Quentin, Calif.

Dear Alice,

Am writing these lines to express my appreciation for the efforts you and the committee have taken in the behalf of our defence. And I wish that you would thank each and every one for me, for all they have been doing for us, also tell them that I love them all because they are helping me, and for putting their hand into my heaped-up heart and passing over all the little foolish weak thing, that you can't help dimly seeing there. And for bringing out into the light all the beautiful thing about me, that no one had cared to look quite far enough to find. Because they have helped me to make out of the work of my everyday here, not a reproach but a song. I love them more because they have done more than any creed could have done to make me good and because they have done more than any fate could have done to make me "happy." So you can just bet that I will cooperate with the committee 100% and make to the best of my ability an outstanding record.

Since I've been here I haven't missed going to confession and communion each Sunday. About a month ago the warden ask for volunteer's to take the jute mill and I was one of the first ones to sign up. We will finish our work there in about a week more. The other day the warden said over the radio that in a couple of weeks he would need some volunteers to make ration books and to load them on trucks and so on.

And by that


Letter from Manuel Reyes to Alice McGrath

Manuel Reyes
Box 69597
San Quinten, Calif
July 12, 1943

Dear Alice,

Recived your very nice letter and was glad to hear from you. Well I am getting along fine, and I am in good health. I am still working at the C.P.A. we will finish with that work this week some time. After I am out of that job I am going back to the tailor shop, there I have a good office job, working in the cutting room. I have my oun desk, and a radio, all I do is type and keep the stock in order, and also the filles. But when I don't have anything to do I help at the cutting table, cutting out suites. Well to change the I am very glad to hear that the pepole out side are still helping us. Boys, I cant tell you how glad I am to know that the pepole out side are helping us. I recived the book that was written about our case, I think it was a good idea to let the people know what really happened in out trail. Well to change the subject, we had a good time here on the 4th of July, we seen the figths that rae put on for the boys, it was pretty good five of the boys, fougth, but only two of them won, the best figth was put on by Smiles. Well any way I had a good time. I hope you had a good time also. Well I am runing out of words, so ill close now, so until I hear from you again,

I remain yours truly
Manuel Reyes

PS Give my Regards to all of the Committee.
(Excuse the typing)

Letter from Alice McGrath to Manuel Reyes

August 14, 1944

Dear Manny,

Well, Querido, soon we will be counting the minutes, not the days - verdad? I'm very excited and very happy for you. The 18th is marked with a big red mark and I shall be here every minute of the day (10 minutes for lunch) so I will surely not miss the happy moment. Only wish it were all of you paying me a visit at the same time. The day will come.

Mira Loma sounds bonaroo -- or is bonaroo stricty Q and doesn't go al Rancho CHINO?

I suppose you've noticed that the Times is whooping it up again about the pachucos. This time every body in this town who is at all straight on the question of juvenile delinquency and its relation to the racial minorities is letting the Times know that they don't like what they are saying. I'd like to see their [mail] these days.

There is some interesting stuff on the case, especially in the magazine (...), but I will save it to show in person. I think you are going to get quite a bang out of seeing the office and the stacks of mail and the piles of books, etc. As for me, I can hardly wait to show you.

What a long two years this has been. And in some ways, for me, this time has just gone so fast that I can hardly believe it has really been that long. For me it has not been two years - closer to a year and a half. I feel that I have grown ten years older in experience in that time. You have grown too. In my mind I compare you with my impressions of November in 1942, and there have been noticeable changes - tell you more about that when I see you.

The spotlight is going to be on you, you know that, don't you? I'm very, very confident of you. I don't doubt for a minute that you will be a credit to the whole fight. I don't doubt for a minute that we are all going to feel very proud of you. Just remember the spotlight - don't let it bother you - but don't forget it.

I'm looking forward with very much pleasure to the beginning of our friendship on the new basis - without guards - without rules and regulations - visiting hours anytime you feel like it.

Until the 18th.


