The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Ramírez’s book restores pachucas to history and also provides astute analysis of the role of cultural production in emerging political formations. It is an excellent accomplishment and a superb model of truly interdisciplinary history.” - Nan Enstad, American Historical Review

“[A] serious must-read for United States cultural historians—one of my favorites from last year.” - Tenured Radical blog

“This unique, important book comes out swinging and packs a punch. In pithy prose Ramírez reassesses pachucas—everyday, working-class female zoot suiters, and la pachuca—iconographic, symbolic figure. . . . With an ear for language and an eye for fashion, the author validates the legacy of once vilified women who shook up the status quo with panache, impudence, insolence, insouciance, and insubordination.” - Anthony Macías, American Studies

“In her engaging and insightful book, Catherine Ramírez provides the first comprehensive, full-length study of the Mexican American woman zoot suiter or pachuca. . . . Overall, Ramírez provides a masterful reading of cultural texts and their representations of pachucas. . . . Provocative and important, Ramírez adds a highly notable contribution to race, gender, and ethnic studies scholarship.” - Elizabeth R. Escobedo, Western Historical Quarterly

“Ramírez presents the unique history of the Mexican American Pachuca, whose situation takes into account the religious, gender, and non-U.S.-born ramifications that they inherited. Not only did they have to fight against the politics of a racist, sexist society alongside the Pachucos, but they also had to fight the misogynistic politics of their brethren from within. Ramírez presents a well documented and informative work on the Pachuca, thus helping to bring us out of our culturally-induced slumber. “ - Olupero R. Aiyenimelo, Feminist Review blog

“It's a compelling look at the politics of style and the resistance enacted when young women of color refused to be invisible to mainstream culture.” - Erica Lies, Bitch Magazine

“In this engaging and perceptive book, Catherine S. Ramírez locates Mexican American women zoot suiters (pachucas) in wartime zoot-suit culture and the cultural politics of Chicano nationalism. This original study provides a new cultural lens for envisioning the network of social relationships, identifications, and symbolic investments gathered around the historical figure of the pachuca.”—Rosa-Linda Fregoso, author of MeXicana Encounters: The Making of Social Identities on the Borderlands

“Powerful and innovative, The Woman in the Zoot Suit will serve as a foundational text for future studies on culture, race, gender, and sexuality. Catherine S. Ramírez expertly reveals the complexities of pachuca identity, the extent of Mexican American women zoot suiters’ representation in and engagement with popular culture and mainstream media, and, ultimately, the ways that these young women disrupted dominant notions of U.S., Mexican American, and Chicana/o identity, nationalism, and family.”—Luis Alvarez, author of The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II

Publishers Weekly

This engrossing, unexpectedly timely study of the politics of cultural nationalism resurrects the hidden history of la pachuca, the female counterpart to the 1940s pachuco, the zoot suit-wearing Mexican-American hipster made notorious by two consecutive wartime flashpoints: 1942's Sleepy Lagoon case and 1943's Zoot Suit Riots. Ramírez (Through an East-West Gaze) builds on the best recent scholarship to argue that la pachuca's sexually charged and gender-ambiguous presence in WWII-era Los Angeles made her so fraught a figure of resistance to both dominant and ethnic norms of feminine behavior that she was difficult to incorporate in narratives shaping Latino identity. A generation later, a nascent Chicano movement re-appropriated the pejorative archetype of el pachuco as a symbol of rebellious pride but continued to vilify or ignore the female zoot-suiter-reflecting, the author contends, the entrenched patriarchal and traditional gender norms in Chicano and U.S. nationalism at large. A vital addition for those interested in American ethnic and cultural studies as well as studies of sexuality and visual culture, this book speaks forcefully to current Obama-era and post-Prop 8 debates over race, ethnicity, sexuality, patriotism and citizenship. (Feb.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822343035
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 1/16/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,298,508
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Catherine S. Ramírez is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Read an Excerpt


Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory


Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4286-1

Chapter One


It was the secret fantasy of every bato in or out of the Chicanada to put on a Zoot Suit and play the Myth más chucote que la chingada. LUIS VALDEZ, ZOOT SUIT

There was a time when we used to put our little zoot suits on. DEE CHÁVEZ

The lines from Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit quoted in the epigraph above are spoken by the narrator, El Pachuco, who opens the play by slashing the drop curtain, a giant facsimile of the front page of the Los Angeles Herald-Express. Dated June 3, 1943, the newspaper's headline blares, "ZOOT-SUITER HORDES INVADE LOS ANGELES. US NAVY AND MARINES ARE CALLED IN." From behind the oversized front page, El Pachuco emerges from the gash. Dressed in a complete zoot suit and with the torn newspaper in the background, he struts downstage-más chucote que la chingada (more pachuco-ish/ bad-ass than anyone else)-and begins his monologue.

