The Zoot Suit Hipster from the Sleepy Black Lagoon
The Zoot Suiters were the 1940’s boogie woogie bugle boys and fabulous, flambouyant Los Angeles barrio barons and finger poppin’ Latino dandies. along with sexy Latina’s with hiked up skirts. They all gave us all a glimpse of soft subtle brown flesh, thighs, calves, cleavage and tight ass panty-lines hiding sexy treasure to be uncovered and discovered with hot deltas of moist dripping Latina fur from south of the border, her private border and her own sex flowing, a raging Rio Grande and both the boys and the girls are not to be be confused with the cornfed Mmidwestern hucksters and “aw shucks”-sters nor the nor’easter shysters of New Yawk City all of whom by comparison were all lower case “h” and not very hip un-hipsters; they are also, not to be confused with the capital “H” L.A. Hipsters firing quick shots, great shots of sociological hot lead warning shots from their fashion hip holsters in a cultural/sub-cultural clash quickdraw showdown before sundown on mainstreet, outside, in a public arena, out in the open air of the city, the town, the burg and the barrio and all it’s cantinas full of the acrid smoke that burns the eyes and turns them red as a demons glare that can be caused by so much tear gas going off in round, sinister cannisters in a bad B-grade bang bang Edward G. gangster flick from the not so long ago past in the white heat of the prohibitive era of prohibition of the 1930’s of Dillinger and Capone or the awful stench worse than that of a rendering plant in Dodge City cattle pens filled with manure and piss that crosses the railroad tracks and enters and permeates an old frontier saloon with the fornication of olfactory scents that are the direct descendents and the result of smuggled Cuban cigars, thinly rolled cigarettes, gunpowder from shootouts over cheating at cards of fucking another man’s woman, or another woman’s man; regardless, either way it’s sex to die for, to kill for as it is the same sweat that pours dripping, oozing in buckets like a wrung out sponge from a strung out opium addict that must be coming directly across the room from a dance hall girl who doubles as whore or the stink of too many stale beers sitting around poker tables like they used to do in the felt top table of the wild old west…, except this was it was the wild new west taking place transposed in time in a leap forward in the weary world war torn year of 1943, where events unseen or perceiieved are about to escalate into an American national black eye in the form of racial warfare between white Anglo-American military personnel and Latino youths from the L.A. barrios, leaving the shootout at the OK Corral in it’s cultural dust
The lost angels at last had fled Los Angeles leaving it’s racially divided residents mired in the mud of their own violent prejudices. The world, let alone LA, was engulfed in it’s own rage of violence in Europe and Asia. In the United States, racial tensions were at a fever pitch, Japanese Americans were being rounded up and placed in internment camps for “national security” reasons. Can you spell “Patriot Act?” The violent attitude towards Latinos was maginified by the fact that many of the Latino gangs, the pachucos were at war with each other leaving a bloody swath of blood over turf in their wake. Female gang members, the pachucas also waged war and engaged in street warfare that which did not help the public’s opinion or perception at the time. (In later interviews, it was learned that Ceasar Chavez was a zoot suiter in LA at the time, while on the east coast, a young Malcolm X was a member of the Black community’s tes zoot suiters in Harlem; they were both involved in the violent confrontations of the time, which probably strengthened their resolve for racial equality and an understanding of it’s inequality. Eleanor Roosevelt came down hard on the side of civil rights in statements about racial inequality and of course, being America, she was labeled a communist!
The cause of the LA Zoot Suit riots are not tied umbilically to a one single event, but, rather to a series of them, a wholly disconnected thread of factors of misunderstanding, paranoia and racial tension that reached an apex while meeting at a fractured multi-cultural juncture in the sociological roadway, whose compass was now pointing dead ahead, dead on destructively to LA’s barrio community. The pachuco gang turf wars were a reality, no doubt about that, but the barrio battles were confined to the barrio barriers and the perimeters held fast due to self- containment, but soon the dike would spring a leak as events spun wildly out of control.
The world at large, let alone, Los Angeles was engulfed at the time in a global conflagration between “the greatest generation” on the Allied side of the poker table where the stakes were life and death, and the facscist asses who composed the German, Italian and Japanese Axis. Racial unrest was set to implode with the incarceration of Japanese-Americans, not to mention the fact that the African-American (called Negro at the time) Negroe soldiers fighting for the continued proliferation of democracy and freedom and capitalism were themselves the object of scorn and segregated even while fighting the same fight. Segregation of the armed forces finally ended with Harry Truman, and of course full integration was a bloody road ahead. The Mexican-Americans fared no better.
The unrest in the barrios and ghettos that dot the urban landscape of America were hotbeds of violence and agitation. Many felt the provocateurs causing ghetto unrest were Nazi Fifth Columnists, straight out of an Indiana Jones film fomenting social unrest in the minority communities to further weaken the Arsenal of Democracy’s war effort. Subsequently, many minorities were viewed as communist sympathizsers and became the target of persecution and prosecution, with jurisprudence not very prudent, while engaging in a record litany of Latino arrests and accusations that were baseless, unfounded, circumstantial, frequent and flagrant. This was the turbulent “garden” that was flourishing in 1943 in the in the city of Angels. The sociological garden was fertilized with more human hatred and the manure of cultural misunderstanding to nourish the seed of the violence that was soon to erupt. Every garden however, needs a seed to begin it’s growth be it a bearer of food and bounty, or one that will compost into a malignant cancer of violence.
