In 1940s East Los Angeles, Mexican-Americans donned zoot suits and dodged violence as they pioneered a little-known musical genre. Today, their grandchildren are bringing pachuco back to life with all the flare it was once famous for. Journalist and creative writing school founder,Marilyn Friedman, dives into the cultural trend to find out what’s really driving the resurgence.
The tiny railroad-style bar sits on the edge of Mariachi Plaza, a small square decorated with colorful murals of Ranchera singers in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Sombrero-clad mariachis mill about, searching for their next quinceañera gig. A bouncer in a feather-topped fedora opens the heavy black door of Eastside Luv to reveal a swing dance time machine, barrio-style.
Inside, handsome Latino men in zoot suits chat up pencil-skirted beauties with flower-laden pompadours. Below the stage, bartenders in a subterranean cave serve up icy micheladas — a fizzy Bloody Mary made with Clamato, hot sauce, lime juice and Tecate beer. Glow-in-the-dark Day of the Dead portraits of classic Hollywood celebs, like Marilyn Monroe, grace the walls. Welcome to Pachuco Boogie Night.
To kick off the evening, a zoot-suited man who goes by “Pachuco Jose” and Elizabeth Aguayo, dressed like a pin-up queen, dance a sultry rumba atop the low mahogany counter that serves as a stage while the crowd whistles and cheers. Their performance is reminiscent of a 1940s floorshow. When they transition into playing “El Muchacho Boogie,” a Latin-flavored version of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” toes start tapping and heads start shaking throughout the bar.
Pachuco Boogie Night is much more than a group of young people dressing up in vintage wear and playing old music on the third Sunday of every month. For the sixty to eighty people who come here — ranging in age from their early 20s to their 80s — it’s a tribute to a forgotten chapter of American history, a celebration of Latino pride and Chicano (Mexican-American) identity, which blossomed in the 1940s despite intense racism and discrimination.
Pachuco Jose and his band perform at Eastside Luv
This night pays homage to the pachuco movement, Mexican-Americans who dressed in zoot suits. Much like African-Americans, Latinos in the 1930s and 1940s were routinely excluded from the mainstream jazz scene, and as a result, developed their own flamboyant brand of style and music. One theory proposes that the word pachuco came from El Paso, Texas, which was referred to as “Chuco Town” due to the large numbers of Mexican immigrants that lived there.
Many historians argue that pachuco fashion began in the border towns of El Paso, Tucson and Tijuana, imported by Mexican braceros — manual laborers traveling back and forth to the States, as Luis Alvarez documents in his book, The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II.
“I come here every month as a remembrance of the original pachucos,” says Christopher Viramontes, age 32, who wears a neatly coiffed mustache and sports tattoos under his eyes — an anchor on the right and a straight razor on the left — homages to a stint in the Navy and his current profession as a barber.
Viramontes is decked out in a tailored pinstriped suit and fedora. He is accompanied by his elegant girlfriend, Danielle Sciortino, age 23, who shows off her petite frame in a fitted 1940s frock. Viramontes feels it’s especially important to pay tribute to the pachuco movement as discrimination against Latinos continues today. He mentions the busloads of Central American children seeking asylum who were turned away in Murrieta, California, last month.
“A lot of people show up because they don’t want the history to be forgotten. It goes back to the inception of the Chicano identity,” says Pachuco Boogie Night’s organizer, John Carlos De Luna. The 35-year-old is outfitted in a vintage beige suit and cream-colored fedora.
In a dimly lit booth at Eastside Luv, De Luna, also a Boyle Heights native, passionately shares the highlights of pachuco history. He explains how a Mexican actor, Germán Valdés, who performed under the stage name Tin Tan, popularized pachuco style. Valdés would dress up in a wide-brimmed fedora or tando, high-waisted pants and a long coat. By the mid-1940s, Valdés had made close to twenty movies sporting his iconic outfit.
De Luna learned that during World War II, as thousands of Mexican refugees fleeing the revolution caused a population explosion in Los Angeles and the border towns, the zoot suit transformed from a fashion trend into a statement of protest against discrimination.
De Luna’s affinity for pachuco music and history grew out of deep, personal struggle and difficult circumstances. In 2008, he was bedridden for almost a year due to degenerative disc disease. Without health insurance, he couldn’t afford the expensive surgery that would help him walk again.
His friend, Nicholas Centino, a young professor of Chicano Studies at UC Santa Barbara, gave him pachuco history texts to take his mind off his pain. While reading one of these books, a quote from a pachuco resonated with De Luna. It read, “Ni de Aqui, Ni de Alla.” “I wasn’t from here or from there.”
