- About the Initiative
- Curricular Resources
- On Common Ground
- League of Institutes
- Video Programs
Have a suggestion to improve this page?
To leave a general comment about our Web site, please click here
Pandora's Box is said to be a bad thing. As the story goes, one little crack open and the evils of the world emerged, causing fear and destruction. I would like to argue that when opened correctly in the context of teaching history, a Pandora's Box approach can be exciting, enlightening, and engaging. In this unit, I will be using the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 as a key to unlock the Pandora's Box of domestic social and cultural tensions that haunted home-front mobilization during World War II. The riots serve as a spotlight, using the zoot suit culture to illuminate complex issues of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality on the home front.
The major objective for students learning this unit is for them to examine the ways in which one might use consumer culture as a daily tool of political protest. They will understand that consumer culture is a vast category that includes all of the buying and selling we do, the spaces we do them in, and the meaning we bring to the products and process involved. Through analyzing the context and consumer choices of wartime zoot suiters, and particularly Mexican American pachucos and pachucas, students will discuss the complex social forces at play on the American WWII home front and their impact.
The unit includes commonly taught aspects of the WWII home front such as liberty bonds, defense industry growth, and opportunities for women in the workplace, but approaches them in the context of consumer culture, particularly around zoot suits. The traditional aspects of WWII content are necessary to understanding the zoot suit culture and the social and political context of the riots. After all, the wartime home front was a place of churning. The inequalities that inspired the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s churned as the war changed the nation. Even the mighty defense industry growth that launched the country out of the Great Depression was a source of massive social instability on the home front. The Zoot Suit Riots open Pandora's Box and let the rich political and social complexity of the WWII home front emerge.
This unit is meant to be taught in the junior year of high school in my United States history class. Students will be using the unit to answer the essential question: Was the purchase and wearing of the zoot suit a political act? For the purpose of the prompt, "politics" should be read as a blatant act of social protest. This unit is meant to open question of consumerism as a political tool while introducing the World War II home front experience for several minority groups, but particularly that of Mexican Americans. The unit begins with the event of the 1943 Zoot Suit Riot in Los Angeles, followed by an exploration of the social, economic, and political context of the early 1940s, including de jure and de facto segregation, racism, generational differences, migration, immigration, and the economic and social impact of a booming defense industry. The unit then moves to an analysis of Norman Rockwell's interpretation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms," published in The Saturday Evening Post. Students will analyze Rockwell's famous/iconic "Freedom From Want" painting and juxtapose it with the accompanying essay written by Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino immigrant, activist, and author. The essay will serve as a springboard for a Socratic Seminar about the social and political state of the nation in 1943. Throughout the unit, the theme of cross-cultural participation of Mexican Americans, Filipino Americans, and African Americans in the evolution of the zoot suit and its meaning adds yet another layer of depth.
The politics of access is at play every day in my classroom, my school, and the surrounding community. The neighborhood in which I teach is a hotbed of violence. According to our city officials, it is one of the worst in the city. Two major Mexican American and Mexican gangs, the Norteños and the Sureños, are highly active in the area. Our community has been devastated by foreclosure; it is common for multiple families to live in single-family homes or apartments. Drugs are also commonly available. It makes sense that students, even those in gangs, often voice the isolationist attitude of you-have-to-do-what-you-have-to-do, and every man for himself. In search of identity and access to success, kids sometimes get caught up in their differences rather than noticing their similarities, which could be a powerful tool for unity. The aforementioned similarities include, but also reach far beyond race.
My school is about 78% Latino, followed by 9% Asian (mostly Vietnamese), 8% Filipino, and 2% African American. Some 37% of our students are English Language Learners and 87.5% of ELLs speak Spanish. Eighty-seven percent of students participate in the free or reduced lunch program. Additionally, 67% of our students' parents did not graduate high school while only 5% graduated college. Only 21% of our parents graduated from high school, which means that nearly every student in our school who makes it to university has done so without the help of experienced family mentors. So, we are a largely immigrant and impoverished community with limited access to higher education. Though students overwhelmingly share the common experience of poverty and of being pioneers in their families and community, they often do not see each other as resources for support and success within the education system.
Many of the students at my school see their experience as "right now." However, the history of interactions between and across groups much like them is rich. In the California state standards, and in many classrooms, the negligence of the social and political history that represents many of my students' backgrounds increases students' perceptions that they are on their own to cope with issues related to their context. Though we are all uniquely situated in time, themes exposed in the WWII home front reflect those of today. The Zoot Suit Era, particularly in Los Angeles, can be used as a spotlight to help students look more deeply into their own experiences today.
Is it possible for my students to create and participate in unified actions of protest against a system of oppression? Is it valuable for them to do so? How, if at all, do they already do so? If they do not, why not? While it is deeply tempting to answer, "YES!" to the questions of whether unified political action is possible or productive, it is not as easy to answer the questions of how and why not. My students' pessimistic perception of their power to develop a political protest movement is steeped in a common experience of systematic dispossession and oppression that they know very little about as history. They are familiar with oppression on a day-to-day level, but do not know the actual history as it pertains to race, gender, class, and workers in general. Worse, they most often have not yet been offered the opportunity in the classroom to ask how history is theirs, or how they fit into a greater history.
In this unit students are charged not only with exploring history, but are also asked to evaluate where they fit into it. Common examples of people fighting against discrimination, tend to be hero-based (for example Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez), a model that ironically removes agency from them as they wait for someone to lead them into battle. The purpose of this unit it is to renew the history of personal and common agency by studying the ways in which everyday people have pushed back against systems of oppression. Examined through the consumer culture in which the zoot suiter fashioned himself, students are asked to analyze the extent to which they are already exercising their personal agency through the same means.
