Ah, Pachucos! Orange County's Great Zoot Suit Panic of 1943

Cruisin' into the future
Cruisin' into the future
Photo by Shane Lopes (with photography assistant Patrick Gonzales) Models: John Kharalian, Jocelyn Osorio; H/MUA: Genevieve Lamb; car provided by David Estrada

As the sun set on Wednesday, June 9, 1943, servicemen began to pour into downtown Santa Ana. A long weekend of liberty awaited, and they were ready to help Orange County jump into Southern California's hottest fad: beating up Mexicans.

During the previous week, thousands of sailors, marines, soldiers and civilians gleefully squared off in Los Angeles against pachucos, zoot suit-wearing Mexican-Americans whom authorities and the press had demonized for years. Clashes between them and troops became as much a part of SoCal's wartime culture as victory gardens once the United States entered World War II and military bases sprung up in the region, drawing in draftees from the Deep South and beyond. Many had never encountered Mexicans, let alone pachucos, and the sight of vatos locos pridefully defying wartime sanctions by wearing killer-diller coats with a drape shape, reet pleats and massive hats that weren't sombreros didn't sit well with polite society one bit.

Our fighting men rampaged through the City of Angels for one final showdown, earning international headlines. Night after night, they dragged pachucos into the street to strip off their suits in public and leave them bloodied and humiliated, as police officers blithely looked on. Among the attackers were recruits from the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro and the Santa Ana Army Air Base (SAAAB), who took caravans up U.S. Route 101 to join in the fun. But with LA now declared off-limits by military brass, the El Toro and SAAAB boys decided to bring the Zoot Suit Riots to the Orange County homefront.

More than 300 commandos stormed downtown Santa Ana on a warm night, splitting off into patrols to find as many pachucos as possible. They surrounded the Princess, a Spanish-language movie theater that was playing a matinee, daring attendees to come out. They forced their way into the State Theater and tried to turn on the lights to smoke out any of their enemies; the State's manager suffered a cut on his hand while trying to shoo them away. Pachucos beat up one sailor; in response, soldiers found four Mexican braceros, immigrants brought in to help the American side by picking crops, and punched them up good before Santa Ana police quickly intervened. Soon, MPs carrying automatic and semi-automatic rifles rounded up their base mates onto buses, then sent them back. Playtime was over.

"If these servicemen can't abide by the civil laws, we don't want them in Santa Ana," the city's police chief, George E. Boyd, told local papers the following day. Four sailors and a Marine were arrested in the fracas, caught with everything from hunting knives to filed-down scabbards to 5-inch blades to a butcher's knife sharpened on both edges. But not a single zooter was beaten up, not one hepcat hurt. This was supposed to be Orange County's towering victory over pachucos after a year-long campaign that featured a full-scale media blitz, the ban of zoot suits, mass arrests, show trials and multiple convictions—and it was a big flop.

But you know how it goes in OC—no way do the Powers That Be let Mexicans get the upper hand or final word. And because of that truism, we're still living with the overblown mess that was OC's Great Zoot Suit Panic of 1943.

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La naranja's pachuco scene arose during a tumultuous yet frequently forgotten era in American history. Far from the unified country portrayed by guardians of the Greatest Generation myth, the United States was a seething republic in the years surrounding our entry into World War II. Juvenile delinquency was skyrocketing; race riots and violent strikes swept across the country. Minorities openly questioned why they should support a campaign against Krauts and Japs when they had to live under legal segregation and widespread discrimination in the U.S.

It was into this environment that the Penny Sportland arcade debuted in downtown Santa Ana in the fall of 1941. It promised skee ball, bowling tables, marble games and a photo booth. More important, the opening gave Mexican-American youth a slice of downtown they could call their own. The gaming hall was on Fourth Street, the de facto shopping district for Orange County back then: a place filled with markets, clothing stores and racism. Though not officially segregated, the years had placed Mexican shops east of Main Street, while west of the thoroughfare was firmly gabacho.

For good times, Mexican-Americans had to look elsewhere. Authorities frequently raided dances in OC's barrios, so many teens and young adults headed to Central Avenue in Los Angeles to hear Duke Ellington, Count Basie and other big-band legends. They'd also haunt the Rendezvous Ballroom and Balboa Pavilion in Newport Beach, where Glenn Miller came to play after striking up a friendship with Mexican-Americans from El Modena. And wherever they roamed, the coolest chucos y güisitas wore zoot suits—the flashier, the better. Once the national rage, the clothing was becoming almost exclusively the domain of blacks and Mexicans. Local Mexican-Americans would frequent la Cuatro to check in at Zachary's, run by a Jewish tailor who gave his customers credit and sewed for them custom-made suits; those who couldn't afford it visited Vandermast's, a popular clothing store that urged customers in its ads to "Meet the Gang" at its two-story location.