Sudying Alvarez’s book, De Luna learned that although Mexican-Americans were overrepresented in the armed services, they were treated as second-class citizens. Zoot suits, which required large amounts of fabric despite strict cloth rationing, became a visual symbol of defiance to a war effort that willingly sacrificed Latino lives but denied Chicanos basic respect and true equality, according to Catherine Ramírez’s The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory.
By wearing zoot suits, young Latino men and women stopped trying to assimilate and instead found dignity in being themselves. But this cultural renaissance came at a price, culminating in the notorious Zoot Suit Riots. In the summer of 1943, a mob of 200 drunk, club-wielding sailors assaulted young Latinos in bars, cafes and theaters across East Los Angeles. The attack was a response to a campaign of anti-Mexican hysteria fueled by the local press, which claimed that zoot suit wearers and gangsters were one and the same.
After several days of rioting, hundreds of people were injured and more than 600 Latino youths were arrested, many of whom were victims of the attacks, according to David Wolcott, writing in the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood: In History and Society.
As the riots subsided, the city council issued a new law making the wearing of a zoot suit in L.A. punishable by a thirty-day jail term. These moves to squash pachuco culture only inspired greater creativity and innovation. Young Chicano musicians who moved to L.A., like Don Tosti from El Paso and Lalo Guerrero from Tucson, created a parallel jazz universe designed for an American Latino audience. They blended swing, boogie-woogie and rhumba beats, and incorporated Caló — Spanish slang that’s still spoken today — into their songs.
In 1948, Tosti’s “Pachuco Boogie” was the first hit Latin song to sell millions of copies. Guerrero’s “Chicas Patas Boogie” took the catchy melody of Louis Prima’s “Oh Babe” and used unique Spanish lyrics to make the song relevant to young Latinos of the 1940s. With his catalog of over 700 recordings, much of it original songs, Guerrero is considered to be the father of Chicano music.
De Luna, a first generation Chicano who grew up in the low-income Estrada Courts housing projects, saw his experience reflected in that of the pachucos, many of whom lived in Boyle Heights forty years before him. He felt trapped in a kind of limbo because he was largely excluded from white society in West L.A. and had little in common with many of the Mexican immigrants who lived in his community on the east side. “It didn’t matter how much I tried to be Mexican,” De Luna says. “I could never be Mexican because I wasn’t. I didn’t fit in. And it didn’t matter how much I tried to be American, I was always Mexican.”
As a boy, De Luna traveled with his grandfather, a Mexican immigrant, to Malibu to help him with landscaping. One white employer unjustly blamed his grandfather for another landscaping crew’s shoddy work. She put her finger on his nose, calling him a “lazy beaner” and threatened to deport him and his staff of “wetbacks.” His grandfather just put his head down and apologized.
De Luna also had a hard time fitting in at home in Boyle Heights. “I didn’t have too many friends growing up. I was a weird, nerdy kid who loved art, old music and films.” His grandfather introduced him to Tin Tan movies and Perez Prado’s exuberant mambos. De Luna connected more with the rich heritage of the pachucos and the 1940s than with contemporary fashion and culture. He became captivated with how style could be a form of empowerment. De Luna remembers watching his grandfather, who tirelessly worked several jobs, dress up every Sunday in vintage suits, ties and fedoras.
At the age of eighteen, De Luna received a full scholarship to a summer art program at Otis College of Art and Design. After completing the two-month program, enduring a three-and-a-half-hour round-trip bus ride from East L.A. to Marina Del Rey five days a week, he made an appointment with a financial aid officer to apply to attend Otis full-time.
When he arrived at the admissions office, a white secretary tried to talk him out of applying without even reviewing his credentials. “There’s a very good community college in East Los Angeles where you can learn sign painting and get yourself a trade,” she said. “This is not for you.” De Luna demanded to see a counselor. Four hours later, he got frustrated and left. He never applied to art school after that. “That experience really hurt me,” he recalls.
De Luna put his dreams on hold. He attended community college and got a stable bank job, eventually working his way up to executive marketing manager. His job required thirteen to fifteen hour days, sometimes seven days a week, sitting behind a desk. Soon, he felt unbearable cramping on the left side of his body. His doctors told him that sitting for these long periods had worn down the cartilage on his lower lumbar and that he was suffering from degenerative disc disease. By the time his pain had become debilitating, he was 29-years-old. De Luna had to quit his job and no longer had medical coverage.
Eventually, De Luna’s girlfriend was able to add him to her health insurance and he got the surgery he needed to walk again. “During the time I didn’t walk, I was really suffering,” he says. “The pachucos and their history really inspired me. It gave me hope that I would be okay.” After his surgery, De Luna started dressing exclusively in vintage. It gave him a sense of purpose and restored his self-confidence.
Soon De Luna transformed his passion for pachuco fashion into a budding business venture. He began selling double-breasted and pique lapel forties and fifties suits in pop-up shops and online under his own label, Barrio Dandy, eventually expanding into personal styling, costume design and handmade jewelry for men. His accessories include Virgen de Guadalupe and biker rings, gold tie and hat pins, and gem-encrusted revolver lapel pins.
