During the Forties, American teens were at odds with the adults. They went to clubs that served oversized menus and soda and would listen to music by Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong. They would go dancing in ballrooms, for walks with their sweethearts and took advantage of their time as youths. They danced the jitterbug, wore saddle shoes, oversized skirts, and Zoot Suits along with wide brimmed hats.  Our LA correspondent and Zoot Suit lover Vanessa Sandoval takes a look back in time.

An article published in Newsweek in 1943 tries to explain the phenomenon of the Zoot Suit. “Its origin is obscure although when its main features – the pegged trousers and the long coat – resemble those of suits of the early 1900’s. Its creation has been attributed variously to a Negro busboy in Georgia, and to costumes Clark Gable wore in Gone With the Wind.”

No one actually knows – or can prove – where the Zoot Suit started. Harlem is its acknowledged gate to popularity however, and there has flourished in all its glory the reat pleat, drape shape and stuff cuff. The Zoot Suit was a fashion statement worn by many in the African American community. Los Angeles has always been a diverse city but during the Forties, it was even more so.

African Americans heavily populated the Downtown District of Los Angeles. The jazz clubs that filled the area would have been filled with many popular African American musicians of the time. Mexicans, who had been immigrating to the country since Mexico had began its Revolution in the early 1900s, mesmerized by the music, atmosphere, and style, adopted the look as their own.

img429Buying into the Zoot Suit craze were not only boys in the African American and Mexican Communities but girls as well. In an image taken in June of 1943, titled “La Dora, El Paul, La Lupe, El Chubby,” we find a girl wearing a Zoot Suit with typical Mexican huarache sandals. The significance of this is immense because it serves as evidence of the interlocking of two cultures. Her ensemble is proof of the Mexican American youth creating a new look that complemented their ancestral country and their new home.

The picture is also evidence of shifting gender roles in the Mexican community during wartime. Although this phenomenon was taking place all over the country, as women headed to the workplace and their male counterparts fought the war, in traditional Mexican American homes it was a sign of a growing drift that was occurring between first generation parents and their second-generation children.

PACHUCOTrying to find their place in the mixed up society they had to call home, Mexican American youth began to form gangs where they found others like them, trying to fit in. Since it was already a popular fashion trend at the time, members of the gangs – the Pachucos – also wore the Zoot Suit.

During the Forties, Downtown Los Angeles was the place to be. Full of movie theatres, retail stores, and dance halls it was a source of entertainment for people of all ages. More notably, youth sought the excitement that the nightlife of Downtown LA brought to an otherwise constrained life during wartime.

In June of 1942, a local gang crashed a party. One boy ended up dead as a result of the altercation between the members of the 48th Street gang and the party attendants. Cops were quick to point the finger at the 48th street gang and took into custody as many as they could. Was ensued was the largest mass trial America has ever seen. After a long, and unjust trial, the boys were found guilty and the Los Angeles Riots of 1943, the Zoot Suit Riots, erupt on the streets of Los Angeles as servicemen and Zoot Suiters went head to head on the streets of Downtown Los Angeles.

According to an article published in the New York Times on June 8 1943, “the fighting started on [June 3rd] when an automobile convoy of seamen, numbering about 200, roamed the East Side District, seeking out Zoot Suiters and attacking them with fists and rope ends.”

The seamen assembled their convoy looking for retaliation after Donald Jackson, a twenty-year-old sailor, had been “blackjacked and slashed across the abdomen in a fracas with four or five youths.” The seamen headed to city in search for Jackson’s assailants. “The seamen declared that they were tired of being ‘shoved around’ by the youngsters, adding that in many cases their girlfriends were insulted.” The first nights brawls were limited to Downtown LA. Servicemen marched “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.”

life 1943The mob made its way through movie theatres, ordering management to turn on the lights and then going up and down the theatre aisles, “dragging Mexicans out of their seats.”Pedro Garcia, a student from near by Roosevelt High School, was in the theatre. He was dragged out of the theatre and into the street where servicemen proceeded to “rip off his clothes, kick him, beat him, and left him bleeding and unconscious.”

The mob met Mexicans with a force that was both brutal to the physical and mental state of the victims. “Proceeding down Main Street from First to Twelfth, the mob stopped on the edge of the African American district. “Learning that the Negroes planned a warm reception for them, the mobsters turned back and marched through the Mexican east side spreading panic and terror.”

On subsequent nights, the mob moved into other communities. “The mob split all over Los Angeles, to Watts, Belvedere, Boyle Heights, El Monte, Baldwin Park, Montebello, San Gabriel- anywhere Mexicans lived.” The city was in complete chaos.

p91Average citizens joined the fight against the Zoot Suiters as a way of showing their patriotism.  Marietta Lee, a civilian who experienced the pachuco’s first hand told Joseph Tovares, writer and Director of the Public Broadcasting Systems American Experience episode on the riots, “The Pachucos would intimidate people. They would walk down the street…so you would go down the side streets instead of confronting them. A lot of them were from Mexico. They didn’t speak English. They didn’t adhere to our laws. They weren’t even geared up for the war effort.”

