The Zoot Suit Riots: Causes, Significance, and Legacy

LA Police Searching for Zoot Suit Gangs
(Original Caption) Cruising through the streets of Los Angeles in search of zoot suit clad youngsters who have been attacking servicemen throughout the city, soldiers triumphantly hold aloft pieces of the "glad plaid" they captured when they met and mauled their antagonists. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The Zoot Suit Riots were a series of violent conflicts that occurred from June 3 to June 8, 1943, in Los Angeles, California, during which U.S. servicemen attacked young Latinos and other minorities who wore zoot suits—outfits featuring balloon-legged trousers and long coats with wide lapels and exaggeratedly padded shoulders. While ostensibly blamed on the so-called “zoot suiters'” lack of “patriotism” during World War II, the attacks were actually more about race than fashion. Racial tensions at the time had been heightened by the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, involving the 1942 slaying of a young Latino man in a Los Angeles barrio.

Key Takeaways: Zoot Suit Riots

  • The Zoot Suit Riots was a series of street fights between groups of U.S. servicemen and zoot suit-wearing young Latinos and other minorities that occurred during World War II, from June 3 to June 8, 1943, in Los Angeles, California.
  • The U.S. servicemen sought out and attacked the zoot-suited “pachucos” claiming that wearing zoot suits was unpatriotic due to a large amount of wool and other war-rationed fabrics used in making them.
  • In stopping the riots, police arrested more than 600 young Latinos, beating many victims, but only a few servicemen.
  • While a committee appointed by the governor of California concluded that the attacks had been motivated by racism, Los Angeles Mayor Bowron contended that “Mexican juvenile delinquents” had caused the riots.
  • While many injuries were reported, no one died as a result of the Zoot Suit Riots. 

Before the Riots

During the late 1930s, Los Angeles had become home to the largest concentration of Mexicans and Mexican Americans living in the United States. By the summer of 1943, tensions between the thousands of white U.S. servicemen stationed in and around the city and the zoot suit-wearing young Latinos were running high. Although nearly half a million Mexican Americans were serving in the military at the time, many of the L.A.-area servicemen viewed the zoot-suiters—many of whom were actually too young to be eligible—as World War II draft dodgers. These feelings, along with racial tensions in general and local Latinos’ disgust over the Sleepy Lagoon murder, eventually boiled over into the Zoot Suit Riots.

Racial Tensions

Between 1930 and 1942, social and political pressures contributed to the growing racial tensions that formed the underlying cause of the Zoot Suit Riots. The number of ethnic Mexicans living legally and illegally in California shrank, then swelled drastically as the result of government initiatives related to the Great Depression and World War II.

Between 1929 and 1936, an estimated 1.8 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in the United States were deported to Mexico due to the economic downturn of the Great Depression. This “Mexican Repatriation” mass deportation was justified by the assumption that Mexican immigrants were filling jobs that should have gone to American citizens affected by the depression. However, an estimated 60% of those deported were birthright American citizens of Mexican ancestry. Far from feeling “repatriated,” these Mexican American citizens felt they had been exiled from their homeland.

While the U.S. federal government supported the Mexican Repatriation movement, the actual deportations were typically planned and carried out by state and local governments. By 1932, California’s “repatriation drives” had resulted in the deportation of an estimated 20% of all Mexicans living in the state. The anger and resentment due to the deportations among California’s Latino community would linger for decades.

After the United States entered World War II in 1941, the federal government’s attitude toward Mexican immigrants changed drastically. As droves of young Americans joined the military and went to fight abroad, the need for workers in the U.S. agricultural and service sectors became critical. In August 1942, the United States negotiated the Bracero Program with Mexico, which allowed millions of Mexican citizens to enter and temporarily remain in the U.S. while working under short-term labor contracts. This sudden influx of Mexican workers, many of whom ended up working on farms in the Los Angeles area, angered many white Americans.

Conflict Over Zoot Suits

First popularized during the 1930s in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City and worn predominately by African American and Latino teenagers, the flamboyant zoot suit had taken on racist overtones by the early 1940s. In Los Angeles, zoot suit-wearing Latino youths, calling themselves “pachucos,” as a reference to their rebellion against traditional American culture, were increasingly viewed by some white residents as menacing juvenile delinquent thugs.

Photograph of three men sporting variations on the zoot suit.
Photograph of three men sporting variations on the zoot suit. National Archives, Richard Nixon Library/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The zoot suits themselves further fueled the coming violence. Barely a year after entering World War II in 1941, the United States began rationing various resources considered essential to the war effort. By 1942, the commercial manufacture of civilian clothing using wool, silk, and other fabrics was strictly regulated by the U.S. War Production Board.

Despite the rationing laws, “bootleg” tailors, including many in Los Angeles, continued to turn out the popular zoot suits, which used copious quantities of rationed fabrics. As a result, many U.S. servicemen and civilians viewed the zoot suit itself as harmful to the war effort, and the young Latino pachucos who wore them as un-American.

US Soldier inspecting a couple teenagers wearing
US Soldier inspecting a couple teenagers wearing "zoot suits.”. Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Sleepy Lagoon Murder

On the morning of August 2, 1942, 23-year-old José Díaz was found unconscious and near death on a dirt road near a water reservoir in East Los Angeles. Díaz died without regaining consciousness shortly after being taken to the hospital by ambulance. The reservoir, known locally as Sleepy Lagoon, was a popular swimming hole frequented by young Mexican Americans who were banned from the then-segregated public pools. Sleepy Lagoon was also a favorite gathering place of the 38th Street Gang, a Latino street gang in nearby East Los Angeles.

