On This Day

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Harold P. Matosian/AP
These youths, one stripped of all his clothes, the others badly beaten, fell victim to ranging bands of policemen who scoured the streets in Los Angeles June 7, 1943.

On This Day: Zoot Suit Riots Begin

June 03, 2011 07:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On June 3, 1943, sailors from the Los Angeles Naval Reserve Armory attacked Hispanic youths as revenge for the assault of an American sailor, sparking a week-long ethnic conflict known as the “zoot suit riots.”

Ethnic Conflict Emerges in Downtown Los Angeles

In the 1920s and ‘30s, Los Angeles had an influx of Mexican immigrants, poor white laborers from the dust bowl, and southern blacks, creating an uneasy melting pot, explains PBS. During World War II, the city also had tens of thousands of white servicemen from nearby bases spending time in the city, and there were social tensions between the servicemen and the minority populations.

Second generation Mexican-American youths had formed their own “pachuco” culture, characterized by a unique “Calo” dialect and zoot suits: high-waisted, baggy pants, with long, wide coats, often worn with felt hats, pocket chains and other accessories.

For the pachucos, the flamboyant clothing expressed freedom and cultural pride, but outsiders, authorities and some older Mexican-Americans associated the suits with violence and gang activity.

Hostility between servicemen and Mexican-American youths had been building for months before the riots, with many small skirmishes sparked by alcohol and rivalry over women.

On May 30, 1943, sailor Joe Dacy Coleman was badly wounded in a fight with pachucos. On June 3, approximately 50 sailors, supposedly avenging Coleman, attacked anybody wearing a zoot suit, with some even stripping their victims and burning their clothing.

One paper described, “Zoot-suits smouldered in the ashes of street bonfires where they had been tossed by grimly methodical tank forces of service men.”

Violence escalated over the next week, with servicemen attacking Hispanics regardless of what they were wearing. Each night, the servicemen pushed farther east into Mexican neighborhoods. The pachucos fought back, often trying to lure servicemen into traps where they would be ambushed.

Police did little to stop the violence, choosing to arrest Mexican-American victims instead. The violence was not subdued until June 8, when the military issued an order forbidding servicemen to enter Los Angeles. The following day, Los Angeles banned the wearing of zoot suits.

Bias and Sensationalism in Media Coverage

Much of the media coverage at the time was biased against the Mexican-Americans. PBS offers articles from the Los Angeles Examiner and the Los Angeles Daily News that sensationalized the pachucos’ violence.

One Examiner article stated, “Riotous disturbances of the past week in Los Angeles by zoot suit hoodlums have inflicted a deep and humiliating wound on the reputation of the city ... The record already reveals killings, stabbings, and cases of innocent women having been molested by zoot suit gangsters.”

On the other hand, papers such as the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, LA Opinion and Excelsior were more fair in their coverage. “Although the youth did nothing to provoke the attack or for that matter to resist the attack, many were severely wounded, including women and children,” the Opinion reported.

Time magazine criticized the actions of the servicemen, the Los Angeles police and the local newspapers. “California’s zoot-suit war was a shameful example of what happens to wartime emotions without wartime discipline,” it wrote, adding, “Los Angeles, apparently unaware that it was spawning the ugliest brand of mob action since the coolie race riots of the 1870s, gave its tacit approval.”

Background: Pachuco Culture

Mexican-American youths, like many second-generation immigrants, often felt alienated from both their parents’ culture and mainstream America. According to Scottish journalist Stuart Cosgrove, writing in the in the History Workshop Journal, they created a subculture of their own: “Rather than disguise their alienation or efface their hostility to the dominant society, the pachucos adopted an arrogant posture. They flaunted their difference, and the zoot-suit became the means by which that difference was announced.”

Just months after the riots, New Mexican historian and civil rights activist George Sanchez published an article, “Pachucos in the Making,” in Common Ground. Sanchez condemned theories offered by some Los Angeles officials that the pachucos were drawn to crime by biological and racial characteristics, and accused American society of discriminating against Mexican-Americans.

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