The Zoot Suit Riots


INTRODUCTION
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(Written June 2001)
A good number of months ago, an associate of mine in a political organisation that I'm involved in sent an email detailing a list of "absurd laws" in California. It was broken down into two section: the first section consisted of laws that were effective for the state as a whole, while the second section was concerned with laws that applied to Los Angelas County, alone.

Many of the laws, through minimal imagination, I could see how they came into effect. The very last one -- one that applied to LAC -- I could not easily come up with a reason why it would have been enacted. This law stated that, within the borders of Los Angelas County, the wearing and possesion of a Zoot Suit was prohibited.

(The zoot suit can be described as the combination of: baggy legged, narrow at the ankle cuff, navel high pants; a short tie accompanying a button up shirt; a knee length narrow at the hips and very wide at the sholders suit coat; suspenders; very flashy shoes; and often either a fedora w/feather of varying lengths or, more commonly, a tando hat w/feather of varying lengths.)

I found this interesting, especially since Los Angelas has so many residents walking its streets wearing suits. A few years back, I -- myself an off and on resident -- was one of them. Albeit, they and myself were not wearing zoot suits, but what would fall into the broader catagory of business suit (fitted straight legged pants usually worn with a belt, less often suspenders; a button up shirt worn with a medium to long tie; fitted suit coat that comes down no farther than the bottom of the buttocks; conservative shoes; occasionally a waist coat -- a.k.a. a vest; and in the rare occasion that a hat is worn, such as in my case, it is usually a fedora or similar style w/no feather at all or a couple or three very short feathers).

Made curious by this peculiar law, I set out to find out the reasoning. In my research I came across a number of articles and memos from the press, the military, and interested individuals. Below is the compilation of those articles which I have cut-and-pasted together, rearranged, added to, and further edited. I'm forwarding it to you all in the belief that a few of you might be interested in the events detailed below. Additionally, two neo-swing songs that you all are familiar with deal with these events -- a fact I did not know until after I had originally began researching the above mentioned LAC statute. For those interested, and who ask for it, I also have a few of the above mentioned press articles and military memos that I can forward to you.

Wm Yelland


58 years ago this month (written August 2001).

What is known as the "Zoot Suit Riots" occurred between the gangs of predominantly black and Mexican youths who were at the forefront of the zoot-suit subculture, and the predominantly white American servicemen stationed along the Pacific coast. 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 Mexican American community in East Los Angeles. Any zoot suiter was fair game. On this and the following nights, many a zoot suiters were 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 and marines) 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." Police arrested over 600 Chicano youths without cause and labeled the arrests 'preventive' action. Los Angelenos cheered on the servicemen and their civilian allies." Finally, at midnight on June 7th, the military authorities moved to stop the rioting of their personnel, and Los Angeles was declared off limits for all military personnel.

California's State Senators were concerned about the adverse effect that the events might have on the relationship between the United States and Mexico. An item in the Los Angeles Times stated, "San Francisco Senator Downey declared that the riots may have 'extremely grave consequences' in impairing relations between the United States and Mexico, and may endanger the program of importing Mexican labor to aid in harvesting California crops." These fears were compounded when the Mexican Embassy formally drew the Zoot-Suit Riots to the attention of the State Department. It was the fear of an international incident that could only have an adverse effect on California's economy that motivated California Governor Warren to order a public investigation into the causes of the riots.

With the entry of the US into the war in December 1941, the nation had restrictions of rationing and the prospects of conscription. In March 1942, the War Production Board's first rationing act had a direct effect on the manufacture of suits and all clothing containing wool. Attempting to institute a 26% cut-back in the use of fabrics, the War Production Board drew up regulations for the wartime manufacture of what Esquire magazine called, "streamlined suits by Uncle Sam." The regulations effectively forbade the manufacture of zoot-suits and most legitimate tailoring companies ceased to manufacture or advertise any suits that fell outside the guide lines. However, the demand for zoot-suits did not decline and a network of bootleg tailors based in Los Angeles and New York continued to manufacture the garments. Thus the polarization between servicemen and pachucos was immediately visible: the chino shirt and battledress were evident uniforms of patriotism, whereas wearing a zoot-suit was a deliberate and public way of flouting the regulations of rationing. The sailors also beat up the latinos because the sailors felt the folks who were not enlisted were not serving their country. On the other hand, the zoot suiters who couldn't serve the US forces couldn't enlist, so they stayed home and some worked hard to support the war effort. The fabric they used was from "underground" sources, and among their community, it became a status symbol to see who could sew the most fabric into their zoot trousers.

During the ensuing weeks of rioting, the ritualistic stripping of zoot-suiters became the major means by which the servicemen" re-established their status over the pachuco's. It became commonplace for gangs of marines to ambush zoot-suiters, strip them down to their underwear and leave them helpless in the streets. In one particularly incident, a gang of sailors searched through a cinema after discovering two zoot-suiters. They dragged the pachuco's onto the stage as the film was being screened, stripped them in front of the audience and as a final insult, urinated on the suits.

