Zoot Suits Set Off Rage of Vigilante Servicemen
Those turbulent June days of 1943 became known as the “zoot suit riots,” but perhaps they should be called the “servicemen’s rampage.”
For 10 days, uniformed sailors, soldiers and Marines took to the streets of Los Angeles, beating up and disrobing Mexican Americans wearing zoot suits.
Exactly what triggered the vigilante action was never clear. Some trace it to earlier assaults on military personnel, allegedly carried out by Mexican American gang members who called themselves pachucos. Others said Los Angeles police precipitated the attacks to divert attention from a fellow officer who was about to go on trial.
Some observers blame inflammatory newspaper reports for making the Mexican American gang members a target. Soon after Japanese Americans had been ordered to internment camps in 1942, the Los Angeles Examiner began a campaign against pachucos, singling them out as the city’s “juvenile delinquency problem.”
The wartime sentiment against Mexican Americans first surfaced in a notorious Los Angeles trial, months before the zoot suit disorders. Twelve young Mexican Americans were convicted in January 1943 of killing a young Chicano near a swimming hole that became known as Sleepy Lagoon. A committee of activists and actors formed the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee to mount an appeal. Its lawyers got the convictions thrown out on the grounds of judicial misconduct and lack of evidence. After serving two years, the 12 were freed from San Quentin prison.
The articles in the Examiner “set the tone and hysteria that really impacted the Sleepy Lagoon trial--and later the 1943 riots,” said Alice Greenfield McGrath, who was executive secretary of the defense committee.
The trial was tainted even before it began. Sheriff’s Capt. Edward Duran Ayers told a grand jury committee that “the Mexican element” had an inbred “desire to use a knife or some lethal weapon. In other words, his desire is to kill, or at least, let blood.”
Because pachucos liked the zoot suit fashion, the pachuco and the distinctive style became synonymous in some minds. But in fact, the suits, with their loose, pleated pants, tight at the ankles, and wide-shouldered, long jackets, were popular with blacks, whites and non-pachuco Mexican Americans.
Thousands of servicemen, trained for combat but far from the war front, decided to take the Mexican American “zoot suit problem” into their own hands.
On June 4, 1943, about 200 sailors took a fleet of cabs to begin their sweep. “Soon,” author Carey McWilliams wrote, “the sailors in the lead car sighted a Mexican boy in a zoot suit walking along . . . and in a few moments, the boy was lying on the pavement, badly beaten and bleeding.”
That scene was repeated time and again that night and over the next troubled days. In some attacks, the Mexican American victims were not wearing the suits.
“It became a racist thing; they went after anyone who was Mexican,” said teacher Val Rodriguez, 69, who lived in Boyle Heights at the time.
On June 7, some of the city’s press warned that the zoot suiters would be certain to retaliate. That night, thousands of civilians joined servicemen in “hunting down zoot suiters,” as the June 8 Los Angeles Times put it, and beating them.
The servicemen went to the Eastside and clashed with young Mexican Americans with fists and clubs. The Chicano youths counterattacked, mixing it up with servicemen over the next few days.
At first, the police and military did little to bring the clashes to an end, recalls McGrath, now 82 and living in Ventura.
Finally, the military restricted its personnel to base and the outbreaks sputtered to a close. Amazingly, no one had been killed. If firearms had been as available then as they are now, casualties might have been extremely high.
In a sad irony, while the Mexican American youths came under attack, their relatives and neighbors were serving in the war.
The riots cast long shadows. Many Mexican American parents, fearful that their sons would be victimized, forbade them to wear zoot suits. Others prohibited children from speaking Spanish so they would not be punished in school.
The turmoil, however, spurred a new activism among Mexican Americans. With the return of war veterans, they joined with others to knock down housing covenants that barred minorities from certain suburbs. And their successful suit against the Westminster school district led to the dismantling of state laws on segregation in the schools.
Times researcher John Tyrrell contributed to this story.
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