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Pachucos: Not Just Mexican-American Males or Juvenile Delinquents

Zoot Suit rioters acquitted, 1944 (primary)
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Alba Barrios, Francis Silva, and Lorena Encinas, held in prison in connection with slaying during the Zoot suit period, 1942.
From left to right: Alba Barrios, Francis Silva, and Lorena Encinas, held in prison in connection with "slaying during the zoot suit period," 1942. | Photo: Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

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.


Much attention was brought to pachuco culture in Los Angeles as a result of the Sleepy Lagoon incident of 1942, the Sleepy Lagoon trial that concluded in early 1943, and the Zoot Suit Riots of mid-1943. These incidents popularized a perception of pachuco culture that associated its participants with wearing zoot suits, jazz music, juvenile delinquency, a lack of patriotism, swing dancing, and Mexican American youth. That is not to say that this description accurately depicts what pachuco culture was in Southern California during World War II, but rather that these topics were spread by the mainstream press of the time and influenced a popular understanding of the culture.

There are relatively few sources documenting how participants of pachuco culture at the time characterized themselves. Based on research one can learn that they were not unpatriotic because they also served in the U.S. military before, during, or after their involvement with pachuco culture. In fact, as many as half a million Latinos served in the U.S. military during World War II, including some who were pachucos, and others who learned about pachuco culture from fellow Latino soldiers in the U.S. Armed Services.

Hands of gang members. Four prisoners at the Chicago County Jail display tattoos like the markings worn by some Pachucos, 1954.
Four inmates at the Chicago county jail display tattoos. Seventeen prisoners at the jail were found to have similar tattoo and ink markings after more than 250 prisoners were examined. One of them admitted to being a pachuco, 1954.  | Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

From research, we also learn that there were additional characteristics associated with pachuco culture, such as the dialects of pachuco caló and African American jive; the custom of wearing a tattoo of the shining cross between the thumb and index finger; and marijuana use, among other lesser known traits.

A discussion of caló and jive helps us begin to break down the common essentializing of pachuco culture. Male and female participants of the culture did not always identify with being a pachuco, or if she/he did, it was most often a temporary identity that was shed after adolescence. This can be compared to being a “skater,” for example. There are certain material objects, lifestyle, and values that are popularly associated with the culture but not all that participate primarily identify as such, there is a lot of variety among those that do identify, and only the dedicated few stick with the identity label for life. The history of the skateboard is also independent of the history of skater culture, as such, the history of pachuco culture is made up of histories for each of the characteristics associated with the culture. For example, the history of the zoot suit is different from the history of pachuco culture, so is the history of caló, the tattoo of the cross, jive, swing music, and the other associations with pachuco culture. It just so happens that all these historical trajectories came together in a unique way in Los Angeles during World War II. Because of Sleepy Lagoon and the Zoot Suit Riots, this unique intersection of histories was photographed, written about, and popularized in a way that froze in time a culture that was actually evolving and expanding.

A pachuco and a pachuca, 1944.
[Left] A young man named Frank wears his "drapes," a variation on the zoot suit style, 1944. | Photo: Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library/Shades of L.A. Collection 

A number of historians of pachuquismo point out that pachucos in Los Angeles spoke more of the jive slang associated with African Americans than the caló associated with pachucos. They also referred to their zoot suits as “drapes” instead of “tacuches.” As a response to this, one might ask, why would that be? Well again, this has to do with the independent histories of jive and caló.

The Spanish-speaking population of Los Angeles had grown exponentially during the 1920s but had been cut drastically during the 1930s as a result of repatriation — an effort by U.S. governments, mostly at the county level, to scare and pressure Mexicans and Mexican Americans to “repatriate” to Mexico during the early 1930s. As many as half a million left the U.S. for Mexico during this period. This resulted in a Mexican American generation that came of age in the 1940s with less of a Spanish-speaking influence. Before WWII, jazz was primarily associated with African Americans who provided a subcultural alternative to white American mainstream customs that Mexican Americans were regularly denied. Some Mexican Americans embraced this African American subculture in their own way, this meant adopting jazz, zoot suits, and jive.