Letter from Manuel Reyes to Alice McGrath

Manuel Reyes
Box 69597
San Quentin, Calif
April 28, 1943

Dear Alice,

Received your letter, and was glad to receive the appeall news, and to hear from you. I also received the book, from New York, and was glad to know that there is prejudices against the Mexicans, and how the police treated us, when we were arrested just because we are Mexican's, but being born a Mexican is something we had no control over, but we are proud no matter what people think, we are proud to be Mexican-American boys. I joing the Navy, in July of last year, they didn't turn me down because I was a Mexican, because we are needed to fight this war. I was told to return back to the Navy Station, to take my pleage, but unfairly I was arrested for this crime, with I didn't have anything to do with or know of. When we were arrested we were treated like if we were German spies, or Japs, they didn't figure we are American, just like everybody else that is born in this country. Well, anyway, if I didn't get to joing the Navy to do my part in this war, I am still doing my part for my country, behind these walls. I am buying Defense stamps, and going to volunteer, to do some war work. Well I also receive the " People's World." It's a good idea you have. Well I am getting along straight, and volunteer to work in the jute mill, for three week's, the warden asked for 400 men to work in the mill for three weeks and volunteer, they are going to move the jute mill to Folsom, and want us to finish making the jute we have on hands. Then we are going to do some war work. Well how is every little thing out there? Did you have a good Easter Sunday? Well as for me, I did, I went to Church, and received Holy Communion. (...) Saturday we went to see a show, "The Navy Comes Through," and the New's, it was alright. I am listening to my earphones, I am listening to Tommy Dorsey. Well, I am running out of words so I'll close. One question, before I do so! Are we going to get the "People's World" and the "Fraternal Outlook," when they come out again? We would appreciated it if we would. Give my regards to the Committee.

I remain yours truly
Manuel Reyes

Don't forget to send me your picture, I'll be waitting for it.

Letter from Chepe Ruiz to Alice McGrath

Dec. 27. 43
Jose Ruiz Box 69497
San Quentin, Calif

Dearest Alice,

You probably think by now that I have forgotten you, I really don't Blame you, if you have? But Alice you know we love you so no need to feel hurt. Why without you and your Generous Thoughts for us here, i really don't know what we would do, i know you think of us every day that's why i say such thing, the thought of you makes something inside of me tick,

Alice, i hope the last lines did bore you but what am i to do, when i'm so happy to hear from you and if those kind and Generous People who are So unselfish with their contributions to us, i sometimes wish i had of Gong to school so i could at least express myself the way i feel. But that's out of the question, i mean school, not you. Well Alice if I say anymore it will be not so soon, so before i bore you any further I'll Say untill i hear from you By and God Bless You.

I forgot to mention this. 

I have done what you ask me to do. So please to all those other People Please give them my sincere thanks. I meant everybody who has help us. Ben, Carey - Anya - Philip - Jean - Matt - George Virginia the Mocambo people Marion Frances and all others.

I wish you a merry
Merry Christmas happy
New Year and Love
Chepe Ruiz 

PS what about my book you were going to send and also your picture I demanded you picture and that about that fine chick that was comeing to see us.

God Bless You Darling
Thanks for the Gold
When are you coming again to see us

Letter from Chepe Ruiz to Alice McGrath

May 18, 1944.

Alice Darling,

For fear that I could not transcribe a neat, careful and logical (?) letter to you, I asked my very good friend, Mr. X, to handle this pleasing chore for me. If the result proves successful you can thank me - if the result proves disastrous, lay the blame on Mr. X.

Thanks very much for your very encouraging letter. I am anxiously awaiting the visit from the lovely Miss Florence so that I can get that blow by blow description. I assume she was at the hearing so that I can get a first hand picture.

Thanks very much for arranging that visit from my mother. Now, you can understand that I am fickle. That is my true confession. I have another love, beside your self -- that for my mother. To become serious, I shall give you a blow by blow of that first visit.

After the greetings, kisses and hugs, my mother spoke of the future. For a clearer picture I repeat the conversation verbatim:

MOTHER : Chepe, I know it won't be long before you will be back with us, and that brings me to an important subject.

CHEPE : What is it, mother? 

MOTHER : I gave the matter a great deal of thought and I know that you trust my better judgement.

CHEPE : What is it, mother?

MOTHER : In arriving at the conclusion I did, I resurrected the past and tried to psychoanalyze the reason for the actions that brought in the present trouble and in that way I concluded a decision that I am sure will meet with your approval. (Note: Substitute the word arrived for conclusion.)

CHEPE : Yes mother, what is it?

