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The War Against a Suit



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 afraid of running into though, it was the ones who called themselves the good guys... the Los Angeles
 A group of sailors attacked Zoot Suiters at the Venice Pier behind Irene
Police Department. 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 street. If the cops caught you they'd call you names, push you around, or they'd run you into jail on false charges. In 1943, this reality became worse as race relations between L.A.'s Mexican Americans and local military servicemen exploded. The 7 days of chaos that followed were named the Zoot Suit Riots.

  A local mural depicts the Sailor Riots

A Zoot Suit was a certain kind of suit that was popular in the 1940s. 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. To this you would of ten add thick-soled shoes, a very long chain to your watch and top it all off with a wide-brimmed pancake hat. Zoot Suits had been popular for a while but then World War II began. Every one was forced to conserve because the military needed cloth for uniforms. Since the suits were baggy, it was considered unpatriotic to wear them. Many Mexican Americans wore the suits because they were unhappy with the way they had been treated. This was a way to show that were against the people in charge. Wearing the suits gave them the nickname Zoot Suiters.

 Irene stands by a colorful chronology of California history

Mexican Americans were the poorest racial group in LA in the 1940's, and they were kept there by a community who refused to give them a chance. Everywhere they turned, things were against them. They were forced to go to special schools that did not give them a good education. Often they were not allowed into the same theaters or swimming pools as white people. Newspapers only made the situation worse. Instead of telling the whole story, they often only told one side. That side always made the Zoot Suiters look like criminals. The Mexican-Americans however, refused to be treated this way. They were American citizens yet they were not given the same rights or freedoms.

A Zoot Suit

The newspaper articles were able to do one thing however, they managed to scare the white residents of LA. Some of these were the thousands of military soldiers that lived nearby. Starting June 3, 1943, the sailors decided to keep the peace in their own way. Driving into the city, the soldiers attacked anyone who looked like a Mexican. Sometimes they attacked boys as young as twelve. The police did not stop the violence and sometimes actually helped! The violence continued for seven days, and many Mexican Americans were seriously hurt.

 An essential accessory was the long watch chain

None of the soldiers who attacked the Mexican Americans were ever prosecuted. They were sent back to their bases and never punished. The only reason the Mexican Americans were beaten was because of the color of their skin. Just because they wore a certain kind of suit, they were labeled as being bad people. The media made them targets, and then the sailors did the same thing. Even today, Mexican Americans receive similar treatment. They are labeled as being dangerous. Is it right to judge someone based on what they wear, or who they hang out with? No. It was wrong in 1943 and it is wrong today.



Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

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
Stephen - What did the war mean to the fighters?