Get the CON CALÓ Newsletter

Calò is a prime example of the merging of language and culture.

Caló is not a formal language, but rather something academics call an argon.

Calò is neither Spanish nor English nor “Spanglish,” but a melding of all three at times.

It is characterized by sharp phrases, interesting metaphors, rhyming and code-switching. Calò words and phrases, such as “la neta,” (the truth) “trucha,” (vigilant) “ponte las pilas,” (get to work,) are the speak of Latino Pachucos of the 1940s, many of whom hailed from throughout Los Angeles.

To learn more about the history of Caló, CALÓ NEWS sat down with Charley Trujillo, a Chicano veteran, novelist, editor, publisher and filmmaker. Trujillo, who was born in Hanford, CA, considers Calò to be a poetic, creative and revolutionary form of speaking. 

“Trying to control Calò is like trying to control the ocean,” Trujillo said. “You can harness it but you can’t control it. You can’t suppress it, because it’s a unique blend.” 

Trujillo grew up around relatives, aunts and uncles as well as neighborhood friends who spoke Caló. 

As a writer, academic and filmmaker Trujillo, a self-described second-generation Chicano, uses his art to archive and honor various aspects of Chicano culture and an example of that is his heavy use of  Caló dialogue in his books and screenplay. 

Trujillo grew up in Corcoran, CA and was one of seven children in a family who earned a living as farm workers. While at Corcoran High School, he worked in the fields picking fruits and vegetables with his father, Raymond Trujillo. Growing up in the 1960s, Trujillo recalled enduring corporal punishment from his teachers for speaking Spanish in the classroom.

“I didn’t speak English when I started school,” he said. “If they caught students talking Spanish, they used to whip us, put us into solitary confinement or make us do spitballs,” he said. According to Trujillo, after having to make spitballs for a long period of time, students’ mouths would get really dry and uncomfortable. “School tried to make a gringo out of me by making me leave my Spanish behind, but they couldn’t,” he said.

THE WAR

Trujillo enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1968, just two weeks after graduating high school.

“I knew I would’ve been drafted if I didn’t enlist, plus at that time I still wanted to fit into the American culture, I wanted to be a vato chingon,” he said. “We have that in Chicano culture, the desire to be a warrior, I wanted to be brave.” 

Trujillo served in Germany as an infantryman in 1969, then volunteered for Vietnam, where he served as a sergeant, earning both a Purple Heart, for being wounded, and Bronze Star Medal, for “meritorious service in a combat zone,” as stated in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations. After leaving the army in 1970, Trujillo realized how much the war negatively affected Chicanos and Vietnamese alike.

Less than a year after he returned from the war, he joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a non-profit organization and corporation that opposed U.S. policy and participation in the Vietnam War. “There were many Chicanos in the war, you’d often hear them talk Caló, and it reminded me of home,” he said. 

Although Trujillo was hampered a bit as a disabled war vet (a piece of shrapnel destroyed his right eye), he came home and quickly earned a bachelor’s degree in Chicano Studies at the University of California, Berkeley in 1976. He earned Master’s degree in that same major from San Jose State University in 1979.

DOCUMENTING OF CHICANO VETERANS

He taught Ethnic Studies, Social Sciences and Chicano Studies as a professor at De Anza College from 1978 to 1979. Trujillo remembered feeling at the time that Chicanos had been neglected or ignored by society, despite the sacrifices they made in the U.S. wars they had fought in. He decided to document the experience of Chicano soldiers in the Vietnam war.

“After the war I began thinking how many Chicanos had endured what I had,” Trujillo said. He wrote “Soldados: Chicanos in Việt Nam,” an accumulation of 19 Chicano-war stories, a book which awarded earned him an American Book Award in 1990. The book was initially rejected by more than 70 publishers, which led him to create his own publishing company named Chusma House Publication. Since then, he has published more than 30 books by authors of varying ethnicity. 

“The funny thing is that the book, which no one wanted to publish, would later be used nationally in  colleges and universities in Chicano Studies courses,” Trujllo said. “I feel extremely lucky that this book got to be held and read by many young people.” 

In 1994, Chusma House published his second book “Dogs from Illusion,” a Chicano war novel. Today, 28 years later, Trujillo is working to turn the book into a feature film. He has written the screenplay.

