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Geek Speak Thursday focused on Sailor Riots of 1943

October 3, 2018

SPEARFISH — Would you believe it if Dr. Tim Steckline told you that a style of suit caused a five-day riot in Los Angeles? Steckline, a Black Hills State University speech professor, will present “Zoot Suits and the Sailor Riots of 1943: Race Terror in Aztlan” at 4 p.m. Thursday in Jonas Hall Room 110 during Hispanic Heritage Month. As part of the Geek Speak lecture series, the presentation is free and open to the public.

Steckline saied zoot suits (notable for their baggy knees, cuffs to prevent tripping, and long jackets with heavily padded shoulders and wide lapels) were popular among Mexican-Americans in the ’30s and ’40s.

“This population appreciated the suits for more than just a comfortable outfit for dancing the jitterbug on a late weekend night; they became a way for them to express their culture in a distinct and outward way,” said Steckline, who notes that the young Malcolm X and the wild Cab Calloway wore the zoot.

In his Geek Speak, Steckline will talk through what effect these suits and their expression of culture by Mexican-Americans had during World War II, including what he calls a movement towards an unparalleled sense of cultural pride and the start of a proto-civil rights movement.

In June 1943, nearly a week of open terror in the streets of Los Angeles was blamed on the style of clothing (zoot suits) worn by the victims, Steckline said. Underlying issues contributing to the so-called “Sailor Riots” or “Zoot Suit Riots” included work-based immigration to fill jobs vacated by those serving in the military during World War II, restrictions on wool used in the construction of the suits, and underlying racial tensions. From this outbreak of terror, a movement was forged.

“Pop culture can have political implications, even though it may just be clothing and music. It has political importance,” Steckline said. “It’s still possible to take control of the culture and the things that pop culture gives you and politicize them – zoot suits were just a style, but they became loaded up with politics and pulled the community together as a result.”

During the lecture, Steckline looks forward to drawing from his own roots and experiences growing up in Colorado, in “Aztlan” — the ancestral home of the Aztec peoples covering what is now much of the southwest U.S. Throughout his childhood, he was raised knowing the culture of the area and valuing much of its significance throughout history. Since he has moved away, his personal devotion to the culture has become a way that he celebrates not only his own past, but the heritage and pop culture that has fountained from the people who have lived there for over 400 years.

Upcoming lectures include:

- Oct. 11: Kelly Kirk, instructor of history, and Carrie Gray-Wood, instructor of geography: “A Taste of Place: The History and Geography of Food in Italy”

- Oct. 18: Art Faculty at BHSU: “Beyond the Classroom”

- Oct. 25: Dr. Du-Lu Hsiao, assistant professor of Spanish: “How to be Spanish”

- Nov. 1: Dr. Andrey Reznikov, professor of English: “The role of Bible Translations in Establishing the English Language”

To read short descriptions of each lecture topic, visit www.BHSU.edu/GeekSpeak.

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