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Zoot Suits, El Pachuco, and The Sleepy Lagoon Case Institutionalized Racism is Alive and Well in L. A.

<h3 style=”text-align: center;”>Institutionalized Racism is Alive and Well in L. A. and is deeply entrenched within the core of the governing body of our country and among the institutions of social reform as well as higher education.</h3>
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During the 40’s, school offered no solace or safe haven for the Pachuco youth.  For it was in school that “they first learn the differences in social rank and discover that they are at the bottom of the scale” (McWilliams 217).   According to McWilliams, this painful lesson is learned from racist, resentful white teachers who would rather be teaching in Beverly Hills.  The attitude of these teachers creates “resentment directed against the school, and all it stands for … All the attitudes he had learned at school now poison his attitude toward the home.  Turning away from home and school, the Mexican youth has only one place where he can find security and status.  This is the gang made up of boys exactly like himself”(McWilliams 217).  The author explains further that:

The pachuco gang differs from other city gangs only in the degree to which it constitutes a more tightly knit group…The pachucos suffer discrimination together and nothing makes for cohesiveness more effectively than a commonly shared hostility.  Knowing that both as individuals and as a group they are not welcome in many parts of the city, they create their own world and try to make it as self-sufficient as possible (McWilliams 217).

The sad and unfortunate truth is that over 60 years later, things have not changed much for Chicano youth.  I speak from first-hand experience.  In the early 90’s I moved to Los Angeles from Houston and was hired as an “Artist-in-Residence” to teach grammar and composition to third through sixth graders to prepare them for a state exam at a predominantly Hispanic school in Inglewood.  Although the principal was new and African American, at least 90 percent of the teachers were white.  There was not a single Hispanic teacher, only a couple of Hispanic Teacher’s Aids who helped out in the bi-lingual classrooms.

The deprecating and denigrating tones that teachers used towards these little children, who were both Chicano and African American, was shameful.  And the racist conversations in the teacher’s lounge upset me so much that I refused to eat or socialize with any of the staff. I found it little wonder that these children rarely make it beyond junior high school.  By sixth grade their hopes, dreams and self worth were totally shattered.

Initially, I attempted to teach these students with their regular teacher in the classroom undermining the positive encouragement and nonjudgmental approach I used with each student. When I explained my challenge to the principal (who hired me because the school had the lowest test scores in the district) she arranged for the students to meet me in the auditorium without their teachers.  There, I was able to connect with and reach these students much easier without their teachers present to run interference.

When funding for my residency ran out after the first semester, many of the students cried because I would not be returning in the Spring.  That’s when I volunteered to teach an all day creative writing and literature class on Saturday from 9-3 for free.  It was filled to capacity with 5th and 6th graders.  I bought donuts and milk for them in the morning while the parents packed a brown bag for lunch.  At 3:00 o’clock they didn’t want to go home. Writing in class and sharing their work aloud with other students who, along with myself, praised every little inch of progress they made was no doubt the most encouragement they had ever received in a classroom. And the book reading competition was such a success, the Reading Resources Director was amazed by the sudden influx of students checking out books and bringing them back within days, asking for more.  The results were incredible! Older siblings, who often stayed for the class, told me that if they had had just one teacher who cared about them, they might have finished high school or gone to college.  They now felt hopeful that their younger siblings would finish school as a result of the love for reading and writing they developed in my class.  I encouraged older siblings to catch up on their reading and return to adult school because learning is a life long process.  What I did for those students, any of the teachers at that school could have done.  All that was necessary was caring about and connecting with the students beyond racial boundaries.

During the 40’s, collusion between the Los Angeles Times and the police department influenced the public with biased, inflammatory and sensational headlines about young “Mexican hoodlums.” In fact, “articles and headlines were designed to inflame racial hatred” (Acuna 257).  These views originated with Ed Ayers, head of Foreign Relations Bureau for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.  He wrote a report that justified violation of Chicano human rights.  Lt. Ayres “concluded that Chicanos were inherently criminal and violent … He urged that all gang members be imprisoned … Chicanos, according to Ayres, could not change their spots; they had an innate desire to use a knife and let blood, and this inborn cruelty was aggravated by liquor and jealousy” (McWilliams 255). That remark reminded me of an article I read in the Los Angeles Times during the Rodney King riots in the 1990′s.  The paper quoted the police department’s belief that “one out of every two young black males was a gang member.”  Unfortunately, the times may have changed, but the Los Angeles Times hasn’t changed much in its inclination towards biased reporting with a tendency to support police brutality as a necessary use of force in controlling African American and Chicano youth while inciting fear and hatred against them.

