tv Luis Alvarez on Zoot Suits Race Relations During World War II CSPAN October 29, 2017 12:00am-1:26am EDT
texas authors in literacy, and to support our texas libraries during that libraries. since those early years, the book festival has exploded. it very quickly became a national, premier destination for the biggest books of the year. >> joint book tv for the texas book festival live from austin november 4 and fifth on c-span two. > lectures in history, university of california san diego professor louise alvarez that luis alvarez who teaches a class about the 1943 zoot suit riots in los angeles. he describes race relations in the world war ii era and how those who wore the issues came to symbolize a challenge to gender and racial identities. his class is about an hour and 20 minutes.
symbol i symbolize a challenge to racial identities. this is about an hour and a half. >> all right. so let me just remind you where we are in our ongoing narrative of mexican/american history. last week we talked a lot about 1910 and the mexican revolution and the dramatic changes that this made for the mexican-origin folk on the northern side of the border. this week we are going to begin discussion of our third flash point in the course, which is 1943, really as a stand-in for world war ii. if you recall, at the end of last week we had been discussing those million-plus mexican migrants who moved north of the border into the united states, many of them -- hundreds of thousands of them and their children settling in the south western united states, california, texas and elsewhere. we discussed their experiences, their trials and tribulations, what they lived there in the 1920s and the 1930s and the great depression.
i mentioned a couple of times, and we'll be spending most of today discussing what happened to their children, those million-plus migrants who brought children with them in the '20s and '30s or had children who were born as american citizens and came of age in the 1930s and early 1940s and would become known as the mexican/american generation, who would become young adults living in the united states as the nation went to war during world war ii to defeat hitler, mussolini, the japanese and fascism around the world. this is what we will be talking about this week. i want to remind you a couple of the big questions that we have been tracing over the last several weeks, not the least of which is who and what is considered mexican/american or american more generally. who is afforded first class
citizenship in american society? this changes with these million-plus migrants and their offspring. it is a dramatic moment and shift in mexican/american history we will be talking about this week in the 1940s during world war ii in part because, if nothing else, this moment reminds us that there are contradictions, fissures and deep iniquities when it comes to who and what is considered a full member of american society. one of the main arguments and points i want you to take away from today and wednesday is that world war ii highlights these contradictions of american society and democracy in dramatic, fundamental, powerful ways, not least because we have literally tens of thousands of america can/americans not to
mention african-american and other non-white racialized minorities fighting for american democracy overseas. they're fighting in the pacific. they're fighting on the front lines of europe. when those soldiers and sailors are return home it would stand to reason that they would expect to be afforded the privileges and benefits of american democracy and citizenship. they just spent months, if not years, tours of duty fighting for it overseas, putting themselves and their physical bodies on the line. it doesn't seem out of the realm of reasonable expectations that they would expect first class citizenship back on the home front. these could tntradictions, beca
many were not afforded first class citizenship and that conversation we've been having about where the boundaries are drawn, who is in and who is out, become highlighted when those soldiers and sailors return. so these contradictions in war-time democracy, who and what is considered american is one big question i want you to continue wrestling with as we navigate world war ii. the second big point i want you to consider is that the war was not only fought someplace else. there is, many would argue, a war raging on the home front, a war for some of the very same principles that folks were fighting overseas for, a war for
american democracy, for first class membership and citizenship. we're going to talk mainly about the war on the home front today, and the lens that i want to use to talk about this for the first half of class today is youth culture, popular fashion, and, more specifically, the zoot suit. how many of you have ever seen or perhaps even worn a zoot suit? anyone? where have you seen it or worn it? where? in your doc class, of course. this is a topic that is often covered in doc as well as a few other classes around campus. anyone else seen or heard of the zoot suit? one of the things i want you to consider about the zoot is that it has a long life.
we're going to talk about it in the context of world war ii, but it has reappeared in recent years, in the late '90s, in the early 2000s when high school kids were wearing it to prom, when it became the topic of popular fashion in music by the cherry popping daddies, big bad voodoo daddy or this resurgence in swing music in the late '90s and early 2000s. gem carrie wore one in "the mask." we're going to talk about the zoot suit in the context of world war ii. when it comes to the zoot, what i want you to remember is, yes, it is a suit of clothes. a suit of clothes, even with its exaggerated style, often flashy
colors, it didn't inherently mean anything. the zoot suit itself, just like the rest of popular culture in the world we live, garners its meaning in the context in which it was worn. more on this in a few minutes. i want to begin by sharing two stories of the zoot suit during world war ii. i think this illustrates the different racial experiences that came with the zoot suit, and to underscore it meant different things to different folks. the first comes from a well-known former zoot suitor by the name of malcolm little. most of us know him by malcolm x. has anyone read the biography of malcolm x? if you have not, it is a something you should read, it is a crucial piece of history we should all take a look at in our lives. before he became malcolm x he was malcolm little.
