What Were the Zoot Suit Riots?

By Laura Clark on December 31 2019 in Society

A mural of a zoot suiter in Central Los Angeles. Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com.

During the Zoot Suit Race Riots in July 1943, white US military service members and others attacked Mexican Americans and other young people of color beginning with those wearing zoot suits. Harlem dancers had popularized the over-sized tailored suits, and Mexican Americans in Los Angeles adopted the fashionable look. Against the heightened racial tensions of World War II, the suits made Mexican American youths an easy target of race riots that ranked among the worst of the 1900s. 

Historical Context

Racial Tensions Rise

Existing racial prejudices in the US were intensified in December 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the US officially entered World War II. By the spring of 1942, the US had jailed some 110,000 people of Japanese descent in internment camps. The Los Angeles Times justified the camps, editorializing that the US was at war not with a country, but with the Japanese race. Los Angeles fortified its beaches with anti-aircraft guns. Tensions were so high that in February of 1942, believing Los Angeles was under attack, over 1400 anti-aircraft shells were launched at a weather balloon.  

Bracero Program

The Bracero Program, an agreement with Mexico to bring in temporary workers, began in 1942 after the US entered World War II. Bracero workers were primarily used to fill agricultural labor shortages resulting from the draft. Many local Bracero workers came into Los Angeles for a night out. Many Angelinos bristled at the increasing presence of Bracero workers. Both Latino and non-Latino groups believed the Bracero workers drove down wages. Neither group was comfortable with the idea of young women forming relationships with temporary workers. Many worried Braceros might seek marriage solely as a way to gain citizenship.

Labor Shortage

The draft created a labor shortage compounded by LA's growing need for workers in the defense industry. People of Mexican heritage constituted the largest ethnic minority in Los Angeles, and many found new opportunities alongside Anglo women and older men. Anglo residents of Los Angeles led largely segregated lives. Many believed that certain types of work belonged solely to non-Hispanic white workers. Angle residents had no experience nor interest in spending sustained and extended periods working alongside people of Mexican descent. 

Military Bases

Large military bases near Los Angeles trained service members from around the country. While on leave before shipping out, the soldiers frequently went out in Los Angeles. Many of them had never met people of Mexican heritage. However, they now regularly came into contact with Mexicans and Mexican Americans who were out enjoying the city in fashionable suits. 

The Zoot Suit

In Los Angeles, many people of Mexican descent dressed up in their unofficial uniform: the zoot suit. The suit, popularized by Black musicians and dancers in Harlem, incorporated long, broad-shouldered jackets and wide flowing pants with pegged legs. Pork pie hats, watch chains, thick-soled shoes, and ducktail hairstyles, often completed the outfit. The zoot suit was adapted for women as well but was associated primarily with the young men, who called themselves pachucos.  These men considered themselves outside both mainstream white culture and traditional Mexican culture. 

Pachucos and their zoot suits were regarded suspiciously in racially charged Los Angeles. When wool rationing began in March 1942, zoot suits began to mark wearers as unpatriotic. Then in August 1942, the Sleepy Lagoon murder of a pachuco by another pachuco solidified the opinion that wearing a zoot suit signified membership in a gang. 

The Zoot Suit Race Riots Begin

Witnesses report that an encounter on May 30, 1943, between sailors and young zoot suiters, led to the riots. As sailors in the Alpine neighborhood walked through a group of pachucos, to speak to Latina women, sailor Joe Dacy Coleman felt threatened. He allegedly grabbed a young man in a zoot suit, and a fight broke out. Coleman returned to the base with a broken jaw after losing consciousness from a blow to the head. 

Reports of the start of the riots on June 3, 1943, vary greatly. Sailors report that 11 servicemen were beaten by youth in zoot suits after an argument. Others report that fighting began when dozens of sailors left the base armed with pipes and makeshift weapons to seek vengeance for Coleman. Sailors reportedly started seeking zoot suiters in the Alpine neighborhood. As the servicemen moved downtown, they entered the Carmen movie theater and beat and stripped anyone wearing a zoot suit.  

Military shore patrol officers took some military rioters into custody, but eventually released all the servicemen. Elsewhere, police waited for military rioters to clear out before arresting their victims, often for "disturbing the peace."

Taxicabs, Civilians, and Newspapers Support the Riots

On June 4, 1943, taxicab drivers began helping off-duty military personnel travel from their bases to neighborhoods where they could confront zoot suiters. Civilian drivers also assisted rioters. Marines and Army personnel began to join the Navy men in systematically searching for zoot suiters in restaurants, theaters, and outlying neighborhoods. The zoot suiters were beaten and stripped of their suits. 

On June 7, 1943, the Los Angeles Times wrote of the "great moral lesson" imparted to the zoot suiters by the servicemen. On that same day, newspapers ran late editions reporting that zoot suiters planned to go on the offensive. The articles named times and locations of the planned assaults. An estimated 5000 servicemen and civilians came into the city that evening. Fighting was so widespread that all available police were called to active duty, though police did little to intervene. The military vigilantes targeted anyone in a flowing suit, including Black and Filipino men. 

Aftermath

Finally, on June 8, 1943, the Army and the Navy declared the city of Los Angeles off limits to soldiers. Attacks against people of Mexican heritage spread, however, to other cities. On June 20, 1943, race riots in Detroit led to the deaths of Blacks and the destruction of Black neighborhoods.  

The Mexican Embassy issued a complaint regarding the treatment and safety of Mexican nationals to the State Department. However, few officials were willing to accept blame. The city council attempted to solve the problem by making zoot suits illegal. The State Un-American Activities Committee investigated claims that the riots were a Nazi plot. Ultimately, the Governor's Commission declared racism the cause of riots and newspapers responsible for encouraging negative stereotypes.  

More in Society