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Social Science History 24.1 (2000) 223-256

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Los Angeles Geopolitics and the Zoot Suit Riot, 1943 * - [PDF]

Eduardo Obregón Pagán


Reality happens to be, like a landscape, possessed of an infinite number of perspectives, all equally veracious and authentic. The sole false perspective is that which claims to be the only one there is.

—José Ortega y Gasset

In the early evening of 3 June 1943, just as the sun set over a city darkened by a blackout, about 50 sailors stationed at the Naval Reserve Training School in Los Angeles stormed through the mostly Mexican American neighborhoods that lay between the school and downtown L.A. Their actions that night, which consisted mostly of stripping zoot suits off young civilian men, set off more than a week of rioting as thousands of military personnel poured into Los Angeles from the surrounding bases and attacked anyone wearing zoot [End Page 223] suits. The Los Angeles Police Department did nothing to stop the rioting servicemen, claiming that they lacked jurisdictional authority, and instead jailed hundreds of young men (mostly Mexican American but also black and white) “for their own protection.” It was not until the Army and Navy commanders in southern California took seriously the difference between “revelry” and riot and canceled military leave that the rioting stopped.

Both white and Mexican American activists were quick to denounce the “zoot suit riot” as a race riot and blame the Los Angeles newspapers—primarily the Hearst press—for whipping up anti-Mexican attitudes before the riot.1 The vast majority of scholarship since that time has followed suit in describing the Zoot Suit Riot as a pogrom against the Mexican American community and attributing the riot to negative reporting, anti-Mexicanism, or wartime anxieties.2 While such interpretations address important dynamics of the period leading up to the riot, they nonetheless fall short in a number of critical areas as adequate causal explanations for why the riot occurred at all. Citing “the press” as the instigator of racism assumes that riot is the direct and uncomplicated outcome of negative reporting. This interpretive position also fails to establish why a relatively mobile population of men in the military with little investment in Los Angeles rioted, instead of local residents. Mexican Americans furthermore exist in the retelling of these events as victims without historical agency, and sailors equally exist as little more than the unwitting henchmen of William Randolph Hearst.

My purpose here is to uncover a more complicated social dialectic before the riot by first exploring the demographic composition of the neighborhoods directly targeted during the first night of the riot and then by asking how the geopolitical lay of Los Angeles played a critical role in the escalating tensions between the local youth and the sailors. I argue that city planners first complicated the social geography of these low-income, mostly Mexican American neighborhoods in erecting a million-dollar training school for the all-white Navy there. Not only did this make all the more obvious the wages of racialized privilege, it also exposed the families in this area to the widespread problem of controlling the often uncivil behavior of military men on leave. Although many white Angelenos complained bitterly about the unruly and sometimes destructive behavior of military men, they nonetheless endured these affronts in the name of patriotic duty and supporting “our boys.” Conflicts between servicemen and civilians, however, became qualitatively different [End Page 224] encounters when racial differences became part of the mix. The residents of these historically Mexican neighborhoods, where the majority of conflicts occurred, responded aggressively to white military men who transgressed the physical and social spaces of their community.

The fight waged by these predominantly Mexican American youth to enforce their sense of place earned them little sympathy and few allies outside of their neighborhoods. The public at large viewed these acts of resistance through the lens of juvenile delinquency and subversion, and many civilians cheered on rioting sailors who not only acted to reassert the authority of the state in...