this is long before he was a member of the nation of islam or became an icon of the civil rights movement. early on in the pages of his autobiography malcolm little recalls venturing to his local army recruitment office during the early years of world war ii. this is in new york. he roll also through the front doors of the armed forces depot, quote, costumed like an actor, with my wild zoot suit i wore my yellow knob toed shoes and frizz willed my hair up. i went in skipping and tipping and thrusted my tattered greetings at that reception desk's white soldier. crazy-o, daddy-on, get moving, i can't wait to get in. shortly following this initial encounter malcolm is sent to visit with the army psychiatrist where he tells him, quote,
daddio, now you and me we're from up north here, so don't you tell nobody, i want to get sent down south, organize them soldiers, you did, steal us some gun and kill us crackers. that psychiatrist's blue pencil dropped and he stared at me as if i was a snake's egg hatching. i knew i had him. soon after this he gets his 4f card in the mail which basically excuses him from the army draft. around the same time, there's another zoot suitor, one far less known unless you have read my name, his name is alfred barella, a mexican-american living in los angeles. barella wrote a letter to the municipal court judge who had balled him out for disturbing the piece. he in his letter argued to the judge, quote, ever since i can remember i've been pushed around
and called names because i'm a mexican. i was born in this country. like you said, i should have the same rights and privileges of other americans. pretty soon i guess i'll be in the army and i'll be glad to go, but i want to be treated like everybody else. we're tired of being pushed around. we're tired of being told we can't go to this show or that dance hall because we're mexican or that we better not be seen on the beach front or that we can't wear draped pants -- which is what mexican-americans often called the ballooned at the thigh, tapered closely at the ankle zoot suit pants -- or have our haircut the way we want to, end quote. so think about malcolm little's zoot story juxtaposed to alfred barella's zoot story. malcolm used his zoot suit to alienate himself from the mainstream united states, to evade the draft, to evade from having to enlist in the armed
forces. barella's comments suggest his zoot suit style, very different from malcolm's, did not preclude him from willingly joining the service in an effort to assimilate and eventually fight for american democracy overseas. my point is that zoot suitors, mexican-americans, african-americans wells the filipino, japanese-american and increasing number ofrm. white yh who also wore the zoot suit after the war unfolded thought differently about their style and their fashion, and that the zoot suit meant different things to all of them, that the zoot itself professed a kind of wide variety of political views during war time. some of them were heavily critical of the war, heavily critical of the kind of hypocrisy that the contradictions in american democracy meant for
mexican-american and other non-white folks. others like barella perhaps saw themselves and their style and the zoot suit as part and parcel of what we might call a kind of politics of worthiness, that this is my tuopportunity to demonstrate that i am worthy of full membership in american society, and i will show you by joining the service. i will show you by being as deeply committed as putting my body on the line for american democracy as anyone else. the zoot in other words meant different thing to different people, and i want us to kind of use it as a window into the complicated, contested and shifting world of mexican-american identity and health nick politics during world ware
politics during world wt politics during world w eth politics during world wn pcr ii. this is my way of saying it has a lot to teach us, the zoot suit does, about the complex identities, racial experiences and culture during world war ii when it comes to mexican americans. this is where we are today, and for the next hour or so i want us to use the zoot as a lens to think through who and what is considered american during world war ii. because by the end of the next hour i suspect it will be painfully obvious that zoot suitors, mexican-american, black in particular were not considered first class citizens. if part of my argument is that the zoot suit garnered its meaning from the context in which it was worn, right, world
war ii, and that to wear the zoot suit on the streets of los angeles in june 1943 meant putting yourself at risk of getting -- pardon my french, your -- kicked by white sailors and soldiers on the streets of los angeles, it didn't mean the same thing, say, in the late '90s, early 2000s when scores of youth were wearing them to prom. so we need to think about the shifting historical context of world war ii in order to understand fully what the zoot suit meant in that time and place. so let's talk a little bit about the shifting context and history of world war ii. i will leave the outline up there as we make our way through so you can follow along.
