National Chicano Dance Theatre

Chicana/o Rebellious Dancers: The Pachuco/a Zoot Suiters

This month I am writing about our Chicana/o ancestors from 1940s who showed their rebellious ways through dance, music, dress, speech, and culture. Yes, I am talking about the Zoot Suiter or the Pachucos and Pachucas of this era. As they danced the jitterbug in their zoot suits they defiantly retaliated against assimilation. Yet, this story begins with a killing….

In Los Angeles, California in 1942 Josè Díaz attended a party near Sleepy Lagoon which was a popular place for Mexican-American or Chicano youth to hang out. He was found bleeding to death. Immediately, the police began looking for the killer. They swept through Chicano neighborhoods and rounded up six hundred youths. Twenty-two Chicanos who were members of the 38th Street Gang were charged with murder and assault. Scholars who comb through historical evidence now note that this trial was unjust. This was known as the Sleepy Lagoon Incident.

Then, on June 7, 1942, Vicente Morales who wore a zoot suit took his date to the Orpheum Theatre for a night of dancing. Sometime during this evening, a group of white sailors beat him up while shouting profanities. They stripped him of his zoot suit and his girlfriend had to cover his naked, beaten body with her own coat. The police arrested him on charges of disturbing the peace. He went to jail. So, began the Zoot Suit Riots where hundreds of Service men roamed the streets of Los Angeles targeting Chicanos wearing Zoot Suits.  The pachucos were beaten in front of a crowd, stripped of their zoot suits, and arrested by police for vagrancy, disturbing the peace and other charges. The news media added to the hype by labeling the Zoot Suiters as un-American and juvenile delinquents. Eventually the Zoot Suit riots were quelled after an outcry by the Mexican government.

Why Dress in Zoot Suits?

During this time, Americans were fighting in World War II. All citizens were expected to fight for their country and support the war. Many Chicanos fought during World War II but they were still segregated in schools, movie theaters, hotels, restaurants, etc. They were discriminated against at work and were the targets of prejudice. However, the Chicana/o youths were not powerless. Instead, of succumbing to demands that they assimilate to American society. They rebelled and created the Pachuca/o style (Alvarez 2008, 155, 15-18, 78).

Rebellious Attire

The pachucos and pachucas of the 1940s were known for wearing their rebellious attire known as the Zoot Suit. Luis Alvarez in The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance During World War II (2008) quotes a former Zoot Suiter from Los Angeles, California.

Yeah everything was brown. And the coat came down to here [pointing to the knees], right down to here. And the silver chain from the pocket, and the wide, like a pancake, hat, with a real wide brim. …And we would dress up that like that to go to the dances. All of us. All wear the same thing. With the big chain, we’d twirl the chain (Alvarez 2008, 86).

Sketches of Zoot Suit by Tailor Ramon Galindo published by Luis Alvarez

The pachuca wore a short skirt, a pompadour hair do, and “loud” make-up. Some wore pants and blazer types shirts the equivalent of the male zoot suit (Ramírez 2002, 15).

Pachucas of the 1940s from “the Pachuca and Chicana Style Politics”

Dancing Pachucos and Pachucas in the 1940s

The Zoot suiters of the 1940s danced the jitterbug (Delgado 1971, 5). This was a very difficult dance involving intricate footwork and partnering skills. They twisted, hopped in a synchronized, fast pace together with their dance partners. Oftentimes couples incorporated dance tricks involving amazing jumps and lifts.

Zoot suiters listened to jazz music. This music would later evolve into bebop (Alvarez 2008, 144). They also liked music by artists Artie Shaw & His Orchestra, Benny Goodman, & Harry James. They really loved dancing to the music of Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five especially the song Caldonia. Later on, they would dance to anything by Chubby Checkers (Delgado 1971, 5).

To listen to Caldonia by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, please see below.

Caldonia by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five

Also, new songs with pachucos as a theme became the rage. One very popular melody was the song called Pachuco Boogie by Edmundo Tostado or Don Tosti. One reason this song was so popular is because the singer uses the unique Pahcuco/a slang in a musical conversation (Alvarez 2008, 140).

