Significacion: A Theory of Political Fashion in Chicano Counter-Culture – Mattius Rischard

Octavio Paz writes in The Labyrinth of Solitude that “the North American’s irritation results from his seeing the pachuco as a mythological figure and therefore, in effect, a danger” (19). If the pachuco (defined here as the distinctly Mexican American, working-class, urban counterculture figure of the early 20th Century) approaches mythological status “as a pariah, a man who belongs nowhere,” then it is his situation, trapped between Anglo American and Mexican worlds, that produces that status (17). Works of Chicano literature construct the pachuco through a mythological composite persona, relying on a recognizable series of tropes repeated with variation. A useful model to understand this phenomenon in a Mexican American context is found in a separate, yet related form of U.S. colonization. Henry Louis Gates Jr. introduced the term “signifyin(g)” to describe such a phenomenon among Black authors employing recurrent-yet-distinct postcolonial themes drawn from African American folklore in his seminal work, The Signifying Monkey: “a trope, in which are subsumed several other rhetorical tropes, including metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony (the master tropes), and also hyperbole, litotes, and metalepsis. To this list we could easily add aporia, chiasmus, and catachresis, all of which are used in the ritual of Signifyin(g)” (52). While the American colonial enterprises of African slavery and Mexican annexation proceeded along different historical trajectories, the pachuco can be considered a Chicano variant on the tradition of signifyin(g) in (de)colonized texts. I argue that the parallels between signifyin(g) and significacion with respect to the pachuco in Chicano literature produces new possibilities for navigating decolonized rhetoric, aesthetic, and affectivity on the Mexican American body in relation to an Anglo American hegemony.

According to Gates, African American signifyin(g) in literature promotes a boastful teasing of Anglo discursive styles in order to perform or emphasize a race, culture, or ethnicity-specific semiotic code. In contrast, drawing on a history of de facto and de jure attempts to strip the pachuco/pachuca of Mexican cultural traditions, literary manifestations of the counterculture parody the aesthetics of the North American society that rejects their identity while retaining the brown/black body and the products of its labor. Like signifyin(g), which is a stylized repetition with variation on a given trope, the traditional significacion performed by the pachuco becomes a critical basis for significacion performed in later works about cholos, vatos, and most recently the “homeboys” of modern Chicano barrios in the American Southwest. The continuity in this cultural tradition goes far beyond the “empty gesture” that Octavio Paz consigned it to. Significacion in Chicano texts intentionally plays with the problematics of gendered, class-based, and racialized performance to consolidate Chicano political power in establishing a vital subaltern solidarity within North American society.

Chicano significacion, like any form of literary self-fashioning that creates meaning through the phenomenology of signs, is first and foremost a metaphor, as per Gates’s framework. Aesthetic stylization of the body creates a visual equation between fabric and politics, where an outfit such as the Zoot Suit can symbolize more than a material flamboyance. The Zoot Suit becomes a fundamentally, contrarian statement, in Paz’s view. The pachuco’s exaggerated coat or “pile of rags” (Tacuche), pleated pants (“Drapes”), and lengthy watch chain (Cadena) might seem to serve no utilitarian purpose; however, the significacion they performed articulates resistance to the norms of utilitarianism, highlighting the self-fashioning of identity as a means of defending a sense of selfhood from the threat of cultural assimilation and normalization. “Racism and poverty created the gangs, we had to protect ourselves,” according to old time Zoot Suiter “El Chava” from the Hoyo Maravilla gang of the 1940s (Bojorquez 7).

