The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory
Catherine S. Ramírez
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009, 229 pages, $22.95, paperback.
Reviewed by Miroslava Chávez-García
Growing up in the 1970s on the east side of San José, California, a largely Mexican-immigrant and Mexican-American neighborhood, I recall the scorn of the adults and the admiration of the youth for the neighborhood pachucos — young Mexican-American men who wore either zoot suits or cinched-at-the-waist baggy pants, usually Dickies, and plaid Pendletons or oversized white t-shirts. Parading their opposition to both the dominant culture and their parents’ desires, they strutted down my street, hung out in groups at my elementary school, and drove their lowriders—refurbished, polished, custom cars—along King and Story Roads. Few people, young or old, said much about the pachucas, the pachucos’ female counterparts, later called cholas—although it was clear they were not to figure as role models for nice Mexican-American girls like me. Much to their parents’ chagrin, their attire was similar to the males’—though it also included heavy makeup, thinned eyebrows, and perfectly coifed hair—and they cruised the streets and reportedly drank and smoked pot as well as the guys. Until recently, I had not considered the significance of pachucas beyond the borders of the barrio. Yet, as Catherine S. Ramírez’s The Woman in the Zoot Suit demonstrates, pachucas played central roles in shaping understandings of nationalisms, citizenship, and gender ideologies in the second half of the twentieth century.
Opening in World War II Los Angeles and closing in the Chicano movement of the 1970s and 1980s, the Mexican-American civil rights struggle, Ramírez’s work excavates the images, silences, and voices of the young and often misunderstood zoot-suit-wearing pachucas of the 1940s and offers a redeeming and complex portrait of their legacy. Although pachucas existed prior to the second world war, they stepped into the national spotlight in the early 1940s when they, along with their male counterparts, became suspects in the murder of José Diaz, a young man who had been beaten and left to die at a house party near the Sleepy Lagoon, a popular spot with youths in Los Angeles. Diaz’s unsolved murder, while tragic, contributed to the growing hysteria over increasing rates of juvenile delinquency, particularly among Mexican-American youth. When rioting between male zoot suiters and United States servicemen ensued, pachucas did not go unscathed. The police and the newspaper reports implicated them—along with the males—in the fighting, criminal activity, and murder. In the process, the state and media criminalized, racialized, and sexualized pachucas as knife-wielding Mexican harlots who threatened the stability of the community as well as that of the nation, which was already at war with enemies abroad. Members of the Mexican and Mexican-American communities criticized the young women’s penchant for American (read “loose”) sexual mores, calling them malinches—in reference to Malintzin Tenepal, or La Malinche, Hernán Cortés’s young Mayan slave, who bore him a son and allegedly sold out her people to the Spanish conquistadores in the sixteenth century. To control and contain pachucas and pachucos alike, the state ultimately imprisoned them. The girls suffered longer sentences in a state reformatory than the boys, who ended up in adult prisons and jails.
Using a feminist approach and the zoot-suit riots and the Sleepy Lagoon murder as points of departure, Ramírez’s The Woman In the Zoot Suit “recenters pachucas as agents and la Pachuca as icon.” Her purpose: to produce a scholarly intervention into the ways in which pachucas have been cast in the past, understood in the present, and will be thought of in the future. Ramírez admits that she is not the lone pioneer in this endeavor; rather, she builds upon the scholarly, cultural, and artistic productions of academics, artists, poets, and many others who have worked to shed racist, classist, misogynist, and homophobic interpretations of pachucas.
Mainstream society in the World War II era viewed both pachucos and pachucas as antithetical to American nationalism. During the Chicano movement of the 1970s, young Mexican American men reclaimed and repositioned zoot-suit-clad males, along with other male-identified symbols such as the Aztec warrior, as icons of la causa (the Chicano struggle). Pachucas, however, with their charged sexuality, malinchista affinities, and gender-bending practices, did not enjoy such a makeover. Instead, Chicano activists marginalized them as insignificant helpmeets at best or misinterpreted them as sexually promiscuous delinquents at worst. Quite simply, Ramírez points out, pachucas challenged the cultural-nationalist ideology of the movement, with its emphasis on ethnic unity based on pride in the Chicano patriarchal family, history, and culture. Logically, the movement ignored them because they threatened normative gender and sexuality, which were key to maintaining patriarchal power in la familia and in the Chicano movement more broadly. Pachucas thus represented the “other,” challenging the movement’s ideology and nationalist impulses. The misinterpretation and invisibility of pachucas in the Chicano movement, Ramírez argues convincingly, while undeserved, nevertheless demonstrates their centrality in shaping and maintaining Chicano cultural nationalism. “La pachuca,” she notes, “betrayed gender norms and in so doing she betrayed the nation, first during World War II and then during the Chicano movement.”
