This engrossing study goes beyond sensational headlines and biased memories to provide an understanding of the zoot-suit riots in the context of both Mexican American and Anglo social history.
Series: No. 8
Los Angeles, the summer of 1943. For ten days in June, Anglo servicemen and civilians clashed in the streets of the city with young Mexican Americans whose fingertip coats and pegged, draped trousers announced their rebellion. At their height, the riots involved several thousand men and women, fighting with fists, rocks, sticks, and sometimes knives. In the end none were killed, few were seriously injured, and property damage was slight and yet, even today, the zoot-suit riots are remembered and hold emotional and symbolic significance for Mexican Americans and Anglos alike.
The causes of the rioting were complex, as Mazón demonstrates in this illuminating analysis of their psychodynamics. Based in part on previously undisclosed FBI and military records, this engrossing study goes beyond sensational headlines and biased memories to provide an understanding of the zoot-suit riots in the context of both Mexican American and Anglo social history.
- 1. Introduction
- 2. The Sleepy Lagoon Case
- 3. The "Zoot Suit Yokum" Conspiracy
- 4. Servicemen and Zoot-Suiters
- 5. The Zoot-Suit Riots
- 6. The Symbols, Imagery, and Rhetoric of the Riots
- 7. "The Hard to Get At"
- 8. Between Annihilation and Redemption
The Zoot-Suit Riots occurred in Los Angeles between 3 to 13 June 1943. They are a remarkable event in that they defy simple classification. They were not about zoot-suiters rioting, and they were not, in any conventional sense of the word, "riots." No one was killed. No one sustained massive injuries. Property damage was slight. No major or minor judicial decisions stemmed from the riots. There was no pattern to arrests. Convictions were few and highly discretionary. There were no political manifestos or heroes originating from the riots, although later on the riots would assume political significance for a different generation.
What the riots lack in hard incriminating evidence they make up for in a plethora of emotions, fantasies, and symbols. This is not unusual in crowd behavior or is it a recent development in American history. Peter Shaw in American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution (1981) begins his book by noting the similarities between Colonial and contemporary riots:
The Stamp Act riots of August 1765 shocked the English speaking world. Despite a history of far more violent crowd disturbances in the American colonies, these gatherings elicited special concern. Opponents of the Stamp Act expressed as much surprise and dismay as its supporters, and both sides took steps to prevent a repetition of the violence. Two hundred years later, in the 1960s, street disturbances in which a few people were injured could similarly elicit sharper reactions than acts of violence in which scores were killed. At both times the expressive behavior of crowds proved more important than their actual deeds. Repeatedly the rioters emphasized, and the authorities reacted to, this behavior rather than the situation objectively considered. To participants and observers alike, the ritual proved more important than the reality.
The ritual, in the Zoot-Suit Riots, was likewise more important than the reality. The zoot-suiters, attacked by servicemen and civilians in June 1943, were symbolically annihilated, castrated, transformed, and otherwise rendered the subjects of effigial rites. Among the bizarre processes was the transformation of the real zoot-suiter into an imaginary zoot-suiter. This remarkable invention is externalized evidence of the internal mental activities of adults and youths in the American home front. These mental activities had specific functions, and it is through the interpretation of these functions that the multiple meanings of the Zoot-Suit Riots achieved historical importance.
Since the riots elude the usual categories of interpretation and explication, the initial problem is where to begin. An obvious approach is to give a chronology of the events leading to the riots. Yet because of the predominance of inverted forms of behavior, the symmetry of the riots is not to be found in either chronology or historical antecedent, although there obviously is a chronology and continuity with the past. One approach is to describe the significance of the zoot-suiter both as a real and imagined entity.