According to Paz, Mexican American culture was in its “adolescence” at the time, and Latino Zoot Suiters were barely defining their Americanism. The Anglo-Americans did not accept Zooters as true citizens, especially in the Southwest, where Spanish language and skin color segregate Latinos and Latinas from society. Beginning “in the 1920s there were illegal mass deportations to Mexico of Mexican American citizens who were trying to unionize their labor” (Bojorquez 8). In downtown L.A, public beatings of Latino (mainly male) Zooters by white U.S servicemen were common during the Zoot Suit Riots. To protect themselves, many Latinos already identifying with the pachuco community (i.e., la pachucada/chicanada, as it was referred to) across the U.S. Southwest organized even tighter gangs around local barrios (neighbourhoods) of predominantly Mexican American inhabitants. Gangs were named after local landmarks—18th, 14th, and 13th Street, White Fence, Alpine Street, Clover Street and Clover Avenue refer to places in East LA that exist today, as well as the gangs that claimed jurisdiction over them. Latino Zooters spoke Calo—a mix of Anglicized Spanish, Hispanicized English, and Roma gypsy archaisms in which the term Chicano could have first been “the short way of saying Mexicano” according to Mario Suarez, the early Chicano activist and Tucsonan author (94). Out of the 1940s Zooter experience came lowriders (the significacion response to the Anglo Hot Rod scene of the 1950s), gangland fashion and cultural tradition (Zooters-Pachucos-Vatos-Cholos-Homeboys), and a unique form of writing known as “Old English” (a standardized graffiti, referred to also as Cholo or Chicano; see Bojorquez 5-7). The Chicano-pachuco-Zoot Suit tripartite symbolizing colorful excess thus became iconic of Mexican American resistance to continued systemic oppression in the United States at a time when North American policymakers and producers of the mainstream culture represented patriotism in the strict rationing of textiles and fabrics.

Significacion is metonymic, in the sense that the Zoot Suit and its post-pachuco cultural variations in Cholo expression feature a specific set of objects appropriated to substitute for one’s damaged humanity through a “deliberately aesthetic” fashion: that is, the outfit can stand for an excessive “will-to-be” (Paz 14). The Zoot Suit becomes a metonym for Chicanos with an unbounded “personal will to remain different” (15). Notable Chicano writers, including Mario Suarez, Luis Valdez, and Reynaldo Berrios, have presented Mexican American self-fashioning as a substitution for the counter-culture that develops in response to the changing pressures of living in North American society. These authors could be classified in their relationship to the pachuco; where Suarez depicts the rise of the Zooters throughout the post-WWII Southwest in his Chicano Sketches, Valdez dramatically romanticizes the height of the Zoot Suit Era in Zoot Suit, and Berrios reasserts and redefines the pachuco identity in the decidedly post-Zooter style of the Cholo in Cholo Style: Homies, Homegirls, and La Raza.

Mario Suarez was among the first Chicanos living in the Tucson barrios to have his works published in major academic journals and university presses. His work pre-dates that of the authors typically credited with portraying the Chicano movement in literature, such as Hinjosa-Smith and Anaya, such that his short stories have come to represent a critical moment of anthropological, literary, and socioeconomic transformation in the immigrant communities of places like South Tucson (specifically, the barrio of “El Hoyo,” or “the Hole”). Recurrent characters like Pepe the wannabe pachuco typify this metamorphosis as he becomes “Kid Zopilote.” Among Suarez’s earlier Chicano Sketches, “Kid Zopilote” represents aesthetic style as a visual metaphor for the rebelliousness of the pachuco that is key to Pepe’s new identity. At his high school, pachucos were either “herded off to jail” or else “given free haircuts” and “their drapes and pleated pants were cut with scissors” (35). In response to this censorship, Zopilote takes to practicing guitar in solitude until his “hair grew long and met in the back of his head in the shape of a duck’s tail” (36). Thus, he can only be a pachuco if he has a “deliberately aesthetic” fashion—that is, if his outfit can stand for an excessive “will-to-be.” At Kaiser’s Shoeshine Parlor in Suarez’s La Hoya, “Kid Zopilote saluted the zoot suiters with their universal greeting,” demonstrating that the zoot suit is also a metonym that substitutes for the pachucos themselves (34). Even if Pepe is not a “zoot suiter” initially, Suarez associates Zoot Suit dandification with the pachuco by distancing Kid Zopilote from traditional North American standards of fashion: “[H]e had the appearance of one of those slick felines that can never begin to look like a human being even if he should have on a suit of English tweed and custom-made shirts” (34). The purportedly ridiculous haircuts, the flamboyant gestus and outfits clash with the politically acceptable taste of an industrious and “business-minded” Anglo American aesthetic. As mentioned before, the textile exaggeration of the pachuco requires a lot of expensive fabric, which aggressively mocks the Anglo-imposed rationing of materials considered a patriotic duty during WWII.

