By the early twentieth century, only Mexico City had a larger Mexican population than Los Angeles. But despite their significant presence in the growing metropolis, Mexican immigrant communities remained marginalized. Decades of employment and housing discrimination, coupled with linguistic and cultural isolation, left many Mexican immigrants unable to advance economically and to fully assimilate into American culture.
War mobilization in the 1940s brought new lucrative opportunities to immigrant communities in Los Angeles, but class and ethnic differences continued to contribute to growing hostility within the Anglo community toward non-whites. The growing popularity of jazz dance clubs, gambling, and the zoot suit style associated with a growing Mexican youth culture, coupled with sensationalized press coverage of scattered incidents of violence, only aggravated these tensions that flared during the war years.31
One particular event ignited a year of belligerence in Los Angeles between whites and Mexican Americans. On the night of 1 August 1942, members of the Los Angeles 38th Street Club headed to a party at Williams Ranch in search of a group of teenagers from the Downey neighborhood. It had been rumored that Hank Leyvas, one of the Mexican-American boys from 38th Street, and his girlfriend had suffered a beating at the hands of the Downey boys. Leyvas and his crew decided to avenge the assault and planned to confront the offenders who were attending the party. The clash that ensued left José Díaz, a 22-year-old Mexican-American man with plans to fight in the war, dead.
The police discovered Díaz's body the following morning near "Sleepy Lagoon," an old reservoir steps from Williams Ranch. Officers charged into Mexican-American communities on the city's east side and rounded up all members of the 38th Street Club. Many of those held in jail were beaten and abused as Los Angeles Police Department officials acted on the belief that Mexicans were genetically predisposed to violent behavior. In all, 300 young Latinos were arrested, and 22, including Hank Leyvas, were charged with murder. Seventeen of the young men tried for the murder were convicted and sentenced to several years in prison.
Despite the lack of evidence and the absence of witnesses, newspapers portrayed the defendants as Mexican juvenile delinquents. For months following the incident, the press fed the public's fascination with the case and reflected the anti-Mexican tone that would taint the trial. The press exacerbated decades-old antagonisms between Anglo and Latino communities by printing sensational exposés on Mexican "gangs" alongside dramatic articles warning of disloyal Japanese Americans.
The city's white population had long been suspicious of cultural and racial differences, but under the stress of war and paranoia about enemies at home, whites grew intolerant and even violent toward those who spoke a different language, practiced a different religion, enjoyed different social activities, and wore different clothing.
Latino youths seemed to pose a particular threat. To express group solidarity and to differentiate themselves from their elders (as often youth like to do!), many sported "zoot suits," a bold style that included high-waisted, loose-fitting trousers and a long, wide-shouldered coat, often paired with a wide-rimmed felt hat. Prompted by newspaper reports on youth crime, the public perceived all "zoot-suiters" not as independent-minded teens, but as "pachucos," or juvenile delinquents.
Amidst a smattering of reports of alleged gang-violence, most prominently the "Sleepy Lagoon" incident, the press called for a campaign against the "zoot-suiter menace." In the summer of 1943, mobs of white sailors, soldiers, police officers, and civilian men responded. Servicemen and citizens from Los Angeles joined with people from out of town who had traveled into the city to seek out the "menace." Swarms of people patrolled downtown Los Angeles, many wielding bats and crowbars, searching for anyone wearing the conspicuous zoot suit. The vast majority of those targeted, stripped of their clothing, and beaten were Mexican-American men, though women and African-American and Filipino-American citizens were also among the victims of the attacks.
Rioting raged throughout Los Angeles for a full week until California's attorney general, governor, and the United States Navy managed to quell the violence by instituting curfews, restricting entrance into the city, and, as a preventative measure, issuing a ban on zoot suits.
Americans outside of Los Angeles witnessed the turmoil that engulfed the city during the war years. Some read hysterical press coverage of the incidents and wondered if the mobs had been justified in their actions. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, informed its readers that "The zooters" had boasted "they were organized to 'kill every cop' they could find," and so, "searching parties of soldiers, sailors and Marines hunted them out and drove them out into the open like bird dogs flushing quail." Other accounts encouraged readers to see that race prejudice had motivated the attackers. Chester Himes, a reporter for the African-American publication The Crisis, simply wrote, "Zoot Riots are Race Riots."32
The riots also served to introduce Mexican Americans to some of the violent forms of discrimination and injustice long confronted by African-Americans. In the decades following World War II, Latino communities, clinging to powerful memories of the zoot suit riots and witnessing black civil rights activism in the South, would help usher in a new era in racial politics.