The Woman in the Zoot Suit

Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory

The Woman in the Zoot Suit

An audio version of this book is available from Abantu Audio.
Book Pages: 256 Illustrations: 31 b&w illustrations Published: January 2009

American Studies, Chicanx and Latinx Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies

The Mexican American woman zoot suiter, or pachuca, often wore a V-neck sweater or a long, broad-shouldered coat, a knee-length pleated skirt, fishnet stockings or bobby socks, platform heels or saddle shoes, dark lipstick, and a bouffant. Or she donned the same style of zoot suit that her male counterparts wore. With their striking attire, pachucos and pachucas represented a new generation of Mexican American youth, which arrived on the public scene in the 1940s. Yet while pachucos have often been the subject of literature, visual art, and scholarship, The Woman in the Zoot Suit is the first book focused on pachucas.

Two events in wartime Los Angeles thrust young Mexican American zoot suiters into the media spotlight. In the Sleepy Lagoon incident, a man was murdered during a mass brawl in August 1942. Twenty-two young men, all but one of Mexican descent, were tried and convicted of the crime. In the Zoot Suit Riots of June 1943, white servicemen attacked young zoot suiters, particularly Mexican Americans, throughout Los Angeles. The Chicano movement of the 1960s–1980s cast these events as key moments in the political awakening of Mexican Americans and pachucos as exemplars of Chicano identity, resistance, and style. While pachucas and other Mexican American women figured in the two incidents, they were barely acknowledged in later Chicano movement narratives. Catherine S. Ramírez draws on interviews she conducted with Mexican American women who came of age in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s as she recovers the neglected stories of pachucas. Investigating their relative absence in scholarly and artistic works, she argues that both wartime U.S. culture and the Chicano movement rejected pachucas because they threatened traditional gender roles. Ramírez reveals how pachucas challenged dominant notions of Mexican American and Chicano identity, how feminists have reinterpreted la pachuca, and how attention to an overlooked figure can disclose much about history making, nationalism, and resistant identities.


“[A] complicated and important text. . . . The Woman In the Zoot Suit adds to Duke University's excellent collection of studies on clothing, identity, racism, sexuality, and women's history. As Catherine Ramirez reminds us, history is intervention. History has the power to marginalize communities - or to define them in new ways. “ — Barbara Kantz, Canadian Journal of History

The Woman in the Zoot Suit is a thorough explanation of how normative knowledge about embodied individuals comes to be produced and represented in different eras. The wide range of sources Ramírez analyzes is one of the book’s strengths. In every chapter Ramírez juxtaposes disparate images and thus makes it possible to see how the pervasive production, reproduction, and circulation of knowledge about race, gender, and sexuality comes to be shared and accepted as normative.” — Michael Nevin Willard, Southern California Quarterly

The Woman in the Zoot Suit is a welcomed addition to the academic literature. It will undoubtedly influence future scholarship on Mexican American history, pachucas, pachuquismo, Chicano nationalism, linguistics and feminist Chicana artists and writers. In addition, this relatively brief book provides an excellent example of an imaginative, interdisciplinary methodology that students and scholars in the humanities and social sciences may want to emulate when examining the multifaceted lives and historical experiences of Latino/a, or any other peoples. Furthermore, as this reviewer has found in his course on US youth cultures, Catherine Ramírez’s work can be exceedingly useful in courses that examine gender from sociocultural and sociohistorical perspectives.” — Richard Mora, Latino Studies

The Woman in the Zoot Suit is rife with teaching moments. Ramírez kicks off the book with challenging questions about evidence and the very notion of history. She inspires a rethinking of lost stories, and how we recover them. And she leaves her audience reconsidering of the role of memory in the evolution of history, of identity, and of our own self-perceptions as readers of, and actors in, history.” — Linda L. Ivey, The History Teacher

The Woman in the Zoot Suit offers a significant intervention. Not only has Ramírez restored the contributions of a long-forgotten historical actor, but she has also decentered hypernationalist and hypermasculine histories of World War Two and the Chicano Movement. . . .” — Lisa Y. Ramos, Reviews in American History

The Woman in the Zoot Suit will appeal to a number of audiences, including those interested in California, ethnic, American, cultural, and gender studies. Her masterful reinterpretation of the Sleepy Lagoon incident and the Zoot Suit Riots and her comparative analysis of the formation of nationalisms come together to make a significant intervention across diverse literatures.” — Emily E. Straus, H-California, H-Net Reviews

“By carefully studying the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nation, Ramírez is able to critically consider the implications of the relationship between family and the nation, as these are maintained and challenged through dominant reproductions and nondominant resistances. . . . Ramírez’s text is . . . broadly accessible and suitable for graduates and undergraduates.” — Adela C. Licona, Feminist Formations

“Gathering information from poems, songs, plays, media reports, visual art, and oral histories, Ramírez squeezes meaning from a wholly slender record. . . .” — Lorena Oropeza, Journal of American History

“Ramírez brings together a wide range of sources and methodological approaches to recover the images, voices, and silences of the much maligned and misunderstood pachucas. More importantly, she illuminates the larger meaning and significance of the pachucas’ dress, language, and self-censorship. In so doing, she provides a model of what it means to work in multiple disciplines to create a narrative that does justice to her subjects. The book contains never-before published photos and is written in an easy-to-read style with minimal jargon. For these reasons, The Woman in the Zoot Suit will appeal to a wide audience, including scholars, feminists, students of the Chicano and Chicana movement, and the general public. “ — Miroslava Chavez-Garcia, Women's Review of Books

