Column: The Zoot Suit era is when white America learned to stereotype young Latinos as threats
It takes a special kind of evil to declare war against children and teenagers, but that’s our current presidential administration. U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions vows to split kids from parents when they cross the border illegally together, harrumphing to no one in particular in a news conference last month, “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.” The Office of Refugee Resettlement faces outrage from activists for admitting it couldn’t locate more than 1,400 minors who’d been placed with adult sponsors after arriving unaccompanied at the border.
And about those migrant children? President Trump said of them, “They look so innocent. They’re not innocent.”
This is where I should mention that the youngsters the Trump administration loathes so much are overwhelmingly Latino. And that Americans have feared jóvenes like them for decades — whether they’re Dreamers, actual or imagined gang members, pregnant high schoolers, college radicals, or teens who blast sierreño and Drake from the stereo in their dad’s GMC Yukon.
Young Latinos are considered a seditious, existential threat to the United States solely because of their heritage. It’s an unfair stereotype.
And this all dates back to the Zoot Suit Riots.
The days-long attacks by white military servicemen against Mexican Americans in East Los Angeles and downtown happened 75 years ago this week. The events have been interpreted for film, stage and song. Nearly a dozen scholarly books have documented the riots of 1943 from different angles, from the women who dressed the pachuca part to — I kid you not — how the comic strip “Lil’ Abner” set the stage for Mexicans to get a beatdown.
Activists and academics universally depict the Zoot Suit Riots as a miscarriage of justice, which they absolutely were. But to remember them as a singular event masks the riots’ most disturbing legacy: how the Los Angeles press, including this newspaper, created a hate template used against young Latinos ever since — including by the Trump administration today.
The United States, of course, has vilified Latin Americans as violent people for more than a century, pointing to whatever bad guy was convenient: Pancho Villa, Fidel Castro, Pablo Escobar and now MS-13. But young Latinos weren’t the focus of this nastiness before the Zoot Suit Riots. Scholars did publish papers about why so many Mexican American students seemed to underachieve (segregated schools, maybe?), but talk of them as a danger to society was limited.
Southern California newspapers competed to see which could slime young Latinos the worst.
That changed with the Zoot Suit Riots. First came the Sleepy Lagoon case in 1942, in which 22 young Mexican American men were put on trial related to the death of a young farmworker, José Díaz. (Five were acquitted, and the other convictions were eventually reversed.) Throughout the sensational mass trial, Southern California newspapers competed to see which could slime young Latinos the worst.
They printed, unquestioned, a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department worker’s testimony that young Mexicans had an eternal “desire … to kill, or at least let blood” because of their Aztec roots. The Santa Ana Register described teens who loitered at an arcade as “vicious young Mexicans,” and deemed a group of preteens a “juvenile gang” because they took 40 cents from a Pacific Electric cash box.
Dailies even alleged, with no proof whatsoever, some sort of conspiracy with the Axis powers, calling the zooters “the type of exuberant youth that Hitler found useful.”
Such outrageous articles and incendiary headlines during wartime led to a logical conclusion: five days of riots during which uniformed soldiers, sailors and Marines roamed the region looking for young Latinos and other people of color so they could tear off their zoot suits and beat them. The police looked on and then arrested mostly Latino victims.
The demonization continued afterward; The Times said sailors taught pachucos “a moral lesson” and blamed immigrant parents for a lack of “control over their offspring.”
Then and now, complaints about criminal Latino youngsters were largely overblown; youth violence rose dramatically across the United States during World War II for all ethnicities. But the Zoot Suit Riots’ hate template lived on: From “West Side Story” to “Boulevard Nights” and beyond, popular culture cemented the image of young Latinos as violence-plagued and a world apart from their white peers.
The news media never turned back: As tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American youth came to the United States in the last decade, conservative outlets have depicted them as an invading army instead of the refugees that they are.
Such hate takes a toll. A 2017 study by researchers at Penn State showed that among Latinos, millennials born in the U.S. reported feeling the most discrimination. “What ends up happening to [them] is that they have higher expectations for inclusion than other Latino groups and greater awareness of unfair treatment and blocked opportunities,” the researchers said in a news release.
Latino elders have laboriously tried to combat the damage and self-doubt this discrimination causes with ethnic studies classes, youth empowerment summer camps and more. But the words and actions of Trump and other politicians undercut such efforts. And that they gleefully target an age group that’s increasingly our nation’s future is a disturbing trend.
And it all started in Los Angeles.
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