The word “Zoot” is believed to have originated in the African-American community of Harlem. While some feel it was a corruption of the word “suit,” most semantic historians agree that the term arose in the slang used in Jazz clubs and referred to “anything worn in extravagance.” Malcolm X described the zoot suit as, "a killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic's cell".
Second Generation Mexican American youth, both male and female, adopted and adapted the Zoot Suit, wearing it as a symbol of their disassociation with both the Anglo culture and the Spanish speaking homeland of their parents.
The Hispanic Zoot Suit of the Pachuco generation featured wide lapels, exaggerated shoulder pads, high-waisted pegged pants, distinctive patent leather wing tip shoes, a broad brimmed hat, and a watch chain that dangled below the knee.
A female wearing a Zoot Suit was committing a quiet subversive act in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Long-held beliefs in gender roles dictated how men and women should dress. A woman donning a male’s suit and parading about in public was nothing short short of unthinkable. Thus, amid the slightly more timid, another variation of the female Zoot Suit evolved. It included a modest knee-length full skirt beneath the standard zoot suit jacket. If she could afford one, a girl might sport a heavy gold pocket chain.
The typical Zoot Suit cost it’s wearer $45 to $75, which was no small sum in the lean war years of the early 1940’s. Yet, for the wearer, a Zoot Suit was priceless. It defied the norms of segregation and the unwritten rule demanding that people of color remain unseen and unheard while frequenting public spaces. However, in times of war, when social boundaries are rapidly changing, questions of allegiance and conformity become invested with particular significance. Thus, the Zoot Suit quickly became associated with gang membership and subversive activity and Pachucos themselves viewed as "proof of Mexican degeneracy."
World War II produced changes in American life, some trivial, others profound.
White men had gone off to fight in a segregated military, while women and people of color filled the jobs in the defense industry traditionally reserved for white males. For many Mexican-Americans, jobs in the defense industry provided an escape from the desperate poverty of migratory farm labor.
Changes also evolved in the realm of fashion. To conserve wool and cotton, dresses became shorter. Vests and cuffs disappeared, as did double-breasted suits, pleats, and ruffles. In March 1942, the War Production Board's first rationing act regulated the amount of wool to be used for suits, thereby in effect outlawing the creation of Zoot Suits.[i] Among the some U. S. servicemen, the use of so much fabric during a time of war was seen as extravagant, wasteful and therefore unpatriotic.
Southern California served as a key military location with bases scattered in and between San Diego and Los Angeles. Consequently, up to 50,000 servicemen could be found in L.A. on any given weekend. Tensions between servicemen and civilians arose as thousands of military men, looking for some fun while on leave, ventured into the nightlife Los Angeles.
In the segregated ethnic enclaves of Los Angeles, servicemen who presumed the prerogatives of white privilege were met with righteous indignation. Yet, groups of sailors often hurled insults at Mexican Americans. Any serviceman foolish enough to walk through the barrios alone and inebriated risked being "rolled" by Pachucos hoping to teach them proper respect. Whisper campaigns were begun. In the barrios, rumors spread about sailors taking advantage of innocent Mexican American girls. On the military bases, stories circulated about the violent reprisals suffered by sailors who dared to date Mexican American females. Other sailors complained bitterly about their wives or girlfriends being subjected to the sexual taunts of young Mexican Americans.
Tensions grew quickly and fighting erupted. While white servicemen and civilian youth of all colors clashed in the streets, confrontations most frequently occurred between white servicemen and Pachucos.
On May 30 1943,a group of about a dozen sailors and soldiers walking in downtown LA spotted a group of young Mexican American women on the opposite side of the street. Some of the sailors and soldiers crossed the street and attempted to meet the girls. However, two servicemen continued walking and passed a group of Pachucos in Zoot Suits. Seaman Second Class Joe Dacy Coleman, U.S.N., fearing he was about to be attacked, grabbed the arm of one of the Pachucos. Coleman was almost immediately struck on the head from behind and fell to the ground, unconscious. The Pachucos furiously attacked the sailors with rocks and bottles but the servicemen managed to escape and carry Coleman back to the safety of the Naval Armory.[ii] On June 3, approximately 50 sailors left the Naval Reserve Armory with concealed weapons. Intending to revenge the attack on Coleman, they targeted the barrios near the Armory and attacking anyone wearing a Zoot Suit. They began on Alpine Street where many previous confrontations had occurred but were unable to find any Pachucos there. Proceeding downtown, they stopped at the Carmen Theater. After turning on the house lights, the sailors roamed the aisles in search of someone to take revenge upon. Their wrath fell upon two boys, merely 12 and 13 years of age. Ignoring the protests of the other patrons, the servicemen tore the suits from bodies and beat the boys with clubs. The shredded suits were then set ablaze.
