Mexican Americans were limited with opportunities in: education, work, socially and politically before, during, and after World War II. All of these limited opportunities were brought to the public’s attention on a national scale after the Zoot Suit Riots. Ensuing the Zoot Suit Riots the Mexican American activism shifted from a focus on Mexican nationals living in the US to US citizens of Mexican ethnic backgrounds. The riots included white American sailors stationed in Los Angeles who hunted and targeted Mexican Americans in the area simply by the way the Mexican Americans dressed, seeing them as threats to the white community. These Mexican Americans were commonly known as, ‘zoot-suiters’. From the national coverage of these riots, a Mexican American political activism rose up that fought for Mexican American civil rights. This movement, also known as the Chicano movement, aimed to help the Mexican Americans to ensure their civil rights. The Zoot Suit Riots in 1943 inspired the advocacy for Mexican American civil rights allowing its focus to change from Mexican nationalists living in the United States, to United States citizens of Mexican ethnic backgrounds.
Mexican Americans had a variety of reasons for coming to the United States. In 1910, there was a Civil War in Mexico, ignited from a dictatorship. The war in Mexico put their lives and their families’ lives at risk. The continued rise and fall of powers left the Mexicans with little options. With little choices, the Mexicans felt forced to immigrate to the United States to protect themselves and their families from violence in their native homeland. A few years later in 1914, the United States entered WWI. This is important because with the United States at war, a high demand for labor was required to support the men and women involved in the war. The war created many jobs and many forms of labor. Relatively new to the United States, the Mexicans pounced on the opportunities to work.
With the rising number of Mexicans coming to the United States in the 1920s after the war, many Mexicans living in the United States were left jobless and unemployed. The Mexicans who immigrated to the United States obtained jobs due to the high demand for supplies in the war, but when the war ended, they were let go. The jobs that continued after the war was given to people that were deemed ‘white’ enough. Whiteness played a vital role in the Mexican Americans search for their civil rights and their identity as an ethnicity in the United States. The discrimination against Mexican Americans led to isolation in education, unemployment, community isolation and low economic status. The discrimination they faced was mainly due to their appearance. Mexican Americans have a darker skin tone than white Americans. The ‘whiteness’ was judged by whether or not the Mexican Americans’ skin was lighter, or darker than a brown paper bag, known as the brown paper bag test, “An essential goal of many Mexican American activists was to be classified as white.” Mexican Americans were denied rights of education, housing, politically and socially all based upon their skin color. In 1930, the US Bureau identified Mexicans as a brown people, which only harmed their status in America. Mexican Americans’ skin color could not be changed, nor should it have been, but their civil rights activism would change because of the Zoot Suit Riots.
World War II marked a turning point in the history of Mexican Americans. The United States Government did not believe immigration restrictions were of high importance and therefore the immigration restriction was not a focus of the American Government, until later on in the 1940s. Mexican immigrants continued to migrate to the southwest of the United States in states like California, Arizona and Texas. Majority of the Mexican Americans remained isolated from the white American societal norms, but the years of WWII changed that. In fact, with the new World War beginning, more labor was necessary and therefore allowed for Mexican Americans to occupy higher paying jobs and positions and this took the attention off of the mass amounts of Mexican immigrants coming to the United States. Although some progress had been made of the advancement of Mexican Americans into community positions, there also was Mexican nationalists who lived in the United States, who had no intention to naturalize to American norms, “… still aliens in a country which they had lived most of their lives”. This caused a drift between Mexican nationalists living in the United States and Mexican Americans, or the second generation of Mexican immigrants who measured themselves as citizens. The interethnic problem might have gone unnoticed if it had remained in the boundaries of their community in southern California, but uncertainty built up immediately after Pearl Harbor. It put southern California in the headlights of the American Government. The white soldiers stationed in Los Angeles reacted with hostility when they accused the second generation of Mexican Americans to be gang affiliated. The accusations of the white soldiers identified the Mexican Americans by the way they spoke in a Mexican-English dialogue called calo and by how they dressed, the zoot suit. The zoot suits included “long jackets with exaggerated shoulders, pegged pant legs, thick-soled shoes, long watch chains, and wide-brimmed pancake hat.” This became the symbol for the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 and dramatically increased the public’s awareness of Mexican Americans.
The brutality and violence of the Zoot Suit Riots forced the Mexican Americans to really examine their civil rights and take the necessary measures to ensure theirs. Within this journey for Mexican Americans, it allowed them to find their identity in the United States as equal citizens. Mexican American is the term regularly described people of Mexican cultural background born in the United States and for Mexicans legally, or permanently residing in the US. The Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles in 1943 raised national awareness of Mexican Americans’ lack of civil rights. In an image, I found in the Library of Congress’ database titled, ‘Zoot suiters lined up outside Los Angeles jail en route to court after feud with sailors’. This image allows me to see a little glimpse into the past in Los Angeles during 1943. This image is vital to understanding the Mexican Americans and their identity. This photo’s author and publisher are unknown, but I can infer it was published in a local newspaper. This photo was taken after Mexican Americans were arrested after confrontation with white American sailors in Los Angeles. This is the single most important event that set up the Mexican American political activism known as the Chicano movement. The Zoot Suit Riots forced the Mexican Americans to break their silence and fight for their identity.
