The Power of the Zoot

Long coats stretched below their fingertips and sometimes to their knees.  Loose fitting pants had narrow cuffs to make them look even baggier.  Shoulder pads made them look stronger.  Conk haircuts, long chains and wide-brimmed hats adorned with flashy feathers gave them swagger.  Everything about the zoot suits of the World War II era made a statement.  They made a statement about the “Double V” campaign – about the oppression of non-white youth even while many of them were fighting for fellow Americans’ freedom overseas.  They made a statement about rebellion – about fighting the status quo of hard work and supporting the war-front labor.  Mainstream America also perceived statements about violence, juvenile delinquency, laziness and utter disregard for the war effort.  While non-white youth tried to make a statement through their style of clothes, music, language and culture, they were also criminalized and made out to be deviant persons because of their leisurely, consumerist lifestyles.  This criminalization culminated after the Sleepy Lagoon Trials in the Zoot Suit Riots (particularly the ones that occurred in Los Angeles).  During this time, racialized groups – including those not even sporting the zoot style – were symbolically castrated by being beaten and de-pants by men in the military.  Ethnic women were sexualized and harassed despite the fact that many riots were spurred by rumors of Mexican and African American rape and violence against white women.  Despite these horrible incidences, non-white youth were made out to be the perpetrators, whereas the actual instigating service men were portrayed as victims.

Zoot Suiters expressed themselves, their culture and their attitude through their clothing, the music they listened to and their use of language.  Ethnic youth who wore zoot suits and personified the style that went along with the wardrobe did so as a statement of separation from the mainstream mores of the time.  Non-white youth (and sometimes even white youth) of all kinds came together to stand up for what they believed in to have a common sense of solidarity in their search for self-respect in a society that saw them as lower class citizens even before they began to donning their zoot suits.  “Despite racial, regional, and gender differences among zoot suiters, their struggles for dignity linked them as a class, where class functioned not just as a predefined group of people indentified by similar relations of subordination or exploitation to capital but also as a group based on members’ insubordination to domination” (Alvarez 78).  This class was filled with great diversity and a distinct culture and language all their own.  “These ‘politics of cool’ crafted and exhibited by zoot suiters also included distinct speech patterns inflected by region and ethnicity” (Alvarez 90).  Hybrid languages such as caló distinguished the world in which they were used and were practically unintelligible to outsiders who were not hip to their activities.  Zoot suiters came together to distinguish themselves from these outsiders who didn’t understand their style and used these eccentricities to have a culture unique to them.  “Their philosophy, music, argot, and dress distinguished pachucos and their followers from the uninitiated – the ‘venados,’ ‘pacoimas,’ and ‘Pepsi-Cola kids.’  Such conformists were ridiculed.  This was part of the pressure exerted on youth to abandon their parents’ and society’s norms for those of the gang, the street, and jazz culture” (Daniels).  Zoot suit culture was almost an escape – a separatist society used to express their distaste with their surrounding suppressors.  However, the very things that distinguished them were also the things that would criminalize them.  “The public would not have been concerned at all about the zoot suit if the style had not been viewed as a menace to society” (Daniels)

Often times, the same mainstream culture that zoot suiters were trying to rebel against saw their actions as deviant and in fact, opposing the war effort.  “Zoot-suiters were thought to be anti-patriotic.  They should be in uniform, though often they were too young to enlist.  They should wear clothes that conformed to federal rationing of material, but some zoot-suits were men’s clothing cut down for slimmer and often shorter youth.  They were lazy for not working, even though President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order did not provide good jobs in war plants for Mexican-Americans” (Daniels).  Outsiders had no way of really understanding the culture of the zoot suiters, and their perceptions were often times a distortion of what the young people were actually trying to represent.  To many hepcats and pachucos, the zoot suit was a uniform – a uniform that signified the daily war against racism that they fought on their own soil.  For others, it was just another uniform that they did wear, considering the fact that many zoot suiters volunteered for or were drafted into the war.  People perceived zoot suiters as wasteful for wearing loose fitting clothes and lazy for partaking in leisurely activities such as going to movies and dances.  Participate in these activities were seen as contradictory to the conservatism of goods that was common during the war – although by spending money, these zoot suiters were actually helping the country’s economy, even though onlookers did not have this view of their behavior.  “Many believed that rationing wartime goods would help win the war and ensure that increased consumption would be among the postwar spoils.  Zoot suiters’ consumer gaze reflected not only their desire for commodities but also their power to objectify goods and uniquely engage the wartime economy – cultural practices most often executed by white males” (Alvarez 96).  Their actions were not readily controllable by parents or government officials, and so they were contorted into something menacing.  Although the zoot suiters were simply asserting their own rights to find their identity and dignity by creating their own way of contributing to the war effort, by doing so, they were easily demonized by the mainstream and the media.

