touring the bush (21) : l.a.tinópolis, parte one (zoots)
topping black, white and asian, the latino population count for l.a. (a.k.a losángeles) exceeds 9 million (considering the whole metropolitan area), and the city is one of the few big u.s. of a. cities with a latino majority. l.a. is at the forefront of what mike davis calls the “latinization” of large central cities across the country, from chicago to dallas to new york, while samuel huntington poops his pants. losángeles is the second largest of all mexican, salvadorean and guatemalan cities all in one, and has one of the world’s largest spanish-speaking urban populations.
even so, as davis himself affirms, at least until very recently, a certain “invisibility” of latinos persisted in certain urban scenes and sectors. that doesn’t mean latinos don’t know how to show-off. maybe it’s the baroque in us sureños, but as a way of countering this social, political and economic invisibility or marginality, latinos have proven to be masters at these games of conscious excessful display, usually concentrated in cultural practice and symbols, from food to style to speak to place gestures. latinos are big on markers.
in the urban history of l.a., there are particularly “colorful” (sometimes blood-red colorful), intense city-marking moments. after decades of white-washing (anglo mass migration and domination came full-throttle in the 1850s, and hispanic l.a. dropped from suddenly second term to practical cultural erasure), it wasn’t until the 1940s that l.a. felt the serious first shakes of the new latino inflow.
even before watts 1.0, latinos were stirring trouble in the zoot suit riots that sparked in l.a. in the summer of 1943. the zoots set the tone of urban (conflict) activism and confrontation that would follow in chavez ravine, the chicano movements of the 60s and other l.a.tino political urban squabbles. but zoots were beyond mexican or chicano, even beyond latino. zoot subculture was an (ethnically charged) offshoot of early bigband jazz/pop and jitterbugging (like the zazous in prewar france, or the swing kids in weimar germany), and shared the elements of these earliest blurry pop/youth style movements (before rock n'roll and before flower power) that ended up being -sometimes unintendedly- highly political. even though zoots were usually associated with pachucos, mexican-american proto-punksters, the gang element was not inherent to them. zoot-suits started in dancehalls and ended on the streets.
in his essay "the zoot-suit and style warfare,” stuart cosgrove notes that “the zoot-suit is more than an exaggerated costume, more than a sartorial statement, it is the bearer of a complex and contradictory history… these youths were not simply grotesque dandies parading the city's secret underworld, they were (quoting ellison’s the invisible man) the stewards of something uncomfortable , a spectacular reminder that the social order had failed to contain their energy and difference.…”
these issues of extreme styling, marking difference and tease tactics still permeate contemporary cultural and political latino production in l.a., on different terms and scales, from gangs to graffiti to front lawns to demonstrations; going beyond simple fashioning to a deeper, more enduring set of spatial practices, including mainstream urban politics and real estate, the ultimate city-markers.
next : l.a.tinópolis, parte two (power shift)