Get out your drapes and start to jump, leap and swing to the beat! You will Rumba the night away!
Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots by Margarita Engle is a prose poetry book that reads like a novel. Each character (and there are several, some named and some just their occupation) has a story to tell about California in the early years of the Untied States time in World War Two.
American born sisters, 16-year-old Marisela and 14-year-old Lorena just want to dance after a long day working in the cannery. They have their 12-year-old brother, Ray (also born in the States, as was their father), there as a chaperone as their older brother is fighting overseas. Yet, as prejudices start to boil over, the same sailors that danced with the girls (girls of Mexican, Cuban, even Chinese heritage) want to show that “uppity Cuban musician” (16-year-old Manolito of Cuba) and the “uppity Zoot-suit wearing Gangsters” (like Ray) a lesson. What would be known as the Zoot Suit Riots (but as the girls point out should have been known as Sailor Riots) explodes with violence, humiliation and arrests of the wrong people.
This tells of a probably little-known piece of history, but one that was told throughout the country (one Sailor mentions how “in the South” he was taught any “dark skin was the same” and he praises his KKK Grandfather) and sadly, still goes on today. The images Engle paints are hard to read. They are, however, some beautifully written examples of the power of words and what was happening (Ray’s description of one of the beatings he is subjected to was amazingly shown, but horrific to realize that even though Ray is fiction, there were Rays). Rudy Gutierrez has scattered throughout the book artistic images that are of the era and the feeling of the music.
The reason the “Occupation Named” people are important is to show that there was not “Just One”: they are all reporters stirring the pot “in the name of patriotism” but really (and some even say) “to sell papers;” and they are all the sailors that went looking for fights (even having taxis drive them to “dark areas,” and picking up anything they can use along the way) and they are all the police officers that would not arrest a (white) Hero off to serve and die for his country.
Pieces of history are scattered within each person’s story: Manolito tells how his people’s music has been “whiten up” and some musicians of the time. Lorena talks about new women comic-superheroes like Wonder Woman and Miss Fury. She also is the one that stops working at the cannery and eventually finds herself being like Rosie the Riveter and working on the planes “our boys” fly in. Marisela’s story takes her to becoming a Union-organizer/leader and how her love of Manolito is forbidden as even though Marisela is Mexican, he is considered “black” and therefore, illegal by the state of California to marry a “white” girl.
Some parts of the story are a bit cliched and/or rushed, but other areas are powerfully done. Over all this is a love story of Engle’s heritage and the people who lived and died during the riots and the young men who were fighting overseas in segregated units.