Caught in a Zoot Suit Riot

Jun 16, 2014
Library of Congress

A scene from the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles, June 1943. (Library of Congress.)

June 10, 1943. An overcast and unseasonably cold evening in Pasadena. The time: World War II. The place: a street corner at the intersection of Colorado Boulevard and Raymond Avenue.

It was the middle of the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles, and on this particular night, two African-American teenagers with a fondness for flamboyant clothing found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As the youths were making their way home through Old Town, several truck loads of soldiers were on their way to a dance at a local church in Pasadena. When the convoy passed Colorado heading north on Raymond, they noticed the teenagers’ wide-legged, tight-cuffed trousers and long coats, which had inadvertently become the symbol of a racial flashpoint in the city. Someone on the sidewalk hailed the soldiers, pointed to the two teenagers and yelled “there go the zoot-suiters!”

“Within an instant the trucks were unloaded and the chase was on,” reported the Pasadena Star-News.

Between 150 and 200 soldiers jumped out of the trucks and began a mad chase after the teens, one of whom was in junior high school. Fearing for their lives, the pair dashed north on Raymond Avenue to Memorial Park, then to a nearby police station. When they entered the police station, several soldiers followed. Only when two military police officers drew their service weapons did the soldiers give up. “Break this up now, boys, or there will be real trouble,” one of the officers allegedly warned.

Momentarily discouraged, the mob of servicemen left the police station and began roving through Old Town, searching for more zoot suit-wearers. Eventually they came upon Robert Martinez, a 33-year-old Latino man, at corner of Fair Oaks and Mary Street, near the present-day location of the Parsons Corporation.

Approaching him, they began asking him his opinions on zoot-suiters. Unsatisfied with his response, the soldiers attacked him, breaking his jaw and sending him to the Pasadena Emergency Hospital. According to newspaper accounts, the group then marched on to DeLacey Street.

Zoot Location

The present-day intersection where Pasadena’s zoot suit riot began. (Photo by Zenia Pollard.)

Meanwhile, word had been sent to the Pasadena Police Department and local military police about the riot. “Every police car in the city rushed to the scene and all off-duty policemen were summoned from their homes,” wrote the Star-News.

As the mob reached the corner of DeLacey and Union, they were surrounded by five trucks of military police and ten Pasadena Police cars. An army officer arrived on the scene and ordered the men back into their vehicles. “There will be no dance tonight,” he said. Finally giving up, the mob got back into their trucks and returned to their base.

Though it wouldn’t become known until the next day, a similar scenario had been narrowly avoided the same evening in San Gabriel, when twelve carloads of soldiers had descended upon the city, searching every cafe they came across for zoot-suiters.

The following day in Monrovia, another riot broke out. Eight zoot-suiters were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. Two were fined $25 each and sentenced to 30 days in the county jail. No soldiers were arrested in the incident.

The worst violence, however, occurred in downtown L.A., a few days prior, where roving gangs of soldiers hired cabs to take them around the city and searched movie theaters, restaurants, and concert halls, for anyone wearing a zoot suit, often stripping the victims of their clothing and beating them. The racial overtones were not subtle: the servicemen were mostly white; their victims predominantly black and Latino.

Reactions to the riots were varied. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt released a statement in which she spoke of “long-standing discrimination” against Mexican-Americans, prompting the right-wing L.A. Times to label her a Communist.

Black novelist Chester Himes, famous later for his Harlem Detective novels, angrily took to NAACP magazine The Crisis and wrote: “I suppose you have been reading about the birth of the storm troopers in Los Angeles, the reincarnation, or rather I should say, the continuation of the vigilantes, the uniformed Klansmen; and all about the great battle which took place on Main street and points east […] The outcome is simply that the South has won Los Angeles.”

The day following Pasadena’s zoot suit incident, Maj. General Maxwell Murray, commander of the Southern California sector of the Western Defense Command issued a statement: “Any such personnel found guilty of riotous conduct will be adequately punished by military court.”

Sporadic incidents continued to occur in Pasadena and neighboring districts in the days following. On June 13, Merrill Myers, a 47-year-old café proprietor on North Fair Oaks Avenue was stabbed and a 16-year-old zoot-suiter was arrested and blamed in the incident. It also came out in the Pasadena Post that on June 5, a 20-year-old Pasadenan had been “forcibly deprived of his trousers, and thrown into a passing garbage truck” by “a bunch of sailors.”

By June 20th, 1943, violence in the city had mostly ceased.

Coincidentally, 63 years later, Henry Ynostroza, who had been wrongfully convicted in the “Sleepy Lagoon” murder case that had touched off the riots, passed away in a Pasadena convalescent home.



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