History

A photo in a black and white color scheme showing a pachuco and a pachuca. He is wearing a fedora, baggy pants and coat, along with a very long chain tied at his waist. She is also wearing a long coat, with a skirt and high heels.

A Pachuco and a Pachuca wearing traditional Pachuco attire.

Background

Pachuco is a group of Mexican American youth which originated in the early 1940s in the locations of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. Eventually, through migration, a population of Pachucos was concentrated in Los Angeles, California. Pachucos faced discrimination from wealthier Americans as well as from structural law enforcement groups on accounts of identity and customs, like their fashion styles and language. A way to visualize Pachucos and understand the way that they were perceived is to think of them as classy gangsters. In order to survive in a hostile climate, they relied on the strategies, listed by Durán as: “The pachuco’s strategies for survival, resistance and appropriation are seen through their physical appearances and performances. This includes language (caló), hairstyles, tattoos, clothing, and dance” (Durán 2002: 42). There are also key events in Pachuco culture and history, like the Sleepy Lagoon Murder and Zoot Riots, which contribute to understanding the resistance of Pachucos. The Pachuco identity is best understood as a form of resistance to social forces, through their subcultural customs and capital.

 

Caló

Caló was the language created and used by Pachucos to communicate. “They created new words from combinations of English and Spanish and started speaking in a form of slang called caló that was deliberately unintelligible to their parent’s generation” (Lucas 2009: 64). Today, the remaining traces of caló that are used consist of swear words and derogatory terms. However,  Ramirez states that, “[Pachuco slang] supposedly indicated a failure to reproduce an authentic or legitimate national identity (such as Americanness or Mexicanness)” (2006: 5).The use of the language was not perceived well by outsiders, as it was perceived as being anti-patriotic. However, using the language created subculturist unity, in the way that language is universally connected to a respective culture or cultures.

Zoot Suits

This image shows a card from a Mexican version of bingo which uses images rather than numbers. The card shows a pachuco, in a foot suit, fedora, and with chains hanging from his waist. There is a number twenty six on the left hand of the card, as part of the game.

A playing card from a Mexican game, “Lotería”, with a Pachuco on it. The direct translation to English for the Pachuco is “The Zoot Suiter.”

 

Zoot Suits are the custom dress of Pachucos. A Zoot Suit consists of high-waisted pants and long blazers, with excess fabric through the width of the pants and arms sleeves. The suits are often accompanied with fedoras and chains hanging from the waist. The suit has original associations with black youth and black music culture. Malcom X is an important figure who was frequently dress in a zoot suit (Daniels 2002). Pachucas also had a signature style. This consisted of elements like longer coats that often reached their fingertips, draped slacks or a short skirt, and high socks. Their attire caused some controversy as they often wore the same jackets as the men. This was not accepted by outsiders, and in some cases, by Pachucos themselves, due to the gender bending by wearing men’s clothes. However, Pachucas did have stylistic elements that are considered feminine, like earrings and large amounts of lipstick and mascara (Alvarez 2008: 89).

The Zoot Suits became illegal and seen as un-American which led to the Zoot Riots in 1943, as well as the event of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder. The excess fabric on the suits was viewed as a form of wasting resources which could be used towards production of war materials. The Pachucos wearing the suit, labeled as having a leisurely lifestyle, were seen as un-American by spending their time on the streets rather than contributing to the war. Daniels highlights that this was a misconception, since Pachucos would face discrimination when searching for jobs, on accounts of their racial identity(Daniels 2002: 102). Despite this fact, Pachucos were still targeted because of the way in which they were perceived to be displaying un-American behaviors.

 

The Sleepy Lagoon Murder

This image shows six pachucos being held in custody by police officers. It is in a black and white color scheme.

Pachucos taken into custody following the Sleepy Lagoon Murder.

The Sleepy Lagoon Murder, which took place in Los Angeles in 1942, is a key part to the label that was placed on Pachucos. Although they were already stereotyped as being violent, based on their identities as Mexican-Americans, this event allowed outsiders to justify that stereotype paced on Pachucos. The Sleepy Lagoon was a popular swimming destination for Mexican-Americans, since they were not able to use public swimming pools because of discrimination.  At a party near the Sleepy Lagoon, two groups of youth from rivaled neighborhoods had a number of altercations. José Díaz was killed following a number of clashes and brawls between the two rivaled neighborhoods. His body was found at the Sleepy Lagoon, without a clear explanation. The authorities placed the blame on a group of men and women from 38th street, Los Angeles. Twenty-four young men and women, Pachucos and Pachucas, aged between seventeen and twenty-one, were left to face trial for the death of José Díaz. After a number of months of unfair court treatment and practices, all of those on trial were declared to be not guilty (Lucas 2009: 70-72). These trials highlighted how Pachucos were seen as performing gang activities and heavily discriminated against, even in legal issues.

 

Zoot Riots

This image shows a pachuco on the ground, being stripped of his clothing and being beaten. There are numerous people watching this take place.

This photo captures a Zoot Riot taking place as a Pachuco is beaten and stripped of his clothing.