The second week of June witnessed the worst incidents of rioting and public disorder. A sailor was slashed and disfigured by a pachuco gang; a policeman was run down when he tried to question a car load of zoot-suiters; a young Mexican was stabbed at a party by drunken Marines; a trainload of sailors were stoned by pachuco's as their train approached Long Beach; streetfights broke out daily in San Bernardino; over 400 vigilantes toured the streets of San Diego looking for zoot-suiters, and many individuals from both factions were arrested. A zoot-suited youth was shot by a special police officer in Azusa, a gang of pachucos were arrested for rioting and carrying weapons in the Lincoln Heights area; 25 black zoot-suiters were arrested for wrecking an electric railway train in Watts, and 1000 additional police were drafted into East Los Angeles.

Of the Thousands of pachucos that belonged to the Hundreds of zoot-suit gangs in Los Angeles, the press singled out the arrests of Lewis D English, a 23 year-old black, charged with felony and carrying a "16-inch razor sharp butcher knife;" Frank H. Tellez, a 22 year-old Mexican held on vagrancy charges, and another Mexican, Luis 'The Chief' Verdusco (27 years old), allegedly the leader of the Los Angeles Pachucos.

As the Zoot-Suit Riots spread throughout California to cities in Texas and Arizona, a new dimension began to influence press coverage of the riots in Los Angeles. On a day when 125 zoot-suited youths fought with Marines in Watts and armed police had to delt with riots in Boyle Heights, the Los Angeles press concentrated on a razor attack on a local mother, Betty Morgan. What distinguished this incident from hundreds of comparable attacks was that the assailants were girls. The press related the incident to the arrest of Amelia Venegas, a woman zoot-suiter who was charged with carrying, and threatening to use, a brass knuckleduster. The revelation that girls were active within pachuco subculture led to consistent press coverage of the activities of two female gangs: the Slick Chicks and the Black Widows. The latter gang took its name from the members' distinctive dress, black zoot-suit jackets, short black skirts and black fish-net stockings. In retrospect the Black Widows, and their active part in the subcultural violence of the Zoot-Suit Riots, disturb conventional understandings of the concept of pachuquismo.

The concept of pachuquismo is too readily equated with the better known concept of machismo. They share certain ideological traits, such as a aggressive sense of power and bravado, but the two concepts come from different sets of social definitions. Whereas machismo can be defined in terms of male power and sexuality, pachuquismo predominantly derives from ethnic, generational and classbased aspirations, and is less evidently a question of gender. What the Zoot-Suit Riots brought to the surface was the complexity of pachuco style. The Black Widows and their aggressive image confounded the pachuco stereotype of the lazy male delinquent who avoided the draft for a life of dandyism and petty crime, and reinforced radical readings of pachuco subculture.

Later studies provide evidence that young women and girls were also heavily involved in the traffic and transaction of soft drugs. The pachuco sub-culture was directly associated with a widespread growth in the use of marijuana. It has been suggested that female zoot-suiters concealed quantities of drugs on their bodies, since they were less likely to be closely searched by male members of the law enforcement agencies. The Black Widows and Slick Chicks with their black drape jackets, tight skirts, fish net stockings and heavily emphasized make-up, were ridiculed in the press. The Black Widows existed outside the orthodoxies of war-time society playing no part in the industrial war effort, and openly challenging conventional notions of feminine beauty and sexuality.

The authorities in Detroit chose to dismiss a Zoot-Suit Riot at the city's Cooley High School as an adolescent imitation of the Los Angeles disturbances. Within three weeks Detroit was in the midst of the worst race riot in its history. The United States was still involved in the war abroad when violent events on the home front signaled the beginnings of a new era in racial politics.

The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York, was closed in just a little over a month earlier by the military. The official reason given was that servicemen had contracted VD there, but those in Harlem knew the real reason was because blacks and whites mingled there, and often went home together from there. When the Zoot-Suit riots broke out, the spread to Harlem, and New York City as a full fledge race war. Businesses were broken into, destroyed, set on fire. Cars were overturned and people were beaten and killed. Where once you could see many blacks of Harlem well off financially and socially, overnight and to this day, Harlem became a center of poverty, and regarded in the minds of whites as a dangerous place to go.

'Detroit Red' a pimp and former Lindy Hop dancer of the Savoy Ballroom participated in zoot-suit riots in Harlem. It is from these experiences that began a political education that transformed him into the Black radical leader Malcolm X.

It was also during this period, as a young zoot-suiter, that the Chicano union activist Cesar Chavez first came into contact with community politics.

In Los Angelas County, a result of the riots was the enactment of a law prohibiting the wearing of a Zoot Suit within the county limits.

The song "Hey Pachuco" by Royal Crown Revue, and later, "Zoot Suit Riot" by Cherry Poppin' Daddies both are written about the riots of the Summer of 1943.


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