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date: 03 December 2022

Asian American Youth and Mexican American Youth in Los Angeles before World War IIfree

Asian American Youth and Mexican American Youth in Los Angeles before World War IIfree

  • Isabela Seong Leong QuintanaIsabela Seong Leong QuintanaAsian American Studies, UC Irvine


Though relatively little is known about them when compared with their adult counterparts, the experiences of Chinese American youth and Mexican American youth in Los Angeles were significantly shaped by living in the developing urban city. More independently as they became older, these ethnic youth navigated social structures that informed the racial, gendered, and class orderings of the city. As both Asian American and Mexican American adult populations in the Los Angeles area boomed before World War II, so did their youth populations, reflecting wars, changes in immigration law and policy, and the steady growth of the region’s railroad, manufacturing, and agriculture industries. With lives intimately tied to adults’ lives, both Asian American youth and Mexican American youth were a mix of recent arrivals from outside the United States and individuals who were born within its national borders. Their presences overlapped with those of their parents and other adults, in both private and public spaces where paid and unpaid labor took place. In ways that reflect the cultures of their respective communities of the era, young people utilized city spaces in different ways as they attended school, worked, socialized, and participated in community events and activities. Excluded from white-only institutions and social organizations, Asian American and Mexican American youth formed their own respective organizations and clubs. They brought dynamic life to Angeleno spaces as they navigated social and community expectations along with rapidly changing cultural and consumer trends.


  • Urban History
  • Latino History
  • Asian American History

A Note on Terms

Categories of youth, childhood, and young adulthood continue to shift over time and are not necessarily consistent between places or cultures. How young people are counted and discussed with respect to these categories is shaped by factors such as race, gender, citizenship, and family income. For example, while some families and ethnic communities during the 1910s to the 1930s saw marriage as a marker of a child’s coming of age, others saw a young person’s first paid job as a benchmark. Youth in the following discussion refers broadly to school-aged children, adolescents, and young adults.

A Segregated City

In Los Angeles during the first few decades of the 20th century, Mexican American and Asian American youth lived in a world segregated from whites, but not necessarily from each other nor from other young people of color. Ethnic Asian Angelenos and Mexican Angelenos experienced respective population booms between 1900 and 1930. Contextualized by wars and US expansion, these booms were related to factors such as changes in US immigration policy, industrial development, and increased demand for low-wage labor throughout California and the US West. Though Mexican and Chinese migrants arrived in Los Angeles for distinct reasons, both groups sought to avoid harsher conditions in their home countries and to create greater stability for themselves or their families. Chinese American, Japanese American, and Mexican American youth populations, like those of their adult counterparts, all increased sharply during this period. Although many young people migrated to Los Angeles with relatives or other adults (or both), others arrived alone. Children born in the United States to immigrant families were citizens by birth, even if their parents were not. Between the 1920s and 1940s, Mexican American and Asian American youth together comprised a notable portion of the city’s population, and ethnic Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese American youth reached adulthood at unprecedented rates.

Los Angeles was racially segregated during this era, although it did not fit the Black-white model of urban geography that dominated most cities of the Eastern United States. The multiracial and multiethnic communities of Los Angeles were, rather, segregated along nonwhite and white lines. Racial segregation, along with the long history of Spanish, Mexican, and US colonialisms, imbued the worlds of all young Angelenos. Wendy Cheng describes regional racial formation as a process through which individuals “make sense of race and place in their everyday lives” and especially through “smaller-scale contexts.”1 Mexican American youth and Asian American youth experienced and navigated regional racial knowledges unique to their communities and urban geographies. It was not uncommon for young people to live in neighborhoods with other nonwhite youth, generally due to local practices of segregation that effectively confined nonwhite residents to similar areas of the city. Dominant US ideologies of race, along with variegated social relationships among and across Los Angeles’s increasingly dense neighborhoods, contributed to a racial order that placed whites at the top and nonwhites at varying positions beneath them.2 Anti-Asian border restrictions, anti-Mexican deportation campaigns, and race-based practices of industrial labor recruitment are examples of federal and state mandates that were practiced and enforced locally across the city. They contributed to the contours of young people’s ethnic communities, neighborhoods, and experiences as residents of the Los Angeles region.

