Tex Avery's Woolf--the classic image of a Zoot Suiter.
The mention of Zoot Suits these days conjures up fuzzy, even nostalgic memories—the ogling, lecherous Big Bad Wolf in Tex Avery’s classic Red Riding Hood cartoons; clips from old black and white Big Band movies with Lindy Hop and Jitterbug dancers; even teenage Dodie Steven’s already anachronistic 1959 hit Tan Shoes and Pink Shoelaces. But in the midst of World War II the flamboyant outfits had become popular youth culture symbols especially popular in minority communities from coast to coast and were widely viewed as flagrant defiance of war time austerity and patriotic rationing. In 1943 they became the flashpoint of days of rioting as Marines and Sailors roamed the streets of Los Angeles assaulting Zoot Suiters—mostly Mexican youth with the open encouragement of the city’s Newspapers and the abetting of the LAPD’s notorious vigilante Vengeance Squad.
The Zoot Suit arose out of the Big Band Jazz scene and among vipers—marijuana users (think Cab Calloway)—in the late 1930’s as a mark of defiance to the Squares. Like many trends on the cutting edge of culture it probably started in Eastern Black communities, but quickly spread. By 1940 the outfits had become especially popular with California’s Mexican Pachucos, youth who flaunted their flashy, expensive outfits and enjoyed a wild night life of partying and clubbing. The term originated in El Paso, Texas and was brought to the Los Angeles area with the huge migration of Mexican-Americans—Chicanos—and Mexican immigrants to the area during the Depression which accelerated with the availability of war production jobs. Pachucos and their female equivalent, Pachucas, who sometimes cross dressed in Zoot Suits, formed street gangs and became linked in the public mind with street crime.
Zoot Suits featured a long coat tailored at the waist and billowing pleated pants pegged at the ankles. Accessories included broad brimmed, low crowned hats with wide, bands, brightly colored ties, pointed toe shoes with stacked heels and thick soles, and long watch chains. No question about it, they were eye catching.
Cab Calloway, Viper and Zoot Suiter.
In 1942 in order to conserve wool for uniforms, the War Production Board issued strict regulations on how much material could be used in men’s suits. The regulations meant to reduce wool use in suits by 26% and encouraged “new streamlined suits by Uncle Sam.” They affected the voluminous pants and suit coats favored as pre-war business attire, but also effectively outlawed Zoot Suits. Major manufacturers quickly complied and ended their production of the style.
But in California small tailor shops continued to supply the demand in apparent defiance of the regulations. Young Latinos with money to spend from war jobs continued to buy the expensive suits. And, of course, many had Zoot Suits produced before the restrictions. The press railed against the unpatriotic defiance and spared no racial insults in singling out the Mexican community adding allegations of being slackers despite the fact that a much higher than average percent of young men in the community were in the armed services and their workers were essential to war production.
Tensions were further heightened by sensational press reports of Pachuco gang activity and street crime. In one sensational case nine young gang members were accused of a murder in which the victim’s body was found in a dump. Off-duty police acting as the Vengeance Squad began sweeps of the East LA barrio and popular night spots all over the city targeting Zoot Suit wearing suspected gang members for assault and summary punishment.
All over California tensions also rose between service men and Zoot Suiters because of the alleged lack of patriotism for defying rationing. But typical conflicts between soldiers, sailors, and Marines and locals over women added fuel to the fire. Attractive young Pachucas in sexy dresses, gowns, and their own versions of Zoot Suits were out on the streets frequenting night clubs, dance halls, and theaters. They were often approached and harassed by groups of servicemen on leave. Many fights resulted.
On May 30 a large group of sailors began hassling a group of young women and were attacked by Zoot Suit wearing men. In the melee that resulted one sailor suffered serious injuries and several others were badly roughed up.
On the evening of June 3, 1943 11 sailors in Downtown Los Angeles got into a confrontation with a band of Pachucos and were beaten. Once again the police Vengeance Squad swung into action in the word of the Los Angeles Times breathless reporting, “seeking to clean up Main Street from what they viewed as the loathsome influence of pachuco gangs.”
Sailors and Army Air Corps. members (not usually mentioned in accounts of the riots) roam the streets of Los Angeles armed with bats and looking for victims.
The next day, with the apparent winking approval of base authorities, more than 200 sailors piled into taxis to invade East LA. Their first victims were a group of 13 and 14 year olds, some of them wearing Zoot Suits who they attacked and beat. Those in Zoot Suits were stripped and their clothes burned on the streets. Adults of both sexes in the neighborhood who tried to come to the boys’ defense were likewise attacked. The sailor moved on to other targets, invading movie theaters, forcing the management to turn up the house lights, and dragging Zoot Suiters and other young men to the stage where they were stripped, beaten, and their clothes and bodies urinated on. Night clubs were invaded. Men were pulled off of busses. And not just Mexicans—Filipinos, Blacks, and anyone with a dark complexion.
