The following interview features Roger Bruns, historian and former deputy executive director of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives in
. He is the author of many books, including Encyclopedia of Cesar Chavez: The Farm Workers' Fight for Rights and Justice; Negro Leagues Baseball; and Icons of Latino America: Latino Contributions to American Culture. He has written several biographies for young readers on such figures as Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. He is author of the forthcoming Zoot Suit Riots, part of the Landmarks of the America Mosaic series. Washington, DC
You have written a book to be published next spring by ABC-Clio on the Zoot Suit Riots in
during World War
II. First of all, what are zoot
suits? Los Angeles
Although the exact origins of the zoot-suit are unclear, many Mexican-American youth in Los Angeles in the early 1940s adopted the so-called “drape” look worn by African-Americans they had seen in pictures and movies, especially in eastern cities, and, most especially, in Harlem. The jazz music and the jitterbug dance craze had made their way to the West Coast along with the clothes that spoke of youthful rebellion and urban identity. There was the oversized coat with broad shoulders and ballooned and pegged pants, large broad-brimmed hat, with a watch chain often dangling down the side. Thick-soled shoes called Calcos added to the look.
Mostly, the youngsters were Mexican-Americans born in the
U.S. to parents who had immigrated.
Walking around the streets wearing the drapes with friends from their
them, both young men and women, a group
identity – admiration from some in their own community; disgust and ridicule
from others, especially Anglos. Many
young men took on the name “pachucos” and women “pachucas,” terms of uncertain
origins that mostly came to mean those in adolescent gangs wearing zoot-suits.
Not every pachuco wore a zoot suit, however, and certainly most members of the
Mexican-American community did not consider themselves part of the pachuco
rage. Indeed, the parents of many of those adolescents involved were
unquestionably anxious and concerned about the fidelity of their sons and
daughters to this new cultural phenomenon.
But the zoot-suit rage grew. Pachucos intermixed English and Spanish with slang they called “Chuco,” much of it from a Caló dialect that could be traced to early Spanish wanderers and outcasts. They gathered in groups that carried names of Mexican-American neighborhoods –
39th Street, White Fence,
Alpine Street, and . Happy
What led to riots?
Most of all, we have to remember the entrenched prejudice against Mexican-Americans in this period. It was not only invidious but out in the open for all to see. Many public facilities were closed to Mexican-Americans. Some churches would allow Mexican-Americans inside only on certain days. Many cemeteries, even those publicly operated, reserved special sections specifically for Mexican-Americans, thus separating them in death from Anglos just as they had been during life. Some theaters did allow Mexican-Americans and Afro-Americans access but only on certain nights. There were actually signs that read “No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed.”
Mexican-Americans read stories in
Los Angeles newspapers that called them
“undesirables.” They were accused by law enforcement officials and political
leaders of being inclined to engage in criminal activities and were, therefore,
a threat to law and order. When arrested for petty crimes, many were subjected
to what was euphemistically called the “third degree” – from beatings with
rubber hoses to “three-day hunger tests.”
The Zoot Suit Riots are inextricably linked to the infamous, so-called Sleepy Lagoon murder in August 1941 southeast of
Los Angeles. The Sleepy Lagoon was a reservoir used to
irrigate crops and a swimming hole and meeting place for many Mexican-American
youths. At a party at a nearby house on August 1, a young man named Jose Diaz
was found dead after a brawl among a group of youngsters from the neighborhood
around 38th Street and some youths from other neighborhoods. The Los
Angeles Police Department, in a zealous demonstration of combating juvenile
delinquency, rounded up in a dragnet more than 600 young people, mainly those
who wore zoot suits. Unable to tie any single individual to the crime, a grand
jury indicted over 20 youngsters for murder, an unprecedented and outrageous
overreach. In the subsequent trial, marked by unbridled bias and judicial
misconduct by the judge, most were convicted of first or second degree murder.
They would later be released on appeal after serving significant time in jail.
