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The Zoot Suit Riots occurred in Los Angeles between June 3rd and June 13th, 1943. They are a remarkable event in that they defy simple classification. They were not about zoot-suiters rioting, and they were not, in any conventional sense of the word, "riots." No one was killed. No one sustained massive injuries. Property damage was slight. No major or minor judicial decisions stemmed from the riots. There was no pattern to arrests. Convictions were few and highly discretionary. There were no political manifestos or heros originating from the riots, although later on the riots would assume political significance for a different generation. What the riots lack in hard incriminating evidence, they make up for in a plethora of emotions, fantasies, and symbols.

-- Mauricio Mazón, The zoot-suit riots: the psychology of symbolic annihilation

The events that culminated in the zoot-suit riots of 1943 cannot be traced to only one or two sources. A close examination of the social and political climate of Los Angeles in the early 1940’s reveals that a combination of factors was responsible for the riots. All these factors, however, reflect the city’s attitude toward minorities in general and, more specifically, the Mexican-American population of Los Angeles.

Fully expecting a sea attack from Japan after Pearl Harbor, military and civilian authorities in Los Angeles took a hard look at the activities of all minorities in the city. First, all Japanese were moved inland, away from the shoreline. This fear of subversive activities among the Japanese was extended to all minorities by a series of books that were widely read and discussed by people in Los Angeles in 1943. The paranoia generated by books such as Martin Dies’s The Trojan Horse in America (1940) and Harold Lavine’s Fifth Column in America (1940) led to the creation by the California State legislature of a joint senate-assembly committee to investigate communist, fascist, Nazi, and other foreign-dominated groups. The Mexican-American community became one of the objects of this growing fear of foreigners in 1942, when the Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California launched an investigation of the Sinarquistas, an anti-Communist society that had tried to influence politics in Mexico and was charged with perpetrating subversive activities in the barrios of Los Angeles. The hearings of this committee, which continued from 1940 until 1945, contributed to the city’s xenophobic response to the Mexican-American community during the entire decade.

-- Zoot Suit Riots

Photos via UCLA Photo Archives

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