As word spread hundreds more Sailors and large numbers of even more aggressive Marines converged on the city and on Barrios from San Diego to San Jose. Mobs marched down streets accompanied and escorted by Police who not only did not interfere but often participated. No young Latin with or without a Zoot Suit was safe from attack. Pachucas were especially targeted and many were sexually assaulted. When one young woman was arrested in possession of brass knuckles the press reacted hysterically.
Rioting continued for days and spread across Southern California. The press, especially the Times applauded the rampaging sailors and Marines, spared no racial animus toward Mexicans, and generally threw gasoline on a roaring fire.
Navy brass was slow to react. They continued to issue passes in large numbers during the first days of the disturbances and maintained that their personnel were merely defending themselves. The Shore Patrol was conspicuous for its absence on the streets in the heart of the riot zones. Finally late on June 7, after the reeling Pachuco gangs rallied to organize resistance to the attacks and injuries to sailors and Marines began to climb, the Brass acted. The cancelled all shore leave and confined men to their bases and ships. The Shore Patrol was finally dispatched in numbers with orders to retrieve service members on the scene. None were ever charged by the service for any offences committed during the riot. In fact rumors later swirled that the Marines quickly promoted men who were reported to have shown “leadership ability under stress” during the fighting.
Injured young men after being stripped and beaten as a mostly Mexican crowd gathers, perhaps cowed by the LAPD officer with his back to the camera from offering any aid.
The Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution condemning “pleated pants” as gang apparel in much the same way later municipal bodies would try to ban gang colors or, more recently, drooping pants. Despite the ballyhoo no actual ordinance banning Zoot Suits was adopted.
By mid-June rioting and fighting died down in L.A. Official reports indicate that more than 150 were injured badly enough to seek treatment and police had arrested more than 500 Latinos on charges ranging from rioting to vagrancy in the city alone. Although the figures for the injured are probably grossly under reported, there were no known deaths during the disturbances due largely to the fact that neither the service men nor Pachuco gangs had fire arms.
As things died down in California, copycat anti-Zoot Suit rioting spread across the country to cities in Texas and Arizona where Chicanos were targeted northern cities such as Detroit, New York City, and Philadelphia, where Blacks were often singled out. But even white hipsters were not immune. Two members of Gene Krupa’s big band were beaten up for wearing the band’s stage costumes. In Harlem a young Zoot Suit street hustler named Malcolm Little—the future Malcolm X—was caught up in fighting.
The Federal Government, which was trying to shore up relations with Latin America to counter Nazi activity there, became alarmed when the Mexican government vigorously protested the abuse of its nationals and warned of possible severe diplomatic consequences. The government was particularly concerned that Mexico might cut off the supply of bracero migrant farm workers who had become absolutely essential in bringing in the nation’s crops as traditional native migrants joined the military or flocked to cities for big paying defense jobs.
Under Federal pressure California Governor Earl Warren ordered the creation of the McGucken Committee to investigate and determine the cause of the riots. Its 1943 report, found racism to be a central cause of the riots, and blamed the press for aggravating the situation by emphasizing Zoot Suits in any report of Latino crime. In response appointed the Peace Officers Committee on Civil Disturbances, chaired by Robert W. Kenny, President of the National Lawyers Guild to make recommendations to the police. In a tradition of post-riot soul searching familiar to us today, human relations commissions were establish and Police Departments were instructed to institute training on treating all residents equally. You can draw your own conclusions about how effective that was.
Rounded up Pachucos and Zoot Suiter in police custody.
But not everyone was on the same page. L.A. Mayor Fletcher Bowron angrily dismissed the McGucken Committee conclusion of racism. The fault for the riots, he maintained laid with the criminal culture of the Pachucos and Zoot Suiters on one hand sailors and Marines led by white Southerners, who came out of a region in with both overt legal and socially sanctioned racial discrimination. It was just a clash of cultures, he maintained, with the good [White] citizens of the city, including the police, caught in the middle.
Anecdotal evidence does show that Southerners may have played leading roles in the violence, but it is clear that white sailors and Marines from all parts of the country were involved.
Also arriving in Los Angeles to cash in on the situation was California Un-American Activities Committee under State Senator Jack Tenney which declared that it had evidence that Nazi saboteurs were behind the riots. That evidence was never produced and the Committee did not even hold hearings. Yet wide spread publicity around the claim made sure that many Californians were convinced it was true.
Eleanor Roosevelt in one of her My Day newspaper columns wrote “The question goes deeper than just suits. It is a racial protest. I have been worried for a long time about the Mexican racial situation. It is a problem with roots going a long way back, and we do not always face these problems as we should.”
The Times, owned by the rabidly anti-Roosevelt Chandler family, erupted with predictable furry. It repeated the accusations of Nazi sabotage by the Zoot Suiters and it accused Mrs. Roosevelt of having Communist leanings and stirring race discord.”
Although the Zoot Suit Riots have been nearly obliterated from history for White Americans, for Chicanos and other Latinos they represent a critical cultural moment and in enshrined in their collective memory.