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In the slang of the late thirties, the word "zoot" denoted everything unusual, bright and conspicuous, so it is only natural that the name zoot stuck behind that somewhat absurd suit with huge, padded shoulders and trousers that were very tapered to the ankles, which became fashionable among black youth suit. The zoo suit was just another fashion fad, and perhaps it would have remained so if the children of Mexican immigrants in California had not made it one of the symbols of their subculture.
Between 1914 and 1929, California experienced an unprecedented influx of migrants from Mexico, and the children of these emigrants had the hardest time. Pachucos were Mexicans who were born in the US, strangers to both cultures, fluent in neither language (they had their own slang, "kalo" is a mixture of English and Spanish slang), and lived in a ghetto, an ideal target for ethnocentric attacks and chauvinist attacks. The pachucos' culture that adopted the zoot suit as its uniform was an attempt to make some important social statements (Gregory). Essentially, a zoot suit looked like an oversized formal suit, an attribute likely caused by the relatively low social status of the pachucos who were not able to afford individually tailored clothing.
The criminal activity of the pachucos was greatly exaggerated in the eyes of the white layman, as was the macho aspect of this subculture. In fact, women played an important role in it, and there were even several female gangs, the most active of which were The Slick Chicks and The Black Widows. Zoot suits, expensive and conspicuous clothes, became an important part of this subculture, which was treated with extreme care, there was even a dance called Pachuco Hop, the man practically did not move (so as not to spoil the suit), he only put his partner’s hand, and she diligently spun around him (Gregory). The pachucos’ subculture, hence, had nearly all elements of a standalone culture with a zoot suit being a sort of ethnic garment.
With the entry of the United States into World War II in December 1941, restrictions were imposed on the nation in all areas of consumption. In March 1942, the War Industries Committee passed a law limiting the amount of fabric used in tailoring. These rules essentially banned the production of zoot suits, and most manufacturers stopped making and advertising these suits. However, the demand for zoot suits did not abate, and a network of semi-underground tailors in Los Angeles and New York continued to make them. The fabric for the suits had to be obtained by underground means, so in certain environments, the width of the zoot suit became a status symbol, and for many Americans, especially in the military, the same suit became associated with unpatriotism (Andrews). This apparent denial of the culture would later have political and social consequences manifested in the so-called “zoot suit riots.”
In August 1942, José Diaz, a member of one of the local gangs, was found on the corner of Slawson and Atlantic Boulevards in a coma and soon died in the hospital from stab wounds. In another time, the murder of one Mexican guy would not have excited anyone, but in wartime conditions for white townsfolk, it was proof that Mexican crime in Los Angeles was out of control. The police arrested more than 600 young Mexicans without any reason, calling these actions "preventive action" (Andrews). This caused proportional resistance from the public that essentially drove the local society into chaos and brief unrest.
Newspapers were full of sensationalist headlines, diligently fanning the flames of racial hatred, and often mentioning that almost all those arrested were wearing zoot suits. Finally, the main suspect was found, Hank Leivas, a typical pachuco-zoot-suiter, who has become a kind of symbol for Mexican teenagers. The trial, in this case, called the Sleepy Lagoon Case and becoming one big political farce, lasted three months, 17 defendants were found guilty, and received various terms, and most of them ended up in St. Quentin prison (Andrews). This only further fueled the resistance that would grow into full-scale riots by 1943.
The riots in Los Angeles were the most violent, but they were not limited to one city,skirmishes of this kind occurred throughout California, and in a number of cities in Texas and Arizona, Detroit also experienced three weeks of the worst racial unrest in the history of the city. In New York, these skirmishes escalated into a real racial war that began after the closing of the "Savoy Ballroom" (it did not work for several months in 1943), burnt shops, overturned cars, and beaten and killed several civilians and policemen. More than 150 people were injured, and more than 500 Hispanics were arrested by the police for riots and vagrancy. In a matter of weeks, Harlem, an affluent neighborhood inhabited by blacks who occupied a decent social position, turned into the impoverished and dangerous place that it remains to this day.
Andrews, Evan. "What Were the Zoot Suit Riots?". History, 2020, https://www.history.com/news/what-were-the-zoot-suit-riots.
Gregory, Alice. "A Brief History of The Zoot Suit". Smithsonian Magazine, 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/brief-history-zoot-suit-180958507.
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