Penny Sportland represented a new era for Santa Ana. But having greasers regularly hang out in downtown was too much for city fathers. Skirmishes between Mexican-Americans and whites started almost immediately after the arcade opened, turning into an almost-nightly ritual. It started with a group of gabachos beating up a Mexican; he returned with a bigger group to get his revenge. The gabachos returned with an even bigger posse, and so forth. By Nov. 19, more than 600 youths—"Americans," per the press, on one side, Mexicans and African-Americans on the other—congregated outside Penny Sportland, ready to rumble once and for all.

Multiple law-enforcement agencies broke up the scene, and no one was arrested. But Orange County were warned that a new generation of Mexicans were in OC: They were no longer just quiet peons, but rather Americans who weren't going to passively take hate anymore. The prospect of a restless minority immediately put authorities on notice. Just a couple of days before the face-off, Orange Police Chief Garland Coltrane told the Santa Ana Register there were now a bunch of Mexican males who "think they're tough and try to give police officers as much trouble and fight as possible whenever anyone calls to report them."

Quickly, the Orange County press created a Mexican youth crime wave where one didn't previously exist. From the near-rumble in Santa Ana through 1942, the Register, Orange Daily News, Anaheim Bulletin, Fullerton Daily News-Tribune and other local dailies published story after story about deviant brown youngsters, even though statistics showed no difference in crime rates between them and their gabacho peers. Reporters frequently used the terms "Mexican boys" or "Mexican youth" in their pieces, yet never mentioned race or nationality whenever a white person committed a crime. The race-baiting became so nasty that in one front-page feature, the Daily News labeled a group of Latino boys whose age ranged between 8 and 12 a "juvenile gang." Their sin? Stealing 40 cents from the Pacific Electric bus depot.

Such biased coverage further fueled tensions between Mexicans and whites, as fights continued. A near-riot happened in Balboa on June 29, 1942, with police blaming a "Mexican gang" for the outbreak. Meanwhile, Santa Ana officers began targeting Penny Sportland, ticketing Mexican boys who hung out too long or allegedly blocked the sidewalk in front of the venue. Newspapers began ridiculing the zoot suits that Mexican-Americans wore, harrumphing that the "costumes" were a waste of fabric at a time when everyone was being called to ration for the war. Offering no evidence whatsoever, the Register reported that a gang of "young Mexican men who wear their hair long and their trousers tight around their ankles" was randomly assaulting people.

The defamation drumbeat picked up in August with the death of a young man after a party near Montebello; the subsequent arrest of Mexican-American teens suspected of killing him made national headlines in what became known as the Sleepy Lagoon case. OC's press now had a new term with which to slur zoot suit-wearing Mexican-Americans: pachuco. Though not a local story, the Register and its rivals reprinted Sleepy Lagoon trial updates and began attributing all local crimes committed by Mexicans to pachucos, regardless of whether the alleged criminals identified themselves as such, or whether they wore a zoot suit.

Then came two key events on Nov. 16. During a dance, more than 100 Mexican-Americans and African-Americans wielding tire irons, blackjacks and bicycle chains went after their rivals during a dance at Colonia Independencia, an unincorporated part of Anaheim. Far more ominous, though, were reports of 15 pachucos trying to "molest" a white woman outside a bar in Santa Ana. It set off a week of rage in the Register, with large headlines, long stories and op-eds lashing out at the pachuco menace. The editorial page—which wondered out loud if these rampaging Mexicans weren't "Axis-inspired"—thundered it was "high time that the law-enforcement officials take whatever measures are necessary to provide proper protection of the public and of property." Publisher R.C. Hoiles also began running photos of young white people who were either working in factories or wearing their military gear alongside many of the zooter stories—a not-so-subtle hint of which race was helping this country.

Nov. 17, 1942 headline, along with good gabachas
Nov. 17, 1942 headline, along with good gabachas
Santa Ana Register clipping

Pachucos were suddenly everywhere—in Placentia, Wintersburg, Stanton, Costa Mesa, Garden Grove, even Sunset Beach. Crimes began getting attributed to them—rape, kidnapping, murder, theft—every time someone with a Hispanic surname was collared. Chief Boyd called for 150 extra policemen to deal with what the Register described as "vicious young Mexicans." The press celebrated white citizens who fought back alleged assaults with everything from hammers to jars of cold cream. Vigilante groups formed until Sheriff Jesse Elliott, a former Ku Klux Klan member, urged the public to let law enforcement handle this public threat.

Four defendants were put on trial for the Colonia Independencia melee. The original sentence called for 30 days in jail on counts of disturbing the peace, but the DA's office, caught up in the pachuco panic, decided to refile charges against them for allegedly carrying a blackjack, a felony. At the trial, prosecutors initially wanted the defendants to wear their zoot suits during testimony, a tactic that had earned worldwide condemnation during the Sleepy Lagoon trial. Superior Court Judge Kenneth Morrison initially agreed, but vociferous opposition from community members changed his mind.

