Discussion Guide: From Coveralls to Zoot Suits

Online Discussion Question Guide

Escobedo book coverFrom Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front

by Elizabeth R. Escobedo

  1. What were the most serious points of contention between adolescent Mexican American women and their parents? How did World War II help and hinder these young women?
  2. Discuss the variety of ways in which Mexican American women sought to exercise control over their lives in the home, workplace, and nation during World War II. Do you agree with the author when she theorizes that the Second World War provided new opportunities for Mexican American women to challenge their position in the home and U.S. society with more legitimacy than previous years? In negotiating and responding to their immigrant parents’ strict ideas about gender roles?
  3. How did Americans’ attitudes toward race shift during World War II and what was the impact on Mexican American women’s lives?
  4. Why does the author describe the social position of Mexican Americans as “racially malleable” and “fluid” and “in between”? Do you agree or disagree with this assessment? In what ways does the unique racial position of Mexican Americans complicate traditional understandings of race in the United States?
  5. Why do you think young Mexican American youths chose to wear zoot suits in the 1940s? Did it mean something different for Mexican American females to don the controversial attire, in comparison with their male counterparts? How did various sections of society—including the Mexican community, the larger Euro-American populace, and fellow Mexican American teens—respond differently to those who wore the zoot style, and why?
  6. Was the pachuca persona an empowering or limiting identity for wartime Mexican American women? Why? Do you see an equivalent identity with youths today?
  7. What did it mean to be “American” in the wartime environment, and how did those youths who wore zoot suits seemingly threaten this vision? What does the zoot suit phenomenon say about the struggle over identity and belonging in wartime America? Do you think that so-called “zoot suiters” were making an overtly political statement with their choice of attire?
  8. From Coveralls to Zoot Suits provides an in-depth discussion of negative stereotypes of Mexicans in the 1940s media, and the variety of ways in which Mexican American women utilized the wartime media to combat these harmful images. To what extent did, and does, the mainstream media shape public opinion about individuals, groups, and/or events?
  9. Was the federal “Americans All” program primarily patriotic hype, or did it ultimately offer some social and economic benefits to first- and second-generation Mexican women? Discuss.
  10. Why did Mexican American women enter the defense industry and what did they get out of their war work? In what ways were their experiences as war workers new to them? Did any similarities exist to their pre-war work experiences?
  11. When you reflect back on your U.S. history classes in high school and college, what did you learn about Mexican Americans and other Latino groups? If the subject matter was lacking, why do you think this is? How can we work to provide a more inclusive history to our nation’s children?
  12. What makes us “American”? Put another way, what do you think makes someone “American”? Is the answer any more clear to you after reading this book?
  13. How does this book speak to current political dialogue surrounding Latina/os and immigration, if at all?
  14. Thinking about the women’s voices present in From Coveralls to Zoot Suits, discuss the benefits and limitations of utilizing oral history interviews as a historical source to understand the past. What do women’s life stories add to this narrative?
  15. Why is the World War II era described by the author as one of both “opportunity and conflict”? Did the Second World War represent a watershed moment for Mexican American women? What were some of the most lasting consequences of the World War II era on Mexican American women’s lives and their families and community more broadly?
  16. How might the life stories and experiences of Mexican Americans included in this book complicate our understanding of popular narratives of the “Greatest Generation”?
  17. Typically when we think of “civil rights,” we think about struggles for legal equality. Does this book challenge readers to think about a broadened definition of the civil rights movement? Why or why not? How should the civil rights movement be defined?