June 8, 2018

Los Angeles, CA - Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), issued the following statement regarding the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots and contemporary issues related to the demonization of Latino immigrants.

“This week marks the 75th anniversary of the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. The rioters in 1943 were white United States servicemen awaiting deployment in wartime. They targeted primarily Latino young men, as well as some African American and Pilipino youth. The young men were stripped of their zoot suit clothing and savagely beaten. Some were beaten because of their race alone; they were not even wearing zoot suit attire. All Latino youth had been unfairly demonized – and the rioting servicemen encouraged implicitly and explicitly to punish the Latino youth – by press and elected leaders. At the time, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was the one leader who most prominently questioned the racial dimension of the demonization of Mexican American youth that led to the riots. Eventually, the targeting of Latino and other minority youth spread to other areas of the United States.

Today, historians recognize that the Zoot Suit Riots are an example of mass racism and hysteria run amok. Of course, similar forces were behind the previous year’s unwarranted rounding up and internment of Japanese Americans in California and throughout the western United States. There are clear lessons for today as we acknowledge and remember the Zoot Suit Riots of three quarters of a century ago.

Of course, Donald Trump may be the president with the greatest ignorance and the hugest disinterest in history; he regularly betrays his disinterest and ignorance in risible errors in speech or tweet, and in appalling inattention in actions. However, perhaps someone else in the White House might take the time to learn about the Zoot Suit Riots. They demonstrate the very real harms attendant to lies repeatedly told by elected and other government officials, abetted by certain elements of the media, about a particular community or communities. Seventy-five years ago, Mexican American youth and their distinctive attire were portrayed as unpatriotic, delinquent, and criminal. That portrayal led to servicemen acting contrary to oaths and expectations, and engaging in wholly baseless ‘vigilante’ beatings and violence.

Today, we have a president and minions – cabinet-level and below – who regularly lie and fabricate in an ongoing campaign to portray all undocumented immigrants as criminals who are a threat to citizens in communities across the country. And there are media outlets that goad, abet, and expand on this execrable mendacity from government officials. The facts do not remotely support this portrayal of the overwhelmingly peaceful migrants who seek simply to raise families, live free of levels of persecution and oppression that U.S. citizens can scarcely imagine, and to contribute their hard work to community and economic development. As it was 75 years ago, the wrongdoers are not the targeted communities, but the prevaricators who betray their oaths and the law to heighten the fear, exclusion, and violence experienced by peaceful residents.

In 2018 United States, we must not go back to the era of the Zoot Suit Riots. We must not go back to the harms of ongoing demonization campaigns grounded in falsehood. We must not go back to a fever dream of white supremacy, no matter whose fever dream it may be. May we all remember and learn from the Zoot Suit Riots of 75 years ago.”

Founded in 1968, MALDEF is the nation's leading Latino legal civil rights organization. Often described as the "Latino Legal Voice for Civil Rights in America" MALDEF promotes social change through advocacy, communications, community education, and litigation in the areas of education, employment, immigrant rights, and political access. For more information on MALDEF, please visit:

Copyright 2009 MALDEF, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund