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California Cultures

Hispanic Americans: Racial Tensions During World War II

Questions to Consider

Why were the episodes of violence in 1943 called "Zoot Suit Riots"?

What does the letter to Governor Warren explain about prejudice against Mexican Americans in California at that time?


Two incidents in Los Angeles during World War II — which the press called the "Sleepy Lagoon Trial" and the "Zoot Suit Riots" — revealed the city's rampant anti-Mexican prejudice.

Sleepy Lagoon

The first occurred in January 1943, when 17 Mexican American youths were convicted of murdering a boy whose body had been found in a reservoir known as Sleepy Lagoon. Alice McGrath (who led appeal for defendants in Sleepy Lagoon case) and the Sleepy Lagoon defendants are shown in Chino in 1944.

The racist bias of the judge and prosecution was so blatant that the Sleepy Lagoon case attracted the sympathy of people around the country. Shown here is a six-page letter written to Governor Earl Warren, pleading for his intervention. Eventually, the case was overturned by an appellate court, and the acquittal was cause for celebration in the community (as shown in this courtroom scene).

Zoot Suit Riots

The second incident erupted in June 1943, when long-simmering tensions between white servicemen and Mexican American “zoot suiters” turned into a week-long race riot. "Zoot suits" — high-waisted trousers with wide pegged legs, worn with long coats — were popular with Mexicans Americans, African Americans, and Filipino Americans during the early 1940s. (The young men detained for questioning after a brawl are wearing zoot suits.)

During the riot, mobs of white sailors, soldiers, and marines assaulted Mexican American teenagers and tore off their clothes. One photograph shows a man wielding a baseball bat during the melee. Local newspapers, however, portrayed the boys as the aggressors. Even the name of the incident — the Zoot Suit Riots — placed the blame on Mexican Americans.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 11:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.4 Write historical investigation reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver oral reports on historical investigations.
2.4 Delivery multimedia presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s. (4.4.5)

Grade 11:

11.7 Students analyze America's participation in World War II.

11.8 Students analyze the economic boom and social transformation of post-World War II America. (11.8.2)

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Letter to Governor Warren by Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, 1943 Alice McGrath (who led appeal for defendants in Sleepy Lagoon case) and Sleepy Lagoon defendants in Chino, 1944 Ysmael 'Smiles' Parra and family
Defendants in the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial are reunited with family and friends in the Los Angeles Hall of Justice following their acquittal, October 1944 Sleepy Lagoon defendants and Alice McGrath with defense attorney Ben Margolis Los Angeles resident Luis Verdusco points to a head injury sustained during the Zoot Suit Riots, 1942
Violence erupts during the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles (Calif.), 1943 Mexican American youths in 'zoot suits' are detained for questioning in a Los Angeles jail following a brawl, ca. 1942 Authorities meet to discuss the Zoot Suit Riots.

Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Written Documents (PDF) (Source: NARA)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)