Moving to the Cities
By the end of the Depression, the majority
of the Mexican American community was no longer rural. Immigrants
and their families had begun leaving the countryside for America's
growing industrial cities around the turn of the 20th century.
The First World War and Depression accelerated the process. Cities
like Los Angeles, San Antonio, Detroit, and Chicago soon had
large and growing Mexican American communities. With this transition
came new social tensions, as members of more established ethnic
groups reacted to the arrival of Mexican Americans.
In Los Angeles in 1942, these tensions erupted
in a week-long race riot--the Zoot Suit Riot. A zoot suit was
a popular outfit with young African American and Mexican American
men in the 1940s. Most zoot suits sported extra-wide shoulders,
knee-length coats, and cuffed baggy pants, sometimes topped with
a porkpie hat.
After a fight broke out in central Los Angeles
between a group of zoot-suited teenagers and sailors on leave,
some sailors began roaming the streets seeking revenge. What
started out as a brawl quickly turned into an invasion, as gangs
of servicemen took over sections of the city, beating any Mexican
American men and boys they could find.
The mobs stopped traffic, searched streetcars, and even pulled
their victims out of movie theaters. After five days of bloodshed,
Los Angeles was declared off limits to sailors, and the attacks
ended. However, the racial tensions that fueled the riots also
helped trigger a wave of organized activism that would soon propel
the Mexican American community to new prominence in American public