The Zoot-Suit Riots were ostensibly a confrontation between Anglo servicemen and Mexican-American zoot-suiters. The term was largely one of attribution, for Mexican-American youth preferred other descriptions. Long before the riots Mexican and Mexican Americans were the beneficiaries, victims, and often the authors of other descriptive terms. One of the more widely recognized is the term cholo—today's version of the 1940s pachuco. Leonard Pitt in the Decline of the Californios (1971) writes about bands of cholos who migrated to California in the 1830s and 1840s. He translated cholo to mean "scoundrel," then used it as a synonym for lower-class, uneducated, and recently arrived Mexicans. Cholo also described the type of Mexican soldier sent to California in the 1840s, an army that counted a liberal contingent of felons in its ranks. The term endured as one of derision throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Aside from denoting Mexican immigrants to California, cholo signified a group of people who were economically and educationally oppressed. Small wonder then that another variant of cholo and pachuco, the bato vago, was associated with the poor who fought in the Mexican Revolution with Francisco Villa: "Antes de que fueran pachucos, antes de los tiempos míos, les decían batos vagos, me entiendes ... y esos son los batos que pelearon en la Revolución con Pancho Villa [Before they were pachucos, before my time, they called them batos vagos, you know ... and they were the batos who fought in the Revolution with Pancho Villa]."
But perhaps the more persistent connection between the cholo of the nineteenth century and the pachuco of the twentieth is seen in a common linguistic tradition. Chicano scholars have at times identified Caló as the privileged language of the Mexican-American barrio. And for many, Caló is a barrio creation largely credited to neologisms of Mexican-American youth. This version of regional pride is understandable, but historically incorrect. Caló was neither a pachuco nor a new world contribution. "Caló has its ancient roots buried deeply in the fertile gypsy tongue (Calé, Romano, Zincalé and Calogitano, which is a lingo of Calé); classic Castellano ... fractured in spelling, crippled in meaning; mutilated French, English, Italian, and the dead languages of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, plus medieval Moorish." Caló, originally zincaló, was the idiom of Spanish gypsies—one of the many minorities in Spain. The conquistadores brought Caló to the New World. Already identified by the upper classes as the argot of the criminal, the poor, and the uneducated, Caló and its variants became well known to the conquered Indian. The indigenous masses of the New World augmented the peninsular Caló with their own modifications and inventions. Spanish, in its florid dialects, idioms, and argots, unified the New with the Old World. Linguists may well dwell on multiple derivatives of Spanish in both continents. There is jerigonza, the lingo of criminals. There is jacarandana, the lingo of prostitutes. And then there is a grouping: calico, calichi, calomel, calorama, calorin, calostro, all of which mean Caló. Along with the high culture of Spain, the New World inherited a style of communication that was politically, socially, and economically determined. The fruits of this inexorable process of cultural transmission were seen in the dissemination of Caló in Mexico and the United States:
Transmitted horizontally through migrations from border towns, but particularly from the central plateau—the states of Jalisco, Michoacan and Mexico City—the dialect, northwardbound from the areas where it traditionally existed, found a setting in El Paso, historically a stepping stone into the Southwest, especially as the city turned into a clearing house for Mexican labor.
Thus the pachuco youth of Los Angeles and the Southwest, however impoverished, were the heirs of a linguistic and therefore cultural tradition originating in fifteenth-century Spain. When the batos of East Los Angeles talked about la julia, they meant to evoke the dread of the paddy wagon shared by their continental predecessors. And when the batos talked about calcos, most were probably oblivious of the fact that gitanos used the same word for shoes.
Seldom was the pachuco introduced as the descendant of cholos, gypsies, and other figures from both the Old and New Worlds. The pachucos' use of Caló merely confirmed their deviance from proper Spanish, rather than placing them within a tradition that had survived half a millennium. By the 1940s the historical antecedents of the pachuco were of secondary importance. Even the sensitive Carey McWilliams showed impatience with the question of origins: "Many theories have been advanced and reams of paper wasted in an attempt to define the origin of the word 'pachuco.'" He nevertheless offered a theory:
Some say that the expression originally came from Mexico and denoted resemblance to the gaily costumed people living in a town (Pachuca) of this name; others have said that it was first applied to border bandits in the vicinity of El Paso. Regardless of the origin of the word, the pachuco stereotype was born in Los Angeles.
The "birth" of the pachuco is linked to the movement of Mexicans from rural to urban centers, to a generational rebellion against both Mexican and American culture, to the influx of drugs, and to an enduring legacy of discrimination. The good intentions of McWilliams converted the pachuco into something of a spontaneous development, a kind of ahistorical being that could be further distorted by law enforcement authorities.
