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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 27.3 (2006) 1-33

Saying "Nothin'"
Pachucas and the Languages of Resistance
Catherine S. Ramírec

On June 9 and 10, 1943, in the midst of the Zoot Suit Riots, Los Angeles newspapers announced the arrest of a "pachuco woman." According to the press, twenty-two-year-old Amelia Venegas, mother of a toddler and wife of a sailor, had incited violence by urging a gang of pachucos to attack sheriff's deputies in her East Los Angeles neighborhood. "I no like thees daputy sheriffs [sic.]," the Herald-Express quoted her. Additionally, newspapers reported that she attempted to smuggle a pair of brass knuckles to "zoot suit hoodlums" to assist them in their street brawls with sailors. Venegas was arrested and jailed for disturbing the peace.1

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Figure 1
Amelia Venegas, "Pachuco woman." Los Angeles Her-ald-Examiner Collection. Los Angeles Public Library.
[End Page 1]

Although newspaper photographs do not show her wearing a "finger-tip" coat or short, full skirt—identifying features of the pachuca look in wartime Los Angeles—Venegas was nonetheless described as a "lady zoot suiter, or at least a sympathizer with the zoot suit fraternity."2 As various scholars have shown, the zoot suit, which generally consisted of a long coat and skirt or pair of billowing trousers, signified difference and defiance in the United States during World War II, a moment of heightened jingoism, xenophobia, and concern over shifting gender roles.3 Both the ensemble and, more often than not, its Mexican-American wearer were deemed unpatriotic and un-American and were even directly linked to the Axis. In Venegas's case, the incorrect grammar and caricature Mexican accent attributed to her emphasized that her transgression was two-fold: she was not only un-American but unladylike as well.

Many studies of pachuquismo—the Mexican-American pachuca/o subculture—have stressed the symbolic economy of style: clothes, hair, and, to a lesser extent, makeup.4 This essay seeks to add to this exciting body of work by focusing on another important—albeit literally unspectacular—stylistic element of wartime pachuquismo: language and speech. Like their African-American counterparts who spoke jive, many pachucas and pachucos (that is, Mexican-American zooters) spoke pachuco slang (also known as caló). Additionally, many used pochismos (lexical borrowings) and a working-class-inflected form of American English. During the Chicano movement of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, these linguistic varieties, like zoot suits, became signs both of difference and of opposition for a number of Chicana and Chicano writers. They signified a refusal to conform to the status quo and a distinctly racialized, working-class, urban youth style. In short, many of the utterances of Mexican-American zooters came to signify resistance, style, and style as resistance.

The concept of resistance has had an indelible effect on the study of popular culture in the United States as well as on Chicano studies (and cultural and ethnic studies more broadly). Drawing from James C. Scott's metaphor of the "hidden transcript," Robin D. G. Kelley, for example, argues that the "veiled social and cultural worlds of oppressed people frequently surface in everyday forms of resistance—theft, footdragging, the destruction of property."5 Within African-American and Chicano studies, the zoot subculture of the World War II period is often looked to as an example of a "hidden transcript." As Kelley notes, "The language and culture of zoot suiters represented a subversive refusal to be subservient."6

By focusing on women speakers of pachuco slang, this essay explores the relationship of resistance—what Kelley describes as the "subversive refusal to be subservient"—to gender and style, specifically coolness and hipness. "Coolness" refers to self-control; "hipness" to knowledge and sophistication. [End Page 2] Both terms connote style and, as I argue below, social marginalization. This essay examines the gendering of Chicano resistance and style and Chicano resistance as style. It asks, "What is the gender of Chicano resistance and does...


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