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Borderlands: Teens Rebel Against Authority 15 (1997)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Teens Rebel Against Authority

Article first published in Vol. 15, 1997.

By Celeste Delgado

Many teenagers today are viewed by their elders as nonconformist. But some of these adults themselves were the nonconformist rebels back in the fifties.

Of course, teen behavior in the 1950s was much different from that of today. Charles Panati, author of Panati's Parade of Fads, Follies, and Manias says, panty raids in late March of 1952 at the University of Michigan began with a shout, "To the girl's dorm!" The object of these young men was to return with any article of women's lingerie, a trophy proudly to be displayed.

""Image caption: El Chuco Y Que" is a mural depicting a cowboy in the Southwest desert watching El Paso rebels. Photo by Celeste Delgado

More often than not, the girls, gleeful and squealing, tossed down stockings, panties or bras, making the festivity sound like a riot. Storming the girls' dorm to steal underwear was the decade's first rebellious craze and was more of a harmless prank.

But there were also teenagers whose rebellion against authority was more socially damaging. Juvenile delinquency and gangs in New York in the 1950s overran low-income housing projects. These gang members wore black leather jackets and tight jeans, talked a lingo derived from bebop -- a kind of talk traced from jazz musicians  -- decorated themselves with tattoos and ran with girls whose clothing was identical to the boys'.

Delinquent gangs have been organized throughout history as a symbol of revolt. In the violent world of gang life the most prized quality was a reckless, even suicidal courage, which the kids called "heart. " If a gang member was killed in action, the survivors shrugged it off with a stoic cliché: "That's life. "

Harrison E. Salisbury, a New York Times correspondent in the 1950s, found the same theme in all the boys he interviewed in New York: hatred for the life they led and bitter frustration at being unable to cope with it.

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The gangs occupied their time with random acts of vandalism and violence on the streets. They dabbled in drugs, maimed and killed one another, and drank themselves into a rage with cheap wine called "sneaky pete."

Around the same time that New York was experiencing these social problems, El Paso was having its own problems with juvenile delinquency. Many of the delinquents were centered in the poorest barrios of El Paso.

These barrios were places of widespread poverty and a high incidence of disease and illness. Matt S. Mpacheir, a noted author on Mexican-American history, says, "low-cost sub-standard homes, political powerlessness, limited city services, isolation from and neglect by city or county authorities and a lack of hope and aspirations," were typical in the barrios.

In the 1950s in El Paso, more than 12,000 substandard dwelling units existed in the area of the Segundo Barrio. There was an average of seven families per toilet, with an average of ten persons per family. W. H. Timmons , author of El Paso: A Borderlands History says, "Focused here in Segundo Barrio were seventy percent of the city's welfare cases, fifty percent of adult crime, eighty-eight percent of juvenile crime and sixty-seven percent of infant mortality. " Lawrence C. Trostle, author of The Stoners: Drugs, Demons, and Delinquency says, "One of the major factors of juvenile delinquency is toughness." Some teens feel a need to convey themselves as being "macho" to overcome the stigma that living in the lower class level has put on them.

David Nieves, an El Paso teenager in the 1950s, grew up a block from  the Mexican border. Nieves says, "There was a gang in San Juan, my neighborhood, called "The King Cobras." Nieves says gangs fought with knives and bats then, unlike today's gangs who tend to use guns.""

Image caption: The pachucos of the 1950s painted on the old Popular building in downtown El Paso were symbols of revolt. Photo by Celeste Delgado

In the Segundo Barrio there were young kids called pachucos. The Dictionary of Mexican-American History describes these youths as "Mexican-American youth in the urban southwest who adopted a lifestyle that included zoot suits as a uniform, tattooing on the hand and membership in a palomillo (gang)."

George I. Sanchez; a New Mexican sociologist, saw the pachuco movement arising out of "the economic exploitation of, and blatant racial and ethnic discrimination against, Mexican-Americans." Sanchez also says, "They saw themselves as defenders of their barrios, their women and their culture."

Every group in society has a hero. One of the national idols of teen rebels in the 1950s was James Dean, the discontented, mixed-up young actor whose first movie, "Rebel Without a Cause" became a cult classic. The sad, bad Dean with his loner reputation won him the title of "rebel with an attitude."

El Paso had a different kind of hero. Father Harold J. Rahm was a great influence on the teenagers who lived in the Segundo Barrio in the 1950s. Historian C. L. Sonnichsen, author of Pass Of The North, says Father Rahm was a young priest who wore a black leather jacket over his clerical attire and was soon at home with everyone on the south side after his arrival in the mid-1950s." Father Rahm paid close attention to boys who belonged to gangs and were headed for trouble.

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Father Rahm founded Our Lady's Youth Center and got local teens involved with competitive sports, construction projects and learning experiences. His success led hundreds of citizens to carry on his projects after he left to apply his talents and abilities to problems in Brazil. A record of his experiences can be found in a small volume appropriately titled Office in the Alley. His achievements left the teens of Segundo Barrio with a feeling of self-worth.

Today, thirty to fifty percent of the juvenile offenders in El Paso are from low social levels, have either hard laboring or unemployed parents and are from a one-parent homes. Some of these troubled teens also engage in alcohol and drug abuse. A young gang member in El Paso explains that he feels gangs are not the problem; they are the result of the problem, and lack of parental guidance is a large factor.

How will a child learn from his mistakes if he is not forced to face up to them by a parent? In order to salvage the next generation of young kids, parents must come together and begin communication at an early age and teach their children respect for themselves and others.

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Pachuco sources

Pachucos: A Culture of Unity (Only in El Paso)

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