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Mexico’s Most Celebrated Pachuco: Tin Tan

Germán Valdés "Tin Tan" as a pachuco (primary)
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Germán Valdés "Tin Tan" as a pachuco

In partnership with the Vincent Price Art Museum: The mission of the Vincent Price Art Museum is to serve as a unique educational resource through the exhibition, interpretation, collection, and preservation of works in all media.

"Tastemakers & Earthshakers: Notes from Los Angeles Youth Culture, 1943 – 2016" is a multimedia exhibition that traverses eight decades of style, art, and music, and presents vignettes that consider youth culture as a social class, distinct issues associated with young people, principles of social organization, and the emergence of subcultural groups. Citing the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots as a seminal moment in the history of Los Angeles, the exhibition emphasizes a recirculation of shared experiences across time, reflecting recurrent and ongoing struggles and triumphs.

Through a series of articles, Artbound is digging deeper into the figures and themes explored in "Tastemakers & Earthshakers." The show was on view from October 15, 2016 to February 25, 2017 at the Vincent Price Art Museum.

Zoot Suit Riots, young pachucos in L.A.
A group of Latino teenagers carry white flags and “surrender” at the Los Angeles central jail during the climax of the Zuit Suit Riots. In June of 1943, Los Angeles saw a series of racially-motivated riots erupt between Caucasian servicemen and young Mexican Americans, dubbed “zoot suiters.” | Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

On June 24, 1943, four hundred university students organized a protest against the originators of the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots. To attract others to their demonstration they created and distributed a flier, which blamed the Ku Kluk Klan, United States’ imperialism, and William Randolph Hearst, the powerful newspaper publisher, for creating the riots. Indignant and convinced of the righteousness of their objective, they did not hesitate to express their disgust with Americans and American institutions. When the police blocked their path to a U.S. government building, they merely shifted their targets to American-owned stores. A correspondent for the NY Times, observed these youth “booing, jeering, and hissing [at] every store that displayed American signs…” They did not stop there. Perhaps in an effort to mimic the actions of American soldiers, cops and American civilians, a group of youngsters entered a restaurant and “mauled” an American who was having lunch. They concluded their animated and emotional demonstration by establishing a committee to defend Mexican American zoot suiters and African Americans in Detroit, Michigan.

But these students did not walk down Whitter Boulevard or any other street in East Los Angeles or even the United States. The protest was organized by students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) and took place in Mexico City, the nation’s capital. Through their language and style, as scholars Luis Alvarez and Catherine Ramírez have illustrated, pachucos and pachucas resisted an Anglo-Saxon American identity and formed an imagined community outside of World War II American nationalism.

Deputy Sheriff Bartley Brown of East Los Angeles inspects the haircut of prisoner  Alex “Largo” Rodriguez, who is wearing an $85.00 zoot suit, 1943. / Young zoot suiters in a jail cell following the Zoot Suit Riots
[Left] Deputy Sheriff Bartley Brown of East Los Angeles inspects the haircut of prisoner Alex “Largo” Rodriguez, who is wearing an $85.00 zoot suit, 1943. | Photo: Courtesy of the Associated Press.

The Zoot Suit Riots then can be read as a battle over the place of pachuco culture in the United States. However, the protest by UNAM students demonstrates that the riots also sparked a conversation about the place of Mexican American zoot suiters in the Mexican nation. Mexican journalists eagerly covered the riots and offered their interpretations and analysis of Mexican American youth culture, while the Mexican government tried to figure out how to navigate and respond to the United States, their World War II ally. This debate spread and went on to include prominent intellectuals, such as Octavio Paz, and perhaps most visually important, Mexico’s performers and actors: those charged with making Mexico laugh. In dressing up and performing as pachucos, Donato, Roberto Soto and Germán Valdés articulated their ideas about the cultural boundaries of the Mexican nation. 

Just days after the Zoot Suit Riots, the comedians Donato and Roberto Soto "El Panzón Soto” (“The Fat Soto”) dressed up as pachucos and performed their shows “Qué rechulo es mi tarzán” (“How Handsome is my Tarzan”) and “El máximo pachuco” (“The Main Pachuco") at the Follies Bergere and Lirico Theaters in Mexico City. Like other popular comedians, Donato and Soto relied on current events and controversies to construct their skits. Josephus Daniels, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 1933 to 1941, referred to Soto as “the Will Rogers of Mexico” and noted that he often took jabs at Mexican politicians. Now, they took aim at Mexican American zoot suiters. While available primary sources make it difficult to reconstruct their acts, we know that they used the stereotypical word pocho to advertise their shows. During the 1940s, this was a derogatory term, one that was often used to define children of migrants who resided in the United States. A pocho was someone who was unable to speak Spanish and was ashamed of being Mexican. In his memoir, José Vasconcelos referenced those he deemed traitors to the Mexican nation — as a result of their proximity to the U.S. — as pochas, the feminine form of pocho. From their respective stages, these Mexican comedians identified pachucos as pochos and used their performances to criticize pachucos’ language, fashion, and culture.