To listen to Pachuco Boogie, please see below:

Pachuco Boogie

Dancing the Zoot Suit Style in Folklórico

Zoot Suit style dancing gained national attention when featured in the play Zoot Suit (1979) and film (1981) by Luis Valdez. Valdez depicted pachucos and pachucas dancing with their zoot suits. With that, folklórico groups across the country began incorporating Zoot Suit style dancing in their repertoire. Frank Trujillo of The National Chicano Dance Theater based in Denver, Colorado choreographed his own Zoot Suit dance suite based upon family research (Nájera-Ramirez 2012, 172). In their program Trujillo gives a brief history of the Sleepy Lagoon incident and the Zoot Suit riots. He choreographed an entire suite of dances depicting the Zoot Suiters. The National Chicano Dance Theater toured the United States in 1980 showcasing this suite alongside other dances. (Chronology: Cuatro Epocas Program).  

At the Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folklóricos (ANGF) conference in 1982 held in Alamosa, Colorado the Bailadores del Bronce folklórico group from Seattle, Washington wowed attendees with their performed of Zoot Suit style dances (ANGF Conference IX Syllabus). Randy Robert López was a member Bailadores del Bronce and performed at the ANGF conference.  The group was directed by Elma Gonzalez Radke. He tells me that sometime between 1978 and 1979 all the dancers created these choreographies. He says that the dances were created in a collaborative effort each adding new steps and sequences (López 2019).

Lopez is pictured third from right with the Bailadores del Bronce

Also, the Grupo Folklórico Semillas de la Tierra in Alamosa, Colorado would learn these dances from Juan Rios who was a former dancer with the National Chicano Dance Theatre. They premiered their own Zoot Suit dances in the early 1980s with a poetic recitation by Abelardo Delgado. They also dedicated the Zoot Suit suite to the pachucos and pachucas of the 1940s. Nowadays as a Tejana, I have seen/heard of folklorico groups such as the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Ballet Folklórico and the Round Rock Ballet Folklórico perform Zoot Suit style dances. I know that there are so many of us that remember the rebellious Pachuca/os through dance.

Round Rock Ballet Folklorico
Round Rock Ballet Folklorico 2018

My Thoughts

Many of us continue to create, innovate, and pass on the songs and jitterbug dance styles of the zoot suit era as a way to remember our ancestors who were unjustly targeted as anti-American. No longer wanting to fit into the melting pot they showed their unique individuality through dress, speech, music, and dance. We keep their rebellious spirit in our hearts as we perform our Zoot Suit dances.

Written by Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia Ph.D.

To read my latest research please purchase the book Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910) which is written by Sanjuanita Martinez-Hunter and edited by myself. It is available for purchase on Amazon.com.

Dancing Throughout Mexican History (132-1910)
Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910)

Works Cited

Alvarez, Luis. 2008. The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance During World War II. Berkeley:   University of California Press.

Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folklóricos Conference IX Syllabus. 1982.

Delgado, Abelardo B. The Chicano Movement: Some Not Too Objective Observations. El Paso: Barrio Publications.

Jordan, Louis. n.d, Caldonia. Performed by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PR6pHtiNT_k (accessed March 28, 2019).

López, Randy Robert. 2019.Correspondence by author. March 28.

Nájera-Ramirez. Ballet Folklórico and Mexican Identity. In Dancing Cultures: Globalization,Tourism, and Identity in the Anthropology of Dance. ed. Héléne Neveu Kringelbach and Jonathan Skinner, 161-176. New York: Berghahn Books.

The National Chicano Dance Theater: Chronology-Cuatro Epocas Program. n.d.  Artes Chicanos.

Sanchez, Yolanda. 2019. Round Rock Ballet Folklorico Photograph.

Ramírez, Catherine S.  2002. “The Pachuca and Chicana Style Politics.” Meridians. 2(2): 1-35.

Tosti, Don. n.d. Pachuco Boogie. By Orquesta de Don Ramon.    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1Lf81W0vpA (accessed March 29, 2019).


