During World War II, a cultural war smoldered on the streets of Los Angeles. The wartime fear that swept across the country, resulting in the forced incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans, reached other L.A. minority communities. In June 1943, this atmosphere of tension exploded in more than a week of fighting between white servicemen and primarily Chicana/o youth.
Racial sentiment against Latinos had existed before the war, certainly. But wartime restrictions—including rationing of fabrics used to manufacture clothing popular among Latinos, African Americans, and Filipino/Filipino Americans—appeared to exacerbate it.
“As the war furthered the dislocation of family relationships,” Cosgrove explains, “the pachucos [migrant youths dressed in zoot suits or in attire influenced by them] gravitated away from the home to the only place where their status was visible, the streets and bars of the towns and cities.” There the pachucos sported zoot suits, pork pie hats, and dangling watch chains—easily identifiable in a city already wary of and hostile to them.
In January 2017, Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, founder of El Teatro Campesino—a theater troupe active with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, revived his 1978 play Zoot Suit in Los Angeles. Valdez, who incorporated actual court transcripts of prison letters written by Chicana/o youths into his play, recalled the testimony of a police officer who described the youths’ “‘inborn’ tendency for violence inherited from ‘the bloodthirsty Aztecs.’” “I didn’t invent that stuff,” he told a New York Times reporter. “That wasn’t agitprop.”
Spring: Clashes between servicemen and Mexican American youth occur up to two to three times per day.
May 31: Twelve sailors and soldiers clash violently with Mexican American boys near downtown. Seaman Second Class Joe Dacy Coleman, U.S.N., is badly wounded.
Gene Sherman, “Youth Gangs Leading Cause of Delinquency,” Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1943
Fresh in the memory, of Los Angeles is last year’s surge of gang violence that made the “zoot suit” a badge of delinquency. . . .
Although “zoot suits” became a uniform of delinquency because of their popularity among the gangs, their adoption by some of the city’s youth was more a bid for recognition, a way of being “different,” in the opinion of Heman G. Stark, County Protection Office chief of delinquency prevention.
Stark and Superior Judge Robert H. Scott of Juvenile Court concur in the belief that the formation of gangs was an outgrowth of a feeling of inferiority on the part of minority groups.
Quoted in Selden Menefee, Assignment: USA (New York, 1943):
. . . zoot-suits smoldered in the ashes of street bonfires where they had been tossed by grimly methodical tank forces of service men. . . . The zooters, who earlier in the day had spread boasts that they were organized to ‘kill every cop’ they could find, showed no inclination to try to make good their boasts. . . . Searching parties of soldiers, sailors and Marines hunted them out and drove them out into the open like bird dogs flushing quail. Procedure was standard: grab a zooter. Take off his pants and frock coat and tear them up or burn them. Trim the “Argentine Ducktail” haircut that goes with the screwy costume.
June 4: Rioting servicemen conduct “search and destroy” raids on Mexican Americans in the downtown area—whether their victims are wearing zoot suits or not. The servicemen employ twenty taxis to look for zoot suiters.
Carey McWilliams, North from Mexico: The Spanish-speaking People of the United States (1948)
Marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, a mob of several thousand soldiers, sailors, and civilians, proceeded to beat up every zoot suiter they could find. Pushing its way into the important motion picture theaters, the mob ordered the management to turn on the house lights and then ran up and down the aisles dragging Mexicans out of their seats. Streetcars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were jerked from their seats, pushed into the streets and beaten with a sadistic frenzy.
June 7: The worst of the rioting violence occurs as soldiers, sailors, and marines from as far away as San Diego travel to Los Angeles to join in the fighting. Taxi drivers offer free rides to servicemen and civilians to the riot areas. Approximately 5,000 civilians and military men gather downtown. The riot spreads into the predominantly African American section of Watts.
June 8: Senior military officials bring the riot under control by declaring Los Angeles off-limits to all sailors, soldiers, and marines. The Shore Patrol is under orders to arrest any disorderly personnel. The Los Angeles City Council passes a resolution banning the wearing of zoot suits in public, punishable by a 50-day jail term.
June 9: Sporadic confrontations continue, but not at nearly the same intensity.
“Zoot-Suiters Again on the Prowl as Navy Holds Back Sailor,” Washington Post, Wednesday, June 9, 1943:
Disgusted with being robbed and beaten with tire irons, weighted ropes, belts and fists employed by overwhelming numbers of the youthful hoodlums, the uniformed men passed the word quietly among themselves and opened their campaign in force on Friday night.
At central jail, where spectators jammed the sidewalks and police made no efforts to halt auto loads of servicemen openly cruising in search of zoot-suiters, the youths streamed gladly into the sanctity of the cells after being snatched from bar rooms, pool halls and theaters and stripped of their attire.
In today’s environment of fear in the face of nationalism and terrorism, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s reaction to the Zoot Suit Riots is well heeded: “The question goes deeper than just [zoot] suits. It is a racial protest. I have been worried for a long time about the Mexican racial situation. It is a problem with roots going a long way back, and we do not always face these problems as we should.”
- Evan Andrews, “What were the Zoot Suit Riots?” Dec. 8, 2015; http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/what-were-the-zoot-suit-riots
- Stuart Cosgrove, “The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare,” History Workshop Journal 18 (Autumn 1984)
- Richard Griswold del Castillo, “The Los Angeles ‘Zoot Suit Riots’ Revisited: Mexican and Latin American Perspectives,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 16, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 367-391; http://sites.middlebury.edu/liminallatinos/files/2012/02/ZootSuitriotsMexStudies.pdf
- Robert Ito, “‘Zoot Suit,’ a Pioneering Chicano Play, Comes Full Circle,” New York Times, Jan. 26, 2017; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/26/theater/zoot-suit-a-pioneering-chicano-play-comes-full-circle.html?_r=0
- Carey McWilliams, North from Mexico: The Spanish-speaking People of the United States (Greenwood Press, 1990)
- PBS, People & Events: The Zoot Suit Riots of 1943; http://www.pbs.org/wgbh//amex/zoot/eng_peopleevents/e_riots.html
- Zoot Suit Riots (1943) Primary source articles, https://web.viu.ca/davies/h324war/zootsuit.riots.media.1943.htm