Zoot Suiter

If the pachuca is absent from this and other iconic images of 1940s Mexican Americans… the male Mexican American constructed context of the Zoot Suit Riots is unmistakably heterosexual. And yet the fashion system of the pachucos, one that insists on adorning and drawing attention to the racialized male body, indeed making it an object of desire, problematizes the normalizing impulse that underlies such a construction.

Robert McKee Irwin & Jonathan Alcántar
UC Davis

LAPD and Pachuco

Why is this policeman touching this Mexican American zoot suiter in this particular way? (Associated Press 6/7/43)

This iconic photograph of the Zoot Suit Riots of the summer of 1943 portrays a Los Angeles deputy sheriff’s arrest of pachuco Alex “Largo” Rodrígiuez. From the late 1930s, and increasingly in the early 1940s, Mexican American youth of Los Angeles began participating ever more visibly in public life. The “zoot suits” (baggy pants, oversized jacket, adornments such as long key chains, thick soled shoes, pork pie hats) worn by young Mexican American men as a form of youthful self-expression and rebellion stood out and called attention to this group’s difference from the mainstream (whether Anglophone or Mexican American), and provoked discomfort in an era, World War II, in which many believed national unity to be essential. Press campaigns against zoot suiters, or pachucos, in Los Angeles fueled an image of young Mexican Americans as juvenile delinquents, and stirred up mostly white servicemen stationed in Los Angeles, who saw these extravagant displays of fashion as unpatriotic. Indeed, wartime rationing of wool made the fabrication of zoot suits illegal, relegating the industry to black markets. Pachucos, with their iconic dress, their code switching slang, and their generally defiant attitude, drew attention to the bicultural way of life in California in an era of jingoism and xenophobia. With the United States at war with Japan, Japanese Americans were deemed a threat to national security and interned in concentration camps. Mexico was an ally of the United States, and had even declared war on Germany, Japan and Italy in 1942; however, Mexican Americans, particularly those assuming such an idiosyncratic style, were seen with great suspicion. Following the Sleepy Lagoon scandal: the death of a young Mexican American, José Díaz, in the summer of 1942, for which 22 Mexican American youths were charged with murder (a dozen would be found guilty, then acquitted later, on appeal), Los Angeles police increasingly harassed Mexican American zoot suiters, and the press repeatedly demonized them. The anti-Mexican sentiment generated by the negative publicity, emphasized that Mexican Americans looked different than “white” Americans and that they resisted assimilation into mainstream US cultural practices. In wartime, this image met with xenophobic reactions, culminating in a series of confrontations in late May and early June of 1943 in which pachucos were assaulted by US servicemen, to which the LAPD responded by cracking down on zoot suiters, in some cases stripping them of their zoot suits. These confrontations eventually escalated into all out riots, which were only calmed when the Los Angeles City Council voted to ban zoot suits, and the Navy and Marines prohibited their men from leaving their barracks.

The pachucos were represented in a negative light in Mexico, as well. Octavio Paz, in his seminal essay on Mexican culture, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), described pachucos as confused adolescents, rejecting their Mexican roots, while refusing to assimilate into the US mainstream. However, Mexican comic actor Tin Tan (Germán Valdés) used pachucos as a model for his radio, stage and screen persona. With the blockbuster success of Calabacitas tiernas in 1949, Tin Tan became one of the Mexican film industry’s most reliable superstars in the last years of its “golden age” – and the incorporation of the pachuco into the repertoire of Mexican cinema constitutes the first major influence of Mexican American culture back on that of the mother country.

In the United States, the Zoot Suit Riots have been interpreted as a moment of politicization. The racialization and demonization of Mexican Americans, and the implications of the fact that the assaults on the zoot suiters were realized not only by the Los Angeles police but also by members of the US military clarified the marginalized position of Mexican Americans in the 1940s United States, and sowed the seeds for the rise of the Chicano movement a generation later.

However, that very movement, in its own early formulations of identity politics, served to construct the historical moment of the Zoot Suit riots in a particular way, even as it rescued them from the oblivion to which they were relegated by mainstream Anglophone history’s exclusionary practices. Drawing on the news stories and public controversy that fueled the conflicts of the early 1940s, pachucos like Alex Rodríguez and the 22 defendants of the Sleepy Lagoon case were cast as protagonists not of a criminal and antinational rebellion, but in a history of ethnic struggle, Chicano warriors in a major skirmish in a war with the white Anglophone mainstream: a history of great men, in which women played no part. Despite the curiosity on the part of the mainstream press regarding female zoot suiters, pachucas have, until recently, been excluded from Chicanos’ own revisionary history of the era. However, while few Mexican American female youth wore zoot suits, the equally flamboyant fashion of the pachucas of the era constituted its own rebellion, challenging not only mainstream US culture’s norms, but those of the very patriarchal Mexican American community, as well. A later historical revision would be required to rescue the role of young Mexican American women in the era of the pachucos in establishing and legitimizing Mexican American ethnic culture as a minority culture of the United States.

