Zoot Suit Riots

The "zoot suit riots" occurred in Los Angeles, California, between June 3 and June 10, 1943, and were the largest upheavals in that city's history up to that time. During the riots American soldiers, sailors, and civilians stationed around Los Angeles attacked Mexican-American boys and young men. Attackers roamed the streets and entered bars, theaters, and restaurants in search of victims wearing distinctive zoot suits (very baggy pants and oversized, almost knee-length coats with wide lapels and heavy shoulder pads), and when they found them, beat them and tore off their suits. By the end of the riots, the servicemen were assaulting Mexican-American youths between their teens and early twenties indiscriminately, whether or not they wore zoot suits. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) did little to stop the upheaval, instead arresting over six hundred Mexican-American youths during the riots. The riots subsided only after the U.S. War Department declared the city off-limits to military personnel.

The zoot suit riots resulted from intense bias against the growing Mexican-American community, exacerbated by anxieties generated by World War II. Sensationalized press coverage of alleged crimes by Mexican-American TEENAGERS helped generate public hysteria over a perceived crime wave. The LAPD also contributed to ethnic tensions by both blaming Mexican Americans for the apparent outbreak of crime and mistreating Mexican-American youth. During the war years, the LAPD routinely pulled over cars driven by Mexican Americans to conduct "field interrogations." In 1942 they began making mass arrests, blockading streets in the barrios and detaining teenagers and young adults on vague charges, such as vagrancy or unlawful assembly.

The precipitating cause of the riots was the placement of a Navy training facility in a Mexican-American neighborhood. As thousands of military personnel came and went from the facility, they inevitably transgressed the mores of the surrounding immigrant communities. Local men and boys responded to perceived disrespect and violations of neighborhood standards by physically challenging and verbally threatening the servicemen. While no specific incident sparking the riots is known, these confrontations between military personnel and civilian youth accelerated in the wartime crisis atmosphere of the spring of 1943. In early June, sailors who had apparently been accosted by Mexican-American youths decided to search for zoot suiters, initiating the ensuing violence.

For Mexican-American youth, wearing zoot suits could highlight their resistance to a discriminatory culture. Jazz musicians such as Cab Calloway had popularized the fashion among African-American hipsters in East Coast cities in the early 1940s before West Coast youth adopted it. During the war years, when Americans prized the neat look of servicemen and were urged to conserve cloth, the outlandish zoot suits rejected conventional values. For Mexican-American youth, wearing zoot suits and indulging in the associated wild life of dancing and drinking helped to construct their own subculture and rejected assimilation into mainstream America. At the same time, white Los Angeles identified zoot suits as signs of inherent criminality.

See also: Fashion; Youth Culture.


Escobar, Edward J. 1999. Race, Police, and the Making of a Political Identity: Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department, 1900-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mazon, Mauricio. 1984. The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation. Austin: University of Texas Press.

McWilliams, Carey. 1948. North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Pagan, Eduardo Obregon. 2000. "Los Angeles Geopolitics and the Zoot Suit Riots, 1943." Social Science History 24: 223-256.