Chuco Style

Published in Texas Observer

It’s a Saturday morning at the edge of the state, close to where Texas, New Mexico and Mexico meet and blur. In the small town of Anthony, about 20 miles north of El Paso, houses have backyards measured in half acres, and the Franklin Mountains stand out on the horizon without the distraction of tall buildings. It’s the type of place where a yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag flies next to those of the United States and Mexico. On this hot July morning — after a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns and menudo — 13 members of the 915 Pachucos y Pachucas Unidos begin their monthly meeting.

They gather around a large kitchen table. Yvonne Patino, the group’s president, starts by asking for receipts for recently made T-shirts and collecting each member’s $5 monthly dues. Seated to her left are Gracie Guzman and her husband, Victor, the hosts of this month’s meeting. Victor has slicked-back jet-black hair and an easy smile. As each guest arrives, he repeats the same question: “Did you have trouble getting here?” All answers reference GPS and the beauty of the area.

To Patino’s right is Frankie Herrera, whose baby-blue shirt and black pants are without a wrinkle. He always sports a hat and looks like he’s never worn sweatpants in his life. Asked if he’s the best-dressed person in his office, where he’s a medical support assistant for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Frankie answers, “Well, there’s a few others that are close.” Herrera and Patino, like many others here, are carrying on a family tradition. “My father, my great-grandfather, my uncles were pachucos,” Patino says. “My youngest son is a pachuco.”

With the meeting underway, Yvonne’s 6-year-old son plays with other children whose parents are members of the group. They are growing up around pachuquismo — a subculture that began in El Paso and whose hallmarks include a flamboyant style of dress; parties with swing dancing, retro music and vintage cars; and, more recently, community service. These men, women and children are sustaining a tradition that started in the 1930s. They also symbolize what’s distinct about the borderlands. Mexican Americans in El Paso have long straddled multiple worlds: Texas and New Mexico, Mexico and the United States, English and Spanish. The pachuco lifestyle celebrates these differences while passing on Chicano pride to the next generation.

Pachucos are often thought to be gangsters or criminals. A 2017 story by a Los Angeles television station had the telling headline “Pachucos: Not Just Mexican-American Males or Juvenile Delinquents.” In fact, the first pachucos weren’t usually gangsters, but rather Mexican and Mexican-American teenagers and 20-somethings who developed their own style in the 1930s and ’40s. The subculture originated in the El Paso-Juárez area and spread westward with migration. Zoot suits, or tacuches, have always been the most distinguishing feature. Adapted from 1920s African-American jazz scene attire, tacuches come in loud colors and patterns. Bright yellow, sky blue or blood red aren’t unusual; neither are pinstriped or checkerboard patterns.

Traditionally, pachucos wear double- or triple-pleated high-waisted pants. Accessories include a silver or gold cadena, or chain, that loops down over the baggy leg and hangs a few inches above the ankle. Also common are vests, gafas (glasses), resortes (suspenders) and a long, multicolored feather tucked into the band around a tandito, a hat. Add some tablitas — shiny, colorful shoes, often in two tones — and you have the standard pachuco uniform for men. Women can wear a zoot suit, baggy pants with suspenders or simply a jacket with a long, tight-fitting skirt. Beyond the style of dress, pachucos talk in a slang, or caló, closely related to the Spanglish spoken along the Texas-Mexico border.

Pachucos are best remembered for the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. Over several nights in early June, in downtown Los Angeles, sailors stationed at a nearby base attacked anyone who wore a tacuche. Amid the jingoism of World War II — legislation leading to the internment of Japanese Americans was passed less than two years before the riots — pachucos aroused fears that they were unable or, worse, unwilling to assimilate. Oversized and baggy tacuches were also deemed a direct affront to the War Production Board’s clothing regulations, which aimed to conserve fabric. This all fed into the tensions that culminated in the Zoot Suit Riots. But even that name is misleading, as it places the responsibility on those who wore tacuches.

“Perhaps it’s time to revise that narrative,” says Ruben A. Arellano, a historian at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Instead of perpetuating the myth that it was [pachucos] who were responsible for the riots, we should call it what it actually was, which was the Sailor Riot. Because it was the young sailors who were out in caravans and carpools and sometimes even assisted by the local authorities to go out and beat up and strip these young Mexican Americans of their zoot suits.”

The caravans Arellano refers to are what Carey McWilliams called taxicab brigades. McWilliams, an activist and journalist who covered the riots, described the sailors as traveling in groups of at least 20 cabs. When they spotted anyone wearing a zoot suit, they jumped out and beat him up. “The sailors then piled back into the cabs and the caravan resumed its way until the next zoot-suiter was sighted, whereupon the same procedure was repeated,” McWilliams later wrote.

