Los Angeles is well known for being the center of fashion, media and entertainment, but also serves as the home for many diverse populations: one of them being the Mexican Americans. Since their arrival, the Mexican Americans has been the target of racism from the white men in the United States. Mexican Repatriation resulted in the voluntary or involuntary migration of Mexicans during 1929-1937, in which 400-500,000 Mexicans left the United States and Mexican Americans were forced to become “American” through Americanization. These events led to the accumulation of tension between the two races, which then became apparent in the Sleep Lagoon Murder Trial of 1942 and exploded in the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. The Zoot Suit Riots represented an obvious discrimination and violence against the Mexican American youths by the white men in the United States.
The zoot suits were: high-waisted, wide-legged and long coat suits that were popular within the African and Mexican American community in the 1930s to 1940s. According to Julian Samora, not only were the zoot suits distinctive in style, but was “designed to be comfortable to dance in and signified the association with a gang” (1). The style soon spread among various ethnic groups, eventually spreading to the Mexican American youths. These suits were particularly worn by the poor and working-class youths. With the extensive use of material, it was considered to be a luxurious item and wearing one made the individual stand out. Certain stores, in fact, specialized in the production of these suits in Los Angeles. However, after the government announced the restriction on the amount of material that can be used, due to wartime efforts, the number of stores started to diminish (Daniels 207). The zoot suits were seen as a waste of material by the federal government, which resulted in their announcement. Still, the zoot suits were around, being worn by many Mexican American youths.
The zoot suit was the result of the negligence of certain races by the whites in the United States. Stuart Cosgrove states, “the zoot suit was a refusal: a subcultural gesture that refused to concede to the manners of subservience” (78). Zoot was something worn or performed exaggeratedly and with the development of the suit made with extensive use of fabric, it was known as the zoot suit (Daniels 210). The suits were favorably worn during wartimes, which then resembled the rebellion against the “normal” fashion and identified itself as a form of subculture by itself. Because of the relationship the public has seen between the zoot suit wearers and the gangs, the public developed a negative impression or stereotypes against the suit itself. This led to the notion that people wearing the suits were gangs and a threat to the society itself: which later led to the Zoot Suit Riots. The zoot suits represented the emergence of a subculture within a minority group in the United States during a period of war.
The Pachucos were Mexican American youths in which they created a distinctive subculture within a minority group. These Pachucos were known for wearing the zoot suits and were the latter target during the Zoot Suit Riots. They were perceived as rebelling against the social expectations during wartimes, which was to serve for the country. The parents of the Pachucos worked in wartime factories and therefore were not able to supervise their children while they were away working; which gave the Pachucos more freedom to do whatever they wanted to do. These Pachucos refused to join the United States military and instead walked around in the streets and went to dance clubs. The Pachucos lacked the patriotism that many white youths at the time were exposed to; this conflict in beliefs, led to the explosion of the tension between the Pachucos and the white sailors that led to the Zoot Suit Riots. Also, the freedom given to the Pachucos led to the creation of their own subculture by “developing their own music, language, and dress” (Castillo 369). They spoke Calo, a slang comprised of English and Spanish which made them a distinct subculture.
“The Pachuco is a symbol not of the guilt of an oppressed Mexican minority, but of a cancerous growth within the majority group which is gnawing at the vitals of democracy and American way of life. The Pachuco and his feminine counterpart, the ‘Cholitas,’ are spawns of a neglectful society – not the products of a humble minority people who are defenseless before their enforced humiliation” (Daniels 206).
Wearing the zoot suits, the Pachucos represented their resistance against social expectations and were able to create their own subculture.
The female Mexican American youths, Pachucas or Cholitas, were viewed completely different from the male Pachucos. The Pachucas were very stylish and with their accessories worn, they were viewed as auxiliaries within the Mexican American youths (Daniels 202). While the male Pachucos wearing the zoot suits were viewed as threats to the society, the Pachucas were not viewed as “enemies within the country.”On the evening of June 3, 1943, the tension between the Pachucos and the white men exploded in what is remembered as the Zoot Suit Riots. Eleven sailors got involved into a fight with youths that were thought to be Mexican Americans, since they were wearing a zoot suit. This incident was publicized and stimulated the resentment within the whites and the other stationed sailors in Los Angeles. In the following days, the white sailors drove around the city of Los Angeles, looking for Mexican Americans in zoot suits to beat them up. The riots resulted in 102 Mexican Americans to suffer from serious injuries and 94 Mexicans Americans jailed for crimes of rioting and public disturbance (Chibnall 67).
Castillo describes the scene as, “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” (370). Why were the Pachucos targeted during this riot? The first reason would be the lack of patriotism within the Pachucos. A soldier stationed in Kearney, Nebraska expressed his feeling towards the zoot suited youths as follows: “To a soldier who has been taken from his home and put in the Army, the sight of young loafers of any race, color, creed, religion or color of hair loafing around in ridiculous clothes that cost $75 to $85 per suit is enough to make them see red” (Turner 18). While the white sailors were serving their country in a time of war, the Pachucos were doing nothing beneficial for the country and were loafing around the streets all day long. The resentment towards these zoot suited youths accumulated over time and exploded on the evening of June 3, 1943.