Several writers, like Beatrice Griffith, attempted to reduce the pachuco's negative image: "You find youth of Scotch-Irish Protestant, Jewish or Italian, Russian or Negro background who have learned to speak Spanish with Pachuco emphasis, wear the traditional Pachuco clothes and haircuts, and otherwise become lost in the group." McWilliams, too, contributed to this effort in describing "Victor Rodman Thompson, twenty-one... an Anglo youngster who, by long association with the Mexican boys in his neighborhood, had become completely Mexicanized." Griffith offers another vignette: "There is one blue-eyed Irish boy living in a Mexican community who has so completely adopted the pachuco culture pattern that he sings and creates corridos, the old Mexican folk ballads that the Pachucos make up for purposes of song and gang gossip." The pachucos themselves often reflected the prejudices of the city: "In one instance a Mexican club leader refused to allow the boys to play football with either Negro or Anglo-American youth."
The pachuco élan of the Mexican American extended well into Mexico. Carlos Monsivais, internationally known critic of Mexican and American cultures, dated the beginning of Mexico's fascination with pachucos with the debut in 1945 of Germán Valdés, popularly recognized as "Tin Tan." "His gimmick was the pachuco charactertype developed in Los Angeles." Ironically, Mexican audiences saw Tin Tan as a victim of Anglo-American assimilation: "the pachuco as embodied by Tin Tan and gigolo characters (cinturitas) in cabaret-style movies, was no more than a comic representation of a type intoxicated by the American way of life." The pachuco insulted Mexican tastes:
...the character of Tin Tan proved difficult to sponsor. Motion picture censorship, intent on preserving purity of custom and language, urged on even by language academicians, soon found fault with the pachuco, demanding that he tone down or change his speech, diminish his obvious cultural borrowing, and become just another urban comedian, free of what was precisely his significance.
For many Mexicans the pachuco represented the crystallization of the pocho, i.e., a Mexican born in the United States; alien to both cultures; fluent in neither Spanish nor English; a specialist in Caló, the argot of lumpen elements—an ideal subject for ethnocentric apologies or chauvinistic attacks. In Mexico the pachuco was perceived as a caricature of the American, while in the United States the pachuco was proof of Mexican degeneracy.
Significantly, many gang members were just discovering the pachuco style in the early 1940s. Joan Moore and her collaborators underscored the disparity in the self-identity of various gangs in Homeboys, Gangs, Drugs and Prison in the Barrios of Los Angeles (1978). The Polviados from the Los Angeles suburb of San Fernando are an example:
But the real model for the Polviados were the pachucos of Los Angeles. The gang started in the early 1940s, and made a point of keeping up with the latest clothing fads, going to Murray's and Young's in downtown Los Angeles for their drapes and fingertip coats, and to Price's for their double-soled shoes. The Polviados consciously set themselves apart from the rural Chicanos of Pacoima, Canoga Park, Van Nuys and other Valley barrios, whom they considered backward, square, "farmers.".
Theirs was a social hierarchy that highlighted coiffure, garb, and select membership. Other Mexican-American youth "sneered at the Polviados' 'anti-macho' effort to smell pretty and look dandy." Some considered the zoot suit to be childish: "In the early 1940s, when the zoot-suit fad swept over the Chicano youth of Los Angeles, the young men of La Pur'ssima [White Fence] gang jeered it as a kid's fad." It is important to know that the White Fence gang was the "first Chicano gang in East Los Angeles to use serious weapons—chains and, occasionally, guns." Thus the zoot-suit fad that had swept the United States and even Europe came late to the barrio of Los Angeles.
