L.A. in the Zoot Suit Era

¡Pachuco y Pachuca Yo!

El Paso, El Chuco, El Pachuco

A young woman and her companion dressed in zoot suit attire in 1944.

A young woman and her companion dressed in zoot suit attire in 1944.

Pachuco and Pachuca are terms coined in the 1940s to refer to Mexican American men and women who dressed in zoot suits or zoot suit-influenced attire. Though there is no definite origin of the word Pachuco, one theory claims that the term originated in El Paso, Texas. The city of El Paso was typically referred to as “Chuco town” or “El Chuco.” People migrating from Los Angeles to El Paso would say they were going “pa’ El Chuco” (to Chuco town). These migrants came to be known as Pachucos. This term moved westward to Los Angeles with the flow of Mexican workers migrating to industrialize city centers.

¡Watcha mi tachuce! The Bonaroo Look

To look Bonaroo was to look cool. In Los Angeles during the 1930s and 1940s, zoot suits were mostly worn by poor and working class Mexican, African American and Jewish youth. These tailored outfits had broad shoulders and cinched waist pants that tapered at the ankles. Suits were accessorized by a key chain that dangled from the pocket, a felt hat and ducktail hairstyle (often called “duck’s ass” or D.A).

Pachucas also donned zoot suits that were, more often than not, improvised men’s jackets with short skirts, fishnet stockings or bobby socks pulled up to the calves, platform heels, saddle shoes or huarache sandals. They piled their hair high in a pompadour style and wore heavy makeup, especially lipstick. Some Pachucas also chose to wear the masculine version of the zoot suit and participate in recreational activities alongside Pachucos on street corners and dances all of which challenged normative definitions of femininity. Breaking out of cultural and gender norms, Pachucas asserted their own distinct identity as Mexican American women.


In 1942, the Wartime Productions Board, as part of a national austerity initiative, attempted to cut back on fabric consumption by establishing regulations that limited the amount of fabric used for suits. This deliberately targeted zoot suiters. As an act of rebellion and cultural pride, zoot suiters defiantly chose not to follow these requirements and obtained their suits through bootleg tailors. Pachucos became conspicuous in their extravagant outfits which were seen as unpatriotic. Though this was a scandal in wartime America, it was also a symbol of pride and resistance for Mexican American youth.

The Hip Style of Caló ¿Que Pues Nuez?

“La Dora” wears a zoot suit with huarache sandals, while others wear hairstyles and clothes popular among Mexican-American women. (Lowrider 2, no. 6)

“La Dora” wears a zoot suit with huarache sandals, while others wear hairstyles and clothes popular among Mexican-American women. (Lowrider 2, no. 6)

Caló is a hybrid langauge influenced by zincaló — a dialect of Spanish gypsies, Hispanicized English, Anglicized Spanish and indigenous languages such as Nahuatl. Caló was popularized in the 1940s in the United States by working class Mexican American youth. With the growing public resentment fueled by the press against zoot suit style and culture, Caló became associated to Pachuco gang life as a language known only to its members. The use of Caló by Mexican youth was an act of definance and resistance. It represented the refusal of Mexican youth to assimilate into the United States culture and signified their determination to create a legitimate national identity as both American and Mexican.

For Pachuco and Pachuca youth Caló represented style. It was considered hip and cool to spill out versos suaves (smooth words) to the chicas patas (young women) and eses (young men) while cabuliando (horsing around) after school or work. Mexican youth had the unique ability to codeswitch between standard English, Spanish, and Caló, while inventing new neologisms. For Latinos in the United States, their use of Caló represented a style of resistance in the 1940s climate of intense jingoism, xenophobia, and nativism. They were multilinigual pioneers and creators of a new language, identity and culture.

Caló Glossary: Terms and Phrases in Zoot Suit

Note: The following translations are figurative, not literal.

alivianese: lighten up, cool it
bolillo: anglo, “white boy”
borlotear: to dance
bote: jail
cabuliar: to make fun of
calcos: shoes
calmantes montes: chill out
calm down, cool it
carnala: sister
carnal: brother, close friend
chafa: embarrassed, low quality, worthless
¡chale!: no, no way
chicas patas: little one, a young girl/woman
chingón: macho, big shot, bad dude
contrólate: control yourself
descuéntate: beat it, get lost
drapes: pants
esa: woman, girl
ese: man, dude
huisa: woman, girlfriend
jefita/jefito: mother, father (literal: boss)
la jura: the law, police
me la rayo: for sure, it’s the truth, I swear

¡nel!: no! (more forceful than ¡chale!)
¡orale!: hey, right on
pedo: hassle, excitement
pendejadas: stupidness or mean act
pendejo: schmuck, idiot
pinché: lousy
ponte abusado: wise up, get smart
que desmadre: what a mess
que pinché aguite: what a bummer
que pues, nuez?: what’s going on?
rifa: rules
ruca: wife, chick, girlfriend
simón: yes
suave: fine, o.k.
tacuche: suit, zoot suit, fancy clothing
tando: hat
¿te curas?: can you believe it?
trapos: clothes
alert, watch out
vato: dude, guy
naïve, hick
¡watcha!: look!
ya estubo: cut it, that’s enough
ya me estas cayendo gordo: you are being a pain
ya pues: that’s enough