Because of the large groups arming up against the pachucos, citizens like Lee were no longer intimidated by these rebellious youth. The mob mentality overtook many civilians and called to them to join in the fight. “I was sixteen at the time, but I did drive. …Went to El Toro [airbase] and picked up Marines… Los Angeles was like a war zone and we had to do something about it. The Pachucos had just taken over. I felt that I was doing my share for the war effort,” stated Lee.

Thinking they were doing their share helping the country, citizens joined in the fight that created greater disunity amongst the people of Los Angeles.

The pool of victims widened as servicemen and citizens on a rampage began to attack not just Zoot Suiters but any dark complexioned males as well as people of other races. In a photograph published by the Daily News, Luis Verdusco, a Los Angeles Mexican resident who does not wear a Zoot Suit is shown pointing “to a head injury sustained during the Zoot Suit Riots.” Verdusco was targeted for the color of his skin, not the clothing he wore.

In another incident, a seventeen-year-old Russian boy, Pete Nogikoss, was “talking on a street corner to two Mexicans.” As sailors approached, the Mexicans fled and Nogikoss remained. “The sailor beat him to the ground.” Nogikoss was a victim of the chaos that had erupted, not because of his clothes, not because of his race but simply because he was associating with Mexicans in public.

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“Street cars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were jerked out of their seats, pushed into the streets, and beaten with sadistic frenzy.”

While all this was happening, repeatedly thought out the Downtown district, police stood by and watched. As a way of controlling the situation, the City of Los Angeles put out an ordinance banning the wearing of Zoot Suits on city streets. The Zoot Suit, which had been a source of identity for these youth, was taken from them, robbing them of their identity. “The Zoot Suit has become a badge of hoodlumism,” explained Councilman Norris Nelson.

The ordnance extended not only to the wearing of Zoot Suits but targeted shops that sold them. Though the ordinance was eventually lifted, the events of 1943 left the Mexican American youth of Los Angeles scared and hurt.

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The Zoot Suit Riots in current day Los Angeles are anything but forgotten. They have become a legend that is told from generation to generation. Older generations of Mexican Americans tell the story with emphasis on the Pachucos, the magnificent cars, jive talk, and above all the cool clothes.

Though it is very common to find Zoot Suits worn at weddings and quinceaneras – my husband wore his at our recent wedding – many don’t understand the privilege they have in being able to wear it on public streets.What no one ever talks about is the adversity, racism, and as author Mauricio Mazon put it, the public castration that the Zooters faced upon being stripped of their Zoot Suits and having their heads shaven on city streets.

9 Responses

  1. Andi B. Goode

    One of our articles in my year 12 exam was on the Zoot Suit riots…I had the song by Cherry Poppin’ Daddies stuck in my head for the entire time!

    Reply
  2. Vanessa

    Emma,

    I actually bough the dress at David’s Bridal. I had the bolero made separately by a local seamstress.

    Reply
  3. Marita

    Hi Vanessa-
    Perfect timing. I was looking for a concise report on the Zoot Suit Riots to help my students understand how to write a research report. You can imagine how thrilled I was when I found this one written by you, my former journalism student! Gorgeous wedding picture….
    Ms. Forney

    Reply
  4. Viviane

    Thank you Vanessa for taking time to write this wonderful article about the history of the Zoot Suit and its significance to the Mexican-Americ

    Reply
  5. Viviane

    Thank you Vanessa for taking time to write this wonderful article about the history of the Zoot Suit and its significance to the Mexican-American community. We should all feel proud that we can hold our head high and wear our tacuches without the fear of physical and mental assault. Gracias chica!

    Reply
  6. maria

    Very well done article however, in fairness, I feel it should also be pointed out why the Zoot Suit was such an affront to so many during wartime. With the deep rationing of food and materials using the extreme amount of fabric it takes to make a Zoot Suit was deeply offense to those whom supported the war effort and sacrificed so much including their loved ones. This of course doesn’t excuse the hatefully acts of some but only gives a bigger picture of events so they may be seen in context of the timem
    .

    Reply
  7. Lindy Hopper

    Thank you so much for this fascinating article. Here in the UK we are not told about this. I knew the zoot suit was controversial much as teddy boys in their drapes in the 50s (very similar), mods & rockers, hoodies etc. Kids need to rebel. But i had no idea of the extent of it. I feel i’ve learned something interesting & important. A horrifying tale though.
    On a lighter note, men in zoot suits look gorgeous!

    Reply

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