Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pachucos y Pachucas

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.

Who were the pachucos and pachucas? There is a store on Harbor Boulevard in Fullerton that sells zoot suits. What is/was that style all about? In his book Orange County Through Four centuries, Leo J. Friis has this to say about the pachucos:

"Orange County pachucos were of Mexican descent. Traveling in gangs, they made savage, surprise attacks upon defenseless persons with bicycle chains, knives, ice picks and homemade blackjacks. They first gained notoreity in the county on November 15, 1942, when a group raided a small community meeting at Colonia Independencia, seriously beating and stabbing three men as well as smashing the windows our of parked automobiles."

So, according to Friis, the pachucos were ruthless gang members. However, having read considerable history about discrimination and bias against Mexican Americans, I suspected that his account does not tell the full story, and I was right.

In her book The Woman in the Zoot Suit, Cathering S. Ramirez tells a very different story. Here is her account of the infamous "Zoot Suit Riots" in Los Angeles:

"During the riots, white servicemen, some of whom were accompanied by civilians, attacked 'zooters,' youths wearing zoot suits. In particular, they targeted zoot-clad Mexican Americans. For at least ten days in June of 1943, servicemen from across Southern California and some from as far away as Las Vegas poured into Los Angeles and roamed the streets of downtown, Chinatown, Chavez Ravine, East Los Angeles, and Watts in search of their prey. In some instances, they stopped and boarded streetcars, burst into businesses and private homes, and set upon people of color regardless of their attire. When they apprehended zooters, they frequently sheared their hair and stripped them of their distinctive clothing."

So, who were the real villians? The pachucos or the police? Given the history of job discrimination, housing discrimination, and general mistreatment of Mexican Americans in Southern California, my sympathies tend to lie with the pachucos, and their female counterparts, the pachucas.

Check out this scene from the 1981 film "Zoot Suit" starring Edward James Olmos:

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