From the zoot suit to Lalo Guerrero, nowehere has Chicano influence been as pronounced as in Los Angeles. Anthony Macías takes a cultural journey through music
Mexican American Mojo: Popular Music, Dance, and Urban Culture
in Los Angeles, 1935-1968
2009, Duke University Press
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
IT’S A WORD that took a long journey from west Africa via New Orleans and Los Angeles to the gritty streets of Liverpool in England where it became the name of one of the Mersey Beat generation’s iconic bands, The Mojos. How ironic, then, that in the 1960s, as Beatlemania invaded LA’s Eastside, Mexican American women began to adopt British mods’ straight bangs and miniskirts. “Mojo” had truly come full circle.
Revived in colourful comedy in recent times by the excruciating Austin Powers, the term from the Afro-diaspora became synonymous with the musical citizenship claimed by an entire generation since Ann Cole first recorded “Got My Mo-Jo Working” in 1957.
In particular, it came to symbolise the ability of Mexican Americans to control their lives, fight for their rights – and influence the red-hot popular culture evolving in East LA with their innovative styles. Anthony Macías writes:
“Just as Clarence Major’s Dictionary of African American Slang defines having one’s ‘mojo working’ as experiencing ‘good luck or success’, the members of the Los Angeles Mexican American generation had their ‘mojo working’. In other words, ‘Mexican American Mojo’ refers to the power of Mexican Americans as everyday historical actors to exert agency, choice, and free will in the face of multiple structural constraints. At the same time, it also refers to their modern urban expressive culture.” [p. 3]
Macías’ Mexican American Mojo is a fascinating account of Mexican American urban culture – in particular popular music, dance styles and night life – in Los Angeles during the second world war and the postwar era. It is also a valuable contribution to efforts to explore Chicano history alongside that of African Americans, and in this respect its timing is auspicious. Its point of departure is that Mexican American and African American cultures were mutually constitutive in Los Angeles during this period: there is no exclusivity here, just complementarity that, nonetheless, recognises the stark fact that, although slight, the advantages enjoyed by Mexican Americans over their black counterparts were significant in the context of the racial disadvantages both groups then suffered.
Yet, as Macías points out, the communities were almost joined at the hip. He writes:
“Mexican Americans and African Americans in Los Angeles shared strong bonds, from the zoot suit and the jitterbug to neighbourhood jazz instructors and high schools, from boogie woogie and jump blues to doo wop, Motown and Afro-Latin music.” [pp. 5-6]
Above all, at a time when many Mexican American Angelenos were frustrated with their socioeconomic position yet remained positive about the benefits of assimilation, Macías writes, African American music and style provided a model of both participation in and resistance to Anglo American society.
Mexican American Mojo traces the contours of the Mexican American generation that came of age during the second world war and the swing era. It follows the evolution of the zoot suit style and situates the pachucos and pachucas in the urban musical and dance scenes. It goes on to follow the “black-brown cultural cross-pollination” among postwar Mexican American Angelenos involved in the jazz scene, and their subsequent immersion in doo wop and rock and roll. Throughout, the book depicts the clash of styles and attitudes between Chicano and Anglo communities – the “cultural cold war” – that mirrored the demographic and social movement of Mexicans in southern California.
Despite its refreshingly accessible style, this monograph is based on comprehensive research and a large volume of interview data. In it, Macías offers clues to the origins of the confident cosmopolitanism that now imbues Latino culture in the US more broadly, a cultural development that is probably likely to be one of the most significant of this new century.
At root, the ability of Mexican Americans to adopt and adapt styles lay in the syncretic nature of a culture that had already undergone centuries of mixing – significant diversity also existed among Chicanos, and interracial co-operation and improvisation were just as well pronounced as conflict and exclusion.
But in his closing comments, Macías cannot resist the temptation to draw attention to a pre-Columbian urge to gain direct knowledge of “the Great Creative Power”, a foundational source of creativity known among the Aztecs as Ometéotl. Mexican Americans found their great creative power, and it was called mojo.