Zoot Suit Riots: Wikis


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Zoot Suit Riot directs here. For the album by the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, see Zoot Suit Riot (album). For that album's title song, see Zoot Suit Riot (song)

The Zoot Suit Riots were a series of riots that erupted in Los Angeles, California during World War II, between white sailors and Marines stationed throughout the city and Latino youths, who were recognizable by the zoot suits they favored. While Mexican Americans were the primary targets of military servicemen, African American and Filipino/Filipino American youth were also targeted.[1] 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.[2]



Zoot suits. 1942
"Authorities meet to discuss the Zoot Suit Riots" (photo: Los Angeles Daily News)

The riots began in Los Angeles, amidst a period of rising tensions between American servicemen stationed in southern California and Los Angeles' Mexican-American community. Although Mexican-American men were, disproportionately for their population, well represented in the military, many servicemen with no prior experience with Chicanos and Chicano culture resented seeing so many Latinos socialising in clothing many considered unpatriotic and extravagant in wartime.[3][4]


There are several reasons for the start of the Zoot Suit Riots. First there was already racial tension between Mexicans and whites during this time period. During the 20th century, many Mexicans fled from Mexico to places such as Texas, Arizona, and California. During the Great Depression, many white Americans wanted Mexicans to be removed because of the perception that they competed with Americans for resources and jobs. In the early 1930s in Los Angeles County alone, more than 12,000 Mexicans were deported back to Mexico. Despite deportation and threats by whites, by the late 1930s there were still about 3 million Mexican Americans in the United States. Los Angeles happened to have the highest concentration of Mexicans outside of Mexico during this time. The Latinos, however, were segregated into one area of the city with the oldest, most run-down housing. In addition to this, job discrimination in Los Angeles forced many Mexicans to work for below-poverty level wages. The Los Angeles newspapers and wartime propaganda described Mexicans as aliens who were invading California. These factors caused much racial tension between Latinos and whites.[5]

It was also during the late 1930s that young Latinos in California, for whom the media usually used the then derogatory term Chicanos, created their own 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 negative stories in the Los Angeles Times caused a negative view of these pachuco gangs. 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 still 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."[6][7]

Following the Sleepy Lagoon case, a series of violent incidents erupted between Mexicans wearing zoot suits and U.S. service personnel in San Jose, Oakland, San Diego, Delano, Los Angeles, and places elsewhere. The most serious of these acts of violence broke out in Los Angeles.

In addition to this background of violence and animosity towards Chicanos, two conflicts between Mexicans and military personnel had a great effect on the start of the riots. The first occurred on May 30, 1943 just four days before the start of the riots. The altercation involved a dozen sailors and soldiers including Seaman Second Class Joe Dacy Coleman. The group was walking down Main Street when they spotted a group of young women on the opposite side of the street. With the exception of Coleman and another soldier, the group crossed the street to approach the women. Coleman continued on, walking past a small group of young men in zoot suits. As he walked by, Coleman saw one of the young men raise his arm in a “threatening” manner, so he turned around and grabbed it. It was then that something or someone struck the sailor in the back of the head at which point he fell to the ground unconscious, breaking his jaw in two places. On the opposite side of the street, young men attacked the servicemen out of nowhere. In the midst of this battle, the service men managed to fight their way to Coleman and drag him to safety. It was as a result of this altercation, according to Eduardo Pagan, that the white servicemen believed that they were the only group capable of restoring order and white male dominance.[8]

The second incident took place just 4 days later on the night of June 3, 1943. About eleven sailors exited a bus started walking along Main Street in East Los Angeles. At some point they ran into a group of young Mexicans dressed in zoot suits and got in a verbal argument. It was then that the sailors claimed that they were jumped and beaten by this gang of zoot suiters. Although they only suffered minor injuries, this incident was essentially the last straw. When the LAPD responded to the incident, many of them off duty officers, they deemed themselves the Vengeance Squad and went to the scene “seeking to clean up Main Street from what they viewed as the loathsome influence of pachuco gangs.” The next day, 200 members of the U.S. Navy, following the lead of the Vengeance Squad, got a caravan of about 20 taxi cabs and headed for East Los Angeles. When the sailors spotted their first victims, most of them 12-13 year old boys, they clubbed the boys and adults that were trying to stop them. They also stripped the boys of their zoot suits and burned the tattered clothes in a pile. Other than wearing the wrong clothes at the wrong time in the wrong place, the boys had done nothing. The mob however, did not care. They were determined to attack and strip all minorities that they came across who were wearing zoot suits. And it was with this attack on these young boys that the Zoot Suit Riots started.[9]

