originally published June 15, 2014
One seldom looks very deeply into the lyrics of a modern swing-dance revival song. When Colin James and his Little Big Band sang about a Cadillac Baby, he was singing about a woman, one who enjoyed a particular Cadillac automobile. When Lou Bega prattled off his laundry list of desirable women in “Mambo #5”, he was simply expressing his identity as a man-slut. But beneath the boppy jump-blues veneer of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “Zoot Suit Riot” is something surprisingly dark and sinister.
The ‘riot’ in question is not merely an alternate wording for a party featuring a bunch of guys in outdated jazz-wear. The song refers to an actual string of riots in the early 1940’s, which began in the embers of the era’s prevalent racism, before rising into an inferno of violence. This is an ugly chapter in American history, from an age before Civil Rights was on the tip of anyone’s brains, and when patriotism could drive people to do heinously ugly things.
It all begins with the zoot suit: high-waisted, tight-cuffed pegged pants and a long jacket with boisterous shoulders and splashy lapels. The outfits were fun and jazzy, originating in inter-war black culture and eventually becoming a staple of the southern Californian Latino community. Then the style became illegal – that’s where the ugliness begins.
The 1930s was a time of heavy anti-Mexicanism in the southwestern United States. Despite the deportation of 12,000 Mexicans (many of whom turned out to be American citizens) from the Los Angeles area in the early part of the decade, there were still roughly three million Mexicans in the country, many without legal status. L.A. was the hub of immigrants from the Land of the Hot Sun, and by the end of the decade the tension between whites and Latinos was beginning to boil over.
In 1942 the media was spewing dollops of attention on the Sleepy Lagoon murder case, in which members of the 38th Street Gang (a largely Hispanic gang that still exists today) were accused of having murdered a man named José Diaz in an abandoned quarry pit. The story helped to fuel perceptions of savage and dangerous behavior by Mexican youths. They were dubbed ‘Chicanos’, and their music and youth culture was positioned as a threat to good ol’ white-bread American values. Their style of dress – zoot suits with porkpie hats and long, swinging key chains – was also emblematic of their perpetual delinquency. It was easy for the masses to turn on a group when the press kept portraying them as a bunch of pachuco gangsters.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and cordially invited the United States to take a seat at the table for World War II, rationing became a part of everyday life. The War Production Board targeted the manufacturing of suits or anything containing wool. Strict guidelines were put in place, and zoot suits, with their long flappy coats and superfluous adornments were forbidden. Tailors couldn’t make those suits for the public anymore, which led to a strange black market for zoot suits among the L.A. and New York tailors who didn’t care. Now the zoot-suiters weren’t just suggesting a deviant lifestyle of crime and immorality, they were snubbing the need to ration for the war effort.
Snubbing the war effort in Los Angeles, where a massive concentration of troops were stationed, awaiting deployment to the south-Pacific battlefronts, was a bad idea. The Sleepy Lagoon case already had the drums of racial tension pounding and pulsating, but when sailors and servicemen came across Latino men – healthy, young men who had not stepped up to serve the country in which they were treading – wearing suits that spit in the face of rationing, those drums went into full Neil-Peart mode. It was only a matter of time before the streets got a little bloody.
On May 30, 1943, a dozen sailors were strolling down Main Street in downtown L.A. when they spotted a group of Mexican girls on the other side of the street. They headed over to harass them (in that sexy way that sailors do, I guess), but Seaman Second Class Joe Darcy Coleman and his buddy weren’t interested. They came across a group of zoot-suited young men and while the verifiable origins of the violence are undoubtedly open to subjective interpretation, the end result was a street brawl that left Coleman unconscious on the sidewalk, his jaw broken in two places.
Four days later another gaggle of eleven sailors were on the same street when they came across some young Mexicans in zoot suits. The sailors claim they were jumped, but again – history is written by the majority. All we can know for certain is that things got violent, and the next day saw about 200 members of the US Navy headed for East Los Angeles, armed with clubs. Whether they were looking for revenge or simply to exact their perception of justice upon the young Latinos who happened to find funk and style in zoot suits, I cannot say for certain.
Those 200 sailors reached their destination, then started walking down the road, clubbing anyone wearing an offensive suit of excessive zoot. Many of their victims were 12 and 13-year-old boys, forging their first experiments into feeling cool. Any adults who stepped in to stop the sailors were similarly thwacked. Many of the beaten boys were stripped to their underwear, with their suits tossed into a large bonfire.
Over the next few days, the violence increased. Where once there were hundreds of angry white servicemen now there were thousands. They’d pick a street, line up shoulder to shoulder, and start walking. Any Latino males they saw – and it’s a safe bet that their rage was not solely directed at Latinos in zoot suits now – were assaulted. African-Americans also sported zoot suits at the time, and they too were caught up in some of the violence, but the focus was on the Mexican population. In one instance, a pair of zoot-suiters were spotted in a movie theatre, dragged up to the stage in front of the screen, stripped down and beaten while their assailants urinated on their crumpled suits.
The police were present, accompanying the servicemen but under strict orders not to arrest any of them. Instead they rounded up the Latinos, charging more than 500 of them with anything from vagrancy to rioting. The angry mobs would pop into clubs and movie theaters, insisting the house lights be turned up so that they could stalk anyone with offensive clothing. Local press sided with the mob, claiming the assaults were ridding Los Angeles of “miscreants” and “hoodlums”. Finally the Navy and Marine Corps stepped in and confined all servicemen to barracks, closing off the streets of L.A. to those on active duty.
The riots spread across the country, first to Arizona and Texas then up to Detroit and New York. Two members of Gene Krupa’s dance band were beaten in Philadelphia because they were wearing the band’s official zoot suit stage costumes. Then Detroit cranked up the volume by surpassing the clothing-related violence with the most massive race riots in the city’s history in late June.
Eleanor Roosevelt condemned the riots, and the Los Angeles Times responded with an editorial that accused the First Lady of having communist leanings. Seriously? Eleanor Roosevelt? I guess that explains their slogan: “The L.A. Times – sticking our editorial dick in the truth for more than a century.”
The tensions eventually settled down, but the effects of the Zoot Suit Riots inspired future activism – a young Cesar Chavez and a young Malcolm X were both zoot-suiters at the time. That’s a pretty dark and heavy glob of history for such a peppy and danceable swing tune.