Jim Crow practices directly affected mobility and access for nonwhite youth in the city. When Los Angeles public schools were no longer legally segregated, school operations and transfer policies continued to allow white children to attend white-only schools outside of their actual districts.3 White adults concerned about nonwhite encroachment tended to focus their attention on Mexicans and Asians, whose numbers were far larger than those of the area’s Black residents.

Like their adult counterparts, nonwhite Angeleno youth were barred from places like beaches, restaurants, and movie theaters. Despite a 1931 citywide ruling intended to halt the racial segregation of Los Angeles’s public swimming pools, de facto practices of racial exclusion continued through the 1940s.4 Depending on the facility, selected ethnic youth would be allowed admission on a designated day per week, such as “Black Day” or “Mexican Day.” The pool would then be drained and cleaned before reopening for whites on the following day. Some public parks designated spaces to accommodate young people of color.

Neighborhoods also developed along lines of racial segregation, as many white Angelenos relocated to exclusively white neighborhoods during this era and created restrictive covenants to prohibit Jews and people of color from purchasing homes near them. In the 1920s, when restrictive covenants could not keep people of color out of white-only areas, the Ku Klux Klan policed the color line with tactics of intimidation and violence.

For youth growing up in Boyle Heights, the Plaza area, Little Tokyo, Echo Park, and the East Adams district, it was not uncommon to know or spend time with youth of different ethnic backgrounds. Young people sometimes attended the same school or met in a public or institutional place outside of their neighborhoods. East Los Angeles’s Lincoln Park was a particular favorite among nonwhite youth and a place known to be “without interference from white authorities.” Lincoln Park was so popular during the early 20th century that it even hosted young Mexicans, Asians, Blacks, and Jews from neighborhoods quite far away. Black youth from South Central, for instance, were known to take public transportation to the park on the Pacific Electric railway.5

Exclusion and Migration

Immigration and exclusion laws that prohibited Asians from entering the United States had a remarkable impact on the demographics of Asian American youth in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Women were the targets of both the Page Law (1875) and the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), both of which were designed to curb Asian American motherhood, children born into citizenship, and the formation of families within the borders of the United States. Iterations of anti-Asian exclusion laws in the 1910s and 1920s allowed select women, specifically students and merchant wives, to lawfully enter the country. The Gentlemen’s Agreement (1908) barred the entry of Japanese laborers, although it allowed the legal entry of families of Japanese men who could prove they were already legal residents of the United States. The Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) youth population grew substantially in the decades following this legislation, in a spike that coincided with the peak migration of wives who left Japan to join their husbands in the United States.6 Asian Angeleno youth from the late 1910s through the 1940s tended to experience a strong sense of second-generation identity because of shared experiences of exclusion and marginalization.7

Chinese and Japanese migrants looking for employment were barred from entering the United States during the Exclusion Era (1875–1942). During this time, US agribusiness recruited increasing numbers of low-wage workers from both Mexico and the Philippines. In the 1920s and 1930s, young Filipino men comprised 94 percent of Filipino migrants in California. Most worked as field laborers. During the off-season, many would visit and return to urban “Little Manilas” across California. In 1934, the Tydings–McDuffie Act reclassified Filipino Americans as “aliens” and restricted Filipino immigration to a quota of 50 people per year. Despite this, young Filipino men created Los Angeles’s Filipinotown, a downtown Los Angeles neighborhood that thrived from the 1920s through World War II.8

Long before the incorporation of California into the United States in 1850, Mexican migrants joined the Los Angeles population of Spanish-Mexicans who had resided there since the Spanish Colonial Era, creating a combined Mexican American population estimated at 150,000 by 1930.9 Ethnic Mexicans continued to travel back and forth across the US–Mexico border despite the formal end of the US–Mexico War (1846–1848). During and after the political and economic upsets of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), thousands of migrants fled Mexico to seek refuge in the United States. Mexican men often found paid work in a host of rapidly expanding US industries that sought low-wage workers, particularly after Chinese and Japanese laborers had been barred from entering the country. Though Mexican men tended to migrate alone at first, by the 1920s increasing numbers of women and children would also cross the border into the United States. New and notably large numbers of Mexican American youth reached adulthood during the 1920s and 1930s. After 1929 and the global economic downturn that ensued, Mexicans in Los Angeles and other parts of the United States faced deportation raids and repatriation campaigns that sought to permanently remove them from the country. These practices would be enforced in Los Angeles throughout the 1930s.

