California History: A Topical Approach

By Gordon Morris Bakken | Go to book overview

CHAPTER NINE
The Los Angeles Zoot-Suit
Riots: Latin America
Responds*

Ricardo Griswold del Castillo

In June of 1943, hundreds of United States servicemen went on a two-week rampage in Los Angeles, California, attacking scores of Mexican American youths clothed in the “Zoot-Suit” style. These civil disturbances were significant in a number of ways: the incidents constituted one of the largest riots involving Mexican Americans up to that time; the violent acts made Latin Americans aware, many for the first time, of the plight of Mexicans in the United States; and they proved a dramatic watershed in the cultural history of Chicanos, marking the political emergence of a large United States–born population of Mexican descent—one no longer willing to tolerate stereotyping and violence by their fellow Americans. In California history, this episode has been interpreted by Chicano historians as one in a long series of anti-Mexican reactions motivated by wartime frustrations and racism. In this case, however, the local news media and police, as well as city, state, and federal government officials, were responsible for fostering an anti-Mexican atmosphere and fueling the violence.1

But while there have been numerous studies of the implications of the Zoot-Suit riots in California and United States history, few scholars have considered the international significance of this event.2 Nevertheless, there is a considerable body of information bearing on this topic, one that until recently has been fully exploited by historians. Thanks to files in the archives of the Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores in Mexico City, it is possible to examine in detail the Mexican government's response to this affair. Also available are voluminous files from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of State dealing with the suspected involvement of foreign agents in the riots, and providing an in-depth analysis of the social and political situation surrounding the Mexican colony in Los Angeles. Finally, there are the little-known or analyzed responses of the Latin American press—during and after the riots—as well as the commen-

*Parts of this essay originally appeared in Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, Vol. 16,
No. 2. © 2000 by The Regents of the University of California. Reprinted by permission of
the University of California Press.

-173-

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