Prom is a quintessential coming-of-age event for many youth in the United States, an opportunity to celebrate having survived adolescence and moving into a new chapter of life alongside one’s peers. It usually involves festive gowns and tuxedos, limousines, and dancing the night away at a heavily festooned gymnasium, hotel, boat or other space that becomes a semi-public festival for one night. But prom can also be a source of trauma not only for young adults who do not fit mainstream society’s rigid gender roles but also those who cannot afford to pay the high prices of the prom experience or are otherwise non-normative subjects.
For the past two years, the San Francisco State University (SFSU) chapter of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) has been hosting a cultural event known as Pachucx Prom to party while raising funds for a good cause. The proceeds for this year’s prom, called “There’s a Moon Out Tonight,” will go toward a graduation ceremony which will take place at the end of the year to commemorate graduating Chicanx seniors. And by putting a twist on an all-American tradition, this event is arguably not only different from the event after which it gets its name, but even counter-cultural and counter-hegemonic.
“Hey, Pachucx!” Enacting Chicanismx in 2015
The “Pachuco” is a racialized counter-cultural figure that reached its height of popularity in the 1930’s barrio and the height of controversy in the race riots now-called the “Zoot Suit riots” in 1943 Los Angeles. Dressed in elegantly stylish costumes known as zoot suits and organized into groups of like-minded and similarly dressed young people, these youth were often called “gangsters,” and “Chicanos.” Pachucas, or females in the scene, enjoyed their fair share of infamy as they participated in Pachuca lifestyle as well.
Pachucx is a gender-neutral/gender-inclusive term used by this MEChA chapter that demonstrates the presence of historically erased and invisibilized queer and trans individuals as well. So while pachucx is retro, we see it is also a dynamic counter-identity that continues to evolve. For some people, pachucx prom was an opportunity to dress up in retro costumes nodding towards a previous generation, while for others, cruising down the barrio boulevard in a supped up car and full Pachucx garb, this was just another Saturday night. The event was an opportunity for young working class Chicanxs and other people of color to transform someone’s living room into public space much like house parties. Its significance becomes legible in the context of a gentrifying Bay Area.
Making Something Out of Nothing
“There’s a big difference between actual prom and a house party in your mom’s backyard, you know?” –Xino Martinez, former member of MEChA de SFSU and SOLmate
A large common space and dining room at the Sustaining Ourselves Locally (SOL) Cooperative in East Oakland was converted into a dance floor and bar with some modest rearrangements of furniture and lots of draped Christmas lights.
Heavily styled men, women and genderqueer people made their entrances, greeting friends with hugs and making introductions, cheerfully commenting on one another’s outfits and sipping from gilded plastic cups with drinks like Rum-Horchata and Tecates from aluminum cans. People wore crisp suits, pencil skirts suggesting that hours of labor had been spend getting outfits ready. Perfectly coiffed pompadores with roses meticulously placed revealed that a lot of hairspray had been used, as well. During an outfit contest, Pachucxs strutted on the dancefloor with confidence, shouting out their neighborhoods (Los Angeles, East Oakland, San Francisco, California’s central valley) and showing off their props like a swinging chain that dangled from the pockets of high-waisted trousers. One stunning couple turned heads as they cruised down the barrio strip of International Boulevard in on a shiny baby blue and white detailed vintage sports car.
The converted dancefloor was a sea of swinging Pachucx colors like black, emerald green and crimson colors and different shades of brown skin. People danced to a variety of tunes being spun by a sharply dressed DJ whose two-foot-long hat feather bobbed and threatened to poke other dancers as the DJ two-stepped. The tunes brought a certain house party vibe to tunes that showed the Chicanx community was out strongly tonight. The music was “appropriate,” as my informant tells me—1930’s and 40’s mambo, cumbias from all different eras and places, 80’s Rock en Espanol and, of course, oldies. Outside, the large garden that is normally a space for garden work was cleared to make room for a smoking patio and photo booth where couples and friends lined up to take selfies in the faux starlight. The backdrop was a starry night made from cutting pieces of telas (fabrics) into stars and a large moon pasted on by organizers, mostly mujeres, before the festivities. There was no skimping on the glitter.
In Chicanx fashion, many elements exemplified the spirit of imaginatively making new forms out of few resources available to working class people of color. Four tables in the common room were turned into the table at the door, the bar, the DJ station and a table for artisan vendors and the outside table became the smoker’s haven. I also got the impression that these practices are especially important for students of color in the context of rapid gentrification in California’s Bay Area that has led to the enclosure of public space.
Resisting Displacement in CA’s Bay Area
“I remember when I was in the chapter struggling to pay hundreds of dollars [for venues]… San Francisco is not accessible to working class students of color working their way through public education…” –Xino Martinez
While many people participated in the event to enjoy the festivities and support the particular cause, it became clear to me from talking to people that this event has a particular significance in the context of the gentrification of the Bay Area. For example, the group that organized the event is known by insiders as “MEChA de San Pancho,” a play on the common nickname given to people named Francisco that serves as a way of reclaiming the city’s Chicanx and mestizx roots. Additionally, the fundraiser took place in Oakland—not San Francisco where the chapter gets its name—in part because it was an accessible public space. With real estate development encroaching on public spaces in the city, public spaces for working class residents of color have become scarcer.
The hundred or so Chicanxs and other people of color in their twenties who attended Pachucx Prom on Saturday, May 9th are but a fragment—the latest articulation—of Chicanx counter-cultures, cultures of resistance to hegemony.