Home and Work Spaces

Family businesses often relied on the labor of relatives, especially women and children. It was common for Mexican and Chinese children to live in homes attached or annexed to the edifice of a family business or in dwellings that doubled as workplaces. Such configurations worked especially well for mothers, caretakers, and other adults who also worked for pay. In home spaces, it was common for women to take in laundry, prepare food and produce for sale, or cook and maintain living spaces for boarders. Women and older girls often worked in courtyards, alleyways, and patios that were just steps away from their homes. There, children could play, help adults with work, or be in the company of others. By collectively utilizing spaces for work and to care for homes, families, and children, women created large social networks in their neighborhood and communities for themselves and for young people.10

As the city’s demand for garment work, laundering, domestic services, and food preparation grew, Mexican women and girls in Los Angeles found their labor in increasing demand. Americanization programs facilitated by social reformers during this era included programs specifically designed for Mexican girls and young women, who were considered “harder to reach but…more easily educated” than Mexican boys and men. Reformers designed these programs to give female youth formal instruction in vocational and domestic skills and to prepare them for paid work in laundries, restaurants, housekeeping, and agriculture. For ethnic Mexican girls and women who were traditionally managers and caretakers of their own families and homes, Americanization programs coincided with the increased availability of paid work in Los Angeles and ushered many into its formal economy. The Macy Street School near the Los Angeles Plaza, for example, served a multiethnic student body. In addition to offering citizenship classes for older girls and women, the school instituted an elementary school curriculum for Mexican American girls that taught skills like needlework and cooking instead of conventional academic coursework. This educational tracking, however, not only separated ethnic Mexican youth from their schoolmates but also stigmatized them as remedial learners.11 This suggests how Americanization programs may have worked to perpetuate and maintain a feminized and service-oriented ethnic Mexican workforce.

For Chinese American children, especially girls, working for the family business was common as few jobs were available to them outside of the Chinese American community. Family businesses included restaurants, laundries, curio shops, and the preparation and sale of produce. Chinese American girls often worked for the family business from childhood until marriage.12 As in most immigrant family businesses of this era, the labor of young family members was generally unpaid. Betty Wong lived in a residence attached to the family’s herbal medicine shop in 1920s Chinatown. After her father died, her mother took over the business, and Betty remembered how her mother’s knowledge and skill in preparing medicines had come from years of having worked alongside her father. Betty remembered the feeling of community that her mother created with other Chinese women and children, especially when they spent time at Betty’s home after her father died. It is likely that when Betty and her siblings were young children, her parents worked at the shop while watching over them.13 May Lum’s mother worked for a garment factory that allowed workers to take sewing work home after their long shifts. There, May’s mother could care for her children and her household and continue to work for pay.14 Bringing work home was a great opportunity, even if it added considerably to a woman’s responsibilities.

During this era in general, neither Mexican American nor Asian American parents allowed their daughters to socialize without proper supervision. For Mexican and Asian Angelenos, overlapping home and work spaces also provided a way for parents to keep a watchful eye over their children and their daughters in particular. There, girls could be surveilled by adults in ways that were not deemed necessary for boys. A sibling, relative, or trusted family friend might chaperone an outing, especially when interaction with boys was expected. Alice Sue Fun became frustrated with her mother, who expected Alice to take care of her siblings and do housework after she came home from school. “Mother watched us like a hawk,” she remembered; “we [were] never allowed to go out unless accompanied by an older brother, sister, or anybody else.”15 Some parents were more comfortable if an event was hosted by a church or an organization like the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), which offered coed and multiethnic socials, fundraisers, holiday celebrations, and sports activities. There, young people could socialize under formal supervision and without challenging adult expectations with respect to gender roles and courtship.16

Navigating Mainstream Culture

The lives of young people were shaped by popular trends in fashion, films, magazines, radio shows, and music. These trends shaped youth interests and self-image just as much as they did experiences of puberty, courtship, and marriage. Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese girls noticed that as they got older, parents and other adults in the community were increasingly interested in monitoring their behavior.17 Though matchmaking and arranged marriages were common among earlier generations, second-generation young people generally preferred to choose their own romantic partners.18 Many felt that their elders’ expectations about gender norms were sexist and old-fashioned. Adult expectations were starkly different for male peers. Girls and young women also noticed that young white American women often socialized without chaperones. Reckoning with generational and cultural differences was an essential aspect of Los Angeles’s social landscape for young people and especially for girls and young women of color.

