Chapter 8: World War II and the Emerging Civil Rights Struggle

5. How did the war experience affect Americanization of Mexican American women?

In general the war had the effect of stimulating patriotism through the common bond of suffering and sacrifice. Beyond that Mexican Americans along with African Americans felt more justified in asserting their rights as U.S. citizens who had fought and worked for the victory over totalitarianism and fascism. Scores of historians have dated the origins of the Civil Rights Movement to 1945 and the return of black and brown service men. This demand for equal treatment and an end to discrimination gained force because of the common affirmation of loyalty to flag and country.

Elvira Esparza was born and raised in San Diego of Mexican immigrant parents. During the war she worked at Solar making B24s. She got men’s wages because of the quality of her work. She was the first Mexican American woman hired at Solar. She remembered men saying that they liked her but couldn’t date her because she was Mexican. "They didn’t understand that this person because she had brown skin she had a head just like anyone else, she could do the work, sometimes better."

There were other internal battles to be fought. Then as now Mexican American women had to confront negative stereotypes about themselves. During the 1930s Pachuquismo emerged as a cultural expression of some young people and this added new negative views that young women had to combat. Pachuquismo was a style of dress, talk and behavior that openly flaunted conventional Mexican as well as Ango-American society. Young men during the late 1930s and war years, young Mexican Americans in the Southwest were usually called "Mexicans." The term "Chicano" was almost exclusively used by barrio residents to refer to recently arrived Mexican immigrants.

In the late 1930s, influenced by African Americana and big band culture, the Pachucos created a distinctive youth subculture among younger Mexican Americans who were in the process of rebelling against their parent's conventional values. They adopted their own music, language and dress. For the men, the style was to wear a zoot suit, a flamboyant long coat, with baggy pegged pants, a pork pie hat, a long key chain, and shoes with thick soles. For the women, their style was to wear short skirts, tight sweaters, and padded shouldered jackets. They wore their hair in high style and used lots of make up. They called themselves "Pachucos" or "Pachucas" a word of uncertain origin, but generally referring to United States-born, Mexican American youth who dressed in the style and spoke Calo, a highly inventive slang composed of English and Spanish.

Many Mexican parents were shocked and outraged by the Pachuco style and were especially critical of the Pachucas who were considered to represent sexual deviancy and violence. Needless to say the Anglo American press also publicized the Pachuca as a recent reincarnation of the Mexican spitfire stereotype. For older Mexican Americans as well as Anglos, the Pachuca represented a threat to the traditional roles of women.

Many Mexican American women who were working in the war industries had neither the time nor the opportunity to affect the Pachuca style. In San Diego, Marcy Gastelum, who worked as a riveter at Convair thought that the threat of the Pachucos was much exaggerated: "…The pachucos use to stand in front of the Cornet Theater, but they were harmless: they never hurt anybody, they just wanted to be the little tough guy, show off their clothing and the way they did their hair do... No one was afraid of them... We never heard of any incidents where there was violence, or killings..." There were also some Pachucas who worked in the war industries. During the aftermath of the infamous Zoot Suit Riots, Pachucas became scapegoats in the Mexican and Anglo press, accusing them of being pot-smoking prostitutes who were cultural traitors.

San Diego native Marcy Gastellum remembered that "A lot of women preferred to be house wives. But many did work because a lot of them had to. A lot of my friends quit school during my high school years to get married, most of them. The first thing on their mind was leaving school, getting married, raising a family and let the man go to work."

Many Mexican American women were already working when the war began, and the war enabled them to get better paying jobs. Mexican American women continued to be employed outside the home after World War II. The traditional expectations of putting family first and of a woman being a mother and wife first did not change because of their wartime experience. Before the war, working had been seen as an extension of their family responsibility, supplementing the male wage earner. During the war, their work was also seen as supplemental, to help win the war and to fill in for the men while they were in the armed forces. During the war many women reported more independence in their social lives despite very restrictive attitudes of their parents. Indeed Americanization, whether in dress, speech, expectations, or culture progressed faster during the war than before. And pressures for Americanization would continue after the war as well. Part of the Americanization process was to begin to expect equal treatment as a U.S. citizen who had contributed to saving American democracty. The women who worked in industries joined the men after the war to work together for social justice.