Thursday, June 8, 2023

The 80th Anniversary of the Zoot Suit Riots

The poster for the movie
Zoot Suit
It was from June 3 to June 8 1943 that a series of assaults were made upon Mexican American youths, as well as some Filipinos and African Americans, wearing zoot suits by white servicemen and some civilians. These attacks would collectively become known as "the Zoot Suit Riots," after the men's suit that was at the centre of it all. Given that white people wearing zoot suits were not attacked, the Zoot Suit Riots are considered to have their roots in anti-Mexican American racism.

As to the zoot suit itself, it is a men's suit with a long coat featuring wide lapels and padded shoulders, and with high-waisted, wide legged trousers pegged at the ankles. The zoot suit originated in Harlem and the Black communities in Chicago and Detroit in the 1930s. It was an adaptation of the drape suit, which originated in London in the 1920s and was popularized by Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor. The zoot suit was popularized by jump blues and jazz musicians, and the legendary Cab Calloway was known for his often exaggerated zoot suits.

By the late Thirties the zoot suit would be adopted by pachucos, young Mexican Americans who were influenced by jump blues, jazz, and swing music. Originating in El Paso, Texas, the pachuco subculture would spread rapidly to other parts of the United States, including Los Angeles. While the pachucos incorporated the zoot suit into their fashions, they also made the zoot suit all their own. Their zoot suits were often dark in colour (black, brown, charcoal grey, sharkskin, and so on) with pin stripes.

Like many youth cultures, particularly those of people of colour, the pachucos would become stereotyped in the media and elsewhere as criminals and members of youth gangs. In turn the zoot suit would become associated with violence and crime in the media. This fuelled anti-Mexican American sentiment in Los Angeles. With the United States' entry into World War II and the rationing that came about because of it, zoot suits would come to be viewed by some white Americans as "unpatriotic" given the amount of cloth any one zoot suit used.

Anti-Mexican American sentiment would increase after the Sleepy Lagoon case, in which  José Gallardo Díaz was found unconscious and dying near the reservoir known as "Sleepy Lagoon" in Commerce, California. The cause of his wounds remain a matter of question, and the autopsy at the hospital revealed he had been drinking and there was a fracture at the base of his skull. Regardless, The media framed José Gallardo Díaz's death as a murder and demanded action be taken against pachucos. The Los Angeles Police Department ultimately arrested seventeen young Mexican Americans despite having insufficient evidence.

It was mounting anti-Mexican American sentiment that would lead to the Zoot Suit Riots in June 1943. It was on June 3 1943 that eleven sailors departed from a bus and began to walk down Main Street in downtown Los Angeles. They then got into an alercation with a group of young Mexican Americans. The young Mexican Americans claimed that the sailors had started at all, while the sailors claimed the Mexican Americans had jumped an assaulted them. It was the following day that 200 sailors took 20 taxi cabs to East Los Angeles. Once there they proceeded to assault young men wearing zoot suits, stripping them of their suits and then burning the suits. The following days saw further assaults on young Mexican Americans by white servicemen. The police were under orders not to arrest the rioters, but they did arrest more than 500 Mexican Americans on everything from vagrancy to rioting. To make matters worse, the media's sympathies were with the white rioters, with some framing the riots as getting rid of "miscreants" and "hoodlums." Exceptions to this were such Black newspapers as The Chicago Defender and The Pittsburgh Courier, who were sympathetic to the Mexican American victims of the riots.  Horace R. Cayton of The Pittsburgh Courier blamed the violence on "non-Mexican servicemen," even going so far as to state the white rioters envied the zoot suiters and lusted after Mexican American women.

Eventually the white rioters would not only assault Mexican Americans, but young Filipinos and African Americans as well. It would be on June 8 that Navy and Marine Corps authorities in the Los Angeles area would confine sailors and Marines to quarters and declared the City of Los Angeles off-limited to them. This ended the Zoot Suit Riots, although both the Navy and Marines maintained the servicemen had been acting in self-defence.  The Zoot Suit Riots would lead to violence against Mexican Americans and members of other minorities wearing zoot suits in Chicago; Detroit; Evansville, Indiana; New York City; Oakland; Philadelphia; and San Diego.

The fallout from the Zoot Suit Riots included a formal protest from the Mexican Embassy to the State Department. Then California Governor Earl Warren established a committee, headed by Bishop Joseph McGucken, to investigate the causes of the riots.The committee determined that racism was at the root of the riots and noted the "aggravating practice" of the media to associate the zoot suit with crime.

Both the zoot suit itself and later the Zoot Suit Riots would have an impact on popular culture. In the mid-Forties it was not unusual for zoot suits to appear in movies, everything from the Tom & Jerry cartoon "Zoot Cat" (1944) to the musical Stormy Weather (1942). Later, in the Three Stooges short "Three Arabian Nuts" (1951), Shemp is featured in a zoot suit. The debut single of The High Numbers, soon to be renamed "The Who," was "Zoot Suit." On the 1975 Saturday morning sitcom The Ghost Busters, the lead character Eddie Spenser (Larry Storch) wore a zoot suit. In the 1976 Sanford and Son episode "The Escorts," Fred Sanford appears wearing a zoot suit.

The year 1978 would see two works drawing upon the Zoot Suit Riots for inspiration. The novel Zoot-Suit Murders by Thomas Sanchez in which the Zoot Suit Riots serve as a backdrop for a murder mystery. The play Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez draws upon both the Sleepy Lagoon case and the Zoot Suit Riots. It would later be adapted for the big screen as the movie Zoot Suit (1981). While zoot suits don't appear in the episode, the Zoot Suit Riots were referenced in the 8th season episode The Waltons, "The Medal," in which a Chicano paratrooper visits Walton's Mountain. The title character in the movie The Mask (1994) wore a zoot suit.  The zoot suit would make a comeback during the Swing Revival of the Nineties and as a result would appear in music videos from the era. Indeed, in 1997 the swing and ska band Cherry Poppin' Daddies recorded the song "Zoot Suit Riot." Their 1997 compilation album bore the same name.The 2018 novel Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots was centred around the Zoot Suit Riots and was told in free verse. The 2020 graphic novel Lizard in a Zoot Suit is set in 1943 and features an anthropomorphic lizard wearing a zoot suit. Over the years there have also been many non-fiction books and documentaries on the Zoot Suit Riots.

The Zoot Suit Riots are certainly one of the darkest moments in the history of Los Angeles and remain one of the worst instances of racist violence in the city, or any other city for that matter. An argument can be made that the Zoot Suit Riots and other acts of violence against Mexican Americans during World War II would lead to the Chicano Movement of the Sixties and Seventies. The Zoot Suit Riots should certainly never be forgotten.


Brian Schuck said...

Great background on an event that deserves to be better known! The silver lining is that even back then, the state's official inquiry bucked the mainstream narrative and and laid the blame where it belonged, on racism and media irresponsibility.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks for the comment, Brian! The Zoot Suit Riots should really be better known. Like the Tulsa Race Riot, it is one of those dark times in history that has been more or less swept under the rug. I do find it remarkable that the committee appointed to investigate the Zoot Suit Riots correctly determine that racism and media irresponsibility were behind them. In that era I think most government appointed committees would have absolved the white serviceman and the media of any responsibility.

Rebecca Deniston said...

Very interesting! I had no idea they made a movie about the riots.