Young people who worked for pay outside their homes had more spending money than their peers and a different sense of autonomy and familiarity with mainstream popular culture. As consumer culture became more pronounced during the 1920s, local Hollywood actors were romantically idealized, and young people of color became more versed in mainstream cultural trends. More teenagers began to work for pay and spend money outside their homes, thus enabling new relationships with peers and with popular culture. It was exciting to purchase new items and talk about the latest trends. By the 1930s, adolescent consumers were a formal social category and targeted marketing demographic.19 Youth of color were curious not only about the latest popular films, music, and magazines; they were curious about mainstream Americanness.

Chinese American Janie Chu remarked that a young woman could easily acquire “knowledge of social America from the ‘movies,’ from the street, [and] from what she hears from the girls.”20 Historian Vicki Ruiz has observed that for Mexican American young ladies, “popular culture offered an alternative vision to parental and church expectations, complete with its own aura of legitimacy. While going out with a man alone violated Mexican community norms, such behavior seemed perfectly appropriate outside the barrio.”21

It was very difficult for Chinese American women to find paid work outside of Chinatown in the 1920s. As the United States developed political and commercial interests in China, a fascination with the “Orient” became popular in U.S. mainstream culture during the 1920s and 1930s. Chinese people, things, and narratives had a decidedly American allure that reflected a cultural imaginary informed by U.S. imperialism and exceptionalism. While ongoing immigration policies continued to promote an ethos of Asian exclusion, Hollywood and the glamorous aura of department stores representing ideals of American consumerism and individuality.

As popular U.S. representations of exotic Chinese girlhood and womanhood became trendy, some young Chinese American women noticed that this emphasis on outward style and appearances could benefit their search for paid work. Chinese Angeleno Ying Wong Kwan worked as a stockgirl at a downtown department store that catered to white women. The store required her to go to Chinatown to purchase a cheongsam, a long slim dress that was popular in China at the time. “They wanted us, especially us oriental persons, because we had to work [in] Chinese costume.”22 In 1926, an anonymous writer for Women and Missions lists a variety of paid positions within the reach of a “second generation Chinese girl”; she could work as “a stock-girl in American stores, elevator operator, errand girl for specialty or millinery shops, waitress, stenographer, bookkeeper, bank clerk, operator in hairdressing shops, clerk in Chinese shops dealing with oriental goods, maid in American homes, or in some capacity where her picturesque appearance is an asset—in such capacity as the girl who passes bread or cigarettes in restaurants with occidental patronage. Her wages are low, usually the minimum.”23

Films about China and Chinatowns were the rage during the 1920s and 1930s, and Hollywood’s film industry was known to hire Chinese people to appear as extras and to work on sets. Chinese children were sought to fill certain roles. In the 1930s, recalled the Chinese girl actress who played the Little Prince in Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp, “I was making $75 a week while the girls working in department stores were only earning $18.”24 As wage earners and consumers during this era, Chinese American young women could at times portray a different “Chineseness” than what was expected of them. Historian Shirley Jennifer Lim has observed that, in Los Angeles, many young women found themselves making novel decisions with regard to their self-representation and participation in mainstream culture.25

Beauty Pageants

Beauty pageants, quinceañeras, and community festivals during this era offered young ethnic women and girls arenas where one could negotiate the outward presentation of their femininity and bicultural identity and where one could navigate both community and mainstream expectations regarding their imminent adulthood. Events like these could reflect a community’s ideals of womanhood but could also exploit gender stereotypes.26 Through them, ethnic communities could engage in a virtual dialogue with white mainstream culture, proudly promote their neighborhood businesses, and forge networks for the community. Filipina, Nisei, and Chinese pageant queens served food and refreshments at community events and were often seen as liaisons between community leaders. By sponsoring beauty pageants and tourist events that featured young women as proud symbols of an ethnic community, Asian American and Mexican American businesses and community organizations participated in Los Angeles’s cultural landscape.

