Sunday, August 23, 2009

Who's that Woman in the Zoot Suit?

Olga Garcia Echeverria

The Woman in The Zoot Suit.
Catherine Ramirez.
Duke University Press

This past week, I was smitten by The Woman in the Zoot Suit. I carried her around in my plastic book bag like a secret treasure. She rode shotgun in my car, spoke to me in Calo. We shared Vietnamese coffee and sandwiches over lunch. And of course, she was my bed buddy in the early mornings, late nights, or whenever time allowed.

When I wasn't highlighting passages in Catherine Ramirez' book, I found myself staring at the cover. The featured picture, printed in the Los Angeles Times in 1942, is both intriguing and haunting. It captures three young Chicana women being taken into police custody for allegedly being members of a pachuca gang, the Black Widows. One woman is gazing directly into the camera. I can't look at her without wondering who she is and what she's thinking. In fact, she inspires a litany of questions...

Who are these young women in baggy pants and huaraches entering a police car? What are their stories? Why have they and other women like them of the World War II era been so largely ignored by scholars and historians? And how is it that el pachuco (once demonized as a social menace, effeminate dresser and clueless pocho) got re-envisioned into history as an icon of masculinity, resistance, and cultural pride, whereas his female counterpart, la pachuca, dwindled into erasure?

These are some of the questions that Ramirez tackles in The Woman in the Zoot Suit. Her book, which focuses on Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, re-examines the Zoot Suit Riots, the Sleepy Lagoon incident, World War II, and parts of the Chicano Movement. Drawing from a variety of sources, such as literature, film, interviews, pictures, trial transcripts, and newspaper articles, Ramirez locates la pachuca and reinserts her into the historical and cultural narrative.

There are many engaging elements in Ramirez' work. One of her most interesting arguments is that the zoot suit and those who wore them (both female and male) destablized race, class, and gender categories. Whereas men in zoot suits were orginally thought of as excessive and feminine, pachucas were seen as transgressing into the domain of men and masculinity. In this way, Ramirez argues that pachucas and pachucos queered American and Mexican American culture.

This, however, changed for el pachuco during the Chicano movement. Chicano cultural nationalists, such as Luis Valdez and Alurista, "unqueered" el pachucho and redefined him and zoot suit subculture as primarily masculine. In addition, they elevated el pachuco to the status of rebel and cultural icon. Meanwhile, the pachuca continued to be overlooked.

Pachuca Sketch by Sergio Magallanes

We're reinserting her here in a sketch to honor her a bit and to summarize her attire and look, which Ramirez discusses in detail. This particular pachuca is very cool in her huarache sandals, although more feminine pachucas might have worn short skirts and heels. Her hair is styled into a pompadour. This was also known as a razor blade hairdo, as la pachuca's big hair was supposed to serve as a perfect hiding place for razor blades. Myth or reality? Perhaps in la pachuca's world you never knew when you were going to have to throw down. Also emblematic were her thinly plucked eyebrows and her dark lips, traits later visible in cholas and cha cha girls. Some pachucas donned the zoot suit jacket with a skirt that fell above the knees, scandolous attire at the time. Others, like the sketch here, wore the entire tacuche or zoot suit, taking on a masculine or butch persona, and therefore signaling gender and sexual transgression. According to Ramirez, it was this transgression that challenged heteronormative views of nationalism, like La Familia, and that ultimately relegated la pachuca to status of "other" and "outcast."

Ramirez points out that la pachuca was shafted and othered within American nationalism as well. She did not, for example, meet the racial or gender norms of mainstream WW II figures, such as Rosie the Riveter, the housewife, mother, and servicewoman, all of which were featured in wartime American propoganda and were exalted as legitimate citizens and women.

So much more can be said about The Woman in the Zoot Suit, but I will stop here and encourage you all to pick up a copy of Ramirez' book and read for yourself. This is definitely an important body of work that sheds light on la pachuca and how the history of erasure impacts cultural movements and thought. Here is la pachuca academic, Catherine Ramirez, answering a few questions about her work.

What drew you to the pachuca or the woman in the suit zoot?

The pachuca attracted me because, quite frankly, I thought she was cool. In the late 1990s, when I began doing research for my dissertation (the seed for my book), I found her mysterious and transgressive. Like many other students of Chicana and Chicano history, I didn’t know much about pachucas, in great part because they had received so little attention from scholars. I perceived them as transgressive because they appeared to challenge rigid, particularly middle-class and heteronormative, definitions of feminine comportment and beauty. And I liked their clothes, hair, and makeup.