If the pachuca is absent from this and other iconic images of 1940s Mexican Americans (others might include movie posters of the film Zoot Suit, or the Hermanos Mayo photographs of early braceros), the male Mexican American constructed context of the Zoot Suit Riots is unmistakably heterosexual. And yet the fashion system of the pachucos, one that insists on adorning and drawing attention to the racialized male body, indeed making it an object of desire, problematizes the normalizing impulse that underlies such a construction. In a patriarchal society in which desire is understood to be specifically masculine, the representation of a male who is exotically attractive always implies the possibility of homosexual desire for that male body. Is the police officer in the photo checking the length of Largo’s ducktail, or his he taking advantage of the subjected state of his exotically attractive young captive in order to caress him – evoking the case of high profile Arizona sheriff Paul Babeu, a conservative republican involved in Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, whose own public anti-immigrant stance did not deter him from taking on an allegedly undocumented Mexican immigrant male lover? The pachuco, in effect, also represented the US’s own localized version of the sexually attractive Latin male, well known to Hollywood film viewers as the “Latin lover.” The Latin lover, whose best known contemporary manifestation was likely Cuban American actor César Romero, star of such recent pictures as The Return of the Cisco Kid (1939) along with several other installments in this popular series, Week-End in Havana (1941) in which he starred with the indomitable “Brazilian bombshell” Carmen Miranda, and Tall, Dark and Handsome (1941), was a well-known Hollywood archetype, but one typically constructed as distinctly foreign. Thus, Monte Blanca, the character represented by Romero in Week-End in Havana is clearly Cuban, just as Rudolph Valentino’s Juan Gallardo (Blood and Sand, 1922) and other similar Latin lover characters were exotically foreign (in this case Spanish). The pachucos, portrayed in the 1940s paradoxically as both dangerously masculine and suspiciously effeminate, were in a sense a variation on the theme of the well dressed, dark and elegant Latin lover.

This idea of the sexually attractive pachuco was indeed taken up in Spanish American popular culture of the era, most notably in the song “Sólido, Joaquín,” recorded in Los Angeles by the chanteuse Dacita and her Orchestra a few years later. An upbeat swing number, its lyrics, sung in a playful tone by Dacita, a Puerto Rican who was popular in California, honor Joaquín as a “Latin lover” who “the girls […] adore”: “he has them swooning, he drives them loony.” “Joaquín” had long been the Mexican American everyman, well known in legend, literature, and corridos ever since the gold rush (often as Joaquin Murieta, or more properly Joaquín Murrieta), and would a generation later become the heroic symbol of the Chicano civil rights movement. Just as the pachuco assumed this role in Teatro Campesino’s emblematic “Zoot Suit” (1978), Joaquín took on an explicitly politicized role for the Chicano movement through Corky Gonzales’s poem “Yo Soy Joaquín/I Am Joaquin” (1967).

The representation of the pachuco as a sexually attractive fantasy lover, of course, does not make him gay. However, it does serve to provoke a desire for the Mexican American not only among women, but among gay men. And the sexual ambivalence of the Latin lover figure – always elegant, suave, somewhat feminized – is in the end reflected in the homosexuality of another Hollywood produced Latin lover, this one the Mexican born Ramón Novarro, star of silent films such as Ben-Hur (1925), who had been promoted as Valentino’s rival, and indeed became Hollywood’s most prominent Latin lover in the late 1920s, following Valentino’s death.

The newly visible role of young Mexican Americans through the Zoot Suit riots also paved the way for the rise to fame a few years later of Ritchie Valens, who rose up from el barrio to become a rock star as a teenager in the late 1950s with his hit records “Donna” and “La Bamba” of 1958-59. Although he did not wear a zoot suit, Valens did maintain the ducktail hairstyle popularized by the zoot suiters, and became, along with Danny Flores of The Champs (“Tequila” 1958), the first in a string of Mexican American mainstream rock stars that would also include Rosie (Hamlin) and the Originals (“Angel Baby” 1960-61), Cannibal (Frankie García) and the Headhunters (“Land of 1000 Dances” 1964-65), Sam the Sham (Domingo Samudio) and the Pharaohs (“Wooly Bully” 1965), ? (Rudy Martínez) and the Mysterians(“96 Tears” 1966) and the more cleancut Trini López, whose success with “If I Had a Hammer” in 1963 led to long term mainstream success, as also occurred with Vikki Carr, who launched her career with “He’s a Rebel” in 1962 and whose breakthrough hit “It Must Be Him” (1967) got her own TV variety show in 1968. While not all their fans were aware of these artists’ ethnicity, the pachucos had clearly set the stage for Mexican Americans in fact to enter the mainstream of US youth culture.

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