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The Zoot Suit Riots: Pachucos Fought Back Against Anti-Mexican Racism

Culture & Community By O. DELGADO
The Zoot Suit Riots: Pachucos Fought Back Against Anti-Mexican Racism

In the summer of 1943, Mexican, Latino, Filipino, and Black Americans were targeted by mobs of white servicemen, off-duty cops, and civilians armed with makeshift weapons. They were pulled out of buildings and off streetcars, stripped and beaten in the street. Uniformed police "watched from the sidelines" and then arrested the victims of the beatings.

Even the name, Zoot Suit Riots, betrays the racism behind the events of June 1943.

The Zoot Suiters weren't rioting; it was a targeted campaign of violence against them.

The U.S. was in the midst of World War II. Young men were being drafted, everything was being rationed, and nationalist xenophobia was running high.

With Japanese American citizens having been carted off to internment camps the year before, racist ire turned to Mexicans.

The U.S. was bussing in braceros, Mexican workers to fill the need for agricultural labor to provide the nation's food, and newspapers began to fan flames of panic with sensationalist headlines about increasing immigration and crime.

The blame for crime they placed squarely on the big-shouldered suits of Mexican American Pachucos. 

The iconic Zoot Suits worn by Mexican, black, and other young people of color were made popular by black singers like Duke Ellington. Because of their wide shoulders and large pants, the suits required more fabric to make. Since fabric was rationed, the suits were considered "unpatriotic," as were the young people wearing them.

But the suits were just an excuse. 

On the night of June 3, 1943, a group of sailors stationed at Los Angeles' Chavez Ravine Armory got into a scuffle with a group of local Pachucos.

Soon, hundreds of white servicemen, joined by off-duty cops and civilians, were roaming the streets of Los Angeles, armed and attacking anyone wearing a Zoot Suit.

Ultimately, they attacked anyone non-white, Zoot Suited or not.

Mexican, Latino, Filipino, and Black Americans were pulled off of streetcars and out of restaurants and movie theaters. They were stripped and, as one journalist described it, "beaten with sadistic frenzy" in the streets. 

For four full days, the LAPD did nothing to stop the violent "vigilante" campaign against non-white youth. Off-duty policemen participated, while on-duty policemen stood by and watched. Then they arrested the victims.

In Timeline, Don Riordan writes:

"LAPD responded by arresting as many as 500 of the victims, ostensibly for their own protection. The Los Angeles Times heralded the sailors’ actions as “a great moral lesson” for the “freak” zoot suiters, who, according to the Minneapolis Star a week later, were undeniably 'guilty of a number of killings and rapes.'"

And the same is happening right now. 

Generations after slavery and the Mexican-American War, through the Civil Rights movement and the Rodney King riots, we are still fighting the same fight - against racist mentality and police brutality.

This time, let's make sure we win. 

It starts with you, calling out racism in your life, in your home.

And calling your mayor, your police chief, your council people, to demand accountability.

It starts and ends with you.

Check out 8cantwait.org for more information on how to keep our communities safe from police brutality and abuse of power.