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, my friends and I wore our hair big and high. We also favored black liquid eyeliner and dark lipstick. When my father told me that we looked like pachucas, the girls he used to fear when he was growing up in East L.A. in the 1930s and ‘40s, he piqued my curiosity. Yet, as the project unfolded, I was surprised to see how unenigmatic and ordinary many female zooters were. All of my interviewees, for example, were students, workers, mothers, daughters, and/or wives. Despite the generation gap, they weren’t very different from many of my friends and me. Once I saw their mundaneness, I was struck by the discrepancy between la pachuca as icon and the real, flesh-and-blood zooterinas who have shaped and been shaped by history. I decided to probe this inconsistency further in The Woman in the Zoot Suit.

Can you speak briefly to the void that your book fills in Chican@ and American history?

The Woman in the Zoot Suit is a response to previous stories about the Mexican-American zoot subculture, many of which have focused on men and masculinity and have privileged race as a category of analysis over those of gender and sexuality. While I do not dismiss the roles of race, ethnicity, or class in our understandings of this subculture or the events associated with it, such as the Sleepy Lagoon incident of 1942 and the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, I believe that there’s more to learn from other social identities and relationships. In short, the story and its meanings change when gender and sexuality are brought to the fore.

What initial challenges did you face in researching la pachuca?

When one of the professors with whom I worked as a graduate student warned me that there was insufficient material for a dissertation on pachucas, he didn’t discourage me from pursuing this project. Rather, he motivated me (although this was probably not his intention). My initial reaction to his comment was, Whatever, dude. I will prove you wrong. Then I asked myself, Why the denial? Why the dearth of material? What counts as “material” anyway? Those questions ended up driving my project.

How did you proceed with your project after that initial interaction with your professor?

Because of my professor’s warning, I believed that I needed to create material, so I launched into my research by interviewing Mexican-American women who came of age in Los Angeles during the 1930s and ‘40s, the peak of the zoot suit’s popularity. In other words, my dissertation started off as an ethnography. I began by interviewing family members, mostly aunts. Then I posted flyers in and around East L.A. at places that attracted elderly Mexican Americans, like senior citizen centers. If I recall correctly, the flyer read, “Do you remember the zoot suit? Did you wear one or did you know anyone who did? Were you living in L.A. in the 1930s and 1940s? Do you remember the Sleepy Lagoon incident or Zoot Suit Riots?” Dee Chávez, one of my most interesting interviewees, contacted me after she saw a flyer at a recreation center in Monterey Park. At first, she claimed that she didn’t remember much and she was concerned that she wouldn’t be very helpful to me. She turned out to be a trove of information.

What were you expecting to discover about the women you interviewed and what did you find?

I wasn’t sure what I would learn from the women I interviewed, but I can say that I was hoping they’d simply shed light on the zoot subculture in L.A. in the 1930s and ‘40s. I wanted to know what they did for fun when they were young, where they hung out, how they wore their clothes, hair, and makeup, how and where they acquired their zoot suits, and why they wore them in the first place.

I wasn’t expecting so many of my interviewees to reject the label pachuca, or to show discomfort or disapproval when I used it. When this happened, I feared that I might have to abandon this project. However, rather than ignore their resistance or give up altogether, I decided to explore it. Why was the pachuca so scary to some of my interviewees? What did this figure signify to them and to a later generation of Chicana and Chicano cultural workers?

So, why was la pachuca so scary to some of these women you interviewed?

I believe many of my interviewees had a vexed relationship to the pachuca because she embodies a dissident, highly racialized femininity. While my interviewees wore or borrowed from the zoot look and considered themselves respectable, they told me stories about pachucas who continued to speak Spanish in school even when they were forbidden to do so, who talked back to teachers (and were disciplined as a consequence), who smoked cigarettes in public, who showed more leg and cleavage and wore more makeup than any of their peers, who cut up the dance floor, who refused to step aside when someone attempted to walk past them on a sidewalk, and who weren’t afraid to throw down.

In regards to Chicano history and cultural production, why has the pachuca been so threatening and so greatly ignored?

I found that the pachuca was threatening precisely because she was simultaneously too feminine and not feminine enough—too masculine, in other words. She frightened her contemporaries (e.g., many of my interviewees) and a later generation of Chicano cultural workers, particularly those with an investment in patriarchy and heteronormativity. For this reason, many writers, artists, scholars, and activists have ignored her. However, movement-era Chicana feminist writers and artists, such as Judith Baca, Inés Hernández, Carmen Lomas Garza, and Cherríe Moraga, recognized the pachuca’s dissident femininity and ran with it. Indeed, Moraga’s character, La Pachuca, in her 1984 play Giving Up the Ghost is a butch lesbian.

