We can now move to examine an immigrant group on the West Coast of the U.S. during and after World War II. During the war, America's Bracero program actively recruited farm-workers from Mexico to fill the void left by the war effort (the Department of Labor would later denounce this program as "legalized slavery.)
California received the largest group of immigrants, particularly Los Angeles.
Many Mexican-Americans also served in World War II, and the G.I. Bill funded their plans for education and home ownership following the war, further bringing them into contact with Los Angeles' (mostly white) middle class.
There was also a large number of Filipinos migrating to the US, particularly California, during this time period. Filipinos occupied a somewhat different social place than Mexican immigrants, due to the fact that the Philippines was a U.S. colony. Thus Filipinos were U.S. nationals with passports, and immune to immigration quotes. However, they were prohibited from owning land or voting.
Although many Filipinos, like Mexicans, found agricultural work, a great many Filipinos also worked as domestic servants and were able to attend classes in their free time (or participate in more recreational pursuits, such as swing dancing).
The participation of young immigrants in "swing culture" in California during World War II provides a wealth of ways to examine the intersection of ethnicities, class, and music. These first-generation teenagers adopted the fashions of African-American Zoot suits, popularized by Cab Calloway, and listened to and played swing music alongside African-Americans. Mexican-American musicians, such as Don Tosti, performed a mix of jazz music and traditional Mexican swing numbers, and began to alter swing music to reflect their own culture and experiences.
Additionally, these "Zoot-suiters" were of high school age, providing plenty of room for our students to draw comparison to their own lives.
Students will start this unit by comparing and contrasting the experiences of Mexican immigrants with that of Filipino migrants. How was their interaction with American swing music different and the same? How were their interactions with Los Angeles different the same?
Students will also compare and contrast the immigration of Mexicans to America with the migration of Southern African-Americans to the north. What experiences in motivations do these two groups have in common? What aspects of their experiences are different?
This era also saw Zoot suiters and teenagers—of several ethnicities—pitted against American servicemen in a series of violent conflicts known as "the Zoot Suit Riots." Similarly, the Watsonville Riots in 1930 also pitted Filipinos against white Californians. Students will examine first- and second-person accounts of each riot, comparing and contrasting to find similarities between the two episodes of violence.
Mexican-American Music in California
Examining the experience of Mexican-American youths provides a helpful example for understanding the way teenage Americans made and consumed music in during the Second World War.
During World War II, the most popular place to enjoy music was in ballrooms and dancehalls – music and dancing were very much social occasions, and there were a variety of styles available for dancing, ranging from genteel styles such as the foxtrot and waltz to more modern and racier styles, such as the Lindy Hop and swing-dancing.
Many young Mexican-Americans immigrants in California inhabited a world between their traditional music and the lure of modern swing and jazz music. Macias writes: "Even as young pachucos danced to that most modern of music, jazz, and listened to the latest hit records on the jukebox, they still continued earlier Mexican traditions, such as playing the acoustic guitar and composing corridos for the purposes of song and gang gossip."
Many immigrants continued the tradition of writing
(which Griffith describes as "tragic folk songs" that "describe a historical event") for friends had been killed by the police. In this unit, students will write a new
or turn an existing song into a
, and find examples similar in tone from their own music collection.
Mexican-Americans, Filipinos, and African-American Culture
Young immigrants and migrants also inhabited an interesting social place "between" African-Americans and white America. Macias describes light-skinned black women passing as Mexicans to play in bands (thus bypassing hostility to interracial bands). Likewise, an African-American singer, Lee "Bats" Brown, changed his name to "Ricardo Gonzalez" to escape the discrimination he faced as an African-American singer. Mexicans legally were categorized as "white" as a result of the 1848 Treaty of the Guadalupe-Hidalgo. However, they were not treated white in terms of housing or other social interactions and still faced discrimination.
The most flamboyant display of the intersection of Mexican-American culture and African-American was that of the "
s," Mexican-American youths who emulated the zoot suits, music, and slang of African-American swing music (such as Cab Calloway).
Here, the class will compare and differentiate cross-cultural exchange to slumming and appropriation. The class will come up with examples of each and discuss motivations for each category.