Applying both an emasculating and an empowering affect to the pachuco, Suarez casts Zopilote as if his physique itself was tailored to the Zoot Suit, even if the clothing is absent. In contrast, by the end of the Chicano Movement, “El Pachuco” in Luis Valdez’s play Zoot Suit had developed an inverted, heroic image of the suit itself:

The Pachuco was existential

for he was an Actor in the streets

both profane and reverential.

It was the secret fantasy of every bato

in or out of the Chicanada

to put on a Zoot Suit and play the Myth (26).

In El Pachuco’s terms the pachuco as an icon becomes synonymous with the Zoot Suit. Unlike Zopilote and his friends, who resorted to pachuquismo after an interaction with the migrant labor culture in Southern California to become outcasts in the Tucson barrio, El Pachuco treats the Zooter style as a fantasy that any Chicano might secretly desire to enact. There is no predetermined physique or visually identifiable “other” that dons the Zoot Suit in Valdez’s rendition; there is only “a mythical, quizzical, frightening being / precursor of revolution / Or a piteous, hideous heroic joke / deserving of absolution” (26). The suit itself becomes a revolutionary articulation of one’s self-fashioning and an intentional assumption of Paz’s denigration of the pachuco as a “sinister clown” with “sadistic attitudes” who transforms the pain of systemic oppression into dark parody to highlight the excesses of authorities (16). This conceptualization of the pachuco, while opening up the Zoot Suit as a way of articulating resistance to power, also creates an intense fragility through a sense of self that is fundamentally attached to external aesthetics. During the Zoot Suit Riots, Henry’s brother highlights the vulnerability of the pachuco, when “[a]ll the people watched,” including his girlfriend Bertha, while the marines stripped Rudy (Valdez 93). This poignant ending to the play reiterates that the Zoot Suit was an intensely powerful statement against mainstream U.S. culture, and that North American society would overstep legal restraints to suppress the statement via symbolic annihilation of the Zooter.

The Zoot Suit Riots and related incidents reflected the negative opinion of pachuquismo among white, middle-class Americans. As a result, the pachuco became a synecdoche for all rebellious Mexican American youth in Suarez’s stories. Kid Zopilote’s account of the “Mexicans from the high school” being sent home reflects this discrimination. The school makes the disciplinary decision to remove any aspects of pachuquismo from the public space, while associating all Mexican youth at the school with the pachuco. Post-Chicano Movement, El Pachuco crystallizes this criticism in his dialogue with Press and the Anglo military servicemen who form a mob against him:

The Press distorted the very meaning of the word “zoot suit.”

All it is for you guys is another way to say Mexican

But the ideal of the original chuco

was to look like a diamond

to look sharp



finding a style of urban survival in the rural skirts and outskirts

of the brown metropolis of Los, cabron (80)

Reynaldo Berrios appropriates “El Pachuco’s” version of self-fashioning for the Chicanismo of the post-Zooter era. A Mission District native and norteño “homeboy,” Berrios and his co-editor Victor Spider attempt to represent the most up-to-date Mexican American barrio life in a series of interviews and compilations of the Cholo magazine Mi Vida Loca, which was established in 1992 (two years prior to the film by the same title). Their detailed storytelling, transcripts, and drawings sourced from the barrios, inner cities, and state prisons across both northern and southern California highlight the cultural work performed by significacion. Recognizing the liminal position of the Chicano youth in relation to the North American social institutions, contemporary barrio counterculture adapted the style of the Zoot Suit as an aesthetic sign to remake a new sense of fashion. The modern Cholo appropriates elements of the pachuco with a defiant excess of fabric but trades the Drapes and Tacuche for khakis and flannels.

This “Homeboy” look, as Berrios labels it, responds to the Zoot Suit with a fashion that incorporates modern sociopolitical developments in the Southwest—Aztlan nationalism and the disproportionate incarceration of Latino males, notable since at least the 1980s. Cholo style thus reiterates the irony of disciplinary, carceral practices enacted on the brown body by a contradictive liberal democratic system culminating in the pachuco. In Zoot Suit, Hank Reyna laments, “I was born a target” in WWII era Los Angeles; Cholo style responds to the idea of authorities discriminating against Mexican American males as targets by forgoing any pretense to a life outside of prison in their visual aesthetic: the pressed khakis, undershirts, and flannels combined with shorn heads, hairnets, and spotless white sneakers presented in Berrios’ cataloguing of the Cholo are ironic derivatives of the standardized prison uniform that the Anglo-dominated Department of Justice requires many Latinos to wear at some point in their lives. At the same time, the outfit identifies strongly with working class aesthetics of durable, utilitarian clothing intended for “work.” While this criminalized Cholo “work” is not necessarily associated with sanctioned industry, the outfit exhibits a kind of labor or “hustle” conducted in marginalized economies.