world war ii brings massive changes to the american economy, politics and related social and cultural worlds that mexican-american -- again, these young folks who are coming of age as american citizens in numbers larger than we've seen up to this point in mexican-american history. as a number of u.s. historians, most in fact, have argued over the years, world war ii helped pull the country as a whole out of the great depression. it lifts the nation from the economic doldrums of the 1930s that we spent last week talking about. many women and minorities in particular gained employment opportunities during the war. this is in part because the u.s. war industry needs to provide
goods to fuel the war effort and defeat fascism overseas, and women and minorities are afforded opportunities that they hadn't been certainly during the depression, but one could argue even for a longer stretch of history before then. labor is needed to fuel wartime production. this is they to win the war. this leads to massive impersonal migration. so we've just had a million mexican folks and their children over the previous two decades move into the u.s., southwest and elsewhere. during world war ii there's massive internal migrations, not just from mexican-american and also african-american and others who are seeking to benefit from this employment surge that comes with the war. so black folks leaving the south
and settling in war-production centers like los angeles or san francisco, chicago and elsewhere around the country is not uncommon. part of why this is important for us as we will see in a few minutes is that the kind of demographic context in which mexican-americans find themselves living changes, especially in big cities like los angeles where they are now living, these young folks living, going to school with, perhaps working with, on occasion even dating folliclks might not be part of mexican-american communities or even mexican-american themselves. los angeles in particular is home to a boom in wartime
industry like ship building, aircraft construction. and whether folks were finding work as welders or in other sorts of professions, working in wartime industry came to be seen as doing one's patriotic duty. it became a marker of citizenship, of productive citizenship for many americans. so few weren't a sailor or a soldier, the next best thing to doing your duty during world war ii was to work in the war industry. in fact, as i've said, many women and minorities -- not just mexican-americans -- did so. it is important to keep in mind
however that there's a glass ceiling, and many would argue a really low glass ceiling to the kind of employment and economic opportunity that the war offers to non-white folks and women. they are often the last hired and the first fired. that is to say when the war is over they are often the first to lose their positions. the kinds of jobs that they were able to accrue during the war were often those with the least amount of social mobility, so they weren't able to move up the employment ladder. their jobs were stunted in terms of the kind of growth that they were offered. and then after the war was over, as i said, many of them lost these positions. so we have to take the
opportunities of the wartime industry and the limits of those opportunities to mexican-americans and others together. it is not just one or the other. so there are big economic changes during the war. if people have a little bit of extra money in their pocket that they might not have had during the 1930s, it stands to reason that they're going to spend it. one of the ways that young mexican-americans, among others, spend it is on style and fashion, and this is part of a kind of upsurge in world war ii era popular culture. there's a kind of newfound economic freedom that many americans pursued, and this really helps fuel the growth of
pop culture and commodities to new heights. so people had more money to spend and they spent it. they did some on leisure and entertainment, on recreation. there's a dramatic rise in the popularity of film and literature, sports, eccentric clubs, jazz music, dance halls. all of this despite a kind of popular wartime rhetoric in which people are expected in many ways to contribute financially to the war effort. right, if part of the argument is that what good americans should be doing in world war ii, what they should be doing during the war is working to defeat fascism overseas, one of the popular ideas was that they should be investing in war bonds, not in suits of clothes, that the spare money folks had
should be being diverted back into the war effort in some form or fashion. so we have newfound economic freedom and opportunity despite its glass ceiling limits, we have a rise in popular culture, and we also have ongoing and dramatically shifting battles over civil rights. many mexican-american and african-americans and japanese-americans, particularly after pearl harbor in december of 1941, support what was known as the bb campaign. the vv campaign was victory abroad against hitler, mussolini and fascism, but also victory at home for first class membership in american society. you can't win abroad without also winning at home.
that you couldn't fight for american democracy overseas without fighting for equal citizenship on the homefront. this became a fundamental and core principle for many medicatio mexican-american, african-american and other folks. there were some successes in civil rights during the war. franklin delano roosevelt, president during the initial years of world war ii signed executive order that banned discrimination in the workplace and called for fair employment practices and fair housing opportunities.
there were also movements against and resistance to siff righsiff -- civil rights progress. remember, we have mexican-american becoming a larger portion, we have african-american migrating internally to big cities across the country. eventually by the time we gent to the end of the war and even during the war as it goes on year by year, we have black and brown veterans returning to their old lives expecting equality. there are responses to this and racism and discrimination and lack of opportunity and the entrichemee entrenchment not just of jim crow segregation against african-americans in the deep
south, but also jim crow and what we might call juan or jamie crow against mexican-americans in southern california and elsewhere around the country is commonplace. in 1946 at the end of the war, just to leap ahead for a moment, it shouldn't be surprising that as veterans are returning and claiming rights and new ways after having fought for american democracy overseas, that there's an uptick in lynchings against african-americans at the end of the war. if we're talking about civil rights during world war ii and who and what is considered american, or perhaps more importantly who is not, we at least have to spend a minute or two reminding yourselves of japanese-american internment. following pearl harbor in december of '41 we all are aware
that japanese and japanese-americans living in much of the west coast of the united states were interned. when the u.s. goes to war with japan, the fallout on the home front was devastating for many japanese-americans. when american patriotism during the war sort of bleeds into and becomes very hard to distinguish from a kind of yellow peril. i mean the larger argument here -- and this is not unique to the second world war, is that the line between patriotism and fascism is sometimes hard to distinguish. in the early 193440s, in 1942, e first few months of the year in particular, roosevelt signs executive order 9066 which
essentially suspends the citizenship and human rights of japanese americans and sends them to concentration camps. their property, their homes, their belongings are confiscated. two-thirds, two-thirds of the some 120,000 men, women and children that are interned in these concentration camps are american citizens. they're basically given one week, one week's notice before being shipped off to one of ten camps, most of which were located in remote areas acrossm the west. these camps were managed by the war relocation authority. there was some resistance by japanese-americans who charged racism, including by a group of young japanese-american men who
when they were interned signed "no" on surveys that asked if they were patriotic and devoted to the united states. now, think about that. what would you sign? what would you say, yes or no, if you were locked up and given a week and lost your home and your property and your belongings and then asked to pledge your solidarity and patriotism and commitment to the folks that lock you up? this group of young japanese-american men who responded no to this loyalty questionnaires were known as the no-no boys. i mention them in part because they were also -- not all of them, but many of them were fond of wearing zoot suits, from manzinar to concentration camps in colorado and arkansas there was an internal zoot suit scene in many of the concentration camps, but we'll come back to that in just a moment or two. it wasn't until 1944, more than
two years after yap niec japanese-americans were interned that the supreme court finally ruled that the civilian agency, the war relocation authority, did not have the right to incarcerate law-abiding citizens and the federal camps began to close down. japanese-americans returned to their homes. my point here is that there's a lot happening in world war ii when it comes to the economy, when it comes to pop culture, and when it comes to the politics of civil rights. it is in that context with all of this swirling around that youth, mexican-american and other youth, african-american, japanese-american, interned or not, wearing zoot suits comes to mean something more than just a youth cultural style.
