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The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and…

The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II

by Luis Alvarez

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In The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War, Luis Alvarez “investigates the multiple meanings and immense popularity of zoot suit culture during World War II” (pg. 2). Alvarez argues, “As a popular cultural phenomenon that captured the attention of much of the U.S. home front, the zoot serves as a window on what urban authorities, social reformers, the media, older generations of Americans, and zoot suiters themselves thought about whom and what was considered American” (pg. 2). Turning to issues of race, he writes, “At a time when many Americans adhered to calls for wartime unity and conformity as the primary means to achieve economic success, social mobility, and more effective political representation, zoot suiters – often highlighted their race and gender and their cultural differences from the rest of U.S. society” (pg. 4). Of gender, Alvarez writes, “The multiracial, gendered, and transregional nature of the zoot suggests that zoot suiters were part of a much broader network of wartime popular cultural production and consumption, social relationships, and political struggles” (pg. 5). Alvarez draws upon the work of Gary Gerstle, among others, in his analysis.
Alvarez begins with a comparison of pre-war Los Angeles and New York. He writes of L.A., “Throughout the early years of World War II, fear spread among whites that African Americans were invading the city, siphoning wartime opportunities from white citizens, and eroding the city’s wartime stability. More than a chronicle of injustice and inequality, race discrimination in war industry employment, segregation and settlement patterns, and police violence constituted a dehumanizing assault on the dignity of the area’s African American and Mexican American populations” (pg. 28-29). He continues, “As in other areas of the country, the use of force by city police in New York helped maintain a racial hierarchy in which white trumped black. Amidst wartime rhetoric demanding a stable and secure home front, city authorities sought to control any semblance of racial unrest” (pg. 34). Turning to juvenile delinquency, Alvarez writes, “In response to the rising concern over juvenile delinquency, a number of African American and Mexican American leaders worked diligently to include nonwhite youth in the war effort and limit youth culture” (pg. 44). Further, “Nonwhite youth were linked to rumors of an extensive drug culture and presented to a court of public opinion that equated the smoking of marijuana with the wasting of time, effort, and money that might otherwise be funneled into war production. As the crisis of juvenile delinquency spun out of control – more in newsrooms than in the streets of Los Angeles – the zoot style of African American and Mexican American youth came to symbolize their criminal and immoral disruption on the home front” (pg. 53). Finally, “Social reformers contributed, albeit inadvertently, to the racialization of juvenile delinquency by failing to adequately challenge the assumption that nonwhite youth, crime, and violence were inherently linked” (pg. 65).
Alvarez continues, “Nonwhite youth employed their own bodies and each other as resources to create a multiracial cultural space, generate dialogue with the rest of society, and challenge their own subordination. Despite racial, regional, and gender differences among zoot suiters, their struggles for dignity linked them as a class, where class functioned not just as a predefined group of people identified by similar relations of subordination or exploitation to capital but also as a group based on members’ insubordination to domination” (pg. 78). Alvarez gives various examples of African Americans, Mexican Americans, and even Japanese Americans using the zoot suit to form a defiant identity. In terms of gender, Alvarez writes, “Many young women in fact cultivated their own zoot style and worked in tandem with their male counterparts to make up the zoot’s intricately gendered cultural world. For young Mexican American women, in particular, style was just as much a part of their everyday lives as it was for their male counterparts” (pg. 88). Of the power of the zoot to reorganize hierarchies, Alvarez writes, “Zoot suiter’s public performance was riddled also with contradictions. Just as they disrupted the myth of U.S. race, sexuality, gender, and nation as fundamentally white, so too did they reaffirm racial, sexual, gender, and class hierarchies” (pg. 117). He continues, “Many zoot suiters broke public taboos against integration and race mixing by socializing together and participating in public events that encouraged the sharing of space by youth from different racial and ethnic backgrounds” (pg. 134). Of violence, Alvarez writes, “Violence, in addition to sex and romance, also helped define the public persona of zoot suiters, as it was not unusual for physical confrontations to erupt among nonwhite youth, especially males who disapproved of others socializing with young women from outside their own ethnic and racial circles or neighborhoods” (pg. 137). Alvarez writes of the Zoot Suit Riots, “The hundreds of complaints against zoot suiters by sailors and other servicemen during the spring of 1943 stemmed in part, historian Mauricio Mazón theorizes, from the pent-up frustrations of military men who were trained for war and pumped up to fight the enemy yet were stationed or on leave in a city where zoot suiters were identified as subversives” (pg. 163).
Alvarez concludes, “Rather than fetishize the suit of clothes itself, it makes more sense to prioritize the identities and social relationships that emerged from, in, and around the world of the zoot. By articulating their own racial, gender, sexual, and class identities, zoot suiters made a case for the pluralism of wartime American identity and demanded that the nation take seriously its commitment to democracy on the home front” (pg. 237). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Nov 16, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0520253019, Hardcover)

Flamboyant zoot suit culture, with its ties to fashion, jazz and swing music, jitterbug and Lindy Hop dancing, unique patterns of speech, and even risqué experimentation with gender and sexuality, captivated the country's youth in the 1940s. The Power of the Zoot is the first book to give national consideration to this famous phenomenon. Providing a new history of youth culture based on rare, in-depth interviews with former zoot-suiters, Luis Alvarez explores race, region, and the politics of culture in urban America during World War II. He argues that Mexican American and African American youths, along with many nisei and white youths, used popular culture to oppose accepted modes of youthful behavior, the dominance of white middle-class norms, and expectations from within their own communities.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:12 -0400)

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