You use a variety of sources in your book. Can you comment on this?

The Woman in the Zoot Suit is a recovery project. That is, it seeks to bring to light that which has been buried or ignored. Based on its methods (e.g., oral history, textual analysis) and questions, it’s a combination of history and literary criticism. I drew on an eclectic array of sources out of necessity. Narrating a story about la pachuca is a bit like doing a puzzle: each source—for example, an interview, a photograph, a poem, or a newspaper story—represents a piece of that puzzle. I don’t think this puzzle can ever be completed, but scholars who are resourceful and flexible can help to clarify the picture.

Was there resistance within academia to the diverse types of sources you used?

In many ways, sources define academic disciplines. Literary critics often study “texts,” which are generally understood as poems, stories, or novels—fiction, in other words. Historians, in contrast, are supposed to work with non-fiction “documents,” like letters or court records. Irrespective of discipline, these sources are supposed to reveal something about truth and knowledge. To scholars with very conservative ideas about disciplinary boundaries, sources from multiple disciplines should not be mixed. However, I wanted and needed to see what sort of story they would tell when put together.

What have the responses to your book been thus far?

By and large, the responses to The Woman in the Zoot Suit both within and beyond academia have been very positive so far. My parents and old friends have told me that they’re very proud of me. Likewise, colleagues at universities and colleges across the U.S. have let me know that they like the book. Now all I need is for some of them to publish their praise in a book review or two.

What current or future projects are you working on?

My new project, on democracy and difference in the United States and Western Europe, was inspired by the late political scientist Samuel Huntington’s 1996 assertion that Muslims and Mexicans pose a “problem” to Europe and the United States respectively. Huntington argues that both groups are unassimilable and that, ultimately, we threaten the democratic societies we inhabit. I’ve been studying immigration and assimilation in the U.S., France, and Spain. I’ve also been brushing up on my French for the past couple of years. Although I’m still unsure how this project will develop, I’m interested in learning more about Europe and am excited to move into new disciplines and fields of inquiry, like sociology and political theory.


msedano said...

Olga,thanks for a interesting introduction to this book, and Catherine Ramirez. When I was a kid in the 1950s, the pachucos and pachucas were less objects of fear as object lessons. "Don't be a pachuco" or "You don't want to grow up and be a pachuco". Valdez' play, and now Ramirez' treatise, helps humanize outcasts. Plus, Ramirez' book helps correct the historical record for me; I always saw the women as the guisas of the guys. It's good to see them standing in their own light.

Doret said...

This looks wonderful. Thank you. Great interview.

Viva Liz Vega! said...

Great review of the Woman in the Zoot Suit. I will order it. I'm also interested in her research on Mexicans and Muslims disrupting American and European societies. Thanks for bringing her work to us.

Becky said...

Looks like an amazing book! I too am going to have to check it out. This past week I stumbled across a book that I also felt was very unique. The book is titled, "Abandoned and Forgotten" and is written by Evelyne Tannehill, a wonderful author who retells her real-life story of living in Germany as a young girl and witnessing first hand the terror. I learned so much. There were a lot of things that took place in Germany that I wasn't aware of. There are so many perspectives of World War II that I would love to read.

Maria said...

Olga, what a great interview. I especially liked your introduction "I carried her around in my plastic book bag like a secret treasure. She rode shotgun in my car, spoke to me in Calo. We shared Vietnamese coffee and sandwiches over lunch." As someone who is considering returning to graduate school, I was also inspired by Catherine Ramirez'stubborn persistence when told there wasn't enough material on her topic. Sounds like a great contribution to Chicano Studies.Thanks again.

Olga said...

Thank you all for your comments and feedback. I first heard Catherine Ramirez on KPFK a few months ago and I was instantly engaged with her discussion of the female zoot suiter. I love that la pachuca has busted into academia and that she is being seriously written about and discussed. Bravo Catherine!

Maru Lozano said...

Great find and great interview Olga.
Maru Lozano

emily said...

hello, i just found you in a google search because i just read this book for a graduate class. it was a great book and i was looking for some ideas on a response paper. thanks!!

Anonymous said...

Hello Olga,

I found you through your poem titled "Poem in Protest". I heard an audio recording on the internet where you did this poem and music was backing you. What I want to know is, is there an exact version of that poem without the band? It would be great if I could find the acapella version from the same take, I really like the tone in your voice and the reverb feel. I will be checking back here often to see if you have responded. Thank You!