Eighty years after US sailors viciously attacked the young people who donned a zoot suit and subsequent attacks on LA’s Mexican American community, the Los Angeles City Council established June 3-9 as “Zoot Suit Heritage Week.”

“Today, we gather to honor the resilience of previous generations that endured violence and to formally apologize for the sanctioned brutality that targeted not just Mexican-Americans, but also African-Americans and Filipinos, and others,” said Councilman Kevin de León.

The City Council had previously adopted a resolution that condemned the “1943 Zoot Suit Riots” and the role the city played in the poor treatment of Mexican Americans. 

In 1943, LA’s city council had backed a resolution — never codified as a law — that barred zoot suits in the city and for anyone that wore one could be arrested.

A group of “pachuco enthusiasts” donning zoot suits at Los Angeles City Hall as the City Council condemned the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots. (Photo Courtesy of Yarely Diaz)

The resolution, presented by de León stated, “Los Angeles City Council and city of Los Angeles by adoption of this resolution hereby apologizes to the people and communities impacted by the Zoot Suit Riots.” In a statement, de León said it was “a degrading attack on their identity and culture.”

On May 31, 1943, the attacks on “zoot suiter” began when a group of servicemen and a group of Mexican-American youth wearing zoot suits clashed in downtown LA.

Three days later, June 3, the violence escalated into a series of attacks with huge mobs of US servicemen, off duty police and racist civilians against the Mexican-American community. Servicemen were bussed in and even offered free taxi rides and grew into the thousands who searched and attacked anyone who wore a zoot suit or even looked “ethnic.”

They pulled people out of movie theaters and attacked Filipinos and some African Americans too. One African American man, who worked at a defense plant and still had on his work uniform, had his eyes gouged out.

While the violence miraculously didn’t cause any fatalities, days of violence resulted in more than 50 injuries and more than 500 Mexican-Americans arrested with no consequences to the servicemen, off-duty policemen or the civilians who attacked them.

Soldiers, sailors and marines who roamed the street of Los Angeles, June 7, 1943, looking for hoodlums in zoot suits, stopped this streetcar during their search. Crowds jammed downtown streets to watch the service men tear clothing off the zoot suiters they caught. (AP Photo)

Sailors slashed their clothing and even went so far as to strip the young people, they burned their zoot suits and left them bloodied and nearly naked on the street. Police men, complicit, stood by and then arrested the Mexican Americans who were beaten.

While large numbers of Mexicans were serving in the military at this time, servicemen who terrorized zoot suiters accused them as World War II draft dodgers, although it was pointed out that many were teenagers and still too young to serve in the military. 

Zoot suits were popular among Mexican American youth, who went to dance halls and jazz clubs, but they became a target when their baggy pants, long coats and tight cuffs, a signature of the zoot suit, was deemed as “unpatriotic” during a time of rationing supposedly used too much fabric.

LA media fanned the fuel of hate. The LA Times negatively reported those who wore the zoot suit as “a badge of delinquency” and a response to a so-called immigrant crime wave. Contrary to the reporting by the LA Times and other local media, writer Carey McWilliams, an eyewitness to the riots, described the terror:

“On Monday evening, June seventh, thousands of Angelenos … turned out for a mass lynching. Marching 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. Streetcars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were jerked out of their seats, pushed into the streets, and beaten with sadistic frenzy”

The violence didn’t end until days later when servicemen were barred from leaving their barracks on June 8.

At City Hall, in the same space that imposed penalties and condemned Mexican American youth who wore zoot suits, new leadership sought to right the sins of their predecessors city Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez joined de León to support the resolution.

“Thank you so much for talking about what it means to honor the oath and the responsibility that is bestowed upon everybody to recognize and commemorate this important history,” Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez said.

“It should be signed on by everybody whether it’s in City Hall, whether it’s in the county of Los Angeles or state of California. We’re either going to stand united to say that we will not continue to undermine these histories, important stories and that we will continue to progress a path forward that respects the contributions of each of our communities,” Rodriguez said.

A group of “pachuco enthusiasts” including Miguel Vera Lopez, who donned the zoot suit for the council’s action and said they represented the generation since the 60’s and 70’s who have “established a voice to resist, educate and act on the many wrongs of the past” and take “action for future generations.” Lopez said he was a member of the Chicano Moratorium Committee that stressed the importance of history being told accurately.

“I really appreciate the fact that at the local, county, state levels and hopefully soon at the federal level that these recognitions will play a most important role in setting the record,” said Lopez.  “Our children and grandchildren will know the truth of what truly happened.”

“These events exposed the deep-rooted racism and prejudice that permeated society at that time,” said de León. “The victimization of Mexican-American youth and the assault on their community revealed the systemic injustice they faced … we can’t turn a blind eye to the reality of our past.”