Forensic Fashion
(c) 2006-present R. Macaraeg


>Costume Studies
>>1943 Mex.-Am. pachuco
Subjectpachuco gangster
Culture: Chicano / Mexican-American
Setting: urban Chicano youth gangs, zoot suit wars, southern California mid 20thc
Evolution1854 Californio bandido > ... > 1943 Mexican-American pachuco

Context (Event Photos, PrimarySources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)

* Romo 1983 p166-167
"A nation at war is capable both of ignoring domestic issues, and of exhibiting intolerance toward nontraditional behavior.  Such was the case in East Los Angeles, where a quiet rebellion against American values and lifestyles surfaced during the late 1930s and early 1940s.  Youthful members of the second generation, the principal figures in this rebellion, expressed their estrangement from American society by forming cliques or gangs.  Carey McWilliams, noted author and attorney, remarked that these individuals, 'rebuffed in the schools and in the community,' have 'been made to feel that they do not belong, that they are Mexicans, not Americans, and that they will never be accepted as equals.'  Poor schooling and problems with the law kept many of them out of the armed services, and prejudice denied them equal opportunity in the work sector.  The early gang members from this era were recognizable by their dress styles, use of English and Spanish slang words or a combination of both, and tattoo marks on their hands and arms.  In the early 1940s they began to sport zoot suits, long ducktail haircuts, and pointed shoes.  Many of them hung around pool halls and gathered on the weekends at local dance halls.  They called themselves 'Chucos,' short for the word Pachuco.  The police and the press preferred to call them hoodlums or 'zoot suiters.'
    "[...]  The origins of the 'zoot suit riots' which occurred in Los Angeles during the first week of June 1943 have never been clear.  Young Mexican Americans had clashed with members of the armed services on numerous occasions in the downtown section of Los Angeles; the press had been virulent in its presentation of Mexican American gang activity.  Enlisted men from the camps considered the youngsters from the barrio as draft dodgers.  Mexican Americans resented the constant traffic of soldiers and sailors in their community.  A major confrontation began on the evening of June 3, 1943, when sailors looking for a fight with Mexican gang members attacked several of them near a dance hall in Venice.  Rumors that Mexican hoodlums had started the fight brought hundreds of marines and sailors into the barrio and downtown section of Los Angeles that evening.  Over the next few days, more fights followed.  Mexican Americans wearing zoot suits were stripped of their clothing and beaten.  The mob, which grew larger every night, marched through the downtown area in search of Mexican zoot suiters, but blacks and Filipinos were also attacked.  At one theatre, the mob stormed into the building, switched the lights on, and dragged out persons they considered zoot suiters.  The riots stopped when the commanding officers of the local bases placed the downtown section and the barrio off limits.  This was done only after the Mexican government put pressure on officials in Washington to quell the disturbances, and the State Department, which was aware of the negative international attention that the riots were receiving, ordered the Navy and Marine Corps to act since it appeared that local Los Angeles officials would not."

* Mazón 1984 p2
"The Zoot-Suit Riots were ostensibly a confrontation between Anglo servicemen and Mexican-American zoot-suiters.  The term was largely one of attrition, for Mexican-American youth preferred other descriptions.  Long before the riots Mexican [sic] and Mexican Americans were the beneficiaries, victims, and often the authors of other descriptive terms.  One of the more widely recognized is the term cholo -- today's version of the 1940s pachuco.  Leonard Pitt in the Decline of the Californios (1971) writes about bands of cholos who migrated to California in the 1830s and 1840s.  He translated cholo to mean 'scoundrel,' then used it as a synonym for lower-class, uneducated, and recently arrived Mexicans.  Cholo also described the type of Mexican soldier sent to California in the 1840s, an army that counted a liberal contingent of felons in its ranks.  The term endured as one of derision throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Aside from denoting Mexican immigrants to California, cholo signified a group of people who were economically and educationally oppressed.  Small wonder then that another variant of cholo and pachuco, the bato vago, was associated with the poor who fought in the Mexican Revolution with Francisco Villa: 'Antes de que fueran pachucos, antes de los tiempos míos, les decían batos vagos, me entiendes ... y esos son los batos que le pelearon en la Revolución con Pancho Villa [Before they were pachucos, before my time, they called them batos vagos, you know ... and they were the batos who fought in the Revolution with Pancho Villa]."

