Zoot-Suit Riots Exemplify Ethnic Tensions in Los Angeles

In the Zoot-Suit Riots, sailors on leave cruised through Mexican American neighborhoods and beat the young men they found there. The riots, one of more than 250 incidents of U.S. racial violence and unrest in 1943, made clear the extent of the racism directed at the Mexican American community.

Summary of Event

The events that culminated in the Zoot-Suit Riots of 1943 cannot be traced to only one or two sources. A close examination of the social and political climate of Los Angeles in the early 1940’s reveals that a combination of factors was responsible for the riots. All these factors, however, reflected the city’s attitude toward minorities in general and, more specifically, the Mexican American population of Los Angeles. Zoot-Suit Riots (1943)[Zoot Suit Riots]
Racial and ethnic discrimination;Mexican Americans
Mexican Americans
Civil unrest;United States
[kw]Riots Exemplify Ethnic Tensions in Los Angeles, Zoot-Suit (June 3-9, 1943)
[kw]Zoot-Suit Riots Exemplify Ethnic Tensions in Los Angeles (June 3-9, 1943)[Zoot Suit Riots Exemplify Ethnic Tensions in Los Angeles]
[kw]Ethnic Tensions in Los Angeles, Zoot-Suit Riots Exemplify (June 3-9, 1943)
[kw]Los Angeles, Zoot-Suit Riots Exemplify Ethnic Tensions in (June 3-9, 1943)[Los Angeles, Zoot Suit Riots Exemplify Ethnic Tensions in]
Zoot-Suit Riots (1943)[Zoot Suit Riots]
Racial and ethnic discrimination;Mexican Americans
Mexican Americans
Civil unrest;United States
[g]North America;June 3-9, 1943: Zoot-Suit Riots Exemplify Ethnic Tensions in Los Angeles[00820]
[g]United States;June 3-9, 1943: Zoot-Suit Riots Exemplify Ethnic Tensions in Los Angeles[00820]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 3-9, 1943: Zoot-Suit Riots Exemplify Ethnic Tensions in Los Angeles[00820]
[c]Social issues and reform;June 3-9, 1943: Zoot-Suit Riots Exemplify Ethnic Tensions in Los Angeles[00820]
McWilliams, Carey
Tenney, Jack
Bowron, Fletcher
Warren, Earl
Diaz, Jose

Fully expecting a sea attack from Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, military and civilian authorities in Los Angeles took a hard look at the activities of all minorities in the city. All Japanese were moved inland, away from the shoreline. The fear of subversive activities among the Japanese was extended to all minorities by a series of books that were widely read and discussed by people in Los Angeles in 1943. In 1940, the paranoia generated by books such as Martin Dies, Jr.’s Dies, Martin, Jr.
The Trojan Horse in America
Trojan Horse in America, The (Dies) (1940) and Harold Lavine’s Lavine, Harold
Fifth Column in America
Fifth Column in America (Lavine) (1940) led to the creation by the California state legislature of a joint committee to investigate communist, fascist, Nazi, and other foreign-dominated groups.

The Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California was also known as the Tenney Committee Tenney Committee , after its leader, Jack Tenney, a music composer and state senator. The Mexican American community became one of the objects of Angelenos’ growing fear of foreigners in 1942, when the Tenney Committee launched an investigation of the Sinarquistas Sinarquistas , an anticommunist society that had tried to influence politics in Mexico and was charged with perpetrating subversive activities in the barrios of Los Angeles. The hearings of this committee, which continued until 1945, contributed to the city’s xenophobic response to the Mexican American community during the entire decade.

Another factor that cast Mexican Americans in a suspicious light was the American public’s obsession with juvenile delinquency Juvenile delinquency . Between 1942 and 1943, the Los Angeles press presented a highly distorted view of delinquency, focusing primarily on the activities of Mexican gangs Gangs . Many of these gangs adopted the pachuco Pachucos lifestyle, which had originated in El Paso, Texas, and migrated west; it was essentially a generational rebellion against both Mexican and American cultures. Not only did the pachuco gangs adhere to traditionally violent methods of settling disputes, but they also tried to underscore their identity by wearing zoot suits Zoot suits . These consisted of trousers with overly wide pant-legs that tapered to narrow cuffs and overly wide and long jackets with wide lapels and padded shoulders, often accompanied by a wide, flat felt hat. Already an outlandish fashion for the time, the oddity of zoot suits was heightened because they were often dyed particularly loud colors, drawing even more attention to their wearers.

