From Racial Tensions To Riots, This Is The Story Of The Fabulous Pachucos

From Racial Tensions To Riots, This Is The Story Of The Fabulous Pachucos

With their extravagant zoot suits and flamboyant personality, pachucos became a symbol of pride and identity, but also a target of hate and racism.

Baggy, tight-cuffed trousers, long blazers with very broad shoulders (better known as zoot suits), two-tone shoes, felt hats with long and extravagant feathers, and a long key chain hanging from the pocket of the pants. That’s the iconic style of the fabulous pachucos, a subculture formed mainly of Mexican-Americans that didn’t just transcend borders, it actually became a symbol of identity and resistance. Battling discrimination and racism, pachucos turned their flamboyant style into a flag of pride. So, how did this kind of outdated style become their statement and why did it become the target of hate and contempt?

The Name's Origins

Though it isn’t clear where exactly the term comes from, one of the most accepted theories is that it originated in El Paso, Texas, once the biggest port of entry for migrants to the US. According to this theory, back in the thirties and forties, most of the Mexicans who arrived and settled in El Paso came from Pachuca, a city in the state of Hidalgo. Allegedly, for that reason, migrants in El Paso would refer to the city as “Chuco town” or “El Chuco,” so, when Mexicans moved to El Paso, they would just say they were heading “pa’ El Chuco,” thus giving a name to the fabulous pachucos.

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Their Fabulous Style

Pachucos were known for their style, especially for their zoot suits, which people automatically link to them. However, they didn’t invent the trend. Zoot suits were originally worn by African-American jazz musicians during the late thirties and early forties, and soon, other minorities (Filipino-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and of course Mexican-Americans) adopted the style.

For pachucos, the zoot suit became a symbol of pride in the face of racism, so minorities saw it fit to reflect their own roles in a society that tried so hard to keep them out. Now, though pachuco style is usually related to the image of young Mexican men, perhaps it's the women who embraced the trend who show how defiant and rebellious the pachuco subculture was. Women back then weren’t supposed to wear pants, since it was seen as a masculine garment. Though some pachucas incorporated skirts into their outfits, many others did ditch them in favor of the characteristic baggy pants of the zoot suit. Not only were they breaking gender norms, but they were also, as their male counterparts, breaking cultural ones.

pachucos zoot suits riots history latino subculture

Pachuco style was all about embracing their identity: not their Mexican or their American identity, but rather both, a unique mixture that drew the best of both worlds, and their attire represented that syncretism. Most of their suits were made with really colorful and extravagant fabrics that made them stand out from the rest. They embraced joy and a festive spirit, contrasting with the American way of life which they perceived as boring. Eventually, this would lead to serious tensions and even fatal consequences.

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Racial Tension

During the early twentieth century, there was a wave of migration to the US, as Mexicans were being recruited to work at American farms. However, during the Great Depression, millions were sent back, even people who were already American citizens. It was during those times of crisis that people started to blame Mexicans for “taking their jobs” (sounds familiar?) and discrimination became increasingly overt in newspapers and everyday life. By the thirties, young Mexican-Americans started being targeted as criminals belonging to gangs, so when the pachuco movement became more and more present in main cities like Los Angeles, their name was automatically connected to delinquency.

When the US joined World War II, Los Angeles became one of the main cities to recruit soldiers. One of the military centers was based in a mainly Hispanic neighborhood, marking very noticeable differences between pachucos and “American soldiers” (we’ll talk about this in a moment). To add more tension to the situation, in 1942, the government introduced an austerity plan that included cutting back on fabric consumption, thus regulating and limiting the amount of fabric allowed for regular clothing. I'm sure you can imagine where this is going...

pachucos zoot suits riots history latino subcultureThe pachucos' suits required a considerable amount of fabric, so the production of these garments was basically put on hold (no brand and no tailor wanted to go against the regulations). However, the suits were part of their signature look and their identity, so pachucos refused to stop wearing them, getting them in the black market instead. But this was seen as an insult and an unpatriotic attitude, which along with the growing resentment and “criminal” reputation they had already gotten, made pachucos a highly unpopular group.

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The Riots

Now, there’s a tendency to tell this story remarking on the differences between pachucos and the “American” soldiers. However, Mexican-Americans represented an important number of recruited forces during WWII, including pachucos, who actually wanted to fight for their country. Naturally, this was a fact that the press and the community as a whole chose to ignore, since targeting them as the main problem of the city was easier. This intended racial differentiation eventually led to a set of riots in Los Angeles (and other states in the country) that came to be known as the Zoot Suit riots of 1942 between pachucos and soldiers stationed in the city.

These servicemen, along with mainly white civilians, attacked not only pachucos but also any “Mexican-looking” person they encountered, including children and teenagers. Initially, their target was to attack those “unpatriotic” pachucos, but as it happens with riots, especially those driven by racial hate, things got even nastier. The conflict was so big that both countries got involved in diplomatic conversations, since people in Mexico were furious about the attacks and the US didn’t want to break the relationship with their ally, especially during wartime. 

pachucos zoot suits riots history latino subculture

A committee determined that the cause of the riots was race-based, even accusing media for their unprofessional targeting of pachucos and zoot-suiters in general in such a negative and discriminatory way. Later on, the mayor of the city, Fletcher Bowron, ignored the committee’s report and concluded that young Mexicans had started everything. The pachucos continued to be seen as troublemakers in the eyes of the community.

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The pachucos disappeared in the sixties, with the hippie movement taking by storm basically every corner of the world. It’s believed that pachucos eventually evolved into the famous Chicano culture we know today. And though pachucos might not be a thing today and despite the fact that they had to endure endless racism and discrimination, thanks to iconic film characters like Germán Valdés Tin Tan, their image was redeemed and even today there are few pachucos both in the US and Mexico embracing their original message of pride.

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