The second epigraph comes via Delia "Dee" Chávez, a retired parole officer, avid golfer, wife, mother, and former zooterina. Dee was born in 1923 in El Paso to Mexican immigrant parents, the fifth of nine children, and raised in East Los Angeles. As a teenager, she, like many other young women and men of her generation, enjoyed listening and dancing to jazz. On weekends, she put on her gabardine zoot suit, which consisted of a long, "finger-tip" coat and full skirt that stopped at the knees, and used "rats" to pile her dark hair into a high bouffant. Then she and her friends headed to the Paramount Ballroom on Brooklyn Avenue, where, she told me, they danced the night away.

These epigraphs provide us with glimpses of the Mexican American zoot subculture, from the early 1940s to the Chicano movement. While Dee associated the zoot suit with jazz, dancing, and youthful exuberance and insouciance (as indicated, perhaps, by her use of the word "little"), for Valdez and many other writers, artists, and activists of the Chicano generation the zoot suit carried much deeper meaning: it signified a rich, oppositional, and distinctly Chicano identity.

Despite their differences, both epigraphs represent discursive interventions. From the start, Valdez's play foregrounds the pachuco's voice as it challenges "dominant regimes of representation," as depicted, for example, by William Randolph Hearst's Herald-Express. By ripping apart the newspaper's front page, El Pachuco dismisses an official account of the Zoot Suit Riots, insisting that the pachuco's "will to be ... elud[ed] all documentation." In this act of refusal, Zoot Suit wrests the tale of the Zoot Suit Riots, the Sleepy Lagoon incident and trial, and wartime Mexican American zoot subculture from the mainstream Angeleno press, law enforcement, and academia-institutions that colluded in pathologizing second-generation Mexican American youth beginning in the early 1940s-and retells it from the point of view of a homeboy, a young Chicano from L.A.'s 38th Street neighborhood.

Zoot Suit's fabulous opening serves as an apt symbol for Chicano cultural production in general. As a minority discourse, Chicano cultural production has often interrupted and, in many instances, refuted master narratives that exclude or disparage people of Mexican descent in the United States. Chicana and Chicano cultural workers have challenged and reshaped what the political theorist Wendy Brown describes as "the constant implication of power among us-its generation, distribution, circulation, and effects"-in other words, politics-by constructing and contesting "a world of meanings, practices, and institutions" via visual art, literature, drama, music, dance, and scholarship (to list just a few cultural forms). For example, Américo Paredes's "With His Pistol in His Hand" (1958), regarded by some as a foundational text of Chicano literature and literary studies, takes to task Walter Prescott Webb's unabashedly tendentious history The Texas Rangers (1935). Similarly, Alurista's poem "Pachuco Paz" (1972) responds to Octavio Paz's essay "The Pachuco and Other Extremes" (1961), which belittles the pachuco as a lost, confused, and self-contemptuous pocho (Americanized Mexican) who "does not want to become a Mexican again" but "does not want to blend into the life of North America" either. In contrast, "Pachuco Paz" opens with the affirmation that "we can all reach the point / of knowing ourselves / to be Mexicans in the north." Playing on the word paz, its title simultaneously confronts and calls a truce with the esteemed Mexican writer and statesman.

Like Valdez and Alurista, numerous Chicano and Chicana cultural workers have actively rejected dominant discourse on the Mexican American zooter. Although I acknowledge the value and significance of many of their works, one of my objectives in this book is to point out that some have relied heavily upon and reproduced gender and sexual norms as they have redefined el pachuco. In short, el pachuco's makeover from a helpless victim, ridiculous fool, clueless pocho, or diabolical menace to an icon of machismo, style, resistance, and cultural authority has not taken place in a cultural or social vacuum. Rather, it has occurred within a system of unequal power relations: a heteropatriarchy that privileges men and masculinity, circumscribes girls' and women's roles, demands heterosexuality, and punishes homosexuality.