“Ramírez seeks to place the past in dialogue with literary and artistic representations, which also ‘produce history, narrative, and meaning’ (p. xv). Her work sparks important questions about these elements: the meanings ascribed to human experiences and choices as they are lived, as they are remembered, and as they are recreated. . . . Admirably, Ramírez provides bridges to additional scholarship, and her work should inspire more.” — Gigi Peterson, Pacific Historical Review

“Ramírez succeeds at the task she has set for herself—to restore agency to pachucas, to expose the process by which they have been rendered invisible, and to explain their significance for constructions of citizenship and nationalism. Through a sophisticated melding of feminist and queer theory that is both accessible and illuminating, she has laid important foundations for further fruitful inquiry.” — Rebecca Montgomery, Southwestern Historical Quarterly

“Ramírez’s text provides an accessible and incisive analysis that will appeal not just to scholars of Mexican American history, but to anyone interested in the compelling ways in which citizenship has been constructed from an amalgam of race, class gender and sexual norms.” — Stephanie Lewthwaite, Gender & History

“Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above.” — L. J. Quintanilla, Choice

“This book was a joy to read and a welcome corrective to too-often flat readings of fashion, photographs, and courtroom testimony as mere evidence. The Woman in the Zoot Suit deserves a wide audience in history classrooms.”
— John Mckiernan-González, Journal of American Ethnic History

“This engrossing, unexpectedly timely study of the politics of cultural nationalism resurrects the hidden history of la pachuca. . . . A vital addition for those interested in American ethnic and cultural studies as well as studies of sexuality and visual culture, this book speaks forcefully to current Obama-era and post–Prop 8 debates over race, ethnicity, sexuality, patriotism and citizenship.” — Publishers Weekly

“This is definitely an important body of work that sheds light on la pachuca and how the history of erasure impacts cultural movements and thought.” — Olga Garcia Echeverria, La Bloga

“[A] serious must-read for United States cultural historians—one of my favorites from last year.” — Tenured Radical blog

“In her engaging and insightful book, Catherine Ramírez provides the first comprehensive, full-length study of the Mexican American woman zoot suiter or pachuca. . . . Overall, Ramírez provides a masterful reading of cultural texts and their representations of pachucas. . . . Provocative and important, Ramírez adds a highly notable contribution to race, gender, and ethnic studies scholarship.” — Elizabeth R. Escobedo, Western Historical Quarterly

“It's a compelling look at the politics of style and the resistance enacted when young women of color refused to be invisible to mainstream culture.” — Erica Lies, Bitch

“Ramírez presents the unique history of the Mexican American Pachuca, whose situation takes into account the religious, gender, and non-U.S.-born ramifications that they inherited. Not only did they have to fight against the politics of a racist, sexist society alongside the Pachucos, but they also had to fight the misogynistic politics of their brethren from within. Ramírez presents a well documented and informative work on the Pachuca, thus helping to bring us out of our culturally-induced slumber. “ — Olupero R. Aiyenimelo, Feminist Review blog

“Ramírez’s book restores pachucas to history and also provides astute analysis of the role of cultural production in emerging political formations. It is an excellent accomplishment and a superb model of truly interdisciplinary history.” — Nan Enstad, American Historical Review

“This unique, important book comes out swinging and packs a punch. In pithy prose Ramírez reassesses pachucas—everyday, working-class female zoot suiters, and la pachuca—iconographic, symbolic figure. . . . With an ear for language and an eye for fashion, the author validates the legacy of once vilified women who shook up the status quo with panache, impudence, insolence, insouciance, and insubordination.” — Anthony Macías, American Studies

"Ramirez has produced an excellent study that makes us rethink the place of women in some of the most important events in American and Mexican American history. Her creative use of source material demonstrates the many ways that artists and individuals fought to remember and, later, redefine pachucas/os and the zoot suit." — Maria Angela Diaz, Kalfou

“In this engaging and perceptive book, Catherine S. Ramírez locates Mexican American women zoot suiters (pachucas) in wartime zoot-suit culture and the cultural politics of Chicano nationalism. This original study provides a new cultural lens for envisioning the network of social relationships, identifications, and symbolic investments gathered around the historical figure of the pachuca.” — Rosa-Linda Fregoso, author of MeXicana Encounters: The Making of Social Identities on the Borderlands

“Powerful and innovative, The Woman in the Zoot Suit will serve as a foundational text for future studies on culture, race, gender, and sexuality. Catherine S. Ramírez expertly reveals the complexities of pachuca identity, the extent of Mexican American women zoot suiters’ representation in and engagement with popular culture and mainstream media, and, ultimately, the ways that these young women disrupted dominant notions of U.S., Mexican American, and Chicana/o identity, nationalism, and family.” — Luis Alvarez, author of The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Catherine S. Ramírez is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface ix

Acknowledgments xxi

A Note on Terminology xxv

Introduction: A Genealogy of Vendidas 1

1. Domesticating the Pachuca 25

2. Black Skirts, Dark Slacks, and Brown Knees: Pachuca Style and Spectacle during World War II 55

3. Saying "Nothin'": Pachucas and the Languages of Resistance 83

4. La Pachuca and the Excesses of Family and Nation 109

Epilogue: Homegirls Then and Now, from the Home Front to the Frontline 137

Notes 149

Bibliography 197

Index 225
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4303-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4286-1
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