Consumer culture is a bit like the air we breathe – we know it's there, but we would have trouble describing it to someone who didn't know what it was. We have theories about who controls it: the consumer, the producers, the media, or a complex combination of all of those. For the sake of this unit, I am less concerned with who controls consumer culture than I am with how it can be used by consumers themselves. We use consumer culture every day to make statements about who we are and what we believe. As the anthropologist Elizabeth Chin points out in her ethnography of the consumer culture of African American youth, even young children recognize that they have an audience, that the audience has perceptions of them, and that what they wear, own, and choose to purchase tells multiple audiences multiple stories. 1 At times these stories are subtle and personal, but at other times these stories are overtly performed to promote an opinion. How far can this promotion go? Can we, in fact see consumer culture as a tool for political action? In the case of wartime the zoot suit, the extent to which the purchase and wearing of the suit was a deliberate political act has been contested by critics, cartoonists, historians, and journalists since the zoot suit became popular. 2 In this unit, students are asked to formulate their own position on the matter.
In the case of the zoot suit, the cultural and identity politics ingrained in the wearing of it reflect the strategies of today's consumer culture. In the old Pepsi commercial with Shaquille O'Neal, we weren't encouraged to buy the soda because he had said so. The commercial displayed images of cool, of kindness, of athletic prowess, of freshness. The advertisement was never about the product, but rather about the individual traits we want to embody. If the advertisement was for a suit that reflected cool, affluence, and celebration of leisure, we might wear it for those reasons. If we had been systematically pigeonholed into poverty and unduly singled out by police, and segregated to a certain part of town due to race, national heritage, and language, we might also wear that suit as a symbol of social mobility and transcendence from the pigeonholing of discrimination. Some scholars have theorized the wearing of the zoot suit as a political act. But was it? That will be for the students to decide.
The major California State Standard for United States History that the unit covers is 11.7.5. "Discuss the constitutional issues and impact of events on the U.S. home front."
Students will examine the Zoot Suit Era in order to understand the complex social and political issues of the WWII home front.
With respect to the common core standards, students will use primary and secondary source documents to make and support an argument answering the question, Was purchasing and wearing the zoot suit a political act?
Checking for Understanding
My school is in its second year of being wall-to-wall, Small Learning Communities (SLCs) that is responsible for professional development of instructional strategies adopted school-wide. Our strategy for the upcoming year will be Checking for Understanding, an essential piece of the formative assessment process. Checking for Understanding strategies will also be a focus for the lessons in this unit.
Common Core Standards
The professional development focus for all departments at my school this year will be the English Language Arts Writing Standards, particularly standard 1. The assessment for this unit will be an essay using evidence to support a student's thesis related to the essential question in the Overview.
Zoot Suit Riots, 5 Days of Violence
In June 1943 the United States home front was marked by race-based violence. Riots in both Harlem and Detroit that summer resulted in injuries and fatalities. On the night of June 3rd, "a band of 50 sailors armed themselves with makeshift weapons, left their naval base, and coursed into downtown Los Angeles in search of young Mexican Americans in zoot suits." The group of sailors was largely if not entirely white. The purpose of their downtown visit was not centered on making friends. On the contrary, the sailors were intent on violence. Sailors searched out young men in zoot suits, beating them severely, stripping them of their pants, tearing their jackets, and in some cases cutting their hair. Sailors swarmed nightclubs and movie theaters, notably sites of consumption, and forced owners to turn on the lights. This made it easy for sailors to identify their victims. 3 Though some of the victims were African American, most of those targeted were Mexican Americans in zoots, or pachucos.
The violence got worse over the next few days, with hundreds of sailors organizing taxi convoys into East Los Angeles to hunt down and attack pachucos. Some pachucos retreated while others fought back and even searched out the sailors to confront them. Violence and confrontation increased from there. By June 7, 5,000 people packed the streets of downtown Los Angeles hoping to be involved in the action after reading and hearing sensationalist media coverage, which often blamed Mexican American youth for the violence. Over the next few days, white civilians joined the servicemen in attacking the pachucos. Police, afraid of a full-on riot, began to arrest Mexican American youth by the hundreds, blaming them for the violence. However, the major fighting and violence did not stop until the Navy declared Los Angeles off-limits for servicemen on July 8, 1943. 4
Zoot Suit Fashion
Why the Zoot Suit? Why the pachuco? In order to answer those questions, one must understand the zoot fashion itself. Zoot Suits were popular in the 1930s and 1940s as a set of extravagant clothing worn by men and, in some cases, women. The style was also known as "the drape," and the "drape shape." 5 The suit was an exaggeration or distortion of the masculine business suit, which displayed varying degrees of flamboyance and extravagance. 6 All variations, however, included common attributes. The first was a long jacket ranging anywhere from just below the hips to all the way to the knees. Jackets were wide at the shoulders and pinched in at the waist, "draping" back out over the hips and legs toward the knees. The pants of the zoot suit were high waisted, reaching up and fastening just under the ribs. The knees of the pants billowed out, sometimes even larger than a 25-inch diameter. The cuffs of the pants, however, were pegged, often at 12 or 14 inches, giving the slacks an intense ballooning effect, which could not be ignored. 7 The pants of a zoot suit were not complete without the signature reet pleat, which was deep and obvious as it ran down the front of the pant-leg.
The style of the zoot did not stop with the cut of the clothing. Bright teal, yellow, red, green, and blue were seen often, and sometimes in combination. The more extreme the color, the more "zoot" the suit. A large-collared, brightly colored shirt was worn under the coat, and a long pocket chain, stretching out below the already long coat, was not uncommon. The zoot was an evolutionary style, increasing in flamboyance and accessories. Cowboy hats, for example, were commonly worn with zoot suits in Detroit. The most extravagant zooters wore large, wide-brim pancake hats as the icing on the cake. Highly-polished shoes, sometimes two-toned, were worn with the suit. The shoes were emblematic of the style of zooters; there was absolutely no room for anything less than perfection.
The precise origin of the zoot suit remains unclear, but it emerged in African American communities, particularly that of Harlem, in the 1930s. 8 Though several clothiers claimed to have invented the suit, the extreme growth of the style seems to have sprung from an interplay between demand by patrons and response by clothiers.