In addition to recognizing what is gained by el pachuco's transformation into an icon and hero, this study seeks that which is lost. All too often, valorizations of el pachuco have taken place at the expense of those who are not male or appropriately masculine, such as pachucas. Within the bulk of movement-era Chicano cultural production, pachucas have received far less attention than their male counterparts, in great part because of the threat they pose to normative gender and sexuality. More recently, however, some scholars have begun to include women, including pachucas, in their discussions of the zoot subculture, the Zoot Suit Riots, the Sleepy Lagoon incident and trial, and the World War II period, a moment that is generally regarded as a watershed for Mexican Americans. A handful have even placed them at the center of their analyses and, in doing so, they have offered discursive interventions of their own.

This book seeks to add to this exciting body of scholarship, not only by foregrounding the roles Mexican American girls and women played in these important wartime events but also by examining the meanings these girls and women have ascribed to them, as well as to the zoot subculture and the figures of the pachuco and pachuca. Using archival sources and oral history, this chapter "domesticates" pachucas. That is, it reinserts them into narratives of Mexican American cultural identity, community, and history. To do so, it retells the tales of the Sleepy Lagoon incident and the Zoot Suit Riots, but this time with a focus on Mexican American women. It uncovers the ways in which these events prompted Mexican American women to redefine terms like "American," "Mexican American woman," and "pachuca," paying close attention to the ways they engaged the Angeleno press to do so. For evidence of their discursive interventions, I turn first to contemporary newspapers, then I draw upon interviews I conducted with eleven Mexican American women who were born between 1918 and 1937. These women, among them Dee Chávez, came of age in East Los Angeles during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, at the height of the zoot fad among Mexican American youths. Their observations represent a valuable contribution to discourse on the zoot subculture, for they reveal that not only batos (dudes) fantasized about or reveled in wearing zoot suits. Las rucas de la Chicanada (Chicana chicks) took pleasure and found meaning in doing so as well.

In this chapter, I focus on interviews with two women in particular, Dee Chávez and Mary López, because they underscore the gendered dimensions of citizenship-with "citizenship" referring not only to "one's legal relationship to a specific state" but, more broadly, "to an individual's membership in a collectivity." I treat Dee and Mary, both of whom wore the zoot look as young women in the early 1940s, as citizens of individual families, "la Chicanada" (Chicana/o community), and the United States of America. In other words, they are sisters, daughters, wives, mothers, Chicanas, and Americans. As my interviews with them show, these women were also consumers, workers, patriots, and critics of the nation-state and the institutions that produce and bolster it, such as the dominant press. By highlighting their myriad and contradictory positions, I hope to complicate la pachuca and to expose the breadth of pachuca identities.

A Return to Sleepy Lagoon

Within Chicano studies, World War II is generally regarded as a turning point for Mexican Americans. Two events that greatly define this moment are the Sleepy Lagoon incident of 1942 and Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. The former has been described in masculinist terms as "a boyish fight over a pretty girl" and a brawl involving "homeboys." Yet as a handful of scholars have recently shown, both young men and young women took part in what would turn out to be a very significant event in Mexican American history.

On the evening of August 1, 1942, a group of male and female youths, some of whom lived in the vicinity of nearby 38th Street, were attacked by another group of youths, identified in court records as "the Downey Boys," at Sleepy Lagoon, a reservoir near the intersection of Atlantic and Slauson Boulevards in southeastern Los Angeles. Smarting from the beating, the young men and women returned to the 38th Street neighborhood and, after calling upon more friends-male and female alike-some returned to Sleepy Lagoon, presumably seeking revenge. By then, the Downey Boys had departed. The youths noticed that there was a party at nearby Williams Ranch and headed there. A fight broke out immediately following their arrival. One participant recalled that "he heard women screaming and yelling ... he could see girls pulling hair." Another claimed that one of the uninvited guests attacked her sister: "he knocked her out and she fainted, and then after that there was just-everybody started fighting." Indeed, both middle-aged men and teenage girls took part in what court records describe as a "general 'free for all'" at the home of the Delgadillo family at Williams Ranch in the early hours of August 2, 1942. In the chaos, sixteen-year-old Betty Nuñez Zeiss and eighteen-year-old Dora Barrios came upon a wounded man lying in the dirt outside the Delgadillos' house. Twenty-two-year-old José Díaz had suffered a massive head injury and was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died without regaining consciousness. Descriptions of the Sleepy Lagoon incident as a homosocial affair involving "homeboys" exclusively are inaccurate and eclipse the participation of girls and women. Court records show that they participated in the brawls at Sleepy Lagoon and Williams Ranch. Two teenage girls had the misfortune of discovering José Díaz's battered body. Three, Dora Barrios, Lorena Encinas, and Frances Silva, were held as suspects in what was dubbed "the Sleepy Lagoon murder case." And numerous girls were picked up in the dragnet raids that took place in and around East Los Angeles on August 10 and 11, 1942. Ultimately, ten ranging in age from thirteen to twenty-one years were held as witnesses in the case. Several were forced to testify in court against their neighbors, friends, and boyfriends who found themselves defendants in People v. Zammora, and at least five were then sentenced to the Ventura School for Girls, a California Youth Authority correctional facility "infamous at the time for its draconian disciplinary measures." According to Alice Greenfield McGrath, executive secretary of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee (SLDC), the girls and young women were never tried or convicted but were "sent up to the Ventura School for Girls, just on the grounds of having consorted with bad company." Some remained wards of the state even after their male companions won their appeal and were released from prison in October 1944. For example, fifteen-year-old Juanita Gonzales entered the Ventura School in 1942 and was released and paroled the following year but remained a ward of the state until her twenty-first birthday in 1948-four years after the young men who stood trial in People v. Zammora were released from prison.

