Seventy Years Later: The Zoot Suit Riots and the Complexity of Youth Culture

Top: Zoot suit riot erupts in front of the Hippodrome Theater on Main Street, Downtown Los Angeles, 1943

[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared under the Intersections column at KCET Departures, May 30, 2013.]

In the film “American Me,” Pedro Santana, fresh from having his devotion to wife Esperanza tattooed on his arm, prepares for a night on the town. His wife, accompanied by another couple, wades through Los Angeles streets on their way to meet Pedro, as a soundtrack of sensationalized news reports of zoot-suited thugs, dangerous riots, and retributions delivered by U.S. servicemen blare in the background. His friends exhibit a clear wariness regarding the evening’s disruptive personality, but Pedro appears unconcerned, more focused on “walking the boulevard with his woman.” Just then several sailors burst into the shop, accosting them violently with wild cries of “pachucos.”

The scene descends into a disturbing violence that culminates with Pedro beaten and humiliated, stripped down to his underwear, and Esperanza sexually assaulted, leading to the birth of their son and the movie’s main character Montoya Santana, played by Edward James Olmos. Created by the bitterness of racial hatred and sexual violence, Montoya’s life unfolds problematically as his parents reject him due to the circumstances of his conception, leaving the young man to turn to organized crime, however imperfect, for family.

This June marks the 70th anniversary of the Zoot Suit Riots, which some critics call “the worst mob violence in Los Angeles history.” In “American Me,” the riots serve as midwife to Montoya’s struggle for family and freedom from the confines of barrio life, though they also serve as a catalyst for Montoya’s violent, prison-bound existence. Likewise, the riots provide insight into wartime Los Angeles, zoot culture, and the tensions inherent to living in and navigating a multiethnic/multiracial metropolis like the City of Angels.

For several days in early June 1943, Los Angeles seethed as servicemen and zoots — often referred to as pachucos — clashed. As servicemen and others poured in from other states, sometimes as far away as Las Vegas, the violence became lopsided. However, depicting zoots only from the perspectives of fearful middle class social reformers, paranoid law enforcement, and hostile servicemen unfairly obscures the politics and meaning of the zoot culture.

The importance of the Zoot Suit Riots lay not only in what they told us about the contradictions of WWII America — fighting for freedom and anti-racism abroad while maintaining Jim Crow and segregation domestically — but also in how it might be used to gain insight into subsequent youth culture movements, which can demonstrate how populations, hamstrung by institutional prejudice, can exert agency over their own lives and identities.

Zoot suits were not simply metaphors for the political agendas of others, notes University of California San Diego Professor Luis Alvarez in his 2008 work “The Power of the Zoot.” Rather, they practiced their own cultural politics, which “if examined carefully can teach us a great deal about how seemingly powerless populations craft their own identities and claim dignity.”1

Left: ”Manuel Ybarra in zoot suit, 1942.” Right: ”Josie is wearing her zoot suit while waiting for the Red Car at E. 41st St. and Long Beach Ave. in Los Angeles, ca. 1945” | Shades of L.A. Collection, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

A combination of factors contributed to the outburst of violence in June 1943. First, the obvious pressures of wartime America — pitched nationalism, paranoia regarding fifth columns, and a citizenship that excluded minorities while promoting itself as universal — made the over-sized clothes and swagger of the zoots conspicuous to many Angelenos.

One Los Angeles resident told PBS documentarians that most pachucos were Mexicans who didn’t speak English and refused to contribute to the war effort. Of course, plenty of zoots served in the military, or hoped to — alleged leader of the 38th Street boys and center of the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, Henry Leyvas, had enlisted in the merchant marines — and zoot culture included a much wider cross section of ethnicities and race than this particular observer allows.

Nonetheless, at a time when the government emphasized rationing, some Americans viewed the zoot as a deliberate subversion of the war effort. Although, as Alvarez notes, if the goal was subversion, the zoot proved a poor option as it simply dumped money into an economy geared up for WWII.

Second, the Sleepy Lagoon trial that preceded the Zoot Suit Riots amplified tensions between white Angelenos and their Mexican and Mexican American counterparts. Accused of the 1942 murder of Jose Diaz, the 38th Street Boys and their subsequent trial captivated the city, playing out “like a Hollywood movie,” noted one observer. The creation of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, organized by civil rights pioneer Carey McWilliams, consisting of leftists, communists, unionists, and Hollywood celebrities like Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, added further luster to the controversial affair.

Though normally the LAPD would ignore violence between minorities, the rising tensions over zoot culture made the Diaz murder a means by which the state might send a larger message to what it saw as a threatening social movement. With 22 defendants, the People v. Zamora, at the time, earned the dubious distinction of being the largest mass trial in California history. Presiding Judge Charles Fricke refused defendants access to haircuts or new clothes, and allowed jurors to go home at night where many absorbed sensationalistic news accounts of zoot thuggery and menace. For Los Angeles’ Mexican community, the trial reminded them of their second class citizenship. Whites grew fearful and paranoid about zoots, and Mexican Americans resentful of institutional prejudice. The conviction of 17 of the 22 defendants reinforced these views for both communities.

While some servicemen and others targeted zoots due to their alleged reticence regarding the war effort, others simply used the event as an excuse to target a youth culture that consisted of Mexicans/Mexican Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and the occasional working class or white ethnic. Many servicemen beat zoots because its interracial nature — the look and lexicon of zoots had borrowed heavily from Black jazz culture — challenged a society defined by segregation. The zoot suit operated as a signifier that soon became racialized by violent rioters: any Mexican, Mexican American or non-white now served as targets. McWilliams witnessed Blacks, Filipinos, and Latinos all violently pulled off trolleys and beaten, some as young as 12.