In this case, the Zoot Suit Hipster magic seed was a curious event, a mysterious murder, a whodunit unint unsolved then, unsolved now when the body of Jose Gallardo Garcia was found lying unconscious, in the hot August 1942 dust and dirt of the bumpy road that lead to a favorite watering hole known by locals as the Sleepy Lagoon, which was named after the popular Harry James song of the time. of the same name.
The lagoon was the place young Latino youths would come to cool off and socialize in the hot months of summer in the blistering Southern California heat. When they discovered body of Jose Gallardo Diaz, help was summoned, and the near dead Diaz was transported to the hospital where he, Diaz was pronounced DOA. The subsequent autopsy showed he was drunk from a party the night before and had unexplained fractures to the head that were determined to be the cause of death. What caused those fractures and the confusion over his contusions? Then, as today what caused those blows to the head were never determined. Was it a fall? Was he beaten to death? Was it a racial killing or was he beaten by other Latino youths? The truth at this stage may never be known.
With no evidence at all, the LA police nonetheless randomly rounded up 24 suspected Latino gang members at random as there were no witnesses to the beating, making you wonder what criteria was used in the unusual arrest of the usual suspects without a shred of evidence? Most of those arrested belonged to the infamous 34th Street gang. They were held in prison, without bail on charges of murder. The trial got on track that same month and ended on January 13, 1943. Nine of the defendants were convicted of 2nd Degree Murder by an all- white jury and all were sent to the infamous San Quentin prison. The remainder of the defendants with lesser charges against them, were the guests of the LA County Jail. During the trial much was made of Llatino gangs and their seeming proclivity for urban warfare, therefore that had to be the cause of the death of Diaz. Collateral damage, another village in Vietnam bombed out of existence by mistake, napalmed women and children, bullet riddled bodies in repose in a rice paddy. Collateral damage…
A defense committee was set-up the raise funds for the defense, to monitor and watchdog the sham trial and to make sure some of the objective truth got to the media unscathed or marred by subjectivity. Later, the House Un-American Activities Committee labeled the Defense Committee as a communist front. As mentioned before Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out on the defendants behalf and for the cause of justice, and she too was labeled as a communist! America has a low tolerance for tolerance…why, in fact, it’s downright un-American! IF you’re for human and civil rights…you must be a goddamned Red! If you’re for the working class, then you are a goddamned Bolshevik! America…Red, White and Screwed no matter how we look at ourselves. Bend over forward America and take it like man…and don’t drop the soap in the shower!
Meanwhile back at the trial, some of the convictions were overturned in 1944, but, the damage had been done, the sides were divided, the fuse had been lit and dynamite was about to go off. Nitro-glycerine packed race riots spread like hot liquid from the bleeding Southern Californianss Latino community creating a reverberating ripple effect, the kind you see on ponds and other mall bodies of water when you toss a stone on placid waters. The violence echoed to other urban areas and other racial groups including the African-American and Filipino neighborhoods from New York City to Philaidelphia. They were especially inceindiary in Detroit, which suffered it’s worst racial riots in it’s long history. (Until 1967 when an event at a blind pig by the Detroit Police brought in the National Guard and tanks to restore order in a disorderly manner that added fuel to an impossible situation.)
The explosion came when tensions between Anglo US servicemen stationed in Southern California, faced off with the Latino community and everything came to a head. While many Mexican-Americans were serving their new country in uniform to show their pride, the Anglo servicemen on the streets of downtown LA had their vision clouded where the sight of so many Latino males, not in uniform, and yet were healthy specimens of fighting manhood, were wearing the heavy wool hipster zoot suit that not only cost a small fortune, but was also made from war rationed material that many thought should have gone to the war effort. Add alcohol to this deadly mixture and it’s like throwing gasoline on a fire and watching it consume everything in it’s path. The Zoot Suit and the hipster had now become a simple symbol of unpatriotic un-Americanism and the gloves were off. It was time to hunt down the hipsters for the Red, White and Blue and of course, Uncle Sam.
