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"Zoot Suiters - Living the Real Vida Loca"


Painting the Town Red /(and yellow and purple and orange and green and....)

When the sun went down in Los Angeles, the dark streets spelled danger for some. Some of the people were afraid of getting roughed up just for hanging out in the wrong part of town. It wasn't the "bad guys" they were wary of running into though, it was the ones who called themselves the "good guys..." the Los Angeles City Police. Sixty years ago you knew that after 8 o'clock in the evening, if you "looked like a Mexican, you just better stay off the street1." If the cops caught you out, they automatically assumed you were causing trouble. So they'd call you names, push you around, or they'd run you into jail on a loitering charge (or a vagrancy charge, or anything else that would do). In 1943, this unfortunate reality would get terribly worse as race relations between L.A.'s Mexican Americans and local military servicemen exploded. The 7 days of chaos that followed have been mis-named the "Zoot Suit Riots."

A Zoot Suit
A Zoot Suit was a fashion trend. To wear it correctly you needed to first pull on high-waisted, baggy pants that tapered at the ankle. Then you added a long coat with padded shoulders and wide lapels. Once the suit was propely ""draped," it was time to accessorize. You would jump into a pair of thick-soled shoes, attach a very long chain to your watch (letting it dangle out of your pants pocket to your knees) and top it all off with a wide-brimmed pancake hat.

 An essential accessory was the long watch chain
Zoot Suits had long been popular with the Swing Dancing crowd, but when the US entered WWII, it became illegal to produce this excessive style. The suits simply used too much material to create the baggy "drape" effect, and were considered unpatriotic at a time when all Americans were expected to conserve cloth for the war effort. Many Mexican Americans wore the Zoot Suit in defiance; to challenge the authority figures they felt had discriminated against them for so long. Discrimination, it is clear, that undoubtedly did exist.

Mexican Americans were the poorest racial group in LA in the 1940s, and they were kept there by a community who refused to give them a chance. Overwhelmingly, they were only hired for the "lowest paying, most menial jobs." Since the majority of Mexican Americans could not afford better, they generally lived in "the blighted areas of lowest rent...areas lacking in sanitary facilites, areas of high delinquency, and areas in which health conditions are relatively poor." Perhaps the worst discrimination Mexican Americans faced was in the L.A. school system. Many children were segregated into "Mexican Schools," where the studies focused on job training and "Americanization at the expense of academic course work." These schools were so under funded that some were even left without "such basic facilities as cafeterias, playgrounds and auditoriums." And, just as was the case in the segregated south, Mexican Americans often faced discrimination in public places. There were swimming pools that posted "Tuesdays reserved for Negroes and Mexicans," while some theaters, "restaurants, dance halls, and other amusement spots refused them admittance at all."


This impoverished and ill-educated position put many Mexican American youth in a dangerous place. They didn't want to be treated this way - they were Americans, with rights and freedoms! They were angry about their lower class status, and they wanted respect. One way (though certainly not the only way) to demand this respect was through fighting and violence.

 The history of the riots is essentially untold in LA

Although this violence did exist, it was no more or less than it had been in years before the war. And Mexican American youth violence was no worse than the violence committed by youth of any other color. So why the hysteria? We have the newspapers, police, and public officials to thank for that. When a white person commits a crime, he or she is not identified by skin color, but by the offense: "Accused Murderer Awaits Trial." Whenever a Mexican American or Zoot Suiter was involved however, these facts were stated boldy in the headlines. For example, "Zooters' Threaten Teacher at Dance" went on to describe how "A gang of Mexican 'Zoot Suiters'...threated to 'cut down' a school teacher." Another paper claimed that "a cowardly horde of 'pachucos'" (which was a term used for extreme Zooters) was responsible for an assault. Zoot Suiters were an easy target since they were already challenging authority with their conspicuous, colorful clothing. So throughout the spring of 1943, LA's newspapers published "a steady stream of stories," in which they "accused Mexican American youths of everything from assault and robbery to arson, rioting, murder and even sabotage." The connection had been made: "anyone who wore a Zoot Suit was a criminal." The white community in LA became frightened, and then hysterical with anti-Zoot, anti-Mexican sentiment.

Amid this hysteria, there seemed to be no justice possible for anyone who donned a Zoot Suit. When Jose Diaz was murdered and left in a ditch near the "Sleepy Lagoon," after a brawl between Mexican American youth, the police arrested 59 people for the crime. Although there was no evidence to prove any of these men actually killed Jose, 22 Zooters were tried together in a trial that lasted 5 months. 9 of the defendants were found guilty of second-degree murder. These men were sentenced for 5 years to life in San Quentin prison, for a crime there was no proof that they committed. Years later they were released on appeal after proving how biased the court proceedings were.