that in that volatile context, right, where literally the line also of who and what is considered american are being redrawn, sometimes in these violent ways, that wearing a zoot suit becomes a flash point, becomes like a lightning rod for this kind of debate on the home front. who and what is considered american? and to give away the punch line, perhaps next to japanese-americans who were interned throughout much of 1942 and '43, into '44, zoot suitors, mexican-american zoot suitors in particular, were viewed as public enemy, if not number one then number two or one-b right behind japanese-americans. they were seen as unamerican.
they were seen as disloyal. they were seen as sub versivers the war effort, and it is in part because of the context, right, these shifting dramatic changes of economy, politics and social and cultural allegiances that the zoot suit comes to garner this deep meaning. that's where i want to turn to next. i want to talk a little bit more about the zoot suitújdñ itself. it is often told as a story or history of world war ii as an mexican-american story on the west coast or an african-american story on the east coast, right.
barella's story that i began with or malcolm little's story, sort of dominate the narrative of what the zoot suit was and why it mattered and how we can use it to make sense of world war ii. i want you to think of them together, that the zoot suit was not just a brown thing on the west coast, not just a black thing on the east coast, but it was an american thing. actually after the war, as a footnote, it becomes an international youth popular style, but that's another lecture for another day. it was popular across the country in virtually every urban center from san diego and los angeles to new york and points in between, chicago, detroit, philadelphia, houston, san antonio, on down the list. it was worn by mexican-americans, by african-americans,
japanese-americans, and especially on the west coast filipino-americans as well. white youth adopted the zoot suit as part of their own sense of style and fashion. it is defined by a number of things. the baggy pants that ballooned out at the thigh and were tapered very closely at the ankle. the pants were something that malcolm little described as "punjab" pants. they were often accompanied by a coat with long tails flowing from behind. it wasn't uncommon for youth to have a gold or silver watch chain that they carried in their pocket and kind of swung as they walked along the streets. the pancake or wide-brimmed hat, often with a feather stuck in
it, was not unusual. my great-uncle tony, the brother of robert alvarez sr. who we watched in the lemon grove incident last week was a zoot suitor. in fact, here is an interesting footnote. the first time he ever studied or wrote an academic paper about the zoot suit long before it became a book was when i was in a class here at ucsd in 1993 or '94 on the history of los angeles and i interviewed my uncle tony. one of the things he told me in that first interview when i asked him what the zoot suit style was, and he scribbldescri piece by piece. and he said if you didn't have the right build, if you didn't look big and strong with the right stature, with that wide-brimmed hat you would look like a thumb tack, right? so part of his argument was that it was about looking good.
it was about presenting yourself to folks who saw you in a way that you could be seen and heard, at a time during world war ii when most mexican-american youth and others were expected to be silent and invisible. they were expected to find their niche in the wartime economy or serve overseas, but here you had zoot suitors wearing these flashy threads out in public, spending money on recreation and leisure, when they were supposed to be 100% committed to the war effort. now, i should point out that many zoot suitors, mexican-american and otherwise, were both zoot suitors and soldiers or sailors, like alfred barella.