Pachuquismo reenergized De Luna’s art as well. He created innovative paintings that explored the historical connection between his own East Los Angeles, Mexican-American identity and the original pachuco experience. His work “Ni de Aqui, Ni de Alla” depicts a zoot-suited pachuco and pachuca wearing angel wings, a Mexican flag and the American flag, and an inflamed 1949 Jim Crow-era sign wedged between them that says, “We serve whites only. No Spanish or Mexicans.”
Clad in a forties Hollywood-style sweater vest and paper boy cap, De Luna’s friend of ten years, Nicholas Centino, age 34, shares an obsession with pachuco history. The bookish and youthful Centino is an expert swing dancer whose academic research has focused on pachuco history and Latinos in the L.A. rockabilly scene. “The music bridged my interest in Chicano history, swing music, World War II and lowriders,” Centino says.
He enjoys how dressing in vintage reproductions and shaving his face with a straight razor elevates the mundane “to a level of art.” Centino connects with pachuco boogie because “it tells our story. And it writes us into a history of the forties and fifties when usually we are left out.”
De Luna also found a kindred spirit in a pastor and musician named Jose Lara who went by the nickname Pachuco Jose. With a powerful frame, Pachuco Jose, age 46, always wears homemade zoot suits that are part of his own Drape Shapes clothing line. Jose says he wears these outfits every day and doesn’t even own a pair of gym shoes or shorts.
A Salvadoran refugee, Jose firmly identifies with the pachuco immigrant struggle. In the late seventies, he narrowly escaped El Salvador’s gruesome civil war and death squads. His parents paid coyotes to smuggle him into the U.S. on three separate occasions. The fourth time, he was thrown into a detention camp in El Paso and eventually released in Los Angeles. Although he was later given citizenship, he was haunted by the trauma he endured and ended up joining a street gang, becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs.
Ultimately, Jose left the gang and found sobriety through religion and pachuco music. He loved the blend of boogie woogie sounds with mambo and rhumba, which brought him back to his roots. He became so familiar with Lalo Guerrero’s work that he was once asked to finish singing the master’s rendition of “Los Chucos Suaves” onstage when the elderly Guerrero was too weak to complete the song. After Pachuco Jose finished, Lalo Guerrero went up to him and gave him a hug. Pachuco Jose says that at that moment, he felt Guerrero’s approval. “The main guy, Mr. Pachuco [had] handed me the torch.”
An opportunity for the three to transform their common passion for pachuco into a full-blown movement surfaced in July 2013. They decided to host the first Pachuco Boogie Night to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the Zoot Suit Riots at Eastside Luv, just blocks away from the site of one of the riots.
Rather than making this a somber event, they wanted to celebrate pachuco heritage and document the contributions of Latino musicians and activists to Chicano culture. Jose’s new band, Pachuco Jose and His Jubilee Train, would play, and De Luna and Centino would spin Latin American classics, Spanish rock and roll, swing, jazz and mambo in between sets.
Through Facebook and word of mouth, they gathered a crowd of eighty people spanning all ages: from 21-year-olds who learned to love pachuco tunes from their grandparents playing it at home, to 80-somethings who had experienced the riots firsthand.
Since then, the swing night has regularly attracted young Latino professionals, many of whom are Boyle Heights residents, and others who discover the venue through social media and travel from as far away as Sacramento and Arizona to attend. In addition to the house band, the organizers have regularly invited other Latin American musicians such as Phil Rocker, a Colombian who sings 1950s rock-and-roll cumbia songs.
The event continuously brings back a group of dedicated regulars that includes Korean War vets, young Boyle Heights artists, hair stylists from Whittier’s classic Tip Top Barber Shop and recently discharged soldiers. Some of the regulars are modern-day pachucos who dress daily in vintage, including a female mechanic who fixes cars in high-waisted pants and a pompadour hairdo.
As the night draws to a close during a recent edition, Pachuco Jose vibrantly strums his guitar, the crowd swaying to a tropical Mexican beat. Elizabeth Aguayo plucks her bass as her honeyed voice croons out, “El Ladrón,” a song about a lusty housewife who tries to seduce a surprised thief.
De Luna watches it all from an alcove under the entrance. His two-toned Art Deco tie matches his suit. It is adorned with a golden arrow tiepin, and a long watch chain dangles from his pocket. When asked about what this monthly gathering means to him, De Luna recalls something his grandfather would say when he dressed up in his pachuco Sunday best: “Sometimes people treated me como un perro (like a dog). But every Sunday when I woke up, it was the only day that I could get dressed up and have my dignity. I wasn’t just some peasant. I was a man.”