It went on for ten straight nights. Armed with clubs and homemade weapons, white residents of Los Angeles, together with white soldiers and policemen, went around Mexican-American neighborhoods searching for “Zoot suitors” to beat up and detain, all in the name of patriotism. 

Known as the Zoot Suit Riots, the violent clashes began on June 3rd, 1943, and lasted a week. The palatable excuse for the violence was that the white attackers considered the considerable amounts of fabric it took to make the Zoot suits unpatriotic.

It was the summer of 1943, and World War II and rationing, especially of wool and other fabrics, and food, was the law of the land. But so was the fashion that came out of the Harlem jazz clubs. 

When fashion and identity meet in the crossfire 

In LA in the 1930s and 1940s, Zoot Suits were all the fashion among Mexicans, African-Americans, and Jewish youths. The suits originated in Harlem jazz clubs in the 1930s — the attire preferred by musicians such as Cab Calloway, who frequently wore the suit while performing. 

Zoot Suits were high-waisted baggy wool-pegged trousers with upturned cuffs, extensive shoulders, and draped jackets. The fashion devotees often finished the look off with a pork pie hat. Accessories could be a watch with a long chain and shoes with thick soles.  

Young Mexicans created their version in the “pachuco” style, which they wore with a confident swagger and defiance. The youths also spoke Caló — a Chicano street slang. 

The Zoot Suits Riots marked the arrival of a new generation

These young Mexican-Americans were more self-confident than their parents would ever dream of being. 

All of this became problematic for white Angelinos, who resented the self-confidence of the young Mexican-Americans and a media that used racially inflammatory language to portray them as delinquents. 

It’s also important to note that the riots came after the building of the Naval Reserve Armory in the middle of Mexican-American communities present since before the US took California from Mexico and the Sleepy Lagoon murder of Mexican-American José Gallardo Díaz

These two events ignited the final spark that set off the riots. 

For ten days, American service members and white Angelenos went crazy — attacking young Mexican-Americans (including children and teenagers) who dared wear the Zoot Suits. 

Los Angeles was just one of many cities (industrial) that saw race riots break out that summer of 1943. Some other cities were Alabama; Texas; Michigan; and New York City.

Historian Kathy Peiss wrote in “Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style” that the riots were “perhaps the first time in American history that fashion was believed to be the cause of widespread civil unrest.”

It really wasn’t the suit, but who was wearing it

At the time, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out about the riots. 

She was obviously upset when she said the cause of the violence was “race problems” and a “long-standing discrimination” against Mexican-Americans in California. 

“For a long time, I’ve worried about the attitude towards Mexicans in California and the states along the border,” she said during a press conference quoted by the “New York Times.”

The First Lady said she didn’t see it as a race or youth problem but instigated by “elements that had little to do with youth.” 

No one died during the riots, but the events of those bloody ten days embedded in the minds of Mexican Americans that racism and biased media were the culprits.

Eighty years later, the LA government has apologized

Last Friday, in the same chamber where Los Angeles City Council members debated a ban on zoot suits eight decades ago, city leaders formally apologized.

“The city of L.A. can finally take responsibility and apologize for its role in effectively sanctioning the violence perpetuated eight decades ago,” said Councilmember Kevin de León.

León endorsed the resolution his team introduced last month to make amends for the history.

Surrounded by dancers dressed in zoot suits and community leaders, the administration also celebrated the designation of June 3-9 as “Zoot Suit Heritage Week” in the City of Los Angeles.

City Council President pro tempore Curren Price told the group, “We do apologize, and let’s work together to unite.”

“How do we not only unite with the service members, with LAPD, with Pachucos? Pachucos, zoot suiters, and we have to show that it starts with us. It starts with us paying honor and respect to those members of the past, but also paving the way for the future generation to come together more in unity,” added Angela Romero of the Hello Stranger Foundation.