By assuming a variation on the State-imposed outfit, Cholos pay homage to homeboys currently caught up in the legal system while also recognizing the pachuco tradition of absorbing and exaggerating aspects of Anglo culture. Cholos create meaning by manipulating the prison uniform rather than the formal three-piece, as was the case of the Zoot Suit. Yet both variations on Chicano significacion engage in hyperbole through the rhetorically deliberate excesses of fabric. With the Zoot Suit, vibrant colors and baggy cuts demonstrated an ironic disregard for the discipline of the war effort’s rationing (a war seen as being initiated by and for Anglo Americans and Europeans). The Cholo is a decidedly post-Chicano Movement response, where oversized shirts and pants still represent the visual excess imported from the Zoot Suit, but also present a kind of protective shell from the panoptic gaze of the police—a curtain that can conceal anything from weapons, drugs, or money to one’s personal narrative inscribed on the body—a hyper-political text made through extensive tattoo work. Berrios uses artwork sourced from “Folsom, Soledad, Pelican Bay, Corcoran” and other prisons to populate the covers of Mi Vida Loca Magazine, depicting the various ways Cholos employ the body as textual practice (vii). Subtitled “A Magazine by Raza and for La Raza,” the audience is invited to identify with Berrios’ and Spiders’ revolutionary Chicanismo in Mi Vida Loca, emphasizing an overtly, masculine aesthetic. Men are “ripped” in the sense of overdeveloped musculatures, but also in the sense of being physically torn apart by the authorities or gang violence. Exhortations such as “stop killing your Raza” accompany the disappointed gestures of Aztec princes and the faces of tearful Cholas. Homeboys lock fists under the Virgin of Guadalupe in one issue. Cholos stand proudly after surviving a drive-by on another cover, bare-chested and touting Aztlan and La Raza in “Cholo” (or “Old English”) script on their chests and bellies. The Zoot Suit and the “sadistic clown” Paz associated with pachuquismo also make appearances in the magazine as late as 1999, demonstrating a connection between the Cholo and pachuco discursive modes of self-fashioning. Examples of illustrations used for the cover, centerfolds, and complied illustrations in their anthology of political essays Cholo Style (2006) are given below to emphasize how these aesthetic trends are re-inscribed over time:


Figure 1. Issue 72 of MVL, depicting Zooter aesthetics, Nov.-Dec. 1999

Figure 2. Centerfold illustration by Victor Spider (Ed.) depicting the sadistic clown.

Figure 3. Issue 15 of MVL, portraying Cholo stylization and iconic Chicano tattoo work, Jan. 1994.


Figure 4. Illustration of a Zooter by Victor Spider (Ed.) from Cholo Style (2006)

Figure 5. Issue No. 12 of MVL, portraying Aztec and Mexican Revolutionary imagery as a political counter-statement to the racial politics of California, October 1993

Significacion can be described as the product of a conceptual chiasmus, where the Anglo terms of describing Mexican American youth and their fashions are often crisscrossed or inverted. Before the Zoot Suit had become an established trope, Suarez was employing the proto-Zooter “Kid Zopilote” as a literary chiasmus to portray the school administration’s prejudicial censorship of the pachuco through his blanket association with Mexicans: Kid Zopilote joined a pachuco riot to resist the insults of “illogical people,” who saw “a zoot suit on every Mexican, a Mexican in every zoot suit” (35). El Pachuco in Zoot Suit also viciously criticizes the personified Press’s rhetorical chiasmus of employing the term “Zoot Suit” as “another way to say Mexican” (Valdez 80). In response to this brutal censorship of the Zoot Suit and its correlation with Mexican heritage, according to Paz, the pachuco becomes suicidal and masochistic; he debases and lessens himself to negate the significance—and thus the pain elicited—of his alienation from the traditional barrio, while also resisting North American cultural assimilation.

