Taking Back Our Stolen History
The Zoot Suit Riots
The Zoot Suit Riots

The Zoot Suit Riots

The formation of the Los Angeles Police Department began in 1877. The primary duties and responsibilities of the department were to protect the elite capitalist or the bourgeoisie (Escobar 1999). This elite group of capitalists had been exploiting Mexican-Americans for their cheap labor and intended to continue running their businesses in this manner despite the terrible consequences for the Mexican community. The Los Angeles Department did exactly as this political machine told them to do. In addition, police officers engaged in corruption and extortion with prostitution and gambling rings (Escobar 1999).

The department did not legally harass or arrest any organized crime leaders in the community as long as the group had contributing connections to the political machine.

Other important duties included suppressing organized labor unions. At this point, Mexican-Americans had decided to create their own nationalistic labor unions in regard to their inferior economic status within the labor market (Escobar 1999). Tensions between the Mexican community and the LAPD started because the former group felt that police officials were engaging in brutal and harassing acts in suppressing their labor unions during the early late nineteenth and twentieth century.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, police continued protecting big businesses and ensuring that the Mexican workers were docile to this dominance by the local Capitalists.

In order to continue suppressing the labor unions and oppressing the workers, the LAPD created a special unit called the Intelligence Bureau, also known as, the Red Squad (Escobar 1999).

The Red Squad Unit was developed to specifically suppress and eliminate any dissident workers and labor union organizations. This would ensure complete control by the Capitalists of the Mexican workers in repressing their concerns for economic mobility and equality. The Red Squad Unit caused distrust, suspicion, and animosity among the Mexican community creating a foundation for an ongoing tension.

Furthermore, in the 1920’s, there was an economic boom in the city of Los Angeles and there was an influx of immigrants. For example, there were immigrants from northern and southern Europe; however, the predominant increase came from Mexicans escaping Mexico due to the nation’s unstable government and economy. In the late nineteenth century, “Large landholders and speculators were expropriating small farms and uprooting rural families. An 1883 land law allowed private land-development companies to receive up to one-third of any land they surveyed and subdivided” (Takaki 1993: 313). Unfortunately, about one-fifth of Mexico’s land had been taken over by these landholders (Takaki 1993: 313).

Beginning in 1910, a Mexican Revolution erupted because of these catastrophic conditions and injustices. The rural peasantry had been left without shelter, employment, and food causing tens of thousands of people to travel north to find safety and prosperity in the United States (Takaki 1993: 313). The revolution lasted more than a decade causing “warring factions” all over Mexico. The Mexican people who sought to leave Mexico did it because they feared for their lives. Many refugees traveled northward to places such as Los Angeles and El Paso. They were in search of better jobs, stability, and treatment. The influx of Mexicans expanded the Mexican population in Los Angeles by a large rate. Escobar (1999: 78) noted later that in 1920, there were 567,673 Mexicans living in Los Angeles and toward the end of the decade it had risen to 1,238,048 (Also see Findley 1958). Other Chicano scholars estimated that there were about 50,000 in 1920 and it increased to 190,000 by 1930 (Escobar 1999: 79). Considering the fact that the total population for Los Angeles was over 1,000,000 the large increase suggests that Mexicans were definitely visible within the city and were perceived as a threat by their Anglo counterparts including the Los Angeles Police Department.

Despite the economic boom, Mexican workers were not able to move up from blue-collar status to White collar as their Anglo counterparts (Romo 1983). As the Great Depression hit the city of Los Angeles in the 1930’s, Mexicans were facing extreme hardships, such as joblessness and homelessness (Kasun 1954). The California State Legislature passed various laws prohibiting business owners from hiring illegal alien workers. This placed additional hardships on Mexicans. Business owners began to replace Mexican workers with White workers, which led to several economic and social consequences for the Mexican community, as unemployment rates soared. In discussing unemployment rates, Mexicans represented 13.1% and African-Americans stood at 7.9% as compared to 7.7% among the rest of the city (Escobar 1999: 79). Popular methods of resolving the unemployment problem and expanding Mexican population were to utilize deportation and repatriation tactics.

As more and more Mexican immigrants crossed the border to Los Angeles, fear began to spread throughout the Anglo community. They feared that Mexican immigrants would weaken the fabric of society. Beginning in the 1930’s, criminology was emerging as a discipline and various scholars in the area were interested in linking race and criminality. Criminologists were not sure if Mexican criminality was biological or social, but the overly-sensationalized concerns developed the notion within the Anglo community and the LAPD that Mexicans were criminally inclined (Escobar 1999).

Due to this perception, LAPD officials had an excuse to use harsh and brutal tactics against the Mexican community. Police officials within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department also shared the same perceptions about Mexicans. Lieutenant Ed Ayres, who was head of the Foreign Relations Bureau of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, stated in a report, “Chicanos were Indians, Indians were Orientals, and Orientals had an utter disregard for life. Therefore, because Chicanos had this inborn characteristic, they too were violent” (Acun a 2000: 268). This Mexican racial theory of crime became a part of the mentality among the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and was used as a reason to treat Mexicans in an unjust and brutal manner for many years to come.

