By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo
Ruby Woo brought her customized 1948 Chevy Fleetline to take part in the 80th-anniversary memorial cruise on Saturday, remembering the Zoot Suit Riots.
Her fully restored vintage car was one of an estimated 200 to drive across the Sixth Street Bridge and into Little Tokyo, where the music, fashion, and pachuco lore became reminders of a dark period in Los Angeles’ history.
The Zoot Suit Riots was the name given to an epic five-day clash between American servicemen stationed in Southern California and zoot suit-wearing youths. The series of incidents, according to news reports, started in Chinatown and wound through Downtown L.A. from June 3-8, 1943.
At the time, L.A. was one of a dozen industrial cities plagued by race-related incidents along with Mobile, Ala.; Beaumont, Texas; Detroit, Mich.; and New York City.
On May 16, the County Board of Supervisors formally condemned the Zoot Suit Riots as one of the “most shameful moments” in history. The board unanimously approved a motion by Supervisor Hilda Solis to denounce “the devastation of the Zoot Suit Riots, recognize this as a dark chapter in Los Angeles County’s history and recommit to fighting against racial discrimination.”
Zoot suits, consisting of oversized jackets, baggy pants, and wide-brimmed hats, were scorned amid wartime calls for rationing and were considered wasteful and, therefore, unpatriotic because they required large amounts of fabric. While most of the violence was directed toward Mexican Americans, Black and Filipino youths who were wearing zoot suits were also attacked.
The riots and a related murder trial are commemorated in such works as Luis Valdez’s 1978 play “Zoot Suit” and Eduardo Obregón Pagán’s 2003 book “Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A.”
Although the zoot suit style was and continues to be primarily associated with Latinos, it was also adopted by young Blacks and Filipinos. Japanese Americans, who were confined in wartime camps back then, were also drawn to the zoot suit culture.
Vidal Herrera, a retired medical examiner who was mentored by former L.A. County Medical Examiner Thomas Noguchi, displayed his award-winning 1950 Corvette for the occasion.
“If we don’t learn about our past, we can’t understand what happens today,” emphasized Manny Alcaraz, who represented the era in a red and black zoot suit.
Mark Ramirez, who traveled from Northern California for the event, said, “We believe in respect, familia, and la raza. We must show the younger generation what our forefathers went through.”
Japan-born harmonica legend Tetsuya “Tex” Nakamura donned his modified version of a zoot suit, recalling his days as a member of the Lowrider Band. He is best known as a former member of the American funk band War.
Saturday’s event included vendors offering gift items and memorabilia. The day-long program was organized by City Council District 14, Councilmember Kevin de León, Hello Stranger Foundation, and Felix Chevrolet.
Photos by ELLEN ENDO/Rafu Shimpo