This bizarre fashion acquired insidious overtones as a result of a series of Li’l Abner
Li’l Abner (Capp)[Lil Abner] comic strips entitled “Zoot-Suit Yokum” “Zoot-Suit Yokum” (Capp)[Zoot Suit Yokum] that appeared in newspapers nationwide between April 11, 1943, and May 23, 1943. In these strips, Al Capp Capp, Al ascribed conspiratorial machinations to the wearers of zoot suits, thereby labeling them as a potential threat to the American way of life. The zoot-suiters came to be thought of in Los Angeles as the antithesis of everything for which “real” Americans, like servicemen, police, and politicians, stood.

The gang rivalries that occasionally erupted between the pachuco gangs culminated in an incident that, with the help of the press, accentuated the reputation for criminality of Mexican American youth. According to police accounts, a clash between the Belvedere gang Belvedere street gang and the Palo Verde gang Palo Verde street gang in East Los Angeles on August 1, 1942, resulted in the slaying of a young Mexican American named Jose Diaz, whose body was found beside a swimming hole called the Sleepy Lagoon Sleepy Lagoon . On January 13, 1943, seventeen reputed gang members were convicted of manslaughter and assault in the case, even though the fact of a murder had never been established and a murder weapon had never been produced. All these convictions were overturned in 1944 through the efforts of a fact-finding committee formed by magazine editor Carey McWilliams. Nevertheless, the publicity generated by the trial convinced many members of the Anglo community that the so-called Mexican problem was a genuine menace to their welfare.

As a result of the Sleepy Lagoon case, Mexican American youth became the focus of a widespread police investigation. The Tenney Committee began a new set of hearings specifically focused on the connections between juvenile delinquents, Mexican Americans, and subversives. During those hearings, members of the police and sheriff’s departments expounded the police theory that crime was a matter of race.

In 1943, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury recommended that all delinquent and “pre-delinquent” Mexican American youth be placed in special facilities. The 1943 grand jury also proposed denying juvenile court jurisdiction for participants in zoot-suit gang offenses. By encouraging the police to redouble their efforts to control the Mexican American gangs, this court action increased the resentment of the Mexican American community. By this time, many Mexican Americans were convinced that the Los Angeles Police Department and the Anglo community in general had embarked on a systematic campaign to destroy their way of life.

The hostility between the Anglos and the Mexicans that had been inflamed by the press, city officials, and the police erupted into violence in late May, when about a dozen sailors fought with a group of pachucos near downtown Los Angeles; one of the sailors was seriously wounded. On June 3, 1943, a group of about fifty sailors decided to take revenge for their comrade. They smuggled weapons out of the Naval Reserve Armory and used them to attack anyone they could find wearing zoot suits. The next night, two hundred sailors cruised the Mexican American district in a fleet of taxicabs, stopping periodically to beat lone zoot-suiters. The sailors were followed by the police, who arrested the youths after the sailors had beaten them.

The violence continued and escalated over the next few days. Army soldiers and marines joined the sailors, as did civilians and off-duty police officers. They all converged on the Mexican American neighborhoods, stripping and beating any Mexican Americans they could find—whether they wore zoot suits or not. At the height of the riots, on June 7, more than five thousand Anglos attacked Mexican Americans and African Americans Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans in East Los Angeles, Watts, and other poor neighborhoods. The authorities began to assert control on June 8: The Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance making the wearing of zoot suits a misdemeanor, and shortly after midnight that night, the U.S. military declared that downtown Los Angeles was off-limits to all military personnel. Sporadic incidents continued the next day, June 9, after which the riots effectively ended.