Because of the riots, there’s an assumption that pachucos were from Los Angeles. The belief that they’re gangsters also persists. These are misconceptions the 915 Pachucos (whose name references the El Paso area code) are trying to change. “We educate our youngsters about the culture,” says Patino. “Some of them still have this image of us being cholos, and that’s not what we’re about.”

The El Paso group is a nonprofit that has donated Thanksgiving meals to the hungry, Christmas toys for children and food for the homeless, among other efforts. Members have spoken in history classes at area colleges and raised money for families who can’t cover medical or burial expenses. Pachucos y Pachucas Unidos continues to expand, with chapters in Tijuana, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, among other cities.

Pachucos have long evoked consternation on the southern side of the border as well as in the United States. Mexico’s northernmost states have long felt the geographic and cultural distance from the central parts of the country, in particular Mexico City. Pachucos — and Mexican Americans as a whole — were even more outcast.

“The pachuco has lost his whole inheritance: language, religion, customs, beliefs,” argued Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude. “His disguise is a protection, but it also differentiates and isolates him: It both hides him and points him out.”

Other Mexican intellectuals — José Revueltas, Carlos Monsiváis, Salvador Novo and José Vasconcelos, to name a few — also noted the precarious position pachucos occupied. They weren’t quite Mexican but clearly neither were they fully American. This is a tension that never ceases.

For Victor Guzman, the memory of a trip he made in the late ’90s to Camargo, Chihuahua, about six hours south of El Paso, still stings. “I was wearing my pants, all the way up to my belly button. I had suspenders, I had my hat on,” he says, “and I would get a lot of bullshit: ‘You guys are all pinche gabachos. You guys think you’re all that.’ And that’s not the case.”

At Lincoln Park in south-central El Paso, the lawn is shaded by a tangle of highway overpasses. One route connects the city to the rest of Texas, another leads to New Mexico and a third goes south to the international bridge with Juárez. Dozens of formerly drab highway pillars are emblazoned with colorful murals. There’s John F. Kennedy, a bald eagle, Cesar Chavez, and the black eagle that began as the United Farm Workers’ symbol and is now synonymous with the Chicano movement. Another painting shows a pachuco with his hand in his pockets, leaning back. Nearby, there’s a pachuca in a sleeveless shirt and suspenders. She holds an American flag in her right hand, while her left arm is draped with a Mexican flag.

The park is home to many of the El Paso pachucos’ public events, where curious onlookers often stare and ask questions. “I know we attract a lot of attention because of the way we dress,” says Victor Guzman. “But attention is not really the main thing. It’s us enjoying ourselves, being together with people that, that…” As he struggles to find the right words, Gracie finishes his sentence: “That enjoy the culture. And respect the culture.”

Members often pose for pictures in exchange for donations to whatever cause they’re there to support. They dance to music by the likes of Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, Pérez Prado and Glenn Miller. “You can’t go wrong with oldies,” says Victor. When they dance, people gather around to watch the impressive sight. The tacuche’s bright colors and patterns make kicks and dips stand out, and the chain hanging from a pachuco’s waist glints while he moves.

I couldn’t help noticing that most members of the El Paso group were in their 40s or older. They speak often of passing the tradition on to their kids, many of whom tag along to events, but will it stick? Matthew San Roman, 27, is a sort of freelance pachuco, unaffiliated with the 915 group, who says he rarely meets other young pachucos. A Chicano studies major at the University of Texas at El Paso, he wears his tacuche most days. When classmates ask questions, San Roman sees an opportunity to start a conversation on Mexican-American history. “I get all kinds of reactions,” he says. “I really want them to know [about pachucos] because it’s part of them too.”

One hopeful sign: Back at the monthly meeting, conversation turns to an upcoming trip to San Antonio, where the El Paso pachucos are helping to start a new chapter. All 13 members will make the eight-hour drive to meet like-minded folks in “San Anto,” as they call it. They’ll sell enchilada plates and T-shirts to pay for a rental van, and then they’ll gather at a bar. Yvonne tells everyone to bring their two best tacuches. “Los mero mero, mas chingón,” she says — roughly translated to “the most badass.” They all laugh but know exactly what she means. Everyone here takes the symbolism of the tacuche seriously.

“My first suit, I bought it when I was 16,” Victor tells me. “I was so proud, man. I was wearing that thing to high school, I would only wear to las quinceañeras, las bodas. At that time, I was 16 so I couldn’t go to any bars or anything, so before that, I would only wear my pants, my suspenders, my tie, my little tandito, unas tablitas que me dio mi abuelito. But I loved it.”