The most dramatic changes for American youth were hardly restricted to the barrios. Youth exploded on the home front after a decade of virtual anonymity. The Great Depression was the decade of adults who struggled for jobs in a depressed economy. The government eased the impact of young people coming into the job market by diverting them into the National Youth Administration (NYA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). All of this changed with the beginning of the Second World War. By early 1942 cities bristled with young servicemen in uniform as they savored weekend liberty or commuted from one assignment to another. Trains and buses were filled with servicemen in transit. Countless civic and national organizations sprang to meet their lodging and boarding needs. The press, radio, and movie industries clamored for features on the travails, exploits, sorrows, and glories of young men and women in the armed forces. The convulsive presence of millions of young people being readied for war redefined the relationship between parents and children. The war distorted the maturation of adolescence. It confronted them prematurely with entering into permanent decisions when the war, by definition, stood for impermanence. It stretched their psyches in opposite directions. Those too young or exempted from military duty found lucrative employment in an economy geared for total war. Compared with the 1930s, money was plentiful and the promise of continued prosperity was unlimited. Still, the war nullified all hope for the thousands who died or were physically and mentally incapacitated. The brutal dichotomy between life and death and the intervening stresses were negotiated by a series of activities unique to wartime. When concerned citizens and custodians of morality sounded the alarm of increased vice, vandalism, and violence among youth, they failed to consider these predictable contraventions of social norms as reflections of the licensed contraventions of total war.
The ideal of American youth was encapsulated in the serviceman. The need for heroes was an obvious element in the psychological and physical regime for mobilizing the nation. But the hero flourished only in contradistinction to the antihero. As youth were subjected to the alerted scrutiny of the press, law enforcement agents, and elder adults, several categories became discernible. Among the more observable antiheroic youth groups were the zoot-suiters.
The zoot suit was an international phenomenon. "In London the Zoot-Suit was worn mainly by street traders known as 'spivs' or 'wide boys' who lurked at street corners to offer you nylons and other goods in short supply." The origins of the zoot-suit? One knowledgeable guess was "that it had been invented by a Saville Row tailor named E. P. Scholte at the close of the nineteenth century, and Scholte had adapted it from Guards officers' greatcoats." Another view was that Clark Gable, as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, had popularized it. Some contended that it originated in Harlem among blacks. There were several derivatives. Among them was the "Edwardian look"—a favorite of "Teddy Boys" that featured "narrow 'drainpipe' trousers and jacket (with deep cuffs) buttoning high, sometimes worn with a fancy vest." The zoot suit gained additional notoriety among fadconscious adolescents when it was sported by national idols:
The Drape Shape, as if made for a much larger man than its wearer, so baggy as to conceal a bad figure but with ample room for a holster under the armpit, was associated with American gangsters, and a version of it known as the Zoot-Suit had been worn by Danny Kaye and Frank Sinatra for a short time.
The intrusion of the zoot-suiter into the conventions of adult society was met with anger, shock, and undoubtedly envy. The zoot-suiter was the antithesis of the serviceman and disrupted the roles assigned to adolescents. "Teenagers ," who represented another invention of the war years, were more independent economically than any preceding generation of American youth. They made their tastes directly felt in matters of clothing, movies, music, and language, and their younger siblings copied them.
Indeed, the quick affluence of full-time employment combined with the omnipresence of the war produced extremes in reality that were met by excesses in youthful behavior. "They bought new clothes, cars, records; went out more often; and pushed the marriage rate up by 20 percent." What distinguished the young of the epoch had distinguished the generation before them: "A sizable number began to emphasize the distance between themselves and the rest of society by donning the most outlandish clothing since their parents were young-that is, since the fabled twenties." Instead of the Charleston they danced the jitterbug, with music ideally suited to the loose-fitting Drape Shapes of the zoot-suiters. With their ankle-tight pegged cuffs, reet pleats, peg tops, lids, and DA hairstyles, the zoot-suiters flaunted their disdain for adult conventions with the garish insolence of rebellious youth. Like their parents during the 1920s, the younger generation of the early 1940s accompanied their adolescent iconoclasm with irreverent hit songs. Among the more popular were "I Wanna Zoot-Suit" and "A Zoot-Suit."
In keeping with most fads the zoot suit was more conspicuous in large cities. New York City, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles were the trendsetters. Besides being the ideal attire for dancing the jitterbug the zoot suit also represented defiance. Fritz Redl, the noted child psychiatrist, warned in 1943 about "premature generalizations" concerning zoot-suiters. He was not seeking publicity when he suggested that "the zoot suit cult had penetrated to some extent among middle class youth." The very stylized and customized nature of the suit made it expensive, with the more flamboyant versions being financially out of reach for many lower-class youths. But whether chic or plain, the zoot suit was an evocative and provocative symbol. According to Redl, the zoot suit provided "youth with a symbolic anticipation of being adult. It may do so in many ways, and one is through emphasis on adult-hoarded pleasures and licenses, transgressions against adult tabus and supervision, rejection of adult values and behavior standards."