MOTHER: Just a minute, son. I also took into consideration the cases of your co-defendants and I am of the opinion that what I am about to say affects them as well. However, not being a mother to them, and the subject being so very personal I shall discuss it with you and if you care to take it up with them, -why- use your own judgement. 

CHEPE : Yes mother, what is it?

MOTHER: And, Chepe, I don't want you to answer the question immediately. Think it over. I will be here for a few days so I shall not press you for an answer until you give it mature consideration. As a matter of fact, I would rather you take all the time you can possibly spare to think the matter over. The situation in this, we are guided, to an extent, by the food we eat; by the company we keep; by the clothes we wear, by the thoughts we think; by the pleasures we seek; don't you think?

CHEPE : Yes mother, what is it?

MOTHER : As an example, the natives of deep Africa think alike by reason of the environment and the matter I just discussed. The women may inflict scars upon themselves; the men may use paints; for the ultimate purpose of accomplishing an end. That end may seem foolish here, but in Africa, it almost becomes necessary.

CHEPE : Yes mother, but what is it?

MOTHER: Back in the 17th century - in France, for example, the men conducted themselves in the fashion of the day, by the manner they ate; dressed, talked and so forth. Don't you agree, son?

CHEPE : Yes mother, but what is it?

MOTHER : Let's take the case of Don Juan, for example. He is quite the historical character. The movies typify him as a distinct type of that day and age. He leaved an impression of a sort. When you see him depicted you form a conclusion. That conclusion may or may not be an agreeable one. But, regardless of the conclusion you arrive at, you lave Don Juan with one thought. And that thought is always present when see or hear of Don Juan.

CHEPE : Yes mother, but what is it?

MOTHER : Well, Chepe, you arrived at a conclusion by the clothes Don Juan wore. So for God's sake, son, give m permission to take the zoot suit of yours and have it made over into a dress.

CHEPE (after being revived) : Never, mother, never. I shall keep that suit for a keepsake. Who knows, perhaps in the 25th century, someone may look at that suit, and say, "WHAT DON JUAN WORE THAT?"

That may or may not be funny to you, but strange as it sounds, it is a true transcript for that meeting. Now, Alice darling, what do you think? Don't answer by saying, 

ALICE : What is it? Don't you think that would make quite a souvenier?

And seriously, I am serving a long, long, time for wearing a suit like that.

Well so long, Alice honey. Write soon.

Chepe Ruiz

Letter from Chepe Ruiz to Alice McGrath

June 26, 1943
Jose Ruiz Box 69497
San Quintin, Calif

Dearest Alice,

Just a few lines to hello and to let you know I'm in good health and hope you are the same, Alice as you might know by now henry L., is in folsom. they sent him laste Monday, because he didn't want to work and so thats why he was sent there. we feel sorry for henry but we couldn't do a thing about it because he wouldn't listen to us, so if you hear from him give him my Regards and tell him to be Good so he will sent back to San Quentin, well about Mr. Cano well I don't have to tell you how I feel about him because you know I wasn't be able to say and express myself the way I feel about him all the guys feel the same way as I do so Just tell him that we all wish him Gods blessing and thank him from the bottom of our hearts, and alice don't think we don't want to write to you but you know that you come first with us in other words your the sweets the dearest and the frist Lady of our cause, we'll just say you are the sweet heart of us all so when I don't write don't feel bad but I have a lot of mail I have to answer and I haven't had chances to write to you because we are only aloud sent one letter a day so untill you answer I will think of you, and pray for you to be able to see how we all like you, 
answer soon,

PS tell Mr. Mike Quin hello for us sincer thanks for for his Good work in our behave, and tell my folks I am getting along swell not worry

Letter from Ysmael "Smiles" Parra to Alice McGrath

March 12, 1944

Dear Alice,

I was sure surprised on Sat. when I saw Delia and the baby out there waiting for me. I had a feeling it was you but I didn't think they would be there. I don't know the address of the People's Voice, you know that paper from New York, I was getting at San Quentin and I was wondering if you would write them to change the paper over here at Chino. Its sure swell here and I hope all the other fellows get to come soon, I'm sure they would like it here too. The food and everything is lots better than up north. We have a picture show every week. And we're trusted much more and have more freedom. I really like it here. Delia came again Sunday with the baby. Give my best regards to all the committee Gus, John M. said hello too. I guess this is all for a while

Best Wishes

Letter from Ysmael "Smiles" Parra to Jaime [...]

