The Zoot Suit movie not only brought us closer to the lives of the Pachucos, but also provided us with to a clear vision of the events that led to the riots in June of 1943, in the city of Los Angeles. In that era, during WWII, Mexican Americans in east LA had experienced one of the most significant episodes of racial violence in the 20th century, known as the Zoot Suit riots. The latter was caused because of high racial tensions, which were primarily influenced by the media.
In this paper, I will be explaining how the Zoot Suit movie highlights, both the representation and the re-envision of this particular racial minority. So, what is Zoot Suit? What and whom did it represent? And, what was its outcome? to answer that, throughout this paper, I will be connecting movie scenes to course material, in order to draw a clear picture of what happened back in war times in Los Angeles.
The Zoot Suit is a sub-culture that was initially presented by African American youths. It was closely connected to Jazz culture, and was considered dangerous, because it broke both the musical, and the social rules. Mexican Americans adopted this sub-culture, and brought it to the west coast, for the sake of being distinguished, and defiant to others.
Many young Mexicans were seen wearing these oversized long drape jackets, with exaggerated padded shoulders, and baggy high waisted trousers, that are tight around the ankles. Their ducktail hair style was V-shaped, and low cut extending far down their neck. They also wore porkpie hats, and had long chains hanging down from their pants. This category of young Mexicans was portrayed in the movie as Hank Reyna’s family. They were a modest, working-class family, parents of two sons and a daughter, who immigrated from Mexico and were still attached to their mother culture. However, their kids sought to break away from their mother culture, and embrace a subculture, that would differentiate them and make them standout.
These young Mexicans discovered that, in joining the Zoot Suit culture, was a huge opportunity for them to celebrate creativity, adaption, transformation, and also to attain coolness, but mainly to gain social approval. The latter seemed unexisting, especially for the first generation born in the U.S., and people of color in general, were pushed to the side, stigmatized, and were treated as second class citizens. Moreover, they faced many formidable obstacles to acclimate into the white American culture. To name a few, they suffered from discrimination and segregation, which was blatantly portrayed in one of the scenes of the movie. There was a big sign which stated, whether it was Blacks or Mexicans night. If anything, this explicitly demonstrates what kind of scrutiny and segregation people of color were forced into by the hegemonic dominant race.
The dominant white power focused only on the negative connotations of the culture, and justified its stance towards the zoot suiters, by identifying them as criminals, anti-social, and unpatriotic. Hence, mounting concerns had been raised by the mass public, demanding the Los Angeles police department to protect them and to secure the city. One night, the Pachucos were involved in a brawl in a home near Los Angeles sleepy lagoon. The next morning the deceased body of Jose Diaz was found nearby. The media and the police quickly blamed the Zoot suiters 38thst Gang, and hundreds of Pachucos were rounded up, regardless of affiliation. In the summer of 1943, tensions ran high between zoot-suiters and the large contingent of white sailors, soldiers and Marines stationed in and around Los Angeles. They were armed with clubs, pipes and bottles, and out seeking the Zoot Suiters; stripping them out of their suits, burning and urinating over them. The riot resulted in twelve young Mexicans were brought to trial for crimes they didn’t commit, just because, they were zoot suiters.
I believe, the movie re-envisioned the experience of Mexicans American in war time in LA by its distinctive character, El Pachuco. He served more like a representation of life. Meaning, he sometimes would speak to the audience loudly, to remind them about this representation, which was introduced by Brecht, and it’s called the V effect. Similarly, throughout the movie, when El Pachuco spoke to the protagonist, he served more like a deep voice that’s connected only to Hank, making them agree, or sometimes argue about controversial matters, such as serving in the Navy. On one hand, Hank wanted to go and serve for his country, while on the other hand, El Pachuco was trying to convince him that he’s already serving his country here at home. Staying here would assure carrying out the zoot suit culture, and defending all the Mexican immigrants, as they represented all immigrants in that era.
In closing, I think that for the most part, like any youth of generation, the zoot suit was a symbol of one’s own generational style. There was a kind of assertiveness in the dress. A sense that this was unique. This was to really state that, you know, we are here, and we want to make a statement about the fact that we are here. But it was also, I believe, a connection with other minority and poor youth in the United States.
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