Redl did not consider the generalized behavior of zoot-suiters as pathological. Nor did he consider them politically minded. He also warned about hasty efforts at correcting their "To attempt to satisfy zoot suiters by making them members of an organized Boy Scout troop would be as unsuccessful as trying to build them into a 'party' with definite goals or political or social programs."
The pachuco and zoot-suiter thus confronted American society with an apparent historical discontinuity. Both represented an unprecedented development—or so at least it must have seemed to adults who with the benefit of a protective amnesia had forgotten the libertines and bohemians of the 1920s. The surface dissimilarities between the pachuco zoot-suiter, serviceman, and adult civilian restricted any relationship to an adverse level. Instead of structuring the relationship between, say, zoot-suiters and servicemen in the language of two categories of youth facing problems of maturation, rebellion, and identity confusion, the relationship was usually framed in the most antagonistic terms. This trend survived in the narratives on the riots as both liberal and conservative interpretations demonstrated the profound differences between the various factions.
The tendency to highlight the dissociative elements of the Zoot-Suit Riots is undoubtedly influenced by the obvious differences in the race, age, class, and even language of the participants. One can readily concede that it is the matter of irreconcilable differences that provokes violence at the individual, group, and national levels. However, for this study a more promising approach is to find the unifying themes that brought zoot-suiters, servicemen, and civilians together for the ten-day pseudoriots. Among the more significant pieces of information is the fact that neither the zoot-suiter nor the "riots" make sense.
The zoot-suiters projected a deceptively anarchistic image. Especially nonsensical to adults were aspects of their garb, gait, and argot. Redl himself had trouble classifying them: "Who are the zoot suiters? Frankly—we do not know." But in their very elusiveness can be found one of the more expressive statements on the psychology of adolescence and the mentality of the home front.
Zoot-suiters were nonsensical because among other things they took pride in their ambiguity. The narcissistic self-absorption of the zoot-suiter in a world of illusory omnipotentiality was in opposition to the modesty of individual selflessness attributed to the defense worker and the soldier. Zoot-suiters transgressed the patriotic ideals of commitment, integrity, and loyalty with noncommitment, incoherence, and defiance. They seemed to be simply marking time while the rest of the country intensified the war effort. If there was a commitment, it was to nothing more enduring than sporting the zoot-suit way of life, with the emphasis on exhibiting themselves and indulging in their favorite forms of entertainment. As to past and future, they had few opinions. However irksome to adults, the zoot-suiters' flair for marking time—a characteristic richly conveyed through their animated contrariness—was a healthy and appropriate phase in the process of maturation.
Erik Erikson was the first to delineate the psychodynamics of the adolescent phase of marking time. In his concept of the moratorium is found the range of youthful activities that led to either a successful transition to adulthood or an interminable struggle against regressive impulses. Among Erikson's many eloquent passages is this one pertaining to young Martin Luther, but it is of value to understanding youth in general:
Finally, the use of sharp repudiation, so eagerly indulged in by intolerant youth in an effort to bolster its collective identity with a harsh denunciation of some other "kind," be it on a religious, racial, or social basis, is blunted in such a person. He alternates between extreme self-repudiation and a snobbish disdain for all groups—except perhaps, for memberships whose true roots and obligations are completely outside his reach. One thinks of the "classical" yearning of young Europeans or of the appeal which foreign totalitarian parties have for some young Americans, as do the lofty teachings of Eastern mystics. Here the need to search for total and final values can often be met only under the condition that these values be foreign to everything one has been taught.
The moratorium is a period of experimentation, psychic restructuring, and a search for identity. A major phase of the moratorium is seen in the development of a negative identity: "We will call all self-images, even those of a highly idealistic nature, which are diametrically opposed to the dominant values of an individual's upbringing, parts of a negative identity—meaning an identity which he has been warned not to become."