June 8, 1943 was day six. This day is when the politics got involved and the news gets major headlines. The US Navy lost its control of their own members’ actions. June 9, 1943 was day seven. Day seven was when the City Council of Los Angeles unanimously voted eight to zero and banned the Zoot Suit clothing. The Los Angeles City Council banned Mexican Americans for wearing their ‘offending’ uniform. Even though this can now be understood as unethical, it did bring attention to this case and the situation Mexican Americans faced moving forward. The Governor of California, Earl Warren, created a five-member city council to investigate the riots with intent to prevent any more violence, “Without regard to the basic cause of these riots, they promote disunity, race hatred and create an unwholesome relationship between of men in arms and the citizenry. On day eight, June 10, 1943, Lieutenant Glen A. Litten (11th Naval District) interviewed his service members and claimed the service members and their families took abuse from Mexican American “Zoot-suiters”, which is how this whole thing started. This is where controversy occurs and police statistics tell another story. From May 1- June 8, 1943, the LA Police Department reported seven major incidents that involved an American sailor, or the victim of a sailor, died or were severely injured. Not one of those incidents involved a “zoot-suiter.”
Mexican Americans may not have realized it, but they were to start a movement that would fight for their civil rights. The main struggle for Mexican Americans was to be socially accepted and Mexican Americans could not do that until they were legally equal citizens as white people. The relationship between Mexican Americans and white Americans was not the best, as it led to the Zoot Suit Riots. The challenge with being politically acceptable ultimately lied in the hands of those who controlled society, in this case the white Americans. The Mexican Americans struggled to gain acceptance socially and now politically. Their focus shifted once Mexican American political activists realized if they were to succeed politically, they would be accepted socially. Chicano is the term that describes the Mexican American politicism to obtain civil rights in America. This movement transformed from Mexican nationalists living in the United States to Mexican Americans who are citizens of the United States and deserve equal rights.
The Mexican American political activists in the Chicano movement had to be extremely careful in the way they approached their public voice during this extremely hostile time. The Mexican American responses after the Zoot Suit Riots and WWII aimed to seize the opportunity of patriotism towards social justice. Specifically in California, where there was a high concentration of Mexican descent. In response to the ongoing violence, organizations were established during the war years that would allow Mexican American activism to follow. One of the first accomplishments was when the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) succeeded in in 1946 to desegregate some southern California schools in the Westminster vs. Mendez case that argued segregation of Mexican Americans in schools violated the Fourth Amendment. This lawsuit affected 500 Mexican American children and kick started other lawsuits to enhance the civil rights of Mexican Americans nationwide. This led to Texas and Arizona Mexican American leaders to voice their opinions. In Tolleson, Arizona, segregation of Mexican Americans schools was abolished in the Sheely vs. Gonzalez case. These two court decisions were monumental victories for Mexican American civil rights and led to social integration.
The Mexican American activism did not stop with desegregating some schools. The advocacy of previous victories propelled others in search for civil rights. Among these civil rights included the right to vote. The most promising electoral gain came in 1957, when Raymond Telles was elected mayor in Texas. Telles won the vote in El Paso even though only half of the population was Mexican American. Telles overcame his ethnic challenge by minimizing the ethnic and race differences. He focused on the major issues at hand in the city and did not let ethnicity stop him from speaking his mind. All of these events led to more events for Mexican American civil rights. Mexican Americans also sought after labor unions. The conditions they worked in were poor, especially when their only options were to work an intense amount with little pay. Cesar Chavez is another important civil rights activist for the Mexican Americans. Chavez’s efforts were not solely for appealing racism laws, but he tended to focus on the workers in the fields. Chavez wanted the workers to receive better pay and better working conditions. Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, which later was renamed to United Farm Workers. This was one of the most popular movements in a nation-wide scale. The movement’s symbol was a black eagle and was designed for anyone to be able to draw it. Although the victories in the 1970s were short-lived, they had mass impact that gained nation-wide support from California to Florida. This was an organization founded on behalf of the workers’ rights. Robert F. Kennedy even supported the movement before his death.
The Mexican Americans activism started minor, and then escalated to a much larger nationwide scale. At first, the movement took baby steps, still steps nonetheless. The court cases took place mostly in California, Texas and Arizona, where there was heavily populated areas of Mexican Americans. WWII allowed Mexican Americans to understand who they were and where they were living, it inspired them to find their identity as citizens of the United States. The Zoot Suit Riots took place in Los Angeles during WWII and became the main event that the Mexican Americans rallied behind in their focus on civil rights. The Mexican Americans started to voice their opinions and take the necessary measures to secure their civil rights through political activism known as Chicano movement. Only some rights were given to the Mexican Americans in the years that followed WWII, but those small victories were monumental for the Mexican Americans in their fight for equal rights socially, politically and in the work force.
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