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Tu Vez Blast-From-The-Past Truck: The Zoot Suit

Marty McFly and Doc Brown had the Delorean to go travel through time; We have the Tu Vez Blast-From-The-Past Truck. Every week, we’ll hop in our time traveling machine, gun it to 88 MPH, and go back in time to bring you the best from the good ol’ days. Will it be a clip from an old telenovela? An old school music video? Stick around and find out!

By Jack Tomas

When I was a teenager in the early to mid-nineties, I was in a lot of quinceañeras. Seven or Eight, I think. Usually, this would involve my friends and I being forced to wear ugly tuxedos and dance a waltz with the quinceañera’s weird cousin that had a lazy eye. One quinceñera I actually enjoyed being in, involved us wearing a zoot suit and dancing to a swing song. I can’t dance to save my life, but it was fun trying. Plus, at 16 I thought the zoot suit was the coolest thing I’d ever worn. I was right.

The zoot suit is an outfit that screams, “Look what a flamboyant badass I am!” The jacket is long, down to your knees in most cases, and has a flared collar. The pants are baggy and come together in a pegged cuff. Shiny patten leather or two toned shoes on the bottom and a wide brimmed hat with a feather on top. And let’s not forget the absurdly long watch chain. The zoot suit originated in Harlem in the late 30’s and early 40’s among the Harlem jazz age folk, (Malcolm X was a big fan before he became a Muslim). It quickly spread into the Latino community, particularly the Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles. This was the beginning of the pachuco culture, when Chicano youth decided to form their own subculture rather than try to assimilate. These brightly colored zoot suiters would prowl the streets and take their favorite homegirl to one of the underground swing clubs. This did not sit well with white sailors and marines that came into LA on shore leave. Maybe it was because the pachucos were taking all the girls from the sailors? If you were a chick, would you rather go out with the guy in a the fly suit or a dude dressed like Donald Duck? These servicemen resented that these guys were dressing extravagantly and having fun in war time. Never mind the fact that Latinos were disproportionately represented in the services in WWII. Thus began the zoot suit riots in 1943. Roving gangs of sailors and marines went around beating and sometimes killing Latinos in zoot suits. The Latinos, blacks, and Filipinos that sported the zoot suit fought back. Things got real. The LA newspapers praised the sailors for cleaning up the streets and the mayor had the zoot suit outlawed. The rest of the country thought it was BS. Eleanor Roosevelt said that it was racism pure and simple. Also lack of fashion sense.

The zoot suit’s popularity started to decline after WWII. The pachucos donned the familiar white t-shirt, khaki chinos, and bandanas you still see in LA to this day. The zoot suit riots inspired a play called “Zoot Suit” by Luis Valdez. The play was later turned into a film starring Edward James Olmos. During the 90’s swing craze, The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies had a hit song called “Zoot Suit Riot”. I’m starting to see more urban hep cats sporting the zoot these days. Just last week, I saw a group of 5 Latino teens going out for the night wearing the zoot. This gives me hope for humanity.

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