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Zoot Suit Riots - 80th Anniversary — Poster of the Week

Updated: Sep 14, 2023


Zoot Suit

José Montoya

Offset, 1978

Los Angeles, CA

16797


Between June 3-8, 1943—80 years ago this week—a series of violent race riots took place in Los Angeles known as the Zoot Suit Riots. Over six days, thousands of sailors, soldiers, Marines, off-duty police and white civilians attacked Latino youth wearing zoot suits, a popular loosely draped clothing style that originated in Harlem in the late 1930s and became popular among young Mexican American men in Los Angeles.


The catalyst for the riots was a fight between uniformed servicemen and Mexican American men in downtown Los Angeles. Days later, on June 3, 1943, fifty U.S. sailors—many armed with clubs—attacked anyone wearing a zoot suit, beating them and tearing off their clothes. Zoot suits, typically worn by young Mexican American men called Pachucos (originally a derogatory term meaning "gang member" but now reclaimed), included a broad-shouldered drape jacket, high-waisted balloon-leg trousers, and a flamboyant hat adorned with a pheasant feather. These suits were considered unpatriotic by white Americans and servicemen during World War II, for their excess use of fabric. But the real motivation was racism, not fashion. For five days following the initial fight, the mobs traveled from East LA to Watts, leaving over one hundred and fifty victims bloodied and half-naked in the streets.

Most written and filmed accounts of the race riots focus on the tensions between

white servicemen and Mexican American men, but Black and Filipino men were also attacked for wearing zoot suits. In the aftermath of the riots, solidarity formed between Black, Mexican American, white, and Jewish activists. Members of the Mexican Youth Defense Committee and the junior council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Los Angeles chapter established the Committee for American Unity, to end race riots and the exploitation of minorities.


Last month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a motion by Supervisor Hilda Solis, to denounce the race riots, recognizing it as an ugly chapter in Los Angeles history. This motion offers Los Angeles the opportunity to acknowledge and fight its deeply entrenched legacy of racism. In the wake of the October 2022 audio leak revealing anti-Black and anti-Indigenous statements by LA City Council members Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo, and Kevin de León, such a denouncement is much needed.


CSPG’s Poster of the Week by poet, artist, and activist José Montoya, combines the graphic of a Pachuco, over the front page of the June 3, 1943 Los Angeles Herald Express newspapers depicting articles on the riots taking place across Los Angeles. Zoot Suit, an original 1978 play by Luis Valdez, based on the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, was the first Chicano play to be featured on Broadway. It changed theater forever.


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