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Zoot suits, defiance kept alive

Zoot suits, defiance kept alive

MEXICO: Decked out in baggy suits, their watch chains swinging to the mambo as feathers bop atop their wide-brimmed hats, Mexico’s “pachucos” are keeping alive the tradition of the zoot suit – and the defiance it represents.


Sunday 10 September 2017, 03:00PM

Wearing their feathered hats, colourful tank tops, gold chains on the lapel and patent leather shoes, the pachucos – the subculture that characterised Mexican gangs set up in the United States in the 1940s – continue to dance to the rhythm of legendary mambo Salons in Mexico. Photo: Yuri Cortez / AFP

Wearing their feathered hats, colourful tank tops, gold chains on the lapel and patent leather shoes, the pachucos – the subculture that characterised Mexican gangs set up in the United States in the 1940s – continue to dance to the rhythm of legendary mambo Salons in Mexico. Photo: Yuri Cortez / AFP

Born in Mexican immigrant communities in the United States in the 1930s, pachuco culture started out as the gangsta style of its time – complete with criminal associations, baggy pants and bling.

It was a time of deep prejudice in the American south and west, where restaurants often posted signs reading “No dogs, negroes or Mexicans”.

In a show of defiance of the dominant white culture, young Mexicans joined urban blacks in sporting the zoot suit – long jackets, baggy pants tapering to a peg at the ankles, Oxford shoes, dangling watch fobs and splaying hats.

It was “a proto-movement of social and cultural resistance,” says Manuel Valenzuela, a sociologist at Mexico’s College of the Northern Border, in Tijuana.

These “pachucos”, as the Mexicans called themselves, were portrayed as dangerous delinquents in the media, and were singled out for discrimination and violent attacks.

In 1943, white soldiers stationed in southern California went on a rampage against young Latinos, triggering a series of ethnic clashes known as the “Zoot Suit Riots”.

Fast forward 74 years, and the zoot suit has long faded from fashion. But in the age of US President Donald Trump, Mexican-American relations can still look a lot like they did back then.

And pachuco style remains alive and well in Mexico, cultivated by a small but fervent group of aficionados who gather at a series of legendary Mexico City ballrooms to dance the mambo and the cha-cha, flaunt their zoot suits, and keep the flame of defiance burning.

“Today, being a pachuco means being part of a culture. You’re carrying on what came before, so the tradition won’t be lost,” says Ricardo Zamorano – alias “Pachuco For Ever” – a 55-year-old devotee.

The Mexican poet and Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz called pachuco style “an embodiment of liberty, of disorder, of the forbidden”.

Those keeping it alive in Mexico see it as the inheritance of a nobler time.

“What’s beautiful about it is reviving the elegance of the past,” says Roberto Romero, a 73-year-old tailor who specialises in zoot suits.

“People used to dress well back then... like gentlemen,” says Antonio Fernandez, a haberdasher who has made pachuco hats since the 1950s.

Zamorano’s house is a monument to the pachuco universe, his closets overflowing with zoot suits in fabrics ranging from purple to plaid to gold with Swarovski crystals. He also has a large collection of hats, feathers and other accessories.

“Pachucos were the first metrosexuals,” he says.

“Me, I start my Tuesday thinking about what clothes I’ll wear to go dancing on Saturday.”

On one recent night, Zamorano sashayed across the dance floor in a canary yellow suit alongside his girlfriend, Paola Tiburcio, 55.

“I would have loved to be alive back then, with the twirling dresses and everything. I feel like I’m in a movie,” says another dancer, Concepcion Valenzuela, 42, dressed in red from head to toe.

Pachuco women were rebels, too, says sociologist Valenzuela.

“Pachuca women were figures who radically broke with the traditional, submissive woman’s role. They went out, they drank, they smoked, they fought,” he said.

Pachuca women’s towering hairdos originally hid knives inside – just as the men’s heavy watch chains were once used as weapons, he says.

Unlike those rowdy youths, today’s pachucos are an ageing bunch.

Roberto Reyes, 19, is one of the few young people keeping the tradition alive.

“To me, wearing this suit is a symbol of pride. It means sincerity, respect, self-esteem,” he says.

“The pachuco says, ‘Look at me, I exist. Respect me’,” he says, his face gleaming with sweat, before returning to the dance floor.

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