or my uncle tony. that it wasn't necessarily a contradiction to be both. but as we will see the conflict and contestation over these different ways of being american, a zoot suiter or a serviceman, came to be drawn with a very sharp line between them. it wasn't just young men either. particularly on the west coast, young mexican-american women had their own zoot suit style fashion. they often wore short black skirts, sometimes the same coats as their male counterparts. it wasn't unusual for them to wear heavy makeup and their hair up in high pompadours. some even wore men's clothes,
pants or dress socks up to their thighs. i talked to one mexican-american woman zoot suitor who told me she used to buy the biggest socks she could find at the men's department stores in los angeles and pull them all the way up underneath a very short skirt to nearly the top of her thigh and then glue the sock to her legs before she went to school or to a dance or to a party so that it wouldn't fall down. looking good, that maintaining the style meant that she would literally glue her socks, her clothes to her physical body. looking good meant something beyond just looking good. it was also making a statement in this context of war time society. so it was black and brown. it was east coast and west
coast, it was male and female, it was gendered in other words. if that is sort of a short version of who, the what, the where, the when, i do want you to consider and begin to ask, why should we care about the zoot suit? i mean this is the case that i'm making today, but i'm not the only one. the title of the book that i wrote on the zoot suit, "the power of the zoot," took its cue in part from ralph ellison, the remarkable african-american author, activist and thinker who wrote, among many other important works, a book called "the invisible man," which you should also read if you haven't. he said in part, writing in 1943 that, "perhaps the zoot suit conceals profound political meaning. perhaps the symmetrical meaning of the lady hop conceals clues to great potential power," and
it is the power of the zoot. what it meant in the context of which it was worn in world war ii that i think this riddle, if we can call it that, ralph ellison asks us to think about. so i want you to think about several big points and questions here. number one, how the zoot suit helps us see the connections between mexican-american history and the history of other groups and communities during war time. that is to say we can't tell the history of mexican-americans during world war ii without accounting for how it overlaps and intersects with that of african-americans and others. the power of the zoot, in other words, is at least partially drawn from its multi-racial quality. number two -- and here i will sound like a broken record, but it is worth emphasizing the point -- that the zoot suit
helps us see the boundaries of the national politic, where the racial, gendered and class lines of who is considered fully american and afforded first class american citizenship are drawn. who is in, who is out. number three, that the zoot suit afforded young mexican-american men and women a vehicle by which to challenge the racial, gendered and broader contours of american identity during world war ii. partly what i want to emphasize here is that, yeah, this was a suit of clothes, but what i'm suggesting is that it is kind of
a dress rehearsal, right, for other arenas of american life, where experimentation can happen, where people can cross racial boundaries, where young women can wear men's clothes and articulate and perform different gender identities. where culture, right? this kind of cultural politics of what you wear matters beyond just looking good, that we have to sort of take this kind of behavior and activity seriously because it serves as a kind of oppositional memory, an archive of an mexican-american experience that is not recorded in, say, the archives of the los angeles police department or s
mayor's office or county supervisor records. that if we want to see and hear, listen to the full scope of the mexican-american experience during the war, we have to pay attention to things like music and fashion. when we do, it helps us see how some were challenging what it meant to be an american, that there's a kind of different racial-engendered performance and articulation of what it meant to be a young person living in the united states during world war ii when we pay attention to the zoot. finally, as a fourth point, just to underscore in a different way what i have just said is that the zoot suit helps us see something, at least a glimpse of
the historically-lived experience of folks who are left out of the dominant historical narrative, the conventional records that most folks turn to. who's left out of history, that sometimes always historians we have to look at different kinds of sources. i mean you all are reading primary sources, documents from 1848 through the chicano movement that we'll get to next week. very few of even those sources for this class are music or fashion, but we have to pay attention to those sorts of things if we want to get a chens of how people lived through these periods. so i want to tell a version of zoot suit history that at least
attempts to account for the perspective and point of view of the zoot suitor, himself or herself. i want to tell you that story in three parts, with the time that we have left before we take a break. the first part is dignity denied, the second part the struggle for dignity, and finally we'll wrap up briefly with riots and violence on the homefront. just a theoretical note of what i mean by dignity. dignity is more than just being honored or esteemed, but it is also what i would call a kind of politics of refusal, where being able to live your life in a
dignified way means rejecting, it means refusing being dehumanized. it is a refusal of conformity, a refusal of being humiliated, and this, i argue, whether you agree with me or not the argument is that the zoot suit was one way of reclaiming dignity at a time and a play during world war ii when that dignity was taken from young mexican-american youth. let's start with dignity denied. this is a part of the story of the zoot suit where non-white youths, mexican-americans and african-americans in los angeles for our purposes in particular were dehumanized and stripped of their dignity by the difficult life conditions that they faced as part of wartime society, the economy, the political climate and the shifting discourse about race in the urban united states.
