If you follow the Barrio Boychick page on Facebook, you may have seen a number of posts there this week commemorating the 77th anniversary of the so-called Zoot Suit Riots.
For several consecutive nights in early June of 1943, a series of violent clashes on the streets of Los Angeles pitted white enlisted servicemen in uniform – mostly marines and sailors – against young men wearing the stylish, oversized garment of the swing era – mostly Mexican-Americans.
On the first night of the “riots”, on Thursday, June 3, 1943, about a dozen soldiers got off a bus in downtown L.A. and picked a fight with a group of Mexican-Americans outside a movie house on Main Street, in what is now Chinatown. The soldiers essentially got their behinds whipped, and complained to the cops that they were jumped by a Mexican gang.
On the following night, a Friday, Los Angeles was filled with hundreds of enlisted men on shore leave. According to news reports, hundreds of them seeking revenge took a convoy of taxis across the Los Angeles river to East Los Angeles, where they were sure to find plenty of Mexicans.
Many of them ended at a dance hall in Boyle Heights, where dozens of young men who were out for a night in their best outfits were beaten with clubs and stripped of their clothing – the zoot suits burning in piles.
It was in front of Pentrolli’s Ballroom – or what’s left of it – that Barrio Boychick recorded his second of a series of Facebook Live posts about the riots’ anniversary. Dressed in full Zoot Suit gear – and looking quite stylish – the Boyle Heights historian reconstructed the events of that night 77 years ago this week, on the southwest corner of First and State streets in Boyle Heights.
After watching that post, I had to call Barrio Boychick – aka Shmuel Gonzales, of the Boyle Heights History Studios and Tours – and ask him about Pentrolli’s.
“It was from the 1920s,” he told me over the phone. “One of the first regular dance spots on First Street, created by Italians in the Eastside, when there was a large italian community here.”
On a building still standing on that neighborhood corner, the two-story dance hall was popular with servicemen and women during the War. Ironically, he said, it was a favorite “for local people who wanted to have a final night out before they were deployed. When it became the first target of the riots, some of the Mexican Americans dragged out were actually people who had signed up for the war.”
Pentrolli’s and Boyle Heights were as far East as the marauding servicemen would ever get.
“Sailors tried to move on to other parts of East LA, but were repelled by local resistance,” Gonzales told me. “Patrolling, keeping mobs of soldiers from going to the very heart of East LA. The furthest a sailor got was First and Evergreen, the end of the Pacific Car, got his [butt] kicked.
Still, assaults on young men wearing zoot suits continued over the next few days in various parts of the city, with thousands of servicemen and civilians joining the attacks. Police, under instructions of not arresting the assailants, accompanied the servicemen and sometimes joined in the riots. According to some reports, about 150 people were injured and some 500 Mexican-Americans were arrested and charged with “rioting” and “vagrancy.”
“One of the horrible things about the Zoot Suit riots,” Gonzales said, “it very much was instigated, not so much by sailors, but by police… and largely instigated by the media. Newspapers are selling a lot of newspapers dramatizing this. Showing heaps of people bleeding at the Olympic Theater, actions praised by papers.
I told him of a Twitter post by LA Times journalist Fidel Martínez over the weekend, showing a typically inflammatory front-page headline in his paper’s June 7, 1943 edition:
Gonzales shot back a PDF of his “Zoot Suit” tour presentation, with several other, equally instigating headlines.
“And they’re not just covering the riots,” he said. “What they’re doing is giving instructions as to where the riots are going to happen so that others can join in.”
While the young Anglo men ostensibly attacked the brown-skinned zoot suiters because their outfits were seen as unpatriotic and counter to the war effort – the outfits used an excessive amount of fabric at a time when rationing was required – the underlying force behind the clashes was institutionalized racism.
The “Zoot Suit Riots” in Los Angeles were one of a dozen racially-related clashes that took place across the United States in the summer of 1943, as the country appeared to be fighting on the losing side of World War II.
In L.A., the racist sentiment was fanned by sensationalist media coverage of the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, in which 12 young Mexican American men were wrongfully charged and convicted for the killing a rival gangmember in August of 1942 at a popular watering hole in what is now the City of Bell. The trial is at the center of the Luis Valdez musical (and later movie) Zoot Suit, for which the riots are the background.
That the 77th anniversary of the Zoot Suit riots happened as thousands of people across the country were taking to the streets in outrage over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police – and when young Latino residents of Boyle Heights and throughout the city were marching in support of the Black Lives Matter movement – was not lost on Barrio Boychick.
“One of the things that we need to understand,” the historian told me, “about this era of Jim Crow segregation: Los Angeles is a new, modern city being created. LA is known in the 40s as one the whitest cities in America, kind of a blank spot on the map where people are coming [to settle in’, disregarding the Mexican heritage ingrained in the area.”
In later posts on the Barrio Boychick page, Gonzales posted about the African American influence on Mexican Americans and their love for the Zoot Suit. Not unlike today, some of the biggest stars in pop music of the era were black.
“In this era, we don’t have any more rights than blacks,” he pressed on. Young Mexican-Americans coming of age after the depression, as they are able to make money, they want to be part of the nightlife they see in movies. Cab Calloway, the Hollywood Bowl, Paramount Films, jazz, swing…
“Young Mexican Americans are not trying to revolt against American society. These are people that are trying to assimilate, wanting to be out there in society. That’s really the problem, Mexican Americans venturing outside of the barrio, they want to go to downtown LA, to the Orpheum, where they are told they have to stay in the colored seating, the upper center balcony.”
In other words, some things have not really changed in 77 years.
“As we’re reviewing Black Lives Matter,” he said, “it’s important to recognize that black and Mexican-American people have been in the same boat for a long time, fighting racism.”