The spread came with a popularization of the suit in Hollywood films, zoot suited performances by jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway in dance halls, and eventually advertisements in popular magazines like Life and Esquire. To a greater extent, however, the spread of the zoot style caught fire with the boom of the war industry in the late 1930s and early 1940s. As people migrated to cities to participate in war-industry work for higher wages, and as rationing on goods, including wool, swept the country, the style caught on and was sent home in photographs and accounts to families in other parts of the country. 9 The zoot suit was especially popular at the dance halls, where the pegged pants were well-suited to the fast flying movements of the jitterbug and other innovative dance steps. 10 In urban dance halls, historian Robin D.G. Kelley has argued, the dance steps and the zoot suit symbolized a people taking back control of their bodies from racist whites or from their bosses in the workplace. 11 Less important than the question of who invented the zoot suit is the question of who wore it, why, and where.
The zoot suit did not just mark an attitude of freedom, especially under conditions of wartime rationing, but it also implied race. People who wore the suits were defined by them, often called "drapes," "zooters," "sharpies," or, in the case of Los Angeles Mexican Americans, pachucos or pachucas. Though the zoot was a style worn by African American men in large cities in the 1930s, the style quickly spread throughout the nation and to other ethnic minority groups. In Los Angeles particularly, Mexican American, and to a lesser extent Filipino and Japanese American youth began to don the suit. Later Jewish and some white youth picked up the style. After working long hours, war industry workers were hungry for leisure – this particularly applied to those who worked the late shift. Dance halls generally segregated whites from non-whites, but African American, Mexican American, Filipino, and Japanese American war workers mixed there. They ventured out to the dance halls where fast swing was alive (hence the term, "swing" shift) and mingled interracially, sharing style and fun. 12 By 1940, the style had spread across all the aforementioned ethnic minorities.
An important distinction in the case of Mexican American pachucos is that they were second-generation. Though their parents were not, these youth were born in the United States, which made their experience unique. Much like the older generation of African Americans, Mexican parents disapproved of the zoot suit style and attitude. In addition to the style and attitude of the zoot, pachucos and pachucas spoke caló, a hybrid slang. 13 In their active exaggeration of mainstream American style, these second-generation Mexican American pachucos defied the racialized class structure by defining their own identities, actively removing this power of labeling from white and middle-class Americans. In a social structure that historically privileged whites, this consumerist gesture was a source of fear and conflict for whites.
African Americans experienced a similar symbolism. As Kelley states in his book, Race Rebels, "In a world where clothes constituted signifiers of identity and status, 'dressing up' was a way of escaping the degradation of work and collapsing status distinctions between themselves and their oppressors." 14 The zoot suit, then, was an act of cultural politics that encouraged social politics of erasing the differences between races. Wartime rationing, which insisted that Americans limit their consumption, only intensified the perceived threat caused by the blurring of status boundaries. In the midst of World War II, this was particularly significant as racial stratification was being reiterated in the realms of training opportunities, hiring opportunities, promotion opportunities, workplace segregation, decreased pay, and housing and restrictive covenants, to cite a few areas. 15
The suit was a marker of class as well as race. The zoot suit was sharp, always pressed, always clean, and never frumpy. The zoot was expensive, and most often tailor-made. Some zooters, for example a young Malcolm X, paid for the suits on installment plans. 16 However, the zoot suit was not a middle-class style. In respect to Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, zoot suits were only worn by working-class youth, as noted by Cesar Chavez. "People that wore them eran los mas pobres [were the poorest], the guys like us who were migrant farm workers." 17
Though those wearing it were working-class, the zoot suit was a symbol of status. "By flaunting their disposable incomes, pachucos and pachucas underscored the instability of class and race categories. Via their expensive clothing, they demonstrated that Mexican Americans could and could climb the socioeconomic ladder." 18 The fact that zooters wore the suit in leisure-based arenas like the dance hall was often incorrectly perceived as zooters having the financial resources to avoid work, a perception that radically challenged the race-based class structure of the country. In the case of Mexican American pachucos, the zoot suit signified the possibility of class mobility, a concept that was not welcomed by most whites. Of course, the fact that zooters worked (sometimes multiple jobs) and saved for months to afford a zoot suit remained invisible to outsiders. 19
Gender and the Pachuca
In the era of the zoot suit, women were not just the dance partners of male zoot suiters. Mexican American women in particular were involved in their own exaggeration and distortion of popular mainstream style. While men altered the business suit, Mexican American pachucas in Los Angeles were distorting the look of famous female movie stars of the time. The pachuca style included the pencil-thin eyebrows, dark lipstick, and "rats," or high bouffant up-dos, jewelry, and flowers in their hair. At the same time, pachucas took bits of the male style such as broad-shouldered coats, and even draped slacks altered for women with two-toned shoes huaraches or "zombie slippers." Others wore tight sweaters, short, full skirts above the knee, and long bobby socks. Some even dressed exactly like pachucos in a full zoot suit. Like men, the pachuca style was all about spectacle, leisure, and amplification of a mainstream style. 20
The male pachucos were posited as feminine "dandies" by the press Male participation in the consumer culture itself was seen as feminine, especially in wartime. 21 Despite the overt masculine characteristics of the broad-shouldered suit, long coats were likened to skirts, draped pants were compared to a woman's girdle, and the zooter's silhouette was called feminine. Pachucos were considered sexual deviants and "pathologized as 'sexual[ly[ perverse' and 'queer.'" During the riots, sailors' stripping pachucos of their zoot suits was later analyzed by Mauricio Mazon as a symbolic castration that matched the de-personalization sailors experienced in basic training. 22
Pachucas and Sexuality
In a time of war when large numbers of women were entering the defense industry, the mainstream expectation of "feminine" was deeply linked with patriotism. It was not uncommon to see women in coveralls or another masculine uniform at work. Though women were still expected to have their hair "perfectly coiffed" and their makeup impeccably applied, there was a certain "androgynous nature" to the media depictions of the patriotic woman. Rosie the Riveter (as represented in her kerchief and coveralls in Norman Rockwell's famous painting) and the defense industry women she represented were expected to have a very particular balance between their masculine jobs and their feminine faces. If a woman did not display her femininity as expected, she had to deal with the repercussions of homophobia; if she displayed her femininity too much, she was considered a whore and a potentially seditious threat. 23 Pachucas fell into both categories. Some wore partial or entire zoot suits in the male style – this group included out-lesbians as well as heterosexual women.
