The Erasure of La Pachuca in Catherine S. Ramírez’s The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism & the Cultural Politics of Memory

The Woman in the Zoot Suit

The Woman in the Zoot Suit

Through the wonders of social media, namely Twitter, I have been sharing and recommending hundreds of Chicana/o books and film titles amongst my “followers” for the last four years in order to promote Chicana/o literacy, encourage students to major or minor in Chicana/o Studies, to dispel the myth that Chicanas/os are not creating scholarly and literary works by and for Chicanas/os, and lastly to facilitate an expansive list of works for people to search out these titles in their local bookstores and libraries for personal reading enjoyment or academic research purposes.

Knowledge is our weapon. Knowledge is power. Specifically, knowledge is Chicano Power.

Chicano Power, then, demands that we work towards dismantling racist and sexist institutional structures that negate our human rights as Indigenous peoples. Knowing our history, also, forces us to challenge false assumptions about Chicanas/os that are falsely spread in academic circles and in social media spaces.

We have been omitted from the historical record, and when we do appear we are depicted as passive, docile, and only participating in the social landscape as a result of outside assistance. We are never allowed to exist as original inhabitants. Nearly every time the Chicana/o-Mexicana/o experience is discussed, especially on social media, it is done thru a racist filter that usually describes some outside ethnic/racial group discovering or influencing us, thus revoking our autonomy, sovereignty, and agency as a people.

And so what I wanted to do for this particular blog space was to highlight several Chicana/o books and film titles that our people might find of interest and meaningful as they search for their own knowledge and self-determination. These reviews and those of other contributors are written from a Chicana/o-Mexicana/o frame of reference.

If you are interested in sharing a written review of your favorite Chicana/o book, film, art exhibit, etc. please feel free to contact via email at clshc@me.com – Resistance Through Knowledge, one book at time.

c/s
cultural sovereignty

——
The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory (2009) by Catherine S. Ramírez focuses on the overlooked involvement of young Mexican American women who participated in the zoot-suit, pachuca/o youth subculture in Los Angeles during the 1940s and 1950s.

Catherine S. Ramírez begins with a poem by raúlsalinas that pays homage to El Pachuco, while simultaneously recognizing that La Pachuca has been erased from history and has remained an anonymous figure even within Chicana/o Studies. raúlsalinas writes:

Pero lo mas sura was

that in all their

SOCIOLOGICAL

ANTHROPOLOGICAL

PSYCHOLOGICAL

& HISTORICAL

heaps & piles of bogus bullshit,

our sister- La Pachuca- of the

equal sufrimientos;

aquella carnalita que también

who also bore the brunt

de toda la carilla

remained in their textbooks

ANONYMOUS

“Homenaje al Pachuco (Mirrored Reflections”) (1973)

Using the poem as a backdrop, Ramírez argues that La Pachuca has been excluded from both the historical record and cultural landscape. Ramírez proposes to (re)center La Pachuca as agent and icon in the narrative of World War II-era Chicana/o history. Catherine Ramírez divides her study into six sections:

– Introduction: A Genealogy of Vendidas
– Domesticating the Pachuca
– Black Skirts, Dark Slacks, and Brown Knees: Pachuca Style and Spectacle during World War II
– Saying “Nothin’”: Pachucas and the Languages of Resistance
– La Pachuca and the Excesses of Family and Nation
– Epilogue: Homegirls Then and Now, from the Home Front to the Front Line

The Woman in the Zoot Suit is not a definitive study of La Pachuca, rather, it is a foundational study that focuses on race, class, gender, and sexuality from the cultural perspective of La Pachuca. Ramírez draws from an eclectic range of materials, such archived documents, trial transcripts as well visual and literary texts to reinterpret nationalism, citizenship, gender, and sexuality from a Chicana feminist perspective in what is generally considered a watershed moment in Chicana/o and American history: World War II.

Young Mexican American women, like men, participated in the counter-culture phenomenon of the 1940s, namely through the use of a distinctive style of dress known as the zoot-suit, which was seen by Euroamerican society as rebellious, un-American, and even bordering on homosexuality.

By reinterpreting the Sleepy Lagoon Trial and the so-called Zoot-Suit Riots, Ramírez provokes a dialogue that critiques traditional or “official” historical narratives in order to tell “our side of the story.”

Although the murder of José Díaz at Sleepy Lagoon in August 1942 catapulted the Mexican American community into the public eye because of the racist and sensationalized coverage of the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Herald-Express, the incident has been depicted as a “homeboy” only event.

Yet, as Ramírez uncovers, court records demonstrate that Mexican American girls were involved in the free-for-all that took place and were eventually held as suspects in what would be known as the Sleepy Lagoon murder case. Moreover, two young Mexican American girls had the misfortune of discovering the body of José Díaz.

About ten Mexican American girls were held as witnesses and forced to testify in the case. Even though none of the young girls were ever tried or convicted, they were sent to a correctional facility because they kept “bad company.”

In the ensuing dragnet that ensued after the murder at Sleepy Lagoon, over 600 Mexican Americans throughout the city were arrested by the police, and the boys of the 38th Street neighborhood were specifically targeted for harassment.

Despite the fact that the District Court of Appeals overturned the Sleepy Lagoon case two years later, records show that it was only a partial victory for the Mexican American community. Ramírez confirms that the young Mexican American girls never received any due process, were falsely incarcerated and monitored by the state for several years after the case.

