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Confederate Flags, Kneeling, and the USA: Part 2

Another Lesson in American Institutionalized Racism

One of the examples I can give is the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943. In the 1930s the US deported between 500,000 and two million people, including up to 1.2 million legal people of Mexican descent (illegally, I might add) so that they could ease the strain on the economy at the time. Many Latinos and Mexicans resided in historic areas. More recent immigrants joined them as they were segregated to part of the town which was the worst from housing to financially. In L.A., the newspapers ran articles using derogatory terms to describe the Hispanic and Latino communities, and urged that the teens were rampant troublemakers. Sound Familiar? This caused severe discord between the Caucasians and the minorities such as Mexicans and Latinos.

When L.A. was going through an expansion plan, it was rushed and poorly thought out. They decided to put a naval base right in the middle of one of the segregated communities, which caused even more tensions to flare and was a major spot for altercations during the riots. Lalo Guerrero was cited as the father of Mexican music and style which would later become to known as Zoot Suits. They wore extremely long flowing jackets, baggy legged pants sometimes accompanied by a pork pie hat and a long watch chain, and thick soled shoes. They created the name pachucos for themselves. In the 40s the racial propaganda made it seem as these people were a dangerous gang of delinquents who were a threat to the community, (once again, does this sound familiar?) when all they were trying to do was create their own identity.

In 1942, nine teenagers of a street gang were charged with murdering a Mexican man in a quarry pit and given long-term sentences, however this was later overturned by the courts creating even more animosity between the whites and the minorities. The Mexican community was labeled as all delinquents and hoodlums.

When we entered World War 2 in 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government began to rations things such as fabric and other materials through the war production board. They did a 26% cut back on fabrics and these were later called streamlined by Uncle Sam. This was put an end to the production of zoot suits and full women’s skirts and dresses, as most manufacturers agreed to follow the outlines set by the War Production Board (WPB). However the suits were still in demand and some New York and L.A designers continued to manufacture them, while the Mexican community continued to wear the suits they already owned. When sailors were given leave before shipping out to the pacific front, both sailors and Pachucos were both easily identified by their dress manner. Some people saw this as flaunting against the rationing laws put in place, and were angry over it. The white officials began to cast a shadow over their style of dressing implying that it represented violence and snubbed the war time rationing laws.

By the end of World War 2, Mexican-American men, as a percentage of their populations, had one of the highest percentages of Congressional Medal of Honor winners. The white service men stilled resented the zoot suits, although most of them came from areas with no knowledge of the Latino/Hispanic communities.

One of the first conflicts happened between a sailor and some zoot-suits in August, 1942. While walking with his girlfriend in the Chavez ravine, where he had trained, some of the zoot-suiters resented this fact, and formed a barricade, not allowing them to pass. One of the zoot-suiters push the sailor in the street, and they went face to face until the sailor backed down.

After the sleepy lagoon case, there were many and more violent altercations, in many cities in California. During the immense build up to the war, many new workers were attracted to the area, including African Americans, which was known as the great migration. The most serious altercations happen in Los Angeles. There were two violent altercations between servicemen and zoot-suiters to catalyze the later riots.

On May 30, 1943 at around 8 p.m., a dozen sailors were walking when they saw a group of Latino women. They went to approach them and zoot-suiter raised arm, and sailor Coleman went to grab it. A fight then broke out leaving one sailor unconscious with his jaw broken in two places. On the opposite side of the street another fight broke out were five men jumped the sailors trying to talk to the Latino women. Four nights later when 11 sailors got off the bus, they got into a verbal argument with some zoot-suiters. They later told the police that they were jumped and beaten. The next day, about 200 sailors got a convoy of 20 taxicabs, and headed for East L.A., the center for Mexican-American settlement. When they ran across zoot-suiters, they would attack them with clubs, rip their clothes of them, tear them up and burn them. They did this to any zoot-suiter they came across. The riots had just begun.

Thousands of servicemen and civilians joined in on attacks against Latino males. One incident a saw a young Latino who was in theater, dragged up front, his clothes ripped off him, and the servicemen urinated on it. While there were policemen present (mostly white), they had strict orders not to arrest any of the white people, some of who joined in on the riots themselves. After several days, over 150 people had been injured and over 500 Latino people had been arrested on charges from “rioting” to “vagrancy.” By the middle of June, the riots began to decline, however they spread across the U.S. from Texas and New York into Detroit. Detroit saw its worst racial riots with the whites attacking African Americans, and destroyed most of their neighborhoods.

The military, police and public officials were under large scrutiny as the riots subsided. California was mostly concerned about its relationship with Mexico, as many products were shipped to California from Mexico. The McGucken committee was formed in order to determine the cause of the riots. The answer the concluded was racism. Police departments then were trained to treat all citizens equally. Senator Jack Tenney started his own investigation, and concluded the riots were produced by a Nazi front, although there was no evidence of this.

Some notable zoot-suiters at the time were Cesar Chavez and Malcom X.  

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