* Mazón 1984 p8-9
"The pachuco and zoot-suiter ... confronted American society with an apparent historical discontinuity. Both represented an unprecedented development -- or so at least it must have seemed to adults who with the benefit of a protective amnesia had forgotten the libertines and bohemians of the 1920s. The surface dissimilarities between the pachuco, zoot-suiters, serviceman, and adult civilian restricted any relationship to an adverse level. Instead of structuring the relationship between, say, zoot-suiters and servicemen in the language of two categories of youth facing problems of maturation, rebellion, and identity confusion, the relationship was usually framed in the most antagonistic terms. This trend survived in the narratives on the riots as both liberal and conservative interpretations demonstrated the profound differences between the various factions."


* Mazón 1984 p5-6
"Significantly, many gang members were just discovering the pachuco style in the early 1940s.  Joan Moore and her collaborators underscored the disparity in the self-identity of various gangs in Homeboys, Gangs, Drugs and Prison in the Barrios of Los Angeles (1978).  The Polviados from the Los Angeles suburb of San Fernando are an example:
But the real model for the Polviados were the pachucos of Los Angeles.  The gang started in the early 1940s, and made a point of keeping up with the latest clothing fads, going to Murray's and Young's in downtown Los Angeles for their drapes and fingertip coats, and to Price's for their double-soled shoes.  The Polviados consciously set themselves apart from the rural Chicanos of Pacoima, Canoga Park, Van Nuys and other Valley barrios, whom they considered backward, square, 'farmers.'
Theirs was a social hierarchy that highlighted coiffure, garb, and select membership.  Other Mexican-American youth 'sneered at the Polviados' 'anti-macho' effort to smell pretty and look dandy.'  Some considered the zoot suit to be childish: 'In the early 1940s, when the zoot-suit fad swept over the Chicano youth of Los Angeles, the young men of La Puríssima [White Fence] gang jeered it as a kid's fad.'  It is important to know that the White Fence gang was the 'first Chicano gang in East Los Angeles to use serious weapons -- chains and, occasionally, guns.'  Thus the zoot-suit fad that had swept the United States and even Europe came late to the barrio of Los Angeles."

​* Polhemus 1994 p19
"[I]n March 1942 the War Production Board ruled that the wool used in men's suits must be reduced by 26 percent, thereby defining the zoot suit as unpatriotic, even illegal.
    "And thereby, at a stroke, denying young African- and Mexican-Americans their newfound badge of subcultural identity.  In fact, however, they ignored the WPB's ruling and found plenty of compliant backstreet tailors who, if the price was right, were willing to turn a blind eye to cloth rationing.  For over a year Zooties continued to thumb their noses at the war effort, but they were to pay a high price for their bravado.  In 1943 some of Southern California's white servicemen decided that it was their patriotic duty to beat up Hispanic and black youths who openly flouted the WPB restrictions. [...]
    "In June 1943 Los Angeles witnessed its first fully-fledged riots as Pachucos of both sexes (for by this time there were also all-female gangs like 'The Slick Chicks' and 'The Black Widows', who wore zoot-suit jackets, black skirts and fishnets) fought white servicemen and policemen.  The riots spread east to cities in Arizona, Texas ... then to Detroit, Philadelphia and New York."

​* Chrisman-Campbell 2019 p130-132
"A months-long period of civil unrest culminated in the Zoot Suit Riots, a week of violent clashes on the streets of Los Angeles between uniformed white sailors and soldiers awaiting deployment to the battlefields of World War II and gangs of Mexican American 'zoot suiters,' identifiable by their flamboyant knee-length jackets, baggy 'ankle choker pants,' broad-brimmed hats, and long, dangling watch chains.
      "The zoot suit was the most visible target of a larger conflict between whites and immigrants, soldiers and civilians, buzz cuts and slicked-backed ducktails.  At a time when the War Production Board regulated the use of fabric -- banning double-breasted jackets and vests in favor of single-breasted, two-piece 'Victory Suits' with narrow trousers and no cuffs -- the zoot suit was perceived as being rebellious, selfish, and unpatriotic.
    "Beginning on June 3, many zoot suiters were forcibly disrobed on the streets; others were beaten with clubs, belts, and bats.  The nightly riots came to an end on June 8, when military personnel were barred from leaving their barracks.  On June 9, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed a resolution banning zoot suits, as scores of young Mexican American men were rounded up by police -- many arrested for no other crime than their fashion choices -- made their way to court."