Latinos at War: The Fight Abroad and at Home in the United States

Llyr Heller, Librarian, Teen'Scape,
Celebrate Latino Heritage Month

September marks Latino heritage month. As of 2015 Latinos make up 17.4% of the population in the United States. Historians estimate that around 250,000 to 500,000 out of a total 2.7 million Latinos in the United States served in World War II. Interestingly, the number is not concrete because often Latinos would be classified as “white” on their papers. Because of this a true account will never be known.

Propaganda poster.

Propaganda poster. Photo courtesy of National WWII Museum

Soldiers get a first-hand look at the horror of war and both the best and worst in humanity under the duress of combat. The importance of working and banding together for a single purpose is often clearer to soldiers than civilians. Because, in the end, all blood runs red. These lessons were not understood by everyone. In Los Angeles, two incidents revealed the racism prevalent against Hispanics. In August of 1942, while Latino soldiers fought overseas, Los Angeles violence came to the forefront. José Díaz, a young Mexican man leaving a party days before he was to be inducted into the Army, was beaten to death on his way home.


Arraignment of “Sleepy Lagoon” murder suspects.

The arraignment of “Sleepy Lagoon” murder suspects. (1942). Los Angeles Public Library/Herald Examiner

This violence, in turn, led to the Sleepy Lagoon Trial. Twenty-two young Hispanic men were sentenced to prison, but because the trial was filled with prejudice, racial profiling and misconduct, the men were released after a year. This, in turn, sparked the Zoot Suit Riots, ten nights when American soldiers stalked the streets looking for “zoot-suiters.”  Dressed in baggy pants and long coats, as seen in the photo on the right, the young men and teenagers were easy to identify. The American soldiers dragged them out into the streets and beat them. Police did not stop the riots, and the papers placed the blame for the violence on the Hispanics, all but lauding the beatings. Finally, after about five days, the military stopped personnel from going to Los Angeles. This was not the only racist event against Hispanics of the time, but was certainly one of the most violent to be found back home while many others were fighting for America.

A young man wearing a zoot suit.

A young man wearing a zoot suit. (1944). Los Angeles Public Library/Shades of L.A.: Mexican American Community

Many soldiers took advantage of the GI Bill. Before going off to fight, too often their schooling was subjected to racial oppression: Such as being unable to advance through grades as well as kept in segregated schools. Furthermore, men and women saw education lead the way to promotions and more pay. They often used the education they received and the lessons learned to help protest and fight racial discrimination in education, workplace and life.

World War II also provided some opportunities for Latinas. Although women served, they were mostly assigned to administrative areas or nursing, but because many areas were in need of Spanish-speaking interpreters, nurses, secretarial duties, typists, and engine repair mechanics opportunities opened up. The war offered a chance for higher wages, independence, and a chance to not live under family restrictions, gaining confidence and dashing long-held notions that outsiders had of Latinas.

At war’s end, many female defense workers regretted having to give up their positions to the returning male GIs, although the skills learned served them in life. Returning Latino veterans justly felt that they had proven that they were as proficient as anyone else and fought for their place in the workplace. The fight for civil rights continued in all areas as time went on, especially as Latinos fought in the Korean War and Vietnam and veteran voices grew. Latinos are a vibrant part of the fabric of our society and must be justly commended and celebrated.

Josephine Kelly Ledesma Walker, training another mechanic.

Josephine Kelly Ledesma Walker, training another mechanic. U.S. Latino & Latina World War II Oral History Project.

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Further Reading

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