Zoot suits make a comeback in Boyle Heights


Photo courtesy of Alejandro Flores

Esther Guerrero, Alejandro Flores’ grandmother, when she was a zoot suiter in 1939 at the age of 20 years old.

Boyle Heights wants to bring back the zoot suit spirit by creating a heritage week while also celebrating this year’s 80th anniversary cruising parade.

The Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council (BHNC) is working on a resolution with the City of Los Angeles Council District 14 to establish a Zoot Suit Heritage Week to coincide with the racialized and brutal assaults that happened from June 3 to June 9 in 1943. 

​​The zoot suit encompasses “a broad-shouldered drape jacket, balloon-leg trousers, and a flamboyant hat,” according to Yale National Initiative.

White civilians and American servicemen stripped and attacked children, teens, and whoever wore zoot suits, allegedly because they considered the outfits to be “unpatriotic during World War II, as they had a lot of fabric,” according to Intercultural Leadership Institute.

The Los Angeles City Council responded to this violence by banning zoot suits altogether rather than addressing the racist hatred that caused the attacks, according to the BHNC resolution.

However, the ban was never implemented. Yet, it created a sentiment with many people still believing today that the Zoot suit is banned.

To combat the growing racist sentiments that are taking place in society today, we urge Councilmember Kevin de León and the rest of the Los Angeles City Council to support our community in this cause,” the resolution says. “By establishing a Zoot Suit Heritage Week…for the people of our city to be able to move forward with expressing this rich part of our cultural heritage with dignity.”

Jonathan Echavarria, BHNC President, thinks that having a heritage week would benefit Boyle Heights residents because it would be a small beginning towards establishing trust between the Boyle Heights community and the city council again.

“It would allow the community to feel more connected to City Hall and the things that go on there,” he said. “Recognizing something that the community has been recognizing for so long would allow a connection with council members that have been severely damaged in the past years.”

Echavarria said that this heritage week would make a comeback for zoot suits, and it would become a fashion statement.

“I think part of it is also about making the governmental institution catch up with the sentiments and needs of the people,” he said. “I know that zoot suits are not super common, but I am getting one, and I know other friends here in Boyle Heights who have zoot suits.”

Alejandro Flores, BHNC board member, said that his grandmother Esther Guerrero was an original zoot suiter, and he thinks that having a Zoot Suit Heritage Week will bring positive impacts to the community.

“People are forgetting about the history behind zoot suits, and many people don’t know about this unless they do their own research,” he said. “This isn’t something that is taught at school, and I got fortunate that my grandmother was a member, or maybe I would’ve not known either.” 

Flores said that his grandmother being a zoot suiter influenced his life in regards to dressing, transportation, and politics and made him more attracted to the zoot suit traditions. Guerrero used to tell Flores that Zoot suiters were all about protecting the community.

“My grandmother used to tell me that if you walk in the street, then you are with the public, and you get to create a connection with people,” he said. “That comes from the Zoot suits time, and even now, I only use public transportation because I’ve never learned how to drive for that reason.”

Flores joined the BHNC in April 2023 and said he feels lucky that it happens to be at a time when the council is working on honoring zoot suits.

The BHNC’s greatest hope was that the Los Angeles City Council would establish the Zoot Suit Heritage Week in time for the upcoming recognition of the 80th anniversary of the Zoot Suit Riots on June 4. However, Councilman Kevin De Leòn will present the resolution to have a Zoot Suit Heritage Week at a City Council meeting on June 9.

“We have memorials and heritage days for so many different reasons, and I think this should be on the calendar and recognized in City Hall,” Echavarria said. “So we can all proudly wear our best drapes in celebration of this year’s special annual Zoot Suit Riots Memorial Cruise.”

The cruising parade will be in Boyle Heights at 4917 Whittier Blvd. and organizer Pedro Haro said that this is his fifth year planning this event.

“Last year, it was a big success. We had a motorcade of 100 ‘bombs’,” he said. “We are trying to stay true to that time as far as cars, culture and style.”

A ‘bomb’ is a classic lowrider manufactured in the ‘30s, ‘40s, or ‘50s, and this type of car represents the style of the Pachuco movement. Pachucos were Latinos who lived in the barrios of East Los Angeles and dressed in zoot suits, according to Grinnell College

“The idea of the parade is of cruising together and giving respect to the people that were involved in the Zoot Suit Riots and suffered,” Haro said. “I’ll have the streets blocked off, and the motorcade is going to get the red carpet treatment.”

Haro said that there would also be old style classic music with an orchestra playing sounds of the 40s.

“I’m inviting everyone who has a picture of either their grandma, grandpa, or any relative from that time to bring it to the parade,” he said. “We are going to put these photos on the altar that we’ll have, and it’s going to look beautiful because many people in the community can relate to these stories.”

Community News produces stories about under-covered neighborhoods and small cities on the Eastside and South Los Angeles. Please email feedback, corrections and story tips to [email protected].