From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front by Elizabeth R. Escobedo (review)
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From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front. By Elizabeth R. Escobedo. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. 229. $34.95 cloth; $34.95 ebook)

Elizabeth Escobedo’s From Coveralls to Zoot Suits magnifies the diversity of meanings of World War II for women of Mexican descent in southern California. Her historical investigation of the wartime identities and their reception within and beyond the context of Mexican American family life in the United States captures the emergence of a series of challenges and questions for women of Mexican descent. Using a compelling series of oral life-histories of Mexican American women of this era and collections of archival documents, she renders the destructive and liberating potential of asserting the arresting and productive qualities of a Pachuca, Rosie the Riveter, and other gendered identities in U.S. family households, neighborhoods, wartime manufacturing plants, military stations, and racially liberal educational campaigns. The difficult decisions these young women made in consultation with their families and on their own in the [End Page 310] midst of endless wartime expectations and exigencies makes for a most productive consideration of the intimate yet public dilemmas driving the coming of age of Mexican American women.

Escobedo’s deft examination of the simultaneously liberating and limiting wartime experiences of Mexican American women laboring to earn their own wages and support the U.S. military effort demonstrates the complexity of the intraracial relationships that shaped their opportunities and choices. Indeed, by 1943, more than half a million of these women were employed in aircraft production, shipbuilding, and steel production in Los Angeles, so that they were financially able to adopt a Pachuca identity. This identity was often expressed by these women laboring as Rosie the Riveters by day, so that they earned and saved their wages to purchase, wear, and socialize in daring Pachuca style at nightime social gatherings without the consent of their families. Their desire to risk complicated intraracial relationships against the wishes of their often-disapproving families and acquaintances, public authorities, and newspaper publications, illustrates the boundaries and new definitions of womanhood that these women confronted and embraced as they came into their own under much public scrutiny.

The limitations to the empowerment these women derived from donning the Pachuca style after a hard day’s work and at best tense conversations with their families and public authorities are central to Escobedo’s examination of how these young women forged an identity founded on cultural expectations and worlds that were far removed from that of their family households. In their Pachuca attire, they asserted an identity that exuded independence, a more pronounced sexuality, and a sense of belonging that the racial liberalism of World War II tried to selectively contain and benefit from. As part of the “Americans All” campaign, the U.S. government encouraged these women to expand their laboring as Rosie the Riveters to work as ladylike United Service Organizations hostesses when socializing with U.S. servicemen stationed in southern California. The honorability attached to this military service cornered Mexican families to continue [End Page 311] to wrestle with the loosening of certain boundaries when policing the gender identity of their Mexican American daughters as they strived to remain true to their personal prerogatives and duty to the nation.

Escobedo enriches our understanding of Mexican American women of this wartime generation. Throughout this history, she makes evident that these women were most committed to daring to take themselves, their potential, and each other seriously at a historical moment in which often not even their families, employers, or the U.S. government were willing to do so. Their courageous exertion and support of their own image-making, persona, rights, and discourses as formative to achieving their vision of “Americans All” makes for a direly needed rendition of the underestimated feminism of confronting the anxiety and silence of intraracial relationships in a time of war.

Ana Elizabeth Rosas

Ana Elizabeth Rosas is an assistant professor of history and Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is completing a book manuscript on the mid-twentieth...