The explanatory value of the psychodynamics of adolescent moratoria and negative identity were not available to social commentators in the 1940s. For them, as indeed for the general public, the zoot-suiters' rejection of traditional values was insufferably irreverent and bordered on the profane. But the zoot-suiter image was somewhat traditional. The teens, twenties, and thirties of the twentieth century withstood the excesses of libertines and bohemians, just as the 1950s managed the intrusion of the beatnik and the 1960s that of the hippies, yippies, and a slew of minority dissidents that included Chicanos, blacks, and women. But no amount of tradition could convince the average American of the normality of zoot-suiters or pachucos.
The intolerance of adults could well be traced to a legacy of socioeconomic oppression and political insensitivity to the realities of ethnic and working-class minorities. The difficulty with understanding the plight of the adolescent was unfortunately more complex than the conflictual struggles between classes and races. The one experience common to all classes and races is that of understanding their children. The majority of adult Anglos were no more tolerant of the pachuco than adult Anglos were of the zoot-suiters. Even those who by profession are presumed to be tolerant of youth are often as intolerant as the therapeutically mindless parent. An honest sample from nationally recognized Peter L. Giovacchini, a psychoanalyst, is illustrative: "Sometimes, the therapist views the patient's behavior as rebellious, and for some mysterious reason, adolescent rebellion is the worst kind. Passive rebellion, manifested by procrastination, is particularly irksome." Giovacchini's concept of adolescent procrastination is a variant of Erikson's moratorium.
The adolescent, even as a patient in a controlled therapeutic environment, is understandably overwhelmed by the avalanche of intellectual, emotional, and physical changes that prepare youth for the tasks of adulthood. In the midst of transacting these involuntary processes adolescents lack the coherence and experience to communicate much more than the obvious and painful realities of passing through adolescence.
Historians have sidestepped adolescent communications in much the same manner that mental health practitioners have opted for the more controllable and predictable treatment of childhood and adult neuroses. The language of adolescence in general, much less the language of youth groups, has eluded the classificatory traditions of scholars. The reasons are legion and point to issues of generational conflict, authoritarianism, envy, etc. The bedrock conflict may rest with adult expectations of adolescents. Adults readily assume that the physical maturation of adolescents confers equivalent emotional and intellectual abilities. But there is nothing spontaneous about the stormy passage from adolescence to adulthood.
In order to earn membership in the covenant of elders it is often necessary for adolescents to undergo rites of passage. A religiously sanctioned example is the bar or bas mitzvah, in which the thirteen-year-old is initiated into adulthood. University fraternities and sororities practice hazing rituals that have led to injuries and fatalities. Herbert A. Block and Arthur Niederhoffer noted in The Gang (1959) that "Pachuco boys are reputed to perform outstanding deeds in violation of the law in order to gain admission to the gang." The connection between the adolescent moratorium, negative identity, and ritual ordeals is inseparable from the processes of adolescent maturation. Each of these phases is a dynamic formulation on the adolescents' road to achieving mastery of their minds, bodies, and environment. While to adults the zoot-suiters represented the epitome of childish irresponsibility and immaturity, for the zoot-suiters the bizarre clothing, music, dances, and inventive neologisms were all indicative of the adolescent struggle for identity. Although the zoot-suiters stimulated thoughts about nihilism, the fad itself allowed them to proudly designate their studied superiority over adults: They could dance longer and better than adults, they were decidedly more colorful and creative in their clothing, and through their privileged argot they countered the mysteries of adult conventions. The brash effrontery of the zoot-suiters was but a variant of the universally recognized adolescent illusion of omnipotentiality.
If adolescents appeared unpardonably childish to adults, it was not long before the infantilizing effects of wartime produced a rash of regressive symptoms in adults. The very indecisiveness of war encouraged adults to abandon peacetime norms of behavior. It allowed and often forced them to temporize, delay, and surrender their identities—like the adolescents did in a passing fad—to the whim of external forces. Americans were motivated to consider new forms of imagery and symbolizations. In the absence of an unseen enemy they were invited to indulge their fantasies with a host of surrogate experiences. Cartoonists, filmmakers, and radio personalities saturated the public with vivid portrayals of real and imagined enemies. For the American home front, more so than for any of the other nations at war, there was a pressing need for a vicarious sense of direct participation in the war. Aside from the exigencies of mobilizing and sustaining a mood of patriotism, there was the obvious need of entertaining the public. Were Americans ready for realism or escapism? Hollywood quickly established the overwhelming preference for the latter. The needs of adults, whether civilian or military, were central to the conduct and success of the war. The problem was that these needs were often nonverbal and inaccessible to the assumptions of the nation's leadership.
