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).