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The pachucos were Latino street rebels of the 1940s who innovated a style and attitude that expressed their defiance of mainstream America. Dressed to kill in zoot suits and with pompadour haircuts they hung out on the streets of East Los Angeles, speaking their own language and asserting their difference from everyone around them. They were the first subcultural group to exhibit their rebellion by display—through their clothing and behavior on the street. Their unique brand of defiance opened up an avenue of rebellion which was later followed by youth cultures in genres such as rock and roll.

The pachucos were second generation Mexican-American youths who lived in the barrios of East Los Angeles during the years of World War II. They were branded "delinquents" by the Los Angeles Police Department, and held responsible for the wave of juvenile crime that was sweeping the city at the time. The pachucos also incurred the wrath of their Mexican elders by their "degenerate" behavior of draft-dodging, marijuana-smoking, and their foppish attention to their clothes.

The style they sported was the zoot suit: a long drape jacket that reached to the knees and high waisted trousers that were baggy on the leg but tapered at the ankle. The suit was worn with a very long key chain and often a crucifix or a medallion over the tie. The hairdo to go with the look was the pompadour, a relatively long hair cut for men, worn greased into a quiff at the front and combed into a duck's tail at the back. In the hair the pachucos kept their fileros (flick knives), the thickness of the hair style providing a secure hiding place for weapons. Distinctive tattoos, such as the Virgin of Guadalupe, where also part of the pachuco look. Their female counterparts, the pachucas, had their own dress code which consisted of short tight skirts, flimsy blouses, dramatic makeup, and longer pompadour hairdos.

The name "pachuco" is of uncertain origin but is believed to be derived from the word "Pachuca," a town in east Central Mexico. The pachucos spoke a hybrid slang called "Calo," derived from the gypsy tongue. The word "Chicano"—a politicized term of self-definition for Mexican Americans—is itself a Calo word. Music was also an important ingredient in the scene, and much of the pachuco lifestyle revolved around the dance halls where they would go to dance and listen to swing bands. A bandleader called Don Tosti had a hit with a song called "Pachuco Boogie," a big band number with lyrics in Calo.

The Sleepy Lagoon Case in 1942 brought the pachucos into the national limelight. This was a murder case in which 13 Mexican-American youths were convicted on varying charges, including that of first degree murder, for the killing of José Díaz. The trial took place at a time when William Randolph Hearst's Los Angeles newspapers had been running incendiary stories about gang violence. The image of the pachuco circulated by these papers was that of a bloodthirsty killer spurred on by the ancestral Aztec desire to let blood. Two years later these convictions were reversed by an appeal court, largely due to the efforts of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, which featured public figures as illustrious as Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth amongst its number. Luis Valdez's 1981 film Zoot Suit, an adaptation of the stage musical, gives a part-fact, part-fiction account of the case from the perspective of Henry Reyna, the leader of the convicted gang of pachucos.

The pachucos' brush with controversy, however, did not end there. In early June 1943, disturbances broke out in East Los Angeles. Mobs of sailors and marines began scouring the streets in taxis looking for zoot-suited pachucos to beat up, supposedly in retaliation for attacks on their number by pachucos. If no candidates could be found the servicemen would storm into movie theaters and drag any young males they perceived as pachucos from the auditorium, take them outside and strip them of their zoot suits, and cut their pompadour hairdos. Eyewitness accounts report the attacks as unprovoked and, furthermore, that they were actively encouraged by crowds of observing civilians.

At a time when national obedience was everything, the pachucos were singled out by servicemen for being bad citizens. Not only were the pachucos dodging the draft, but the zoot suits they wore contravened fabric rationing regulations in the generosity of their cut. "Pachuquismo"—or the pachuco style—was the total contradiction of military discipline, order, measure, and effort. The pachucos cultivated a manner of languid detachment and were not seen to have a good work ethic. They performed their defiance through their clothes, openly inviting hostile attention. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz described the pachuco as a "sinister clown" who courted the hunter by decking himself out as his prey.

The pachuco look was taken up by the mainstream and emerged in the 1950s greaser style. Within marginal groups, the pachucos served as inspirational icons for the Chicano Civil Rights Movement that fomented in the late 1960s. As the first people to forge a position for themselves in opposition both to the American mainstream and their traditional Mexican backgrounds, the pachucos were the first Mexican Americans to self-consciously style and define themselves on exactly their own terms. In the late 1990s renewed interest in swing music by groups such as the Cherry Poppin' Daddies brought "pachuquismo" back into vogue. The 1994 film The Mask, starring Jim Carrey, characterized the pachuco as the outrageous transformation of the wimpish bankclerk protagonist for the rebellious, maverick, and magical qualities that the style evokes. Quixotic, sinister, and theatrical, the pachuco is continually evoked as one of the mythic figures of American popular culture.

—Candida Taylor

Further Reading:

Cosgrove, Stuart. "The Zoot Suit and Style Warfare." Zoot Suits and Second Hand Dresses. Basingstoke, United Kingdom, Macmillan, 1989.

Mazón, Mauricio. The Zoot Suit Riots. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1984.

Muñoz Jr., Carlos. Youth, Identity, Power. New York, Verso, 1989.

Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude. London, Penguin, 1985.