The 20th century abounds with examples of Latinx movements for justice. A powerful example is the struggle for quality education that Latinx people fought for across the country. Families of Mexican children began fighting against school segregation as early as 1919, and several court cases were filed and some won throughout the 1930s and 1940s, before the famous Mendez v. Westminster victory in California in 1947. This case became a precedent for integration and equal protection cases in Arizona and Texas, and of course for the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision of 1954.26 It is important to note that during this same era, Puerto Rican families on the island were fighting for self-determination in a similar way. “Since the time of the U.S. invasions of Puerto Rico in 1898, Puerto Ricans had fought against North Americans’ impulses to impose English as the official language of instruction in the island’s schools.”27 The official language of instruction was finally changed to Spanish in 1945, the same year the Mendez v. Westminster case was filed in California.
Examples like these are important to expose students to – and hopefully these are examples they have previously learned about in U.S. history courses. Similarly the history of the Chicano movement, the United Farm Workers Movement, urban uprisings across the country, and of course the Young Lords movement are all examples students may be familiar with. My suggestion is to teach these histories through an intersectional lens. Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to bring to light the fact that all people exist at the intersection of many different parts of identity. That is, a person’s race cannot be separated from their gender, sexuality, class, citizenship status, and so on. More specifically, Crenshaw developed the term intersectionality to describe the unique forms of oppression people experience when they exist at the intersection of multiple identities that are targets in a white supremacist hetero-patriarchal society – and also the unique and often untold struggles that occur at the intersection of these multiple forms of oppression. For example, the role that Latinx workers have played in fighting for labor and union rights are essential to these movements, and yet are too often left out. Also, feminist activism within both the Chicano movement and the Young Lords must be emphasized. Finally, coalitions that brought different groups together, such as the Rainbow Coalition, and other examples of solidarity, must be taught as a critical strategy for resistance.
In addition to these more traditional examples of political resistance throughout the 20th century, I would like this unit to expose students to a different form of resistance, through culture, and with it a new way to examine history through the lens of cultural studies. Like jazz to the black community, Latin jazz and Afro-Latin jazz are sites of resistance, as are disco for Black and Latinx queer communities, and hip-hop for the Black and Latinx youth of the Bronx and beyond. These are all sites that created space for freedom, for expression, and for cross-cultural and cross-racial collaboration.
Perhaps a less well-known example of resistance through culture, one that was prominent during the middle of the 20th century in cities across the U.S., is zoot suits. Black and Latinx Americans donned themselves in zoot suits, oversized and extravagant fashion choices that required quite a bit of fabric. For Black and Latinx youth, zoot suits were a sign of their cultural pride, an expression of their sense of self-worth, and an act of disobedience that aimed to subvert white middle-class ideals. Interviews with former zoot suiters revealed their desire to resist white America’s negative depictions of them by dressing “to the nines,” as well as creating a sense of belonging within a culture where they were seen as outsiders. Zoot suits were also associated with other liberating cultural practices of the time, including jazz music and lindy hop dancing. “People’s everyday cultural practices, including fashion, music, and dance are often among the most common resources they use to garner strength, make their lives better, and shape the society in which they live.”28
In addition to resisting assimilation to whiteness – though to be sure, some white youth wore zoot suits as well – zoot suiters challenged the gendered roles of the WWII era. “The social practices and behavior of zoot suiters also often conflicted with gender norms regarding how young men and women should act [ . . . ] Male zoot suiters were often labeled by urban authorities, the media, and the general public as overly feminine for their constant attention to appearance, and female zoot suiters as too masculine for what was perceived as bold and very public behavior.”29 Zoot suiters were seen my white America as an affront, and zoot suiters of color were attacked by white mobs across American cities during this time, a violence that was state-sanctioned as police officers permitted or even enabled these assaults. These attacks sparked what were called the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and several other cities across the country.