Reflections on September 11, 2001
L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
Copyright © September 11, 2001
L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
All Rights Reserved
Disclaimers: None needed. This is my own, original story and no copyrights were infringed upon.
Pachuco = Youth's who
popularized the Zoot Suite style.
Zoot Suit = Style of suit popularized by gangster movies of the 40's, and later adopted by Mexican-American youths during the 40's.
Suavecito = Wool hat, similar to a fedora, which was synonymous with the Zoot Suit.
Mestizo = Mixture of Mexican Indians, Spanish, and French.
Vato = homeboy, boy who grew up in the neighborhood.
Chisme = One of many words used to describe gossip.
Pues = Then
I find myself thinking about my grandmother lately. As a child, her words were always filled with wisdom, warmth, and love. Whether she was describing an incident from her past, or telling me about a historical incident that was not from the American point of view, or even a fairy tale that was handed down from generation to generation, her words always intrigued and mystified me.
The day she told me about her first meeting with my grandfather, I noticed a sparkle in her brown eyes. She described his new Zoot Suit, the style which distinguished the Pachuco generation of 1943. With a slight smile, she described how handsome he was with his slicked back hair, the duck tail hanging slightly past his pin stripe zoot suit collar. The pegged legs of his pants caused a tapered appearance that showed off his height. He wore a gold chain that dangled down to his ankles hanging from his right breast pocket to his left pocket. Ordinarily, this chain held a pocket watch but because my grandfather could barely afford the single suit, his chain was only for show.
Captivated by her words, I would sit by my grandmother's side and listen as she described how handsome my grandfather appeared in his Pachuco uniform. "He was bad," my grandmother would say with a conspirator's whisper as her eyes would squint from a smile. Then she would go on to explain how, unlike her family in Mexico, my grandfather was from a different class. Not only did he come from a migrant farm working family, but he only went as far as the third grade. If this had not been enough of a scandal to set him apart in her parents eyes, then the dark blue pin striped zoot suit with his Suavecito hat and wingtip shoes was enough to mark him as a bad boy. Although my child's mind did not realize it then, I now see how this reputation was enough to catch my grandmother's attention.
Naturally, my grandmother always explained the misunderstandings which society held toward Zoot suiters. They were simply kids, much like those of the Flower Generation, or Generation X, who wanted to distinguish themselves apart from their parents. Because they were all from immigrant Mexican families, it was normal for the kids to gather together. But at that time, the country was filled with so much changes that assumptions were made.
It was 1942 when she first met my grandfather. Pearl Harbor had just been bombed and America was gearing for war. My family watched as armed soldiers rounded up the Japanese and Japanese Americans during the months of March and April. Their property was confiscated, their homes and property auctioned off, and they were deported without due process to what the government called "Relocation Centers" in the desert, but what we later learned were nothing more than internment camps. Their only crime was their ethnicity.
With the war came a need for workers to harvest the food for the armed forces abroad and for the people at home. Never before had my grandfather and his family had so much work available to them. With his earnings from his farm labor, he managed to contribute to his family's income. What little money was left, was his to spend as he saw fit.
After working six days a week, he spent the money his father allotted to him on a new Zoot Suit. His time he spent with his Pachuco friends. While the local newspapers fanned the flames of paranoia and revenge, my grandfather and his friends went through life without giving the Anglo war much thought. For him, he was young, in his twenties, and he had a beautiful brown girlfriend who wore a tight red dress, black high heels and painted her lips red. To him, this combined with his new Zoot Suit was all he needed in life. Little did he realize that the things he held dear would soon be viewed with jealousy.
Some people speculated that it was the heat that caused the Zoot Suit riots. Others said that it was caused by the numerous sailors who were stationed in San Diego, waiting for their orders that would deploy them to the war zone in the Pacific Rim. Still others blamed it on the Pachucos themselves, saying that if they only looked and dressed like normal white kids, or had not been vagrant, standing idly by on a Saturday afternoon, then they would not have been targets. My grandmother believed that like the interned Japanese and Japanese Americans, the only crime of the Zoot Suiters were their ethnicity.
The fervor for revenge was great for the Anglo-Americans living on the west coast. But with the detainment of all of the Japanese Americans, there was no one left to target their anger at. Rumors of a Japanese invasion along the west coast brought a heighten sense of insecurity and the paranoia that was usually under control began to crop up throughout California. During this time, there were sporadic reports of abuse against Chinese Americans who were mistaken for Japanese. It seemed to my grandmother that the thin tread of sanity that once reigned in her adopted country was coming to an end.
We Mexican-Americans, we Mestizos, she would say, have characteristics that are similar to our distant cousins, the Native American Indians. We have traits that remain within us and link us both culturally and biologically. Our brown skin, so unlike the Anglos, mark us as different. Our eyes, the shape that remained with us from above the Bering Strait resembles our distant Asian ancestors, and it is these physical markings which acted like a beckon to anyone who longed for revenge against the culprits who attacked their country.
June 3, 1943 was a record setting day of heat wave. All of the vatos were hanging out at the local areas within the barrios. Their light hearted chisme flowed past their lips as they passed the time in camaraderie. They never thought that the tensions of the city would come to pay them a house call, but it did. In groups large enough to line city blocks and fill taxi cabs, the white sailors from the nearby base drove to where they knew their targets resided. I remember my grandmother describing the sailors as appearing in the hundreds, and although the newspapers would describe the sailors as being in the hundreds, no accurate count was ever made.
Once found, the sailors attacked the Pachucos and the women who were with them. They beat the Pachucos and tore their suits from their bodies. Some of the lucky ones had their precious hair shaved into the American crew cut, the unlucky ones ended up with their hair haphazardly hacked off. In the end, the local police, after holding the youths for a few days, decided not to charge the group of Mexican American's for instigating a riot. As for the sailors my grandmother never heard that they were punished for their attack. Many, she assumed, were sent on to defend the values and ideals of this country against what was labeled as the Japanese invasion.
As I sit here today, I wonder what my grandmother would have to say about the terrorist attack that struck in America's soil on September 11, 2001. Would she have some pearls of wisdom to explain the how's and why of it all? Perhaps she would answer as she always had whenever I asked if someday she would die. Her response to me was always, "Pues, if it's my time, it's my time. Just look and see how Elvis died," as if that alone would answer my question.
Perhaps she might demonstrate her vast knowledge of history and explain how the plight of the Palestinian people is not unlike what our people experienced when they fought against the Spanish and French occupation of Mexico. This, inevitably, always lead to her tale of the Alamo, and the story of the battle of Los Ninos which was the catalyst for the massacre by Santana's army at the Texas landmark. Or would she reflect on the ripples that scorched through the fiber of this country? Would she see the news reports of attacks against American people of East Indian and Middle Eastern descent and reflect on the summer of 1943?
For myself, I am playing the waiting game with my girlfriend. Each time she hears word that friends or family who worked in the Twin Tower buildings are found safe and sound somewhere in New York City, I am relieved. Although the news is good, I am still filled with apprehension each time I glance at my beloved. Her features, her physical characteristics that I have come to love and identify with her French Moroccan heritage now worries me. I find myself wondering if the anger that sears through people's souls will be able to tell her apart from the terrorists who's geographical homeland is located far away from Morocco. Or, like the Japanese-Americans and Pachucos, will the attackers find her guilty of the crime of ethnicity.
All Feedback Welcomed at: LCMichallet@charani.org
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