Thursday, June 8, 2017

Remembering the Zoot Suit Riots

Detail, Zoot Suit Riots, from Barbara Carrasco’s mural L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective (1981)
Courtesy California Historical Society / LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes; photo: Sean Meredith

During World War II, a cultural war smoldered on the streets of Los Angeles. The wartime fear that swept across the country, resulting in the forced incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans, reached other L.A. minority communities. In June 1943, this atmosphere of tension exploded in more than a week of fighting between white servicemen and primarily Chicana/o youth.

“Whites Only,” 1942
Courtesy www.csusmhistory.org

Racial sentiment against Latinos had existed before the war, certainly. But wartime restrictions—including rationing of fabrics used to manufacture clothing popular among Latinos, African Americans, and Filipino/Filipino Americans—appeared to exacerbate it. 

Mexican American teenagers asserted a distinct identity with zoot suits—high-waisted wool trousers ballooning upward from the ground and baggy, long-tailed suit coats, popular originally among African Americans in the 1930s jazz culture. Many critics of minority populations associated zoot suits with juvenile delinquency and crime. Zoot suits, they asserted, flouted a disrespect for the new wartime society and what historian Stuart Cosgrove calls its “fragile harmony.” 

Zoot Suit Wearer, 1930s
Courtesy mortaljourney.com

“As the war furthered the dislocation of family relationships," Cosgrove explains, "the pachucos [migrant youths dressed in zoot suits or in attire influenced by them] gravitated away from the home to the only place where their status was visible, the streets and bars of the towns and cities.” There the pachucos sported zoot suits, pork pie hats, and dangling watch chains—easily identifiable in a city already wary of and hostile to them.

The Progress of Rioting, 1943
Published in Eduardo Pagan, Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003)

In January 2017, Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, founder of El Teatro Campesino—a theater troupe active with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, revived his 1978 play Zoot Suit in Los Angeles. Valdez, who incorporated actual court transcripts of prison letters written by Chicana/o youths into his play, recalled the testimony of a police officer who described the youths’ “‘inborn’ tendency for violence inherited from ‘the bloodthirsty Aztecs.’” “I didn’t invent that stuff,” he told a New York Times reporter. “That wasn’t agitprop.”

By 1943, Southern California was teeming was servicemen. PBS has described the region “as a key military location with bases located in and between San Diego and Los Angeles. Consequently, up to 50,000 servicemen could be found in L.A. on any given weekend.” Clashes among servicemen and L.A.’s largest minority group—some 250,000 Mexicans (including Mexican Americans, many of whom had enlisted in the military)—are summarized in the following PBS timeline, enhanced for this blog with primary source images and accounts. 

Uniformed servicemen rioted throughout Los Angeles, targeting young men in zoot suits, 1943
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries

Spring: Clashes between servicemen and Mexican American youth occur up to two to three times per day.

May: The Venice Riot. High school boys at the Aragon Ballroom complain that “Zoots” have taken over the beachfront. Soldiers appear at the ballroom claiming a sailor has been stabbed. An estimated crowd of 500 sailors and civilians attack Mexican American young people as they exit the dance. The fighting continues until 2:00 a.m. The police arrest Mexican American youth “for their own protection.”

May 31: Twelve sailors and soldiers clash violently with Mexican American boys near downtown. Seaman Second Class Joe Dacy Coleman, U.S.N., is badly wounded.

U.S. armed forces personnel with wood clubs on street during “zoot suit” riot, Los Angeles 1943
Courtesy Library of Congress

Gene Sherman, “Youth Gangs Leading Cause of Delinquency,” Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1943 
Fresh in the memory, of Los Angeles is last year's surge of gang violence that made the "zoot suit" a badge of delinquency. . . . 
Although "zoot suits" became a uniform of delinquency because of their popularity among the gangs, their adoption by some of the city's youth was more a bid for recognition, a way of being "different," in the opinion of Heman G. Stark, County Protection Office chief of delinquency prevention. 
Stark and Superior Judge Robert H. Scott of Juvenile Court concur in the belief that the formation of gangs was an outgrowth of a feeling of inferiority on the part of minority groups.

June 3: Approximately 50 sailors leave the Naval Reserve Armory with concealed weapons to revenge the attack on Coleman. They target the neighborhoods near the Armory and attack anyone they can find wearing zoot suits—giving birth to the name “Zoot Suit Riots.” 

