Zoot Suit Riots

Set in the environment of ethnic and racial paranoia that defined the early 1940s in Los Angeles, California, the "Zoot Suit Riots" were a defining moment for Zoot Suiters and the Mexican American community. The ethnic populations of California as a whole, and Los Angeles in particular, were under siege. In March and April of 1942, the entire Japanese and Japanese American population on the West Coast of the United States were deported to "relocation centers" (mild euphemisms for concentration camps) located in the interior of the U.S.. Without the Japanese Americans around to focus the locals' racial paranoia, Los Angeleans began to look toward the Zoot Suiters. A "Mexican Crime Wave" was announced by local newspapers (precursors to today's tabloids and pioneers in "yellow journalism"), and a special grand jury was appointed by the city of Los Angeles to investigate.

Around the same time, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department also decided to investigate and appointed E. Duran Ayres to head their Foreign Relations Bureau. And though Mr. Ayres accurately identified much of the active discrimination that was occurring against the "Mexican element", he drew some startling conclusions which were presented to the grand jury:

"He stated that Mexican Americans are essentially Indians and therefore Orientals or Asians. Throughout history, he declared, the Orientals have shown less regard for human life than have the Europeans. Further, Mexican Americans had inherited their 'naturally violent' tendencies from the 'bloodthirsty Aztecs' of Mexico who were said to have practiced human sacrifice centuries ago. At one point in his report Ayres even compared the Anglo to a domesticated house cat and the Mexican to a 'wild cat,' suggesting that the Mexican would forever retain his wild and violent tendencies no matter how much education or training he might receive.

On the night of August 1, 1942, zoot suiter Henry Leyvas, 20, and some of his friends were involved in a fight with another group of pachucos at the Williams Ranch by a lagoon. Later the next morning, a man named José Díaz was found bleeding and unconscious on a road near the lagoon (later named the Sleepy Lagoon by a reporter). He later died. The autopsy revealed that Mr. Díaz was drunk at the time of death and that his death was the result of blunt head trauma. Though one medical examiner stated that his injuries were consistent with that of being hit by a car, Henry Leyvas and 24 members of the "38th Street gang" (as the group had been dubbed by the local tabloids) were arrested and charged with the murder of José Díaz. Led by the local tabloids, a public outcry for "justice" and vengeance against the zoot suiters caused the Los Angeles Police Department to conduct a roundup of over 600 people on the nights of August 10th and 11th. All were charged with such things as suspicion of assault, armed robbery, etc., and 175 people were held on these charges. Of the 600 plus people arrested during this roundup, every single one was a Spanish surnamed individual!

During the time leading up to the trial and for two weeks into the trial, Henry Leyvas and his co-defendants were not allowed to change their clothes by order of the trial judge, Charles Fricke. The district attorney reasoned, and Judge Fricke agreed, that the jury should see the defendants in the zoot suits, which were obviously only worn by "hoodlums". During the trial, 22 of the 24 co-defendants including Henry Leyvas were tried together. They were not allowed to sit with or talk with their lawyers. Whenever their names were mentioned by a witness or the District Attorney, the defendants were instructed by the judge to stand up, regardless of how damning the statements being made were. Judge Fricke also had E. Duran Ayres come and testify as an "expert" witness as to his belief of the Mexicans' penchant for killing and their "blood thirst". The trial went on for five months and on January 15, 1943, nine of the co-defendants (including Henry Leyvas) were found guilty of second degree murder, given prison terms of five years to life, and shipped off to the infamous San Quentin Prison. This entire incident is documented in the 1981 movie by Luis Valdez, Zoot Suit.

Against this backdrop of hate and vengeance toward the Mexican American community in Los Angeles, what is known as the "Zoot Suit Riots" (though they are now often referred to as the "sailor riots") occurred. On the night of June 3, 1943, eleven sailors on shore leave stated that they were attacked by a group of Mexican pachucos. In response to this, a group of over 200 uniformed sailors chartered 20 cabs and charged into the heart of the Mexican American community in East Los Angeles. Any zoot suiter was fair game. On this and the following nights, many a zoot suiter was beaten by this mob and stripped of their clothes, their zoot suits, on the spot. Nine sailors were arrested during these disturbances, not one was charged with any crime. On the following nights of June 4th and 5th, the uniformed servicemen (by this time the sailors had been joined by soldiers) again invaded East Los Angeles, marching abreast down the streets, breaking into bars and theaters, and assaulting anyone in their way. Not one was arrested by the Police or the Sheriff. In fact, the servicemen were portrayed in the local press as heroes stemming the tide of the "Mexican Crime Wave." During the nights of June 6th and 7th, these scenes were again repeated. Time Magazine later reported that, "The police practice was to accompany the caravans of soldiers and sailors in police cars, watch the beatings and jail the victims." According to Rudolpho Acuña in Occupied America, "Seventeen-year-old Enrico Herrera, after he was beaten and arrested, spent three hours at a police station, where he was found by his mother, still naked and bleeding. A 12-year-old boy's jaw was broken. Police arrested over 600 Chicano youths without cause and labeled the arrests 'preventive' action. Angelenos cheered on the servicemen and their civilian allies."3

Finally, at midnight on June 7th, because the navy believed it had on actual mutiny on hand, the military authorities did what the city of Los Angeles would not, they moved to stop the rioting of their personnel. Los Angeles was declared off limits for all military personnel. Though there were little consequences for the rioters (servicemen and local law enforcement authorities alike), there was some public outcry. On June 16th, 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt commented in her column that, "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." Los Angeles' response was typified by the June 18th headlines of the Los Angeles Times, "Mrs. Roosevelt Blindly Stirs Race Discord," and she was accused of communist leanings in the accompanying editorial. Governor Earl Warren (later Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court during their landmark desegregation cases) convened a committee to investigate the riots and recommended punishment for all involved in the riots, servicemen and civilians. Other than the charges filed against the Mexican American victims, no punishment was ever meted out.

1 The Mexican American Heritage, Carlos M. Jimenez, 1994, p. 159.
2 Time Magazine, June 21, 1943.
3 Occupied America, Rudolph Acuña, 1988, p. 257.
4 ibid.

 

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Last updated December 28, 2005