The Zoot Suit Riots
Hector Sustaita Torres
Banks High School, Banks, Oregon
In 1997 the radio was playing a retro swing song called "Zoot Suit
Riot" by the music group Cherry Poppin Daddies. It was a big hit. The
term "zoot suit" sounded familiar to people, but most would not be able to
say what a zoot suit was or what the riots were.
An elderly Chicano person from Los Angeles might be able to tell
people what it all means. However, this important part of Mexican
American history should be familiar to everyone. The riots were a
complicated event that resulted in one group of people being targeted
because of their racial identity. What happened that summer of 1943 and
what were some of the causes for it?
In Los Angeles in the early 1940's Mexican Americans lived in
neighborhoods of their own. The neighborhoods often did not have the
same services as the white neighborhoods. For example, they often had no
street lighting or police protection (Jimenez 155). Most movie theaters
would not allow Mexican Americans or would have a separate section for
them. Many restaurants would not serve Mexican Americans. Public pools
and parks had signs that said that Wednesdays were the only day that
Mexicans and Blacks could use the park or swimming pool. Other fun
things to do such as going to a roller skating rink were usually only
available to Mexican Americans one day a week (Jimenez 156). In
Occupied America, A History of Chicanos, Rodolfo Acuna says the reason
that Mexicans could swim on Wednesdays was because at the end of the
day the county drained the swimming pool water (254). It is fair to say that
in Los Angeles in the early 1940's Mexican Americans were second class
Pearl Harbor was bombed in December of 1941. The United States
was in the war. People were afraid of being attacked by the Japanese. The
people in Los Angeles were especially scared because they were on the
coast and the closest to where the bombing had been. In Los Angeles
people were painting their windows so light would not get out. Orders were
issued so people could not have their lights on at night. Everyone seemed
sure that California would be bombed by the Japanese (Jimenez 155).
There actually was a Japanese submarine off the coast of California
by Santa Barbara in February of 1942. It even fired shots at the oil fields
there before it left. This caused a panic. People started to imagine things
because they were so scared. It was reported that Japanese planes were
seen, but there never were any. Some people even died of heart attacks
because of the stress and fear (Jimenez 153).
In March and April of 1942 all the Japanese Americans were rounded
up and put into Relocation Centers. The Relocation Centers were in the
interior of the country in very dry and unpopulated areas. Japanese
Americans were put into these camps because it was thought that they
would not be loyal to the United States. It did not matter that they had done
nothing to prove they were disloyal to America. All that mattered was their
race (Zoots by Suavecito 1)
In the Mexican American barrios at this time, groups of teenagers
who were known as Pachucos were dressing themselves in what were called
zoot suits. The suit had long broad-shouldered coats with extra baggy pants
that fit tight at the ankles. They wore a long chained pocket watch and a
broad brimmed hat with a feather in it. This was the standard Pachuco
outfit for the teenage boys (Jimenez 156-158).
The Pachucos belonged to neighborhood clubs. Some sources
considered these groups gangs. Others feel they were just clubs determined
by where the boys lived. Jimenez feels they were the beginning of what we
now think of as gangs. According to Tomas Sepulveda whose father was a
Pachuco, there was a definite difference between a gangster and a Pachuco.
The Zoot Suiters or Pachucos were extremely aware of their appearance and
were always neat and well dressed. They commanded a presence. They
would even wear their suits to the beach. They would roll up the pants legs
to go into the water, but the suit stayed on. A gangster did not have this
sense of style or presence. He did not have the pride in himself and his
appearance like the Zoot Suiter did (Sepulveda personal interview).
These teenagers stood out. Like teenagers always have, they wanted
to have their own style. These Pachucos were seen as being too different
and foreign. In the atmosphere caused by World War II and the distrust of
other races that many people were feeling, some people said this youth
culture was fascist or even influenced by the Nazis ( Rosales 102,103).
Carlos M. Jimenez in his book The Mexican American Heritage says, "Once
the Japanese Americans were out of the picture it appeared that another
scapegoat was needed. Of course, we all know that a scapegoat is someone
who receives all the blame for a particular problem or set of problems.
Usually a particular society, in such cases, focuses the majority upon a
minority and vents its anger and frustrations upon them"(153).
The Pachucos were seen as being dangerous and criminal. The
newspapers played a big part in people seeing them in this way. The media
was very negative. Even though there were similar groups of Anglo boys,
the Los Angeles Times newspaper kept printing stories about "Mexican
Hoodlums" (Acuna 254). Actually, the crime rate for young Mexican
Americans had not increased (Rosales 102).
On August 1,1942, there was a fight between pachucos at a party at a
swimming hole called Sleepy Lagoon. The next morning a young man
named Jose Diaz was found unconscious; he later died. The newspapers
had big headlines that were screaming for blood (Jimenez 160). The Los
Angeles Police Department went into action. In two nights over 600 people
were arrested. The police stopped every car in the Mexican barrios. If the
person had any tools, like a hammer or even a bottle opener, he was
arrested. Of the 600 arrested, 175 were held on charges. Somehow the
name of Henry Leyvas came out and the police decided that he and 23 of his
friends had committed the murder (162).
There was no eye witness to the crime, no murder weapon and no
motive. It could not be proved that Diaz was really murdered. In fact, Diaz
had no wounds and may have been killed by a car (Acuna 255).
