Who’s that whisperin’ in the trees? It’s two sailors and they’re on leave. I’m betting there are quite a few of my blog readers and lurkers who have heard the song Zoot Suit Riot by Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. But did you know that while the song is a fun homage to Swing’s heyday, it also tells the story of an actual event in American History in 1943? You didn’t? Well then, pull up a chair and throw back a bottle of beer and I will tell you all about the Zoot Suit Riots. The riots were a direct result of racial tension in wartime Los Angeles. The key players in the riots were White American servicemen stationed in SoCal and L.A.’s Mexican-American community.
The term “Zoot Suit” comes from the style of clothing adopted by the male Latino youth in the 1930’s. A Zoot Suit commonly consisted of a flamboyant long coat with baggy pegged pants, a pork pie hat, a long key chain, and shoes with thick soles. The men who dressed in this style referred to themselves as “Pachucos.” Like the teenagers of today, the Pachucos adopted their own music, language, and dress essentially creating a zoot suit subculture. As with anything that steps away from the accepted norm, the Pachucos and their dames worried the existing controlling culture, i.e. the old white people. The media had a field day painting the Zoot Suiters as evil, dangerous, and as menaces to society.
On May 30. 1943 the riots started. About a dozen servicemen were walking down Main Street when they saw a group of women on the other side of the street. (Yes, the Zoot Suit Riots had a lot to do with racial tensions but the violence started because some sailors want to flirt with girls. Boys, are you listening? Don’t let your wieners lead you. Look what happens.) When the sailors crossed the street to flirt with the chicks they passed a group of Zoot Suit wearing Pachucos hanging out. One sailor, Seaman Second Class Joe Darcy Coleman, said as he passed he saw one of the men raise his arm in a “threatening” manner. So Coleman being a big tough sailor boy in dungarees (If any blog reader tells me what song that lyric comes from gets a prize) he turned and grabbed the other guy’s arm. Then Coleman was hit in the back of the head with something or by someone and he fell to the ground unconscious breaking his jaw in two places. (Seriously, if you’re going to pick a fight at least make sure the other guy is not simply picking his nose instead of a “threatening” arm gesture.) A few days later several sailors also claimed to have been robbed and beaten up by a gang of Pachucos. Thus the Zoot Suit Riots began.
On June 3, 1943 a mob of sailors, bored and fired up with bigotry, hired a fleet of cabs and rolled their way into East L.A and went on a violent spree. They robbed, beat up, and stripped any young Latino male they came across. The police, and the community, seemed to approve. A few arrests of sailors occurred at first but they were released relatively quickly. (To beat and strip again) This only added fuel to the fire. The mob of sailors and soldiers swelled each night as they invaded the barrio, bars, and movie houses humiliating and beating any and all Latino males. Also young Black and Filipino males who happened to be in the area were also assaulted. The police department declared any man found to be guilty of public nudity could be arrested. They could also arrest you for being overdressed. So basically the boys who managed to get away from the mob with their Zoot Suits intact could be arrested, and those beaten to a pulp and stripped could be arrested. Hardly seems fair right? At the end of the riots more than 150 people had been killed or severely injured and over 500 Latinos had been arrested on charges of rioting and vagrancy.
Finally on June 7, military authorities did what the civil authorities, i.e. the Los Angeles Police Department, wouldn’t do. Navy and Army Commanders declared the City of Los Angeles off-limits to their men in an effort to get control of them. Despite this intervention the Navy stance was the men were acting in “self-defense against the rowdy element.” Rigggghtt…
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt commented “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 the problems as we should.” The L.A times called her a communist. (Smart move, Times...call the First Lady a commie.)
I bet you never listen to the song Zoot Suit Riot the same way again.