Trying to explain the Zoot Suit Riots, an ugly episode in Los Angeles race relations history, to anyone outside California, even to other Latinos, can be a difficult undertaking.
So I always tell them that it’s what gave us Edward James Olmos.
In 1977, Olmos accompanied a friend to the open auditions for a new play with no intention of trying out himself – and, in a casting discovery fairy tale that could only happen in Hollywood, he wound up getting the lead role.
The play was “Zoot Suit,” for which Olmos eventually won a Tony award on Broadway and saw his career explode from being a struggling musician and bit actor to becoming the dean of Latino actors he is today.
“I owe my big break to ‘Zoot Suit,’” he told me in one interview. “Some good can come from tragedy.”
And the Zoot Suit Riots, which some have called “the worst mob violence in Los Angeles history,” are among the most tragic in local Latino memory.
70th anniversary of Zoot Suit Riots tragedy
This week Latinos in Southern California are commemorating the 70th anniversary of that violence in 1943, when U.S. sailors went on a rampage attacking Mexican American young men, ripping off their baggy suits, urinating on them and beating them with whips and clubs.
Then their clothing was ritualistically burned. The Los Angeles Police Department turned a blind eye to the violence and began indiscriminately arresting hundreds of young Latinos.
While there were estimated to have been about 150 people seriously injured in the Zoot Suit Riots, there were no deaths.
The violence began on June 3 and reached its height on June 7 when the Los Angeles Herald Express published a guide on how to “de-zoot” a zoot suiter:
“Grab a zooter. Take off his pants and frock coat and tear them up or burn them.”
That evening some 5,000 sailors, soldiers, marines and civilians took part in the worst of the rioting.
The attacks began slowing the next day when senior military officials declared Los Angeles off limits to their personnel. The next day the Los Angeles City Council adopted a resolution banning the wearing of zoot suits on public streets, punishable by a 30-day jail term.
The cause for the riots continues to be debated to this day.
Were the sailors hell-bent on attacking Hispanic youths because they were Latinos? Were they lashing out against the exaggerated Zoot Suit style using excessive cloth material during a time of World War II shortages?
Had the sensationalist Hearst newspaper The Los Angeles Herald Express created the anti-Zoot Suit sentiment with stories erroneously reporting that pachuco-styled Latino youths were a marijuana-smoking hoodlum menace?
The Zoot Suiters also came to be confused with and wrongly intertwined with what came to be known as the Sleepy Lagoon Murder case and the trial of 17 Latino suspects in the case that came to be prosecuted with unusual zeal.
“I still get kind of choked up talking about it,” says Mike Silvas, the nephew of the late Ysmael ‘Smiles’ Parra, one defendants convicted in the case.
Twelve of 17 defendants in the case won their appeal when a court ruled that the prosecution failed to allow the defendants to consult with their attorneys and that the prosecution failed to link any of the 17 men and boys with the murder.
“He was very bitter about what happened,” Silvas says of his uncle. “It’s hard to believe it was real.”
Watch this video on the history of the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943: