In June 1943, Los Angeles witnessed some of its most surreal scenes of street violence: Navy sailors coursing through the city streets in their military uniforms, carrying sticks and targeting anyone wearing the colorful zoot suits that were in fashion among the city's Latino population. In terms of personal injury and property damage, these so-called Zoot Suit Riots pale in comparison to the later race riots of 1965 or 1992; no one was killed in 1943. But the image of a city at war with itself while the nation was at war overseas has persisted in L.A.'s collective memory.
Long-simmering cultural and racial tensions preceded the actual violence. Racism had long impacted the daily lives of Mexican Americans, along with other people of color, in Los Angeles. But when the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, xenophobic passions and notions of patriotism lowered the already-segregated city's tolerance for cultural diversity.
In his study of the riots, "The Power of the Zoot," Luis Alvarez argues that a distinctive "zoot culture" -- also known as Pachuco culture -- arose in response to racism and the wartime pressure for conformity. Striking a defiant pose, young men of color wore suits distinguished by their vibrant colors, long-cut jackets featuring exaggerated shoulder pads, loose pleated trousers, and adornments like feathers and chains. Young women adopted their own distinctive outfits that often included long coats, sweaters, dark lipstick, and skirts that ended above the knees.
As Eric Avila writes in "Social Flashpoints," an essay from the Blackwell Companion to Los Angeles, the outfits helped disaffected youths fashion "a distinctive identity, one that flaunted its defiance of the middle class conventions of society at war."
But among civic leaders, law enforcement, and many in the city's white majority, the zoot suit came to be seen as an un-American challenge to the war effort. "In the midst of a global war with an uncertain outcome," notes Avila, "when the strains of wartime rationing and the calls for patriotic loyalty minimized public tolerance for expressions of social difference -- even sartorial ones -- the zoot suiter tested the political and moral expectations of the moment."
Tens of thousands of servicemen streamed into the Los Angeles area after the United States' 1941 entry into World War II. Drawn from all over the United States and trained to fight the Japanese in racialized terms, these soldiers, sailors, and marines -- serving in a segregated military -- adopted a contemptuous stance toward the zoot suiters.
By August 1942, L.A. law enforcement had begun to target the zoot suit. After the body of a Mexican American teenager was found in a reservoir in Maywood, police initiated a murder investigation and rounded up hundreds of young Latinos -- despite the lack of proof of foul play. On January 13, 1943, nine of those arrested were found guilty of murder, though their convictions would later be overturned on appeal.
By the night of June 3, 1943, the stage was set for the Zoot Suit Riots. Violence erupted between zoot suiters and servicemen on shore leave from the nearby Naval Reserve Armory in Chavez Ravine. As a group of 11 sailors walked down the 1700 block of North Main Street near Lincoln Heights -- according to the sailors' account -- a gang of about 35 young men in suits ambushed them. LAPD officers responded to the predominantly Mexican American neighborhood and promptly arrested several of the alleged attackers.
Though the sailors suffered only minor injuries, rumors soon circulated among the naval barracks at Chavez Ravine of serious injury and other affronts, including assaults on servicemen's girlfriends. Sailors poured into the downtown L.A. streets in search of vigilante justice.
The violence lasted for four full days. Mobs of sailors roamed the streets with makeshift weapons, beating anyone they found wearing a zoot suit. Some victims were stripped in public and left naked on the street.
On June 4, the rioting sailors enlisted a fleet of taxi cabs that transported them to minority communities far removed from Chavez Ravine. The violence spread east to Boyle Heights and south to the predominantly black neighborhood of Watts. Three days later, the mobs swelled in size as soldiers and marines from nearby Fort MacArthur and El Toro joined in the rioting.
Though zoot suiters fought back -- at one point organizing expeditions to local military bases in search of a fight -- they bore the brunt of the violence. According to an official report, 94 civilians, compared to 18 servicemen, suffered serious injury.
Official inaction prolonged the rioting. Police often arrested the victims rather than the attackers, ostensibly for their own protection. In the end only two servicemen were taken into custody, while authorities arrested 94 civilians.
The mobs may have operated with the tacit support of local law enforcement, but they earned the explicit praise of the Los Angeles press. On June 7, the Los Angeles Times ran a story with a lead paragraph that read: "Those gamin dandies, the zoot suiters, having learned a great moral lesson from servicemen, mostly sailors, who took over their instruction three days ago, are staying home nights."
Peace finally prevailed soon after June 8, when embarrassed military officials finally declared Los Angeles off-limits to enlisted personnel. MPs and Shore Patrol officers, backed by the LAPD, enforced the military's order. The Los Angeles City Council also offered its own response to the riot: a resolution -- introduced but not passed -- that would have made the wearing of zoot suits in public a misdemeanor punishable by jail.
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