Dancing Nuevo Leon Central

Dancing Nuevo León Central and Chihuahua

When I was a folklórico dancer with the University of Texas Ballet Folklórico, I remember my teacher Michael Carmona taught us the polkas, redovas, and schottisches of Northern Mexico. He called it Norteño. This group was started in 1975 by UT students and my aunt Sanjuanita Martinez-Hunter. This was one of the first regions in their repertoire. By the time I attended the University of Texas at Austin some twenty-five years later or so, we continued this dance tradition of representing the entire Northern region of Mexico in a suite of dances. Afterwards, I danced with Roy Lozano’s Ballet Folklórico de Tejas which was founded in the 1980s. When I danced with Roy Lozano in the 1990s, we would perform dances representing Nuevo León and another set representing Chihuahua. Thus, no longer was the entire Northern region of Mexico depicted in a suite of dances. Today, I see folklórico groups performing the norteño dances of Durango, Nuevo León, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, etc., as separate and distinct states. Thinking about this, I wonder what the bodily distinctions are between the dances of Nuevo León Central and Chihuahua.

Dancing the Polka, Redova, and Shotis

In folklórico, Nuevo León Central is characterized by dances that include the polka, redova, and shotis (Guerrero Hernández 2003, 35). In contrast, only the polkas characterize the folklórico dances of Chihuahua. However, according to Rito Ortega Posada, he says that if you every travel to Chihuahua all you have to do is say “Let’s dance a few dances of Northern Mexico” and everyone will dance the redova, shotis, etc. with with you on the dance floor (Ortega Posada 2001, 73).

A Final Bow . Photograph courtesy of Jesse Solis.
A Final Bow after Dancing Chihuahua

New Choreographies

Many of the dances and music that we perform to today are derived from choreographies and compositions created in the twentieth century. In my blog post, Folklórico Dance as an Invented Tradition, I wrote about Antonio Tanguma and his famous compositions that we now dance to that represent Nuevo León. He composed the songs entitled:  El Cerro de la Silla, Evangelina, El Naranjo, Polka Alegre among others. In fact, his very first composition was composed in 1938. It was entitled De China a Bravo (Houston 2017, 107; Quiroz 2003, 88-89).

It was during the 1970s that a new style of dancing the polkas from Chihuahua emerged. This type of style is similar to what we perform today. During the 1970s composers created new songs which included: De Chihuahua a Concordia, Cierro Prieto, El Huarachazo to name a few. New dance moves with new choreographies accompanied the music (Ortega Posada 2001, 73).

Stylistic Interpretations

There are stylistic interpretations that characterize the dances of Nuevo León Central and Chihuahua.

The polkas of Nuevo León Central use the punta y talón or toe/heel combinations, carretillas accentuate the footwork when wearing boots, pespunteados y entrecruces and are marked with rapid turns that resemble the European style of dancing (Guerrero Hernández 2003, 35).

According to Vicky Barriga of the Rarajipame Ballet Folklorico Infantil, there are five different stylistic versions of dancing the polkas of Chihuahua. Maestro/as who created their own stylistic versions of Chihuahua include: Prof. Antonio Rubio of the Universidad Autonoma de Chihuahua, Leonor Avalos (considered by Barriga to be one of the great choreographer of the polkas), husband and wife duo Victor Barriga and Rita Cobos Lugo of the Rarajipame Ballet Folklórico, and Profesor Chava who choreographed dances to represent Ciudad Juárez. Barriga also mentions that we can’t forget all those dancers who participate in competitions. This is also a specific style in which they incorporate new footwork and movements to win.  Also, she mentions that Leonor Avalos revolutionized these dances by making them synonymous with the state of Chihuahua. Before Avalos the dances of Chihuahua were lumped together as dances of the norteño region. She describes Chihuahua as having distinct polkas with rapid turns that requires much agility and elegance.  Each of the maestro/as listed above put their own touch to the polkas of Chihuahua (Barriga 2019).

My Thoughts

Writing this piece, makes me realize that I still have so much to learn. I feel that I am always learning something new. How does your folklórico group embody the norteño dances?

Written by Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia Ph.D.

