75 Years Ago, Zoot Suit Riots Marked a Dark Period in Southern California History

By Valenzuela, Beatriz E. | Pasadena Star-News, June 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

75 Years Ago, Zoot Suit Riots Marked a Dark Period in Southern California History


Valenzuela, Beatriz E., Pasadena Star-News


The look is unmistakable: Crisp lines in voluminous trousers, polished shoes and exaggerated proportions. They are hallmarks of the zoot suit, which became connected to a youth subculture during the American jazz era.

In Southern California, the flashy attire also is linked to rebellion and Mexican-American pachuco culture.

And 75 years ago this weekend, on June 3, 1943, the zoot suit became forever tied to one of the darkest periods in the region’s history when U.S. military men took the streets of Los Angeles attacking young Mexican-American men, targeting those adorned in the attire.

Experts and scholars say the causes of the ensuing violence, that came to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots, are complex and varied: a growing distrust of immigrants, rampant racism and a perceived lack of patriotism from outsiders, among them.

But what is certain is that signs of racial and cultural tension, exacerbated by changing demographics — and ultimately by war — had been growing for years.

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BUILDING ANIMOSITIES

What erupted into rioting by servicemen, off-duty police officers and regular citizens in 1943 began building in the 1920s, explained Eduardo Obregon Pagan, a historian and professor at Arizona State University who wrote the book, “Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A.“

During that time, immigration increased from countries other than northern European nations such as Germany and England, according to Pagan.

“We started seeing people who were different,” he said. “They were religiously different. They tended to be dark-skinned.”

In response to the country’s shifting demographics, in 1924 Congress attempted to close the borders of the nation to nearly every country except those in northern and western Europe.

When youth culture began to cross color lines in the 1930s, at a time when there was legally imposed segregation, it caused anxiety among adults, specifically whites.

“A lot of this was precipitated by black cultural expression hitting the white mainstream,” Pagan said. “You have this underground highly sexualized, highly physical, artistic expression and it was like the entire Western civilization was about the collapse.”

Zoot suits became popular during the 1930s and early 1940s among some of those marginalized young people — particularly black, Latino, Jews and immigrant youth — who frequented jazz clubs and dance halls where black musicians performed.

Pachucos and pachucas were well-dressed Mexican-American men and women who typically wore a zoot suit. The term originated in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

“It was punk rock before punk rock,” said John de Luna, a pachuco historian and Boyle Heights zoot suit designer known as Barrio Dandy. “They were actually in resistance, in creating a youth movement that would hopefully change the world for the better.”

WARTIME TENSIONS

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, pulling the United States into World War II, anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise, and along with it disdain for the style of the flashy zoot suit.

The excessive style of the suit was seen as indulgent, especially when fabric was being rationed for the war effort.

“Here the sailors are saying, ‘That fabric should be used for our uniform, instead you’re using that fabric for a zoot suit,’” said artist and zoot suit designer Jose “Pachuco Jose” Lara of Fontana.

“The notion of patriotism was tied to difference — symbolic difference — and the idea that somehow that recent immigrants are somehow not patriotic and are a threat,” said Professor Brian Levin with Cal State San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. …

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