Issei merchants in 1934 initiated the Nisei Week Festival, featuring Japanese cultural arts, traditional Japanese clothing, parades, and beauty contests in order to drum up business among the Japanese community and its Nisei generation. “Nisei women served as the welcoming face of the ethnic community,” notes historian Valerie Matsumoto.27 Historian Lon Kurashige observes that Nisei Week Queen of the 1940s “epitomized the hybrid of East and West” and was thus expected to be well versed in the niceties of both Japanese and white cultures.28 Some young Nisei women felt irritated by the traditional strictures of community elders. Sandra Sakai, for example, was proud to be named Pageant Queen of the festival but became frustrated upon learning that she would not be allowed to voice her opinions. She was instead expected to follow the instructions of the adult leaders of the event.29

In the 1920s, Filipino American beauty queen contests celebrated the community and raised money in support of Filipino American organizations. They often looked to promote Filipino culture as being compatible with US nationalism. Many looked forward to Rizal Day, a national holiday in the Philippines commemorating Filipino hero José Rizal’s political and literary work against Spanish colonialism. The day’s festivities included queen contests, banquets, dancing, parades, and speeches. Young Filipinas could be nominated for Rizal queen at 14 years old. Scholar Arleen De Vera has observed that Rizal Day Queen contests came to define a nationalist Filipina femininity where young women and girls were expected to act as embodiments of excellence and Filipino virtue in ways that showed Filipino suitability for U.S. citizenship, national inclusion, and acceptance by mainstream US culture. The contests were also a way of encouraging Filipino American men to be virtuous, sober, and disciplined, in honor of Filipino and US ideals of respectability and worthiness of citizenship. Girls often resisted and rebelled against these strict expectations. One young woman, for example, performed an unusual and unexpected dance, using her body to overtly challenge the notion of respectable Filipina femininity.30

Mexican American beauty pageants were often sponsored by community partners such as churches, mutual aid societies, and newspapers.31 Local immigrant communities worked with the Mexican government to sponsor the celebration of 16 de septiembre, a Mexican holiday commemorating Mexico’s War of Independence. In 1921, a local Mexican American organization called the Committee of Patriotic Activities organized a month-long centennial celebration of Mexico’s independence from Spain, which featured a beauty contest. In a photo taken in the 1940s, a pageant queen poses with her court damas (young women). Surrounded by green, red, and white banners—the colors of the Mexican flag—a large US flag is also clearly visible.32


Popularized through cinema and commercial culture, the flapper style was popular among young women. English- and Spanish-language magazines and periodicals advertised makeup, hair products, and fashion that inspired many young women to purchase and wear certain products despite the frequent protests of parents. In these media publications, young women could find special promotions and information about everything needed to emulate a fashionable young flapper: short hair, ruby lips, rosy cheeks, and knee-length skirts. Young women of color with spending money could partake in these styles and sport them to assert their individuality, femininity, and Americanness.33

Hollywood stars like Anna May Wong, Dolores del Rio, and Lupe Velez offered alternative versions of femininity for many Mexican American and Asian American youth who sought to express themselves differently than their elders. A child of Los Angeles’s Chinatown, Wong was later well known for her flapper style, which was seen as rebellious, flirtatious, and overtly sexual.34 An actress from the local Chinese American community, Wong was influential for many young women of color and particularly vulnerable to public critique from her community. Del Rio and Velez were known for making public appearances in places like movie theaters and baseball games, which were well frequented by young people. Del Rio attended events at the Teatro Hidalgo, a theater in the Los Angeles Plaza area regularly visited by Mexican families.35 Latina actresses, observes Ruiz, were “public role models of the ‘American Dream.’” This was especially enticing for media-savvy Mexican American young women looking to express themselves in new and relevant ways. Often fluent in English and Spanish, they accessed ideas and information disseminated through a variety of media venues and made deliberate choices about how they wanted to be seen.36

With its long coat and high-waisted, tightly cuffed, and wide-legged pants, the zoot suit was popular among Black, Mexican, Japanese, and Filipino youth across the country during the 1930s and 1940s. Zoot suit culture connoted adolescence, jazz music, dance halls, and even ways of speaking. The style has often been associated with the 1943 race riots in downtown Los Angeles, where white US servicemen stationed there joined police and local vigilantes in violent attacks against Mexican American zoot suiters. Yet the zoot suit culture also inspired young people to travel outside of their neighborhoods to dance, socialize, and enjoy music with other ethnic and white youth. As a teenager, Mexican American Soledad Camarena and her friends often traveled from Lincoln Heights all the way to South Central to go dancing at an establishment well patronized by African Americans.37 Young Filipino men created spaces to socialize and show off their brightly colored zoot suits. As they traversed the city, young Filipinos created a “vibrant public life” downtown and in Filipinotown, where they frequented nightclubs and taxi dance halls. Reformers and police targeted these establishments as sites of vice and illicit sex. Yet, these spaces also allowed young Filipinos to forge identities as young men of color whose wages allowed them to wear sharp-looking suits, enjoy leisure time, and even pay for dances with white women—despite their experiences as workers whose housing and social options were limited by racism and segregation. “Dressing up in the latest style was always important to Filipinos,” notes historian Linda España-Maram, “in part because a snazzy ensemble transformed brown bodies from overworked exploited laborers to symbols of sensuality, style, and pleasure.”38