Three were eventually convicted: Arthur Felix, Johnny Anaya and Richard Monteverde. Anaya had served time for public intoxication, and Monteverde had previously been arrested on suspicion of riding in a stolen car. In the appeal, defense lawyers, while not denying their clients' involvement in the brawl, argued that Felix, Anaya and Monteverde didn't use any such weapon and tried to provide evidence that would absolve the trio. But appellate judges declined the motion, noting that "a great number of the young men [at the Independencia party] wore 'zoot suits'"—and that was proof enough.

*     *     *     *     *

Dispatch from the Colonia Independencia trial. Notice how whoever did microfilm for the Reg blocked out Anaya?
Dispatch from the Colonia Independencia trial. Notice how whoever did microfilm for the Reg blocked out Anaya?
Clip from the Santa Ana Register

After the Colonia Independencia trial, OC went into overdrive to stamp out pachucos for good. A judge made six teens arrested for blocking the sidewalk at Penny Sportland get haircuts and turn in their zoot suits. Santa Ana passed an anti-loitering law. Local thought leaders wondered out loud why Mexican-Americans were turning into pachucos instead of productive American citizens. "What is a pachuco?" a YMCA leader asked a crowd in Anaheim on Jan. 13, 1943. "He is a misguided youth of yesterday, possessed with fear, not only stigmatized by his foolish costume of the 'zoot suit.'"

But a small item in the Register a week later told a more complex story. Juvenile delinquency in Orange County had risen an alarming 33 percent from 1941 to 1942, and social workers put the blame on World War II. Specifically, they said young people, abandoned by adults who were either in the European or Pacific theaters or working, were aping their elders in adopting an aggressive war mentality. Not only that, but a confidential government report noted that the thousands of young men filing through Southern California bases had also "changed community conditions," and civic authorities were complaining to commanders and admirals about how conscripts kept harassing civilians while off base. "If steps are taken at this time to correct the derogatory attitude on the part of soldiers, sailors and marines toward civilians," wrote San Diego City Councilman Charcles C. Dail to a Navy bigwig, "it would go far to relieve the unchecked and developing animosity perpetuated against civilians in general."

Those nuances didn't matter to the regional press or law enforcement; the only criminals in Orange County were pachucos. And so the anti-pachuco campaign continued. Santa Ana police told people to stop wearing zoot suits under penalty of arrest. On April 10, 1943, they arrested 38 young Mexican-Americans, claiming reports of a loud pachuco party; the Register snickered that a 14-year-old arrested at the scene told cops "people had more freedom in Germany and he wished he was living there."

Ah, Pachucos! Orange County's Great Zoot Suit Panic of 1943

The anger was well-founded, though; in reality, the fiesta was to send off young Latinos who had joined the Army. Two days later, protesters gathered outside the Register's office to decry the wrongful arrests and the daily's calumnious coverage. They were led by Frank Moreno, editor of the Spanish-language newspaper Acción, and Lucas Lucio, an influential civil-rights activist in Orange County who had previously worked for the Mexican consulate in protecting Mexicans during the 1936 Citrus War and the Great Flood of 1938. Moreno told the paper that the mass arrests had happened for "political reasons" and were "just like Germany," while Lucio discovered that police got most of their arrests from street sweeps around the neighborhood. Another protester, the Register reported, "said that the people of Mexican extraction protested being used as political pawns" by the press and authorities.

Afterward, the Register was quiet for about a month. But the assault of a white man in May brought hysteria back to the front pages. By the time of the attempted June 9 riot in downtown Santa Ana, newspapers were virtually begging for a pachuco beatdown akin to what had happened in Los Angeles. "Zoot War Spreads to Santa Ana," roared the Daily News on its front page the following day, while the Register played it safer with "City-Wide Rioting Averted Through Actions of City and Military Police."

But by the time the Zoot Suit Wars actually arrived in Orange County, nothing really happened. Defiant, newspapers tried to justify their yellow journalism of the past year. "It may be that the publicity brought by the attempts of the servicemen to 'handle' the zoot-suiters will result in better control of the fancy Dans," the Register hoped in an editorial. "If it does, then all of the confusion and trouble that has come during the past week or more in Southern California may not have been in vain." And they lashed out at accusations that racism had fueled their spilled ink. After Eleanor Roosevelt attributed LA's Zoot Suit Riots to long-standing discrimination against Mexican-Americans, the Daily News inveighed that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration had "sowed the seeds of discontent by arousing class consciousness and telling people they are underprivileged." The paper even planted a fake story: Mexicans in Mexico City, having seen a wax figure of a pachuco, commented that "anyone who would wear an outfit like that ought to be beaten up." The only problem: The statue was of Tin-Tan, a Mexican comedian whose pachuco comedies are still beloved across Latin America.