Pachucos tend to remember the first time they wore a tacuche. “I’ve been dressing like this since I was 13,” says Frankie, now 53. “In 1982 and 1983, guys from California would come in and compete for the zoot suit contest. Those two years, I got first place. They couldn’t beat me and they would get all mad … because they thought the pachucos were from over there.”

But pachucos come from El Paso. The city’s semi-official nickname, after all, is El Chuco. According to lore, when someone asked traveling Mexican laborers their destination, they’d respond, “P’al Chuco.” To El Chuco. This westernmost edge of Texas that’s much more like Juárez than it is like Austin. Where a wall clearly marks the political borders but the cultural ones continue influencing each other.

Near the end of the meeting, members recap everything they’ve discussed. Someone quietly translates for the members from Juárez — la familia Pérez, as they’re referred to — who cross the border to attend meetings and any planned events.

José ya no va poder brincar” — José will no longer be able to cross — Francisco, the father of la familia Pérez, says of his young son. His visa will expire around the same time as the San Antonio event. Its renewal is already in process but “con todo lo que está pasando,” it could take months. Members offer their help in any way they can. “We look out for each other,” says Yvonne. “Gracias,” Francisco answers.

For now, the group’s focus is on founding more chapters. Asked if these will expand beyond the Southwest, Yvonne nods. “That’s our goal, to extend as far as we can nationwide, and keep going,” she says. “It’s something we love to do, it’s in our roots and hopefully our younger generation … they will carry on the legacy of the pachuco.”

Miguel Berchelt TKOs Miguel Román to retain WBC super featherweight title

El Paso, Texas — Miguel Román’s attempt to become Juárez’s first world champion ended with the referee showing compassion and stopping the fight in the last seconds of the ninth round. He hugged him against the ropes and in doing so kept his younger, taller and more skilled opponent, Miguel Berchelt, from pounding away with another combination.

It seemed like Román’s only chance at winning was walking through those punches but when he did, all he could do was land one or two punches. The fight ended but it felt like it could have easily been stopped several rounds before.

In the sixth round, Román appeared to be knocked out. As he laid on the floor, Berchelt climbed the neutral corner ropes, flexing as if he’d fulfilled his promise. When Román stood up, just as Berchelt turned back to the ring, the latter looked surprised that Román was still there. Before the round ended, Berchelt dropped Román and again, Román stood up. He survived but the fight was effectively over.

Chants of “Mickey, Mickey,” and “si se puede” — yes we can — erupted sporadically throughout the fight, trying to help Román. He’d only respond in spurts, landing a punch or two before Berchelt returned knocking Román’s head back before skipping away.

When the fight ended, two seconds from Román surviving yet another round, Berchelt celebrated. Román stumbled back to his corner. He sat there, on his stool, looking down at his feet. It was his third attempt to win a world championship and like the previous chances, he lost.

Román’s corner placed an ice pack on his neck and consoled him. Berchelt also came over to talk to Román. Berchelt wore his green WBC super featherweight belt across his chest and when he hugged down at his opponent, who remained seated on his stool, the belt rested inches from Román’s face — as if mocking him further. When Román finally stood up and walked around the ring, the crowd cheered the 33-year-old who has been in far too many brawls.

When someone raised Román’s son onto the ring, Román, hugged him and cried. He gently touched his beaten forehead against his son’s. He said something in his ear that unfortunately, neither of them may ever remember.


How Miguel Román, in a way only boxers can, perfectly symbolizes the El Paso-Juárez borderland

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Miguel “Mickey” Román shouldn’t be here, fighting for a world championship.

“I’ve had everything against me,” Román says in Spanish.

In this era where a boxer’s undefeated record is part of his identity and marketability, Román has lost 12 times. And where the top boxers may fight once or twice a year, or even less, over his 15-year career, which he describes as “sad,” Román has averaged almost five fights per year. Most of them took place in Mexico, away from the bright lights that come with boxing’s biggest events. Of course, Román has never been mistaken for the type of boxer to fight on the big stage.

On Saturday, in El Paso, Texas, across the border from Juárez, Mexico — his home — Román faces defending champion Miguel Berchelt for the WBC’s super featherweight title in a bout streamed on ESPN+. As usual, Román is the underdog.

“Román will be at a disadvantage in … areas like youth and talent,” said Patrick Connor, boxing historian and host of the “Knuckles and Gloves” podcast. “But he shouldn’t be overlooked.”

Compared to Berchelt, Román (60-12, 47 KOs) has crude skills more fitting of a well-versed street fighter. See him fight and there’s a ferocity and look of desperation; eyes narrowed, teeth clamped so tight on his mouth piece that the muscles around his square jawline seem that much tenser. Román is boxing’s answer to a manual laborer, the type of fighter more likely to get sponsorship from a local muffler shop than well-known corporations. He is also the kind of fighter that perfectly symbolizes where he’s from.

