From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front

From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front

From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front

From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front

Synopsis

During World War II, unprecedented employment avenues opened up for women and minorities in U.S. defense industries at the same time that massive population shifts and the war challenged Americans to rethink notions of race. At this extraordinary historical moment, Mexican American women found new means to exercise control over their lives in the home, workplace, and nation. In From Coveralls to Zoot Suits, Elizabeth R. Escobedo explores how, as war workers and volunteers, dance hostesses and zoot suiters, respectable young ladies and rebellious daughters, these young women used wartime conditions to serve the United States in its time of need and to pursue their own desires.
But even after the war, as Escobedo shows, Mexican American women had to continue challenging workplace inequities and confronting family and communal resistance to their broadening public presence. Highlighting seldom heard voices of the "Greatest Generation," Escobedo examines these contradictions within Mexican families and their communities, exploring the impact of youth culture, outside employment, and family relations on the lives of women whose home-front experiences and everyday life choices would fundamentally alter the history of a generation.

Excerpt

It was 1943 when twenty-eight-year-old Connie Gonzáles left her job as a seamstress in a Los Angeles garment factory for a night-shift riveting position at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach. Having previously worked in low-wage occupations, Gonzáles jumped at the opportunity to earn more money and to demonstrate her patriotism as a laborer on C-47 transport planes. After successfully completing a two-week course where she learned to operate a rivet gun and work a jig, Gonzáles started her new job at the “immense” Douglas plant. As she recalled it, “The country needed war help. … I was very proud of helping out for the war.”

The wartime home front created numerous other social and cultural opportunities for Gonzáles. Living at home with Mexican parents who kept a tight rein on their elder daughter, Gonzáles received parental permission to carpool daily out of Boyle Heights with a group of Anglo girlfriends, her fellow coworkers at Douglas. Making good money, Gonzáles also began attending big band shows and dances at popular Los Angeles venues. For most of her life, Gonzáles had been sheltered by her parents, and even as a widow—her husband died abruptly in 1936 after just four months of marriage—she was expected to remain in the company of a male family member whenever she left the house. Yet as her four brothers enlisted in the armed forces, and eventually found themselves serving overseas, Gonzáles realized she could now experience a social life without a male chaperone. With her girlfriend Helen Torres by her side, she stayed out late, taking part in Los Angeles nightlife and reveling in the “patriotic” opportunities to date Mexican American and Euro-American servicemen on furlough. Although by 1945 she—like countless other American women—lost her job to postwar layoffs, Gonzáles would always remember World War II with particular fondness. “The war gave us a lot of money and a lot of exposure to people we’d never seen before,” she explained.

The World War II years proved equally significant in the life of Ida Escobedo. While still attending high school, Escobedo began her first summer . . .

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