just to remind you that one of the daily-lived realities of being black or brown during world war ii, not just in the deep south in alabama or mississippi, but was segregation. this is a movie bulletin from los angeles. you will note that there is a mexican night every wednesday, a colored night every thursday. this was commonplace. so in this context with the demand of the wartime economy, with segregation and ongoing battles for civil rights and the many contradictions all of that evoked, the zoot suit garnered its meaning. it wasn't just these larger
economic and political developments, but there are ways in which young folk, young black and brown folk in particular are caught up in this moment. here is where i would urge you to think about something called the racialization of juvenile delinquency. it is not uncommon during war time for concerns about juvenile delinquency to skyrocket. it is logical, in fact. if we need young people to fight wars, they should be in the armed forces, in the army, the navy. if they're not in the army or navy, then they should be employed in war industry, as we've talked about already. if they're not doing one of those two things there is this
concern that they are not doing what they should be doing, that they're delinquent. so you can point to wars over the span of american history and concerns about what young people are doing, even when statistical data like during world war ii shows that there was not necessarily an uptick of juvenile delinquency, the concern about juvenile delinquency often goes through the roof. during world war ii, right, this rising concern over juvenile delinquency works hand in hand with concerns over race. so what we see is that along with japanese americans, it's young mexican-american and african-american men and women that are blamed for wartime problems of juvenile delinquency. this results, you can probably guess, in routine instances of
police brutality, ugly representations of black and brown youth, zoot suitors in particular, in the popular mainstream press where they are depicted as criminal, as immoral, as a drain on the war effort, as animal-like, basically unamerican in every way imaginable. imaginable. this is what, i would argue, was indicative of the racialzation of juvenile delinquency. juvenile delinquency was conflated with being a race problem. in southern california, it was mexico-american youth and to a lesser degree, african-american youth who came to take the brunt of this focus. as an example, in 1942, late 1942, the los angeles county
grand jury launches an investigation of so-called medicati mexican-american youth gangs in l.a. one of the expert witnesses that provides testimony to the grand jury is an l.a. county sheriff named edward duran ayers. this is in his testimony to the grand jury, he argues that, quote, the caucasian, especially the anglo-saxon, when engaged in fighting, particularly among youths, resort to fisticuffs and may at times kick each other, which is considered unsportive. unsportive. but this mexican element considers all that to be a sign of weakness, and all he knows and feels is a desire to use a knife or some lethal weapon. in other words, his desire is to kill or at least let blood. in his testimony, he goes on to compare mexican-american zoot
suitors to wildcats that need to be caged. there are numerous instances of judges across los angeles county referring to zoot suitors, mexican-american and african-american zoot suiters, as traveling in wolfpacks, a kind of language that annualiims focuses, that do you humanizes them. the racialization of juvenile delinquency and the focus on zoot suiters as a massive problem on the american home front takes off in los angeles after 1942, when there is an incident known as the sleepy lagoon case. i'm not going to go into great detail about it because we're going to watch a film about it later today. but the general outline is that
mexican-american youth, upwards of 600 of mechanics, are rounded up by city police in august of 1942, after a young mexican man named jose diaz is found bleeding to death after a gang fight at sleepy lagoon, a popular place for mexican-american youth to hang out in part because of the municipal swimming pools in city limits were segregated. there was usually one day of the week when mexican-american and african-american people were allowed to swim in city pools. anyone want to take a guess which day of the week? this was a movie bulletin. sunday, last day of the week. it depended on the pool. but it was usually the day before the pools were supposed to be cleaned. so it gives you a sense of how
these people and their bodies were actually considered. so following the discovery of jose diaz' body, and he dice, he's eventually murdered, he's killed in this skirmish between competing mexico youth gangs, the lapd rounds up 600-some-odd mexican youth. they end up arresting and put on trial upwards of 19 youth that are affiliated with the 38th street gang. this becomes the largest mass murder trial in california history up to this point. and those youth are sent to prison, despite, many would argue, a lack of evidence that they were the ones who actually killed jose diaz. more on this story in the film.
but for our purposes and the racialization of juvenile delinquency, what i want you to remember is the sweeps, these 600 youth that were rounded up in part of what was happening around them in this context of world war ii. it's not an accident that "the la times," "the daily herald," picks up on this racialization of juvenile delinquency. the zoot suit becomes a front page news, across the country, even international news, as does the effort of the sleepy lagoon defense committee, which is multiracial, by the way, that seeks to get the youth released from prison after they're sent away and locked up. this becomes a massive story. and part of the is followed across the u.s. because the zoot
suit becomes this icon of everything that is wrong and destabilized and immoral and violent and detracting from the war effort. this zoot suit and the folks that wear it become a kind of internal enemy. and we see this get played out on the front pages of the press and on the streets of los angeles, where the zoot suit itself becomes the target not just of the lapd but of everyday citizens, and eventually, as we will see, sailors and soldiers. one final story on the racialization of juvenile delinquency before we move on to part 2, dignity reclaimed. i talked to a woman who remembered that young female zoot suiters came to accrue this
negative meaning. she had this to say. and this is at a time when you can look -- i mean, you can go to the archives of the l.a. press, and you can find dozens of articles talking about the pompadours that the young women were fond of wearing. and articles talking about how in there hairdos like this, they hid weapons. tire irons. knives. chains. bricks. in their hair. and when they came across sailors or soldiers in the streets of l.a. when they were walking with their zoot boyfriends, they could reach into their hair and hand the weapon to their boyfriend so they can fight the sailors and soldiers.