Still, not everyone in the movement repudiated the pachucas, Ramírez explains. Chicana artists, poets, and writers turned to the pachucas, who stood their ground in the courts, the correctional system, and beyond, as sources of cultural pride and feminist empowerment. In the process, they recast and reinterpreted pachucas as fiercely independent young women pushing against entrenched patriarchal cultural and social mores as well as nationalist ideologies that sought to silence and punish them for resisting dominant structures and ideologies.
Recovering the historical and symbolic significance of the pachucas takes creativity and resourcefulness, for few sources remain that speak to the experiences of young Mexican-American women in the twentieth century. Finding records of racialized and criminalized young women such as the pachucas is especially difficult: the state worked to silence them and they, in turn, silenced themselves to protect their names, their families, and their communities. The Woman in the Zoot Suit manages to overcome many of these methodological challenges by drawing on a variety of sources, including trial transcripts, oral history, newspaper articles, official reports, plays, poetry, corridos (ballads), artwork, and material culture. This approach enables Ramírez to bring the pachucas’ oppositional politics into sharp relief. For instance, in rendering their dress and style, which were viewed as deviant and highly suspect, Ramírez provides a culturally specific interpretation of their clothing and accessories. The look, she says, “consisted of a cardigan or V-neck sweater and a long, broad-shouldered ‘finger tip’ coat; a knee-length (and therefore relatively short) pleated skirt; fishnet stockings or bobby socks; and platform heels, saddle shoes, or huarache sandals.” The young women completed this attire with dark lipstick and bouffant hair-dos. As Ramírez reveals, the pachucas borrowed from both the dominant culture and their own Mexican culture to come up with something altogether different: a resistant Mexican-American youth culture.
In addition to their gender-bending style, the young women also used pachuco slang, or caló, a mix of Spanish, English, and other languages. According to Ramírez, the language was usually spoken by men; it was viewed as an argot, a secret language used by thieves, tramps, and vagabonds, and was often associated with the underclass. Caló, though dismissed and criticized by the media and members of the Mexican and Mexican-American communities as a corrupt language, entailed complex code-switching or borrowing in English and Spanish. It expressed the richness of pachuco culture and represented yet another way in which pachucas and pachucos sought to give meaning to their experiences as “outsiders.” It was subversive in its rejection of English as the tried and true language and marker of national identity. To the pachucos and later, the Chicanos of the movement, caló, as made famous by José Montoya’s 1970 poem “El Louie,” was “hip and cool.” However, Chicana speakers of caló, were branded as putas (whores) and dismissed as drunks and gangsters. By speaking caló, the young women challenged American and Mexican ideals of gender and sexuality, which taught virginity before marriage, monogamy in married life, and chastity in widowhood. The caló-speaking pachucas of the 1960s and 1970s were maligned and rendered highly suspect in the Chicano movement for their refusal to conform to the idealized role of la mujer.
By the 1990s, cholas had replaced pachucas in presenting a challenge to both American and Chicano cultural nationalism (though the latter gradually fell by the wayside as the Chicano movement unraveled from within). Cholas, the book hints, inherited the legacy of resistance to a society that promises full equality to its American-born citizens yet often falls short of expectations. By the 2000s, Ramírez suggests in her epilogue, the Latina armed forces recruit succeeded the chola and the pachuca. However, the Latina GI, in contrast to her predecessors, took up the cause of American nationalism—often at her own expense. That is, like the chola and pachuca before her, she found herself at the center of the contradiction between American democratic ideals and everyday realities. Admittedly, this last portion of Ramírez’s argument is not well-integrated—yet it is interesting, for it forces us to consider the ways in which gender and cultural politics continue to inform nationalism. Ramírez’s epilogue suggests that a fuller, more nuanced discussion of Latinas and their relationship to nationalism today is in order.
The Woman in the Zoot Suit is significant not only for its ability to draw links among gender, culture, and nationalisms but also for its contribution to Chicana, women’s, and American studies. Ramírez brings together a wide range of sources and methodological approaches to recover the images, voices, and silences of the much maligned and misunderstood pachucas. More importantly, she illuminates the larger meaning and significance of the pachucas’ dress, language, and self-censorship. In so doing, she provides a model of what it means to work in multiple disciplines to create a narrative that does justice to her subjects. The book contains never-before published photos and is written in an easy-to-read style with minimal jargon. For these reasons, The Woman in the Zoot will appeal to a wide audience, including scholars, feminists, students of the Chicano and Chicana movement, and the general public.
Miroslava Chavez-Garcia is an associate professor in the Chicana/o Studies Program at the University of California Davis. She has published Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (2004) and is currently at work on a book focusing on youth, race, and science in the juvenile-justice system in California from 1850 to 1940.