In June 1943, Los Angeles erupted into the worse race riots in the city to date.
For ten straight nights, American sailors armed with make-shift weapons cruised
Mexican American neighborhoods in search of "zoot-suiters" -- hip, young Mexican
teens dressed in baggy pants and long-tailed coats. The military men dragged kids --
some as young as twelve years old -- out of movie theaters and diners, bars and cafes,
tearing the clothes off the young men's bodies and viciously beating them. Mexican
youths aggressively struck back. The fighting intensified and on the worst night,
taxi drivers offered free rides to the riot area. One LA paper even printed a guide
on how to "de-zoot" a zoot-suiter. When the violence ended, scores of Mexicans and
servicemen were in hospital beds.
Zoot Suit Riots is a powerful film that explores the complicated racial
tensions and the changing social and political landscape that led up to the explosion
on LA's streets in the summer of 1943. To understand what happened during those
terrifying June nights, the film describes changes in the city's population -- the
influx of new immigrants, the booming war-time economy, the huge number of service
men on their way to the Pacific theater and a new generation of Mexican Americans
who were more conspicuous, more affluent and more self-confident than their parents
had ever dared to be.
Decked out in wide brim hats, baggy pants, high boots and long-tailed coats, these
"zoot-suiters" called each other "mad cats." They were "Terrific as the Pacific" and
"Frantic as the Atlantic." Crossing cultural lines and pushing the boundaries of race
and class, they were trying to define for themselves what it meant to be an American
in 1942 Los Angeles. Even though there was no evidence to connect "zoot-suiters" to
crime, the kids' posturing and self-assurance made Anglos nervous. Many Mexican American
parents even agreed that something was wrong with their young people.
At the heart of this story lies an unsolved murder. On August 1, 1942, a 22-year-old
Mexican American man was stabbed to death at a party. To white Los Angelenos, the murder
was just more proof that Mexican American crime was spiraling out of control. The police
fanned out across LA, netting 600 young Mexican American suspects. Almost all those taken
into custody were wearing the distinctive uniform of their generation: zoot-suits. The
tragic murder and the injustice of the trial that followed, coupled with sensational news
coverage of both, fanned the flames of the racial hostility that was already running rife
in the city. Within months of the verdict, Los Angeles was in the grip of some of the
worst violence in its history.
With stunning film noir style recreations of Los Angeles in the 1940s and with eloquent
first-hand accounts from key participants -- sailors and the white citizens who supported
them, suit-zooters and their families -- the program deftly conjures up the flamboyant
world of a Mexican American subculture, the bigotry and hatred of much of the white
establishment, and the dedication of a few liberals who pressed for justice in the face of
In exploring the shocking outpouring of hatred and resentment in wartime Los Angeles,
this film teaches us about race relations in the United States today.