So what characterized a pachucho – the stylish, rebellious Chicano teens – back in the 1930s and 40s? Three things to look for: pachucho zoot suits, Caló, and attitude.
Pachuco Trait #1: Zoot Suits
The defining characteristic of a pachuco (and even some pachuchas – Hispanic terminology for female pachuchos) was the zoot suit. Contrary to the fashion of the time, these suits were big, baggy, and flashy.
Zoot suits had high waists and wide legs, with cuffs that were folded and tight at the ankles (pegged). And the coats were oversized and very long (often double-breasted and to the knees), with padded shoulders and wide lapels. Very hard to miss!
In fact, with the entrance of the United States into World War II, zoot suits were actually illegal. The U.S. was rationing most essential goods, and fabric was no exception.
In 1942, the War Production Board directly impacted suit manufacturing by setting up regulations for “streamlined” suits. As such, most tailors stopped creating or advertising any suits that didn’t go along with the government guidelines.
However, demand continued for zoot suits – and production went underground. The blatant disregard for rationing – and the patriotism it implied – made zoot suits an even bigger scandal than they had been before the war.
Easily identifiable by their dress, pachucho youth in Los Angeles were the victims of racial profiling during the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, when servicemen attacked and stripped them of their suits.
Pachuco Trait #2: Caló
Pachuchos not only dressed distinctly, they also spoke that way. They used a slang of Mexican Spanish that is called Caló.
A combination of Spanish gypsy dialect, indigenous languages, and aspects of Spanglish, Caló (sometimes called “pachuquismo”) appears to have arisen in the El Paso-Juárez area, the border region that saw the birth of the pachucho in the 1920s and 1930s. Due to its association with the pachucho gangs, the slang was associated with rebellion and counterculture.
Like Chicanos today who are able to switch fluidly between Spanish and English, pachucos were able to codeswitch – use English, standard Spanish, and Caló at appropriate times.
There are pachucho words and phrases that Chicanos still use today. For example: “órale,” “vato,” “carnal,” and “ese.” Even “pendejo” y “pinche” come from Caló.
Pachuco Trait #3: Attitude
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of a pachucho was their attitude. As Mexican Americans, they were discriminated against in many of the same ways other minorities were. As teenagers, they were underestimated and didn’t have complete control over their lives.
Dressing and speaking as pachuchos gave these young people a unique identity and allowed them to feel part of a group, much like the many teenage subcultures that have come after them.
While there were pachucho gangs who were involved in criminal activity, many pachuchos simply dressed in what they saw as a fashionable clothes. As teenagers, it didn’t hurt that their style ruffled feathers with the older generations.
Pachucho culture, as a defining moment in the Chicano movement, continues to be relevant today.