I didn't mean to stare at him, but I did, drawn in by the deep rich purple of his zoot suit and his calcos, and his black tanda with a feather. I stood behind him in line at the cafe at Sagrado Corazon Catholic Church. I never saw his face but I liked that. He represented more than just a man dressed in a beautiful zoot suit. He represented communal memory and history to me.
I don't know when I first knew about the zoot suit, but I grew up hearing Caló, that beautiful mixture of Nahuatl, Romani, and archaic Spanish. And I grew up hearing about the pachucos who first started in El Paso.
In a 1978 oral history with Geronimo Leyva, born in 1910 and raised in El Paso from the age of 4, he talked about the migration of young men from El Paso to Los Angeles in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
"Entonces oía decir yo mucho de los chamacos, los chavalos, teenagers. Decian 'Pa' dónde vas? "Pa' Los’ y ‘Pa' Los’ y ‘Pa dónde vas?’ y ‘Pa' Los.' Puro "Los." Ninguno decía que para Chicago o otra parte. Pur ‘Los’ y que ‘Los Angeles’… You know what? Ir a sufrir los pobres porque no se ponían a trabajar. Del modo que Vivian los pobresitos no más se iban a la city market a buscar bananas, old bananas, old rotten apples y todo para vivir. Para estar comiendo durante los días. Yo los llegué a verlos, los pobres."
My father would tell me the stories of how these young men who had gone to "Los" and suffered would say return to El Paso during the Great Depression, riding the boxcars and saying, "Vamos pa' Chuco." While many people think El Paso's nickname, El Chuco came from pachuco, it is reversed. Returning home, they became los "vamos pa'Chucho."
My childhood cartoons even featured the zoot suit. Although some had been made a decade before I was born, they still lived on our black and white television set.
This is a poster for 1944 The Zoot Cat. The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, the publisher of the film or the graphic artist. From Wikipedia.
Of course, growing up I heard about German Valdes, "Tin Tan," perhaps the most famous pachuco of his time. When Dr. David Dorado Romo and I founded and directed Museo Urbano in El Segundo Barrio, many of the older women told me that they had been his girlfriend. My own mama, in fact, talked about going to Juarez to see him perform and his asking her on a date. Of course, she was already married to my father so nothing happened.
Once, walking in downtown Mexico City, a man selling photos of revolutionaries and movie stars handed me a photo of German Valdes in a zoot suit."Ud. sabe quien es?" "Pues, es Tin Tan," I answered. "Como sabe eso?" "Soy del Chuco," I told him and we both laughed.
Tin Tan and his friend, Marcelo.
David Flores of Colectivo Rezizte (left), Antonio Lopez (top right), Maru Lopez and Eddie Garcia (bottom right) paint "Pachucos Suaves" in El Segundo Barrio, 2011.
In 2010, David Romo and I commissioned a mural for UTEP's Museo Urbano. Internationally-recognized muralist whose work was recently featured at the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in NYC, David Flores designed and painted the mural. The mural, Pachucos Suaves," featured the archetypal pachuco seen above as well we Edmundo Tostado aka Don Tosti, the famous musician and composer who in the 1940s wrote "Pachucos Suaves," earning him the title of the first Latino to sell a million records.
Don Tosti as portrayed on the "Pachucos Suaves" mural. He was born and raised in El Segundo Barrio and, much like the "chavalos" from the oral history quoted above, moved to "Los" as a young man to make his way in the world. Unlike the teenagers who had to look for old fruit to eat, he became a very successful musician and composer.
The man in the purple zoot suit gave me much to remember and think about as he stood in line for menudo Sunday morning.
What about the zoot suit still captures our imagination so many decades later? How is that history passed on from generation to generation? Why does this outfit resonate with so many so many decades later?
I didn't mean to stare at him, but I did as he walked along the streets of El Segundo, the home of the pachuco.
[Oral history excerpt taken from interview of Geronimo Leyva by Yolanda Leyva, May 1978, deposited at the Benson Latin American Library, the University of Texas at Austin.].