The pachuco and the Cholo are textual litotes, in that the self-effacing undertones of their cultural productions make a decisively rhetorical statement. In Berrios’ work, the clownish imagery associated with the Zooter and the Cholo articulates a desire to “laugh now, cry later” as a method of coping with the constant barrage of institutional violence against the barrios. In Suarez, Loco-Chu (literally “crazy pachuco”) wanders the town like an abject stain of poverty and death, occasionally stopping to eat at Canton Café and show “the decaying bits of food hanging between his decaying teeth” (28). Pepe’s nickname Zopilote translates as a “black vulture” incapable of presenting itself like a peacock, as his uncle implies, but also becomes associated with ingesting the same decay as pachucos like Loco-Chu. Moreover, the entire pachuco community falls prey to the mysterious cigarette scheme in the room above Kaiser’s Shoeshine Parlor in “Kid Zopilote,” indicating that self-destructive behavior undercutting the pachuco lifestyle is inseparable from its rebellious aesthetic statement. In Zoot Suit, El Pachuco snaps at Henry during the peak of his isolation while he is confined to solitary incarceration, laughing, “Don’t take the pinche play so seriously, Jesus!” (78). It is through the dark comedy of the ironic understatement—i.e., the litotes—that the pachuco makes sense of the ultimately nonsensical justice system in which he is trapped.

According to Paz, the pachuco’s gesture is “empty” and non-referential; merely a response to the clash of two cultures that is fundamentally unsure of itself during a period of sociopolitical and personal adolescence. While this diagnosis might seem uncharitable in the light of the significant cultural work that significacion actually performs, adolescence as a psychosexual and physical stage of development is a useful analog for understanding one component of pachuquismo: the pachuco (and the Cholo) rhetorically enacts aporia, or an insurmountable philosophical puzzle, much like adolescence. Paralleling puberty, and typically viewed as “a temporary identity that was shed after adolescence,” pachuquismo and the post-Zooter Cholos encourage intense experimentation and reinvention of the self outside of the norms set by the popular culture industry (Licón). Yet this existential formation is not tolerated by the greater aesthetic regime of the U.S. So, how is the paradox of the pachuco historically expressed in the face of so many inhibitory discourses about them? Stephen Greenblatt’s New Historicist criteria for classifying literary self-fashioning establish a framework that effectively and accurately maps the “aporia”–an irresolvable internal contradiction central to signifyin(g) in the African American tradition but also Chicano/Chicana significacion as presented by the Zooter and the Cholo style: “None of the figures inherits a title, an ancient family tradition that might have rooted personal identity in the identity of a clan or caste,” since the lands in question—those mythically defined as the purview of Aztlan—have been politically removed from the ownership of their indigenous and mestizo inhabitants (Greenblatt 9). “Self fashioning for such figures involves submission to an absolute power or authority at least partially situated outside the self”; pachucos and Cholos associate their aesthetic with the Virgin of Guadalupe or the crucifix attached to their ensemble, demonstrating their identification with God and the authority of the Mexican Catholic Church (9). At the same time, Cholos like Berrios align themselves with the political agenda of the Raza movement, the larger ideology of manhood, and an ever-changing conception of machismo. Internal and external forces pressure the counter-cultural icon of the barrio into a fluid and malleable source of significacion, turning him into a cypher for Mexican American resistance to authoritarian power.

Self-fashioning, according to Greenblatt, is also achieved “in relation to something perceived as alien,” where both the pachuco and the Cholo (aptly nicknamed the “Homeboy”) identifies with his specific street or barrio as a form of resistance to the metropolis that alienates his culture (9). Thus, anyone from outside of the home turf, whether it is the politicians, police, rival gangs, norteños or sureños trespassing on each other’s territory, African Americans, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is perceived as an untrustworthy outsider. Since “one man’s authority is another man’s alien,” self-fashioning in significacion incorporates “the demonic parody of order” in the Zoot Suit and Cholo outfit, which are “alienations” of the authoritarian business suit and the prison uniform, becoming its chaotic counterpart in a conscious interplay of licit and illicit aesthetics (9). There is also a multiplicity of power relations between majoritarian and minoritarian identities at war in the pachuco/pachuca—between genders, classes, languages, and spacial-temporal ideologies that are constantly in flux. “When one authority or alien is destroyed, another takes its place” while at the same time “[t]here is more than one authority and one alien in existence” (9). The necessity of negotiating different authorities and alien threats, given Greenblatt’s depiction, creates the aporia of the Zooter and the Cholo, such “that submission and destruction are always already internalized” (9).