Critiques of zoot suit culture came from within ethnic communities and from mainstream society. Parents and white authorities alike associated the suit with “bad behavior” and extroverted sexuality. High school youth of color often defied authoritative demands as they developed their own senses of self in the face of deportation raids, restrictive housing covenants, and anti-miscegenation laws. Alfred Barela wrote in 1943: “We’re tired of being told we can’t go to this show or that dance hall because we’re Mexican or that we better not be seen on the beach front, or that we can’t wear draped pants or have our hair cut the way we want to.”39 As Anthony Macías, Luis Álvarez, and other scholars have shown, the zoot suit culture was created by youth who were expected to support US war efforts (through military service or by working in the defense industry) despite their criminalization and exclusion from the nation. Zoot suiters created a cultural politics of resistance through fashion, dancing, music, and public spaces that, as Álvarez argues, asserted a certain dignity and autonomy.40

Institutional and Community Spaces

Institutional and community organizations that served youth of color in Los Angeles were important places where young people could participate in activities like community event planning, social engagements, social networking, and the development of personal skills. As Nisei youth subcultures blossomed, notes historian David Yoo, they provided a “vital, alternative space between immigrant and native contexts.”41 Many Asian American and Mexican American children in Los Angeles attended multiethnic public schools before World War II. As school policy encouraged segregation along white and nonwhite lines, children of different ethnicities commonly interacted with each other. Though conflict and tension existed between nonwhite populations, all nonwhite children lived in a Los Angeles structured by white supremacy and border policing. During the Mexican Revolution, Angelita Avila arrived with her family from Mexico and attended school in Los Angeles for the first time. “I really believe I had never seen so many children at once and so many kinds,” she noted.42 African American student Ersey O’Brian, who attended Jefferson High School in South Central during the 1930s, remembered his friendships with his fellow Asian classmates. “[We] were close, the Japanese, the Asians ... going to school brought everyone together.”43

Chinese and Japanese children often attended ethnic language schools after a full day of regular school. For their families, it was important that they learn about and identify with their ethnic and ancestral cultures. Most Chinese schools were in Chinatown, and many of their students commuted from different parts of the city to attend them. In the 1920s, an educator and researcher expressed concern that Chinese American children did not have enough time to play.44 For children who attended predominantly white and often hostile public schools, ethnic language schools offered families safe and supervised institutional spaces. Japanese language schools also promoted assimilation among Japanese children. By encouraging Americanization, Scholar Zevi Gutfreund notes, Japanese schools thrived and became a successful “community institution in Los Angeles until internment began in 1942.”45

Mexican American civic leaders of the 1920s, as historian Douglas Monroy observes, supported the creation of schools for Mexican American children in the Los Angeles region. Initially designed to prevent “the undoing of traditional Mexican values” and to encourage “the making of Spanish-language films,” these schools offered ethnic Mexican youth instruction in Mexican history and heroes, bicultural “responsibilities,” and music in the afternoons and evenings. During the Great Depression, most of these schools were closed as the local Mexican community and the Mexican government were no longer able to financially support them. In addition, the creation of these “institutions that attended to the young in the places where they spent the most time outside their families—schools and movies—fell to the lack of support of the Mexican middle class and the preference of Mexican youth for American spectacles.”46 Rampant anti-Mexican racism during the Depression also hampered the growth of these schools.