Other pachucas were entirely too feminine to suit the mainstream press or the older generation. They wore their sexuality on the sleeves of their tight sweaters. Los Angeles newspapers "described the pachucas' hair, makeup, and clothing in vivid detail," which heightened awareness and disapproval of the style. 24 Short black skirts, scandalously painted eyes and lips, and high, teased bouffants filled with products were just some of the attributes that both the mainstream and the older generation read as a representation of "filth and excess." 25 Even though there were white women known as Victory Girls or "v-girls," "free girls" or "khaki-wackies," who were criticized for having sexual intercourse with servicemen as a sort of distorted patriotic duty (this was not prostitution; no money was exchanged), it was pachucas who were deemed sexually deviant, "morally suspect," and unclean. In fact, both pachucas and pachucos alike were seen as wildly sexual. The press perpetuated rumors such as pachucas hiding knives in their hair and plotting to seduce then kill servicemen, which augmented the notion that they were delinquent, and that their delinquency was tied to sexuality. Often these pachucas were said to be involved in female gangs like the "Black Widows." 26
The War Industry and Migration
It is important to situate the Zoot Suit Era politics in the context of the United States' participation in World War II, both in production and actual military participation. Though the zoot suit increased in popularity throughout the 1930s, the early 1940s were its heyday. The Zoot Suit Riots themselves exploded at a time (1943) and space (Los Angeles) deeply affected by U.S. participation in World War II.
The growth of the defense industry in Southern California spurred great demographic changes in Los Angeles as well as in many other areas of the country. In the 1930s during the Great Depression, Mexican workers were systematically "repatriated" to Mexico. In 1942 the institution of the Bracero Program, an agreement between the governments of the United States and Mexico, contracted Mexican workers to enter the United States to provide agricultural labor. A large number of these workers, called braceros, went to Los Angeles just as increasing numbers of Mexican Americans began to migrate there from the Southwest to enter the defense industry. Some 54,000 African Americans also migrated to Los Angeles to enter the defense industry at this time. 27 Simultaneously, Japanese Americans (nearly 37,000 from Los Angeles alone) were being forcibly removed from all over California to be interned through Executive Order 9066. The change in demographics, migration, and industry served to destabilize Los Angeles as people of all ethnic groups and of various levels of native association to the city tried to find or, in the case of white Angelinos, affirm their place in a rapidly growing Southern California. 28 As migrants poured in, racial tensions were exacerbated by conflicts over housing shortages and job competition as well as a volatile social climate set up by rationing, overcrowding, and long work weeks without recreation, to be discussed in the subsections below. 29
Discrimination ran rampant in the United States in the early 1940s. African Americans, Mexican migrants, Mexican Americans, and Filipinos all suffered from employment discrimination, manifested in exclusion from government defense industry training programs, exclusion from employment based on skin color and language, and poor conditions and pay compared to whites. 30 In the unit, discrimination during this time period can be taught using stations that provide photographs or excerpts of individuals' experiences.
Housing shortages and segregation aggravated racial discrimination against ethnic groups in the early 1940s. As migration to Los Angeles increased, a housing shortage evolved, and many landlords refused to rent to nonwhites. Likewise, restrictive covenants and quota restrictions eliminated the possibility for African Americans, Mexicans, and Mexican Americans to live anywhere other than segregated communities. When Mexicans and Mexican Americans did move into an area where whites lived, whites quickly moved out. Further, segregated areas did not grow rapidly enough to accommodate the increasing number of people who were filtered into the neighborhoods, causing crowding and competition. 31 In the politics of segregation, loud suits, zooters loitering on the sidewalks and, groups of pachucas and pachucos riding in cars effectively claimed social and physical space, which whites often read as insolence. 32
Mexican migrants had the worst housing problems in the country. Isolated in communities far from work, they felt the impact on their job training, employment, schools, and voter registration and participation?. They were relegated substandard housing and resource-poor schools where racism was common among teachers.
Filipinos, confined to Los Angeles' "Little Manila," had a similar experience of discrimination and segregation from whites. In the 1920s and '30s, it had been popular for Filipino men to go to dance halls and pay for a dance with a white woman. By the 1940s white fears of racial mixing led to a ban on Asian men in those dance halls. Filipinos joined African Americans and Mexican Americans in mixed-race (mixed nonwhite race, that is) dance halls called "black and tans," which became yet another space for the spreading and evolution of the zoot suit style. Just as for African American, Mexican American, and some Japanese American youth, the zoot suit was inextricably tied to a racially and ethnically marked consumer lifestyle. 33
In the early 1940s, police brutality against ethnic minorities in general and against zoot suiters in particular ventured into the territory of "undeclared war… The youth were the victims of excessive police force in the form of beatings, harassment, frisking and searching, false arrests and insulting language." 34 Second-generation Mexican Americans had the experience of increased discrimination combined with increased exposure to American education, culture, and ideals. The Los Angeles Police Department had made no efforts to build a relationship with the Mexican immigrant community, and, much like today, the Spanish language a marked them as a target; Mexican residents kept the police at arms length. 35
In his semi-autobiographical novel, America is in the Heart(1946), Carlos Bulosan recounted the police brutality that Filipino men in Los Angeles experienced. "I was talking to a gambler when two police detectives darted into the place and shot a little Filipino in the back. The boy fell on his knees, face up, and expired." After the police looked at what they had done and left nonchalantly, Bulosan asked a nearby man why the boy was shot. "'They often shoot Pinoys like that,' he said. 'Without provocation. Sometimes when they have been drinking and they just want to have fun, they come to our district and kick or beat the first Filipino they meet.'" 36
Media Portrayal of Zoot Suiters
Police brutality, coupled with criminalizing media portrayal of Mexican Americans and zooters in general, set a tone of distrust and oppression in Los Angeles and other cities. Male and female zoot suiters were often seen as juvenile delinquents, accused of being part of violent zoot-suit-wearing gangs that spent their time committing petty and violent crimes, getting intoxicated, participating in group sex, and wreaking havoc around the cities. 37