U.S. military personnel stopping a streetcar while roaming the streets of Los Angeles in search of zoot-suiters, June 1943
AP Images courtesy www.britannica.com 

Policemen, servicemen, and civilians patrolling the streets of Los Angeles, 1943
Courtesy forum.skyscraperpage.com 

Quoted in Selden Menefee, Assignment: USA (New York, 1943): 
. . . zoot-suits smoldered in the ashes of street bonfires where they had been tossed by grimly methodical tank forces of service men. . . . The zooters, who earlier in the day had spread boasts that they were organized to 'kill every cop' they could find, showed no inclination to try to make good their boasts. . . . Searching parties of soldiers, sailors and Marines hunted them out and drove them out into the open like bird dogs flushing quail. Procedure was standard: grab a zooter. Take off his pants and frock coat and tear them up or burn them. Trim the “Argentine Ducktail” haircut that goes with the screwy costume. 
Police stand by as Zoot Suit wearers are beaten and stripped of their clothes, 1943
Courtesy messynessychic.com

June 4: Rioting servicemen conduct "search and destroy" raids on Mexican Americans in the downtown area—whether their victims are wearing zoot suits or not. The servicemen employ twenty taxis to look for zoot suiters.

June 5: The rioting continues with attacks on all “pachuco”-looking males. A group of musicians leaving the Aztec Recording Company on Third and Main Streets are attacked. Attorney Manuel Ruíz and other Mexican American professionals meet with city officials. Carey McWilliams calls California Attorney General Robert Kenny to encourage Governor Earl Warren to appoint an investigatory commission.

“Zoot Suiters” under Arrest in Los Angeles, 1943
Courtesy Library of Congress

Mexican American youths detained for questioning, 1943
Courtesy Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California at Los Angeles. Copyright UC Regents
Carey McWilliams, North from Mexico: The Spanish-speaking People of the United States (1948) 
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.

June 6: The rioting escalates and spreads into East Los Angeles. Kenny meets with McWilliams regarding the investigation and creates the McGucken Committee. Chaired by the Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, Joseph T. McGucken, the committee blames the press for its irresponsible tone and the police for overreacting to the riot.

June 7: The worst of the rioting violence occurs as soldiers, sailors, and marines from as far away as San Diego travel to Los Angeles to join in the fighting. Taxi drivers offer free rides to servicemen and civilians to the riot areas. Approximately 5,000 civilians and military men gather downtown. The riot spreads into the predominantly African American section of Watts.

Alleged leaders of Zoot Suit groups before the County Grand Jury, 1943
Los Angeles Public Library, Herald-Examiner Collection

June 8: Senior military officials bring the riot under control by declaring Los Angeles off-limits to all sailors, soldiers, and marines. The Shore Patrol is under orders to arrest any disorderly personnel. The Los Angeles City Council passes a resolution banning the wearing of zoot suits in public, punishable by a 50-day jail term.

June 9: Sporadic confrontations continue, but not at nearly the same intensity.

“Zoot-Suiters Again on the Prowl as Navy Holds Back Sailor,” Washington Post, Wednesday, June 9, 1943:
Disgusted with being robbed and beaten with tire irons, weighted ropes, belts and fists employed by overwhelming numbers of the youthful hoodlums, the uniformed men passed the word quietly among themselves and opened their campaign in force on Friday night. 
At central jail, where spectators jammed the sidewalks and police made no efforts to halt auto loads of servicemen openly cruising in search of zoot-suiters, the youths streamed gladly into the sanctity of the cells after being snatched from bar rooms, pool halls and theaters and stripped of their attire.
Zoot suit rioters celebrate after they are acquitted, October 26, 1944
kcet.org; photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

In a 1943 report, a citizens’ committee formed by Governor Earl Warren charged racism as being a primary cause of the riots. Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Brown, however, dismissed these findings, and attributed the riots to juvenile delinquents and white Southerners. And on June 20 in Mexico, where the riots were front-page news, a Mexico City newspaper charged Foreign Minister Ezequiel Padilla as being responsible “for perpetuating anti-Mexican acts in the United States by his failure to take a harder line towards the government of that country.” 

In today’s environment of fear in the face of nationalism and terrorism, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s reaction to the Zoot Suit Riots is well heeded: “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.”

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager
skale@calhist.org

Sources

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