For days the raging inferno burned white hot, walking on coals hot, burn at the stake hot, Joan of Arc hot, on the city streets of LA. Literally, thousands of military personnel from all branches of the service were out on the streets busting heads in the barrio. Marines, sailors, dogface GI’s marched down the LA streets Gestapo style, entering bars, restauraunts and movie theaters and dragging out and beating any Latino male that was unlucky enough to be in their path those nights. In one instance sailors hauled two zoot suiters to the stage in a movie theater, stripped them in front of the audience and beat them unmercifully. People on street cars were attacked, and the attacks were against males only. Latinas’s were also beaten by the military mobs. Police were on the streets but did nothing. Oh wait, they did do something…they arrested over 500 Latinos on various charges from rioting to vagrancy while ignoring the military personnel that instigated the outbreak and riots that went on raging for days….our boys in blue running interference for the soldiers and sailors going beserk in a neighborhood minding it’s own business, beating people up, smashing store front windows and attacking men and women who happened to look Mexican. Thankfully these same troops were eventually sent overseas to face an opponent who was also armed. Some died and were wounded but at least it was a fair fight! Also many ended up in Japanese prison camps as prisoners of war…again.l.fair exchange for all the innocent Japanese Americans locked up in America for no other crime then being Asian…property confiscated and families torn apart. Let’s face it…and we thought only Hitler locked people up for racial differences. Silly me. ..in 1943 it was a crime in Germany to be Jewish…in America the same year…it was a crime to be Mexican-American, Japanese-American or a Negroe.
The most curious effect was the response of the local Los Angeles media. Unlike today, it did not look at this blatant racism as something to be placed in the negative column of the yin-yang factor – . nNot for one second. Instead it practically kissed patriotic ass in large front page type of their publications thanking and praising the military rioters for cleaning house, so to speak, of the so called criminal LA’s elements, the Latino’s, the pachucos’s and pachuca’s who were at best described as “hoodlums.”. Never mind that many attacked and injured had no gang affiliation whatsoever and were simply on their way to work or coming home from work or just going out for a night on the town in the glitter capital of the Left Coast!
Newspaper sales skyrocketed as the newsboys yelled, “Extra, Extra, Read all about it…” people grabbed for the attention getting headlines faster than a drowning person reaches for a life preserver. It did make for exciting reading, however, as there were female pachuca’s involved and that femme factor held the public interest as much as female mud wrestling does today! There were a few flaws in the coverage to point out at this point. Ok, many flaws. The most important one was that there were also Anglo gangs involved in the rioting, but, no mention or very little was made of that. It was mainly, according to the slanted coverage provided by the publishers, a battle between “patriotic military American personnel” and the “unpatriotic street punks” of Los Angeles’ Latino community.
Along with smashed windows, hospitalized citizens and hundreds or arrests, the aftermath effect included a curious LA City Council resolution that would have enraged the cast of Bravo Channels project runway criminalizing the wearing of zoot suits, with those really nifty pants with pleats and cuffs and broad-shouldered barrio jackets. It was a new age of juvenile delinquency, according to the city council, and the zoot suit was the new street gangster garb of choice. Even Gene Krupa, the virtuoso drummer of the be bop age was attacked on stage and his band members were beaten up for wearing the zoot suits they had always worn as their stage costumes.
The riots soon subsided as the US Military brass got of their ass stepping in confining all military personnel to their barracks and ships. LA was now officially “off limits” to them. In an almost predictable statement from the US Military, it was declared that the “military personnel involved in the riots were acting in self defense…”
The repercussions from the riots included a formal complaint lodged by the Mexican government with the U.S. State Department, and in quick response, the California governor convened a commmittee to determine the cause of the riots. The cause! Fortunately the came to the correct conclusion…it was racism. One interesting underlying note…the California agriccultural economy was heavily dependent on cheap Mexican labor to work the fields to harvest the yields.
This is when Eleanor Roosevelt (to me she was indeed if not in reality, at least de facto the first female president the country has ever had, and the only one at this point) spoke out vehemently about the riots. In her own newspaper column dated June 16, 1943 she said, and I quote, “The question goes deeper than just suits. It is a racial protest. I have been worried for a long time about the Mexican racial situation. It is a problem with roots going a long way back, and we do not always face these problems as we should.” June 16, 1943. In response the competition in the LA Times labeled her a communist and accused her of helping to foment more violence in the barrios! As the hind-sight maggots crawled out from the woodwork, one US Senator said he had undeniable proof that Nazi agents were behind all the racial unrest in order to weaken America from within, and to gain a foothold without in Latin America to plan for military invasion of the United States in the future. He was asked to produce this “proof” and like Sen. Joe McCarthy years later…had none to produce for congressional show and tell day.
The Zoot Suit Riots are now an obscure item on the ledger of the American history of race relations. Their It’s impact was nuclear at the time from a sociological perspective. In the 1950’s racism was in the form of lynch mobs in the south where blacks were denied the right to vote, attend the schools of their choice and in some cases it was a crime for a black person to marry a white person.
Today, the racial issue is still alive as the flame has not died out yet as illegal immigration takes the center stage and once again, the animosity is directed towards Mexican-Americans. Working conditions and health conditions in the ag fields are not that much improved from a half century ago. Malnutrition and proper medical care are still missing from the migrant worker equation. All that aside, legaol or illegal, racism has built to a crescendo once again, and if you are of Hispanic heritage and an American citizen you are still a target of hatred in the minds of many, .and the fallout is spreading. God be with you if you walk down the street with a Zoot Suit on looking for that retro look of the past…it may trigger a response you didn’t bargaoin for. But deep down inside, you have to admit…the zoot suit was high hipster fashion and we’re all just hipsters at heart…of any race!