The case however, came to trial. The grand jury received a report by
Lt. Ed Duran Ayres, who was head of the Foreign Relations Bureau of the
Los Angeles Sheriff Department. He was called in as an expert witness. His
report is as follows:
After five months the jury reached a verdict. Of the twenty two boys,
nine were found guilty of second degree murder and sent to San Quentin
Prison. They were given five years to life. The others were found guilty of
assault and received shorter sentences. (Jimenez, 164)
All the boys were in prison and nobody seemed to care except for a
few who were upset by the unjust trial. They formed a group called the
Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. It included the well known actor
Anthony Quinn. Anthony Quinn, (formally Quintana), was a Mexican
American who had grown up in East Los Angeles. He and others tried to
help the boys by trying to keep the case in the public eye. But months
passed and these boys were in jail during what was to be known as the Zoot
Suit Riots. A young lawyer named Ben Margolis took the case. Finally, in
1944 he won a reversal after arguing the defendants had been denied their
right to council. Mr. Margolis had to face hatred for what he did. His son
remembers that rocks were thrown through the windows of their home
during this time (Spicer C10).
On June 3, 1943 a fight broke out between American sailors and a
group of Mexican Americans in a Mexican barrio. One sailor was badly
hurt. Then on June 4, 1943, 200 uniformed sailors chartered 20 cabs and
went into the Mexican American barrios in East Los Angeles. Their targets
were Zoot Suiters. They jumped out of their cabs when they saw them and
beat them up. The newspapers called the sailors heroes (Acuna 257).
On June 5, 1943, U.S. servicemen walked down the streets of the
barrios giving warnings. They said not to wear a zoot suit or they would
take it off . The sailors went into bars and beat up Mexican Americans.
The police did not stop the servicemen. If a Mexican American tried to
defend himself he was arrested (Jimenez 168).
June 7, 1943 was the worst night of the riots. Thousands of
servicemen went searching for Pachucos. Zoot Suiters were left bleeding in
the street after their suits had been torn off. The mob went into theaters and
took Mexican Americans out of their seats and beat them. Mexican
American women were raped. Servicemen stopped the street cars and
pulled Mexican Americans off the cars to beat them up (Jimenez 168). At
this point the mob was also beating up Filipinos and Blacks. Even a little
twelve-year-old boy's jaw was broken by the servicemen. A seventeen-
year-old boy was found by his mother completely naked and bleeding in a
jail cell. He had been there for hours (Acuna 257).
Also on June 7, 1943 the Navy declared Los Angeles off limits to all
sailors. The riots were over. The Mexican American community had been
terrorized and the police had stood by and done nothing to protect them. In
all of the rioting only Mexican Americans had been arrested and that was
usually after they had been beaten. "Police, rather than stopping or
arresting the soldiers, took the Mexican American youths into custody"
(Rosales 103) The police refused to stop the riots. The military stopped it
but they could have done it much earlier than they did (Acuna 258).
Throughout all these events the Los Angeles newspapers encouraged
the servicemen by using sensational headlines. For example, the L.A.
Times reported, "Zoot Suiters Learn Lesson In Fight With The Servicemen"
(Acuna 258). It was like the newspapers were patting the servicemen on the
back for doing a good job. They published huge pictures in the paper of
young Mexican Americans stripped of their clothes.
After the riots were over the official version of the riots by the city of
Los Angeles and the county of Los Angeles was that the U.S. servicemen
acted in self defense. There was no racism involved according to the city
and the county (Sleepy Lagoon 1). The governor of California formed a
committee to look into the riots and their cause. The committee's report
said that everybody involved with the riots should be punished. It also said
that the newspapers should not use names and pictures of juveniles. The
committee recommended that LA. police officers should be trained to work
with Mexican American youth. These recommendations never happened.
Other than charges against the Mexican Americans arrested during the riots
no punishments were handed out (Acuna 259).
The Zoot Suit Riots and the other events around this time were a
racist attack on a group of people because of what they looked like and
because of what they wore. The events going on in the world caused people
to do things they might not ordinarily do. In the book The Zoot Suit Riots:
The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation, Mauricio Mazon says one of the
reasons the riots happened was because the servicemen were acting out
what had happened to them. He believes that their strong feelings towards
the Zoot Suiters were a reaction to their own experiences in basic training.
He points out that what they did to the Zoot Suiters was what was done to them.
For example, during basic training a young man is stripped of his own
clothes and has his hair cut off (Mazon 111). The war had caused people to become
very aware of racial lines. After the Japanese Americans were rounded up
and gotten out of sight, the Mexican Americans of L.A. were an even more
noticeable minority. Perhaps it was uncontrolled fear that caused the riots.
By 1943 America was in the war and people were seeing what war was
really like. Servicemen were dying. Whatever the causes of the riots, more
could have been done to stop them. The police needed to offer more
protection to the Zoot Suiters under attack. The military needed to control
its men. As one city councilman said in a letter to a Rear Admiral in the
U.S. Navy, a person, no matter what kind of clothes he is wearing, should
be safe in the streets (Mazon 131). Like Tomas Sepulveda said in my
interview with him, "They see us for what we are and not for who we are."