In the years preceding the Zoot Suit Riots, articles about the zoot suits and the Los Angeles teens who wore them perpetuated stereotypes of juvenile delinquency. Completely ignoring systematic discrimination, newspapers such as the Herald Express, Examiner, and Los Angeles Times blamed the poverty of Mexicans and Mexican Americans on a long list of criminalizing accusations including "indolence, sex crimes, knifings, drugs, other gang-induced violence, and drugs." Meanwhile, radio repeated racial slurs positing Mexicans as "lazy, syphilitic, and tubercular." Sociologist Mauricio Mazón suggests that a set of divisive 'Lil Abner cartoons published in newspapers prior to the riots was perhaps the most provocative cause of the riots. Basically, 'Lil Abner haphazardly becomes a zoot-suit wearing hero (Zoot-Suit Yokum) at the behest of clothing manufacturers with the intention of becoming rich. Since Zoot-Suit Yokum can do no wrong after becoming a hero, the manufacturers hire criminals dressed in zoot suit disguises. When they are discovered, the zoot suit is forever destroyed. According to Mazón, the divisive hero/villain and patriotism/loyalty dichotomies, among others, were reenacted by the sailors. 38
Perhaps the most incendiary media event occurred the day before the start of the riots; Los Angeles newspapers reported that a group of zoot suiters had kidnapped and gang-raped two white women. The accusations of black and brown men raping white women had been common for generations; whites saw these accusations as confirmation that black and brown men were savage and dangerous. The story was old and familiar, but it was still an effective catalyst. The reports of the rape were followed by reports that Mexican American men in zoots "had 'insulted,' 'molested,' 'attacked,' or 'raped' white women – in particular sailors' wives or girlfriends." 39 This was followed by reports that quoted sailors who threatened to "'do what the police haven't been able to,'" or women who commented on the irony of being romantically involved with someone fighting for the country while they, themselves, were unable to safely walk the streets at home. Though some African American progressive papers refuted these accusations, they had relatively little influence on white mainstream America. 40
After the riots, an investigation was ordered by California Governor Earl Warren's Los Angeles Committee for American Unity; it found that the severity and number of the crimes committed by pachucos were unsubstantiated and had been wildly exaggerated by newspapers. Further, the report found that racist reporters had injected their bias into public discourse and created a climate that criminalized pachucos, which Anglos believed in and acted upon. The report also stated that the press incited conflict between Mexican American youth and GIs. 41
During the war years, juvenile delinquency had been on the rise nationwide. The massive migration to urban-based defense industry hubs created instability as families moved and separated. 42 Segregation, inequality, and racism added to the instability, particularly for poor minority youth. Defense-industry hubs such as Los Angeles experienced shifts in racial populations, and the push to preserve segregation created tension as groups tried to shift within physical space to accommodate it's restrictions. Taken together, these factors were believed to have created? an environment ripe for the outbreak of juvenile delinquency that was haunting cities nationwide. 43
In the case of Mexican American zooters, the question of juvenile delinquency was influenced by their experience as second-generation immigrants. Second-generation Mexican Americans had a deeper connection to the United States through speaking English and going to school in the United States. At the same time, the daily discrimination they experienced marked them as outsiders. 44 Not fully Mexican or fully American, pachucos and pachucas were considered to be lost between two worlds, a circumstance that led some to crime and gang participation. Octavio Paz even went so far as to rename the pachuco generation the "lost generation." 45 However, it is vital to acknowledge that juvenile delinquency was not a defining characteristic of all zoot suit youth.
Psychologists took a particular interest in juvenile delinquency of the zoot suit era, both in the 1940s and since. In October 1943, Fritz Redl, an Austrian immigrant specializing in adolescent development described the zoot suit generation as fitting into one of four categories. The first included those who loved and dedicated themselves to the fast-paced swing dance styles associated with the suit. The second included those who wore the suit for the love of the independence of the style and of being seen. The third group included those who wore the suit "as a uniform of group identification, presenting themselves as tough young men in revolt against the adult world. Finally, the fourth group included those who "put on the zoot suit as a 'disguise for delinquent gang formation.'" 46 So, just as many of our youth today, zoot suiters had a variety of reasons for and identification with the suit.
Rationing & Patriotism
Ironically, it was the United States government itself that simultaneously created the pretext for deeming the zoot suit unpatriotic while inciting the most widespread interest in the style. In March 1942, the War Production Board (WPB), which had set rations and limitations on goods like sugar and butter, did the same for textiles. Particularly, the WPB set limitations on the use of wool in manufacturing men's and women's garments by removing cuffs, pleats, and pocket flaps as well as eliminating the vests, double-breasted jackets, and second pair of trousers that traditionally came with a new suit. 47 Zooters and clothiers got around the regulations by having suits made in linen and rayon. Clothiers created the "Victory Zoot," which included a single-breasted jacket and was creatively sewn to preserve the most important parts of the suit like the large shoulders, while altering aspects like the pleats. Consumers could still have a zoot suit without violating the mandated restrictions. 48
It October 1942, Frank Walton, director of the WPB's effort to restrict textile use once and for all; Walton regarded the wearing of the zoot to be wasteful at least, and wholly unpatriotic at most. 49 Restrictions on textiles extended to rayon, linen, and cotton, and particular zoot styles were banned. High-rise trousers, knee diameter, and ankle diameter, and jacket length were all restricted. 50 It is important to note that there was no ban on wearing the zoot suit, only on the manufacture and purchasing of the suit. Only in Los Angeles during the riots was there even a debate about banning the wearing of the suit by City Council, although the ordinance did not pass. 51 As far as the WPB restriction, there was no real consequence for consumers, and regulating manufacturers proved difficult. Officials called the zoot suit unpatriotic, and servicemen saw the wearing of the zoot as an outright affront to the United States government and to the wartime mandate to constrain consumption.
