Zoot Suit Riots

Zoot Suit

The Zoot Suit Riots were a series of riots in 1943 during World War II that erupted in Los Angeles between white sailors and Marines stationed throughout the city and Latino youths, who were recognizable by the zoot suits they favored. While Mexican Americans and military servicemen were the main parties in the riots, African American and Filipino/Filipino American youth were also involved.

The Zoot Suit Riots were in part the effect of the infamous Sleepy Lagoon murder which involved the death of a young Latino man in a barrio near Los Angeles. The incident triggered similar attacks against Latinos in Beaumont, Chicago, San Diego, Detroit, Evansville, Philadelphia, and New York.

The riots began in Los Angeles, amidst a period of rising tensions between white male American servicemen stationed in southern California and Los Angeles’ Mexican-American community. Although Mexican-American men were, for their numbers, disproportionately over represented in the military, many white servicemen resented seeing so many Latinos socializing in clothing many considered unpatriotic and extravagant in wartime.

There were several apparent causes for the riots. First, there was racial tension between Mexicans and whites. During the 20th century, in addition to those whose families had already been in the American Southwest before 1848, many Mexicans emigrated from Mexico to places such as Texas, Arizona and California. In the early 1930s in Los Angeles County, more than 12,000 people of Mexican descent — including many American citizens — were deported to Mexico (Mexican Repatriation). Despite deportations, by the late 1930s there were still about 3 million Mexican Americans in the United States, and Los Angeles had the highest concentration of Mexicans outside of Mexico. The Latinos were segregated into an area of the city with the oldest, most run-down housing. In addition, job discrimination forced many Mexicans to work for below-poverty level wages.

It was during the late 1930s, that young Latinos in California, for whom the media usually used the, then, derogatory term Chicanos, created a youth culture. They adopted their own music, language and dress. For the men, the style was to wear a zoot suit — a flamboyant long coat with baggy pegged pants, a pork pie hat, a long key chain and shoes with thick soles. They called themselves ‘Pachucos.’ In the early 1940s, many arrests and stories in the ‘Los Angeles Times’ fueled a negative perception of these pachuco gangs among the broader community.

In the summer of 1942 the Sleepy Lagoon case made national news when teenage members of the 38th Street Gang were accused of murdering a man named Jose Diaz in an abandoned quarry pit. This case created much anti-Mexican sentiment and the nine men were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. As one author puts it, ‘Many Angelenos saw the death of José Díaz as a tragedy that resulted from a larger pattern of lawlessness and rebellion among Mexican American youths, discerned through their self-conscious fashioning of difference, and increasingly called for stronger measures to crack down on juvenile delinquency.’ Although ultimately the convictions of the nine young men were overturned, the case caused much animosity toward Mexican Americans. Much of this animosity had to do with the police and press characterizing all Mexican youth as ‘pachuco hoodlums and baby gangsters.’

The Zoot-Suit Riots sharply revealed a polarization between two youth groups within wartime society: the gangs of predominantly black and Mexican youths who were at the forefront of the zoot-suit subculture, and the predominantly white American servicemen stationed along the Pacific coast. The riots primarily had racial and social resonances although some argue that the primary issue may have been patriotism and attitudes to the war.

With the entry of the United States into WWII in 1941, the nation had to come to terms with the restrictions of rationing and the prospects of conscription. In 1942, the War Production Board’s first rationing act had a direct effect on the manufacture of suits and all clothing containing wool. In an attempt to institute a 26% cut-back in the use of fabrics. the War Production Board drew up regulations for the wartime manufacture of what ‘Esquire’ magazine called, ‘streamlined suits by Uncle Sam.’ The regulations effectively forbade the manufacture of zoot-suits and most legitimate tailoring companies ceased to manufacture or advertise any suits that fell outside the War Production Board’s guide lines.

However, the demand for zoot-suits did not decline and a network of bootleg tailors based in Los Angeles and New York continued to manufacture the garments. Thus the polarization between servicemen and pachucos was immediately visible: the chino shirt and battledress were evidently uniforms of patriotism, whereas wearing a zoot-suit was a deliberate and public way of flouting the regulations of rationing. The zoot-suit was a moral and social scandal in the eyes of the authorities, not simply because it was associated with petty crime and violence, but because it openly snubbed the laws of rationing. In the fragile harmony of wartime society, the zoot-suiters were, according to Mexican poet Octavio Paz, ‘a symbol of love and joy or of horror and loathing, an embodiment of liberty, of disorder, of the forbidden.’

As the violence escalated over the ensuing days of riots, thousands of servicemen joined the attacks, marching abreast down streets, entering bars and movie houses and assaulting any young Latino males they encountered. Although police accompanied the rioting servicemen, they had orders not to arrest any of them. After several days, more than 150 people had been injured and police had arrested more than 500 ‘Latinos’ on charges from ‘rioting’ to ‘vagrancy.’

A witness to the attacks, journalist Carey McWilliams wrote, ‘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.’

The local press lauded the attacks by the servicemen, describing the assaults as having a ‘cleansing effect’ that were ridding Los Angeles of ‘miscreants’ and ‘hoodlums.’ The Los Angeles City Council issued an ordinance banning the wearing of ‘zoot suits’ after Councilman Norris Nelson stated, ‘The zoot suit has become a badge of hoodlumism.’ White sailors and Marines had initially targeted only pachucos, but African-Americans in Zoot Suits were also attacked in the Central Avenue corridor area. This escalation compelled the Navy and Marine Corps command staffs to intervene, confining sailors and Marines to barracks and declaring Los Angeles off-limits to all military personnel with enforcement by U.S. Navy Shore Patrol personnel. Their official position remained that their men were acting in self defense.

As the riots subsided, nationwide public condemnation of the military and civil officials followed with the governor ordering the creation of the McGucken committee to investigate and determine the cause of the riots. In 1943 the committee issued its report; it determined racism to be a central cause of the riots, further stating that it was ‘an aggravating practice (of the media) to link the phrase zoot suit with the report of a crime.’ The Governor appointed a ‘Peace Officers Committee on Civil Disturbances’ chaired by Robert W. Kenny, president of the National Lawyers Guild to make recommendations to the police. Human relations committees were appointed and police departments were required to train their officers to treat all citizens equally. At the same time, Mayor Fletcher Bowron came to his own conclusion. The riots, he said, were caused by Mexican juvenile delinquents and by white Southerners. Racial prejudice was not a factor.

A week later First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt commented on the riots in her newspaper column, which the local press had largely attributed to criminal actions by the Mexican-American community: ‘The question goes deeper than just 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.’ This led to an outraged response from the ‘Los Angeles Times’ which printed an editorial the following day, in which it accused Mrs. Roosevelt of having communist leanings and stirring ‘race discord.’ The State Un-American Activities Committee under State Senator Jack Tenney arrived in Los Angeles to determine if Communists had deliberately fostered the zoot suit riots. In late 1944, ignoring the findings of the McGucken committee and the unanimous reversal of the convictions in the Sleepy Lagoon case, the Tenney Committee announced that the National Lawyers Guild was an ‘effective communist front.’

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