' fondness for the zoot suit and its associated mannerisms were a conscious rejection of the dominant, white-focused paradigm, says Macias. African-American zoot-suiters referred to each other as "man" when many whites still addressed African-American men as "boy" to assert racist dominance. The zoot suit itself was a display of excess, with sweeping jacket-tails and large cuffs that consumed a lot of fabric amidst World War II rationing.
and their female counterparts,
, went a step further and pushed the boundaries of traditional gender styles. The long-waisted zoot suit arguably resembled a short skirt, and it wasn't uncommon for male
to wear earrings, says Macias, in addition to necklaces and rings. Some
pachucas "cross-dressed" by wearing zoot suits.
(On a side note, students may be surprised to learn that some of the visual identifiers they identify with African-American gangs, such as the teardrop tattoo, started with
(Ramirez). In fact, the existence of Mexican-American "street gangs" precedes that of other ethnicities, at least in LA. Author Chester Himes stated that during that era, "Negro youths in Los Angeles County are not organized into gangs, nor do they belong to the Mexican pachuco gangs." Anthony Ortega described Mexican-American gangs as being divided by neighborhoods. " If you were from Watts, you'd better watch it if you go to East L.A., and vice versa.")
For students, clothing choice often signifies association with certain subcultures, and these subcultures are usually unified in choice in music. As an assignment, students will examine clothing choices and what allegiance they indicate – starting with their own clothing choices for formal events, casual events, or "hitting the scene." Then the discussion would be expanded to other musical genres – how does a rock and roll fan usually dress? Country? Students will then read about a recent controversy surrounding celebrity Rachel Ray wearing a
in an otherwise innocuous Dunkin' Donuts advertisement and discuss how clothing choice can also carry (perceived) political implications. Students will also discuss how a recent immigrant may choose to dress – which style/genre would they align themselves with and why?
Likewise, students will be asked how clothing styles help mark someone as a foreigner or immigrant today.
' fashion choices caused much conflict white Angelinos, especially from American servicemen, who often viewed the extravagant zoot suit as indulgent during wartime, and thus unpatriotic.
arguably started trouble as well, by indulging in practices such as "walk[ing] the boardwalk with arms interlocked, four-wide, forcing the locals to disperse before them."
Zoot Suit Riots
This conflict escalated into a series of violent confrontations between servicemen and minorities in 1943, referred to as "The Zoot Suit Riots." The riots were not isolated incidents of spontaneous violence, but prompted by teenagers and servicemen deliberately looking for conflict. Tovares' movie "Zoot Suit Riots" shows an interview with a white teenage girl who says that, ""L.A. was like a war zone, and the pachucos had just taken over." This young woman says she drove service members from the El Toro military base into Los Angeles to fight
as "part of the war effort.
The Zoot Suit Riots were later memorialized in 1997 in the song "Zoot Suit Riot," by a retro-swing band called "The Cherry Poppin' Daddies." As a class activity, students will read the lyrics to this song and note references to the historical event. They will then analyze the song, analyze the author's opinion on the riots and why.
The Zoot Suit Riots attracted national attention: Eleanor Roosevelt held a press conference the day after the riots, calling them "race riots" and saying they were the reaction of a history of discrimination against Mexicans in California. At the press conference she said, point-blank: "We have a race problem."
Shortly thereafter, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times argued that the first lady "ignore[d] history, fact, and happy tradition," for "we [Los Angeles] have the largest Mexican colony in the United States and we enjoy fraternizing with them.... We like Mexicans and we think they like us." Students will read and analyze both texts, citing rhetorical devices and comparing their discussion of race in the 1940's to today's discussion on race.
Swing Music and Race
Students will also gain a solid grounding in the nature of swing music. They will listen swing music of Duke Ellington to the brass band music that preceded it (like John Phillips Sousa) and identify similarities (instrumentation, arrangements, harmonies) and differences (improvisation, "swung" rhythms, audience).
Students will also contrast the intricate arrangements of East Coast Swing, typified by Duke Ellington, with the more blues-based structure of Kansas City Swing, led by Count Basie. They will also listen for similarities in the Cherry-Poppin' Daddies recording of "Zoot Suit Riot" and note what conventions the band uses to evoke swing music.