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Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots, 1943

Zoot Suit Riots, Los Angeles, 1943

Armed U.S. servicemen on Los Angeles streets during Zoot Suit Riots. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

By the beginning of 1943, America was deeply engaged with World War II. In Los Angeles, the city had already been emptied of its residents of Japanese ancestry. Young Latinos, unlike their elders, were not content to stay within their barrios, but were spilling into downtown dance halls, movie houses, pool halls and clubs. As young men are prone to do, many young Latino males distinguished themselves with distinctive hairdos ("duck tails") and apparel ("drape shapes" or "zoot suits" - wide-brimmed hats, broad-shouldered long coats, high-waisted peg-legged trousers and long dangling chains). They called themselves pachucos. They came into contact with swarms of other young men who wore another type of uniform ...military men. The war had caused Los Angeles to swell with military personnel at local bases, many of them from other parts of the country with no prior experience with Latinos and Latino culture. At first, serviceman merely derided the young Latino males attired in "zoot suits." The derision turned to resentment, however, because the young Latino "zoot suiters" were not in military uniform. In fact, many Mexican American men were already in military uniform, disproportionately so for their numbers. Yet this was not what bored, restless young white servicemen saw when rubbing shoulders with strutting, brown-skinned "zoot suiters" in downtown Los Angeles. The local press had been beating a drum of fear that a "Mexican crime wave" had hit the city and "zoot suiters" and "gangsters" were one and the same.

Zoot Suit, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, LACMA

Zoot suit in 2016 "Reigning Men" exhibit, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

On June 3, 1943, a number of sailors claimed to have been beaten and robbed by Mexican pachucos. The following evening, a mob of about 200 sailors, tired of boredom and fired up with bigotry, hired a fleet of cabs and rolled into East Los Angeles to beat up and strip the clothing off any young Latino male they could find. The authorities seemed to approve. Police made a few initial token arrests of sailors, but they were quickly released. This emboldened the sailors. For several subsequent nights, the swelling mobs of sailors were joined by soldiers and some civilians as they invaded the barrio, marching abreast down streets, invading bars and movie houses, assaulting and humiliating any and all young Latino males, many not attired in "zoot suits." Young Black and Filipino males unfortunate enough to be in the area were also assaulted. Mobs of servicemen in search of "zoot suiters" also prowled the Pike in Long Beach.

Zoot Suit Riots, Los Angeles, 1943

Mexican American men fight back against U.S. servicemen seeking to assault "zoot suiters." Photo from L.A. Daily News Negatives Collection at UCLA Library.

Although police accompanied the caravans of rioting servicemen, police orders were to let the shore patrol and military police deal with military men. Instead, after several days of rioting and assaults by servicemen, more than 150 had been injured and police had arrested and charged more than 500 Latino youths for "rioting" or "vagrancy," many themselves the victims. The local press lauded the military rioters for confronting the menace of the "Mexican crime wave." "Zoot Suiters Learn Lesson in Fight with Servicemen," declared the Los Angeles Times. The Los Angeles City Council issued an ordinance banning the wearing of "zoot suits." "The zoot suit has become a badge of hoodlumism," explained Councilman Norris Nelson. "We prohibit nudism by an ordinance and if we can arrest people for being under-dressed, we can do so for being over-dressed."

Zoot Suit Riots, Los Angeles, 1943

"Zoot suiters" lined up outside Los Angeles jail en route to court after street conflicts with U.S. servicemen. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Finally, on June 7, U.S. military authorities did what civil authorities would not. Navy and Army commanders sought to get control of their men by ordering that the City of Los Angeles be declared off-limits to military personnel. Nonetheless, the official Navy position was that their sailors were acting in "self-defense against the rowdy element."

Nationwide condemnation of the actions of the military rioters and civil authorities followed. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt commented, "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." The Los Angeles Times responded with a June 18 headline, "Mrs. Roosevelt Blindly Stirs Race Discord." The editorial page accused her of communist leanings.

Although the County Board of Supervisors launched an investigation and human relations committees were appointed and the police department was instructed to train its officers to treat all citizens equally, the only ones to suffer any real consequence were the Latino victims arrested during the riots. Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron, reflecting prevailing local opinion, responded to protests by the Mexican Embassy by downplaying the racial character of the incidents and blaming local Mexican youth gangs for inciting the riot.

L.A. Video

L.A. Videos
Zoot Suit Riots, History Channel

The Zoot Suit Riots: One of America’s worst episodes of racial violence during the 20th century.