Clubs and Sports

As a national pastime, baseball gained popularity amongst nonwhite youth before World War II and garnered wide support from ethnic communities. Although they were romoted by reformers and city officials as a tool to Americanize immigrant children, racially segregated sports created spaces that fostered ethnic identity, family values, and notions of proper masculinity. Monroy observes that baseball was a way that “various people from south of the border forged an identity as Mexicans, a way for Mexicans to garner respect in the eyes of the americanos, and a public reinforcement of the traditional manly family values of forceful, dynamic activities.”47 Reformers and local organizations promoted baseball because they saw sports as more respectable than “unsupervised play” in the streets and other public spaces in working-class neighborhoods.48 In the 1920s, local Mexican businesses sponsored Mexican American youth teams that played against each other and with other ethnic teams. The Spanish language newspaper La Opinion covered one exciting game between the El Paso Shoe Store team and the Los Angeles Nippons (the Japanese American team also affectionately known as “the Pride of Lil’ Tokio”).49

Excluded by white organizations in the 1930s, many Chinese girls and young women formed clubs of their own. Founded as a basketball club, the Mei Wah club soon included the planning and management of other social and philanthropic projects. It brought Chinese women and girls together and networked across schools, churches, and families.50 During the Japanese invasion of China during World War II, the Mei Wah Club raised funds to support war-related relief in China. In 1938, they joined 16 other Chinese American youth clubs to form the umbrella Los Angeles Federation of Chinese Clubs. Chinese young women’s organizations sponsored events that supported Chinese American military recruits, air cadets, and soldiers training in Los Angeles. One account states that 60 Chinese American teenage girls hosted a canteen in New Chinatown, where they served coffee and refreshments to servicemen. Other Chinese American youth organizations included the Girls Glee Club, Kuan Ying, the Lowa Auxiliary Girls’ Club (a college-age basketball team affiliated with the YWCA that formed in the 1930s), and the Cathayette Girls’ Club (a basketball club started after World War II by high school girls).51 Sports teams were commonly a gateway to other kinds of community service for ethnic Chinese girls and young women.

By the 1920s in Los Angeles, as Matsumoto has observed, “Nisei girls’ clubs had taken root ... and provided a key venue in which young urban women could claim modern femininity, an American identity, and public space. These groups served as a bulwark against racial discrimination, offering a bridge between the immigrant community’s expectations of young women and the lure of popular culture.”52 At a Nisei youth club, one could learn new skills and spend time away from parents.53 Youth organizations also provided a refuge from anti-Japanese/anti-Asian racism.54 Barred from joining white sororities, Helen Tomio Mizuhara and Alyce Asahi were students at the Southern Branch of the University of California (now UCLA). Looking for a supportive community in the face of institutional racism, they founded the Japanese American sorority Chi Alpha Delta in 1928.

Discussion of the Literature

Studies of youth cultures have generally focused on understanding young people as active agents in the making of their worlds. Instead of considering childhood as a stage of transition into adulthood, Sunaina Maira and Elizabeth Soep take young people to be “thinking agents who may express important critiques of citizenship and nationhood.”55 Studies like these pay close attention to the social worlds in which children live, along with the relationships and systems of power that shape their experiences and choices. Whereas adults’ choices are more generally seen as autonomous, those of children and young people tend to be seen as limited by social structures and relationships with parents, family members, and other adults.

Few historical studies focus on young people of color in Los Angeles during the early 20th century. Valerie Matsumoto’s City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920-1950 draws upon oral histories and ethnic-community periodicals to tell the stories of second-generation Japanese American girls and young women who formed youth clubs and organizations because they were excluded by mainstream organizations and describes their desire to support the Japanese American community in the face of racism. Nisei youth used these networks during Japanese American incarcerations of World War II and the postwar resettlement of their community. Linda España-Maram’s Creating Masculinity in Los Angeles’s Little Manila: Working-Class Filipinos and Popular Culture, 1920s-1950s addresses how young Filipino men forged an identity as working-class ethnic immigrant youth and used certain spaces for their own leisure.

Other studies have addressed Los Angeles’s youth of color in book chapters or as part of larger studies of ethnic groups in the Southern California or the Southwestern United States or both. Ruiz’s “The Flapper and the Chaperone: Cultural Constructions of Identity and Heterosexual Politics among Adolescent Mexican American Women, 1920-1950,” included in her book From Out of the Shadows, is a cornerstone of youth and gender studies in the fields of both U.S. and Mexican American/Latinx History. Luis Álvarez’s The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance During World War II addresses the ways in which Black and Brown youth in Los Angeles, New York, and other U.S. cities created a “body politics of dignity” to resist wartime racism, the segregation of neighborhoods, and dehumanization. Mark Wild’s “So Many Children at Once and So Many Kinds: The World of Central City Children” in Street Meeting: Multiethnic Neighborhoods in Early Twentieth-Century Los Angeles draws on a wide array of sources to narrate children’s stories of cross-cultural relationships in Los Angeles’s multiethnic public spaces.

