It was from her father’s sisters that Elizabeth Escobedo first heard the stories that would inspire her new book, “From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front” (University of North Carolina Press, 2013). With the men off at war, the women found a new sense of liberation. They were working at factory jobs with decent pay, no longer watched over by their brothers when it came to dating and social life.
“My aunts felt incredibly independent during this time period,” says Escobedo, associate history professor at DU. “They were not only contributing money to the family till, but they could spend this money on things that were important to them, like leisure activities — going out to the local dance halls and dancing to the swing, doing the jitterbug.”
It was a social change that affected many Mexican-American women at the time, and their stories are told in Escobedo’s book, which started life as her dissertation at the University of Washington. Ten years in the making, “From Coveralls to Zoot Suits” is based on 40 oral histories, 32 of which she conducted.
“That was the most rewarding part of the project,” she says. “So many of these women would never have thought about themselves as being historically important or as political activists. Every time I would call an elderly Mexican-American woman to talk about her experiences or to set up an interview, inevitably she would say, ‘Well, I really didn’t do much; you should perhaps look for someone else. My wartime experience was nothing out of the ordinary.’
“Of course, if I was able to talk to them, the stories began to flow off their tongues, and it became very clear that nothing could be further from the truth,” Escobedo continues. “These were young women — a portion of the greatest generation that we don’t typically hear about — who found very creative ways to navigate the opportunities and limitations of the second world war and its aftermath.”
Escobedo shared the women’s stories once again on the PBS documentary “Latino Americans,” which aired in fall 2013. “War and Peace,” the episode in which Escobedo appears, aired in September.
In her book and in the documentary, Escobedo examines not only the lives of Mexican-American women during World War II, but how those lives changed once again when the war ended. Between the women working in the defense industry at home and the men fighting abroad, the war marked the first time many Mexican-Americans felt a true sense of belonging in the United States, even though segregation still was the law of the land.
The war also brought Mexican-American women in contact with Caucasian servicemen, leading to increased intermarriage.
“Many [women] felt a greater sense of belonging, of their place as American citizens and their need to challenge exclusion in the everyday,” Escobedo says. “Talking to these individual women, you see the way in which broad social change can happen at a very individual level. It’s not a civil rights movement in the strictest sense of the term — a uniform movement fighting for legal change—but the fact that these young women were taking wartime jobs, earning unprecedented wages, that they were perhaps going against the norms of their family and dating someone outside of the Mexican community — these were pathmakers in their own right.”