This is not the first time he has adapted his books into movies. In 2003, Trujillo directed and co-produced the documentary “Soldados: Chicanos in Việt Nam,” based on the book. The documentary aired regionally on Point of View, a PBS show from 2003 to 2008, and then aired nationally on PBS in 2003 and 2004.

 CALÒ AND IDENTITY 

For Trujillo, speaking in Caló was always a rebellious way of stepping out of the boundaries of academically accepted and standardized speech. It was and is slang that represents resistance against forced assimilation and Americanization, such as being required to speak English only in elementary, middle school and high school, as was required in California from LA to San Jose. Unfortunately, others looked down up the argon.

“Caló was considered “chusma” (lowlife) speech,” Trujillo said. “There is the prescriptive idea of language, which says there is standard, a certain way of speaking that is the correct way, and Caló is argon which was used by a socioeconomic underclass.”  

Because of that perceived connection, Trujillo says, Caló is viewed negatively by many conventional English speakers and conventional Spanish speakers alike. “It can be considered vulgar or a bastardization of the Spanish language,” he said.

Nonetheless, from the 1940s through the 1970s and up until today, those who use Caló generally use it with pride. Caló has its roots in “Pachuco Slang.” Pachucos were Mexican-American  youth who donned zoot suitsin the 1940’s, a street style and street culture that was viewed by white Americans as unpatriotic, sparking a period of discrimination and hate crimes waged against Mexican-Americans, often whether they were Pachucos or not. Caló caught on from L.A. to El Paso to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico . 

It was a unique code switch between English, Spanish and Spanglish, according to research conducted by Pomona College. “For Pachucos, Caló was a way that told people they were part of a bigger group,” Trujillo said.

Within Caló, gender also plays a big role. It was and continues to be a predominantly male language, Trujillo says.

“Pachucas [female Pachucos] would also use the language, but they had to endure the sexist stigma by both gringos and Mexican society,” he said. Even with its rich culture and smart fragments of words, Caló sometimes negatively characterizes women as having low manners. In 1992, writer and researcher Leticia Galindo revealed that most studies on Caló had been conducted from a male perspective with a primary focus on male subjects. “There is a noticeable lack of research on the Chicana women and those studies that did indeed mention women as users of Caló have categorize them as being either prostitutes, barmaids or mates of gang members,” Galindo stated in her publication.

This past June 3 marked 79 years since the Zoot Suit Uprisings in L.A, which involved numerous violent attacks by police officers, deputy sheriffs and members of the armed forces, including Marines and sailors, against Mexican Americans, Filipino Americans and African Americans. Although Mexican American have traditionally served in the military in high numbers, many servicemen viewed Zoom Suit-wearing Pachucos as World War II draft dodgers, according to History.com. Chicano Vietnam War veteran Charlie Trujillo’s creative work flips the script and reveals Pachucos as the Latino cultural heroes they are.

KEEPING CALÒ ALIVE

Trujillo said he is working on keeping Caló alive both in his day-to-day life by incorporating it into his daily talks, as well as in his art.

Last November, Trujillo released the Preproduction Trailer of “Dogs from Illusion,” a film which could be the first film about Chicano Vietnam soldiers and first screenplay written in code-switch and Caló. He is currently working on the pre-production phase of the film and is in pursuit of investors who could help finance the estimated $1 million project.

“This is an independent film, and it comes with all the challenges of being an independent film, as well as the nuance layer of it centering a Chicano point of view,“ Art Cervantes, the project’s Director of Photography said. “This is a movie that is not typically founded, but telling these stories is important.”

Cervantes and Trujillo are both confident in the vision and message this  film will bring to Chicanos. “This movie will be made, regardless of the amount of funding that we get, it’s important to us and I’m looking forward to the time when people can see this movie,” Cervantes said. 

Viewers can expect jokes and laughter, Cervantes pointed out, but the war movie will also tackle serious ethical and moral questions related to war, culture and discrimination, themes that are timely today as the U.S. supports the Ukraine war with Russia. 

If you are interested in supporting Trujillo with the making of this film, you can help by purchasing an autographed copy of the “Dogs from Illusion” book HERE

Brenda Fernanda Verano

Brenda Fernanda Verano is a journalist from South Central LA. At Caló News, Verano covers social justice, health care, and education. She is a senior at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and...