La Pachuca: Mexican subculture in 1940’s L.A.

Exhibit By: Maria Rios

Five girls sitting on bench

Pachuca girls in a police station, 1940s (Taken from Tumblr)

What is a Pachuca

Pachuca/o was a subculture created by Mexican youth in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Pachucas were the female zoot-suiters (males zoo-suiters were called pachucos) who rebelled against social conventions. The origin of the term is unsure, one popular and well known theory is the name originated from El Paso, Texas which was a popular town for migrant workers. Referred to as “Chuco Town,” the migrants that came from the town to Los Angeles were called pachucos.

The pachucas/os were a marginalized group in American society during the mid-20th century due to their youth and ethnicity and by adopting the zoot-suit style, they adopted the statement of defiance and developed a style for their generation. The subculture went relativity unknown and unnoticed by the American public until the Sleepy Lagoon Murder in 1942. Soon the subculture would be shot into the public eye and these young women and men would become stigmatized by both the American public and within their own cultural communities.

couples dancing

Mexican-American couples dancing (Getty Images, Credit Ralph Crane)

girl sitting with dog

Pachuca, 1940s (Taken from Pinterest)

Clothing and Style

As the pachuca was the female counterpart to the pachuco, they too took up a distinctive style. The standard uniform for a pachuca was above knee tailored-made gabardine skirt, sweater or the standard zoot suit finger-tip jacket, and huarache sandals. Some wore the masculine version of the zoot suit that was also tailored. Their hair would be teased or ratted into high bouffants or coifs that was styled with hair grease. Finally, the make-up was heavy, particularly the lipstick which was usually a dark color.

Mexican females in zoot-suits (Taken from Tumblr)

Mexican females in zoot-suits (Taken from Tumblr)

Another part of the Pachuca/o style was the Caló, the chosen dialect among Mexican youth. Developed as an argot it is made up of rhyming slang, mixed Spanish, English, and other indigenous languages, like Nahuatl, from the Mexico region. While it was a popular dialect, pachucas were criticized for speaking the language as it was seen as unladylike. The pachuca style challenged the dominant perception of femininity during this time as their style went against the “hyper-girly, bobby sox and poodle skirt look of mainstream feminine fashion of the time”[1]. The pachucas rebelled against the mainstream ideals of beauty and because of this were considered radical and un-American.

“Pachucas embody the rebellion against domesticity and challenge the idea of ‘appropriate female behavior’”.

Roseli Martinez, art event organizer in LA, co-founder of Xicanas de Corazon book club[2]

Views of the Pachuca

The pachuca/os culture came into the spotlight in the summer of 1942 with the death of José Díaz on Williams ranch in rural Los Angeles, located near reservoirs that was a local hot-spot for Mexican-American youth. The evening of August 1st there was a violent confrontation between two rival gangs, The 38th Street gang and a neighboring gang from Downey. The next morning the body of Díaz was found and with the 38th Street gang being identified near the scene, were immediate suspects. The Sleepy Lagoon murder and trial would shoot the pachucas/os into the public scene.

A negative image came around the Mexican-American youth, becoming known as troublemakers. The police, in their investigation of the murder, rounded up and arrested almost 600 Latino youths. Soon newspapers around the Los Angeles area were running articles on the “Mexican crime wave” or the “Mexican problem”. While the incident was depicted as a “homeboy” event, the pachuca’s were being portrayed in a promiscuous image. The American press began stereotyping these young women as “hyper-sexed degenerates” and in 1943 the Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express “unleashed a sensationalist campaign about sexually promiscuous barrio women”[3]. Soon Spanish language newspapers, like La Opinión, also denounced these young women, liking pachuca’s to prostitutes. Racial stereotypes and inequality from external and internal sources, created annihilation from American culture and exclusion within racial communities.

American Public

The American public became scared with this Mexican crime wave that hit Los Angeles in the midst of WWII. During the Sleepy Lagoon investigation, police were also focusing on ten young Mexican girls. Their involvement in the investigation was a scandal, with the Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express reporting on the participation and delinquency of the girls. Although the girls were never found guilty in the Sleepy Lagoon case, most of the girls were still sentenced to the Ventura School for Girls, a California correctional facility.

The facility was known to house girls with “long histories of delinquency, sexual promiscuity” and practicing in severe disciplinary measures and while some of the girls were able to receive parole after a year stay, they remained wards of the California Youth Authority until they reached twenty-one years of age”[4].

A year after the murder, for ten days in the summer of 1943 soldiers and sailors stationed in Los Angeles began targeting Mexican youth, the now infamous Zoot Suit Riots. Men, women, and children were targeted and news put focus on pachuca gangs like the Black Widows and the Slick Chicks. News articles depicted a majority of female Mexicans as cholitas who were packing razors and took up street fighting.

East Los Angeles female gang members in a police lineup, 1942 (Taken from Pinterest)

East Los Angeles female gang members in a police lineup, 1942 (Taken from Pinterest)


Dora Barrios, Frances Silva, and Lorena Encinas arreste during the Sleepy Lagoon Case (Taken from Pinterest)

Dora Barrios, Frances Silva, and Lorena Encinas arrested during the Sleepy Lagoon Case (Taken from Pinterest)


sailors during the zoot-suit riots

Zoot Suit Riots (Getty Images, Credit Anthony Potter Collection)

Mexican community

Within the Mexican communities in Los Angeles were also beginning to worry about the new subculture. It was believed by parents, especially mothers, that the pachuca/o culture was destroying Mexican customs and traditions. Mother believed that their daughters were leaving their traditions and value behind by becoming pachucas. The community began denouncing the behaviors and attitudes that were being attached to the pachuca identity.