To read more about Mexican Dance History please read
the book Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910) which is written by Sanjuanita Martinez-Hunter and edited by myself. It is available for purchase on Amazon.com.

https://www.amazon.com/author/gabrielamendozagarcia

Also, my blog posts entitled: How do Folklorico Dancers Embody the Son?, Dancing Mexico: As Seen through the Eyes of Luis Covarrubias,  cover a bit of the findings from the book Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910) .

Dancing Throughout Mexican History (132-1910)
Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910)

Works Cited

Barriga,Vicky. 2019. Correspondence by author. January 31.

Houston, Ron. 2017. Folk Dances of Mexico for Grupos Folklóricos: Dances Introduced by Alura Flores and Her Students. Austin: Society of Folk Dance Historians.

Garza Quiros, Fernando. 2003. “Artisticas Destacados de Nuevo León: Antonio Tanguma.” Nuevo León: Textos del Folklore. Monterrey: Asociación Nacional de Maestros de Danza Popular Mexicana A.C.

Guerrero Hernández, Jaime. ed. 2003. “Bailes y Ritmos de la Región Central.” In Nuevo León: Textos del Folklore. Monterrey: Asociación Nacional de Maestros de Danza Popular Mexicana A.C.


Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia Ballet Folklorico Dancing Veracruz

Transformations of Folkloric Dance

In the book Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity (1995), Néster García Canclini argues that traditional practices that identify us as a nation or people are highly valued. They are thought of as a treasure from the past and are so valuable that we imagine them as beyond question. We are so intent on preserving, restoring, and disseminating these traditions that we fail to see the ways in which these traditions interact, contradict, and respond to modern day influences. Canclini continues by stating that some people believe that folklore should remain unchanged, and that progress as well as modern communication alters and destroys it and makes it lose its identity. Instead, he argues that modern influences do not erase folklore but instead transform it (108, 148-149). I have noticed this same line of thought amongst folkloristas. We love our dances so much that we fail to realize just how much these dances continue to be transformed by history, politics, and modern day influences. I argue that these dance influences are part of a circular pattern where the communities are influenced by modern day politics, trends and vice versa. Plus, as Canclini mentions it is so important is to think through the contradictions expressed within these dance practices.

Folkloric Dance Transforms throughout History

Thinking through Canclini’s ideas, let’s use a historic example from the book Dancing Throughout Mexican History 1325-1910 (2018) as written by Sanjuanita Martínez-Hunter and edited by myself to show the ways in which folkloric dance is transformed based upon political upheavals. The following is an excerpt.

The Spanish conquistadors came to forcefully impose their way of life and morality on the Aztec people. The conquerors saw no value in the Indigenous culture or religion…..[1]

However, the Spanish conquerors faced the problem that many thousands of their Indigenous subjects worshipped through dance. Desiring at all cost to save the souls of the newly conquered people, the conquistadors incorporated polytheistic festivities and dance into their sacramental rites. In their eyes, substituting the symbols and deity of Christianity for the polytheistic motifs and deities while preserving the pomp and color of polytheistic ceremonies helped actualize the transition from the sinful life of certain damnation to the holy life of eternal joy.[2]

As the acculturation progressed, the religious fiestas changed in form. Ancient deities who had presided over the festive rituals were replaced by the patron saints of Christianity. Dance included themes such as the struggle between Christianity and atheism, the medieval Crusades, and even the Spanish Conquest (43).[3]

In her writings, Martínez-Hunter continues to describe the ways in which the indigenous people also changed their dances using new dance movements, musical instruments, and themes of the time period. In other words, the indigenous people and the colonizers were influenced by each other and made changes to the dances to transform them. They did not stay the same during times of political unrest, uncertainty, or peace. Instead, Canclini urges us to examine the many contradictions that these dances express.

