Pachucos / Pachucas

Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society. Editor: Richard T Schaefer. Volume 2, Sage Publications, 2008.

Pachucos were young Mexican American men and pachucas were young Mexican American women affiliated with pachuquismo, a youth subculture of the 1940s and 1950s. Many pachucos and pachucas were the children of immigrants from Mexico and hailed from the working class.

Identifying features of pachuquismo include the zoot suit and a vernacular known as pachuco slang or caló. The masculine version of the zoot suit often consisted of a long coat, billowing trousers that tapered at the ankle, a long watch chain that sometimes extended from the waist to the calves, and a pair of thick-soled shoes. Some pachucos combed their hair in a ducktail and punctuated their ensembles with a broad-brimmed hat. The feminine version of the zoot suit was usually composed of a skirt that fell to or above the knees and a sweater or long coat. Pachucas frequently wore dark lipstick and inserted foam “rats” into their hair to lift it into a high bouffant. Some also lightened their hair with peroxide. In addition, some pachucos and pachucas sported a tattoo between the thumb and index finger depicting a small cross with lines radiating above it. Both the masculine and feminine versions of the zoot look represented a distortion, if not a repudiation, of White and middle-class aesthetics.

The geographical origins of pachuquismo are not known precisely. Some claim that the subculture began in El Paso, Texas, and spread as Mexicans and Mexican Americans migrated from, or by way of, Texas to California and other parts of the U.S. Southwest during the first half of the 20th century. Likewise, the exact origin of the zoot suit is unclear, but the African American jazz vocalist Cab Calloway wore the ensemble at his performances during the 1930s. By the early 1940s, the masculine and feminine versions of the zoot suit were popular among young U.S. residents of various races and ethnicities and were associated with jazz and the jitterbug dance craze. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, French youth known as les zazous adopted a look similar to that of U.S. zoot-suiters. After World War II, the look spread to youth in Britain.

During World War II, a period of social homogenization, enforced rationing, and increased class and physical mobility, the zoot suit emerged as a symbol of conspicuous consumption and working-class style in the United States. Its wearers, many of whom were young men and women of color, were accused of being unpatriotic for flaunting their newfound spending power and donning the flamboyant costume. In addition, the zoot suit became a hallmark of juvenile delinquency even though most of its wearers were not criminals or members of formal gangs. In particular, it came to be associated with Mexican American and African American juvenile delinquency.

The zoot suit was linked explicitly to Mexican American youth during the Sleepy Lagoon investigation and trial and the Zoot Suit Riots. Although Mexican American youth gangs were identified as a social problem as early as the 1920s, they began to receive national and international attention with these two events. The Sleepy Lagoon incident, which took place in August 1942, involved an alleged gang fight and murder at a swimming hole in Los Angeles. Twenty-one young Mexican American men and one young White man were tried and convicted en masse in what at the time was the largest criminal trial in California history. Meanwhile, several of their female companions were sentenced to the Ventura School for Girls, a reformatory. In the police investigation that led to the boys’ trial, Captain Edward Duran Ayres of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department argued that Mexican Americans, by virtue of their Aztec blood, were intrinsically more violent than and, therefore, biologically inferior to White Americans. Ironically, as the United States combated biological racism overseas, the Ayres report blatantly espoused biological determinism. Furthermore, it equated Mexicans with “Orientals” and, by extension, the Japanese enemy. Like Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans transcended the putative Black–White binary of U.S. racial identity. As racial and cultural hybrids, they represented a threatening alien ambiguity during a period of heightened xenophobia, jingoism, and paranoia.

The Zoot Suit Riots occurred in Los Angeles in June 1943, nearly a year after the Sleepy Lagoon incident. During the riots, White servicemen hunted and attacked zoot-clad youth and young people of color, often regardless of their attire. When servicemen apprehended zoot-suiters, they sometimes stripped them of their clothing and cut their hair, thereby destroying what some U.S. residents regarded as un-American or even anti-American symbols.

Like the zoot suit, pachuco slang is a prominent and identifiable characteristic of pachuquismo and marker of racial and class difference. Some scholars maintain that it originated in medieval Spain among Gypsies. In both the Old World and New World, it has been linked to criminals and the underclass. Pachuco words and expressions are often associated with street smarts and la vida loca (the gang life, literally “the crazy life”).

Frequently regarded as pachucos’ and pachucas’ heirs, cholos and cholas were late 20th-century Mexican American street youth or gang members. Well before the 20th century, the pejorative cholo referred to a poor Indian or mestizo, and during World War II mainstream newspapers in Los Angeles disparaged pachucas as cholitas. Although the style of clothing and hair of late 20th-century cholos and cholas differed from that of the pachucos and pachucas of the 1940s and 1950s, some remnants of the zoot look persisted. For example, some cholas teased their hair into high bouffants, lightened it with peroxide, and wore dark lipstick.

By and large, pachucos, pachucas, cholos, and cholas have been denigrated as hoodlums. Pachucas and cholas have also been vilified as both morally and sexually loose. However, during the Chicano movement of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, various writers and artists transformed the pachuco and cholo into icons of Chicano pride and style. The pachuco, in particular, was upheld as a symbol of Chicano resistance, biculturality, and U.S. identity, as evidenced by the subtitle of Luis Valdez’s celebrated 1978 play, Zoot Suit: An American Play. In the arts and social sciences, the pachuca and chola have received far less attention than have their male counterparts.