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Zoot Suit Revolution...

Ok, well hopefully I'm not committing a horrible faux pas reproducing this article here, but I thought it was rather interesting. You can find the original online article here.

It's a trip. I had heard about this stuff in passing over the years, but it was never really discussed in any of my history classes etc... I suspect that this may have changed somewhat in the last few years, but when I was trudging through the public school system, I never heard about any of the interesting civil rights type stuff that happened in the southwest. I've heard my dad mention stuff that he saw growing up, and I've made a point of watching shows about this stuff whenever I can, but that's about it.

I mentioned the article to him this morning and he was telling me about how in El Paso in the 50s, the ever vigilant El Paso Police Department had a policy of picking up Pachucos (guys who were dressed in zoot suits) and cutting their hair and trashing their suits. What's weird is that I bet you there is no actual written documentation of this stuff, and it would probably be completely forgotten except for the older folks around her who actually saw them do stuff like that. Suddenly it makes my problems with cops at security check points and theatres seem less unbearable. Not to mention that with the proliferation of modern day security cameras and the ACLU, if something bad does happen I could probably have a lawsuit filed within a day or so (unless of course I happened to get shot). It's unfortunate, but I bet you that is more of a deterrent to our wonderful police force than just about anything else.....

Rambling now....

PS - In case the name throws some of you, I had nothing to do with the article :)

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Zoot suit revolution: The fashion scandal that changed history

Victor R. Martinez
El Paso Times


Close your eyes. Take a step back in time -- a time when life was black and white, not too much brown.

It is the 1940s, and Los Angeles was experiencing a West Coast version of a melting pot.

Thousands of Mexican immigrants looking for a better life made their way there, as did Anglo laborers escaping the Dust Bowl of the drought-plagued Southern Plains and African-Americans seeking more opportunity than they found in the South.

In August of 1942, eight months after the United States was thrust into World War II, many Los Angelenos became anxious over the changing ethnic and social dynamics of their city.

A series of events that month thrust the City of Angels into a state of anarchy.

On a hot August night, 19-year-old Hank Leyvas unknowingly triggered one of the worst riots in the city's history as one murder incited a police dragnet that landed more than 600 Mexican-American youths in jail.

"American Experience," the critically acclaimed PBS series, will examine the events that led to what was called the "Zoot Suit Riots," in a one-hour documentary by Joseph Tovares.

"The Zoot Suit Riots and the Sleepy Lagoon case are really an important part of Latino history," Tovares said by telephone from Los Angeles. "It is one of those stories that, for some reason, we can't seem to shake. There is still a fascination with it."

The show airs at 7 p.m. Sunday on Channel 13-KCOS (cable Channel 12) in El Paso and Channel 22-KRWG (cable Channel 4) in Las Cruces.

Leyvas was charged along with 21 other Mexican-American youths in the death of 22-year-old Jose Diaz at a reservoir called Sleepy Lagoon.

When the Sleepy Lagoon trial begin in October 1942, it was the trial with the most defendants in California's history.

Seventeen of the defendants were found guilty, and Leyvas was sentenced to life in prison.

Celebrities such as Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth believed the youths were innocent, and lent their famous names to organize the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee to lobby for their release.

In the months following the trial, sailors and zoot suiters had numerous bloody fights, which led to a June 3, 1943, brawl between zoot-suiters and more than 50 sailors armed with belts and clubs.

For the next five days, Los Angelenos did not have to listen to radio reports to learn about war -- they just had to peek out the window.

"What really drew me to it was how different people look at the story in different ways," Tovares said. "I found it fascinating that Chicanos see it one way, Mexicanos of that generation see it another, progressive whites see it one way, conservative whites see it another."

The hysteria over what these Mexican-Americans were wearing -- a zoot suit -- forced the Los Angles city council to adopt a resolution banning the wearing of zoot suits on L.A. streets.

The zoot suit was initially an African-American youth fashion, closely connected to jazz culture. It was adopted by Mexican-Americans, who then made it their own.

The oversized suit was both an outrageous style and a statement of defiance. Zoot-suiters asserted themselves at a time when fabric was being rationed for the war effort, and in the face of widespread discrimination.

Wearing the suit in public was punishable by 30 days in jail. Stores that sold the suits quickly moved to distance themselves from the style that had become a symbol of rebellion.

"Mexican-American youth were taught in World War II that they could not simply choose by themselves the way that they were to express themselves," historian George J. Sanchez says in the documentary. "They simply couldn't choose what they could wear. They simply couldn't choose who they could be. That this was not a society that allowed for that kind of freedom of expression, for these particular youth.

"It's a very painful lesson when one hears the rhetoric of Americans all," Sanchez says. "The rhetoric of the American promise open to all sorts of immigrants, all sorts of people."

Carlos Ortega, a lecturer at the University of Texas at El Paso, briefly touches on the Zoot Suit Riots in his introductory courses in Chicano Studies.

"I do it just to familiarize people with events in Chicano history," he said. "There has never been anything in an in-depth form that looks at the Zoot Suit Riots. You will have films and documentaries that will briefly touch on the riots. It really is not a topic that gets as much attention as it should."

The zoot-suiters were victims of racial profiling before anyone used that term, Tovares said.

"If you look at what happened since 9-11 and what is happening to Arab-Americans, I think it strikes a chord and resonates," he said. "It serves as a reminder that these sorts of things have gone on in the past and maybe helps put the issue in some sort of historical perspective, and that is very helpful."

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