Zoot Suits Riot Film Essay
Zoot Suits Riot Film
While America fought World War II in Europe, riots broke out in the streets of Los Angeles targeting young Latinos. They strived for the same freedom enjoyed by whites, but were treated as poorly as African Americans of the era. In effect, they tried to disassociate themselves from this faction. Young Latino men referred to themselves as pachucos and sported oversize suits known as zoot suits. In the film Zoot Suit Riots, Joseph Tovares remarkably portrayed the difficult lives of Mexican Americans in the 1940s.
Zoot Suit Riots is a powerful film that explores the complicated racial tensions, as well as the changing social and political scene leading up to the riots in the streets of Los Angeles in the summer of 1943. White Americans, police and service men targeted Latinos with their racist attitudes. Tovares argues that these Mexican American adolescents were victims, but they also stood up for themselves and fought back to gain the respect they felt they deserved.
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This generation of Americanized Latino children wanted to be recognized as American on their own terms. To distinguish themselves from their parents’ generation, they became zoot suitors, but learned that was not enough as racism was a widespread phenomenon across America. Tovares accurately portrays the lives of Mexican Americans victimized by highlighting the Sleepy Lagoon Case. To white Americans in Los Angeles, the murder was proof that Mexican American crime was spiraling out of control.
Tovares, however, uses this as evidence to support that they were mistreated because the Mexican American suspects taken into custody all wore zoot suits. This reinforced the opinion white Americans had of Mexican Americans and their apprehension of men in zoot suits. He also interviewed both Mexican Americans and White Americans who lived during this event, even some participants in the riots. His use of oral history throughout the film is captivating as you hear the voice and emotional reaction of a person who actually experienced these riots.
Tovares interviews Hank Leyyas sister, an important defendant in the case, who lived through the crime, the trail, the city, everything. She remembers it all and how much it affected her brother’s life. Her emotions when describing the riots helps the viewer understand how people were affected. Sailors of the time admitted in their interviews to attacking Mexican Americans and Mexican Americans admitted to reciprocating the behavior. Tovares’ film reflects on the racist abuse Mexican Americans received not only from White American citizens, but also from authority figures.
Edward Escobar’s historical article, Zoot-Suiters and Cops, supports Tovares’ argument that zoot suitors were seen as dangers to society and this brought upon the attacks on them, but Escobar focuses more on the police aspect of the riots. Escobar argues, “Police, along with local civic leaders, believed that Mexican American youth, especially young males, were inclined toward violent crime. This belief merged with police officers’ frustration over their inability to crack down on the alleged lawbreakers and led to their allowing servicemen to beat and humiliate the zoot-suiters” (Escobar, 1996).
Tovares agrees that police were problematic, but focuses more on the Sleepy Lagoon Case involving Mexican and White Americans who participated or lived during the riots. Escobar states that the LAPD consistently arrested Mexican Americans at a higher rate than the general population. During the war these numbers increased, especially arresting young Mexican Americans. However, Escobar argues that police officials misinterpreted their own statistics. Reported crime actually fell during 1942 and 1943, the years of the alleged crime wave.
These “increases in arrests resulted more from changes in the law and in police practices than from changes in Mexican American behavior. Specifically, new immigration and draft laws for adults and curfew ordinances for juveniles, created new classes of laws that Mexican Americans violated, increasing the arrest statistics” (Escobar, 1996). The LAPD also employed selective enforcement in barrios than in white sections like the curfew ordinance as an example. This evidence strongly supports Escobar’s argument that the LAPD was more inclined towards the harsh treatment of Mexican Americans.
Escobar focuses more on this than Tovares did throughout the film. While Tovares and Escobar both focus on the discrimination zoot suiters felt, Thomas Guglielmo shifts his focus to Mexican American racism was not only in Los Angeles but also in Texas in his historical article, Fighting for Caucasian Rights. Guglielmo argues that Mexican Americans who were born in the United States showed that they only cared about the United States but needed to be looked at again.
They seemed active, focusing on being American, distant from Mexico but really these Mexican American’s due to the Good Neighbor policy still identified themselves with Mexico. Compared to Tovares, Guglielmo looks at American battles in Texas and legislative matter compared to the Los Angeles zoot suit riots. Guglielmo goes against Tovares perspective and says that there is more to Mexican American racism outside of Los Angeles. During the war more people of Mexican descent lived in Texas than any other state.
These Mexican Americans that lived here are fighting for equality through legislation unlike the Mexican American’s in Los Angeles who are fighting for the same but by rebelling out through wearing zoot suits and adapting to that way of life. Both Toraves and Escobar perspective is on zoot suiters and police interaction where as Guglielmo focuses more on just Mexican Americans in Texas. Guglielmo argument is not as convincing to me because he focuses too much on legislation and Mexico compared to Toraves and Escobar focus on the discrimination Mexican Americans faced during the war that resulted in the riots.
Toraves, Escobar and Guglielmo all highlight the struggle Mexican American’s faced fighting for equality, just presented it in different ways. Tovares strongly emphasized why the Mexican Americans wanted to break free. They were tired of being told what to do, where to go, what to wear. They created an image for themselves that separated them from everyone else. Escobar stated that the zoot suit phenomenon resulted primarily from the racism, discrimination, and extreme poverty that people of Mexican descent faced in the United States (Escobar, 1996).
It did not necessarily give Mexican American’s more rights and equality’s that they fought for indirectly but brought national attention to their race that they needed to bring attention to fight for themselves. CITATION: Esobar. Zoot-suiters and Cops: Chicano Youth and the Los Angeles Police Department during World War II. 284-303. 1996 Guglielmo. Fighting for Caucasian Rights: Mexicans, Mexican Americans and the transnational struggle for Civil Rights in World War II Texas. 1212-1237. 2006 Tovares, Joseph, dir. Zoot Suit Riots. 2002. PBS Home Video. DVD-ROM.