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Walls of Empowerment: Chicana/o Indigenist Murals of California.

WALLS OF EMPOWERMENT: CHICANA/O INDIGENIST MURALS OF CALIFORNIA

By Guisda Latorre (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008, 324 pp., $60 cloth,

$27.95 paper)

THE WOMAN IN THE ZOOT SUIT: GENDER, NATIONALISM, AND THE CULTURAL POLITICS OF

MEMORY

By Catherine S. Ramirez (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009, 256 PP.,

$79.95 cloth, $22.95 paper)

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AT FIRST GLANCE, Latorre's and Ramirez's monographs seem to have little in common except that they are both about Mexicans in the United States. Upon closer examination, however, both books explore how visual self-representation, whether via muralism or style, served as a tool of agency for marginalized peoples to assert their own vision of their place in society.

Using a wide array of sources, including oral history interviews, archival material, periodicals, visual art, and literary texts, Ramirez's The Woman in the Zoot Suit takes Los Angeles as its case study to explore the multifaceted politics of pachucas, ethnic Mexican women who donned the infamous suit, including the youth subculture in which these young women took part during the 1930s to the 1950s. As such, Ramirez seeks to "recenter pachucas as agents and la pachuca as icon." She therefore traces the manner in which pachucas as icon have been absent and present in both Chicano and mainstream American narratives.

Both national narratives disdain the pachuca. For mainstream American narratives of the World War II era, the pachuca signified an un-American and sexually deviant danger. Chicano narratives of the 1960s and 1970s excluded her "because of the ways she articulated a dissident femininity, female masculinity, and, in some instances, lesbian sexuality." The pachuca did not fit in to the paradigm of the heterosexual family as the prime agent for social change. Ramirez also explores the ways in which pachucas acted as agents. As such, she demystifies pachucas by "domesticating" them. Ramirez highlights the regular nature of the lives of women who wore the zoot suit, placing them as one subculture within a broad spectrum of ethnic Mexican women of the period and asserting that the attire "forged a noticeable and unsettling collective identity."

From murals and oral history interviews, Latorre's Walls of Empovaerment also addresses ideas of collective identity and nationalism. Latorre takes Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco from the 1960s to the 1990s as its case studies to explore the role that indigenist iconography played in muralism. Indigenist muralism, as defined by Latorre, served as a "tool with which to assert agency from the margins" and was, in fact, used by Chicano/a artists "to create a compelling and decolonized frame of self-representation." Furthermore, the author contends that indigenism influenced a "dynamic and heterogeneous notion of the indigenous," which translated into a "dynamic and heterogeneous" Chicana/o identity.

Latorre's strongest chapters articulate the nature in which muralism reflected the multifaceted nature of Chicana/o identity even through the use of indigenist iconography and those that elucidate the genealogy of Chicana/o murals. For example, she makes a connection between Mexican and Chicana/o muralism and argues that although the work of the most well-known Mexican muralists obviously influenced Chicana/o muralists, the influence was not as direct as we would think.

Latorre argues that although the icons used by both sets of muralists were similar, both groups used them under distinct nationalist frameworks. She also addresses women muralists to show the ways in which they used indigenist imagery to challenge what was a predominantly male-identified Chicano muralism. Women muralists began to incorporate "a visual vocabulary that embraced many other intersecting identities (African American, Central American, lesbian, etc.)."

Students and scholars of ethnic studies, women's studies, art history, and American studies will find these two monographs useful. Both provide fresh analyses on Chicano/Mexican American identity and all of its complexities.

REVIEWED BY MARISELA R. CHAVEZ, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF CHICANO AND CHICANA STUDIES, CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, DOMINGUEZ HILLS, AND CONTRIBUTOR TO LATINAS IN THE UNITED STATES: A HISTORICAL ENCYCLOPEDIA (2006) AND MEMORIES AND MIGRATIONS: MAPPING BORICUA/CHICANA HISTORIES (2008)
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Title Annotation:The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory
Author:Chavez, Marisela R.
Publication:California History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2010
Words:670
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