Germán Valdés "Tin Tan" as a pachuco

Germán Valdés, better known as Tin Tan, arrived in Mexico City after Donato and Soto performed as pachucos and after the city’s newspaper covered the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots. While he was not the first Mexican comedian to perform as a Mexican American zoot suiter, he is Mexico’s most famous and celebrated pachuco. In an interview conducted in 1968, he reflected on the origins of pachuquismo in Mexico and his arrival to Mexico City. He differentiated himself from other popular comedians by making claims to his own authenticity:

“Well, yes… I would say, yes. The pachucos who were here like The Fat Soto, [Adalberto Martínez] Resortes, etc, lacked the peculiar touch. I brought the true way of speaking, the real clothing, the chain for the keys, the feather for the hat, the baggy pants, the large suit jacket, etc.”

While the attire was significant, the most important difference between Valdés and comedians like Soto and Donato was the former’s proximity to Mexican American culture. The trajectory of Valdés’ transformation into the iconic Tin Tan begins along the U.S.-Mexico borderlands of the 1930s and 1940s. Although born in Mexico City in 1915, his family moved to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua in 1931. It was in this border town that Germán spent his youth and became part of what Chicano and Chicana historians label, the “Mexican American generation.” Like his peers, Germán listened to, enjoyed, and took part in the music and fashions of the time. In particular, the cultural repertoire and ethos of pachucos.

Donato performance announced in Mexican newspaper Excelsior, June 26
Ad in Mexican newspaper, the Excélsior, announces a performance by entertainer Donato.

Valdés' days performing as a pachuco began at the radio station La XEJ de Juárez. While fixing cables one day, Valdés, in a joking manner and thinking no one was listening, imitated the Mexican bolero (romantic ballad) singer Agustín Lara. This innocuous gesture impressed his boss and resulted in Valdés’ entrance onto the airwaves as “Topillo Tapas.” On the daily radio program titled “El Barco de la ilusión” (“The Boat of Illusion”), Topillo Tapas sang, performed sketches and mixed English and Spanish for a Mexican and Mexican American audience. 

In July 1943, the Paco Miller Company, a vaudeville-like group composed predominately of Mexican performers, took the stage at the Colón Theater in El Paso, Texas. Paco Miller, the main attraction and director of the group, invited Valdés to join them on their tour through California and Mexico. Valdés continued to play the role of a “pachuco,” now joined by his carnal (brother from another mother) Marcelo Chavéz. When the group arrived in Mexico City, Paco Miller decided to change Valdés’ stage name. Miller borrowed the name “Tin Tan” from Juan Muñoz Leyva, a Chilean radio star, who was known as “El niño de tin tan” because he concluded his monologues by using a glass filled with water to produce the sound: “tin tan.” With a new stage name and his side-kick, Marcelo, Tin Tan took Mexico City by storm.

Shortly after his Mexico City debut, Tin Tan was hired to work at the radio station XEW. This station was home to Mexico’s most important celebrities and played an important role in launching many of Mexico’s most famous actors into stardom. Indeed, after only two years in the capital, Tin Tan played the lead role in the film, “El hijo desobediente" (“The Disobedient Son,” 1945). The film shares in many of the cinematic techniques and strategies of other films of the era with a plot that advances via a love story and a case of confused identity. The colloquial use of language, common to other cinema from this period, provides humor and a tool with which the protagonist is able to outwit his foes. Yet, “El hijo desobedienteis distinct in its use of the pachuco as its protagonist and in its ability to utilize Tin Tan’s strengths. For instance, Tin Tan uses words like simón (slang for “yes”) to confuse a judge (the judge assumed simón was the name of a person, ie, “Simon”).  He also mimics famous singers and inserts pachucos into iconic Mexican ranchero songs including the title song, “El hijo desobediente.” By changing the two protagonists of the song from mancebos (youth) to pachucos, Tin Tan made pachucos synonymous with any “disobedient” youth. The film concludes with Tin Tan performing with Marcelo (his carnal) at an upscale restaurant; his father and girlfriend sit in the audience. In the end, Tin Tan gets the girl, wins the approval of his father, and, with the help of his sidekick, fulfills his dream of becoming a musician. Tin Tan would go onto to appear in 90 films, most without the pachuco persona. Despite this fact, Tin Tan’s iconic status is inextricable from the pachuco identity he established early in his career. 

While Tin Tan is similar to many film actors from the mid-20th century, the manner in which Mexicans incorporate his films, songs, phrases and use of language, as well as his fashion sensibilities into everyday cultural expression makes him distinct. In various dance halls throughout Mexico City, for instance, older Mexican men dress up in zoot suits; many purchase their two-tone shoes and zoot outfits from a pachuco clothing and shoe store in Tepito, a working-class neighborhood in the capital. If you ask them how Mexican American zoot suit culture arrived in Mexico City, they’ll point to Tin Tan. 

Valdés’ transformation into the Mexican icon Tin Tan is a result of various intersecting cultural, social and historical contexts. Growing up along the U.S.-Mexico border, he joined the sons of Mexican migrants in forming the “Mexican American generation” and participated in a youth culture that was shaped by Mexican, American, and African American cultural practices. Like his fellow Mexican actors, he transitioned from popular theater to film, sang classic Mexican songs, used language creatively to outwit his foes, and benefited from a rising and robust Mexican radio and film industry. Yet, unlike other Mexican icons from this time period, Tin Tan did not represent an idealized rural past, a heroic masculine persona, or an unadulterated Mexican national type. His pachuco persona instead symbolized movement out of the nation. By combining English and Spanish, on one hand, and African American as well as Anglo American cultural practices, on the other, he grounded Mexican identity not in an imagined, “purified” and heroic past, but rather in its hybrid present, one set along its linguistic, cultural and national borders.


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