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The Zoot Suit Riots and Racial Prejudice

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The days beginning June 3rd up to June 8th of 1943, a series of conflict took place in Los Angeles, California in which was eventually called “The Zoot Suit Riots”. It was a culmination of cultural differences between Mexican-Americans who have been living in the Los Angeles area and servicemen who were stationed in the Navy Reserve Training School in Chavez Ravine. It is important to note that during this period, these servicemen came from various parts of the country. Some of them have never encountered a Spanish-speaking person prior to coming to California. On the other hand, the demographics of residents within Chavez Ravine are predominantly of Mexican origin, with about close to a third of the population, about 1,400 was born outside the country. By the late 1930s, Los Angeles had the highest concentration of ethnic Mexicans outside Mexico. This demographical character in the Chavez Ravine area may also be attributed to the Bracero Program, a bilateral agreement between the United States and Mexico which was instituted because of farm labor shortages caused by American entry into World War II.

The term “zoots” is etymologically described by the Oxford English Dictionary as a reduplication of the word suit. Aesthetically, “zoot suits” are high-waisted, wide-legged, tight-cuffed with pegged trousers, and a long coat with wide lapels and wide padded shoulders. During the 1940s the zoot suits were the fashion norm within African-American communities. Its popularity then later spread to other communities such as; Mexican-American, Italian-American, and Filipino-Americans. What started as fashion trend later became a symbol of defiance on one side and loathing on the opposite end. The design of zoot suits structurally requires lots of fabrics. During the 1940s, the style was later viewed as excessive and indulgent, especially when fabric was being rationed for the war effort.

The unruly and/or uncivilized behavior of army men were initially brushed off by local residents, as a way of being patriotic and supporting the morale of the army men during the war. It was initially deemed as servicemen “blowing off some steam”. The atmosphere shifted when it became apparent that race became a part of the dynamics. During the time when segregation was legally imposed, when color and cultural lines cross, it resulted in unnecessary anxiety among adults, specifically whites.

Many of the Los Angeles news publications at that time often described Mexican-Americans with racially inflammatory propaganda. A year prior to the Zoot Suit Riot, the death of José Gallardo Díaz, became the catalyst of the avalanche of what’s to come. Despite insufficient evidence, the LAPD swiftly arrested 17 Mexican-Americans youths as suspects. In response to the alleged murder, media outlets were quick to denounce zoot suiters and called for actions against them.

Headlines like “Lifeguards Can’t Tell ‘Zoot Suit’ Bathers” is an unmitigated example of what prejudice looks like. In a place like a beach, where people spend time as a means of relaxation and for social gatherings, “warnings” about the zoot suiters is nothing more but instigating paranoia. The focus was not on the safety of the beachgoers but was gearing towards fear mongering.

According to Capt. George Watkins, chief of the Santa Monica lifeguards, “their bathing togs weren’t any different from those of others so we were unable to tell just how many, if any, were gang members”. At the end of the day, no one was rounded up at the beach for being a zoot suiter. The clothing style was nothing more but a symbol of disdain for some people. Without zoot suits, the authorities had no way to identify pachucos from the rest of the public.

In conclusion, some people see the Zoot Suit riot as a precursor to immigrant-bashing that was heightened during the 1990s. Zoot suit is also seen as how hijab is being perceived by some people today. To some, hijab is a symbol of hatred and terrorism and not as traditional clothing of a religious sector. A person wearing a hijab can be treated very differently as compared to someone who doesn’t wear one. At the end of the day, it is a piece of clothing. There is more than a person or group of people than what’s on the surface. 

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