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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 life.

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