Despite being in different countries, El Paso and Juárez are more similar than different. Sister cities along borders usually are. Here, the area used to all be one — El Paso del Norte. In the mid-1800s, the U.S.-Mexico War culminated with the Rio Grande becoming the political border. When it did, it split this area into what later became El Paso and Juárez.

El Paso County is nearly 83 percent Latino, mostly Mexican and Mexican-American, and you’re just as likely to hear people speaking Spanish than English. Compared to the rest of the U.S., it ranks lower in education and higher in poverty rates. And yet, largely because of the military that first arrived around the time of the U.S.-Mexico War and the Border Patrol’s continuing and escalating presence, the city ranks among the safest in terms of violent crimes. This is especially true when compared to Juárez, which, as Mexico’s fifth-largest city, has always had they type of violence associated with a city its size. But Juárez’s violence, as we know it today, began about a decade ago. With drug cartels fighting to control what serves as the entry point to the U.S. — their best client — Juárez’s murder rates increased tenfold. By 2010, averaging over eight murders a day, authorities considered Juárez the deadliest city in the world. For a few years those numbers declined, but they are rising again. This is where Román is from and where he learned to fight.

“We were a very poor family,” Román explains about growing up in colonia Primero de Septiembre, one of Juárez’s poorer neighborhoods. “We struggled even to go to school.” When he attended school, he often fought. To keep him from trouble, Román’s father took him to a boxing gym. “I ran with gangs,” Román admits, “but once I started boxing and dedicating 100 percent of my time to it, I was able to leave that behind.”

Román turned professional in 2003. Two years into his career, tragedy struck. That night, Román was at home with his family when he heard gunshots. Soon after, he heard his name called. “Mickey, Mickey,” the voice said. As he walked outside, Román learned his brother — who was unwilling or unable to leave the gang life behind — had been shot. “I was carrying him,” Román remembers, “we were just about to get to the hospital. He took two deep breaths and that’s when he passed.”

Román not only held his brother as he died but knew who was responsible.

“I know a lot of fans follow me now. That’s why I didn’t take vengeance on the guys who shot my brother,” Román explained. “I have to be an example — to the people who trust me.” And so, Román kept boxing. Four years into his career, he was an undefeated prospect. And then he lost.

After accumulating a record of 22-0, Román lost two of his next three fights. The losses continued. In about a three-year-span, during what should have been the early prime of his career, Román lost seven of 13 fights. He then won four straight before, again, suffering more setbacks, losing three of four fights in less than a year. He contemplated retiring.“I didn’t have a plan,” Román said of what he would have done for a living. “I have a lot of family in the United States, maybe I would have gone there.”In early 2013, with his career on the verge of ending, Román rededicated himself even if his status within boxing became that of an opponent. Increasingly, he fought away from home, going to an opponent’s hometown with most expecting him to lose.“I proposed that if I lost a fight I’d retire,” Román recalls. “And I won 18 fights in a row and, until now, we are still here.” In his last 23 fights, he has lost just once. Román fought and forced his way into being named the mandatory challenger for the world championship.More recently, trainer Rudy Hernandez has contributed to Román’s continuing success. During training camps, which now include a dietary focus and increased attention to the technical aspects of boxing, Román moves to Southern California. Away from training, he still lives in Juárez.“I like it there,” Román said of Juárez. “The people treat me good.” Wherever he goes — restaurants, plazas, malls — Juárenses show their admiration. “If I crown myself as world champion, I will make history,” said Román. “I will be the first world champion from Juárez. And truthfully, that is a great motivator.”Beating Berchelt (34-1, 30 KOs) won’t be easy. Román will have to turn the fight into a brawl — as he usually does. His experiences, both good and bad, will serve him well.“I’ve been through it all,” he said, giving the impression he’s talking about more than boxing. “I have been knocked down and I have gotten up. I have gotten up to win.”“In a sense, his [career] is … the opposite of sad,” Connor said. “He’s been able to go farther than many thought he could despite not having the talent, protection, etc. When compared to where he could be, it’s a success story in [several] ways.”Mickey Román shouldn’t be here, but he is. And everything about him — including his thin, Pachuco-style mustache, reminiscent of one of Juárez’s favorite sons, Tin Tan — symbolizes the El Paso-Juárez borderland. He’s a blue-collar type of boxer. He has more knockouts than any other active boxer and is tougher than most. If Román can crown himself world champion, Juárez, the city he never left, and El Paso, the city that was once part of Mexico, will have something to celebrate.