World War II is often credited with pulling the country together. As their compatriots defended democracy abroad, however, some Americans met hostile forces on the home front.
Los Angeles in the 1940s was swamped with GIs. The entertainment capital drew thousands of servicemen on leave from nearby bases and training centers.
As it does today, the civilian population of L.A. then included a large Mexican American, or Chicano, minority. Many of the white servicemen in town came from areas of the country where there weren’t a lot of Chicanos. Here they heard stories about Chicano youth gangs and about how to pick up Chicanas, or Mexican women.
A Chicano teenage fashion trend called the zoot suit—modeled on flashy mobster attire—had been widely ridiculed in the white press. Visiting servicemen joined in harassing “zoot-suiters.” In the spring and summer of 1943, tension between GIs and young Mexican American males turned violent.
In Oakland and Venice, Calif., sailors and marines “raided” Chicano gatherings and attacked the zoot-suiters, stripping them of their clothes. On June 3 in Los Angeles, a reported dispute over Chicanos set off a military riot. For five straight nights, Whites in uniform stormed the streets. They dragged zoot-suiters out of bars and nabbed them in movie theaters by turning the lights on.
What started as an assault on Mexican Americans quickly expanded to include Blacks and Filipinos. Each night, police officers waited until the GIs had left and then swooped in to arrest the victims of the violence.
Fearing mutiny, military officials declared the downtown district off limits to military personnel. The measure restored order, but real peace would be harder to achieve. In a national newspaper column, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt blamed the riots on “long-standing discrimination against the Mexicans in the Southwest.”
A rebuttal by the Los Angeles Times ended with the statement, “We like the Mexicans and think they like us.” This wording made clear that, as far as official Los Angeles was concerned, Mexican Americans were still “them.”