Original caption: ”Defendants and witnesses of the Sleepy Lagoon gang murder of Jose Diaz in an unusual mass oath-taking. Armed deputies guarded the inquest room.” 1942. | Herald-Examiner Collection, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Boiling down zoot culture to one set of beliefs, variables, or ethnicity and race, rather than looking at its pluralistic totality, has been at issue when discussing it. Participants did not move in lock-step and carried differing, if often overlapping, views of the zoot suit’s meaning. While most zoots would agree that their fashion operated as a claim of public dignity denied them by white society, how each zoot defined such “dignity” varied: “dignity for a black male zoot suiter in New York … was often not the same as dignity for a Mexican American female zoot suiter in Los Angeles,” Alvarez points out. Moreover, some zoots, as previously noted, opposed the war and others actually joined the military to fight.

The focus on male zoots often obscures the numerous women active in the scene. For all its poignancy in capturing the fate of Montoya Santana, as noted by Carmen Huaco-Nuzum, in “American Me,” its female characters operated as foil for the movie’s larger discourse on Chicano masculinity. Though the film attempts to break free from gendered assumptions regarding Chicanas, with the exception of one female character, the movie remains bound to an image of Mexican American women as “subservient” and passive, dutifully enduring their oppressed fate. Borrowing from intellectual Octavio Paz, the film, Huaco-Nuzum argues, perpetuates the “legacy of being ‘la chingada,’ or the violated woman — the passive, long suffering female in servitude to the macho.”

Earlier popular productions broadcast similar themes. Luis Valdez penned “Zoot Suit” in the late 1970s, originally as a play focusing on the injustice of the Sleepy Lagoon Trial. In 1981, it became a movie starring Edward James Olmos. Utilizing court records and reports from the Los Angeles Times, Valdez constructed a narrative sympathetic to the defendants but one that virtually ignored the trial’s female participants. According to Catherine Ramirez, Valdez flattened subtleties present in news accounts and court records, depicting female zoots within a Madonna/whore binary of Mexican American women, thereby consolidating the domestic concepts his sources encouraged and constructing a popular model that others would draw from perpetuating the errors of his initial sourcing decisions.


In similar fashion, historians have focused too narrowly on male zoots making the role of pachucas — female zoots — one of the most notable and under-reported aspects of the Sleepy Lagoon trial and larger zoot culture. According to writers like Ramirez, historians have failed to realize that “female Mexican American speakers” endured greater hardships for their actions, “mocked, punished, or silenced” for not living up to tropes regarding citizenship, for “producing an oppositional Chicano identity,” and bucking feminine normatives.2 Certainly for Chicana zoots growing up in conservative, Catholic-influenced, patriarchial Mexican American enclaves, historians’ willful ignorance of their efforts stung participants in subsequent years. Additionally, having refused to testify, the state removed the 38th Girls from their families, designating them wards of the state and imprisoning them, until age 21, in the notorious Ventura School for Girls. While the 38 Street Boys did time in places like San Quentin, and in Leyvas’ case even Folsom, the courts released them after two years when the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee’s appeal finally stuck, while the girls remained confined to Ventura.

Like Ramirez, the aforementioned Alvarez highlights the place of female zoots. Both male and female zoots deployed a pluralistic understanding of zoot culture, and each wanted to challenge the sexual and gendered norms applied to them by larger society. For male zoots non-whites often endured a discourse that conflated them with effeminacy, while female zoots found themselves described as overly masculine in one moment and promiscuous in another. Each pushed back in their own ways, but men looking to overcome tropes of effeminacy sometimes acted overly aggressive in ways that asserted their sexual freedom, often submitting their female counterparts to harassment. “Many male zoot suiters … reinforced submissive female gender roles by expecting women zoot suiters to submit to their sexual desires,” writes Alvarez.3

The riots ended when military and city officials began to realize that their collective passive response to the violence had enabled the situation to grow out of control. Military leaders worried about insubordination among enlisted servicemen, while federal and municipal figures feared the implications of violence targeting a crucial labor source: Mexican and Mexican Americans. The riots threatened labor flows not only between L.A. and Mexico but also within the larger Bracero Program which, along with normal migration patterns, brought 17,000 new workers to the city. Even after a city-financed commission reported that race lay at the center of the riots, the Mayor and others continued to refute this interpretation, instead blaming “juvenile delinquents”, or zoots, for the unrest.

Over the years, more recent uprisings may have displaced the Zoot Suit Riots in the public consciousness; yet, the trajectory of 1943 helps to understand these later episodes of violence. While some argue that the riots of 1965 and 1992 stood as tragic expressions of protest against police brutality and institutional injustice towards Los Angeles’ African American community, the Zoot Suit Riots demonstrated the rigidity of American culture toward non-whites, such that simply donning an extravagant suit in the context of a nation at war might bring not only verbal reprimand, but violent, race-based retribution. Moreover, the 1943 unrest also demonstrates how youth cultural movements can be demonized and scapegoated by officials in the process distorting its politics, meaning, and importance, leaving us with an anemic grasp of our history and culture.

The caption from the Herald-Examiner: ‘These are some of the 79 zoot-suit Mexican youth who were held in jail after four new outbreaks of gang violence over a week-end in 1942. They were arrested when they assertedly sought to crash a Mexican wedding’ | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.

1 Luis Alvarez, “The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008, 8.

2 Ramirecz Catherine S. “Saying “Nothin’: Pachucas and the Languages of Resistance in Frontiers,” A Journal of Women Studies, 27 3 (2006), 2-3.

3 Luis Alvarez, “The Power of the Zoot,” 8.