Before the Zoot Suit Riots:
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, the country experienced a labor shortage.
Workers were needed in the agriculture industry, so an agreement was made with the Mexican government to allow temporary workers into the US to work in the fields. This was known as the Bracero Program. Tensions between some Americans and the Mexican braceros steadily rose throughout the duration of the program.
In the 1940s, segregation practices were still implemented throughout California. In East Los Angeles, the Mexican and Mexican-American community had to utilize a water reservoir as a swimming pool, because they were not allowed to enter segregated public pools. This reservoir was known as Sleepy Lagoon.
On August 1, 1942, a young couple with ties to the 38th Street Gang spent their evening at Sleepy Lagoon, where they experienced a confrontation with a rival gang from Downey. Later, the couple attended a party at the Delgadillo house where a fight broke out. Members of the gang fled from the party, and in the morning, the body of Jose Diaz was found near the Delgadillo house. This murder served as the catalyst for the Zoot Suit Riots.
Under the guise of finding those responsible for the murder, the Los Angeles Police Department launched a series of raids, resulting in the arrest of approximately 600 Mexican Americans, including both men and women. The police targeted those whose hairstyles and clothing choices made them appear “suspicious” and “guilty”. A clear example of racial profiling. In the end, twenty-two 38th Street Gang members went to trial on charges for the murder of Jose Diaz. At the time, this was the largest mass trial in California history.
In 1943, seventeen of the male defendants were found guilty, with convictions including assault and first and second degree murder; their sentences ranged from 6 months to life imprisonment. Five females were sent to the Ventura School for Girls without a trial.
After a year of intense community organizing and fundraising, the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee gathered enough support to appeal the convictions of those sentenced. In October 1944, the verdicts were overturned on the basis of insufficient evidence, improper handling of legal proceedings, and overt bias.
Zoot Suit Riots:
The Sleepy Lagoon incident sparked the Zoot Suit riots in June 1943, a time when there was already negative racial attitudes and stereotypes towards Mexicans. In June 1943, hundreds of United States military men went on a two-week rampage in Los Angeles known as Zoot Suit Riots.
The name might be misleading, as these riots were not formed by the Mexican Zoot Suiters, but were direct attacks by the U.S military on the Mexican and Mexican American community.
Many young people were called Mexicans or Pachucos, which was a point of conflict because Mexican Americans saw themselves as both Americans and Mexicans. They created a subculture with their own music, hair style, and clothing. Their most popular style was known as the
Zoot Suit, a fashion inspired by the Harlem culture.
The Zoot Suit outfit had high waisted and wide legged pants, tight-cuffed, peggy trousers, and a long coat with wide lapels and padded shoulders. During this time, buying baggy pants was against the law because the extra fabric was needed for the war. Many saw those who wore Zoot Suits as unpatriotic.
During the summer of 1943, riots broke out through Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, Delano, San Diego, and many other cities. The biggest riot broke out in Los Angeles when hundreds of service men went on a rampage in East Los Angeles. Servicemen hired taxi cabs to drive them through Mexican neighborhoods to beat up young men at random. The youth were sometimes as young as 12 years old and they were dragged out movie theaters, diners, cars, and cafes. They were targeted and humiliated. They were beaten and stripped out of their outfits in public. The Los Angeles riot lasted for about 2 weeks and resulted in the attacks on hundreds of Mexican Americans. No deaths were reported as a direct result of the riots.
In the beginning LAPD did nothing to stop the riots, because they claimed they lacked authority. As a result, hundreds of Mexican Americans were placed in jail instead of the attackers. Many people blame the Los Angeles media for creating anti-Mexican attitudes. Scholars have stated, "The Zoot Suit Riot was at once an act of aggression designed to reassure civilian deference to the military, to publicly embarrass minority youth and force them to retreat in shame back into their own private spaces by stripping them of the flamboyant” (Eduardo 2000). There were several factors that lead to the riots, but racism was the underlying reason.
Obregón Pagán, E. (2000). Los Angeles Geopolitics and the Zoot Suit Riot, 1943. Social Science History, 24(1), 223–256.
Griswold del Castillo, R. (2000). The Los Angeles “Zoot Suit Riots” Revisited: Mexican and Latin American Perspectives. Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, 16(2), 367–391.
Ramirez, A. D. (2012). Mexican Americans in the era of World War II: studying the Sleepy Lagoon case and Zoot Suit riots. Social Education, 76(3), 151.
History.com Editors. “Zoot Suit Riots.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 27 Sept. 2017, www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/zoot-suit-riots
“Sleepy Lagoon Trial :: Zoot Suit Discovery Guide.” Zoot Suit Discovery Guide RSS, research.pomona.edu/zootsuit/en/trial/