Another reason for the targeting of the Mexican Americans was the timing. The Japanese Americans were seen as “enemies within” after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese Americans in the west coast, i.e. Boyle Heights, were then sent to internment camps such as Manzanar in means of “national security” (Samora 1). With these “enemies within” out of the city, the whites then targeted the Mexican Americans to blame all the crimes on. Since the Pachucos were known for wearing the zoot suits, which had a negative connotation associated with, i.e. connection with the gangs, drugs, and other illegal activities, they were seen as “enemies within.” However, not all zoot suited Pachucos were associated with gangs; they were wearing it as a form of fashion that best resembled who they were as a subculture. During the time of war and the absence of the inner-threats, the Mexican Americans, especially the Pachucos, were targeted as enemies in Los Angeles and were the victims during the Zoot Suit Riots.
The Zoot Suit Riots were the one-sided beating of the Mexican Americans by the white sailors, not a riot stimulated by the Pachucos. As previously explained, the sailors had a feeling of resentment against the Pachucos for lacking patriotism. They were putting their lives on the line, while the Pachucos were hanging out in dance clubs enjoying themselves. This contrast in lifestyle and the irritation from work resulted in the beatings that lasted for several days. On June 4, 1943, more than 200 sailors hired taxicabs to drive down the streets of Los Angeles to hunt for zoot suited Pachucos. Whenever they spotted one, they would stop, beat them up, and continue searching for more. Surprisingly, LAPD did not restrict what the sailors were doing at all; in fact, they followed the taxicabs and arrested the beaten up zoot suited Pachucos for charges of rioting and public disturbance (Lipsitz 623).
According to Eduardo Obregon Pagan:”[The] citizens of Los Angeles created an atmosphere, identified scapegoats, encouraged the vigilantes, and punished Mexican-Americans for allegedly molesting white soldiers’ wives and girl friends, mugging servicemen, violating war-time dress codes, and generally being more aggressive than a colored minority had a right to be. Officers of the law, as well as the public, often cheered the soldiers and sailors and then arrested the victims, while members of the press treated the whole affair as a kind of festivity” (233).
By placing the ultimate blame of crimes in Los Angeles on Mexican Americans, the citizens were able to relieve themselves from the anxiety during wartimes. Not only were Pachucos the targets of the beatings. African Americans, Filipinos, Hispanics or basically anyone who was wearing a zoot suit at the time were prospective targets. The Zoot Suit Riots exemplified over-usage of violence against the Mexican Americans and were done in means of discrimination.
Now, with all this violence going on in Los Angeles, why did not the Mexican government take quick action in putting a stop to the beatings? Mexico was a wartime ally of the United States and therefore was not able to take on a strong position against the riots in Los Angeles (Castillo 369). In 1942, Mexico and the United States signed the Bateman-Suarez agreement which established formal grounds for economic cooperation and therefore were benefitting economically being a wartime ally (Daniels 212). If the Mexican government were to protest against the riots, their relationship will collapse and would have caused further trouble not only for Mexico, but for the world as well. Hence, the Mexican government was not able to take a quick move against the riots. Also, the delay may have come from the ambiguity of nationality of the Pachucos. Even though they were Mexican in blood, they were born and raised in the United States and have Americanized accordingly. The delay of the Mexican government resulted in the riots to continue longer than it should have until, finally, the United States military decided to keep downtown Los Angeles off limits to military personnel (Samora 2).
The Zoot Suit Riots made the discrimination and violence towards the Mexican Americans apparent to the public. The zoot suits were a symbol of negligence of certain races and from social expectations. The Mexican American youths, Pachucos, wore these zoot suits not only because it was their “unique” fashion that represented themselves, but also as a way to rebel against social expectations by creating their own subculture which may have been perceived as “enemies within” by the general public. The historical interaction of the Mexican Americans and the whites in the United States resulted in the amalgamation of tension and conflicts between the two races; which then sparked as the Zoot Suit Riots. The violence in the riots signified the discrimination and social injustice the Mexican Americans were exposed to at the time, which still can be found today.
Castillo, Richard Griswold del. “The Los Angeles “Zoot Suit Riots” Revisited: Mexican and Latin American Perspectives.” Mexican Studies, University of California Press. 16.2 (Summer 2000): 367-391.
Chibnall, Steve. “Whistle and Zoot: The Changing Meaning of a Suit of Clothes.” History Workshop, Oxford University Press. 20 (Autumn 1985): 56-81.
Cosgrove, Stuart.”The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare.” History Workshop, Oxford University Press. 18. (Autumn 1984): 77-91.
Daniels, Douglas Henry. “Los Angeles Zoot: Race “Riot,” the Pachuco, and Black music culture.” Journal of Negro History. 82.2 (Spring 1997): 201-220.
Lipsitz, George. “Listening to Learn and Learning to Listen: Popular Culture, Cultural Theory and American Studies.” American Quarterly, The Johns Hopkins University Press. 42.4 (Dec. 1990): 615-636.
Pagan, Eduardo Obregon. “Los Angeles Geopolitics and the Zoot Suit Riot, 1943.” Social Science History, Duke University Press. (2000): 223-251.
Samora, Julian, and Patricia Vandel Simon. “A History of the Mexican-American people.” University of Notre Dame Press. 157-158.
Turner, Ralph H., and Samuel J. Surace. “Zoot-Suiters and Mexicans: Symbols in Crowd Behavior.” American Journal of Sociology, University of Chicago Press. 62.1 (Jul. 1956): 14-20.