While the Sleepy Lagoon defendants were locked up in jail, the Los Angeles police decided to do something drastic about the perceived wave of Mexican American crime. In a "massive, three day sweep of the Mexican American barrios," they took over 600 youth into custody. Since there was no actual reason for the arrests, the police used the excuse of "suspicion" of having committed a crime, and paraded the youth before the public so people could point to someone (anyone!) and make a specific accusation.

All of these arrests (justified or not) confirmed the already present fears that Mexican Americans were inherently dangerous criminals, and hysteria began to boil. Within this already uncertain environment, the US military stepped in. Not to soothe things over, but to bring their own form of solution to the "problem" of Mexican American youth violence. There were thousands of servicemen stationed in and around Los Angeles who believed the hype and were afraid of Mexican American violence when they went into L.A. (even though of the 18 violent crimes that the LA Times reported involving servicemen, only one "involved any Mexican American participants.") One sailor summed up the anti-Mexican sentiment that was in the air: "We do not intend to be beaten and seriously injured while on leave here. If the police can't handle these little gangsters, then we will. "

  A group of sailors attacked Zoot Suiters at the Venice Pier behind Irene

On Thursday, June 3, several dozen sailors set out to do just that. The sailors took to the streets, beating every Zoot Suiter they came across. They entered theaters, bars and restaurants, pulling "Mexican American boys as young as twelve years old from their seats," and beating them viciously. The police were somehow never able to arrive at the scene of the crimes that night in time to witness the sailor's aggression. Which meant that although some sailors were eventually arrested and the rest sent back to base, the authorities later "released all the prisoners without filing any charges."

It seemed that the sailors had the "go ahead" from the LAPD to be as brutal as they pleased. For the next few days, the sailors ran with this tacit permission. Friday's violence became "open warfare" as the sailors numbers multiplied to 200, and they "hired a fleet of taxicabs," to chauffer them around the city. The taxis would stop here and there to let the sailors beat another Zoot Suiter, and they pummeled five so severely that they were sent to the hospital. Again, few sailors were arrested, and none prosecuted. Even the press supported the sailors, evident when the LA Times ran the headline, "Zoot Suiters Learn Lesson in Fight with Servicemen," so the rioting continued.

Saturday and Sunday brought police escorts along with the sailors. In a sick and twisted version of to serve and protect, the "police officers often stood by while servicemen assaulted Mexican American boys. If Zoot Suiters tried to fight back, however, police leapt into action." Over 600 Mexican American youth were arrested during the rioting while the servicemen rampaged freely.

 A local mural depicts the Sailor Riots

Monday's horrors reached new heights throughout the city. Thousands of servicemen and civilians joined together to begin "hunting down, beating, and stripping every Mexican American boy they found." At the Orpheum Theater that night, "Servicemen grabbed Mexican American boys wearing zoot suits, took them onto the stage, and stripped them of their clothes," in an act of utter humiliation. And then the zoot suited youth decided to fight back. They'd had enough physical pain and embarrassment, and began to defend themselves, their families and their homes. After another day of battle, with both sides now on the offense, military officials finally decided to put an end to the terrifying violence. They announced that downtown L.A. was "out-of-bounds for military personnel." With the servicemen restricted to their bases, the riots were over.

Irene stands by a colorful chronology of california history

The consequences of these riots, however, continue to this day. The so-called "Zoot Suit" riots (lets change the name to "sailor riots," shall we?) confirmed the Mexican American feelings of discrimination against them, leaving them angrier at these injustices than ever. It seems that L.A.'s true Latino gang warfare was born out of the frustration and aggression of these men. The riots were the epitome of racial profiling. Young men were attacked and beaten for the simple crime of wearing a certain style of clothes, or for having a certain color of skin.

But how much has changed? Today, people spout off statistics of minority crime rates as an excuse for racial profiling. I think we need to ask ourselves... how many of these arrests continue to be affected by our perception of Mexican Americans as violent? Could it continue to be a self-fulfilling prophecy? Although the police have received more training in sensitivity and discrimination, I wonder... when the sun goes down in Los Angeles tonight, how many of the arrests made are of minorities? And why?

Rebecca 1All quotes taken from: Race, Police, and the Making of a Political Identity - Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department, 1900-1945 by Edward Escobar, 1999


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephen - The sweet solace of a farm in war time
Nick - When you must survive, you will find a way
Irene - You are a U.S. citizen but we will still put you in a concentration camp
Daphne - Saving the world is a full time job
Nick - You work hard and still that isn't good enough
Becky - The making of the world's largest vaporizer: The Bomb
Stephen - What did the war mean to the fighters?
Team - Why wouldn't you help, if you could?