Folklorico is Constantly Changing Even Today

Now, let’s thinks of a more contemporary example which shows the ways in which Mexican Folkloric dances are influenced by and react to contemporary dance trends.  Folkloric dance companies are known for their staged presentations of dances as performed by a community of people. Anthony Shay in “Choreographing Identities: Folk Dance, Ethnicity, and Festival in the United States and Canada” (2006) argues that dance communities borrow styles and ideas from folkloric dance companies. He quotes an interview in which Amalia Hernández of the Ballet Folklórico de México recounted the following story:

With only a small trace of irony, Hernandez describes being invited to judge a contest of traditional dancing in culturally conservative Veracruz. Watching the competition, Hernandez discovered that the participants were openly incorporating steps she had invented for her classic Ballet Folklórico de México suite. “I didn’t say a thing” she recalls with a big smile. “The tradition is like a river of style that goes on (Segal 1997, 67).”

This is yet another example showing the ways in which Dance influences are two-fold and form a circular pattern. In other words, just as we are influenced by the dances of the community of people they are influenced by the folkloric dances presented by companies on stage, on television, via the internet etc. Both examples reveal this circular effect, where communities inspire the staging of the dances and vice versa. By carefully analyzing the dances, we can start thinking about the contradictions expressed.

My Thoughts

I argue that Folkloric dances are influenced by their historic and political surroundings, as well as, modern day influences. In addition, they are dynamic, fluid and travel across communities in a circular manner.  It’s time we start analyzing the dances to think about the many contradictions they express. What do you think?

Announcement: The book Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910) by Sanjuanita Martínez-Hunter and edited by Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia is scheduled to be released in October 2018. It will be available for purchase through amazon. I will post more details at a later date.

Works Cited

Martínez-Hunter, Sanjuanita. Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910). South Carolina: Mexico Lindo Press, 2018.

Shay, Anthony. Choreographing Politics: State Folk Dance Companies, Representation, and Power. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Footnotes

[1] Anne Schley Duggan, et.al., Folk Dances of the United States and Mexico (New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1948), p. 103.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Luis Covarrubias, Regional Dances of Mexico (México: Fischgrund Litographia Record, n.d.), p. 34.


Folklorico Books for Every Folklorista’s Collection

Part of our responsibilities as Folkloristas is to research using books, newspapers, archives, oral histories, and bodily transmissions. We need to fully engage as practitioners of our art form. Our choreographies need to be grounded in theory, text, oral/bodily accounts, and especially in history to create and/or transmit them.  Part of this process involves collecting books written by scholars/artists that we can use as a reference. Every Folklorista that I know has their own book collection that they use to inspire their choreographies and learn more about our history. So, this month I decided to share with you my favorite books that have helped me as a scholar, writer, and choreographer. So, here it goes… Read More


Aztec Dance as Humorous?

Today, in the twenty-first century I have seen many, many Aztec dances as performed by different folklorico groups[1]. Usually, when we perform the Aztec dances they are depicted as very solemn and part of a ritual ceremony. It is true that the Aztecs did dance as part of religious celebrations.  They also danced war and victory dances. Yet, not all the Aztec dances were serious.  Some of these dances were humorous and meant to entertain. The following is an excerpt from the book Dancing Throughout Mexico (1325-1910) as written by Sanjuanita Martínez-Hunter and edited by myself. Read More


Embodying the Nation–China Poblanas of 1920s and 1930s Mexico City

As I pour through stacks and stacks of newspapers from 1920s and 1930s Mexico City, I notice that in print are all types of photographs of young women dressed in their China Poblana costumes. These photos chronicle women as competing for the Reina de fiestas patrias, as part of charriadas, actresses, etc. Nowadays newspapers are no longer filled with images of China Poblanas. I wonder aloud, what was happening in 1920s and 1930s Mexico City to make this so popular? Read More


Creation, Growth, and Inspiration: The Beginnings of the Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folklóricos (1974-1976)

This article was written specifically for the Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folkloricos in 2016. This blog post includes an excerpt. To read the article in its entirety please click on the link below

Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folklóricos

As I write this account, I note that it has been forty-one years since the Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folklóricos or ANGF first began as a non-profit organization. The purpose of ANGF is “to serve as a voice for the promotion and preservation of Mexican folklore traditions…”  This is accomplished by organizing an annual conference whereby participants meet to learn regional dances, music, and traditions of Mexico and Latin America countries by renown teachers. Read More