Law enforcement had one last anti-pachuco push in them. The weekend after June 9, police rounded up 52 Mexican-Americans, nabbing them on everything from possessing cigarettes to "half a pint of whiskey and some prophylactic goods," per the Daily News. They also announced the arrest of the leader of OC's zoot suiters: 19-year-old Lawrence Castillo Reyes, grabbed for allegedly leading an assault on a soldier outside a Santa Ana bar the night of the non-riot. Officials explained the time lapse between the capture and announcement by insisting they didn't want to publicize the soldier's beating, lest an already-volatile situation explode.

Leader of pachucos in OC?
Leader of pachucos in OC?
Courtesy of California State Archives

Reyes was no stranger to the press. He had been arrested in November 1942 for assault and also faced charges for participating in a throwdown between pachucas, a skirmish that shocked OC anew. In neither of those cases was he ever identified as a leader of anything, yet suddenly, he was being called head of the Artesia Street Gang, a group that had never before garnered a mention. Charged with felonies for assault and robbery, Reyes maintained his innocence. The night of the assault, the laborer said, he was at a film with his girlfriend, who had also been arrested in the pachuca rumble. The only problem was the film he claimed to see wasn't screening in Santa Ana. And the injured soldier told police that a redheaded man had assaulted him; Reyes was arrested having just dyed his previously red hair black.

An all-white jury took three and a half hours to find Reyes guilty. He was sentenced to five years in San Quentin. And OC's pachuco wars were finally over.

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Orange County historians have studiously ignored our Great Zoot Suit Panic. There were a couple of paragraphs giving basic details in 1989's The SAAAB Story: The History of the Santa Ana Army Air Base, in which author Edrick J. Miller commented, "I can still remember several outbreaks of violence at my junior high school during this period." Far more dismissive was Leo J. Friis, whose 1965 Orange County Through Four Centuries was one of the first history books to try to tell OC's past objectively. To him, pachucos were nothing more than Mexicans who wore "outlandish" suits, while the women "preferred sloppy clothes with emphasis on heavy sweaters."

Part of the problem is that LA's Zoot Suit riots have long-dominated any study of the pachuco phenomenon. But the real issue is that telling the full story throws a monkey wrench into OC's officially accepted conclusion over the matter: that Mexicans picked on innocent, patriotic servicemen; that their beatdown was not just inevitable, but also necessary; and that young Mexican men are inherently criminal. That narrative has influenced Orange County thinking about Mexican-American youth ever since and echoes in OC District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' endless gang injunctions, in the furor over the protests led by high schoolers that greeted Donald Trump last month, in the ceaseless stream of anti-Mexican comments left on newspaper websites, and in the way you glance over nervously when a shaved-head Chicano driving a Chrysler 300 and bumping a bone-rattling sound system idles next to you during a red light.

Yet the retellings of Friis and other such historians just don't square up with what actually happened. Take Charles Rodriguez of El Modena: The former pachuco proudly owned four zoot suits and partied from Tijuana to Watts. "I was always in trouble," he told a Cal State Fullerton researcher in an oral history that was excerpted in Forgotten Patriots: Voices of WWII Mexican American Veterans of Southern California. "I used to go to Santa Ana and have fights in Santa Ana; we had fights in Delhi."

But Rodriguez, like many pachucos, grew out of the fad and enlisted in the Army. He became a member of Merrill's Mauraders, a special-ops unit that was celebrated for its deep-penetration jungle missions in Burma. Sixty years later, however, as he offered his oral history, Rodriguez couldn't forget the fights between pachucos and white servicemen. "The only trouble we had," he recalled, "it was the white guys."

If there were any assaults by whites against Mexicans during the Zoot Suit Panic, the local papers didn't report them. But they happened. Legendary Chicano activist Bert Corona was stationed at SAAAB during the zoot suit years. In Memories of Chicano History: The Life and Narrative of Bert Corona, he recalled how "some of our Anglo servicemen beat up on local Chicanos"; after one incident, he said, "hundreds of Chicano kids from the nearby communities advanced on our base and waited for servicemen in the areas where the buses took us into town. That weekend, almost no servicemen ventured out to take the bus."

Interviews on file at the Center for Oral and Public History at Cal State Fullerton also document white veterans fondly recalling their buddies beating and humiliating pachucos. "We had a bunch of burly-chested Marines that would give anything for a weekend pass," recalled Donald Holbert in 2009, with the leathernecks bragging they were going to Los Angeles to "beat the hell out of a bunch of zoot suiters." Another vet, Frank Reed Jr., told researchers that a squad of Marines once went to Los Angeles, rounded up a bunch of pachucos in military cattle cars and imprisoned them in El Toro. "That is one thing that I know happened," Reed said, "but other than that, I can't say too much about it."

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