Mexican American Mojo: Popular Music, Dance, and Urban Culture in Los Angeles, 1935-1968.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Opie, Frederick Douglass
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: Mexican American Mojo: Popular Music, Dance, and Urban Culture in Los Angeles, 1935-1968 (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Macias, Anthony
Accession Number: 230778712
Full Text: Mexican American Mojo: Popular Music, Dance, and Urban Culture in Los Angeles, 1935-1968. By Anthony Macias. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008. 383 pp. $24.95.)

In Mexican American Mojo, historian Anthony Macias looks at the urban cultural politics of a generation of Mexican Americans between 1935 and 1968 in Los Angeles. Building on the work of Latin American studies scholar, George Sanchez, and African American studies scholar Robin Kelley, and a host of others, the hook IS a documentary history of mixed ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles with intimate portraits of the cultural expressions of the residents of Lincoln Heights, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles proper, City Terrace, Watts, and Compton, among others. Macias focuses on the ascetics of Chicano youth over time and what their culture tells us about identity politics and assimilation. The Generation came of age with largely African American and some Jewish, Filipino, and Japanese neighbors, classmates, mentors, band members, and dancers. Macias employs the West African word mojo, or supernatural power, to describe among other aspects, how Mexican Americans struggled against discrimination in LA and influenced popular culture in the city with their "innovative styles." (3) The book is important because of its generational approach to Mexican American culture, a geographical approach that moves beyond East L.A, and an alternative approach to Chicano musicology that incorporates jazz.

The book contains an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. Chapter one is musical analysis of the Mexican generation it discusses throughout the hook, looking at the musical and dance fads during the depression, like modern jazz and the jitterbug. Chapter two looks at the emergence of the African American zoot suit and the Mexican American variation--the pachuca and pachuco style. The discussion centers on Mexican American urban identity and notions of cool in the era of WWII. Chapter 3 looks at the black and brown cultural collaborations in mixed LA neighborhoods and throughout the city, begun in the previous chapters, but with a focus on Mexican American consumers and producers of jazz, jump blues, pachuco boogie, and finally the start of R & B music. Chapter 4 looks at the Mexican American participation in the doo wop and rock and roll crazes of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The final chapter delves into the importance of LA in the Latin music scene of the 1950s looking at Mexican American contributions to the rumbas, boleros, Latin Jazz, mambos, and cha cha chas. Macias makes use of oral histories and traditional written archival materials. Oral histories provide a detailed account of the personal lives of previously unknown Mexican American contributors to the history of jazz, such as Anthony Ortega, Gil Bernal, Paul Lopez, and Eddie Cano, to name a few, and the spaces where they learned and produced jazz music.

The author's essential question is, what did it mean to become a Mexican American in Los Angeles between 1935 and 1968? Macias argues that it did nor mean adopting middle-class white values or rejecting one's working class roots. Instead Mexican American youth in LA created an expressive culture that combined urban American--particularly African American--and Mexican elements, one rooted in the style politics of zoot suitors, pachucos and pachucas, and cholos and cholas, that contributed to the development of a cool "counterculture with a street edge and a tough, working-class masculinity and femininity." (1-2) As one of the oral histories reveals, "We're Americans for the draft, but Mexicans forgetting jobs." (106)

Macias does a convincing job of proving his point, though he is very repetitive at nines in doing so. He is also bit nationalistic in advancing the argument that Mexicans created LA's casual cool style: he asserts that it's a about time Chicanos get credit for creating popular clothing styles such as the distinctively North American infatuation with jeans, t-shirts, and leather jackets that has gone global.

The most important part of the book in this scholars opinion is Macias' frank discussion of black and Latino relations in LA that adds to a much needed dialogue between scholars of Latino and African American studies and history. This is in contrast to the pessimistic view of the two communities as seen in Nicolas C. Vaca's The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America (2004). Macias provides a complex history of when African American and Mexican Americans came together and drew apart. Me insists that white Angelinos welcomed Mexican Americans in some situations while barring African Americans without any apparent protest from Chicanos. This was the case with city ball rooms and the segregated musicians union Local 47, the Musicians Mutual Protective Association. Similar complexity exists in the discussion of the more intimate relations between African Americans and Mexican Americans.

As with Puerto Rican parents in New York, Mexican American parents generally viewed African Americans with contempt. In contrast to New York, both older and younger Mexican Americans largely rejected romantic relationships with blacks. African Americans for their part may have welcomed Chicanos to their clubs in neighborhoods like Watts to dance and listen to soulful music, but African American customers did not always accept Chicanos musicians playing black music in black spaces. This is another difference between LA and New York. (1) Throughout the hook we learn that black and brown youth did share spaces where they developed fruitful relationships, particularly on band stands, but that was largely when traveling together outside of the racially charged LA jazz scene.

The real change in black and brown relations came with the Black Power movement in the late 1960s. Black Power, argues Macias, "signaled a shift in the relationship between African Americans and Mexican Americans, ethnic nationalism represented a response to reactionary state repression, but not necessarily an all-out rejection" of black and brown collaboration. (227-228) Macias' portrait of black and brown relations maintains that Mexican Americans delighted in black cultural productions, but it's not clear that Chicano youth moved beyond the racial politics of their parents' generation or of LA officials in their view of the African Americans who produced the culture they enjoyed.


(1.) Frederick Douglass Opie, "Eating, Dancing, and Courting in New York Black and Latino Relations, 1930-1970," Journal of Social History, Volume 42, Number 1, (Fall 2008): pp. 79-109.

Marist College

Frederick Douglass Opie
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