The Four Freedoms and Carlos Bulosan
In 1941, President Roosevelt made his famous "Four Freedoms" speech in which he broke down the reasons for supporting the war in Europe. These Four Freedoms were Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom From Fear. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the need for a war creed became even more necessary as the U.S. built its citizens and inhabitants up to sustain morale and war efforts such as buying war bonds. 52 Though many artists were commissioned to represent the Four Freedoms visually, no one's renderings became quite as famous as Norman Rockwell's paintings, which were featured — one piece at a time — for four weeks in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943. For Rockwell, representing the "feeling behind" the story of each of the four freedoms was no easy task. Finally, though, Rockwell produced four paintings. They were rejected by the United States government at first, but after being printed in the consumer culture powerhouse, the Saturday Evening Post, along with an essay accompanying each piece, their popularity exploded, and the United States government took the paintings up and began to print them along with the words "Ours…to fight for" as war propaganda. 53
As mentioned above, each of Rockwell's renditions of the Four Freedoms was published in a separate issue of the Saturday Evening Post, for a total of four issues from February 20, 1943 – March 13, 1943. An essay accompanied each print, and the "Freedom From Want" essay written by Carlos Bulosan is of particular interest in light of the varied discrimination of the time, and with our historical knowledge that the Zoot Suit Riots were only months away.
Carlos Bulosan had moved to the United States from the Philippines in his teens, where he had become a farmworker. 54 His semi-autobiographical novel, America is in the Heart, a detailed immigrant and labor account, was published later in 1946. Bulosan's experiences working and living in the United States included racism and discrimination of other origins. He is a fascinating choice as an author for the "Freedom from Want" essay; his themes seem to directly oppose that of the famous groaning Thanksgiving table, plump turkey, and satisfied family celebrated in Rockwell's painting. One of the most interesting themes that Bulosan puts forth in his essay is that of the discrepancy between what the worker produces and what he has access to buy. Bulosan finishes his essay with an overwhelming plea to "march," which can be read as soldiers in war or workers in protest. 55 The essay is a wonderful example of two possible readings: one of protest and one of patriotism. An even more provocative option is to simultaneously read it as both.
Connecting the "Four Freedoms," Carlos Bulosan's Essay, and Zoot Suits
Carlos Bulosan's essay will be used as a primary source in the unit. Published in early March, 1943, the text predates the Zoot Suit Riots by just three months. The essay, which leaves the reader ready to march, regardless whether for rights or as a soldier in war, opens a forum for a discussion of whether the Zoot Suit Riots could have been avoided and what types of action would have been necessary to do so. Of course, the next logical step is to ask whether the purchase and donning of the zoot suit could be considered political protest and whether that was the intention of the zooters. Students can use the painting and reading as context for discussion on whether the circumstances of 1943 could, as Robin Kelley states, make the wearing of the zoot suit a blatant act of social politics that stands up to the mainstream race and/or class stratification of the time. It primes the pump for conversation about organized political movements like the Civil Rights movement while gazing forward in time at the Grape Boycotts of the 1960s and 1970s. The essay and Rockwell painting make a perfect pair for a Socratic Seminar about the of "Freedom from Want" in the United States in 1943, and the impact of the politicization of the zoot suit on those understandings. The discussion from this seminar should be incorporated into the final essay assessment.
Arguments about the Politics of the Zoot Suit
There have been several theories about the cultural? politics of wearing the zoot suit. It is worth considering the theories of some of the prominent scholars on the subject to enable students to form their own arguments about the question. Their positions are presented below in order of chronology of publication.
Robin D.G. Kelley a professor of American history at UCLA, writes extensively on African American culture and politics. In his book Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, he notes, "While the suit itself was not meant as a direct political statement, the social context in which it was created and worn rendered it so. The language and culture of zoot suiters represented a subversive refusal to be subservient." 56 In a time and place where young black men were often actively feminized and disempowered through systematic and daily discrimination. Kelley also points out that the zoot suit also acted as a vehicle for creating a collective identity for urban black youth, one on which they could hang their pancake hats and redefine themselves as masculine and in control of their own lives.
In her book, The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory, Catherine Ramírez, quotes and follows cultural critic Kobena Mercer's notion that "style was not a substitute for politics. But, in the absence of an organized direction of black political discourse and in a political situation where blacks were excluded from official channels of 'democratic' representation…[the style] reinforced the terms of shared experience…and thus a sense of collectivity." In other words, the zoot suit served as a common ground. It was not an assigned uniform, but it was a recognized one. Ramírez, an Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at UC Santa Cruz, who builds on Kelley's work?, treats the zoot suit as both a " 'cultural surface in everyday life' and 'political statement.'" 57 Ramírez positions the wearing of the zoot suit, especially by women, as an affront to white middle-class notions of gender, sexuality, and mobility. "…the zoot suit was construed as a sign of an aberrant femininity, competing masculinity, or homosexuality during the early 1940s. As a nonwhite, working-class, and queer signifier, it was perceived as un-American." 58 In this sense, the zoot served as a political tool though perhaps not directly intended as such by those who wore it.
Kathy Peiss' book, Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style, on the other hand, "has a different aim in mind." Peiss, a professor of American history at the University of Pennsylvania, tries to separate politics and style by focusing on the circumstances in which the suit was worn. 59 She points out that the political meaning of the suit was not in the forefront of the minds of those who wore it early on. 60 She goes on to pose the idea that the zoot suit was not an act of resistance to white supremacy and class oppression, but, rather an opportunity for young men to recreate their identities as modern, urban, sexually "magnetic," and confident. 61 Peiss notes that there was a rebellion between generations, as older generations did not approve of the suit, that the meaning of the suit was contested almost since its inception, and that its meaning has continued to shift into the hip hop era. 62
Students have to fight to be successful. It is an upstream battle for almost every one of them. They fight in isolation from each other. They fight against each other. They sometimes fight teachers who represent to them a system of authority that oppresses them. They do not, on a grand or unified scale, fight the systematic racism, classism, or nativist policies that press their families into the corner of poverty, their friends into the corner of violence, and them into the corner of accepting less for their futures. This is not because they are dim, or because they don't see the inequality or feel confined by discrimination. Partly because of the negligence of their own histories in education, students see the circumstance as something that "just is," rather than something they have the agency to change.