Greenblatt recognizes that “self-fashioning is always, though not exclusively in language.” (9). Thus, part of the pachuco and Cholo basis for identity is the employment of Calo Spanish combined with African American Vernacular English (i.e., linking it to the signifyin(g) tradition of “jive” talk; see Licón). The pachucos and their Cholo inheritors intentionally destroyed the syntax of Mexicano Spanish and slaughtered North American dialects of English, recreating a figurative vocabulary replete with archaisms from Andalusia and Roma gypsy slang. In literary terms, this aspect of significacion is a figurative metalepsis, a “deliberate transgression of the threshold of embedding” metaphorical references, which are “intrusions [that] disturb, to say the least, the distinction between levels” of narrative and speech. Using metaphoric language in radical contexts as pachuco vernacular produces an effect of “humor” or of “the fantastic” or “some mixture of the two” (Genette 88). In making a parody of language, Mexican American counter-culture finds the verbal equipment to articulate a frustrating social position caught between the political neglect of the barrio and the prejudicial scrutiny of North American popular culture.

The power of the U.S. police order is to be found even in the aesthetic regime that dictates the public perception of politically sensible and insensible activities. This legitimizing order, naturally, moves to censor and condemn individual tastes that undermine its hegemony. Ironically, as Greenblatt points out in his final criteria for self-fashioning, “the power generated to attack the alien in the name of the authority is produced in excess and threatens the authority it sets out to defend. Hence self-fashioning always involves some experience of threat, some effacement or undermining, some loss of self” (9). Zooters and Cholos incite the excess of the authorities by intentionally playing the Other; they play the rebellious “Myth” in the terminology of Valdez’s El Pachuco. In doing so, these characters highlight the constructed-ness of justifications for the superiority of the mainstream culture industry, inciting cultural producers like the Press in Zoot Suit to announce “you are trying to outdo the white man in exaggerated white man’s clothes!” (80). Zooter and post-Zooter Chicano speaking practices, behavior with an ambiguously rebellious purpose, and excessive fashion appropriate profane uses of language, action, and materials to accomplish a sociopolitical self-fashioning by forcing “the white man” to speak his privilege and his anxiety about the racial Other in North American culture. Therefore, significacion performs a kind of textual catachresis, where audiovisual sign making is intentionally “incorrect” or “taboo” in relation to popular cultural norms. Like the bird that becomes Pepe’s namesake in Chicano Sketches, “they [pachucos] walk like punks walk into a bar,” attempting to present themselves as anything except carrion (i.e., Kid Zopilote), feeding on vomit rather than finding the will to forage and thereby destroying their surrounding environment in an attempt to relieve themselves (Suarez 33). Yet pachuco cannot help himself, “[b]ecause even if he can, he does not want to” (Suarez 36). It is in the simultaneous recognition of agency and refusal of social structure that the significacion generates power through mythological figures that intentionally choose to make the “incorrect” choice in pachuco self-fashioning. In literature, the Zooter becomes a dialectic tool for complicating Mexican American stereotypes by intentionally failing to adhere, de-identifying with any ideological presumptions.

