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Pachuco refers to a subculture of Chicanos and Mexican-Americans, associated with zoot suits, street gangs, nightlife, and flamboyant public behavior. The idea of the pachuco – a zoot-suited, well-dressed, street-connected flamboyant playboy of Hispanic/Latino heritage – originated in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, had moved north, following the line of migration of Mexican railroad workers ("traqueros") into Los Angeles, where it developed further.
A pachuca is the female counterpart, often idealized as a beautiful Chicana woman in extravagant evening dress or a female version of the zoot suit, out with a pachuco boyfriend for a night on the town. Pachucas broke taboos of their time by wearing men's-style pants sometimes and appearing in public often with their pachuco boyfriends; at the time, a "good woman" was considered to have her place in the home. American women were not encouraged to wear pants, as it was seen as strictly masculine. Because of this, outsiders saw Pachucas as rebellious, tacky, and un-American. This created a larger gap between Mexican-Americans and the rest of the community. However, this was not the intention of the Pachuco/Pachuca style. Pachucas strove to prove that their community fits in to American culture and that they were not of lesser value socially and economically. In order to portray this, they created their suits with luxurious and expensive fabrics. Pachucas made their own clothes and created a space for self expression through fashion. They defied male/female stereotypes and roles in Mexican-American culture in much the same way flappers had in European-American culture in the 1920s.
The origin of the term "pachuco" is uncertain, but one theory connects it to the city of El Paso, Texas, which was sometimes referred to as "Chuco Town" or "El Chuco." People migrating to El Paso would say, in Spanish, that they were going "pa' El Chuco." These migrants became known as pachucos.
Another theory says that the word derives from pocho, a derogatory term for a Mexican born in the United States who has lost touch with the Mexican culture. The word is also said to mean "punk" or "troublemaker". Yet another theory is put forth by author Laura L. Cummings who postulates a possible indigenous origin of the term. The founder of the "Pachuco" subculture was a Mexican comedian and film actor named German Valdés better-known by his Artistic name "Tin-Tan". He introduced the Pachuco dress and slang throughout his Golden age-era films.
Connections have also been found between "Pachucos" and mixed civilians who lived near the Mexican–American border during the turn of the century, and between "Pachucos" and the poor soldiers who fought in the Mexican Revolution in the armies of Pancho Villa.
Pachucos called their slang Caló (sometimes called "pachuquismo"), a unique argot that drew on the original Spanish Gypsy Caló, Mexican Spanish, the New Mexican dialect of Spanish, and American English, employing words and phrases creatively applied. To a large extent, Caló went mainstream and is one of the last surviving vestige of the Pachuco, often used in the lexicon of some urban Latinos in the United States to this day. The influence of Valdés is responsible for the assimilation of several Caló terms into Mexican slang.
The Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz writes in the essay, "The Pachuco and Other Extremes" that the Pachuco phenomenon paralleled the zazou subculture in World War II-era Paris in style of clothing, music favored (jazz, swing, and jump blues), and attitudes. Although there was no known link between the two subcultures, they both are most certainly derivative localized blends of American pop culture in the United States.
Pachuco culture in America was at its height during World War II. The Wartime Productions Board in 1942 thought it necessary to cut back on fabric consumption, so they enacted regulations on the amount of fabric used for suits. This enactment targeted Pachucos in particular because of the excess fabric used in their zoot suits. Pachucos boldly chose not to follow these regulations, demonstrating rebellious attitudes and pride in their culture. Pachucos continued to flaunt zoot suits, now attained through bootleg tailors. As a result, these flashy zoot suits were seen as unpatriotic by other Americans. This controversial series of events helped shape Pachuco culture, and zoot suits became a symbol of cultural pride among Mexican-Americans. It didn't all end well, however, as this also led to rising tension between Pachucos and other Americans, playing a part in the start of the 1944 Zoot Suit Riots.
The pachuco subculture declined in the 1960s, evolving into the Chicano style. This style preserved some of the pachuco slang while adding a strong political element characteristic of the late 1960s American life.
In the early 1970s, a recession and the increasingly violent nature of gang life resulted in an abandonment of anything that suggested dandyism. Accordingly, Mexican-American gangs adopted a uniform of T-shirts and khakis derived from prison uniforms, and the pachuco style died out. However, the zoot suit remains a popular choice of formal wear for urban and rural Latino youths in heavily ethnic Mexican neighborhoods. It is typically worn at a prom, in weddings, parties or in some cases, at informal Latino university commencement ceremonies.
The term "pachuco" is used in Costa Rica to define Costa Rican slang. It nevertheless differs from the Mexican slang. In Costa Rica the term "pachuco" refers to someone who has common habits and who is often very rude. In Costa Rica the word pachuco refers to a person who has manners that are socially unacceptable and often uses shocking language when speaking. Pachuco is also a pejorative name given to certain colloquial words and expressions. Some consider pachuco and its pachuquísmos to be Costa Rica's second language.
