- Culture, Agency, and Nation: Zoot Suiters and the Making of America
Luis Alvarez’s contribution to the historiography of the zoot suiters in the post-World War II era represents the culmination of the efforts laid by his predecessors. Social and cultural historians in the 1980s interested in the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 sought to create a history from the “bottom up” and represent the lives of ordinary citizens, but stumbled along the way by leaving many important gaps. Alvarez fills in those gaps by giving voice to the zoot suiters themselves. Mauricio Mazón brought our attention to the event, but focused his analysis on the Anglos and their psychological impulses. Edward Escobar highlighted how the riots helped solidify an ethnic Mexican American political identity, but paid more attention to the views of middleclass Mexican American reformers than the zoot suiters themselves. Eduardo Óbregon Pagán used a “multivalent theory” to show competing tensions among various groups, but again failed to access the voices of zoot suiters. Alvarez, as a result of being the nephew of a zoot suiter himself, accomplished the important task of earning the trust of many of them and collecting their memories. While protecting the privacy of most of his respondents by referring to them with pseudonyms, Alvarez allowed the zoot suiters to speak for themselves and to shed their own light on the reasons why they became the target of so many attacks. This book—based on primary research in multiple manuscript collections across California and New York and synthesizing a growing secondary literature on zoot suit culture—adds a vital contribution to our understanding of cultural agency and resistance in 1940s America. By paying attention to Mexican American and African American zoot suiters in Los Angeles and New York City, and by looking at the culture of zoot suit among young men and women, Alvarez shows how zoot suit culture became a “multiracial, gendered, and national phenomenon” (p. 7).
The book is organized into three parts. Part I, “Dignity Denied: Youth in the Early War Years,” focuses on the discrimination that Mexican American [End Page 125] and African American youth experienced in housing, employment, education, and law enforcement. Alvarez highlights how white and nonwhite middleclass reformers, despite their good intentions, used the zoot suit as a vehicle to push their own assimilationist agendas on the youth. Part II, “The Struggle for Dignity: Zoot Culture during World War II,” describes how zoot suiters used their fashion, speech, music, and dance to create an autonomous cultural space and to form a meaningful protest against their dehumanization, even as they reinforced gender roles and consumption patterns that fueled the wartime economy. In Part III, “Violence and National Belonging on the Home Front,” Alvarez delineates his main thesis, showing how zoot suiters did not simply suffer beatings from white policemen and servicemen as hapless victims, but actively challenged the wartime consensus by initiating physical confrontations with white servicemen and contesting the meaning of American democracy in the home front.
In Part I, Alvarez provides a broad analysis of the obstacles that nonwhite youth faced in wartime. Whether they were excluded from employment in the growing military industry in Southern California, preferred seating in movie theaters, or respectful treatment from police officers, nonwhite youth were constantly reminded of the fact that they stood outside the national boundaries of first-class citizenship. Alvarez is highly critical of Mexican American and African American reformers’ attempt to advocate for the youth, but he does provide a balanced analysis of their accomplishments and limitations. For example, we learn that the efforts of Charlotta Bass, owner of the African American newspaper California Eagle, along with the Citizens Committee for Latin American Youth (CCLAY), created enough public pressure to enforce President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, which prohibited race discrimination in government employment. Through their work, Douglas Aircraft Corporation, which had employed only ten African Americans in 1941, had more than two thousand of them...