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70th anniversary of Zoot Suit Riots

Posted by on May. 31, 2013 at 6:18 PM
  • 20 Replies
Depending on who is writing the history, the week of June 3, 1943 is referred to as either the beginning of Los Angeles' Zoot Suit Riots or the time of its Sailor Riots. Regardless.

From Los Nietos to Pasadena and from Venice to Watts, sailors from the U.S. Navy raided movie theaters and homes looking for trouble. They ripped the baggy zoot suits off Latino youths, and then beat them with whips and clubs.

For the most part, the sailors were cheered on by the city's newspapers and some of its leaders and residents.

"The fleet men, who went methodically about applying the fist's and rope's ends to the gang terror problem, reported "all's well," following a night of wild rioting which sent the hoodlums under cover," read a June 5, 1943 front-page story on the cover of the Herald Express, the city's biggest newspaper at the time.

As the 70th anniversary of the riots approaches, scholars are still trying to identify exactly what caused them, and what they meant. Most agree Los Angeles was never the same after the bloody week of riots.

The pachuco style certainly became a point of honor for the Chicano movement in the 1970s. To leaders of that movement, the men of the early 1940s were the first Latinos to have pride in the face of an unfair megalopolis that forbade Latino families from living in most neighborhoods.

That said, there are those who believe many of the zoot suit-clad Latino youths were punks, plain and simple. Violent kids who, when faced with adversity, submerged into an underworld of violence and drug abuse that is now manifest as the street gangs that have plagued Latino neighborhoods for decades.

Scholar and historian Eduardo Obregon Pagan, who wrote "Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, &Riot in Wartime L.A.", takes a more nuanced view.

The incidents and views that lead to the riots existed in a rapidly changing world, he believes. Whites lashed out against youth who challenged the entrenched racial and gender roles. Ethnic Latinos living in the U.S. at the time couldn't eat at certain restaurants and were expected to step off the sidewalk for white pedestrians.

"What happened is that these kids sort of accidentally were challenging segregation," Pagan said. "They grew up thinking they were Americans."

As teenagers they earned spending money in the booming war economy, and they became infatuated with jazz, the cool zoot suits and spoke a language all their own.

While the rest of society was conserving cloth, the pachuco kids were wearing baggy, audacious outfits. Servicemen, many seeing Southern California for the first time, believed the zoot suits were a sign that Latinos in Los Angeles were an out-of-control, anti-American crime wave that could only be snuffed by the might of the U.S. Armed Forces.

"The material (for the zoot suits) was called shark skin, it had to be shark skin," said Gene Cabral, who was 15 at the time and was living with his family in Chavez Ravine when the riots broke out.

The suits featured poofy pants pegged at the ankles. If a youth could afford it, he or she could get a long jacket, as well. The jacket sleeves had to hang to the end of the finger tips.

"Some guys would buy (pants with) the ankles so small they would have to put on a sort of lubricant to get the pants on over their feet," he said. "We called them ankle chokers."

To Cabral and the kids from Chavez Ravine, the suits had nothing to do with politics, defiance or ethnic pride.

"You felt good when you dressed up," he said. "We wore these suits to church."

Like Pagan, Cabral didn't think most kids were considering ideas of ethnicity when they put on their suits and went out dancing or walking through the barrios.

Cabral's house was less than two blocks from the Naval Armory where most of the mobs of soldiers began their attacks.

The attacks stunned him and his friends.

"I guess all I thought is, 'What the hell? If I go out there, someone is going to beat me?,'" he said. "It didn't make sense to me. I just stayed in my house with my young mind trying to figure out what we did wrong."
by on May. 31, 2013 at 6:18 PM
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Replies (1-10):
viv212
by Platinum Member on May. 31, 2013 at 6:20 PM

Mobile Photo

viv212
by Platinum Member on May. 31, 2013 at 6:23 PM

Mobile Photo

American Me. My mom can be the red haired twin sister of the lady on the right.
viv212
by Platinum Member on May. 31, 2013 at 6:37 PM

Mobile Photo

I love this artist! He's a friend of the family :)
My bedroom as a teenager was filled with his artwork.
Annettey19
by Bronze Member on May. 31, 2013 at 6:40 PM
Zoot suits are weird but cool. Interesting that that was a Latino thing though, I never knew that.
Euphoric
by Bazinga! on May. 31, 2013 at 7:21 PM

 cool

Seashell77
by Bronze Member on May. 31, 2013 at 7:22 PM

I didn't know any of the history behind the zoot suit. I only thought it was a fashion statement. Thanks for the article.

jessilin0113
by Ruby Member on May. 31, 2013 at 7:28 PM

I didn't know any of this.  Very interesting, thank you for posting.  

viv212
by Platinum Member on May. 31, 2013 at 7:31 PM
1 mom liked this
Wow really? I guess because I grew up in LA, the Zoot Suit riots were something I grew up knowing about. It's fascinating some of you didn't know this.
viv212
by Platinum Member on May. 31, 2013 at 7:32 PM
1 mom liked this
No one has seen the play Zoot Suit or even the movie American Me?
Donna6503
by Platinum Member on May. 31, 2013 at 7:35 PM
I know people will pack Pacific Blvd., in Huntington Park over the weekend.

Hey viv let's go rent " Boulevard Nights."

:)
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