European American servicemen and White European immigrant civilians attacked and stripped children, teens, and youths who wore zoot suits, ostensibly because they considered the outfits to be unpatriotic during World War II, as they had a lot of fabric. Rationing of fabric was required at the time for the war effort. While most of the violence was directed toward Mexican American youth, young African American and Filipino Americans who were wearing zoot suits were also attacked.
The Zoot Suit Riots were related to fears and hostilities aroused by the coverage of the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, following the killing of a young Latino man in a barrio near Los Angeles. The riot appeared to trigger similar attacks that year by European Americans against Latinos in Chicago, San Diego, Oakland, Evansville, Philadelphia, and New York City.
During the early 20th century, many Mexicans immigrated for work to such areas as Texas, Arizona, and California. They were recruited by farmers for work on the large farms and also worked throughout those states in non-agricultural jobs.
During the Great Depression, in the early 1930s, the United States deported between 500,000 and 2 million people of Mexican descent (including the illegal expulsion of up to 1.2 million U.S. citizens) to Mexico (see Mexican Repatriation), in order to reduce demands on limited American economic resources. By the late 1930s, about 3 million Mexican Americans resided in the United States. Los Angeles had the highest concentration of ethnic Mexicans outside Mexico.
As residents of California before European American immigration, Latinos occupied historic areas, and the minority had long been informally segregated and restricted to an area of the city with the oldest, most run-down housing. Job discrimination in Los Angeles forced minorities to work for below-poverty level wages. The Los Angeles newspapers described Mexicans with racially inflammatory propaganda, suggesting a problem with juvenile delinquency. These factors caused much racial tension between Mexicans and Europeans.