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From Zoot Suits to Border Walls

Scapegoating Mexicans is an American Tradition

by MICKEY Z.

Zoot suit, white jacket with side vents
five inches long I’m out on the street again
and I’m leaping along
I’m dressed right for a beach fight
but I just can’t explain
Why that uncertain feeling
is still here in my brain

From "Cut My Hair," The Who

Imagine a time when Mexicans bore the brunt of patriotic (sic) fervor: physically threatened, targeted by legislation, an easy scapegoat for working class frustration. Surely I’m talking about 2006 AmeriKKKa, right? You know…the fascist police state ruled by Nazi Dubya and his cadre of brown shirts who cynically exploit good vs. evil rhetoric in the name of furthering their global agenda.

Well…not so fast. Sorry to disappoint the lesser-evil crowd but this time, I was referring to events that climaxed 63 years ago this week…during the reign of liberal (sic) hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt who cynically exploited good vs. evil rhetoric in the name of furthering his global agenda.

During the good (sic) war, young Mexican workers entered the U.S. en masse in response to a worker shortage on the Pacific coast. Over time, some Latino youths formed gangs and dressed almost exclusively in zoot suits. A zoot suit, as described by authors Walter Glanze and Jerome Agel, is made up of a "very long jacket, flared at the bottom, with exaggeratedly padded, boxy shoulders, and pegged sleeves. The trousers are pleated at the waistline, cut very wide over the hips, and taper to such narrow bottoms that men with big feet have trouble slipping the pants on."

While the zoot suit eventually attained widespread popularity in the mainstream, it also became a pejorative synonym for "Mexican" on the West Coast as some Americans took umbrage at so many able-bodied young men who were not "helping to win the war." To the local white population of Los Angeles, the manufacture of the zoot suit was a glaring example of waste in a time that demanded sacrifice in the name of defending democracy (as it were). This perception inevitably led to racist violence sparked by angry white soldiers on leave.

"In June 1943, the ‘zoot suit’ riots exploded in Los Angeles," says historian Michael C.C. Adams. "For almost a week, off-duty white enlisted personnel roamed the streets, assaulting Hispanics."

Mexicans and blacks "were dragged into the streets by soldiers and civilians," wrote Agel and Glanze, where they were "stripped and beaten." The response of the Los Angeles city council was positively Bush-like. Rather than address the issues of cheap labor and racism, they made it a misdemeanor to wear a zoot suit.

Racist scapegoating: an American tradition…brought to you with bipartisan support.

MICKEY Z. is the author of several books, most recently 50 American Revolutions You’re Not Supposed to Know (Disinformation Books). He can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.