Pachuco style was a dominating trend among Mexican-American youth in the 1930s-40s. Pachucos became known for their distinguished look, dialogue, and actions. Pachucos dressed in recognizable Zoot suits, and often styled their hair into ducktails. Things like decorative chains and tattoos were also sometimes part of the pachuco look. The unique speech of pachucos was a very important element of their defined style. Consisting of creative phrases and some English words, Caló (Chicano) was a very popular form of speech among pachucos. Pachucos were seen as gangsters in the eyes of other Americans, because of the activities they participated in. They often carried concealed weapons and were involved in criminal activities such as vandalism and gang-related misdemeanors.
The "Pachuca," the female counterpart of the Pachuco, had an aesthetic sensibility as strong as the male zoot suiter. The Pachuca's hairstyle tended to be a high "coif" or bouffant, with the hair put up in some way (a more pronounced version of the typical hair style of the time), sometimes using hair grease. Their makeup was heavy, particularly using a red colored lipstick. The preferred colors of clothing were black and gray. Some pachucas wore the traditionally male zoot suit, albeit with modifications to fit the female form. This was very subversive at the time because of long-held gender roles that dictated how a person should dress. Sometimes, she donned the standard heavy gold pocket chain. Another variation involved a sweater or coat - often a variant on the male zoot-suit finger-tip jacket - over knee-length skirts, plus fishnet stockings or bobby socks and platform shoes. Extravagant dresses were and are also common among pachucas. Like the entire culture, the fashion aesthetic revolved around the concept of "see and be seen".
This style was associated with gang membership and activity largely due to the Zoot Suit Riots that took place in Southern California in 1943. The negative image of the male zoot suiter as a "violent gangster" naturally extended to the Pachuca as well. The promiscuous image came from the Pachuca's high public visibility and patronage of nightlife with pachucos. This image contrasted with the traditional Latino-American image of femininity at the time which held that the "good" minority woman stayed in the home.
- Zoot Suit Riots – a confrontation between pachucos and U.S. Navy servicemen in Los Angeles during World War II in which unarmed pachucos were brutally beaten and jailed
- The opening scenes of the film American Me depict confrontations between pachucos and white soldiers during the Zoot Suit Riots
- The Sleepy Lagoon murder was a confrontation between two Los Angeles pachuco gangs that resulted in a crackdown on the culture
- Cholo and Vato are terms for modern-day Latino street gangsters, though the association with the zoot suit is no longer present
- 1969-, Ramírez, Catherine Sue, (2009). The woman in the zoot suit : gender, nationalism, and the cultural politics of memory. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 9780822342861. OCLC 272303247.
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- War and Military History Questions. "Who were the pachucos". Answers. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
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- "L.A. in the Zoot Suit Era: Zoot Suit Discovery Guide". research.pomona.edu.
- Green Energy Network. "Pachuco". Costa Rican Spanish Dictionary. Retrieved 5 November 2012.
- "PACHUCOS | The Handbook of Texas Online| Texas State Historical Association (TSHA)". tshaonline.org. Retrieved 2015-05-20.
- Ramírez, Catherine S., The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. p. xii 
- Barker, George Carpenter. Pachuco: an American-Spanish argot and its social functions in Tucson, Arizona. University of Arizona Press, 1950.
- Cummings, Laura L. (2003). "Cloth-Wrapped People, Trouble, and Power: Pachuco Culture in the Greater Southwest". Journal of the Southwest. 45 (3): 329–48. JSTOR 40170329.
- Cummings, Laura L. Pachucas and Pachucos in Tucson: Situated Border Lives. University of Arizona Press, 2009.
- Fuentes, Dagoberto and José A. López. Barrio Language Dictionary. La Puente: El Barrio Publications, 1974. ]
- Madrid Barela, A. In Search of the Authentic Pachuco. An Interpretive Essay, Part I. Aztlan, Spring, 4(1), 31 60. 1973.
- Paz, Octavio, translated by Lysander Kemp. "The Pachuco and Other Extremes" in The Labyrinth of Solitude. Grove Press, Inc., 1961; originally published in Spanish by Cuadernos Americanos, Mexico, 1950.
- Ramirez, Catherine Sue Crimes of Fashion: The Pachuca and Chicana Style Politics. Meridians Vol. 2, No. 2 (2002): 1–35.
- Ramirez, Catherine S. The Woman in the Zoot Suit. London: Duke University Press, 2009. Print.
- Salinas, Raul, Un Trip Through the Mind Jail y Otras Excursiones. San Francisco: Pocho Ché, 1980.
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- Serrano, Rodolfo G. "Dictionary Of Pachuco Terms". California State University, 1979.
- Manuel Cantú – Pachuco Dictionary, ISBN 978-0-615-15944-7. Pachuco Dictionary Home Page