The propaganda campaign of Lt. Ayers and the Times struck me as unsettlingly similar to the methods and mindset of Hitler based on a personal interview by World War II journalist Josef Hell.  In answer to Hell’s question as to the source of his hatred for Jews and his determination to destroy them Hitler answered:

It is manifestly clear and has been proven in practice and by the facts of all revolutions that a struggle for ideals …absolutely must be supplemented with a struggle against some social class or caste.  My object is to create first-rate revolutionary upheavals…With this very idea in mind, I scanned the revolutionary events of history and put the question to myself: against which racial element in Germany can I unleash my propaganda of hate with the greatest prospects of success?  I had to find the right kind of victim … I came to the conclusion that a campaign against the Jews would be as popular as it would be successful …Once the hatred and the battle against the Jews have been really stirred up, their resistance will necessarily crumble in the shortest possible time.  They are totally defenseless, and no one will stand up to protect them. (Fleming 28-29).

Indeed, Hitler’s ideology appeared to be at work in America during the Zoot Suit Riots, as the Sleepy Hollow Lagoon incident was later coined.  In a wartime climate in America, with a press that was bored from a steady diet of war stories, the press ended up creating its own war on the Los Angeles home front.  The public needed a scapegoat for their frustration and the Zoot Suit wearing Pachuchos were a perfect victim – young and defenseless.  Moreover, they were easy to identify in that “a visible foe was the ‘alien’ Chicano, dressed in the outlandish zoot suit that everyone ridiculed.  The sailors also looked for Mexican girls to pick up, associating the Chicanas with the prostitutes in Tijuana.  The sailors behaved boisterously and rudely to the women in the Mexican community” (Acuna 256).  Naturally, any self respecting male would feel compelled to defend the honor of his girlfriend, which is what happened in the initial altercation between the sailors and Pachucos.  Instead of arresting the sailors for entering the Chicano community and creating unrest, the police had already spread the word that “Pachucos were fair game and that they could be gang-banged without fear of arrest” (Acuna 257).   As a result, “sailors indiscriminately attacked Mexican youths … Twenty-five hundred spectators watched the assault on innocent Chicano youths; the police did virtually nothing to restrain the service men, arresting instead the victims, charging them with disturbing the peace” (Acuna 256).

Not surprisingly, police abetted the lawlessness of the service men against Pachucos.  Even more alarming is the fact that the police department rendered the community virtually impotent to protect itself.  For example, when the “Chicano community attempted to defend itself, police arrested them” (Acuna 256).  In fact, the “press and city officials provoked the mob” by claiming that the sailors acted in self defense when in actuality the GI’s executed a vigilante invasion of violence upon the Chicano community.  The irony is that it was the “military shore patrols [who] quelled the riot, accomplishing what the Los Angeles police could or would not do” (Acuna 257).

Again, the foreging reminded me of gestapo tactics during World War II.   Hitler’s intent was, through progaganda, to make all Jews criminals. He started out by accusing them publicly of a ritual murder covered by the press.  His overall plan was to take every missing child report in Europe and, where ever Jews had not been evacuated, to blame the Jews by making it look like a ritual murder by Jews (Fleming 12-13). “The Fuhrer intended to brand the Jews enemies of the state, which would then enable him to represent his policy of annihilation as a measure of ‘self-defense’” (Fleming 30).

In effect, by blaming the Pachuco’s for the murder in the Sleepy Lagoon case and sentencing 17 teenagers to jail for the death of one person, was a propaganda campaign as effective and as premediated as Hitler’s.  The police and the press succeeded in inciting hatred against young Pachuchos that was so intense the public did not come to the defense of innocent and defenseless children who were stripped, beaten and then jailed.

It is interesting to note that publicly disparaging the way that Chicano youth dressed in their Zoot Suits, beating them up, and then stripping them of their clothes was not new.  Historically, all over the world, white colonizers have systematically imposed their standards of dress, religion and culture upon every non-white race colonized.

Cary McWilliams was one of the few concerned journalists who was sympathetic to the Chicano plight during the Zoot Suit Riots. He even put together a governor’s committee to restore peace during the riots.  The Los Angeles Times reacted in predictable and consistent fashion by devoting “several harsh editorials to certain individuals” – McWilliams, in particular – “who had suggested that ‘racial prejudice’ might have had something to do with the riots” (McWilliams 229).  Further, the Times on June 15, 1943 concluded that “it was through the depredations of the young gangs attired in zoot-suits, it was their weird dress and not their race which resulted in difficulties” (McWilliams 229).  Hitler followed a similar course of cover up by reporting to the public that Jews were being sent to labor camps or relocated to other countries, when they were inactuality being sent to gas chambers (Fleming 44).

