Don Tosti and Eastside Vernacular


Don Tosti on “Latin Eyes” a San Francisco news show, 2002.
Video courtesy of the excellent Proyecto Pachuco collecting oral histories of Pachuco culture for a future book and documentary.

Even before Julio’s excellent post on the value of urban language, I’d been thinking about the ephemeral variations of Los Angeles accents. When I was growing up, the typical (or stereotypical) Eastside Chicano accent was similar to the dialog you’d find in a Cheech and Chong movie. The words themselves are a mixture of Caló (derived from Gitano Caló and indigenous words), English, archaic Spanish and dashes of African-American vernacular. The accenting comes from Northern Mexico and their version of Spanish with it’s high and low, somewhat sing song tonal variations – regularly sounding as if a question is always being asked.

Don Tosti is a good example of this early way of speaking Chicano Caló. Born In El Paso, Texas and then moving to the Eastside when he was fifteen, he brought this unique argot with him. At Roosevelt High School I’m sure he found numerous others from El Paso who were also conversing in this cool, “Pachuco” slang. This patois has lived on in the Eastside until now, although the accents and the vernacular are quickly changing. Maybe it’s due to increased immigration from the central and southern parts of Mexico and from Central America. Or it could be the ever present influence of the global media and their official representations of urban lifestyles. It’s important though to capture this language before it’s gone, a project I’m currently working on.

I’m grateful to Don Tosti for recording his delightful dialect in-between the verses of his songs. It’s obvious that his Pachuco culture was integral to his music. The excellent documentary above explains more.

Many members of my family and many of my neighbors still speak a version of Chicano Caló. Even many of the college educated folks will slip back into it after awhile. One of my favorite speakers is Shorty, a 94 year old Chicano who is now living in South San Gabriel. You can listen to him speak in this clip.

5 thoughts on “Don Tosti and Eastside Vernacular

  1. “know what I mean jellybean ?” I love your post !!!!!

    I wish someone would teach a class about not just the history, but to keep the language alive for the next generation.

  2. I’m not sure what you mean by “in my mind” but Northern Mexico usually refers to the border states and sometimes even Southern Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Immigration to Los Angeles by Mexicans in the early 1900s frequently came from this region.

  3. Hey I know that song. That’s an awesome little piece on musical history chimatli. I’m way more interested in the stories behind the music than music itself, because I’m pretty tone deaf and rhythmless and I have bad taste in music, but good taste in stories.


  4. Great post Chimatli, Don Tosti was a real character as was his contemporary the great Chicano singer, bandleader, songwriter, Lalo Guerrero. In fact I think the song Tosti sings on this video “Tacos for Two” is a Lalo Guerrero work. Two of my uncles played with Lalo for many years and are featured in his great book “Lalo”, photos with Lalo, Pete Alcaraz (pianist) and Bill Trujillo (Tenor Sax). A great book with lots of information.

    It’s always said that the “Chuco” platica came from El Paso and that’s probably true but it really took form in LA after melding with the LA Chicano culture and mostly English based patois that is still heard in LA and not so much in El Paso anymore.
    The mostly English based idiom spoken by the LA Chicano was frequently criticized (and vice a versa) by the Texas and New Mexico Chicano’s whose spoken word was almost entirely Spanish.

    The Chicano culture of the Pachuco really took hold in the LA varrios of the 30’s and 40’s and one of the distinct and sadly disappearing art forms of that era was the swing and jitterbug dances that were unique to the Chicano varrios.
    As a kid I witnessed the end of this era and even as an adult those old time Pachuco’s and Chicano’s of my parents generation could be seen dancing the old Pachuco style at family functions and neighborhood get togethers.
    The music was big band swing and usually featured Lionel Hampton (Flying Home), Count Basie (One O’Clock Jump), Artie Shaw, Bennie Goodman, Harry James. Unlike what one might see by modern day Swing dancers or even in film of the great African American jitterbug dancers with the acrobatic soulful movements, the Chicano Pachuco Style was very unique.
    The guys were dressed sharp and many times in the old Zoot Suit style with drapes and the chavala’s would have there hair styled up high and with short sexy skirts and those so called “bunny shoes”.
    The male dancer would hardly move except for a couple of steps, looking cool and turning in a square or round pattern, holding the girls hand he would be chin up, looking sharp, macho, and in control.
    The girls would lean back and spin and move and shake and sashay, and it was a thing of beauty.
    Curious that when the jazz era of big bands morphed into the “Bee Bop” style of the late forties and fifties the LA Chicano and Pachuco culture didn’t dig it so much and stayed with the more Blues oriented and beginning Rock and Roll style of Black Music developed mainly on LA’s Central Ave scene which included artists like Louie Jordan, Johnny Otis, Jimmie Liggins (Honeydripper). In the Fifties there used to be the very popular “Battle of the Bands” concerts directed mainly at the LA Chicano population that featured such greats as Chuck Higgins (Pachuco Hop), Joe Houston (All Night Long) and Big Jay McNeely (There is Something on your Mind) all featured the honking sax sound.

    For the Chicano, LA has always been the epicenter of cultural mores and change, probably because it is such a melting pot of Mexican American, Mexican, and cultures from around the world.
    A very special influential place LA.

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