As the violence escalated over the ensuing days, 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".[4]

An eyewitness to the attacks, journalist Carey McWilliams described the scene as follows

"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."[10]

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."[11] 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". Sailors and Marines had initially targeted only pachucos, but African-Americans in Zoot Suits were also victimized in the Central Avenue corridor area. This escalation compelled the Navy and Marine Corps command staffs to intervene on June 7, confining sailors and Marines to barracks and declaring Los Angeles as off-limits to all military personnel with enforcement by U.S. Navy Shore Patrol personnel. However their official position remained that their men were acting in self defense.[4]

A week later, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt described the riots, which the local press had largely attributed to criminal actions by the Mexican American community, as having actually been "race riots" rooted in long-term discrimination against Mexican-Americans. 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".[12]

In popular culture

See also


  1. ^ With Style: Filipino Americans and the Making of American Urban Culture
  2. ^ "Everything you need to know about Latino history" By Himilce Novas, pg. 98 - Google Books
  3. ^ Osgerby, Bill (2008). "Understanding the 'Jackpot Market': Media, Marketing, and the Rise of the American Teenager". in Patrick L. Jamieson & Daniel Romer, eds. The Changing Portrayal of Adolescents in the Media Since 1950. New York: Oxford University Press US. pp. 31–32. ISBN 0-19-534295-X. 
  4. ^ a b c Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots Los Angeles Almanac
  5. ^ Solomon, Larry. Roots of Justice Stories of Organizing in Communities of Color. New York: Chardon, 1998. Pg 22.
  6. ^ Richard. "The Los Angeles "Zoot Suit Riots" Revisited: Mexican and Latin American Perspectives." University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (2000): 367-91. JSTOR. Pg. 4.
  7. ^ Pagan, Eduardo O. Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A., New York: The University of North Carolina, 2006. Pg. 159.
  8. ^ Pagán, Eduardo O. "Los Angeles Geopolitics and the Zoot Suit Riot, 1943." Social Science History (2000). JSTOR. Pg. 242-243
  9. ^ Alvarez, Luis A. The Power of the Zoot: Race, Community, and Resistance in American Youth Culture, 1940-1945. Austin: University of Texas, 2001. Pg 204.
  10. ^ Carey McWilliams. North From Mexico. Quoted in Richard Griswold del Castillo. The Los Angeles "Zoot Suit Riots" Revisited: Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Summer, 2000), pp. 367-391.
  11. ^ Carey McWilliams. "Blood on the Pavements." In: Fool's Paradise: A Carey McWilliams Reader. Heyday Books, 2001. ISBN 9781890771416
  12. ^ Eduardo Obregón Pagán. Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2004.

Further reading

  • Del Castillo, Richard Griswold “The Los Angeles “Zoot Suit Riots” revisited: Mexican and Latin American Perspectives”. Mexican Studies / Estudios Mexicanos, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Summer, 2000), pp. 367-391
  • Mazon, Maurizio. The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation. University of Texas Press, Austin, TX. 2002 ISBN 0292798032 ISBN 9780292798038
  • Pagan, Eduardo O. “Los Angeles Geopolitics and the Zoot Suit Riot, 1943” Social Science History, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), 223-256
  • Pagán, Eduardo Obregón. Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race & Riots in Wartime L.A. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2003. ISBN 0807854948 ISBN 9780807854945
  • Zoot Suit Riots. Produced by Joseph Tovares. WGBH Boston, 2001. 60 mins. PBS Video.

External links

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