Dear Jaime,

I was glad to hear from you, believe me. Your letter was very encouraging and I am grateful to you for helping us, and I know you are doing a great amount of work in our case and at the same time helping with the Mexican population. Alice has written us many times about you and all the work you are doing in our behalf. Thanks very much Jaime, not only from me but from all the other fellows also, because I am quite sure they feel as I do. We all feel the same towards Alice for the work she has done and is doing in our case, and we are all very fond of her. I know she works, and is trying awful hard to help us, some people don't realize it, I do, Even if we do lose our fight for freedom and I doubt it, I shall always be indepted to her, for helping us when we needed help so bad.

If the jury or the judge had been at the scene of the crime to witness what really happened, we would have never been convicted. I say this because I know. We got a raw deal, and in my opinion we have the Judge to thank for that. I only hope that the appelate court can see between the lines of the transcript, what actually happened in that courtroom. I, myself, think, that they were told or advised just what kind of verdicts to bring in, otherwise they would have stayed dead locked without a verdict. I may be wrong, of course that is only my opinion. All the fellows read your letter, I hope you don't mind, they liked it too, and they all send their best wishes.

How did that meeting at the Embassy Auditorium on Nov 5 make out? And do you know the date the appeal brief is to go in?

We are all getting along fine, most of us go out for some kind of sport, like boxing, baseball and basketball. Joe Ruiz (Chepe) is the new feather weight champ here now. I guess this is about all so in closing recieve my best regards and hoping to hear from you soon I remain,

Yours truly

Letter from Henry Ynostroza to Alice McGrath

Henry Ynostroza
Box 69499
San Quentin

July 22 1943

Dear Alice,

Just droping these few lines to say hello. Well Alice, all of us are doing alright but we miss Hank L. as for the pamphlet its swell. We been passing it around to some of the fellows up hear and they think its swell.

We are doing our best to keep out of trouble Alice no jive. We are all waiting for that appeal to see if we go home or not, but you just know we all want to go home. This Sunday we are going to take a picture all of us together and will send you one as soon as I get them. But till then hear is one of Bob L. Nick a Pal of our and I, I hope you like it. So Al gave the dance. Man I wish we had been there, was there a lot of chicks (...) When are you coming up to see us Alice. Well Alice I don't know what else to say So I'll close now hoping to see you soon. All the fellows say hello to you and the Committee.


Letter from Chet Huntley (CBS) to Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee

Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc.
Pacific Network
Columbia Square, Los Angeles, California

July 25, 1944

Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee
129 West 2nd St.
Los Angeles, California


I have read with profound interest (and more shock) Guy Endore's THE SLEEPY LAGOON MYSTERY.

May I have the answer to a few questions?

(1) How many of the boys are still in prison? (2) Is the committee in need of funds? (3) When is Judge Fricke up for re-election and have steps yet been taken to insure his defeat? (4) Has Mr, Endore's story of the case been submitted to any periodicals with national circulation such as Harper's, Atlantic, or perhaps Book Tab? (5) Are established book stores selling Mr. Endore's booklet? (6) If you need the funds or desire wider circulation of the booklet may I offer to sell 100 copies around the CBS studios?

Respectfully yours,

Chet Huntley

June 21, 1943

The Suit

The zoot suit is distinctly something from the bottom drawer. Its origin is obscure although when its main features -- the pegged trousers and the long coat -- resemble those of suits of the early 1900's. Its creation has been attributed variously to a Negro busboy in Georgia, and to costumes Clark Gable wore in "Gone With the Wind." But no one actually knows — or can prove — where the zoot suit started. Harlem is its acknowledged gate to popularity, however, and there has flourished in all its glory the reat pleat, drape shape and stuff cuff. The War Production Board virtually banned it in March 1942, when it restricted the amount of material to be used in men's clothes, but the zoot suit has continued to thrive- mainly through the diligence of bootleg tailors.

As one result of the Los Angeles outbreak, the Federal government cracked down on this illicit trading in zoot suits. The War Frauds Division got an injunction forbidding one shop to sell any of the 800 zoot suits in stock. Claiming that the shopkeeper had contributed to "hoodlumism," agents said they had found that great numbers of zoot coats and pants were being made in New York and Chicago.