In the ensuing investigation, the Los Angeles Department questioned young Latinos only and soon arrested 17 members of the 38th Street Gang. Despite a lack of sufficient evidence, including the exact cause of José Díaz’s death, the young men were charged with murder, denied bail, and held in prison.

The largest mass trial in California history ended on January 13, 1943, when three of the 17 Sleepy Lagoon defendants were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Nine others were convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to five years to life. The other five defendants were convicted of assault.

In what was later determined to have been a clear denial of due process of law, the defendants were not allowed to sit with or talk to their attorneys in the courtroom. At the request of the district attorney, the defendants were also forced to wear zoot suits at all times on the grounds that the jury should see them in clothing “obviously” worn only by “hoodlums.”

In 1944, the Sleepy Lagoon convictions were overturned by the Second District Court of Appeals. All 17 defendants were released from prison with their criminal record expunged.

The Zoot Suit Riots of 1943

On the evening of June 3, 1943, a group of U.S. sailors told police that they had been attacked by a gang of zoot suit-wearing young “Mexicans” in downtown Los Angeles. The next day, as many as 200 uniformed sailors, seeking revenge, took taxis and buses to the Mexican American barrio section of East Los Angeles. Over the next few days, the servicemen attacked dozens of zoot suit-wearing pachucos, beating them and stripping them of their clothing. As the streets became littered with piles of burning zoot suits, word of the mayhem spread. Local newspapers referred to the servicemen as heroes helping police put down a “Mexican crime wave.”

Gangs of American sailors and marines armed with sticks during the Zoot Suit Riots, Los Angeles, California, June 1943.
Gangs of American sailors and marines armed with sticks during the Zoot Suit Riots, Los Angeles, California, June 1943. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On the night of June 7, the violence peaked as thousands of servicemen, now joined by white civilians, roamed downtown Los Angeles, attacking zoot-suited Latinos, as well as people of other minority groups, regardless of how they were dressed. The police responded by arresting more than 600 young Mexican Americans, many of whom had actually been victims of the servicemen’s assaults. To the disgust of the Latino community, only a handful of servicemen were arrested.

Perhaps the most vivid depiction of the night’s events came from author and expert on California politics and culture Carey McWilliams:

“On Monday evening, June seventh, thousands of Angelenos turned out for a mass lynching. 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. Streetcars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were jerked out of their seats, pushed into the streets, and beaten with sadistic frenzy.”

At midnight on June 8, the joint U.S. military command placed the streets of Los Angeles off-limits to all military personnel. Military police were dispatched to assist the LAPD in restoring and maintaining order. On June 9, the Los Angeles City Council enacted an emergency resolution making it illegal to wear a zoot suit on city streets. While peace had been mostly restored by June 10, similar racially-motivated anti-zoot suit violence occurred over the next few weeks in other cities, including Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. 

Aftermath and Legacy

While many people had been injured, no one was killed in the riots. In response to a formal protest from the Mexican Embassy, California governor and future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren appointed a special committee to determine the cause of the riots. The committee, headed by Los Angeles Bishop Joseph McGucken, concluded that racism had been the root cause of the violence, along with what the committee said was, “an aggravating practice (of the press) to link the phrase ‘zoot suit’ with the report of a crime.” However, Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron, intent on preserving the city’s public image, declared that it had been Mexican juvenile delinquents and racist white Southerners who had caused the riots. Racial prejudice, said Mayor Bowron, was not and would not become an issue in Los Angeles.

The week after the riots ended, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt weighed in on the Zoot Suit Riots in her “My Day” daily newspaper column. “The question goes deeper than just suits,” she wrote on June 16, 1943. “It is a problem with roots going a long way back, and we do not always face these problems as we should.” The next day, the Los Angeles Times fired back in a scathing editorial accusing Mrs. Roosevelt of embracing communist ideology and fanning “race discord.”

Over time, more recent violent uprisings such as the 1992 L.A. Riots, during which 63 people were killed, have largely removed the Zoot Suit Riots from the public memory. While the 1992 riots revealed police brutality and discrimination against the Los Angeles black community, the Zoot Suit riots illustrate how unrelated social pressures—such as war—can expose and inflame long-suppressed racism into violence even in a city as racially diverse as the City of Angels.

Sources and Further Reference

  • “Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots, 1943.” Los Angeles Almanac, http://www.laalmanac.com/history/hi07t.php.
  • Daniels, Douglas Henry (2002). “Los Angeles Zoot: Race ‘Riot,’ the Pachuco, and Black Music Culture.” The Journal of African American History, 87, no. 1 (Winter 2002), https://doi.org/10.1086/JAAHv87n1p98.
  • Pagán, Eduardo Obregón (June 3, 2009). “Murder at The Sleepy Lagoon.” University of South Carolina Press, November 2003, ISBN 978-0-8078-5494-5.
  • Peiss, Kathy. “Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style.” University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, ISBN 9780812223033.
  • Alvarez, Luis A. (2001). “The Power of the Zoot: Race, Community, and Resistance in American Youth Culture, 1940–1945.” Austin: University of Texas, 2001, ISBN: 9780520261549.