The Zoot Riots consisted of military personal beating and stripping pachucos of their clothes. These events took place in 1943, following the event of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder. The riots often took place in broad daylight. These occasions were often celebrated by the media and spectators, since they were seen as punishing an un-American act (Daniels 2002: 101). The combination of wearing clothing seen as flaunty and being seen as living a leisurely lifestyle, especially during war times, was not received well by military personnel (Daniels 2002: 103). Pachuco’s could not rely on local forces to help them. There Zoot Riots came to an end when a Naval District admiral made the decision to make Los Angeles out of bounds for his men (Daniels 2002: 101).

Media

A flyer for the play by Luis Valdez, titled "Zoot Suit", shows a pachuco in a zoot suit, a fedora hat, a chain hanging from his waist and a necklace with a cross on it.

A flyer for Luis Valdez’s “Zoot Suit.”

Pachuco’s impact on society can also be understood through its representation in the media. The popular play and movie, Zoot Suit, by Luis Valdez is significant for a few key reasons. One is that its success allowed for further Latino and Latina exposure through media. “Zoot Suit’s successes in the professional theater and the film industry opened many doors for the transmission of U.S. Latina/o cultures on stage and on screen” (Lucas 2009: 82). The play was first introduced to Broadway in 1979 and only two years later, Luis Valdez directed a filmed version of the play. Although this is important within itself, by empowering a marginalized group, the content of the movie is also key. The movie illustrates many of the challenges which pachucos faced and also illustrates the injustice from the Sleepy Lagoon Trials. “Zoot Suit argues that even while the media portrayed Mexican American youth as a terrorizing force, the Sleepy Lagoon defendants and other youth of color were being terrorized by the public’s and the justice system’s reactions to the media representation of pachucos” (Lucas 2009: 73). Apart from the purpose of demonstrating inequity, the play also brings to light personal challenges of that Pachucos had based on their identity. “Characters in the play demonstrate the difficulty of being in this space of being in between two identities but still not claiming/being accepted by either” (Fregoso 1993, 668). When viewed from as a performance by actors, outsiders to the Pachuco subculture are able to gain insight into this world.

Although Zoot Suit has power through its intersection of messages and success, the production also had its own setbacks. Those who’s real lives were involved did not have the best perception of it.  “Although Zoot Suit earned much critical praise, it was not well received by some of the real-life men and women who took part in and were affected by the Sleepy Lagoon incident and trial” (Ramírez 2006: 20). Valdez also faced lawsuits on account of invasion of privacy. Those who were affected did not enjoy some of the ways in which an event that had large impacts on their lives was portrayed. Apart from this, throughout the storyline, there was also exemplification of males and masculinity being privileged (Fregoso 1993, 670). This included elements like marginalization of women. This was not received well due to the exaggerated fashion in which this was presented, placing a further negative view on the gender differences in Pachuco and Chicano/a culture, although they were often practiced in real life events.

 

Themes

Gendered Double Standards

A pachuca is pictured, wearing a zoot suit, rather than traditional pachuca attire.

A Pachuca wearing a full Zoot Suit.

Discrimination from a larger group may bring the group being discriminated towards closer in unity, but this was not exactly the case for all Pachucos. More specifically, for Pachucas, the female partner of Pachucos. Pachucas also had their own attire but would in some instances, wear the same outfits as the men, although they often received a negative response for this. Following the theme of fashion, Pachucas were seen as their male partners accessories. “Pachucas did not receive as much journalistic attention as the men; they were usually viewed as auxiliaries in a girl’s gang paralleling the boys” (Daniels 2002: 99).  Despite not receiving the same levels of publicity, there are some key Pachucas to the Pachuco history. Bertha Aguilar, a teenage girl who was brought in the Sleepy Lagoon trials, was a significant figure in the court trials. She refused to respond to the most questions asked of her which led to criticism of ladylikeness. However, when she did respond, her improper grammar led her to be viewed as un-American (Ramírez 2006: 15). This discrimination based on language towards Pachucas was also received for another reason: speaking caló. Although language is a key form of resistance and creating a group identity, Pachucas were viewed negatively if they spoke it. “Chicana speakers of caló/ pachuco slang are seen negatively, labeled with sexually derogatory terms like ‘puta’”(Ramírez 2006: 10). This term is used to label female prostitutes. Another double-standard is created between the Pachucas and Pachucos. The first being dress codes, language restrictions are also placed on Pachucas.

 

This page was created by Gilberto Perez ’21.

 


Media

 

This video provides examples of different outfits that Pachucas wore.

 

A trailer to the film production of Zoot Suit which provides information about events in Pachuco history.

 

A recent video about modern day Pachuco culture in Los Angeles, California.

 

The band "Banda Pachuco" is pictured on an album cover. They are all matching, wearing black zoot suits with white dress shirts and silver ties.

The cover image for one of Banda Pachuco’s albums.

The song “Pachuco” covers the topic of traditional Pachuca attire compared to what is worn today. Click here to listen.


Scholarship

Scholarship

Articles:

Daniels, D. 1997. Los Angeles Zoot: Race “Riot,” the Pachuco, and Black Music Culture. The Journal of Negro History, 82(2).

