High-waisted trousers of generous proportions pegged at the ankle. Shoulder-padded jackets draped at knee-length. Outfits accessorized by wide-brimmed hats with feathers, long watch chains and shiny shoes.
The zoot suit, worn in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s by Black and Mexican American men, prompted a violent racial attack against a minority population.
In June 1943, 80 years ago, roving bands of white Navy seamen and other enlisted soldiers stationed in L.A. during WWII used sticks, clubs and fists to beat Mexican American youth wearing the hip suits, leaving them bloodied and stripped of their clothes on the streets of downtown L.A. and East Los Angeles.
The attacks became known as the Zoot Suit Riots. They began on May 31 with a street scuffle and escalated on June 3, June 4 and June 20 of 1943, according to historical articles and records.
Soldier, sailors and marines who roamed the street of Los Angeles, June 7, 1943, looking for hoodlums in zoot suits, stopped this streetcar during their search. Crowds jammed downtown streets to watch the service men tear clothing off the zoot suiters they caught. (AP Photo)
The Zoot Suit Riots are described as a “dark chapter in Los Angeles County history” in a motion to be heard by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, May 16. In marking the 80th anniversary, the board asks that the violent display of racism against Mexican American, African American and Filipino American men living in L.A. at that time not be forgotten.
In the motion by First District Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, the attacks are denounced as devastating reminders of a black mark on the county’s history. The motion includes historic details of the attacks as a way for county residents to not just remember, but to fight against racial and ethnic discrimination.
“The Zoot Suit Riots have been one of Los Angeles’ most shameful moments in history,” read the motion.
To keep the attacks in the forefront and not let them get lost in history, and to celebrate Mexican American heritage in L.A., Manny Alcaraz, 74. of Paramount, a historian and classic car owner, is planning a classic car show and cruising event on June 3. It starts at 8 a.m. at Lorena Street and Whittier Boulevard in Boyle Heights, with cars cruising on Main Street, Broadway and over the new Sixth Street Bridge. The event is entitled: “80th Anniversary of the Zoot Suit Riots Historical Cruise.”
Participating will be Dolores Huerta, labor leader and activist who co-founded the United Farm Workers Association with Cesar Chavez, Alcaraz said. Also scheduled to appear are L.A. City Councilman Kevin de León and Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles.
Alcaraz planned a car show event on the 75th anniversary of the Zoot Suit Riots and learned of the riots after watching the 1981 film, “Zoot Suit,” starring Daniel Valdez, Edward James Olmos and Tyne Daly, an adaptation of the Broadway play. He also read up on the event after watching a PBS documentary on the topic.
The 1981 movie revolves around the street attacks in Los Angeles, the Aug. 2, 1942 death of Jose Gallardo Diaz and a murder trial following his death, dubbed by the press the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial. The location of the lagoon where Diaz’s body was found is now known as the city of Bell.
According to Solis’ motion, 17 young Mexican American defendants were charged on “flimsy evidence,” and nine were convicted of second-degree murder. “These arrests and convictions were seen as shams by the Mexican American community, with the police exclusively targeting young brown men as suspects,” according to the motion.
The murder trial was a precursor to racial tensions that boiled over on May 31, 1943, when servicemen and a group of Mexican American youth wearing zoot suits fought in the streets of DTLA. On June 3, another confrontation ensued involving serviceman and law enforcement who were ordered to “clean up” downtown L.A, the motion said. On June 4, 200 marines and sailors rode taxis into East Los Angeles and beat any young men wearing zoot suits, the motion said.
“We were at war with Germany and Japan, and at the same time we had to deal with a battle with Navy guys,” Alcaraz said. “All they wanted to do was go out and dress and have a good time.”
1942 booking photos of some of the suspects rounded up for the Sleepy Lagoon murder that preceded the Zoot Suit Riots a year later. (Photo courtesy to the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
The more he studied the riots and the murder trial, the more he felt the younger generation in Los Angeles should know about these events. So he began holding car shows and street fairs, attending them dressed in a zoot suit. Alcaraz now owns seven zoot suits.
“When I saw that movie, something got into me,” he said. “It was part of our heritage.” He points out that celebrities and leaders wore zoot suits as a salute to Mexican American culture, including Cesar Chavez.
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