In the 1940’s two significant events occurred that helped solidify the uneasy tension between the Mexican community and the Los Angeles Police Department. In the morning of August 2, 1942 a young boy named Jose Diaz was found dying in a gravel pit called Sleepy Lagoon. He was immediately taken to the local hospital, but later died due to head trauma (Escobar 1999: 207). The night before, Henry Leyvas, a boy who lived in the vicinity of 38th street along with his girlfriend were at Sleepy Lagoon and had engaged in a fight with another group of Mexican boys from the Los Angeles suburb of Downey.

After the fight, Leyvas went back to his neighborhood to round up some of his friends in order to go back to Sleepy Lagoon and finish up what the Downey group had started. Coincidently, when the boys arrived the Downey group was gone and had left to crash a party at the Delgadillo home. The 38th Street boys decided to attend the party as well and had another scuffle with the Downey boys. After the scuffle, the 38th Street group left the party. It is assumed from the witnesses at the party that Jose Diaz, who was an invited guest at the Delgadillo home, had left the party during this time frame.

The police then decided to arrest mass amounts of young boys in the nearby vicinity of East 38th Street (Escobar 1999: 208; Acun a 2000). The press sensationalized the entire episode and labeled the boys from East 38th Street and Downey as Mexican boy gangs and their presumed behavior as a Mexican crime wave that was taking over the city of Los Angeles.

What exactly happened to Jose Diaz was never confirmed. Autopsy reports concluded various scenarios and stated that the injuries could have been caused by a hit and run accident or from self-inflicted injuries due to the fact that the boy had been drinking at the party. Police were infuriated and decided to arrest mass amounts of Mexican boys in the neighborhood on suspicion of burglary in order to force out a confession concerning Diaz’s death. Fifty-nine people were arrested for trumped up charges and police officers tried to coerce confessions from the youth concerning Diaz’s death (Escobar 1999: 209).

Overall, a total of six-hundred Mexican youth were arrested in the days following the death of Diaz (Escobar 1999). Intimidation and force was used to try and blame the death on a group of youth. Arrests were made, charges were brought against twenty-two boys through the use of a secret grand jury, and prosecutors were set on convicting the group for the death of Diaz. Later, the Second District Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision of guilt against the boys due to the racial bias that permeated throughout the trial (Acun a 2000: 271; Rosales 1996).

A year later, the zoot suits had become very popular amongst Mexican youth. The zoot suit style consisted of “baggy pants that fit very high on the waist, deep pleats, and extremely narrow cuffs. The coat had wide lapels and shoulder pads that resembled epaulets and was sometimes so long it reached the knees. Accessories to the zoot suit included a wide rimmed ‘pancake’ hat, long watch chains and thick soled shoes” (Escobar 1999: 178).

This type of attire was used in defiance of the Anglo establishment including authority figures, particularly police officials and their presumed oppression against the Mexican community. The zoot suiters developed their own sense of style and argot called Calo , which is a derivative of fifteenth-century Iberian gypsy dialect (Escobar 1999: 178). Not only was this argot in defiance to the white community but also to their families and other elders. In addition, some zoot suiters became a part of the pachuco subculture, which was primarily a criminal gang. However, most of the zoot suiters were young youths portraying their symbolic rebellion toward the Anglo community and the overall U.S. mainstream culture, but they were not part of the criminal element of the pachuco subculture.

Due to the mass hysteria caused by the sensationalized newspaper accounts insisting that there was a Mexican crime wave occurring throughout the city many people became fearful and angered toward the zoot suiter culture. A fight broke out on Sunday May 30, 1943 between a group of zoot suiters and eleven naval sailors. The cause of the fight was not clearly ascertained. However, witnesses stated that the sailors had been dating girls who were dating the group of zoot suiters (Escobar 1999). Fourteen off-duty Los Angeles Police officers started beating up a number of Mexican-American youth in the neighborhoods (Escobar 1999: 235).

Within days after the fight on May 30, 1943 a score of naval servicemen who were stationed in Los Angeles during World War II went to the Mexican neighborhoods in search of zoot suiters. The servicemen engaged in countless fights against the youth – pummeling them, stripping them of their zoot suits, and beating them to a bloody pulp while the LAPD stood and watched (Escobar 1999; Acun a 2000; Lopez 2003). Mexican youth who were out in the neighborhood were beaten in front of their friends. Those attending dances or the movies were pulled outside by servicemen and were beat up.

In fact, officers arrested the zoot suiters for disturbing the peace. A handful of servicemen were arrested for the riots that took place in the neighborhoods. If they were arrested, it occurred once the servicemen arrived back at their naval bases, but once arrested they were quickly released without any charges filed against them (Lopez 2003).

In essence, these zoot suits riots demonstrated the deteriorating relations between the Mexican-American community and the Los Angeles Police Department. Both parties felt distrust, suspicion, and animosity toward the other. These incidents as well as future ones declared and defined the relations between the two in the city of Los Angeles. In the 1960’s, Mexican-American youth are once again overcome with a sense of awareness and take it a step further by becoming politically and socially active in changing the plight of Mexicans in the community and throughout the Southwest.

The relationship between the Mexican community and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) provides an understanding of why the Brown Beret organization  was protesting against police brutality and harassment in their neighborhoods. Many Brown Beret members had experienced police brutality and harassment and understood that this had been occurring since the establishment of the department. The Brown Berets were all too familiar with the brutal approach of police officials and the group demanded a change. The next section will provide explanations for the emergence of the Brown Berets.

Source: https://third-world-news.blogspot.com/2010/10/chicano-nationalism-brown-berets-and.html