- The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II
Luis Alvarez adds an important comparative dimension to the growing body of works on Mexican-descent youth in 1940s Los Angeles, works which discuss the so-called Zoot Suits Riots and the Sleepy Lagoon case. In The Power of the Zoot, he argues that through counter-cultural forms of "zoot" and jazz culture (the two intersect), minority youth asserted their dignity in the face of segregation and other white-dominated norms of propriety and power. Alvarez offers a broader exploration of "zoot culture" as "multiracial, gendered, and transregional" (p. 5). To accomplish this, he compares and connects Mexican American and African American manifestations of zoot culture in both Los Angeles and New York City. He integrates other ethnic strands (Asian American, Euro-American) into discussions of youth cultures and also provides national context, including discussion of race riots across the United States in the summer of 1943.
Alvarez builds on earlier scholarship on both African American "hepcats" in New York and mostly Mexican-descent pachucos/as in Los Angeles (though often used interchangeably with "zoot suiter," the terms are not quite synonymous). His greatest innovation, in terms of the historiography, lies in uniting the two scenes and in adding interview excerpts and readings of primary sources that "place the youth themselves as central figures" (p. 6). The work is admirably wide and deep, though essentially US-focused (others have treated the inter-American dimensions of wartime antidiscrimination struggles). His study is bicoastal without disorder, alternating successfully between Los Angeles and New York thanks to thematic organization and solid transitions.
The book's structure follows a logic seen in some previous works. Part 1 explains histories of discrimination that shaped communities and the lives within, including through labor markets, residential and other modes of segregation, law enforcement, and ideas of deviant minority youth. Part 2 provides a richly textured discussion of jazz-zoot culture, including commonalities and differences between its New York and Los Angeles variants. Central to Alvarez's argument is that "Body Politics"—the display of style—and claiming of "Public Space" in segregated cities were "Struggles for Dignity"—including the rejection of racialized, class-laden norms for proper comportment. Part 3 details the 1943 riots in Los Angeles and offers a fine synthesis of those that [End Page 551] followed in cities across the nation. A thoughtful epilogue discusses "the interethnic and internationalist dimensions of youth culture" that developed after World War II, underscoring the long-range historical significance of 1940s countercultures.
The study is enriched by multiple voices of those who lived these developments. Explaining or recalling youthful days, they articulate the sense of self derived from living "the politics of cool." Alvarez deftly blends analysis with letting historical actors speak for themselves, and the resulting work underscores the complexities of identifications and the ironies of some forms of resistance against stereotype and oppression. As Alvarez notes, in constructing and asserting alternative masculinities (in the face of a dominant cultural ideal of "white" manhood), some zooters questioned the masculinity of white servicemen and "denigrated the dignity of young African American and Mexican American women, gays, and lesbians" (p. 164). Through lines such as this one, The Power of the Zoot suggests some interesting avenues for future research.
The work is well grounded, with a bibliography that includes a substantial array of secondary works, including studies of youth and subaltern cultures far removed from U.S. locales. Notably, Alvarez thus reminds readers how global reading and comparative angles can aid analysis. Indeed, he explains that his "understanding of dignity [a key concept in his study] is deeply influenced by the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico" (p. 248 n. 19). In noting intellectual debts, particularly British culture and subaltern theorists, he is meticulous in the text as well as citations, a practice to be applauded. This underscores, however, a puzzling standard of acknowledgment for Eduardo Obregón Pagán's Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon (University...