Within months of the convictions,
erupted in a riot. On June 3, 1943, with
tensions escalating between Los Angeles U.S.
sailors stationed in
and Mexican-American zoot suiters, some 50 sailors on shore leave ventured into
Mexican-American neighborhoods armed with clubs and other weapons. Their
mission, supposedly in retaliation for earlier attacks on servicemen, was
simple – beat up and rip the clothing from any “zoot suiter” they could find.
For several days, sporadic attacks by servicemen against Mexican-Americans
threw parts of downtown Los Angeles
into chaos and rioting. For a week, sailors and other
servicemen dragged kids off streetcars, from restaurants, and out of movie
theaters. The boys were beaten and stripped of their zoot suits, a kind of
ritualistic cultural humiliation. Los Angeles
Thousands of white civilians egged on the servicemen. At one point at the end of the week of carnage, an estimated 1000 servicemen rampaged through the Mexican district, storming into bars, penny arcades, theaters, stores, and dance halls with relative impunity. A number of taxi drivers joined the fun, offering free rides to servicemen and civilians to the riot areas. .
Eventually, with news of the riots reaching the national press and with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt referring to the spectacle as race riots against Mexican-Americans, local and military police eventually restored order. Of the many hundreds of individuals herded off to jail, almost all were Mexican-Americans, the targets of the attackers. They were mostly charged with disturbing the peace.
In the end, the Los Angeles City Council banned the wearing of zoot suits on
streets. Los Angeles
What was the highlight of your research? In the course of your research, what discovery surprised you the most?
Records at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in
College Park, Maryland, at NARA’s records
center in Riverside, California,
and at the Franklin Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, had a wealth of original
documents about the deep concern of the U.S.
government that the trial and riots were damaging the country’s relations with Mexico and Latin America
during wartime. In late 1942, the Office of War Information (OWI), an agency
designed to coordinate news releases favorable to U.S.
interests during the war, worried that open hostility toward Mexican-Americans
in Los Angeles
was being exploited by the enemy. Axis propaganda sent to the U.S., Mexico,
and other Latin American countries attacked as a sham U.S. claims that it was a
democratic nation free of the persecution of minorities. The OWI sent Alan Cranston, a former
journalist who would later become a U.S. Senator from California. Cranston met managing editors and publishers
of all four of the major newspapers in the city encouraging them to stop
slandering Mexican-Americans in their articles. He also encouraged city
officials to prepare a plan to help ameliorate the conditions under which
Mexican-Americans were struggling in the city.
Also State Department officials had numerous communications and face-to-face meetings with Mexican diplomatic figures trying to temper the anger and suspicions aroused by the Sleepy Lagoon trial and the riots.
What effects did the Sleepy Lagoon trial and the Zoot Suit Riots have on the Mexican-American community and how are these events from 60 years ago relevant today?
against the kind of systemic prejudice and dehumanization so evident in the trial and the riots.
In coming years organizers would win a landmark case of Mendez v. Westminster (1947) that would outlaw segregation of Mexican-Americans in public schools. In the same year, reformers founded the Community Services Organization (CSO), a civic-action group dedicated to promote community improvement, awareness of citizenship rights and responsibilities and to fight against human and civil rights abuses. It would fight discrimination in housing, employment, and education; promote political involvement; and establish self-help programs.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the so-called Chicano Movement produced a new generation of activists and leaders who brought to national attention a variety of issues vital to the Mexican American community and sought to remedy the ills of discrimination and powerlessness through direct political action. In the early 1960s, Cesar Chavez, a zoot-suiter in his youth, began his historic fight to establish a union of farmworkers. One of his friends and allies, Luis Valdez, who would later be called by many “the Father of Chicano Theater, wrote a play called Zoot Suit that opened on Broadway in 1978. It related the events of the early 1940s to the continuing struggles of Mexican-Americans and played for the first time in Mexico City in 2010, the same year that the state of Arizona passed draconian legislation against immigration. As the nation continues to grapple with such issues as immigration, fair employment and educational opportunities, and the many aspects of civil rights for Latinos, the story of the Zoot Suits Riots remains a compelling reminder of how far we have come but how daunting remain the challenges.