An investigation by the Tenney Committee was begun immediately following the riots. The committee charged that the riots had been started by Communists who had sought to indoctrinate the zoot-suit-wearing pachucos. The committee’s findings were refuted by Carey McWilliams. Speaking before the Committee on Un-American Activities in California, McWilliams placed the blame on the sailors who had been dating the girlfriends of the zoot-suiters. He also contended that the riots were caused by racial prejudice, a point that was echoed by the African American press, as well as by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.


Ironically, the Zoot-Suit Riots were, to a great extent, a blessing in disguise for the minority communities of Los Angeles. To prevent a recurrence of the June confrontation, the Navy command in Los Angeles and Southern California and Mayor Fletcher Bowron of Los Angeles closely examined the conditions plaguing the city’s minorities. Since the Navy had trouble determining the exact cause of the Zoot-Suit Riots, it concentrated on the problems facing the African American community. In a report dated July 29, 1943, both the Navy and various city officials agreed that discrimination against blacks was indeed being practiced in the areas of transportation, recreation, and housing. Even though the purpose of this study was to prevent a riot among black sailors, it set the stage for the activities of other civic committees by stating that discrimination was a serious problem in Los Angeles.

It was not until 1944 that a serious attempt was made to probe the cause of the Zoot-Suit Riots. An investigative committee chaired by Carey McWilliams attempted to bring about a “return to sanity in Los Angeles.” As a result of the meeting, Governor Earl Warren formed a citizens’ committee to investigate the origin of the riots. Warren’s committee concluded that not all Mexicans were zoot-suiters and that the origin of the riots stemmed from the outbreak of juvenile delinquency in Los Angeles. The report and recommendations of the citizens’ committee eventually led to the formation of the quarter-million-dollar Youth Project, which, in conjunction with the California Youth Authority, became one of the most effective means of handling juvenile delinquency in the city’s history.

The Mexican American community in Los Angeles benefited more directly from the formation of a legion of community organizations. By 1947, the Welfare Planning Council had affiliated these organizations to produce the Community Relations Conference of Southern California. This conference assumed a pivotal role in ending racial segregation in public housing projects and in Los Angeles’s fire department. The conference also helped the police department establish a human relations course, which at least set as a goal the prevention of racist behavior by police officers. Zoot-Suit Riots (1943)[Zoot Suit Riots]
Racial and ethnic discrimination;Mexican Americans
Mexican Americans
Civil unrest;United States

Further Reading

  • Adler, Patricia Rae. “The 1943 Zoot-Suit Riots: Brief Episode in a Long Conflict.” In An Awakened Minority: The Mexican-Americans, edited by Manuel P. Servin. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Glencoe Press, 1974. The definitive account of the Zoot-Suit Riots. In addition to providing a day-by-day report of the riots themselves, the author clarifies both the causes and the effects of the violence.
  • Escobar, Edward J. Race, Police, and the Making of a Political Identity: Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department, 1900-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Provides crucial background for the Zoot-Suit Riots, examining the history of relations between the Los Angeles Police Department and Mexican Americans during the four decades leading up to the riots.
  • Himes, Chester B. Crisis 34 (July, 1943): 200-201. This eyewitness account of the riots is valuable because of the author’s detailed observations. The article is enhanced by the inclusion of photographs. The author’s lack of objectivity, however, tends to reduce his credibility.
  • Mazón, Mauricio. The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984. This fascinating book explores the psychological factors that contributed to the Zoot-Suit Riots. The chapter entitled “The ’Zoot-Suit Yokum’ Conspiracy” is particularly effective because of the inclusion of panels from the comic strip. The author’s failure to provide specific details concerning the riots themselves is a major drawback.
  • Pagán, Eduardo Obregón. Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Detailed study of the riots and the racial issues they revealed, beginning with the Sleepy Lagoon trial of 1942. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Redl, Fritz. “Zoot Suits: An Interpretation.” Survey Midmonthly 73 (October, 1943): 259-262. Contemporary source explaining the lure that zoot suits had for young people during the 1940’s. Demonstrates what the wearing of zoot suits meant to minority groups at the time.

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