(Please note that the caption is also from 1943. Do you accept its explanation of the riots?)
Our first contest entry is from Claudia Barillas, an occasional author on this site. (Nice to see you back, Claudia!) Claudia writes superb fiction, but chose instead to share with us a simple narrative of growing up here. The photo is not of an invading army, but of our own servicemen, with the help of the LAPD, bludgeoning Mexican Americans in Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots of 1943.
While our contest prompt is of a plaque that denigrates African Americans, Claudia makes the point that other minorities have also been brutalized by institutional racism in America.
Here is Claudia’s untitled story:
I went to school in California, which is considered to be a pretty progressive place. I can’t speak for how history is taught in other states, but I have been told my experience with history is not representative of the rest of the nation. We learned about The Trail of Tears and other atrocities committed against our native populations. We spent a lot of time on the enslavement of Black people and how they were deemed subhumans in our very Constitution, segregation after the Civil War, and the subsequent Civil Rights Movement. We covered the Chinese Exclusion Act, halting immigration from China once the backbreaking and often deadly construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was complete. We learned about the Japanese internment, the locking up of US citizens who looked a certain way, despite Germany also being our enemy and German-Americans not being similarly locked up.
In a Latino-majority school, we did not learn about the Zoot Suit Riots, not understanding that the song by Cherry Poppin’ Daddies was referencing an actual event in which sailors antagonized Mexican-Americans, with backing from the LAPD. We did not learn about mass deportations that swept up even American-born citizens, sending people to Mexico even if their families were from other Latin countries. We did not learn that Latinos were victims of lynching, or that they were blocked from schools, not even as a footnote to the lynching and segregation faced by Blacks people. I flipped ahead in my fourth grade history book and saw a section on Cesar Chavez and his fight for migrant worker’s rights, but we never reached that lesson.
When we learned about the Gold Rush, our text books were filled with pictures of white miners even though many were Mexican, Black, or even Native American. The Calico Mine Ride at Knott’s Berry Farm paints a more vivid picture of a diverse California than our history book did, but when we visited the ghost town on a school trip, we merely toured empty buildings. Any mentions of cowboys driving cattle were similarly limited to a white perspective. Though Mexicans helped build the West, they apparently did not exist.
I’m not Mexican, but we learned even less about other Latinos. My mother’s family came to this country to flee a civil war. I did not know for most of my life that the US was involved in this and other Central American conflicts. They made our homes unlivable, then complained when we sought homes elsewhere. Forget that California was once Mexico. My fourth grade teacher once said that if the US had not taken the land, many of our families would not be there. The Mexicans, she argued, were in the US for a reason, and so would not have ended up here. She did not seem to consider that perhaps if the land had not been stolen, things might have played out very differently, and the reasons that those families had come to the US might not have happened.
Do you have a story to tell? Share your experience and insights by entering our contest here: https://awordwithyoupress.com/2017/11/10/the-drinking-fountain-healing-history/