The Racism Behind the Zoot City Riots

BY: 
Rachel
 | June 1, 2022

Credit: Wiki Commons/ Nuestro Stories

The Zoot City riots were a series of violent clashes that took place on June 3rd, 1943 and lasted a week in the city of Los Angeles. A group of U.S. sailors, carrying clubs and other makeshift weapons, marched through downtown looking for their victims –  anyone wearing a “zoot suit.” Their target was Mexican-Americans, mostly. 

“Zoot Suits” were baggy, high-waisted, wool trousers with upturned cuffs, long shoulder padded coats, and a pork pie hat. They were mostly worn, in the LA of the 1930s and 1940s, by poor and working class Mexican, African-American, and Jewish youths. The suits originated in Harlem jazz clubs in the 1930s.

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But, in Los Angeles, at the time of the riots, the suits were considered a badge of delinquency and even unpatriotic. After WWII, wool was scarce and it was rationed so its use for the suits was seen as wasteful. The city’s media, particularly the Los Angeles Times, had a field day portraying the Mexican-Americans zoot-suiters as dangerous and criminal.

The stage was set.

On June 3rd, 1943, white U.S. servicemen and police officers descended on the predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood of East LA and harassed, beat, and detained hundreds of Mexican-American youths. The excuse was a verbal confrontation between a group of sailors and a group of zoot-suiters, which ended in the beat down of one of the sailors. 

In reality the riots, which lasted for a week until the sailors were called back to their barracks, were the end result of simmering racial tensions in Los Angeles at the end of the war. News reports portrayed the white rioters as heroes and the Mexicans as criminals.

One eye witness, journalist Carey McWilliams, wrote:

“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,” she wrote.  

Leaders of the Mexican-American community demanded state and local officials intervene and even sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to no avail. 

Years later, the bloody riots were put to song – a quite racist one, by the way. “Zoot Suit Riot” was a smash hit for the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies in 1998. The lyrics wouldn’t fly today (the band eventually apologized.)

“Who’s that whisperin’ in the trees?

It’s two sailors and they’re on leave

Pipes and chains and swingin’ hands

Who’s your daddy? Yes I am.”

No one was killed during the zoot suit riots, but it left an indelible mark on the Mexican-American community and little doubt that the riots were  caused by racism and an inflammatory, biased media. 

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By Susanne Ramirez de Arellano

Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is a writer and cultural critic who used to be a journalist, television producer and a news director. She lives between San Juan and New York and is, at present, making her first attempt at writing a novel.

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Featured image is from the image Hoja Suelta, by José Guadalupe Posada, 1901.
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