Elizabeth R. Escobedo. From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. 240 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-0205-9.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Jozwiak (University of Wisconsin-Rock County)
Published on H-USA (May, 2014)
Commissioned by Donna Sinclair (Central Michigan University)
Beyond Rosie the Riveter
In this well-researched work, Elizabeth R. Escobedo has made a valuable contribution to the literature on women in the World War II era. Looking specifically at Mexican American women, primarily in the Los Angeles area, she examines women challenging social norms, exploring identity, and making their way economically in the war years and beyond.
Using archival sources and especially a plethora of oral interviews, Escobedo builds on the work of Eduardo Obregon Pagan’s Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon, Race and Riot in Wartime (2003) and Catherine Ramirez’s The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism and the Cultural Politics of Meaning (2009). Like the young men of the barrio, young women also explored elements of style that challenged social norms and brought them the label of delinquents or “pachuca.” Escobedo argues that these girls, while showing a “spirit of adventure and independence” with their short skirts, makeup, hairstyle, and even a female version of the zoot suit, threatened norms within and outside their communities (p. 30). The author clearly demonstrates that these young women were not simply making a fashion statement, but often were, somewhat contradictorily, simultaneously embracing “American” style while venturing outside their segregated world and consciously defending their racial identity (p. 132).
Mexican American women, like other “Rosie the Riveters,” became war workers for the higher wages available in war plants, independence, and patriotism. They were encouraged to join the war effort as part of the “Americans All” campaign by the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (of the Office of War Information), which also promoted the idea with employers. Part of that second mission was rehabilitating the image of Mexican American women in a press that had sensationalized the “zoot suit” element of the Los Angeles Mexican American community. Escobedo points out that whether they were zoot suiters or not, Mexican American women found that their fathers’ and brothers’ absence during the war meant gaps in traditional male supervision and authority. As wage earners, they gained personal independence and new status in the family hierarchy as providers.
One of the recurring themes in the book is the “near white” status of Mexican Americans in this era. It seems that this status could be problematic. For instance, in the “Americans All” spirit, there was often mixing across white/Mexican American lines at wartime dances. However, on the one hand, this characterization of “whiteness” caused problems if Mexican American women danced with black men. On the other hand, on the job, while Mexican Americans were usually not treated equally to white women, their “near white” status at least put them in a better position than African Americans.
Escobedo shows that Mexican American women were secure in their own ethnic identity. For example, in their relationship with the United Service Organizations (USO), they fought stereotypes while remaining true to themselves. Many Mexican American women felt that they should be more specifically providing social opportunities for Mexican American servicemen but hit roadblocks. The USO administration was not receptive to their ideas to serve tacos and other Mexican food that would let the men feel a taste of home. They always served doughnuts and were not about to change. The Y Owls (a Young Women’s Christian Association [YWCA] club for Mexican American girls) worked with the Coordinating Council for Latin American Youth (an organization of young Mexican American professionals) to change this policy. Through diligent efforts and not taking no for an answer, they prevailed upon the USO to create a Spanish-speaking USO in the Los Angeles area. They were able to organize one, which the women called “Senoritas USO” where they could offer Mexican food and organize fiestas. To some extent, as Escobedo notes, they had to “prove” they were ladylike good girls--fighting the pachuca. stereotype--to win over the authorities. It would have been interesting to find out more about the young women who were part of the Y Owls. What made them different from the zoot suit girls or was there overlap?
Throughout the book, the author showcases Mexican American women as navigating ethnic and gender traditions, and being agents in their own lives. The book is mostly limited to looking at the Los Angeles area, raising the question of whether Mexican American women’s experiences in other areas were the same. Perhaps the author will expand her study in future work. Through her use of oral histories, Escobedo has enriched our understanding of this era and Mexican American women’s lives. This feature and the book’s readability make it an attractive resource for undergraduate courses in women’s history and ethnic/racial history.
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Elizabeth Jozwiak. Review of Escobedo, Elizabeth R., From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front.
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