The Los Angeles Times respected no boundaries when it came to defending their sacred position as sentinal to social persecution of Chicanos.   They even went so far as to attack the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who “remarked in her column that the Zoot Suit Riots were ‘in the nature of race riots’” (McWilliams 230).  The Times retaliated to her truth by accusing Mrs. Roosevelt of what they, themselves, had already done: “Mrs. Roosevelt Blindly Stirs Race Discord.”

This type of projection was, was once again, mindful of the Los Angeles Times during the Rodney King Riots.  At that time, all I could do was hang my mouth open in disbelief as the media immediately sided with the police officers by claiming that the beating was not racially motivated and that the victim provoked the beating.  When the jury found the officers not guilty, it did not take a rocket scientist to predict that there would be a community backlash if not a revolt at the indignation of it all.  It seemed clear at the time that nothing short of riots would get rid of the police chief sanctioning the use of excessive force on the part of officers.  And I was dismayed to discover first hand how slanted and biased media coverage was.  I discovered that the looting and burning in Black neighborhoods was directed at white and Korean owned establishments who were exploiting their neighborhood. Stores that had signs saying “Black Owned” in the window were not harmed while the media went on and on about how they could not believe that Blacks were targeting their own neighborhood.

As I read both Acuna’s and McWilliams’ reports of the Sleepy Lagoon Incident and the Zoot Suit Riots, my stomach tied up in knots of indignation and frustration with the American media, not to mention the police department who continue to indiscriminately persecute Chicano and African American males whether they belong to gangs or not.  Ironically, one good thing came out of the Rodney King Riots.  The two largest Black gangs in South Central entered into a truce supported by the rapp music industry, with artists such as Snoop Doggie Dogg, a Krip Gang member, who was signed to Death Row Record’s owner, Suge Knight, a known Blood Gang Member, to create music instead of war in the streets.

Far too many young Chicano males today continue to be bound to the perimeter of their barrios, excluded from upscale white establishments who have dress codes that prevent them from entering in casual attire that might label them a gang member.  Moreover, predominately white theaters in the area where I live, such as the Burbank Media District and Universal City Walk, have an unwritten policy against showing movies that will attract Hispanics and Africa Americans who might be gang affiliated.  Moreover, they will not hesitate to pull a movie, if on the first night, too many suspicious looking minorities show up. And these same movie theaters have extra security on hand on opening night of a movie with a gang related rapp star in the lead role.  Both Burbank and City Walk have curfews for youth under 18 years of age designed to get them back on their side of town early on the weekends. Burbank targets young Armenians, in addition to Chicanos and African Americans.   I attended a Defensive Driving Class in Burbank taught by a Burbank police officer.  He joked about Burbank having a policy of making sure there was “nothing black on their streets at night except the pavement,” and I quote this officer who was sworn to “protect and serve.”

Cultural racism is deeply entrenched within the core of the governing body of our country and among the institutions of social reform as well as higher education. While there are still whites who would prefer to send all minorities back to their countries of origin, they forget that African Americans were forced to come here, and that whites literally took Texas and California from Mexico. The absurbidity of the notion of deporting non-whites is apparent in the fact that this country rightfully belongs to Native American Indians who are now an endangered minority due to sophisticated, systematic genocide that via poor diet and alcohol.

As far as the gang question goes, Acuna feels that whites conveniently forgot that “the Euroamerican urban experience caused the gang phenomenon” (Acuna 254).   McWilliams noted that before the Pachuco in Los Angeles, similar Russian Molokan immigrant gangs existed.  In fact, gangs have “existed in Los Angeles since the city really began to grow, around 1900, and they will continue to exist as long a society creates them” (McWilliams 217). As long as the victim can be blamed for being victimized, oppression will reign supreme.

Works Cited

Acuna, Rodolfo.  Occupied America, Third Edition.  Harper Collins:NY. 1988.

Fleming, Gerald. Hitler and the Final Solution. University of California Press, 1987.

McWilliams, Carey. North From Mexico.  Praeger Publishing. 1990



<a class=”yoast-link-suggestion__value” href=”” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Check out my article on the Cultural Racism in Hollywood and the Media</a>

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