Pachucos: They created the Chicano Movement
By Joe Olvera ©, 2012
It’s interesting to see how people just won’t let the Pachuco Movement die. And, believe me, it was a Movement, although some people would disagree with me because Pachucos were also a scourge on the barrios in which they dominated in early-day El Paso. Albeit, Pachucos were the fore-runners of the Chicano Movement because many were strong enough and visionary enough to leave their violent ways behind and to begin going to colleges and universities across the nation, including, of course, El Paso – where the Pachuco Movement began.
The latest, a revival of sorts, comes from U.T. El Paso, where creative people are teaming up to present the Pachcuo in an interesting light – that of a dancer who boogied into the sultry El Paso nights. And, yes, of course, he was a dancer, although the UTEP presentation also has them dancing ballet; now, that’s a stretch of the imagination. But, creativity is creativity and if some people want to see a Pachuco doing a pirouette, then all the more power to that person or persons. Of course, those of us who were raised in the 1950s, 1960s have a different view of the Pachuco Movement. One good aspect of the latest production about Pachucos is that my good friend, Juan Contreras has provided the slang, la torica that Pachucos embraced. To hide their intentions from the larger society, they created, inverted, and used words which nobody but them understood. Contreras, a long-time writer, knows that language exceedingly well. Orale, Juanito!
But, you see, despite efforts to turn the Pachuco into a legend, basically, Pachucos were gang members. They belonged to gangs and they terrorized neighborhoods. Growing up as I did, my memory of Pachucos is that of young hoods who demanded money and got it either by hook or by crook, or both. Luis Valdez, in his dynamic drama, “Zoot Suit,” romanticizes Pachucos, what with their hair slicked back into duck-tails and their sharp zoot suits, with a sky to match. Their tramos, their lisas, their calcos were the uniform of the day. Edward James Olmos played the part of the Zoot Suiter to the max, with his dance steps and his ode to marijuana very much a part of that movement. The Sleepy Lagoon case in East Los Angeles gave us a look at the way they were hated, discriminated against and abused to no end by fearful Anglos, police and other members of society. But, to be fair, there was a rhyme and a reason for that hatred, for that fear. So much so that even straight members of the Chicano community often felt the same way.
In my day, Pachucos weren’t so romantic. On the contrary, they bullied and abused people young and old. They had rumbles or gang fights, they struck out blindly at a society that didn’t understand them, nor did it want to understand. Many of them wound up in prison, they dealt drugs, they created mayhem wherever they roamed. In my day, the zoot suit was a relic of the past. Oh, they were still sharp, but, their uniforms were different. They wore mostly kakhi pants with a sharp crease and heavily starched and ironed. They would also wear ironed and starched shirts, but they didn’t always wear them. A pachuco might walk into a classroom with his shirt wrapped around his arm so as not to wrinkle it. He would place the shirt very carefully on the seat. Invariably, they wore snow-white t-shirts to complement the style. Their shoes were called tablitas and were spit-shined to a high gloss. And, believe me everyone respected them, even the teachers. The joke goes about a pachuco who asks a kid for a quarter. The kid says he doesn’t have a quarter, but, only has a dime. The pachuco says, “no cae pedo, me debes quince calos (that’s okay, give me the dime, but you still owe me 15 cents).
It may sound funny now, but, it wasn’t so funny then. Pachucos belonged to such gangs as the X-14s, the X-9s, the X-2s (wonder where they got the X), Los T-Birds, Los Del Diablo (or the DDTs), the Be-Boppers (a nasty little gang that terrorized and wreaked havoc on students at La Jeff), Los de la Roca, Los de la Lincoln, and sundry other gangs who ruled various barrios, and lo unto him or her who wandered into their territory. In those days, it was all about territory, all about protecting turf. Today, however, it’s different. Now, gangs are into making money through dealing drugs. No longer are they so anxious for people to know who they are and, to a large extent, they maintain a lower profile. Of course, they still exist, but the stakes are different.
So, it’s okay to glamorize the Pachuco. It’s okay to romanticize him, to make him larger than life and to have him dancing ballet. There was a guy in the barrio a pachuco who could dance up a storm. His name was Chakira – and, man, he had the moves. Nobody made fun of him because, of course, he was also a Pachuco and belonged to a very violent gang. Maybe he went on to dance ballet for some dance group. Pachucos were also highly intelligent, especially the leaders. They are the ones who left the barrio to begin attending institutions of higher learning. They encouraged other Chicanos and Chicanas to join the Movement for human rights and recognition. Keep in mind, however, that while Pachucos have been glamorized and made into legends, the fact remains that there were two sides to them; they were exceedingly violent and ruled with an iron fist. Yes, that’s the truth.