The Power of the Zoot - Book Review
Where does resistance take place? What are the meanings attached to it? By what means does opposition express itself? Luis Alvarez asks similar questions in The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II. Alvarez focuses on WWII cultural resistance by nonwhite youths as expressed through mediums such as music, fashion, and dance. More specifically, The Power of the Zoot explores the zoot suit movement from the perspective of zoots themselves. It also explores how middle-class youth organizations, the popular press, municipal government, and older nonwhites abhorred zoot culture while at other times, albeit less frequently, accepted its presence.
Joining the rising tide of historians focusing on leisure activities and cultural products as a means of resistance and expression. Alvarez argues, "the zoot serves as a window on what urban authorities, social reformers, the media, older generations of Americans, and zoot suiters themselves thought about too and what was considered American." (2) Deviating from previous works, The Power of the Zoot departs from previous studies which have characterized zoot suiters predominantly as objects of middle-class social reform concerned with wartime juvenile delinquency.
Instead, it views them as targets of state-sanctioned violence at the hands of city police and white military personnel, and as ethnic icons of resistance. Zoot suits were not merely metaphors for the political agendas of others. Instead, they practiced their own cultural politics which "if examined carefully can teach us a great deal about how seemingly powerless populations craft their own identities and claim dignity," argues Alvarez. (6-7)
The historical context of World War II gave the zoot suit special meaning. Ideas of citizenship, nationalism, and membership all pervaded society. The media, municipal government, and others used public discourse to identify those worthy of citizenship and those who were not. As such the wearing a zoot suit angered many white Americans, associated wearers, with laziness, delinquency, violence, and illicit sexuality. The meanings zoot suiters applied to their fashion varied. One of Alvarez's key points suggests that zoot culture was pluralistic, diverse, and overlapping. If zoots wore their fashion to claim a public dignity denied them by white society, how each zoot defined such "dignity" varied, "dignity for a black male zoot suiter in New York … was often not the same as dignity for a Mexican American female zoot suiter in Los Angeles." (8) Moreover, some zoots opposed the war, and others joined the military to fight.
Gender serves as another critical aspect of The Power of the Zoot. Too often, historians have only acknowledged male zoots. However, Alvarez examines both pachucas and pachucos including their interaction with and relation to one another. Popular discourse associated male zoots with effeminacy while females zoots were described as overly masculine and at other times, promiscuous. Though each struggled against larger society, pachucos often failed to rise above the popular sexism of the time. As Alavez notes, "many male zoot suiters, for example reinforced submissive female gender roles by expecting women zoot suiters to submit to their sexual desires." (8) Still, pachucos and pachucas also successfully challenged the same gender roles they sometimes modeled, "the social practices and behavior of zoot suiters also often conflicted with gender norms regarding how young men and women should act." (5)
Why dignity? Alvarez argues, "more than being the static quality of being worthy, honored, or esteemed, dignity encompasses the variety of ways zoot suiters, struggled to make sense of the world around them and navigate the poverty many of them face on a daily basis… The struggle for dignity by zoot suiters was thus a politics of refusal, a refusal to accept humiliation, a refusal to quietly endure dehumanization, and a refusal to conform." (8) Importantly, Pachuca/os challenged not only gender and sexual norms but also racial ones. The interracial aspect of zoot culture stood in opposition to dominant segregation of the time. In this way, zoots articulated "their own racial, gender, sexual, and class identities; zoot suiters made a case for the pluralism of wartime American identity." (237)
Furthermore, zoots didn't want to assimilate as middle-class activists wanted, nor did they want to "affirm their alienation" as the press reported …" the perspective of zoot suiters themselves suggests they often did both at the same time." (237) Their example provides evidence of early interracial interactions and alliances that helped lay the groundwork for the relational identities of the "rights" movements of the late 1960s and 70s. Moreover, it suggests that historians need to look to the cultural arenas of contestation in addition to more traditional categories of electoral politics or labor history.
Interestingly, in the book's final chapter, Alvarez associates white resistance with increased integration and job competition with the same sort of protest put forth by Pachuca/os and others. If zoots used their bodies to protest, so did the white working class across the nation as numerous cities suffered from damaging race riots. As their over-representation in work and society became threatened by rising nonwhite efforts, whites believed their dignity to be slipping away as well. Thus, they responded with physical violence. Alvarez not only establishes relation identities through such examples but also illustrates that rather than isolated, unrelated incidents, the wave of urban unrest that afflicted the nation, arose from national fears stoked by ideas of dignity, citizenship, and wartime nationalism.
Through this lens, the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots mark the earliest expression of such conflicts. Alvarez concludes The Power of the Zoot with a nod to the complicated nuance that historians must consider when exploring historical subjects. ""Illuminating the history of zoot suiters and other youth cultural workers forces us to recognize that race and ethnic history in the United States Is not a story only of conflict or togetherness, but a complicated mix of the two. If nothing else, a deeper understanding of youth culture makes clear that capturing the full complexity of the Chicana/o or African American experience is virtually impossible without accounting for how one relates to the other." (244)