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“We’re Looking for Zoot-Suits to Burn”: Mexican Americans and the Zoot Suit Riots

While the exact origin of the loose-fitting “zoot suit,” worn by Mexican-American and African-American youths in the 1940s, is obscure, its most important roots were among Mexican-American youths, or pachucos. In the context of World War II, this defiant gesture of group identity put the Mexican-American zoot suiters into direct conflict with another youth group—white servicemen stationed on the West Coast. Wartime rationing regulations effectively banned zoot suits because they ostensibly wasted fabric, so a combination of patriotism and racism impelled white soldiers to denounce Mexican-American wearers of the zoot suit as slackers and hoodlums. In June 1943, apparently provoked by stories that Mexican Americans had beaten up a group of Anglo sailors, servicemen on leave began to attack Mexican-American neighborhoods in Los Angeles. These anti-Mexican riots often featured the ritualistic stripping of the zoot suiters. Despite the brutality of these incidents, most press coverage was sympathetic to the servicemen. One exception was this description by Al Waxman, editor of the Eastside Journal, an East Los Angeles community newspaper.

At Twelfth and Central I came upon a scene that will long live in my memory. Police were swinging clubs and servicemen were fighting with civilians. Wholesale arrests were being made by the officers.

Four boys came out of a pool hall. They were wearing the zoot-suits that have become the symbol of a fighting flag. Police ordered them into arrest cars. One refused. He asked: “Why am I being arrested?” The police officer answered with three swift blows of the night-stick across the boy’s head and he went down. As he sprawled, he was kicked in the face. Police had difficulty loading his body into the vehicle because he was one-legged and wore a wooden limb. Maybe the officer didn’t know he was attacking a cripple.

At the next corner a Mexican mother cried out, “Don’t take my boy, he did nothing. He’s only fifteen years old. Don’t take him.” She was struck across the jaw with a night-stick and almost dropped the two and a half year old baby that was clinging in her arms. . . .

Rushing back to the east side to make sure that things were quiet here, I came upon a band of servicemen making a systematic tour of East First Street. They had just come out of a cocktail bar where four men were nursing bruises. Three autos loaded with Los Angeles policemen were on the scene but the soldiers were not molested. Farther down the street the men stopped a streetcar, forcing the motorman to open the door and proceeded to inspect the clothing of the male passengers. “We’re looking for zoot-suits to burn,” they shouted. Again the police did not interfere. . . . Half a block away . . . I pleaded with the men of the local police substation to put a stop to these activities. “It is a matter for the military police,” they said.

Source: Al Waxman in Eastside Journal, as quoted in Carey McWilliams. North From Mexico (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968).

See Also:"Pachucos in the Making": Roots of the Zoot