There were three things that struck me from this chapter on California during World War II.
The first is that there were no fatalities during the Zoot Suit Riots.
Mr. Starr does a very good job covering the Japanese evacuation in California, but while there were details Mr. Starr brought to his account that I did not know, this is largely history I already knew.
I knew very little about the Zoot Suit Riots and Mexican Americans during World War II.
Once the Japanese population had been removed, anti-Mexican American animus gave people free rein to treat the Mexican population of California, especially Los Angeles, as the enemy within. The tens of thousands of young service men, mostly teenage, who passed through Los Angeles reacted strongly to the Zoot Suit trend among teenage Mexican Americans. Zoot Suits look comically stylish today, wide lapels, shiny shoes, high-waisted trousers, wide brimmed hats, watch chains. They presented an affront to the newly uniformed temporary population of Los Angeles many of whom had probably never met someone with a Spanish accent before. That the Los Angeles press was fanning the anti-Mexican flames didn’t help matters.
June 3, 1943, two sailors at a dance in Venice provoked a fight which was followed later that same night by a second fight between Zoot Suiters and sailors in downtown. The next day there were rumors of large gangs of Zoot Suit wearing Mexicans looking for men in uniform. The night the riots began when over 200 sailors and marines got cabs to take them through the city looking for men in Zoot Suits to beat up. By then end of the weekend the military issued orders that anyone who did not return to base immediately would be court-martialed. No one was killed.
The second thing that struck me was the difference in the work women did for the war effort in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles. The Bay Area was home to shipyards where Rosie the Riveter was born. Because just about every able-bodied man of working age had been drafted, the shipyards turned to anyone they could get, eventually hiring large numbers of women to do the work of ship building. This gave rise to the “We Can Do It” image of muscular women doing the work of men.
Meanwhile, Southern California was home to the aircraft industry which also soon filled up with women doing to work of building planes. However, the image of the aircraft workers was a much more glamorous one. Think of Marilyn Monroe in a shop uniform and you’ve got it. In fact, Marilyn Monroe was one of the many young women who worked in airplane factories during the war. Of course, the nearby presence of the film industry didn’t hurt the development of this more glamorous image.
Finally, the importance of Disneyland.
The postwar period saw the large scale development of the California suburb with Disneyland as its model. Mr. Starr does a good job addressing the importance of Disneyland both historically and symbolically. I think he sums it up quite well by comparing it with New York’s Coney Island amusement park:
Disneyland was definitely not Coney Island, which is to say, raucous, demotic, spontaneous, alive with the fleshy exuberance of a Reginald Marsh painting, taking its vitality from the big city. It was, rather, a controlled development, orderly and restrictive, staffed by well-trained and polite middle-class employees, attuned to an equally middle-class and well-behaved clientele. The very concept of the theme part, Walt Disney stated, derived from his musing on Saturdays when he would take his two daughters to a merry-go-round in a nearby park; while they rode, he sat on a bench eating peanuts and imaging a more complete place shaped by the themes and peopled by the characters he was creating in his studio.
After Disneyland, one begins to see these essential values of Disneyland in development after development, an attempt to present old-fashioned family values in an increasingly modern world. This is key component of California’s overall character, this clash between the desire to preserve an idealized way of life and living in a rapidly changing modern world. It’s an underlying theme throughout Mr. Starr’s book.
2 thoughts on “California by Kevin Starr: War and Peace”
I had heard of most of the history you mention but had never heard of the zoot suit riots. I have this picture in my mind of the harlem type zoot suited people fighting with the sailors in South Pacific movie. What an image. I enjoyed this bit of California’s history.
That’s what a Zoot Suit looked like, but in California, as far as I know, they were worn my Mexican Americans also called ‘Pachucos’ at the time. There was a movie Zoot Suit about the riots, but I have not seen it.
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