AH, PACHUCOS! ORANGE COUNTY’S GREAT ZOOT SUIT PANIC OF 1943
DAVID KELSEN | POSTED ONMAY 18, 2016
"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.
* * * * *
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.” ...
https://ocweekly.com/ah-pachucos-orange ... 3-7196799/
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