Colorado professor comes to Richmond to discuss the lives of Mexican American women during World War II
on March 2, 2015
Roughly 40 people filled up the theater at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park’s visitor center on Saturday morning to meet Elizabeth Escobedo, author of From Coverall to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front. The author and associate professor of history at the University of Denver was invited to the museum to share her research.
During her presentation, Escobedo showed a variety of advertisements, newspaper articles, and photos from the WWII era that depicted the Mexican-American community in both positive and negative ways, such as helping with the war effort or being criticized for wearing zoot suits. Escobedo focused on Mexican-American women and their roles as “Rosie” during WWII. “Rosie was often depicted as a white woman. But of course women of color were Rosies too,” Escobedo wrote in an email to Richmond Confidential after her presentation.
In her email, Escobedo said she wrote her book because she was inspired by her aunts’ lives. “They both came of age during World War II, and with their brothers off at war, they found a new sense of independence. They had the opportunity to work at defense jobs with good pay, to wear zoot suits, and to interact with men and women of different backgrounds in ways they never had before,” Escobedo wrote. Escobedo also added that it’s important to make people aware of the long-standing participation of Latinas and Latinos in key moments like World War II, since the current political climate often perpetuates notions that Mexican-Americans are newcomers or outsiders in the United States.
Escobedo mentioned in her presentation that during WWII, Mexican American women and other women of color had access to skilled jobs and earned money. According to Escobedo, it wasn’t uncommon to see Mexicans, Euro-Americans and African-Americans working together in factories. She even shared a newspaper’s front-page that celebrated the work of Mexican-American women and other women of color during the WWII era.
Escobedo shared WWII ads that were used to embrace the idea of an alliance between the United States and Latin America, displaying statements like “Todos Americanos,” or “We’re all American.” Mexican-Americans participated in WWII efforts by fighting in the war or by being a part of the bracero program, an agreement initiated in 1942 between the U.S. and Mexico through which Mexicans were brought to the U.S. as temporary manual laborers.
According to Escobedo, the involvement of Mexican men during WWII influenced many Mexican-American women to be more independent and be in contact with men outside of the Mexican community. The dominant men in their lives—like their father or brothers—were away serving overseas, allowing the women to engage in leisure activities with men without family supervision, and which led to some of them to marry men of other ethnicities.
Escobedo shared the love story of an interracial couple who met while working together in the defense industry during WWII: Mexican-American woman Andrea Perez and African-American man Sylvester Davis. Even though Perez was Mexican, under contemporary California law she was considered “white.” (Mexicans were considered “white” at the time because of their Spanish heritage.) Perez and Davis fell in love and applied for a marriage license, but they were denied. Their story led to the 1948 Perez v. Sharp case, the first legal ruling of the 20th Century to recognize that state bans on interracial marriage violated American constitutional rights.
In addition, Escobedo said, the newfound independence of Mexican-American women influenced them to wear zoot suits. The suit consisted of a pair of high-waisted wide trousers and a long coat with wide shoulder pads. The style was very popular among “Chicanos”—Mexican-American men—as well. According to Escobedo, negative connotations were associated with wearing the suits. “Mexican families thought that wearing a zoot suit was evidence of their daughters becoming ‘too American,’ but to the larger public, these young women were seen as being racially militant and ‘too Mexican,’” Escobedo wrote by email.
After Escobedo’s presentation, attendees asked questions and even signed their copies of her book. Amy Andrea Martinez, an ethnic studies PhD student at UC Berkeley thanked the author, stating that Escobedo’s research among the Mexican American studies had helped her in her studies.
Attendees were also able to watch Valentia: Mexican Americans in WWII, a 30-minute documentary telling the stories of Mexican-American veterans and civilians during the war. Two “Rosies” were also present and shared their personal WWII stories with attendees—Mary Torres, 91, and Priscilla Elder, 95, are two of the five “Rosies” who volunteer at the park’s visitor center.
Kelli English, chief of interpretation and education at the park, said that the event list had filled about three weeks before the talk, showing that the topic is of real interest in the Richmond community, where there’s a prominent Latino population. “For us this is a real treat because there’s so many layers to the Rosie the Riveter story,” said English. “Rosie is really kind of a composite. She’s a symbol of the fact that so many women in this country had opportunities that they never had during the war. And what most folks don’t realize is that there were many different types of Rosies.”
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