Latino Studies Zoot Suit Riot
Eduardo Obregón Pagán
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0026


As night fell on Los Angeles on 3 June 1943, military men and civilians launched coordinated assaults on zoot-suited youth in the city’s streets in response to an escalating series of street-level challenges to white privilege. The riot effectively ended by Tuesday morning, 8 June 1943, when senior military officials, fearful of the negative publicity in the newspapers, declared Los Angeles out of bounds to all navy, marine, coast guard, and army personnel. In the end, an estimated ninety-four civilians and eighteen servicemen were treated for serious injuries from the riot. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) arrested all ninety-four of the civilians and only two of the servicemen. The Zoot Suit riot was unique among the riots that raged throughout the United States in 1943. Unlike the race riot in Detroit later that month, there were no murders, rapes, deaths, or serious damage to property reported in Los Angeles during the Zoot Suit riot. Instead, military men focused their rampage on finding youth wearing the so-called zoot suit (a fashion popularized by touring jazz bands), stripping them of their clothing, and then destroying the outfit.

General Overviews and Related Articles

California Legislature 1945, published by the state legislature’s Committee on Un-American Activities in California, reflects the formal position of elected officials: that the violence was not racially motivated but was instead the result of pro-fascist operatives who provoked social discord among civilian youth. The novelist Chester Himes challenged such official denials in Himes 1943. The Hollywood screenwriter Guy Endore fundamentally shifted the focus in Endore 1944, by accusing the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst of using his Los Angeles newspapers to promote “anti-Mexican hysteria.” This interpretation substantially influenced nearly all subsequent works. McWilliams 1949 expands on Endore’s thesis, claiming that Hearst sympathized with Adolf Hitler and that city police and military officials colluded with Hearst to foment racial hatred against Mexican Americans. Acuña 2011 modifies the Endore thesis in dropping the accusation that Hearst was behind the violence and carrying forward the thesis that all of Mexican American history (which includes the Zoot Suit riot) is a long sequence of anti-Mexican hysteria. Mazón 1984 adds psychoanalytic theory to explain why sailors experienced mass hysteria against Mexican Americans. Both Sánchez 1993 and Escobar 1999 continue the anti-Mexican thesis but strive to place the riot within a larger social and political context. Sánchez explores the process of cultural appropriation and invention, whereas Escobar places the riot within the historical context of the Los Angeles Police Department’s harsh treatment of Mexican Americans. Pagán 2003 rejects the anti-Mexican hysteria thesis as the sole explanation for social tensions and argues that the Zoot Suit riot, as well as the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, instead derived from competing social tensions that grew out of demographic pressures, city planning, and a street-level insurgency against white privilege.

  • Acuña, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. 7th ed. Boston: Longman, 2011.

    The first overview of Mexican American history from a Chicano nationalist perspective, originally published in 1972, which utilizes the anti-Mexican thesis to interpret Mexican American history (including the Zoot Suit riot) and to explain how white Americans came to dominate land that once belonged to Mexico. Devotes a chapter to the riot.

  • California Legislature. “‘Zoot-Suit’ Riots in Southern California.” In Second Report: Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California. By California Legislature. Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1945.

    The Un-American Activities Committee launched its own investigation into the cause of the riot to discover whether “fifth-column” fascist sympathizers were behind the escalating series of street conflicts between Mexican American youth and military men. They also probed the connections that the Communist Party USA had with the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee.

  • Endore, Guy. The Sleepy Lagoon Mystery. Los Angeles: Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, 1944.

    This 1944 booklet, written by a well-known Hollywood screenwriter and progressive activist, provided an enduring interpretation of why military men attacked zoot-suited youth. Endore alleged that the jury and military men were being controlled by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who held a personal grudge against Mexican Americans. Reprinted as recently as 1980.

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

    Devotes several chapters to the riot and argues that sweeping political reforms in reaction to the rampant vice of the 1920s and 1930s led to the creation of stringent police policies that affected the minority neighborhoods of Los Angeles with special harshness. The crackdown on criminalized social practices led to the perception that minority youth of the 1940s were out of control, and military men responded in attacking so-called zoot suiters.

  • Himes, Chester B. “Zoot Riots Are Race Riots.” Crisis 50.7 (July 1943): 200–201.

    Himes rejected the official declarations of city officials that the Zoot Suit riot was not the result of prejudice against Mexican Americans, and sought to describe clear examples of racial animosity directed toward Mexican American youth that he witnessed in the weeks leading up to the riot.

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

    Uses psychoanalytic theory to explore why sailors experienced anti-Mexican hysteria in rioting against zoot-suited youth, and argues that they were enacting rituals of erasure against civilian youth that they themselves had been subjected to in being inducted into the military.

  • McWilliams, Carey. North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1949.

    In this comprehensive survey of Mexican American history, McWilliams argues, in his chapter devoted to the Zoot Suit riot, that publisher William Randolph Hearst used his sensationalistic Los Angeles newspapers to turn public opinion against Mexican Americans because of his fascist sympathies, and that key city officials, including the Los Angeles Police Department, colluded with his plan to rid the city of Mexican American youth gangs. New edition, updated by Matt S. Meier, published in 1990 (New York: Greenwood).

  • Pagán, Eduardo Obregón. Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

    Provides a comprehensive study of the riot. Arguing against the anti-Mexican thesis as the sole cause of the Zoot Suit riot, Pagán explores how a number of social tensions prior to and during the war, such as demographic pressures, city planning, and a growing street-level revolt against white privilege, culminated in the Zoot Suit riot.

  • Sánchez, George J. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    Arguing against earlier scholarship that saw resistance as the main theme for Mexican American history, Sánchez documents a complex process of social and cultural assimilation for Mexican immigrants and argues that they both resisted and accommodated American culture. Devotes a chapter to the riot, drawing on the anti-Mexican thesis.

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