Ironically, students are excited by the prospect of fighting for some measure of liberation, access, and control. My students have been riveted by the Occupy Movement, and the notion of the 99% versus the 1%. The anti-immigrant laws of Arizona, and the accusations of our police force's discrimination against Latinos and Asians are also widely debated. As they experience community and family separation due to deportation, they wonder what is next for California and for them. They want to "do something about it." Some refuse to "do school" as a form of protest against the oppression they feel as immigrant, poor, Latino, and young. Some alter mainstream clothing, only listen to Banda or Bachata music, or even surpass academic expectation in protest of the oppression and pigeonholing they experience daily.
Their acts of protest, however, are largely individual. Few students attend or organize large events or marches. Though my students' daily lives are highly politicized by outside forces – police, government, school, institutionalized racism, de facto racism, and discrimination against the Spanish language - their responses are much less politicized en masse. One might argue that gang affiliation is a form of larger politics, but it does not gel into a force that changes various systems of oppression. Imagine the changes that could be made if students recognized their similar needs and acted in unity. In order to envision this, students need to analyze when and how individual symbolic acts can gel to create political protest that can, in turn affect policy. This is the question whether there is a named leader or not.
Lesson 1: The Zoot Suit Riots
Materials: FOUR different newspaper articles about the Zoot Suit Riots from between June 3 – June 15, 1943. Good sources include the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. Online, searching zoot suit riot newspaper 1943 will get students some results. The PBS American Experience site's link to Press is particularly good.
Unit Chronology: This is the introductory hook lesson for the unit.
1. Begin with one article, to be read aloud by the teacher, and shared with students through print, overhead, or document camera. It is important that this first article has an overview feel.
a. If you don't normally do "think-alouds," warn your students that you will be talking through your process as an example, and that they should be paying attention to the types of things you are doing to analyze the primary source article.
b. Read the article, or chunks that tell some of the events of the riot, aloud as if reading a dramatic telling of it.
c. Read the article more slowly picking out details from the primary source that might help you analyze it (Date, newspaper it was published in, main ideas, etc.) and mark your copy of the article on the overhead/document camera. Talk through your process as if you were talking to yourself, meanwhile circling, underlining, and annotating as necessary.
d. Whenever you highlight the term "zoot suit," be sure to make a show of questioning what it is, and how it was involved in the riots. Make a note to research or explore further.
e. Ask yourself, "What is the author's point of view here? Who does he/she blame for the riots?" Use main pieces of the article to pull out the author's opinion, marking the evidence with a common symbol, perhaps a star or a capital letter E.
f. Lastly, ask yourself, aloud, "What questions do I still have?" Go back to your main notes, underlining, and circling and create 1 or 2 questions (perhaps some that might ground your students as they read the next articles).
g. Check for Understanding: Ask your students to identify the things you did to analyze the article. Make a class list using individual student responses or after small groups have collaborated to create lists to share out.
h. Using the class list, pass out TWO additional articles for groups of 3-4 students to analyze. Half of the class reads article A, while the other half reads article B.
i. If more scaffolding is necessary, assign roles (e.g. reader – reads aloud as group reads along-, fact-finder, opinion detective, and question creator) within each group so students have more structure.
i. Have groups switch articles so each group gets a new article.
j. Have groups of students analyze and annotate their new article, using the same process. If roles have been assigned, have students within groups switch roles.
k. Check for Understanding: Place one of the articles on the projector/document camera and begin asking group by group about important facts, author's opinion and evidence, and a question the group had. For time's sake, only have each group answer one question.
l. Repeat check for understanding with second article. This time, ask the questions of the remaining groups. (8 groups of 4 works for 32 kids and 8 responses – perfect!)
m. Pass out a new article to all students. All students get the same article here. Have students analyze the article individually, writing down their analysis
n. Check for Understanding: Use an exit slip (or entrance slip the following day if the article is assigned for homework) asking students to write down their perception of what happened in the zoot suit riots as well as 1-2 questions they still have about it.
2. Read the slips in order to address misunderstandings and guide your questions, placing them into piles based on commonality.
Lesson 2: Carlos Bulosan and Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" (Two 55-minute class periods.
Materials: Print of Norman Rockwell's painting, "Freedom from Want," copy of Bulosan's accompanying article in the 3/6/43 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, available online.
Unit Chronology: Students will have already learned about the Zoot Suit Riots and the style and attitude of the zoot suiters and pachuco/as. This lesson is a bridge between the zoot suit content and the social context of discrimination.
1. Vocabulary: liberty bonds, rationing, Four Freedoms
a. Pre-teach vocabulary as necessary.
b. Set the stage:
i. Announce, "It is 1943. World War II is in full swing, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is trying to gain national support for U.S. war efforts in Europe. The support of Americans is imperative to the funding and success of the war. The government needs Americans to buy liberty bonds, adhere to rationing quotas, and continue to volunteer to go overseas to fight.
President Roosevelt gave his 'Four Freedoms' speech back in 1941, but now the American public must be persuaded that the Four Freedoms are worth making everyday sacrifices. The Four Freedoms must be advertised. The U.S. government has decided that visual representations of the Four Freedoms are needed for the best propaganda. It is up to your group to represent 'Freedom from Want' visually. You must work together to brainstorm and create a sketch that could be turned into a poster advertising 'Freedom from Want.' You may only use images, no words are allowed on the poster."
3. In groups of 4 give students 5-10 minutes to create their sketch. Physically monitor the room, prompting groups to explain what freedom from want means, and asking what images might advertise that freedom.
4. Use a random device such as having students label themselves a, b, c, d, and then randomly pick a letter to choose a presenter from each group.
5. Student Presenters describe their group's understanding of what "Freedom from Want" means, and how the sketch advertises that freedom.