The ‘black widow’ girls gang, shown as they prepared to get into police car, 1942.
Girls, asserted members of what police officials described as the "black widow girls’ gang," shown as they prepared to get into a police car, 1942. | Photo: Jack A. Herod, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

Caló has a very different history. For starters, caló was neither entirely invented by pachucos, nor was it a form of slang used exclusively by pachucos. While Mexican Americans use the word to refer to the slang used by pachucos, in Mexican Spanish “caló" simply means “slang.” There is regional slang/caló for different sections of Mexico, such as the slang from Mexico City or Juarez. While pachucos did invent many new words for their particular form of caló, there were also many others that were borrowed from other forms of working-class Mexican caló. The pachuco word for shoes, calcos, for example, has been traced back historically to the zincaló slang of the gypsies in Spain prior to coming to the Americas. Both before and after the 1940s, many caló words were also familiar to both pachucos and nonpachucos in Mexican and Mexican American neighborhoods on both sides of the border. Also, pachuco caló was a form of slang that borrowed from the English and Spanish languages, as well as their corresponding slang versions.

This brings us back to the question regarding why pachucos in Los Angeles seemed to speak more jive than pachuco caló. It is because Mexican Americans in Los Angeles were greatly influenced by other groups in the U.S. compared to the Mexicans that were more recent arrivals to Los Angeles, especially from the border area of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Border cities have a greater degree of language mixture (something akin to Spanglish) than cities further inland as well. At that time, El Paso was the primary point of entry for Mexicans into the U.S. The slang name of El Paso was “El Chuco.” Many Mexicans would cross into the U.S. and go to El Chuco, or in Spanish slang, “Pa’l Chuco.” When young Mexican Americans took trains along the Southern Pacific railroad, through Tucson, Arizona, to Los Angeles for wartime employment opportunities, they were referred to as pachucos. They brought their form of border Spanglish to Los Angeles with them. Mexican American zoot suiters native to Los Angeles spoke more jive; migrants from El Paso spoke pachuco caló with more of a Spanish-language and Spanish slang influence. This is also why when reporters asked Mexican citizens, after the Zoot Suit Riots, where pachucos had come from, many said they came from El Paso.

African American teens in zoot suits.
African American teens in zoot suits, 1943. | Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

The history of the zoot suit is similarly complex. Pachucos wore zoot suits prior to and during World War II but they did not invent them, nor did they wear them exclusively. Zoot suits were first worn by African American jazz musicians that toured around the country. Jazz aficionados popularized them by wearing them to dances and they grew widespread from there. In Los Angeles, they were worn by African Americans, Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans, and ethnic whites including Italian Americans and Jewish Americans, among others.

The tattoo of the cross seems to have originated in southern Arizona among Native American Yoeme (Yaqui) pachucos. They had traditional indigenous practices that made use of the shining cross on ceremonial masks. Yoeme pachucos have been recognized as among the first to tattoo the shining cross on their hand and/or face. They too jumped on the trains coming from El Paso en route to Los Angeles and brought that cultural influence with them that came to be associated with pachuquismo.

Zoot suit rioters/pachucos acquitted, 1944.
Zoot suit rioters celebrate after being acquitted, October 26, 1944. | Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

During World War II some pachucos in Los Angeles became involved in early forms of street gangs and lowriding. Since the zoot suit was interpreted as unpatriotic by the mainstream, and its wearers were attacked during the riots as a result, after the riots many pachucos in Los Angeles stopped wearing zoot suits and began to incorporate aspects of the army uniform instead. As a symbolic way to demonstrate their patriotism, they began to shave their heads like men in military basic training, instead of sporting the pachuco long haired “ducktail.” They also started wearing khaki pants and shirts with white undershirts similar to young men in the Army.  Other former participants of pachuco culture simply outgrew the trend, getting full-time jobs, and raising a family. Others became hardened by the experience of being targeted for violence by the police and rioters, and they became further entrenched in street gangs. Some of the oldest Mexican American street gangs were started by pachucos in Los Angeles at this time. Many others found pastimes in sports (especially baseball and boxing). Employment associated with fixing cars and customization resulted in another cultural branch of pachuco culture. And although lowriding grew in popularity in the 1970s, its origins can be traced to the pachucos of the 1940s.

Pachuco culture is often represented by a definition that omits its complexities. Pachucos did not wear a uniform. The zoot suits they wore were not identical: some were homemade and others tailored, some were in bright colors and others modest, some had contrasting measurements between shoulders, waist, knees, and ankles and others had more traditional dimensions. Participants of pachuco culture were not just male, youth, Mexican American, or juvenile delinquents. Pachuco culture is not static. Each aspect has a history of its own and it continues to evolve even after the World War II era.

Humberto Sandoval, "(ASCO) Still from Sr. Tereshkova," 1975.
Humberto Sandoval, "Still from Sr. Tereshkova," 1975. Sepia tone image on paper. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Top image: Zoot suit rioters celebrate after being acquitted, October 26, 1944. | Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

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