The Zoot-Suit Riots

This essay was published in Us and Them: A History of Intolerance in America in 2006.
Teaching Tolerance Staff
Grade Level

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.”

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Text Dependent Questions
How is this an apt beginning for the essay?
It provides an alternative image to the one generally conjured up about togetherness during wartimes. It also sets the scene for why so many GIs were in Los Angeles at one time and what their experience with Mexican Americans was up to this point.
What was a zoot suit?
It was a fashion trend modeled on mobster attire.
How did the police react to GIs’ actions?
They waited until GIs had left the scene and then arrested the Mexican Americans.
Describe the exchange (through newspaper articles) between Eleanor Roosevelt and the Los Angeles Times.
The first lady described the GIs’ actions as an example in a long line of discrimination against Mexicans in that region of the country, seemingly claiming that the victims were Mexicans rather than Mexican Americans. The Los Angeles Times refused to accept this and responded by saying the victims were just as much Americans as the rest of them.
What does “concerned” mean?
It means as far as they thought or felt.
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