The media had a great impact in the way many Americans viewed zoot suiters even before rioting began.   Female zoot suiters were easily criminalized simply because of the way their lifestyles and clothing opposed common mores.  “By designating them ‘malinches,’ La Opinion implied that pachucas were sexually available, as evidenced by their ‘degrading’ (‘denigrantes’) gang names, such as ‘Cherry Gang’ and ‘Bow-Legs.’  And like their sixteenth-century namesake, pachucas were treacherous.  By wearing relatively short skirts and excessive makeup and, in some instances, forming gangs, brandishing weapons, taking to the street, and accompanying pachucos on their raids, they appeared to betray middle-class definitions of feminine beauty and decorum” (Ramirez).  While these pachucas were simply asserting their own version of individuality and what they saw as feminine, this juxtaposition to what was “proper” for ladies made them a criminalized scapegoat group.  Zoot suiters in Denver were also demonized in the media and their exploits were greatly exaggerated – if not completely fabricated – in a true from of fear mongering.  “The Rocky Mountain News (May 9, 1944) exacerbated the panic with such headlines as ‘A Terrible Denver Tragedy:’ ‘GANGS OF YOUTHS, 16 to 18 years old, wandering the downtown streets, beating up women, assaulting soldiers, dragging spectators from movie houses, kicking them and pulling their hair!…It is the pathetic picture of certain unhappy members of minority groups venting their fury in a blind, confused way on innocent persons’” (Duran 138).  These violent acts were instantly racialized and associated with zoot culture.  This negative attention in the media spread to fear in communities and rumors within them that would lead to riots throughout the country.

While Mexican American and African Americans were fighting overseas against the Allied Powers, their brothers in the United States were fighting against their fellow servicemen.  During the war, these men and women were fighting for freedoms while at the same time, they were being taken away from non-white youth in their very own country.  An editorial in the Rocky Mountain News pointed out this discrepancy.  “The number of Latinos fighting in World War II only created greater confusion for locals who recognized that Germany’s discrimination against Jews needed to be addressed in this country:  ‘When you read the many Spanish names on our casualty list how do you feel about cafes with ‘White Trade Only’ signs where the families of those men are barred?’” (Duran 140-1).  Zoot suiters and non-white youth in general were racialized and segregated in their own country, and would in turn, become scapegoats representing the unpatriotic and savage (read a threat to the dominate white culture and predatory to white women).  Servicemen attacked non-white youth in an attempt to take away the dignity that they strived to attain in their zoot culture.  “Rampaging servicemen, at times accompanied by civilians, actively hunted zooters.  When they apprehended them, they beat and ‘unpantsed’ (disrobed) them and destroyed their zoot suits.  Some also cut their victims’ hair.  Mauricio Mazon’s perceptive assertion that the servicemen symbolically castrated zooters underscores the salience of gender – namely, masculinity – during the Zoot Suit Riots” (Ramirez).  These servicemen worked to take away the masculinity and culture that zoot suiters created through their attire.  At the same time, military men also sexualized Mexican American women in yet another form of assaulting the sexuality (perceived or actual) of pachucas.  “Several thousand single military men convened in the city on weekends but lacked dates, and Mexican-American women – white men thought – should be glad to meet their needs” (Daniels).  This further created racial tension as women became objects of competition for white and non-white men to battle over.  “A number of observers blamed the violence on competition for young women between male zooters and sailors.  Pachucas, it was rumored, appealed to servicemen and thus were jealously guarded by many Mexican American boys, much as white servicemen thought zoot suiters threatened white women.  In this scenario, Mexican American women were viewed less as active participants in the zoot suit culture and wartime society than as sexual property” (Alvarez 179).  Across the board, ethnic men became targets due to their machismo and the apparent threat to white women.  Both similarly and oppositely, women were sexually devalued and treated without consideration.

Regardless of the white servicemen’s actions, they were not seen as the perpetrators.  Once again, the easily criminalized ethnic groups and zoot suiters became the offenders and instigators.  “Officers of the law, as well as the public, often cheered the soldiers and sailors and then arrested the victims, while members of the press treated the whole affair as a kind of festivity” (Daniels).  Many of the riots were brought on in part by rumors of Mexican American and African American youth sexually assaulting white women.  With this, we again see how false assumptions about ethnic youth caused negativity, and violence, toward them.  While it is now – or should be – illegal for service men to act violently against civilians, especially juveniles, the media and most of America perceived the service men’s actions as self defense and most got off scotch-free.

Zoot suiters had a whole style about them.  Crossing ethnic boundaries, youth came together to represent their culture – their music, their language, their beliefs.  Many were simply trying to find their way in a war-time America that sent their brothers overseas, while at the same time, they were segregated and racialized on their own turf.  Everything they did was a form of expression, be it their clothing or their leisurely lifestyle.  Unfortunately, their way of life became demonized and criminalized throughout mainstream America, thanks greatly in part to the fear mongering of the media.  This fear culminated in the Zoot Suit Riots that occurred across the country.  And while in most instances, the non-white youth and zoot suiters were actually the victims of attacks from white servicemen, they were once again made out to be the ones to blame.

Works Cited

Alvarez, Luis. The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Daniels, Douglas Henry. “Los Angeles Zoot: Race “Riot,” the Pachuco, and Black Music Culture.” The Journal of Negro History 82 (1997): 201+.

Duran, Robert J. (forthcoming). Racism, Resistance, and Repression: The Creation of Denver Gangs, 1924-1950. Enduring Legacies: Colorado Ethnic Cultures and Histories. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2010.

Ramirez, Catherine Sue. “Domesticating the Pachuca.” The Women in the Zoot Suit. University of Colorado Electronic Reserves. Web. 14 Nov. 2010.

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