There is some emerging work on children and youth in African American and Indigenous Los Angeles before World War II. Kevin Whalen’s Native Students at Work: American Indian Labor and the Sherman Institute’s Outing Program, 1900-1945 discusses the settlement of indigenous youth in Los Angeles with respect to the Sherman Institute’s colonial education “outing” programming. Nicholas Rosenthal’s Reimagining Indian Country provides examples of youth experiences in its discussion of Indigenous people who migrated across the United States to Los Angeles during the 20th century. Marne Campbell mines census data to examine the specific role that women played within the African American Angeleno community during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Douglas Flamming and Josh Sides provide broad histories of African Americans in Los Angeles and provide context for understanding how Black youth experienced the city.

More studies that focus on youth of color in Los Angeles are needed, especially those that use the category of youth—along with race, gender, and space—in ways that allow a fuller purview of the making of Los Angeles.

Primary Sources

Archival sources of this time frame that offer more information about poor, working-class, immigrant, or nonwhite perspectives in the United States are difficult to find; this is especially true for nonwhite women and children. Sources about children tend to discuss them incidentally and not as discrete or rational social actors. Historians must have an open mind when exploring new approaches, methodological frameworks, and archival sources. Conventional sources including newspapers, city directories, records of institutions that served children (e.g., schools and social service organizations), immigration records, literary pieces, maps, and court records generally do not discuss children per se. However, they provide helpful glimpses into the perspectives of young people.

Oral histories are perhaps the most robust sources with which we can better understand how children and youth of color lived in Los Angeles during the early 20th century. Though potential interviewees who grew up in Los Angeles during this time are increasingly unavailable, oral history interviews conducted in the past are available in archival collections like the Southern California Chinese American Oral History Project Collection housed at UCLA, which contains 400 hours of interviews conducted by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. Produced from 1978 to 1991, many of these interviews are of Chinese Angelenos who grew up during the early 20th century. Interviews conducted in the 2000s and 2010s are also available at the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. The Oral History Center at California State University (Fullerton) also has a rich collection of interviews with people from the Southern California region. A “Los Angeles” search on the Densho Digital Repository includes oral history interviews, photographs, and other primary documents related to Japanese American History before and after incarceration (WWII).

Other sources include studies of certain Los Angeles populations that were conducted during the early 20th century. At the University of Southern California, graduate students of Sociology and Social Work produced a variety of theses on urban and poor communities in Southern California. Similar studies conducted before World War II can be found at various universities and may include transcripts or interview excerpts.

Further Reading

  • Alamillo, José M. Deportes: The Making of a Sporting Mexican Diaspora. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2020.
  • Alvarez, Luis. The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Campbell, Marne L. Making Black Los Angeles: Class, Gender, and Community, 1850–1917. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
  • España-Maram, Linda. Creating Masculinity in Los Angeles’s Little Manila: Working-Class Filipinos and Popular Culture, 1920s–1950s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
  • Flamming, Douglas. Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
  • Gutfreund, Zevi. Speaking American: Language Education and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.
  • Lee, Shelley Sang-Hee. A New History of Asian America. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.
  • Lim, Shirley Jennifer. “Asian American Youth Culture.” Journal of Asian American Studies 11, no. 2 (June 2008): 1097–2129.
  • Matsumoto, Valerie J. City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920–1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Ruiz, Vicki L. “The Flapper and the Chaperone: Cultural Constructions of Identity and Heterosexual Politics among Adolescent Mexican American Women, 1920–1950.” In Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth-Century American Girls’ Cultures, Edited by Sherrie A. Inness, 199–226. New York: New York University Press, 1998. See also Ruiz, Vicki L. From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Sánchez, George J. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Sánchez, George J. Boyle Heights: How a Los Angeles Neighborhood Became the Future of American Democracy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2021.
  • Sides, Josh. L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • Varzally, Allison. Making a Nonwhite America: Californians Coloring Outside Ethnic Lines, 1925–1955. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Whalen, Kevin. Native Students at Work: American Indian Labor and Sherman Institute’s Outing Program, 1900–1945. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016.
  • Wild, Mark. Street Meeting: Multiethnic Neighborhoods in Early Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.