If it is agreed that youths have to be initiated into the tasks of adulthood, then how were adults initiated into the tasks of wartime? Like adolescents, adults had to experiment and negotiate a series of unfamiliar and stressful ordeals. And like adolescents, adults exhibited an initial effrontery and exuberance that was largely impulsive and therefore of short duration. California in particular had a long history of vigilante behavior. During the war some civilians renewed the tradition with some modifications as they undertook the defense of their state by providing and complicating the duties of safeguarding the state against enemy submarines, airplanes, and saboteurs. Those not directly involved in defense-related jobs augmented their patriotism by participating in volunteer organizations, thereby further enhancing their sense of directly participating in the war. Given the nature of wartime, any sense of belonging was transitory and subject to the unexpected. But these activities granted the participant, if nothing else, a momentary sense of direction and perhaps a feeling of mastery. Adults, too, had to be initiated into the responsibilities of a new identity. Where the adolescents found structure in clothes, music, and dances, the adults (along with many youths) found a similar outlet in bond drives, patriotic rallies, volunteer organizations, etc.
Servicemen likewise faced a series of initiatory ordeals. Foremost among these were the rituals of being inducted into military service. There were oaths of loyalty and symbolic steps to be taken and a host of physical obstacles to be overcome, beginning with the stripping of their civilian clothes, hair, and identity. Recruits were then passed through another series of obstacle courses—physical and emotional—having to do with military drill, discipline, and plain harassment. Ironically, most servicemen never saw combat. Yet, as will become evident, it was crucial for the identity, well-being, and adaptation of Americans in general to entertain thoughts of having been exposed to the enemy.
There were several areas where the emotional experiences of servicemen, civilians, and zoot-suiters came together. Instead of representing disparate elements in the social history of Los Angeles, these three rather amorphous and at times mutually exchangeable groups represented different approaches to a similar if not identical set of circumstances.
First there was the initiatory process of becoming part of a distinct cohort—a distinct group tainted by a unique cluster of events. All three were confronted with certain rites of passage. For zoot-suiters it meant initiation into a formal gang or, at a less formal level, a voluntary initiation into an adolescent fad calling for the incorporation of specific mannerisms, linguistic protocols, and attire. For civilians it could mean a transfiguration into the novel status of "citizen-soldier" on the home front, and its attendant duties and status. These could range from forsaking wage increases in deference to the impositions of wartime to experimenting with new forms of solidarity in the service of maintaining social order. Similar conditions and demands held for young men in basic training. It was here that all three groups often came together, unknowingly and inexorably. All recruits had been civilians, some were zoot-suiters, some were average adolescents, some were workers, and some were adults who were both workers and zoot-suiters. All three groups shared the anguish and euphoria of being caught in a transitional epoch.
The undifferentiated melding of anxieties, frustrations, and expectations suggests a point of psychosocial convergence that affected the unconscious and conscious processes of a people in the center of massive psychic and physical upheaval. Whatever the historical antecedents of zoot-suiters, workers, or youth in general, the uncompromising demands of a world war forced the great majority to move away from thinking of life in terms of moderation and to consider the extremes of immortality or oblivion. Thus zoot-suiters were thrusted into a political scene that was both alien and unprecedented. They succumbed to the psychological totalism of a time calling for the imperatives of either total patriotism or total disloyalty. But zoot-suiters could not be both good Americans and good pachucos. And neither, for that matter, could servicemen be good soldiers and theoretically have reservations about the course of the war. The same held for civilians whose presumed loyalty superceded all self-interests. The Zoot-Suit Riots signify one of the ways in which all of the taboos of homefront America could be contravened, and it is here, and not in the history of either Mexican-American youth, servicemen, or civilians, that the riots take on center stage in the social history of World War II America.
“In the nascent field of Chicano history psychohistorical studies are not abundant. Thus Mazón makes an immense contribution to the study of the Mexican American.”
American Historical Review