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She's Stylin': La Pachuca, Chicana Resistance, and the Politics of Representation

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 38, Number 3, September 2010
pp. 562-568 | 10.1353/rah.2010.0021

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

How does a working-class Latina grapple with racism, classism, and sexism? In some cases, she deals with these overlapping oppressions by imitating her oppressor. As legal scholar Margaret E. Montoya explains:

A significant aspect of subordination is the persistence with which we [the Outsiders] mimic the styles, preferences and mannerisms of those who dominate us [the Masters], even when we have become aware of the mimicry. Lost to the Outsider are those identities that would have developed but for our real and perceived needs to camouflage ourselves in the masks of the Master. Lost to all are the variety of choices, the multiplicity of identities that would be available if we were not trapped by the dynamics of subordination, of privilege.

Now and then, however, some subjects reject the Master's masks. One historical actor who challenged her subordination by adopting an oppositional style, rhetoric, and culture was la pachuca, the young Mexican American woman who wore a zoot suit and cultivated a tough-girl image in the World War Two era. La pachuca is the subject of The Woman in the Zoot Suit.

Book-length accounts that address the significance of the zoot suit to Mexican Americans include Luis Alvarez' The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II (2008), Eduardo Obregón Pagán's Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A. (2003), and Mauricio Mazón's The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation (1984). Mazón's work focuses on the social anxiety and political upheaval of World War Two, and how it psychologically transformed the zoot suiters, servicemen, or civilians who participated in the Zoot Suit Riots and Sleepy Lagoon incidents. Pagán's account offers a thorough social history of Mexican American zoot suit culture and pachucos in 1940s Los Angeles, especially with regards to the events surrounding the Sleepy Lagoon incident. While Pagán acknowledges and incorporates la pachuca into his account at times, he argues that the majority of zoot suiters were male and that the Anglo media worried more about the delinquency of the pachuco than that of the pachuca. The more recent work of historian Luis Alvarez decenters the notion that the zoot suit was a male, regional, and mostly African American and Mexican American phenomenon. His account captures female zoot suiters' body politics and manipulations of public space, demonstrating that the zoot suit was a more popular form of expressive culture and political resistance than previously acknowledged. What distinguishes Catherine S. Ramírez' monograph, The Woman In the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory, from these earlier accounts is that Ramírez offers an in-depth and multigenerational view of the significance of the zoot suit-wearing women. The Woman In the Zoot Suit offers a fantastic contribution not only to Chicana/o history but also to histories of sexuality, gender, collective memory, and political resistance. She not only includes a greater number of interviews with former female zoot suiters but she also offers a longer history of the conflicted understandings and memories of women who wore the zoot suit.

In The Woman In the Zoot Suit, Ramírez reconstructs the historical significance of and the discursive terrain surrounding women who wore the zoot suit, especially la pachuca, from the 1940s to the 1980s. Ramírez not only uses archival sources (trial transcripts) and oral history interviews but also conducts an exegesis of several literary and artistic texts to convey the historical and symbolic importance of la pachuca. What distinguished la pachuca from her peers was her zoot-suit ensemble, which might include:

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. Many also wore dark lipstick and used foam inserts called "rats" to lift their hair into a high bouffant. For extra panache some lightened their hair with peroxide, sported tattoos, or wore the masculine version of the zoot suit. Also known as "drapes" or el tacuche, this outfit consisted of the "finger...

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