In one particular case, Juanita Gonzáles entered the correctional facility at the Ventura School for Girls at the age of fifteen, and although she was released and paroled, Juanita remained a ward of the state until the age of twenty-one, nearly four years after the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial had ended. To say the least, there was a lot of bitterness.

Ramírez challenges “official” historical accounts of the World War II & zoot-suit era by interviewing eleven Chicanas who came of age during the height of the zoot-suit era.

Although Ramírez’s correspondents initially expressed “frustration, contempt, and shame” in sharing their story and experiences they eventually recognized the racial discrimination they faced from their teachers, the police, the press, yet finally realized that it was the racist white servicemen who were responsible for the racial riots that rocked Los Angeles in the Summer of 1943 (47).

Ramírez scrutinizes the stylistic forms of fashion or style politics embedded in the wearing of the zoot-suit. For Ramírez, the zoot-suit phenomenon went beyond the institutional racism of American society vis-à-vis its treatment of Chicana/o youth. Rather, the zoot-suit culture was a “sign of an aberrant femininity, competing masculinity, or homosexuality during the early 1940s. As a “nonwhite, working-class, and queer signifier, it was perceived as un-American” (56).

The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation

The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation

Ramírez’s analysis extends Mauricio Mazón’s interpretation in his now-classic, The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation, which argues that the zoot-suiter was attacked under the fabric of a ritualistic and unconscious expression of violent angst by American sailors against Chicana/o youth.

Ethnographic Studies have largely “tamed the wild tongue” by silencing and marginalizing Chicanas from the chronicles of American history. As non-imagined communities, Chicanas have been relegated to the fringes of society as “malinches” or “vendidas” largely because they are depicted as threatening the heteropatriarchal family.

Ramírez excavates the archived documents of the Chicano Movement, and its rhetoric of nationalism to interrogate the concept of La Familia de la Raza. The Chicano family was normalized as heteronormative by the masculine representation of the movement’s leaders. La Pachuca symbolized a defiance to the traditional gender roles and familial cultural structures.

In the same way that the cultural artists and political activists of the Chicana/o Movement era rewrote and reinterpreted the history of the pachuco, Ramírez rewrites and reinterprets La Pachuca using Judith Baca’s Las Tres Marías triptych multimedia panel.

In Las Tres Marías, Baca juxtaposes three panels against each other; on the one hand, there is the image of la pachuca, and on the other, la chola. In the middle of this multimedia journey into the past, present, and future is a mirror.

Las Tres Marías

Las Tres Marías

The mirror is symbolic of the changing nature of the conscious and unconscious strands that shape and transform our perceptions of identity, be it through the framework of race, class, gender, or sexuality. As one stands in front of the mirror, Las Tres Marías begs us to interrogate our own identity and counter-identity.

In this sense, La Pachuca defied gender norms through their speech, behavior and appearance by participating in what are perceived as masculine activities (124). Not only did La Pachuca defy Chicano cultural standards, but challenged Anglo-American standards of femininity.

Ramírez ends her study by exploring the endless War on Terror initiated by the events of 9/11. Ramírez likens World War II, with the rise of American jingoism, to the hyper-nationalism of the War on Terror. By connecting the two wars together, Ramírez alludes to the “Afghanization” and “Iraqinization” of the U.S.-Mexico border, whereby Mexican migrants and Chicanas/os are depicted as perennial suspects who must be corralled lest they become by their mere existence acts of domestic terrorism because of the realities of Mexican migration into the United States (140).

As Ramírez makes clear, The Woman in the Zoot-Suit is about the institutionalization of violence against Chicanas. It is an act of violence to omit Chicanas from the historical record, yet it is also an act of violence to integrate Chicanas in the building of Empire through the inclusion of Chicana GI’s in the endless War on Terror.

The Woman in the Zoot-Suit is an excellent interpretation of the experiences of Mexican American women zoot-suiters and its interrogation of citizenship, race, sexuality and nationalism. The Chicana/o cultural production of La Pachuca portrays them as sex objects, and as a threat not only to the State but to the Familia de la Raza.

Although I disagree slightly with Ramírez’s notion that all nationalisms are “dangerous,” I do agree with her assessment that all nationalisms should be interrogated at its root, especially within the discipline of Chicana/o Studies whereby the intellectual expectation is that the discipline is working towards dismantling all social inequalities.

Pachucas and Pachucos in Tucson: Situated Border Lives

Pachucas and Pachucos in Tucson: Situated Border Lives

The focus of this study is centered on the Mexican American pachuca experience in Los Angeles, however, one wonders if Ramírez’s framework would lend itself to exploring the pachuca experience in other regions of the Southwest, such as in Tucson, which has received some scholarly attention in Laura L. Cummings’ Pachucas and Pachucos in Tucson: Situated Border Lives (2009). The Woman in the Zoot-Suit is a noteworthy addition to any Chicana/o Studies collection.

— by D.Cid

This entry was posted in Aztlan, California, Chicana Feminism, Chicana/o, Chicana/o Book Reviews, Chicana/o Books, Chicana/o History, Chicana/o Identity, Chicana/o Ideology, Chicana/o Literature, Chicana/o Politics, Chicana/o Power, Chicana/o Studies, Chicana/o Underground, Chicana/o Youth, Community, Cultura, Decolonization, East Los Angeles, Education, History, Knowledge, Language, Law, Los Angeles, Mexican, MuXer, Pachuca, Resistance, Sexism, Sexuality, Solidarity, Unity. Bookmark the permalink.

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