The Roaring Twenties began a century ago. One of the more indelible historic snapshots of that era is the “flapper.” She wore short skirts (to the knee), bobbed her hair, listened to jazz, smoked, and drank bootleg gin. Flappers were something of a global phenomenon, exported from the U.S. by popular entertainment and advertising. Even in the U.S., they were not exclusively Anglo-American.
As the scholar Maria Montserrat Feu López writes, the Hispanic American version of the flapper, called la pelona (short-haired girl), aroused the ire of traditionalists and conservatives. Flapperismo (flapperdom) was no more appreciated by Hispanic guardians of traditional femininity than it was by Anglo-American ones. The flapper and la pelona were both seen as threats to traditional family values. For conservative Hispanic (males mostly, but not exclusively), these family values also included a sense of loyalty to Hispanic culture: pelonas were also vendidas, sell-outs to Anglo-American culture. As López says:
Spanish-language journalists examined modern girls through Hispanic antimodernist lenses. Amid the ethnic tensions of the era, U.S. Hispanic pelonas became symbols of undignified acculturation and ethnic disloyalty for conservative authors.
La chica moderna (the modern girl) was an object of satire “everywhere: in the press, on the radio, at cinemas, tent theaters, social events, and workplaces.” The phenomenon clearly struck a nerve. “Mockery of the social phenomenon of the New Girl surely relieved male Hispanic readers, whose participation in attractive sectors of the economy was generally limited at the time,” López writes.
López concentrates on the journalist Julio G. Arce’s satiric newspaper crusade against “the Hispanic woman who sells out to Anglo-American culture and thus personifies all the ills of assimilation—namely, the denial of one’s ethnic identity.” Arce was a political exile from Mexico. In 1914, he began working for the Spanish-language La Crónica, published in San Francisco. He became the paper’s publisher in 1919 and changed its name to Hispano-América, piloting the weekly into an influential and respected place in the Spanish-language U.S. press.
The Recovering U.S.Hispanic Literary Heritage Project has made Arce’s journalism available again. His work, writes López, has been “examined both as an instrument of Mexican nationalism and patriarchal rhetoric.” He was one of the leading intellectuals of the “imagined community of El México de afuera (a Mexican colony existing outside Mexico).”
In addition to being a publisher, Arce also wrote Crónicas Diabólicas, “entertaining literary sketches about the U.S. Hispanic experience.” Several Spanish-language papers across the U.S. in the 1910s and 1920s carried these Diabolical Chronicles, in which Arce lampooned the pelonas. Arce portrays the pelonas as flirty, mercenary, exhibitionist. Their biggest fault is their anti-domesticity: flapperismo conflicted with “the expected domesticity and modesty for women.”
In his “La estenógrafia” the Horses, Mules, and Stenographers Agency sends over the Americanized Rosie (born “Rosa”). She gets dressed for work at the office, uses Spanglish, and stores her stockings in the filing cabinet. Worst of all, she mistypes a letter describing her boss as ajotado (effeminate) instead of agotado (tired). Arce’s “wordplay predicts the inevitable effects of flapperismo on men—that is, their loss of physical and sexual dominance over women… Arce represents her as a modern engulfing force that disrupts Hispanic tradition.”
Meanwhile, other aspects of anti-flapperismo, in songs, poems, and cartoons, grew nastier as the twenties progressed, until the whole “luxurious age of the flappers” ended with the U.S. stock market crash and Great Depression. “The U.S. Hispanic press featured the demise of the flapper with relief,” López concludes.