After a few decades of no longer being in stylish favor, the whole swagger and scene of Zoot Suits become once again an iconic piece of Mexican-American identity.
Los Angeles – The dance floor at “Barrio Boogie Sunday” is filled with sharply dressed women in flouncy skirts and brightly colored fitted blouses, being twirled in perfect swing rhythm by their dapper partners in boxy zoot suits and vintage greaser wear.
They are pachucos and pachucas, celebrating the Chicano mix of swing, rockabilly and Latin music that became a subculture in the L.A. of the 1940s. It’s a joyful gathering with a neighborhood feel.
Intermixed on the dance floor are also men and women in every day street clothes watching the dance instructor on stage, attempting a few steps, all the while smiling from ear to ear.
With events like Pachuco Boogie Show, Barrio Boogie and Pachuco Boogie Sundays popping up in L.A. throughout the year, the pachuco feel is one of an ongoing fiesta — the streets fill up with classic barrio culture, antique cars, free swing dance lessons, pinup contests and of course the high energy of the unique pachuco music.
The music is much like all else associated with pachuco: a blend of cultures creating a jive beat that is solely its own animal.
Now a movement of Chicano pride and positivity, pachuco in the 1940s and early 1950s was considered a gang crime subculture looked down upon — it was connected with the Zoot Suit riots that emerged from the rising tension between Mexican-American and military men during World War II. At its peak, the confrontation prompted a citywide ban of wearing the high-waisted pants and long padded coats that are the mark of Zoot Suits – along with the fedora – and Los Angeles was deemed off limits to military personnel.
Pachucos also had a unique speech, called Caló, which consisted of creative phrases and some English words.
After a few decades of no longer being in stylish favor, the whole swagger and scene of Zoot Suits has become once again an iconic piece of Mexican-American identity.
The pachuco resurgence is owed in part to Joe Black and fellow promoter Abel Silva, who started the Pachuco Boogie Show in 2012 at La Conga Room in downtown Los Angeles.
The crowds drawn to the shows are upbeat and lively, selling out to capacity of 1000 people almost every night, according to Black.
Black and Silva’s original goal was to give the pachuco community a forum to celebrate the legacy of the Zoot Suit era — the growth of the event’s popularity, pulling Mexican-Americans in from all over Southern California, took them by surprise.
“It was something I wanted to do to give homage to our heritage, here in L.A,” Black told Fox News Latino, adding that it all started when he heard for the first time Don Tosti’s “Pachuco Boogie,” the anthem for all things pachuco.
“It was so unique, it was so underground," he said.
The pachuco scene of today has subsets, Black said, not unlike that of the past. “There are different variations — the greasers and the real fashionable. The show I created caused a resurgence. The people are starting to embrace it as East LA Rockabilly,” he said.
Like the men, the women’s pachuco style falls into many categories, but with the commonality of having little money and making the best of what you could afford.
Back then the women would often buy generic clothing from Montgomery Ward’s or other low cost stores and add unique detail to them, often accessorizing with something from the Mexican-American cultural base: a suit with huarache sandals, or a pencil skirt with a peasant blouse was common, and now the vintage pieces have become hot items.
The pachucos of today find those items digging in one of the bunch of stores that specialize in the period. The Bakelite bangles that were once cheap additions to the pachuca look can be found for hundreds of dollars apiece.
Interestingly, the pachuco look, sound and style are also becoming increasingly popular across the Pacific.
“The Australians love the look and are picking up on the music as well,” said Anthony Rosas, co-owner of vintage fashion company, Santa Muerte Trading Co., who said he’s seeing a lot of interest from the Japanese too.
“Some Japanese-Americans relate it to the internment period and have embraced pachuco as a cultural icon,” he told FNL.
Counterintuitive to the start of pachuco, many of the memories that get passed down from parents and grandparents to the younger generation have to do with serving in World War II and being proud to do so.
Black’s Mexican-American grandfather was in the Navy during the war and was stationed out of San Pedro, where he happened to be during the Zoot Suit Riots. “I can only imagine what he was thinking and going through,” he told FNL.
Rockabilly and doo-wop singer Vicky Tafoya remembers growing up as the youngest of 12 siblings surrounded by mid-century furniture, memories of her mother talking about World War II and photos from that era. “Nothing changed. They kept everything and it influenced me,” she said.
Unlike her vibrant personality now, Tafoya was a shy kid with a protective mother, who saw to it she got involved in something outside of the streets. She ended up in a local choir, which eventually led to her stumbling upon the Southern California Doo-Wop Society – a group that was comprised of singers who had lived during the doo-wop era of the 50s and sang with some of the greats.
“It was such a crazy gift -- one that I didn’t realize until I was older. All these people had sung with famous acts that originated the style,” Tafoya told FNL.
For Matt Beld, guitarist in both Vicky Tafoya & The Big Beat and Vicky and The Vengents bands, it was the influence of his grandfather - an upholsterer and classic cars enthusiast - as well as seeing the movie “La Bamba” at a Southern California drive-in as kid that got him hooked.
He said pachuco is an outlet for creativity.
“Beach culture is unique to Southern California culture as is the car culture,” he said. “It’s the same with the pachuco, it’s all about expression.”
Cynthia Cunniff is a freelance writer.