On June 4, Pachucos drove back and forth in front of the Armory, hurling epithets at the guards until approximately two hundred sailors crammed into twenty taxicabs, formed a “task force” and stormed into the barrios of East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights beating and stripping naked anyone wearing a Zoot Suit. The police could never locate the fleet of taxis but did find the beaten Pachucos and immediately arrested them.
Young men beaten and stripped during zoot-suit riots.
The San Francisco Chronicle, ran a front page head- line screaming, “Zoot Suit Warfare: Los Angeles Front is Near Anarchy Official Says.”
The local press lauded the attacks, describing the assaults as having a “cleansing effect” that rid Los Angeles of “miscreants” and “hoodlums.”
On June 5 and 6, uniformed servicemen wear seen marching abreast down the streets, breaking into bars and theaters, and assaulting anyone who dared stand in their way. They drug Pachucos out into the street and beat them in front of stunned onlookers. Their vicious attacks were widened to include Blacks, Filipinos and young Mexicans wearing regular street clothes.
In a sensationalist move, the Los Angeles Times reported that there would be trouble on Main Street on the night of June 7, 1943. The article drew throngs of thrill seekers all eager to witness a night of rioting. Estimates of as many as 2,000 – 5, 000 soldiers, Marines, and sailors, some from as far away as Las Vegas, eagerly joined in the assaults. Part of the mob headed south for the predominately African American section of Watts and another group headed east for Mexican American East Los Angeles. Al Waxman, editor of the Eastside Journal, a small Jewish newspaper, witnessed the event. He described a "mass of humanity locked in violent struggle, arms swinging, legs kicking, shrieking with anger."
“Marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, a mob of several thousand soldiers, sailors, and civilians, proceeded to beat up every zoot suiter they could find. Pushing its way into the important motion picture theaters, the mob ordered the management to turn on the house lights and then ran up and down the aisles dragging Mexicans out of their seats. Streetcars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were jerked off their seats, pushed into the streets and beaten with a sadistic frenzy”
~Carey McWilliams, journalist
The Los Angeles Police Department was unwilling to step in and protect civilians. One officer later explained: "You can say that the cops had a 'hands-off' policy during the riots. Well, we represented public opinion. Many of us were in the First World War, and we're not going to pick on kids in the service."
Military commander Clarence Flogg reported that there were "hundreds of servicemen prowling downtown Los Angeles mostly on foot -- disorderly -- apparently on the prowl for Mexicans." The Navy reported that "Groups vary in size from 10 - 150 men and scatter immediately when Shore Patrol approaches. Men found carrying hammock cues [clubs], belts, knives and tire irons..." Leery of the potential of negative press that could result from mass arrests, Admiral Bagley appealed to his sailors' "common sense." It seemed that the Admiral had little to fear. Time Magazine reported that, "The police practice was to accompany the caravans of soldiers and sailors in police cars, watch the beatings and jail the victims." Police arrested over 600 Pachucos as a 'preventive' action. Only nine sailors were arrested. Eight were released with no charges and only one was required to pay a small fine. Finally, on June 8, senior military officials attempted to bring the riot under control by declaring Los Angeles off-limits to all sailors, soldiers, and marines. The Shore Patrol was ordered to arrest any disorderly personnel. The following day, the Los Angeles City Council passes a resolution banning the wearing of zoot suits in public, punishable by a 50-day jail term. The governor ordered the creation of a citizens' committee charged with investigating and determining the cause of the riots. When the committee issued its report; it determined racism to be a central cause of the riots. However, Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron came to his own conclusions. He asserted that the riots were caused by juvenile delinquents and by white Southerners and that racial prejudice had not been a not a factor.
As the riots subsided in Los Angeles, the petulance across the country, igniting act after act of racial violence in cities such as Phoenix, Chicago, Detroit, San Diego, Philadelphia and New York and lasting throughout the summer of 1943.
On June 16 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt characterized the rioting thus, “The question goes deeper than just 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.”[iii] Her remarks led to an outraged response by the Los Angeles Times and it printed an editorial accusing Mrs. Roosevelt of stirring “race discord.”[iv]
[i] OE Schoeffler and W Gale Esquire's Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Men's Fashion New York 1973 p 24
[ii] Pagán, Eduardo O. "Los Angeles Geopolitics and the Zoot Suit Riot, 1943." Social Science History (2000). JSTOR. Pg. 242-243
[iii] Los Angeles Almanac. http://www.laalmanac.com/history/hi07t.htm. Retrieved July 27, 2010.
[iv] Eduardo Obregón Pagán. “Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A”. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2004.