The anti-Mexican hysteria thesis, as the singular explanation for the social tensions, disregards critical aspects of the social dynamic before the outbreak of rioting. If widespread and long-standing anti-Mexican tensions led to the murder trial, why did the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office vigorously prosecute the death of a Mexican national when white authorities could have easily ignored brown-on-brown violence as their counterparts in the South did with black-on-black violence? Why did military men riot when they were only temporarily stationed in Los Angeles on their way overseas and had little prior interaction with Mexican Americans, instead of longtime white residents who would have been the most saturated with and invested in anti-Mexican animosity? The anti-Mexican hysteria thesis also obscures much by placing the actions and motivations of white Los Angeles within the realm of widespread madness and irrationality. I do not seek to dismiss the reality of racial animosity in California, and I have no quarrel with seeing violence as madness, particularly racial violence. My point is that the anti-Mexican hysteria thesis does not account for why rioting sailors targeted zoot-suited young men across the color line, and not all or even most Mexican Americans in Los Angeles. Nor does it account for why some Mexican Americans responded at least in tacit support of the sailors.
The field of Chicano studies has increasingly moved away from the paradigm of "victimology" to explore the ways in which Mexican Americans have exercised historical agency and fashioned their lives within the confines of their times, however unintended the consequences. My hope is to contribute to this trend in probing the articulations of key factions in Los Angeles that played critical roles leading up to the riot. I ask how popular culture both articulated and shaped the tensions that exploded into riot, how jazz facilitated the negotiation of place for working-class youths, and what their engagement with jazz meant to Mexican Americans and white Angelenos. Through my exploration of popular culture, I shift the origins of the trial and riot away from a monocausal explanation toward a multivalent theory that looks at competing social tensions deriving from demographic pressures, city planning, racism, segregation, and an incipient, street-level insurgency against what Tomás Almaguer called "the master narrative of white supremacy."
A closer look at this specific moment in time reveals a complex social dialogue. Among the young men tried for murder in the Sleepy Lagoon case were white working-class youths, such as Victor "Bobby" Thompson and Hungarian American John Matuz, who socialized, dated, and sided with Mexican American peers through the cultural language of mostly black music, manner, and fashion. At the same moment, Mexican American professionals such as Manuel Ruíz Jr. looked askance at these "Pachucos," sided with the LAPD, and defended the actions of the rioting servicemen. White activists such as LaRue McCormick, Carey McWilliams, and Alice McGrath defied political allegiances to work tirelessly on behalf of the predominantly black and Mexican American communities targeted during this crisis. Accounting for the complicated cross loyalties during the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the Zoot Suit Riot requires a rethinking of power and power relations during this period. Indeed, what does it mean for the Chicano historical memory when the young men and women directly involved in the quintessential "Pachuco" moment spoke English exclusively, never wore zoot suits, and did not identify as Pachuco?
The trial and riot were two episodes in a larger struggle over the structures of power and privilege in America, played out through contests over culture and social propriety. The public spaces of Los Angeles served as the arena where the very definitions of who constituted "the public," who could lay claim to those spaces, who could enforce social behavior in those spaces, and who could define the terms of propriety and delinquency all were hotly contested. One unintended consequence of segregation was that it produced a social, cultural, and political fluidity among families thrown together, and a significant outgrowth of that exchange was that young people across the color line, mostly of the working class, discovered and increasingly embraced what Michael Bakan termed "the jazz lifeworld." The jazz music, language, clothing, and behavior that were elements of this black urban subculture expressed aesthetic tastes and sympathies clearly in opposition to the normative social values of mainstream America, as well as to the aspirations of racial uplift and socioeconomic mobility embraced by many parents of the wartime generation. Certainly jazz was not new to American culture in the 1940s; neither were tensions between parents and youths over popular culture. Although both developments played important roles in shaping social tensions in Los Angeles during the war years, they would likely not have led to riot by themselves. Robin D. G. Kelley argues that black zoot-suited hipsters who frequented jazz clubs in eastern cities openly criticized "the white man's war" and prided themselves in evading the draft. It is tempting, therefore, to conclude that military men attacked zoot-suited civilian youths in Los Angeles because of their opposition to the war. Yet jazz never developed into a vehicle for defining, articulating, or communicating an opposition to the war, although some contemporary observers alleged as much. Indeed, as Burton Peretti shows, the successful appropriation of swing jazz and jazz musicians by the national war effort sufficiently divested jazz of its controversial origins as it became mainstream. Working-class youths in Los Angeles engaged swing jazz in qualitatively different ways than black youths in the East, refashioning the politics of black hipsters into a more complicated view of patriotism and civic disobedience as they refashioned the zoot suit into the more conservative "drape." Rather than resisting the war, they were eager to do their part through working in defense industries or proving their valor on the battlefield, but they also found ways of undermining white privilege that underwrote home front social relations in the public sphere.