World War II and Mexican American Civil Rights

By Richard Griswold Del Castilo | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 3
Violence in Los Angeles: Sleepy Lagoon, the Zoot-Suit Riots, and the Liberal Response

RICHARD STEELE

Although Mexican Americans had been discovered by government early in the war, their problems had failed to register strongly on the consciousness of political and social reformers whose support was a prerequisite to change. The eastern literati and the nation's liberal political activists and commentators were sensitive to the abuses suffered by America's minorities and were in the forefront of efforts to expand their civil rights. But while the members of this influential group waxed eloquently and often about American prejudices as they affected African Americans, Jews, Indians, and even the European foreign born, they had little to say about the segregated schools, restricted public accommodations, and denials of rights suffered by the Mexican Americans of the nation's Southwest. Hollywood and Los Angeles had not yet assumed the centrality in American political and popular culture that they would a generation hence, and the region in which most Mexican Americans lived remained terra incognito for those who set the nation's reform agenda.1 Perhaps, as Carey McWilliams suggested in another context, the intellectual compass of liberals did not stretch much beyond the East Coast.2

Without the support of those who normally championed civil rights, it seemed unlikely that the discovery of the Mexican American would be followed by an outpouring of public sympathy or official commitment to change. A dramatic event was necessary to move officials to action. Such publicity-attracting events did in fact materialize at the end of 1942 and the following spring, and by mid-1943, Mexican Americans would at last register on the national consciousness.

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