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The Supporters and Opponents of Zoot Suits Riots

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To a significant extent, it can be agreed that the attitudes and atrocities committed towards Mexican American youths of California – ‘Zoot Suiters’, by the main-stream groups during World War II, were discriminative and biased. Despite the Mexican American involvement in the war effort, they were not accepted. In a time when the US economy was just recovering from The Great Depression and the threat from the Axis Powers was looming, the incoming of a sub-culture which was different to the American culture, in terms of clothing, attitudes, music and language and the media’s portrayal of these Zoot Suiters, sparked racial tensions between the law enforcements and the said ethnicity. However, amidst all this, there were also few ‘mainstream’ Americans with Hispanic backgrounds, who believed in social justice and were willing to support these Zoot Suiters, as they mostly empathized with their experiences.

With manpower shortages triggered by the war, the US was in desperate need for workers to face the economic challenges of war. Therefore, as a wartime measure, in 1942, as much as 4,000 Mexicans were legally migrated to the country to work as farm labourers. As part of the general provisions, they were to be provided with proper living facilities, equal pay, healthcare and were to encounter no discrimination. However, all the provisions were violated as Mexicans worked in extreme conditions with unproper living and hygiene conditions which a typical American worker would have not accepted. In parts of California and America, this sub-culture was banned from public places as signs stating ‘No Dogs, Negroes or Mexicans’ littered the city, cruelly reminding them that despite their contributions, they were perceived at best as third class by the American society of that era.

As different ethnic groups were brought together, due to the war, conflicts were inevitable. These conflicts found their focus in a new style of dress called ‘zoot suits’ which were becoming immensely popular amongst the Mexican American youth. While Pachucos and Pachucas dominated the dance halls in their zoot suits, with hairstyles and slangs (caló) unique to the Americans, the authorities and the media were growing weary of these ‘alien’ culture. Many policemen had slashed these suits and the zoot suiters were portrayed in some newspaper as ‘gamin (neglected street child) dandies)’ with Pachucas being portrayed as ‘ruthless hooligans on the prowl for white women’ who apparently stashed knives in their hairdos. After the Sleepy Lagoon murder, these extravagant suits were associated with gangs, and what initially started as a fashion trend, turned into a political statement and then prompted one of the worst mob violence in history.

On June 4, 1943, tensions between white servicemen and zoot suiters took the form of violence as 200 servicemen sauntered into a Mexican neighbourhood, carrying clubs and bats. Any Mexican or anyone of ‘non-white’ ethnicity, regardless of age was labelled as a threat. “They were yanked out and they started to cut off their pants or trousers while the cops simple stood there laughing” – as described by former zoot suiter. The hostility towards these zoot suiters proved that mainstream groups simply had negative social views against a counter-culture and were unwilling of acceptance.

Despite the American society being against the zoot suiters, celebrities like Rita Hayworth, Orson Wells and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt served as supporters of these Zoot Suiters. The former First Lady suggested that “This is beyond zoot suits. It’s a racial protest.” And addressed that situations like these were to not be dealt with violence. Rita Hayworth, as described in Zoot Suit Riots documentary, gave a Zoot Suiter her clothes to prevent her from being assaulted. Orson Welles was also found to show his support by writing a letter to the court, claiming the innocence of the Pachuco youths in the Sleepy Lagoon case. These examples of support were not for any media attention, but for the sake of social justice and equality. Most of these celebrities empathized with these zoot suiters as they suffered similar discrimination to them and were of Hispanic backgrounds, proving that not all mainstreamers exhibited racist attitudes.

One can conclude that the zoot suits were a bold political statement in the face of bigotry and discrimination. The malice against Mexican American workers, the defamation of zoot suiters by the media and the racist atrocities committed by the servicemen towards these sub-cultures without fail, reveal the racially biased economic, political and social views of the mainstream society of that era. However, this statement also contradicts the actions of some celebrities that risked their status for the sake of a culture that was constantly undermined by the Americans. 

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