Like Valdez’s El Pachuco, Zopilote snaps his fingers and responds to criticism of his pachuquismo with a shrug: “I haven’t got a damned education. I haven’t got no damned nothing. But I’ll make out” (35). Among later authors, Berrios promulgates the do-it-yourself ideology of intentional transgression to re-territorialize1 a sociopolitical space for the legitimization of Mexican American working-class discourse in the Southwest. In defense of the pachuco image condemned by Paz, Sanchez-Tranquilino and Tagg emphasize how Mexican American texts and artifacts could have produced a critical form of signification (what I call here significacion by combining this phenomenon with Henry Louis Gates’ literary framework) originating in the pachuco. Their writing creates the possibility that the Cholo is a necessary form of community resistance to the dual pressures of an outdated Mexican patriarchy and Anglicized mechanisms of systemic oppression:

What we begin to make out is another narration of identity, another resistance. One that asserts a difference, yet cannot be absorbed into the pleasures of a global marketing culture. One that locates its different voice, yet will not take a stand on the unmoving ground of a defensive fundamentalism. One that speaks its location as more than local, yet makes no claim to universality for its viewpoint or language. One that knows the border and crosses the line. (101)

The authors go on to describe a critically conscious masculinity in el pachuco and a revolutionary femininity in la pachuca. Their description deploys a Deleuzo-Guattarian framework of global capitalism to posit that “Pachuco culture was an assemblage, built from machines for which they never read the manuals. […] by appropriation, transgression reassemblage, breaking and restructuring the laws of language” (96). While Paz denigrated the Mexican American counter-culture in the United States, Sanchez-Tranquilino and Tagg undermine his description of pachuquismo by reminding us that the work significacion performs resembles a desiring-machine, contributing to and yet undermining the socially-sanctioned productions of both Anglo American and Mexican cultures.

While pachuquismo and the Zoot Suit is now a marginal lifestyle, it serves an important purpose in the mythos of Chicanismo for the Cholo, becoming the iconography of modern Chicano counter-cultural resistance and reconceiving its contemporary voice to signify cultural affirmation. The (post)modern solidarity of Cholos was no longer necessarily based on la familia or raised to rely on Anglo social institutions, but instead grounded in a barrio-level Southwestern citizenship, perhaps even affiliated with the imagined Chicano nation of Aztlan. Given that significacion parallels the theoretical framework of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s signifyin(g), it can be considered a decolonizing literary trope; “a trope, in which are subsumed several other rhetorical tropes” that can be used to trace the ways in which Mexican American countercultures represent themselves and critically deconstruct North American aesthetics in literature (52). While African American and Mexican American colonization and historical oppression developed along different paths in the United States (thus, the term significacion is differentiated from signifyin(g)), a larger picture begins to appear as significacion and signifyin(g) could both be seen to represent a cultural pattern of resistance to the common denominator, which is the privileged hierarchy imposed by settler colonialism. Moreover, significacion is a cultural tool in the self-fashioning of a postcolonial community comprised of “Old English” graffiti style, secret codes of tattooing, Calo phraseology, and a post-Zooter fashion aesthetic. Together, these elements produce a uniquely Chicano trope for making and breaking chains of signifiers applied to and by that same community.


Works Cited

Berrios, Reynaldo. Cholo Style: Homies, Homegirls, and La Raza. Feral House, 2006.

Bojorquez, Chaz. “Stroke as Identity.” Cholo Writing: Latino Gang Graffiti in Los Angeles, edited by Francois Chastanet and Howard Gribble, Dokument Press, 2009: 5-9.

Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: a Theory of Afro-American Literature. Oxford University Press, 1988.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Cornell University Press, 1983.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-fashioning: from More to Shakespeare. University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Licón, Gerardo. “Pachucos: Not Just Mexican-American Males or Juvenile Delinquents.”_KCET, Community Television of Southern California, 8 Feb. 2017, www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/the-history-of-pachuco-culture.

Paz, Octavio. Labyrinth of Solitude, the Other Mexico and other essays. Grove, 1982.

Suarez, Mario. Chicano sketches: Short stories. University of Arizona Press, 2004.

Sanchez-Tranquilino, Marcos, and John Tagg. “The Pachuco’s Flayed Hide: The Museum, Identity, and Buenas Garras.” Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation 1985 (1965): 97-108.

Valdez, Luis. Zoot Suit & Other Plays. Arte Publico Press, 1992.



1 “Reterritorialization” is the theoretical process wherein spatial manifestations of ideological changes in the social relations and their connection to geographic territory are made obvious by some new political power or system. The term is drawn from the writing of French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who often associated postmodern culture with capitalism, power dynamics, and identity politics. The tension between these phenomena result in a process of territorialization, deterritorialization, and reterritorialization in terms of the social structures attached to specific regions and localized cultural practice.