The question thus was whether the zoot suit could survive assaults by both the government and its men in uniform.

Letter from Orson Welles to California Parole Board

March 1, 1944

Parole Board
San Quentin


After a very careful examination if the records and facts of the trial, I am convinced that the boys in the Sleepy Lagoon case were not given a fair trial, and that their conviction could only have been influenced by anti-Mexican prejudice. I am convinced, also, that the causes leading up to this case, as well as its outcome are of great importance to the Mexican minority in this community. That is to say, the case has importance aside from the boys incriminated — the whole community is undermined. Any attempt at good relations is impaired -- as is the importance of unity in the furtherance of the war effort. To allow an injustice like this to stand is to impede the progress of unity.

I have heard of the splendid record the boys have made in San Quentin — each having made a fine showing for himself in behavior, cooperation , etc.

Because this case is a very special one for the above reasons, I am of the opinion that it merits special attention on the part of the Board Members. Many people in the film colony have expressed great interest in it, and I feel I am speaking for them, too, in making this plea.


Orson Welles

Letter from Youth Committee for the Defense of Mexican American Youth to Vice President Henry A. Wallace

for the
1700 East 22nd Street, Los Angeles (in care of Mrs. Telles)

Reginald Garcia, Chairman
Dora Baca, Vice Chairman
Frank Hermosillo, Secretary
Roger Cordona, Treasurer

Hon. Henry A. Wallace,
Vice President of the United States,
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. Wallace:

We are writing you this letter because we heard you speak on the 16th of September here in Los Angeles, and we feel you should know about the bad situation facing us Mexican boys and girls and our whole Spanish-speaking community.

What you said on that day was the truth, and you made us all think and wonder why everything around us was different than it should be.

On the very day you spoke there were 24 Mexican American boys accused of first degree murder. These 24 boys come from our neighborhood. In our neighborhood there are no recreation centers and the nearest movie is about a mile away, We have no place to play so the Police are always arresting us. That's why most of the boys on trial now have a record with the Police, from suspicion even up to robbery. A lot of the boys worked in Defense plants and have brothers in Australia fighting under Gen. MacArthur. Our folks work in some defense plants if they are citizens, but if they are not citizens they don't get jobs even though Mexico is in the war too. Our mothers and fathers would like to help in the Red Cross and Civilian Defense but they cannot because it's all in English. There is still a lot of discrimination in theaters and swimming pools and the Police are always arresting us and searching us by the hundreds when all we want to do is go into a dance or go swimming or just stand around and not bother anybody. They treat us like we are criminals just by being Mexicans or of Mexican descent. The newspapers have made us look like criminals too. They make fun of zoot suits and use the word "Mexicans" like it was a dirty word.

We have talked about all this in our club and we think it is very bad for the war because it is against unity and divides us from the rest of the people. Also some Mexican Nazi papers are saying that we are not satisfied and that we are sabotaging the war. Also there are some people around here that use these things to say that Uncle Sam is no good.

We know that is not true and we also know that us Mexican-American boys and girls can do a lot of things to win the war if someone will give us a chance. We have got a Defense Club to help the 24 boys on trial and the way we are raising money for that is to collect scrap iron. That way we help the boys and also help the war and also prove that we are not any help to the Fifth Column.

Mr. Wallace, we know that you can help us. Please go and see Mr. Rockefeller and ask him to help us too. He can tell them to give us radio programs in Spanish to tell us how we can help. Also if the Government would print up the speeches of you and President Roosevelt and President Avila Camacho we would distribute them, if they are in Spanish so our folks could read them. There are a lot of things we could do and we will talk about them in our meetings.

Discrimination is what hurts the most, so help us with that particularly because discrimination is the thing that makes the other Americans divide from us. Maybe also you can ask the city to give us places to play. The other thing is to ask the Police to stop arresting us all the time and treat us like criminals because we are Mexican or of Mexican descent.

Mr. Wallace, you helped us very much with your speech on the 16th of September and we need your help more so we can grow up to be good American citizens and win the war.

We don't like Hitler or the Japanese either.

We thank you very much.




Support Provided by: Learn More