6. Show students the Norman Rockwell paintings of freedom of speech, of worship, from fear, and finally, "Freedom from Want" using a document camera or project on a large screen from online sources.
7. Ask students tiered questions, using random processes such as popsicle sticks to choose students to answer:
a. What details do you notice in this painting?
b. What might be missing that you think should be there?
c. How does this painting advertise "Freedom from Want"?
8. Explain to students how Rockwell's paintings were featured on a weekly basis in the widely popular magazine, the Saturday Evening Post along with an essay.
9. Give background on Carlos Bulosan, using the actual biography from the 3/6/43 issue of the Saturday Evening Post if possible.
10. Pass out copies of Bulosan's essay, "Freedom from Want," easily accessible online by searching his name and the essay title.
11. Ask all students to read the essay quietly to themselves, underlining impactful passages and writing at least two questions in the margins.
12. Assign 8 groups different paragraphs of Bulosan's essay to answer questions about.
13. Place students in pairs or groups of 3. Assign each group a paragraph of the essay. Have each group discuss the questions: In your assigned paragraph, who is the "we" (or "us") Bulosan is referring to? What evidence in the paragraph leads you to that conclusion? Have students discuss the question in small groups, walking from group to group to ensure students can identify their evidence.
14. Using a random selection technique, such as the one described with letters before, assign a student presenter to report out the "we" and the evidence for their paragraph. Use a document camera or overhead to have students annotate their evidence for the class as they present.
15. Check for Understanding: Ask the class a series of questions, (1) Who is Bulosan's audience? (2) What point is he trying to make? (3) Do you think he includes the zoot suiters in his audience? Why/why not? (4) Does Bulosan's essay match the Rockwell painting it was featured with? Explain.
16. Have the class re-read the last paragraph. Then ask (1), What do you think Bulosan means by, "We are marching?" (2) What reasons, according to Bulosan, might someone have for marching? It is important here to guide students to both options – marching protestors (farmworkers, zooters, etc.) AND soldiers.
17. Assessment: Imagine you are a zoot suiter in March, 1943, and that you have just read Bulosan's essay. In a 1-2 paragraph letter to the editor, answer the following question: Does Bulosan think it is more important to march at home or abroad? Use at least two pieces of evidence from Bulosan's essay to justify your opinion.
Lesson 3: Socratic Seminar – Was the purchasing and wearing of the zoot suit a political act?
- Photographs of political actions across the U.S. History including marches, strikes, hippies putting flowers in military guns, punk rockers with poltical slogans on their shirts and zooters in their suits, easily found in Peiss' book; Carlos Bulosan's essay, "Freedom From Want;" quotes describing both political and apolitical views of wearing the zoot (these could be quotes by pachucos, sailors, or scholars, all of which can also be found in Peiss' book).
Unit Chronology: This lesson takes place just before students create their thesis statements for their essays on the whether wearing the zoot suit was a political act.
1. Set the stage for the Socratic Seminar: Teach norms and procedures as necessary.
2. Show photographs of protests, ending with zooters in their suits – preferably one each of a proud pachuco and Pachuca, one of the mass arrest photos from the riots, and the photo of a sailor looking in confused awe as zooters show him their suits. If possible, leave all photos projected in a collage format or circulating around the group.
a. Ask students: What makes an action political?
b. Ask guiding questions that include prompting students for concrete examples and eliciting responses about how a political act should be fighting for/against a system, person, or change.
3. Have students take out & review their notes and response to the Bulosan essay.
a. Ask: In the 1940s in Los Angeles, did zooters have a reason to act politically?
b. Guide students to think about the circumstances mentioned in the essay as well as topics of discrimination discussed previously in the unit.
4. Have students read the quote, "'It was the style and I wasn't going to be square…I would have felt pretty stupid walking around differently.' He remembered being harassed by the police and scorned by some older people in the Mexican community. 'We needed a lot of guts to wear those pants, and we had to be rebellious to do it….[but] I was prepared for any sacrifice to be able to dress the way I wanted to dress…. 'You have to understand that I wore it as a style.'" 63 (This was said by Cesar Chavez, but you may want to keep that information from the students to avoid them agreeing with him based on his status as a hero.)
a. Ask: In this pachuco's opinion, was wearing a zoot suit a political act? What evidence helps you know?
b. Students may say yes because wearing the suit shows freedom of expression. This is a moment ask questions exploring the difference between rebellion and political action.
5. Show students a photograph of a beaten or jailed pachuco from the 1943 riots, easily found in Peiss' book, Zoot Suit.
a. Ask: What do you notice about this photograph? Then, after looking at this photograph, do you think wearing the zoot suit was a political act?
b. Guide students toward considering whether context or circumstance can make an act political. Encourage them to compare present-day examples as a comparison.
6. Have students read from Rami?rez' book, Woman in the Zoot Suit. " '…these youths refused to accept the racialized norms of segregated America.' With their flashy ensembles, distinct slang, extra cash (generated by a booming war economy), and rebellious attitude, pachucos and pachucas participated in a spectacular subculture and threatened the social order by visibly occupying public spaces." 64
a. Ask: What does this scholar believe about the zoot suit as a political act?
b. Guide students to point out the evidence that leads them to their conclusions as well as whether or not they agree with the scholar.
7. Ask: What is your opinion? Was the wearing of the zoot suit a political act?
a. Guide students to cite their evidence, whether it is from previous notes or activities, or from the documents presented in the seminar.
b. If the argument becomes one-sided, offer devil's advocate points of view or ask what the people involved in the documents presented might say about the given opinion.
8. After the discussion, ask students to write a brief opinion as to whether or not the wearing of the zoot suit in the 1940s was a political act. Encourage students to note which sources led them to their opinion. (This quick write will serve as a springboard for the students' thesis statements for an essay on the same topic.)
9. Collect the quick-write opinions before students leave, reading over them quickly to pull out misconceptions or ideas that need to be challenged the next day.
THANK YOU — your feedback is very important to us! Give Feedback