While the Sleepy Lagoon case catapulted a handful of Mexican American girls and women into the public eye as juvenile delinquents, it also mobilized many others as activists. Josefina Fierro de Bright was already a seasoned organizer when she helped to form the SLDC with LaRue McCormick of the International Labor Defense. In 1938, at the age of eighteen, she, along with Luisa Moreno, a labor leader, played a key role in establishing El Congreso del Pueblo de Habla Española, one of the first civil rights organizations for Latinas and Latinos in the United States. With Fierro de Bright presiding as executive secretary, El Congreso addressed a host of issues important to Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans, including police brutality and juvenile delinquency. The pressures of war forced it to fold by mid-1942, but according to Mario T. García, the SLDC grew out of "the remnants of El Congreso" and Fierro de Bright bridged the two organizations. Many of the parents of the defendants in People v. Zammora turned to her for aid in all likelihood because of the prominent role she had played in El Congreso. In addition to visiting the defendants in jail and attending their entire trial, she tapped her connections in the entertainment industry as she fundraised on behalf of the SLDC. (Her husband, John Bright, was a screenwriter and cofounder of the Screen Writers Guild of America.) With roots in what was then known as Los Angeles' "Mexican colony" and ties to Hollywood's Popular Front, Fierro de Bright served as an important link between the defendants' families and their supporters beyond the 38th Street neighborhood.

Lupe Leyvas played a similar role. After her older brother Henry was convicted for murder in People v. Zammora, she became a spokesperson for the SLDC. With Fierro de Bright's encouragement and guidance, the fifteen-year-old girl from the 38th Street neighborhood went from being, in the words of one observer, "a reluctant speaker" to "a very effective" and "helpful" orator who "made a big impression" at fundraisers and public meetings. Yet, even before her involvement in the SLDC, Lupe was familiar with acting as a spokesperson of sorts. Bilingual and bicultural, she often served as her immigrant parents' translator and proxy. "I didn't learn household chores," she informed me in an interview. Instead, she learned "where the light company was and the gas and how to write a check or how to do a money order." She recalled that she never failed to accompany her mother and the other defendants' mothers to court, where she took notes and translated on their behalf.

At the courthouse, McCormick approached the teenage girl and requested that she call a meeting of the defendants' mothers. The guilty verdict had just been announced, Lupe recollected, and the mothers were distraught and at a loss as to what to do next. At the meeting, which was held at the home of Margaret Telles, whose own son Robert was one of the defendants, McCormick and Fierro de Bright informed them about the appeal process and also instructed them to organize fundraisers, such as dances, to help pay for legal fees. Lupe remembered that these dances were a multigenerational effort: the mothers prepared and sold food, young men volunteered as security guards, and everyone paid admission at the door. In short, "we all went to the dance." Meanwhile, Telles sold copies of Guy Endore's 1944 pamphlet The Sleepy Lagoon Mystery to help raise money. Like Lupe, she was bilingual and served as a spokesperson for the SLDC. (Continues...)

Excerpted from THE WOMAN IN THE ZOOT SUIT by CATHERINE S. RAMÍREZ Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xxi

A Note on Terminology xxv

Introduction: A Genealogy of Vendidas 1

1 Domesticating the Pachuca 25

2 Black Skirts, Dark Slacks, and Brown Knees: Pachuca Style and Spectacle during World War II 55

3 Saying "Nothin'": Pachucas and the Languages of Resistance 83

4 La Pachuca and the Excesses of Family and Nation 109

Epilogue: Homegirls Then and Now, from the Home Front to the Front Line 137

Notes 149

Bibliography 197

Index 225

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