she said, they made it out like we had knives in our hair, that was comical, she said. they also made it out like we were real tramps. this is the way the young women were depicted. i'm going to date myself, but this reminds me of when i was a kid and one of my favorite saturday morning cartoons was "scooby-d "scooby-doo," and there were episodes when the harlem globetrotters, the basketball team, were guests. this was an animated cartoon. the globetrotters were depicted as racist caricatures, with afros out to here. they would reach into their afros and pull out the opposing team, pull out the basketball court. but it was a cartoon, right? it wasn't real. it was make believe. it was a cartoon. and this is the way these young women were depicted in the
press. this was the racialization of juvenile delinquency. in response, we could argue that zoot suiters, what they were doing, by spending so much time looking good, it didn't just mean they cared about looking good. they were responding to this context in which they were being dehumanized, in which their dignity was being stripped and taken away from them. they're saying, here i am, see me, hear me, in this context in which i'm supposed to be silent. this is a good transition for the next part of the story, the struggle for dignity. the zoot suit is not just about a negative depiction of black and brown youth, but also about how those same youth took it upon themselves to be seen and heard. and there's two ways i want you to think about them doing that. one is through mobilizing their
own body. sometimes the most accessible weapon people have to combat conditions that are oppressive are themselves. and what these youth did was their physical bodies became the vehicle for them to speak back to power about the ways they were being treated during world war ii. they also did so by occupying public space, right? they weren't just doing it in their bedrooms in front of a mirror wearing the zoot suit. they were doing it on city streets, on corners and dance hau halls, in malt shops, in pool halls, occupying public space, being speak in these, i wouseen powerful ways. this is a shot of two black zoot
suiters in detroit, shot from behind, walking down the sidewalk. if any of you have seen the film "malcolm x," you will recall the opening scene in that film is denzel washington playing malcolm little before he becomes malcolm x and spike lee playing his sidekick shorty, decked out in their zoot suits in boston in the early years of world war ii, walking down the street, literally like this. hunched over, arms out, swinging their arms, occupying public space. their watches, their hats, their feathers, their tails, they're ballooned-out pants, a spectacle to be seen. people having to hop off the sidewalk in order to let them pass. that their bodies and public space were mobilized and occupied to be seen, to be heard, to challenge this dehumanization that many of them
faced up to as a part of everyday life in wartime american society. my point here is that what they were in fact doing was making an argument that there is a different way to be a young man or woman in american society during world war ii, that they were challenging status quo notificatio notions of wartime race, gender, and u.s. identity. i want you to think about the different pieces of what i just said. the first is gender. let's imagine zoot suiters juxtaposed to another popular icon of the wartime american woman, rosie the riveter. most of us have seen this image,
rosie the riveter, embodying this idea that american women are doing the work needed to wiç the war, to fuel the war effort. it's this kind of female masculinity. and here i will offer you a brief theoretical footnote. jack halverstam has written a terrific book called "female masculinity." in the introduction to that book he writes about james bond. it seems far afield,ñt!ymç but halverstam writes about james bond as a kind of heroic masculine figure, right? handsome, dressed to the nines all the time, gets all the ladies, using the secret spy tools and such, but that james
bond's heroic masculinity is only seen as being the man's man when juxtaposed to other masculinities in the james bond books, like for example moneypenny who is his boss in the british intelligence offices, she is this sort of butch, masculine figure, projecting a female masculinity. or q, the very nerdy scientist who invents all the innovative technical devices that bond uses in his escapades. and q, halverstam argues, is not an accident. q is q for year, it's a year masculinity. we only have an heroic masculine figure when we juxtapose it to different kinds of other masculine figures. and i would argue that world war ii is the same. that the sailor or the soldier becomes the heroic figure
juxtaposed to the zoot suiter, the male or the female zoot suiter. you have the female zoot suiter projecting these masculine characteristics, wearing men's clothes, roaming the streets in a way girls weren't supposed to be doing, or the men paying too much attention to their hair, too pretty, acting too feminine. so you have feminine masculinity and masculine femininity. the zoot suiters were challenging what a young man or woman could be when it came to their gendered identity. i would argue they were also challenging what it can mean when it came to their racial identity. a big part of the zoot suit was its multiracial quality.
then when it came to the music and dancing, zoot suiters weren't just listening and dancing to anything. they were bag into the jazz scene. jazz artists would come to l.a. or houston or other places and youth would go, not just black youth but mexican-american youth and l.a., central avenue, where the jazz and blues joints became sort of the home to a kind of multiracial scene, where in the face of wartime segregation, youth were saying, at least just for a moment, temporarily, on the dance floor, we're going to hang out with one another. and guess what, if people were dancing and socializing together, it stands to reason they were doing other stuff together too, right? having sex. the specter and fear of
miscegnation became associated with the zoot, as a challenge, as an alternative to the kind of jim and juan crow segregation we've talked about. and i'm emphasizing the kind of sexual dimensions to this scene that the zoot was a part of because it was real. i talked to one tailor who said, quote -- this was a tailor who made zoot suits for black and mexican-american youth during the war. and when i interviewed him he said, quote, you could see the whole world when a good zoot suit dancer threw his female partner over his shoulder. it was this hypersexual kind of performance that crossed racial lines. and even the zoot suit itself was seen as a visual extravaganza, as zoot suiters
moved across the floor. malcolm x, again, when he was malcolm little, remembers a night of zoot suit dancing like this. once i got myself warmed and loosened up, i was snatching partners from among the hundreds of freelancing girls along the sidelines. almost every one of them could really dance. i just about went wild. i was whirling girls so fast their skirts were snapping, brown girls, yellows, circling, tap dancing, i was underneath them when they landed, doing the eagle, the kangaroo, and the split. both in visual projection and the kinds of practices and social relationships that it cultivated and embodied, the zoot was a challenge to the challenge quo of conventional gender and racial dimensions of
wartime american identity. my point here is that the zoot embodied a different way of being american. if zoot suiters were reclaiming their dignity and projecting there were more than one way to be a young american during world war ii, it evoked a response. and here is the third part of the story. where we need to talk for a few minutes about race, riots, and violence. i'll go back to the outline.
