It is a common phenomenon to find young people trying to distinguish their generations from older ones using fashion statements. At the end of the fourth decade, and start of the fifth decade, of the twentieth century, zoot suits were created by Mexican American Los Angeles youth as a way of expressing their generation. The suit featured a high waist, wide legs, tight cuffs and trousers with pegs. The youth wore the distinct trousers with long coats whose lapels were wide, and shoulders equally wide and padded. The accessories for this style of fashion included long chains that were dangling and hats that had wide brims.
Mexican LA Tensions: Zoot Suit Riots
Although Los Angeles traces its origins as a colony of Spain in Native American territory, after which it became a town in Mexico following Mexican independence from Spain, Mexican-Americans comprised a minority by the twentieth century. At the same time, no other place outside Mexico had a higher concentration of Mexicans than Los Angeles did. Being a minority, Mexican-Americans resided in neighborhoods that were segregated, and they were often discriminated against in terms of employment - the only job openings available to them were often the lowest paying occupations. When World War II started, there was an increase in tensions in Los Angeles, which were being fuelled by racial and ethnic factors (Mazon 103).
Why were racial tensions so high during the zoot suit? The tensions started with the forcible removal of all persons who traced their ancestry to Japan from the city after which they were confined in concentration camps for the entire period of the war. There was also a drastic increase in the population of the city's military personnel. During this time, there was racial segregation in the military, which meant that the personnel tended to have an Anglos ancestry, majority of whom did not have much contact with people belonging to the Mexican-American race. The Anglo soldiers and sailors often held resentments against the zoot suiters who stood out because of their sense of fashion.
Although the Mexican-Americans used to serve in the military in a larger proportion than any other racial group did, there was a widely held perception among the soldiers and sailors that they used to dodge the military draft. Additionally, wool was used to make the zoot suits, and the wool was rationed at the time in order to support the war effort. In the year 1942, the War Production Board- the federal agency that oversaw rationing, had issued regulations on the manufacture of clothing items (Del Castillo 373). These regulations had prohibited the activities of firms that were engaged in zoot suit manufacturing.
Navy Sailors in Zoot Suit Riots
Despite the prohibitions, the demand for zoot suits remained high, and bootleg tailors took the opportunity to cash in on the demand. The military personnel appealed to patriotism when justifying their resentment against Mexican-Americans; to them, the Mexican-American youth who were clad in zoot suits were un-American, and the suits were perceived as a disregard for the rationing regulations. At night on June 3, 1943, some eleven sailors alighted from a bus in the southern part of Los Angeles. The soldiers claimed that a group of Mexican-American youth in zoot suits had attacked them, which drew the response of the city's police.
The response team included a group of officers known as the vengeance squad- who were not on duty and joined the response to help eliminate what seemed to be the negative influence of the Mexican-American gangs. The following day, up to two hundred sailors organized a procession of taxicabs and went to the neighborhoods in which Mexican-Americans resided in the eastern side of the city. Their initial victims were a group of teenage boys whom they attacked using clubs. Adults could not intervene as any attempt to stop the sailors attracted severe beating. The sailors tore the zoot suits off their victims' bodies, and they destroyed them using fire afterwards.
Zoot Suit Riots and Police Violence
There was a further escalation in the violence as thousands of military personnel roamed the streets of Los Angeles in search of zoot suiters and met unbridled violence on Mexican-Americans and other minority groups. As the servicemen were on the rampage, they were in the company of the police who did not arrest them because of express orders hindering them from doing so. Within a few days, up to one hundred and fifty people sustained injuries and the police arrested at least five hundred Mexican-Americans on flimsy grounds.
It was appalling that the local press did not condemn the attacks and instead hailed them as a mechanism of cleaning up the city (Pagan 241). The local government also passed a decree that outlawed wearing zoot suits within the limits of the city. The authorities placed a general blame on the Mexican-American gangs for instigating the unrest. When did military personnel put an end to zoot suit beatings? Four days after the start of the riots, the military leadership decided to confine all military personnel to barracks and issued a declaration that made Los Angeles out of bounds for sailors and Marines. Overall, the riots were a manifestation of a deep-seated racial problem.
Del Castillo, Richard Griswold. "The Los Angeles" zoot suit riots" revisited: Mexican and Latin American perspectives." Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 16.2 (2000): 367-391.
Mazon, Mauricio. The zoot-suit riots: The psychology of symbolic annihilation. University of Texas Press, 2010.
Pagan, Eduardo Obregon. "Los Angeles geopolitics and the zoot suit riot, 1943." Social Science History 24.01 (2000): 223-256.
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