Elevate Difference

The Woman In The Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory

I have always associated the zoot suit with Cab Calloway and the big band, jazz, and swing era. Never did it occur to me that this type of suit would be the focal point of a movement or two, faceously put. I also thought the trend of wearing loose clothing, as an act of rebellion, was taken from the prison population in which the usage of belts was not allowed. Little did I know how central it was to the Mexican American identity, from the 1930s leading up to the Chicano movement.

Catherine S. Ramirez’ The Woman in the Zoot Suit, brings the reader to another place in American history that leaves us to question, yet again, who we chose to leave out, as valuable contributors to this heterogeneous anomaly we call a country. Pachucas and Pachucos were Mexican American women and men, respectively, who wore zoot suits during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s as part of the Pachuquismo subculture. 

For the Pachuca, the zoot suit was a central part of the subculture and consisted of a cardigan or V-neck sweater, pleated skirt, fishnet stockings, platform heels, dark lipstick, and foam inserts to lift the hair into a high bouffant. They were often second-generation children of Mexicans who immigrated to the United States, during World War II, to find work, education, and better lives for themselves and their families. Many Mexican American youths around that time were not part of the Pachuquismo subculture, but readily identified with the ideals of a rejection of the racism, classicism, and sexism perpetrated against them. In a way, Pachucas were considered as much outsiders as the aforementioned because of history’s neglect to include them in such an integral part of the Mexican American history they helped create.

Ramirez explains how the Sleepy Lagoon incident (which is, by itself, necessary of further research) and the Zoot Suit Riots thrust the Pachuca into the search for an identity within her own culture. Pachucas were forced between the rock of an outside prejudice, and a hard place that came in the form of a prejudice within the subculture they could most easily identify with. In a subculture in which they could contribute the most, they were often relegated to the forgotten, because of the role they were expected to fill as the quiet, unassuming Mexican housewife and mother.

Ramirez presents the unique history of the Mexican American Pachuca, whose situation takes into account the religious, gender, and non-U.S.-born ramifications that they inherited. Not only did they have to fight against the politics of a racist, sexist society alongside the Pachucos, but they also had to fight the misogynistic politics of their brethren from within. Ramirez presents a well documented and informative work on the Pachuca, thus helping to bring us out of our culturally-induced slumber.

Written by: Olupero R. Aiyenimelo, May 22nd 2009

The book sounds really interesting. I've never heard of the Zoot Suit Riots. I'll have to give the book a chance.