and just in terms of the timeline that we're working with, we'll remind you that the zoot suit riots, this clash, this violent clash between zoot suiters and largely white servicemen in los angeles, explodes on the streets of l.a. during june of 1943. there's about eight or nine months after sleepy lagoon. about eight or nine months after this racialization of juvenile delinquency intensifies in the press, on the front pages, daily, day after day. it's not a surprise then that if zoot suiters were reclaiming their digdignity, part of what folks say is, you know what, i'm
going to stamp it out, you can't have it back. and it becomes a violent stamping out. it's one in which wearing a zoot suit did put you at risk of getting your ass kicked on the streets of l.a. in june of 1943, that's exactly what happens. right? the intensification of the zoot as a kind of icon of everything that's wrong with the home front, leads to the so-called zoot suit riots. and the zoot suit riots are most known for servicemen and zoot suiters clashing. the violence in 1943 is carried out by while sailors and to a
lesser degree soldiers and civilians against mexican-american youth in zoot suits but also black and even some white youth in zoot suits. in other words, part of what is happening is that american society is responding violently to these different articulations of what it meant to be a young man or woman during the war. for four days, first week of june of 1943, the story is the same. there are sailors initially, and then increasing numbers of other servicemen and civilians who attack zoot suiters on the streets, and the narrative is the same over and over, mexican-americans and african-americans are beaten, left bloodied, stripped of their
clothes in front of gathering crowds of onlookers on city streets. civilians and the lapd in the background who swoop in only after the beating s to arrest te zoot suiters themselves, while the sailors and soldiers are sent back to base camp to be dealt with by the shore patrol or the military police. this is the first week of june 1943. this is the so-called zoot soot riots, a moment in mexican-american history that is probably not aptly named, because much of the rioting is done by white american servicemen, right? we could term them "the servicemen riots" as much as "the zoot suit riots." my point is this is the point when the streets of los angeles
are actually the site in which that boundary of who's in and who's out, the national policy, is being drawn. it's being drawn violently. people are being stripped and beaten and arrested because they are being targeted for what they're wearing and what their racial identity is. let me just underscore the point by noting that wartime american democracy is not the kind of democracy that afforded mexican-american youth to wear what they wanted to wear without getting beaten. that wartime democracy didn't allow them that kind of freedom and expression.
we're going to get into this more when we watch the film in the second half of class today on the zoot suit riots. i wanted to wrap up with an argument that we should have seen this coming. if we were alive in los angeles in 1942 and '43, around the time of sleepy lagoon in august of '42 and the zoot suit riots in june of '43, the writing was on the wall. one of the ways we know this in hindsight, as historians, all of us, is we can go to the archives of the u.s. navy. and there is a stack of records in which sailors who were on leave or out for a night on the town in los angeles and got into a skirmish or two or three or four with zoot suiters in late
1942 or even the first months of 1943 leading up to the riots themselves, and then would go back to base and file a report with their superiors, and with the shore patrol. we can look at those records, and even though we have to take them with a huge grain of salt, because they are only delivered from the perspective of the sailors, not the zoot suiters, right, they might be true, they might be totally made up, but they still can tell us a lot about what those sailors thought about who was in and who was out, where the boundaries of the national policy were drawn. so when i looked through all these records, i pulled out four different feeds. and i want to share a few of them with you. so we're talking about complaints by sailors against zoot suits. one of the themes is the
protection of white womenhood. in this stack of archives, there are dozens and dozens, i mean probably hundreds of complaints by sailors against zoot suiters that they said were threatening their white wives, girlfriends, mothers, aunts, cousins, daughters, step daughters, you name it, right? but that they were threatening their, quote unquote, white women, and they had to step in to protect white women from these black and brown zoot suiters. the second theme is charges against zoot suiters as homosexual, or that zoot suiters were calling them homosexual in different ways. a third theme is that sailors
claimed zoot suiters insulted their service in the military. and a fourth theme is that they outnumbered them in attacks, or that they conducted sneak attacks. remember, this is after pearl harbor when the idea of a sneak attack means something very different than what we might think of now. so just a couple of examples as a way to close out this part of the class. in one typical case, a sailor reported two zoot suiters accosted his wife as she walked near chavez ravine. there is in some of these quotes at least an "r" rated label. they pulled up alongside her and asked her to get in the car, propositioning her by cursing, "how about an fuck"? other reports abound of zoot suiters allegedly calling
sailors belittling names, like boy scouts, bastards, dirty sons of bitches. in one instance a sailor called a zoot suiter a sucker for not getting out of the navy because it was so easy to get out of it. and they called them, one of my favorites, a cocksucker of the first order. then there was one that said a group of 200 or more jumped him but he somehow miraculously survived to make it back to base to file this report. again, these reports should be taken with a huge grain of salt. but what they remind us, even though they don't include the