It is not uncommon for young people to want to make fashion statements which make a clear distinction between their generation and older generations. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Mexican American youth of Los Angeles adopted the zoot suit as an expression of their generation. The zoot suit is a men’s suit which features high-waisted, wide-legged, tight-cuffed, pegged trousers. These distinctive trousers were worn with a long coat with wide lapels and wide, padded shoulders. In addition, this fashion style was often accessorized with long, dangling chains and wide-brimmed hats.
While Los Angeles had been originally established as a Spanish colony on Native American land, and had then become a Mexican town after Mexico became independent from Spain, by the twentieth century Mexican-Americans were a minority. At the same time, Los Angeles had the highest concentration of Mexican people outside of Mexico. As a minority group, Mexican-Americans lived in segregated neighborhoods and they faced employment discrimination in which the lowest paying jobs were often the only jobs open to them.
At the beginning of World War II, ethnic and racial tensions in Los Angeles increased. First, all persons of Japanese ancestry had been forcibly removed from the city and would spend the war in concentration camps. Second, the number of military personal in the city increased. The military at this time was racially segregated so the military personnel tended to be Anglos, many of whom had had little contact with Mexican-Americans.
The Anglo soldiers and sailors often resented the zoot suiters whose sense of fashion made them stand out. While Mexican-Americans were serving in the military in a higher proportion than other groups, the soldiers and sailors often viewed them as draft-dodgers. In addition, the zoot suits were made out of wool which was rationed at the time. In 1942, the War Production Board—the government agency in charge of rationing—had drawn up regulations on clothing manufacture. Under these regulations, the manufacture of zoot suits was prohibited. However, there was still demand for the zoot suits and bootleg tailors were soon meeting that demand.
The soldiers and sailors justified their anti-Mexican racism as an expression of patriotism and when they saw Mexican-American youth in zoot suits, they saw people who they viewed as un-American. They saw the zoot suits as a way of flouting the laws of rationing.
On the night of June 3, 1943, a group of 11 sailors got off a bus in downtown Los Angeles. According to the sailors, they were jumped and beaten by a group of Mexican-American zoot suiters. The Los Angeles police responded. Included in the response were a group of off-duty officers known as the Vengeance Squad who came specifically to clean up what they viewed as the influence of the Mexican-American gangs.
The next day, 200 sailors organized a convoy of taxicabs and headed into the Mexican-American neighborhoods (barrios) of East Los Angeles. Their first victims were a group of 12 to 13-year-old boys. They attacked the boys with clubs and beat any adults who tried to stop them. They tore the zoot suits off the boys and then burned them.
The violence escalated: thousands of servicemen roamed through Los Angeles looking for zoot suiters and beating Mexican-Americans and other minorities. The police accompanied the servicemen with orders not to arrest them. Over a period of several days, more than 150 people were injured and more than 500 Mexican-Americans were arrested on charges ranging from rioting to vagrancy.
The local press applauded the attacks as a way of “cleaning up” Los Angeles. The Los Angeles City Council responded to the riots by passing a resolution making it a crime to wear a zoot suit within the city limits. However, such an ordinance was not actually signed into law. Local authorities generally blamed Mexican-American gangs for the violence.
On June 7, the Navy and Marine Corps confined all sailors and Marines to barracks and declared Los Angeles to be off limits to all military personnel. Officially, the military declared that the servicemen were acting in self-defense.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife President Franklin Roosevelt, commented on the riots:
“The question goes deeper than just [zoot] suits. It is a racial protest. I have been worried for a long time about the Mexican racial situation. It is a problem with roots going a long way back, and we do not always face these problems as we should.”The media in Los Angeles took exception to her remarks. The June 18, 1943 headline in the Los Angeles Times read:
"Mrs. Roosevelt Blindly Stirs Race Discord."On the paper’s editorial page, she was accused of having Communist leanings.