Mexican American man and two women
L to R Eloise Arciniega, unidentified man, Hortensia Arciniega, circa 1928.
The 1920s are often thought of as the “Roaring Twenties” or the “Jazz Age,” and the flapper is the most iconic figure of the era. With her bobbed hair, high hemlines, and thrill-seeking carefree attitude, the flapper became a staple of popular culture. She also became a fashion style and represented a way of life adopted to some degree by many girls and women. For some Americans, she represented all that was wrong with modern culture —obsessing over film stars and cosmetics, forsaking tradition for current fads and sensations, rejecting authority figures, and engaging in social and sexual activities outside the bonds of marriage. For others, she represented an exciting optimism — releasing young women from outmoded restrictions, encouraging risk-taking and experimentation, embracing modern consumer culture and music, allowing for more socializing between young women and men, and rejecting older models of courtship for the new youth practice of dating. Both in the 1920s and today, flappers are often envisioned as white and middle class or wealthy. How did the flapper fashions and lifestyles translate for girls and young women from immigrant families and communities of color? In what ways might they have collided with Mexican American traditions regarding girls’ and women’s modesty, chaperonage, and deference to familial authority? How might police, youth protection workers, and other authorities have responded differently to Latina flappers versus white flappers in 1920s California? How was an embrace of flapper styles and practices a form of acculturation into US norms for young Latinas? How might the risks and rewards have been different for them versus white girls and women?
Like the better known pachucas and pachucos of the 1940s, Mexican American young women in California and the Southwest in the 1920s adapted US popular culture and subcultural styles and fashions to make them their own. The 1920s was a peak decade for Mexican immigration to Los Angeles. As historian Vicki Ruiz describes in “The Flapper and the Chaperone,” the daughters and granddaughters of immigrant families donned flapper dresses, bobbed their hair, and negotiated expectations of chaperonage that existed in both Mexico and the United States.* Chaperonage was a way for a family to protect its honor and standing, in part tied to the sexual purity and reputation of its girls and women. In California, chaperonage took on profound implications in a decade of growing hostility toward Mexicans and Mexican Americans, as the border hardened following establishment of the Border Patrol through the Labor Appropriation Act of 1924 and then intensified with the mass deportation/repatriation of Mexicanos from the United States, including some birthright citizens, that began in 1929. In this context, retaining oversight and control over a family’s young women in an exciting American landscape filled with many sensations, temptations, and potential new freedoms was one way to shield them from discrimination and abuse.
Still, Mexican American girls and young women sought to make their lives in the United States their own. Debating whether to bob their hair, apply makeup, and wear short skirts became a way to pursue acculturation, adapting to cultural messages they gleaned from one another, from American youth culture, and from English- and Spanish-language newspapers, movies, and radio shows. To pursue the heterosocial socializing and dating becoming popular for white girls at the time — and a celebrated aspect of flapper culture — was to go against the rules of families and Mexican tradition. Some accepted the family rules, while others rebelled (by sneaking out, strategic lying, or seeking early marriage). Still others found ways to circumvent their family’s intentions, such as by choosing a chaperone who would be sympathetic to them.
Freedom from families did not allow young women to escape from larger social forces of discrimination, and, even more so than white girls and women who took on flapper ways, Mexican American girls were often saddled with accusations of immorality, bad reputations, and community shame. Still, as this photograph shows, many young women embraced at least some aspects of flapper culture. Exploring with students this embrace of flapper culture opens up conversations about immigrant acculturation, discrimination, popular and consumer culture, gender, race, and the rise in heterosocial socializing and dating.