May 3 – July 27, 2012 at the Vincent Price Art Museum
Los Angeles Mexican American musicians Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti created pachuco boogie-woogie in the 1940s, a hybrid musical genre influenced by many L.A. swing/jump blues musicians including African Americans Roy Milton and Joe Liggins, and Greek American Johnny Otis, among others. This prophetic, pulsating musical mix laid the foundation for Chicano rock and an emerging cultural and political Mexican American identity.
Many musicians and fans wore the flamboyant Zoot Suit made popular by the Mexican actor-comedian Tin Tan, and became a suave, stylistic symbol of defiant self-identity, cultural pride, and self determination. They created their own street hipster slang, caló, which was celebrated in the music, lyrics, and social lifestyles. Chicano poet Alurista defined the Pachuco and Pachuca as “someone who didn’t care to make something beautiful in their lives, but rather to make of their lives—a work of art.” Many 1940s L.A. Mexican American musicians and their followers were the essential embodiment of that poetic declaration.
In the 1960s Mexican American students and activists throughout the Southwest embraced the controversial term “Chicano” (recast as a politicized Mexican American) as a new cultural and civil rights movement was taking hold, starting with the unionization of California farm workers led by Dolores Huerta and César Chávez and later with the East L.A. student walkouts of 1968, all culminating with the Chicano Moratorium of 1970 where over 30,000 protested the disproportionate deaths of Chicanos in the Vietnam War and the poor quality of education and social services on the East Side of Los Angeles. Rubén Salazar, an L.A. Times journalist and two others perished on that fateful day.
While this turmoil was boiling Chicano and Chicana musicians once again merged musical sensibilities inspired by their African American brothers and sisters. The Motown Sound made a strong impression on Cannibal & the Headhunters, a rhythm & blues vocal group from the Ramona Gardens housing projects in Boyle Heights who went on to chart nationally then opened for the Beatles’ 1965 national tour. The Premiers also charted nationally with a tune by an L.A. African American duo, Don & Dewey, and later went on to open for the Rolling Stones. L.A. Chicano rock was finally emerging as a vital force in American popular music with many recording artists achieving national and international success beginning with Little Julian Herrera and Ritchie Valens in the fifties, Thee Midniters, Little Ray, The Salas Brothers, The Romancers, and The Blendells in the sixties, El Chicano, Yaqui, The Bags, and Ruben and the Jets, in the seventies, Tierra, The Plugz, The Brat, Los Illegals, and Con Safos in the eighties, Aztlán Underground and Quetzal in the nineties,to the current longtime standard-bearers, Los Lobos.
The popular music coming out of Mexican Los Angeles from the thirties to the mid-eighties – boleros, rancheras, corridos, pachuco boogie-woogie, swing, jump blues, jazz, rhythm & blues, rock ‘n’ roll, punk, funk, hip hop, and salsa—was not just party music, nor was it merely background music for the Chicano civil rights movement. The music helped shape, sculpt, and define an evolving cultural and political identity and future consciousness—chicanismo: a commitment for social change through political engagement as well as cultural and spiritual regeneration and responsibility through the arts.