The Zoot Suit Riots refers to a number of conflicts which happened in June 1943 in the US. The cases happened in Los Angeles and they involved the US servicemen and the Mexican American youths. The Mexican American youths were clad in some outfits which they referred to as the zoot suits. These outfits were characterized by broad-shouldered drape jackets as well as some ballon-leg trousers (Erenberg and Hirsch, 1996). In some cases, the rioters could wear some flamboyant hats to complete the outfit. A majority of them also used the term pachucos to refer to themselves. This is a name that is linked to the Mexican American culture and it is connotatively used to depict a form or rebellion against the American and Mexican cultures. As such, these individuals existed in a group that did not believe in any of these cultures. They wanted to portray a culture that was unique. This essay looks at the Zoot suiters and the Sleepy Lagoon case as well as the factors that led to it and the aftermath of the riots.
The cause of the riots was connected to the idea of the US joining the Second World War. The actions of the US and its involvement in WWII were one of the causes of racial tensions among different groups of people in the US (Erenberg and Hirsch, 1996). There was a need for workers to join the agricultural sector as well as other service sectors of the US to take up the positions of those who had joined the world war. When there was not enough number of Americans to fill these positions, there was an agreement that was reached with Mexico which saw a significant number of Mexicans brought to the US to work, though on a temporary basis (Alvarez, 2009). However, the Mexicans came in large numbers and their influx in the US did not go very well with the Americans. The Americans viewed the Mexicans contemptuously and hatred started to develop slowly.
As the war continued, the US began rationing some of the things and restricting others. many of the resources were being rationed due to the high expenditure that the war used. Some of the items that received restrictions were wool. The rationing on the wool had a direct impact if the clothing industry. Wool suits, as well as other clothing, became hard to manufacture. As the restriction efforts continued, there was the announcement that zoot suits were not to be manufactured (Lucas, 2009). However, there were some tailors who did not adhere to this prohibition and the continued to manufacture the suits despite the restrictions. Many of these were the Mexicans and Mexicans continued to wear these suits despite the prohibition. There was a rise in the racial tensions as the Mexican American youths who were wearing these zoot suits were regarded as un-American since they were ignoring the rationing regulations intentionally.
Although there were tensions that had already developed, the murder in the Sleepy Lagoon is what heightened the situation leading to the Zoot Suit Riots. The murder occurred in August 1942 (Larralde, 2010). Sleepy Lagoon was a name that was coined after the murder. It was one of the larger reservoirs outside the city of Los Angeles. On the first day of August 1942, there were some zoot suiters who were engaged in a fierce fight at a party near the Sleepy Lagoon. During this commotion, it was found out that one of the partygoers had been killed. His name was Jose Diaz. What followed after was a public outcry against the zoot suiters and directed by the California Governor, more than 600 young men and women from the Mexican American descent were rounded up by the Los Angeles Police Department (Larralde, 2010).
Following their arrest, a significant number of these zoot suiters were convicted of murder. However, there are those people who felt that justice had not been served right and that their trial was not constitutional. The public termed the trial and conviction of the zoot suiters as a miscarriage of justice and an appeal was launched. The appeal case was heard and determined in October 1944 where the verdict was reversed.
There were questions on what led to the disputed verdict at the conviction of the zoot suiters. One of the major ingredients for this was the media. The media is a powerful tool in the society which can be used to either correct misdoings or even become an agent of wrongdoing. In the years between 1942 and 1943, the media portrayed the zoot suiters as dangerous and unfit to be in society (Larralde, 2010). It portrayed all the members as murderers who could murder again and again if given the chance to do so. Since people depend on the media for information, a majority of the people began to believe that the zoot suiters, who comprised of the Mexican American youths were capable of committing serious crimes including murder. Such kind of reporting influenced more people and there as rising racial tension between the Americans and the Mexicans. This kind of atmosphere gave rise to a conflict between the white servicemen stationed in southern California and the Mexican American youths began. In the beginning, it only seemed like minor altercations but within no time, the issue had escalated to serious levels. Within a few months of the convictions in Sleepy Lagoon, there erupted serious riots in Los Angeles which came to be referred to as the Zoot Suit Riots.
The servicemen had been stationed in Los Angeles during the Second World War and they were assigned to protect the Pacific Coast. Most of the servicemen who spent their time on leave drinking were the cause of the conflicts when they encountered the Chicano or Pachucos youths who were always donned in the popular zoot suits of the time (Larralde, 2010). The bad blood between the two groups also came as a result of the provocation of the youths by the sailors many of whom came from as far as San Diego to date Chicano girls and insult the Chicano boys.
When the riots erupted and a fight broke out, the Los Angeles police remained non-partisan as they did not want to interfere with the US military servicemen. Besides, they were not willing to step in and protect civilians. During the confrontation between the servicemen and the zoot suiters, many of the zoot suiters were beaten by servicemen and stripped of their zoot suits on the spot. The servicemen were so brutal that they went to the extent of urinating on the zoot suits and in other cases burnt them in the streets (Alvarez, 2009). The media, especially the newspapers, wrote articles on how the zoot suiters should be tormented and "de-zooted." It also gave directions on how to strip a zoot suiter and burn his or her suit. The servicemen were shown as heroes who were fighting for a course. This led to more increased tension between the people in Los Angeles. People were split into two based on their racial affiliation. Thus, the tension even extended to those who were not actively involved in the confrontations.
After investigations, it was realized that among other things, racism was one of the key factors that led to the confrontations. This was seen through the despicable response of the police as well as the biased media coverage of the whole incidence. The riots left Los Angeles with a bad image. It was seen as a city that is racially divided to the extent that even the arms of the government such as the police had been affected by racism.
In conclusion, up to date, the murder of Jose Diaz which was linked with the riots remains unsolved. However, there are some records that were released by Lorena Encinas before her death in 1991 which cites that her late brother, Louis was the one who beat and killed Jose Diaz at a party near the Sleepy Lagoon. That is the reason that Lorena chose to serve time in jail herself instead of having her brother sent to San Quentin. Although the conflict did not result in deaths, serious injuries were reported during the confrontation. However, racial prejudice was witnessed after the confrontations when more Mexican Americans than the servicemen were arrested. This fueled bitter criticism from the public on the role of the police in their response to the riots.
Alvarez, L. (2009). The power of the zoot: Youth culture and resistance during World War II. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.
Erenberg, L. A., & Hirsch, S. E. (1996). The war in American culture: Society and consciousness during World War II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Larralde, C. (2010). Josefina Fierro and the Sleepy Lagoon Crusade, 1942-1945. Southern California Quarterly, 92(2), 117-160. doi:10.2307/41172517
Lucas, A. (2009). Reinventing the "Pachuco": The Radical Transformation from the Criminalized to the Heroic in Luis Valdez's Play "Zoot Suit". Journal for the Study of Radicalism,3(1), 61-87. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41887618
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