Spanish language newspapers were calling pachucas putas and pachucos were their pimps. They also compared pachucas to la Malinche, known historically as being a traitor of Mexican people. “The editors of La Opinión found this a fitting analogy to describe the wartime pachuca. Like Malinche, the young women publicly betrayed proper female behavior and brought shame to the Mexican people.”[5].  Mexican parents went as far as calling the cops on their pachuca daughters who were arrested and a majority of the time sent to Ventura School for Girls.

Pachuca’s and the Chicana/o movement

While pachucas were being persecuted from both the American public and their own community, there began a gender shift and an empowerment growing in ethnic women and the subculture was making an impact. Pachucas represented as an example of the rise

female dressed in Mexiciana style Fashion

La Pachuca Mexiciana style Fashion (photogrpaher, Salvador Rojas)

in women’s role in the public during World War II. “With more women entering the work force than ever before, an anxious U.S society feared that females with new found freedoms would be unwilling to return to domestic life once the war ended” [6]. Pachucas defied mainstream notions of what was considered proper feminine decorum.

A continuation of the 1940’s Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, the Chicana/o Movement saw a surge in Mexican Americans wanting their right. Mexican American women during this time wanted to establish their “social, cultural, and political identities for themselves in America”. Like their predecessors, Chicana feminism also challenged gender, class, and sexuality barriers. Women began to make a more public role in the movement, like Dolores Huerta who helped form the United Farm Workers organization in 1962 with César Chávez. “Chicana feminism, which paralleled to the Chicano movement, helped the Chicana become recognized as a valuable asset in her community”. Pachucas became a type of folk feminism and would become the precursor of chola aesthetic in the 1960’s to present.

The Pachuca Legacy in L.A.

The Pachuca/o subculture continues to have an impact on the Mexican community. The zoot-suit remains a popular choice for rural Latino youths in formal wear like prom. There are also many who recreate the pachuca/o style. A blogger named Rosie has posted pictures of herself through her Tumblr and Instagram in areas around Los Angeles that are specific to the Chicana experience, dressing like a pachuca. Many hold events among friends and within their community to remember the subculture style.

In 2012, the Dolores Huerta Foundation hosted a zoot-suit event in downtown Los Angeles in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Sleepy Lagoon trial and zoot-suit riots. The Espacio 1839 gallery in 2014 hosted an art show called “Style as Resistance,” that honored Chicano culture and had men and women come dressed up in pachuco/a style.LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, located in downtown L.A. is a museum and cultural center dedicated to Mexican Americans and Mexicans.

Many artists throughout the Los Angeles area have also used the pachuca/o style in their work. The Fowler museum at UCLA in 2016 showed an exhibition of the late José Montoya’s work called “Abundant Harvest: Works on Paper/Works on Life” which showcased thousands of pictures of pachucos and pachucas are showcased throughout the exhibition. Associate Professor Catherine Ramírez discusses the pachucas challenged ideas of the Mexican-American identity and impact in Chicano Latino studies in The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory. The pachuca/o style and subculture still plays heavily into the Mexican community and pachucas are slowly gaining the recognition of the impact they made during their time.

Modern day pachuca standing near car

Modern day pachuca (permission by Rosie)


Caló-Slang made up of a variety of languages, developed by pachuco youth in the 1940’s.

Chicana-a female of Mexican descent born in the U.S.

Chicano-a male of Mexican descent born in the U.S

Chola-someone who is associated with gangs

Cholitas- slang term for tough female

Huarache-a low-heeled sandal

La Malinche- A slave to Hernán Cortés, she is known for playing a part in the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire and is remembered as a traitor to Mexico.

La Opinión-Spanish language newspaper

Nahuatl-language of the Aztecs

Pachuca-female zoot-suiter

Pachuco-male zoot suiter

Putas-whore, prostitute

Xicanas– Another spelling for Chicana

Zoot suit-a man’s suit of an exaggerated style, characterized by a long loose jacket with padded shoulders and high-waisted tapering trousers, popular in the 1940s


four girls posing

Mexican-Americans, 1940s (Taken from Tumblr)

Work Cited:

Baeder, Ben. “Zoot Suit Riots: The Sleepy Lagoon Murder Case That Helped Spur the WWII Era Los Angeles Race Riots.” Daily News. May 31, 2013.

Calderón-Douglass, Barbara. “The Folk Feminist Struggle Behind the Chola Fashion Trend | VICE | United States.” VICE. April 13, 2015.

“Chicana Feminism – History.” Chicana Feminism – History.

Escobedo, Elizabeth R. “The Pachuca Panic: Sexual and Cultural Battlegrounds in World War II Los Angeles.” Western Historical Quarterly  38, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 133-56.

Hernandez, Rigoberto. “The ‘Folk Feminism’ Roots Of The Latina ‘Chola’ Look.” NPR. April 22, 2015.

Ramírez, Catherine S. “Crimes of Fashion: The Pachuca and Chicana Style Politics.” Meridians 2, no. 2 (2002): 1-35.

Ramírez, Catherine S. “Saying “Nothin”: Pachucas and the Languages of Resistance.” Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory The Woman in the Zoot Suit 27, no. 3 (2006): 83-107.

Ruíz, Vicki. From out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

La Plaza de Culturas y Artes

José Montoya’s Abundant Harvest: Works on Paper/Works on Life

[1] Hernandez

[2] Calderón-Douglass

[3] Escobedo, 141

[4] Baeder

[5] Escobedo, 141

[6] Escobedo, 143