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ZOOT SUIT

The culture and language of Mexican immigrants labeled them as outsiders by the dominant society (Dieppa, 7). Most of the new arrivals respected the boundaries that existed, but the second generation found them hard to abide. Attracted by the downtown shopping districts, beaches, and glamour of Hollywood, many of the members of the second generation broke the unwritten rules that forbade their presence in these places. This pachuco generation attracted the negative attention of the Anglo-American population (McWilliams, 103). During the Second World War and after the Japanese were placed in internment camps, the Chicano in his Zoot Suit became a visible foe. The newspapers helped perpetuate this negative view of Mexican Americans.

Newspapers in the Los Angeles area had depicted Mexican Americans negatively months prior to the riots. A 1957 study showed that there was a shift in usage of the term "Mexican" to "zoot-suiter" in Los Angles papers in the months before and after the riots (Turner and Surace, 19). This change was made because an "unambiguously unfavorable symbol is required as the rallying point for hostile crowd behavior" (Turner and Surace, 19). The press used the term ‘zoot suit’ to attack Mexican Americans because the term evoked the image of a devious person without blatantly attacking this racial group. This type of journalism helped instigate the riots.

By creating this devious image of the zoot suiter, the press also aided in the perpetuating the belief that these youths were receiving justly deserved punishment. The June seventh 1943 Los Angeles Times headline read: "Zoot Suiters Learn Lesson in Fights with Servicemen." The by-line for the story read, "Those gamin dandies, the zoot suiters, [have] learned a great moral lesson from service men, mostly sailors [.]" The Los Angeles county supervisor also applauded these actions: "All that is needed to end lawlessness is more of the same kind of actions that is being exercised by the servicemen. If this continues, zooters will soon be as scarce as hen’s teeth" (Morales, 74). Except for a few detractors, the actions of the servicemen were praised, while the victims were imprisoned. While the newspapers portrayed the riots as a battle between justice and delinquency, the true cause of this explosion of violence was race.

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The newspapers and official reports denied it, but the riots were clearly racially motivated. After the riots, the Grand Jury of Los Angeles held an investigation and concluded that racial discrimination was not the motivation behind juvenile crimes. It also concluded that those "ill-informed and rebellious people," who attacked the Mexican American youth, were also not motivated by racial discrimination (Scott, 120). A Times editorial on June 12, 1943 also reasoned that racial prejudices were not involved because many different races wore the zoot suit, including Anglo-Saxons. Indeed, Mexicans were not the only groups targeted by the sailors, Filipinos and Blacks were also attacked (McWilliams, 249-250). But the majority of those who were arrested were not wearing zoot suits, showing that more than just attire was involved. Eleanor Roosevelt concluded this by stating, "the problem is not limited to the question of somewhat exotic suits, but rather has its roots in the discrimination that has been practiced against Mexicans" (La Opinion, June 17, 1943).

Discrimination created environments, which fostered gang membership. The zoot-suit gangs began as a result of the economic and social depression, unequal law enforcement, and lack of youth services in the barrio (Dieppa, 49). The poverty these youths encountered forced many to drop out of school to find a means to supplement their families’ income. Employers’ unwillingness to hire Mexican Americans resulted in feelings of frustration and depravation that were combated by one’s membership in a gang (Dieppa, 31). The American Dream to which they were entitled as Americans seemed off limits because they were also Mexican. They were not content with the restricted lives of their immigrant parents, but were also not allowed to have the freedom that is emphasized in American culture. This dichotomy caused many of these individuals to see Anglos negatively. The discrimination encountered by Mexican Americans resulted in a deep frustration that was eased through gang membership.

Today Mexican Americans along with many other groups face the same frustrations that the zoot suiters encountered fifty years ago. Gangs continue to be a method of coping with these frustrations. In the 1980s Chicano gangs accounted for half of the four hundred gangs in Los Angeles County. Poverty and limited job opportunities continue to describe their neighborhoods. (Vigil, 5). Violence like that of the Zoot-Suit Riots erupted again during the Watts Riots in 1965 and the Los Angeles Riots in1992. All three riots were the result of a growing frustration with persistent inequality. The city’s inability to balance the relationship between its minorities and ruling class makes it a violent and angry place. It struggles to balance its distinct beautiful and unique culture with it tendencies to tolerate injustice. Acceptance of its diversity leads to a coherent identity. This is also true of the United States. Its diversity is a large part of its identity. Through its diversity, Los Angeles establishes itself as a unique city and as an American place.

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