New Mexico has been linked to El Paso since 1598 when the first Spanish settlers passed through on the Camino Real. Three centuries later the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago was passed after the Mexican American War of 1848. Through that legislation El Paso, the sunbelt region and California all became a part of the United States. But for many old-timers El Paso will always be El Paso del Norte, the passageway to the north.
An interesting cultural phenomena was born in El Paso in the 1930s when remnants of the Great Depression still lingered. In search of jobs young Hispanic men headed to Los Angeles. These young people brought with them the language of the barrios, which contained influences from the Mexican underworld. They spoke a dialect that had its origins in the language of the Gypsies, called caló. These men from El Paso became known as los pachucos. Pachuco comes from a nickname for the city of El Paso. Spanish speaking people often referred to the town as El Pachuco or El Chuco.
Cultural aspects of the pachucos began with the Romani language spoken by the Gypsies in Spain. They migrated to Europe from northwestern Europe during 18th century. The dark-skinned Roma were misnamed “Egyptians” by Europeans and the name evolved into “Gypsies” in English and “gitanos” in Spanish. The caló language of Spain has many Romani words, but its grammar is based on the Spanish language. The caló language spoken by the Chicanos in El Paso, Los Angeles and throughout the Southwest became widespread.
Adaption in Language
In addition to the Romani language spoken by the Gypsies in Spain, the pachucos integrated words from other languages. Chante, chicloso, and tacuchi derive from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs. Words like bironga, clica, ganga, dátil and guachar derive from English. The Spanish of old Spain also made its way into the vernacular with words like: asina, mesmo, muncho and lamber.
Gone but not Forgotten
The 1981movie Zoot Suit immortalized the life and culture of the pachucos. The movie began as a Broadway musical of the same name. It chronicled the race riots in Los Angeles after World War II. In the movie Edward James Olmos portrayed El Pachuco. Caló became the language spoken by the poor segments in these Southwestern cities. That cultural era is long gone but every once in a while I’ll still hear a word or two in Spanish that brings me back to the early days of my childhood and the world of los pacuchos.