Fregoso, R. 1993. The Representation of Cultural Identity in “Zoot Suit” (1981). Theory and Society, 22(5), 659-674.

Ramírez. C. S. 2006. Saying “Nothin”: Pachucas and the Languages of Resistance. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies,27(3).

LUCAS, A. 2009. Reinventing the “Pachuco”: The Radical Transformation from the Criminalized to the Heroic in Luis Valdez’s Play “Zoot SuitJournal for the Study of Radicalism,3(1).

Books:

The cover for Luis Alvarez's book shows three men African-American men wearing zoot suits. From left to right, there is a pink zoot suit, an orange one, and a blue zoot suit being worn.

Alvarez, L. 2008.  The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II. University of California Press.

Description for publisher’s website:

Flamboyant zoot suit culture, with its ties to fashion, jazz and swing music, jitterbug and Lindy Hop dancing, unique patterns of speech, and even risqué experimentation with gender and sexuality, captivated the country’s youth in the 1940s. The Power of the Zoot is the first book to give national consideration to this famous phenomenon. Providing a new history of youth culture based on rare, in-depth interviews with former zoot-suiters, Luis Alvarez explores race, region, and the politics of culture in urban America during World War II. He argues that Mexican American and African American youths, along with many nisei and white youths, used popular culture to oppose accepted modes of youthful behavior, the dominance of white middle-class norms, and expectations from within their own communities.

The cover to Laura Cummings' book shows two pachucos shaking hands in front a food establishment. The picture is in black and white.

Cummings, L. 2009. Pachucas and Pachucos in Tucson: Situated Border Lives. University of Arizona Press.

Description from publisher’s website:

When the Zoot Suit Riots ignited in Los Angeles in 1943, they quickly became headline news across the country. At their center was a series of attacks by U.S. Marines and sailors on young Mexican American men who dressed in distinctive suits and called themselves pachucos. The media of the day portrayed these youths as miscreants and hoodlums. Even though the outspoken First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, quickly labeled them victims of race riots, the initial portrayal has distorted images ever since. A surprising amount of scholarship has reinforced those images, writes Laura Cummings, proceeding from what she calls “the deviance school of thought.”

This innovative study examines the pachuco phenomenon in a new way. Exploring its growth in Tucson, Arizona, the book combines ethnography, history, and sociolinguistics to contextualize the early years of the phenomenon, its diverse cultural roots, and its language development in Tucson.

Unlike other studies, it features first-person research with men and women who—despite a wide span of ages—self-identify as pachucos and pachucas. Through these interviews and her archival research, the author finds that pachuco culture has deep roots in Tucson and the Southwest. And she discovers the importance of the pachuco/caló language variety to a shared sense of pachuquismo. Further, she identifies previously neglected pachuco ties to indigenous Indian languages and cultures in Mexico and the United States.

Cummings stresses that the great majority of people conversant with the culture and language do not subscribe to the dynamics of contemporary hardcore gangs, but while zoot suits are no longer the rage today, the pachuco language and sensibilities do live on in Mexican American communities across the Southwest and throughout the United States.

The cover to Catherine Ramirez's book shows three women in baggy clothing being escorted into a police car by a police officer.

Ramirez, C. S. 2009. The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory. University of California Press.

Description from publishers website:

The Mexican American woman zoot suiter, or pachuca, often wore a V-neck sweater or a long, broad-shouldered coat, a knee-length pleated skirt, fishnet stockings or bobby socks, platform heels or saddle shoes, dark lipstick, and a bouffant. Or she donned the same style of zoot suit that her male counterparts wore. With their striking attire, pachucos and pachucas represented a new generation of Mexican American youth, which arrived on the public scene in the 1940s. Yet while pachucos have often been the subject of literature, visual art, and scholarship, The Woman in the Zoot Suit is the first book focused on pachucas.

Two events in wartime Los Angeles thrust young Mexican American zoot suiters into the media spotlight. In the Sleepy Lagoon incident, a man was murdered during a mass brawl in August 1942. Twenty-two young men, all but one of Mexican descent, were tried and convicted of the crime. In the Zoot Suit Riots of June 1943, white servicemen attacked young zoot suiters, particularly Mexican Americans, throughout Los Angeles. The Chicano movement of the 1960s–1980s cast these events as key moments in the political awakening of Mexican Americans and pachucos as exemplars of Chicano identity, resistance, and style. While pachucas and other Mexican American women figured in the two incidents, they were barely acknowledged in later Chicano movement narratives. Catherine S. Ramírez draws on interviews she conducted with Mexican American women who came of age in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s as she recovers the neglected stories of pachucas. Investigating their relative absence in scholarly and artistic works, she argues that both wartime U.S. culture and the Chicano movement rejected pachucas because they threatened traditional gender roles. Ramírez reveals how pachucas challenged dominant notions of Mexican American and Chicano identity, how feminists have reinterpreted la pachuca, and how attention to an overlooked figure can disclose much about history making, nationalism, and resistant identities.

Additional Resources:

To learn more about the biography of Banda Pachuco, click here.

For information and images on contemporary Pachuco style in Mexico City, Mexico, click here.