It was the early to mid ’90s, in Corpus Christi, Texas. The second hometown for La Reina herself: Selena Quintanilla. I remember watching my mother line her lips with black eyeliner and filling them in with cherry-red lipstick to make a beautiful ombre lip. She’d draw her eyebrows on with brown eyebrow pencil and blush her cheeks so they demanded attention! Her hair was permed and teased, with her bangs barreling down to meet her forehead. She’d set her look with Aquanet hairspray to make it as bulletproof as her courage.
If you didn’t grow up like me, you might not know that much about Cholx or Chicanx culture. So here’s four things you might not know about us and our history!
1. The history of our culture and subculture.
It’s said that the term “Chola” originates from the Aztecan word meaning dog or mutt, which was used in the U.S. as a slur against women who had emigrated from Mexico.
From the beginning, embracing the term was an act of indigenous resistance. It was a demand for respect, an act of political warfare in a world that was stolen from us and pushed us into the margins. It was a huge “fuck you” in the face of respectability politics. It was a raw and unabashedly radical form of self-love and feminism.
“It was during the time of Mexican Repatriation and WWII that pachucas, the forebears to the cholas, started to appear on the streets of Los Angeles,” Barbara Calderón-Douglass writes in Vice. The men wore zoot suits, while the women wore heavy makeup and donned masculine silhouettes and knee-length skirts (very immodest for the times).
“They were a rebel subculture that rejected assimilation into the white, hyper-patriotic spirit of WWII. Their rejection of mainstream beauty ideals and association with a non-white underclass challenged the idea of a unified nation … In 1943, [the so-called] Zoot Suit Riots took place across Los Angeles and Southern California as white military servicemen began attacking pachucos, who were deemed unpatriotic due to the extra fabric needed to make their clothing, and deviant because of their racial difference. That year, the press called ‘cholitas’ the ‘auxiliaries of the zoot suit gangs.’ … Pachucas also defied gender norms by wearing slacks and sometimes even zoot suits. … Being a pachuca back in the day was a type of ‘feminismo popular’ or folk feminism that didn’t come from an academic consciousness, but from a critique of patriarchal culture embedded within the Chicano community. … By the ’60s, pachuco style had spread all along the Southwestern United States.” –Barbara Calderón-Douglass
Pero Like did an incredible video on Pachuca/Pachuco culture and classic looks, with a summary of where it all started.
2. Yes, it can be appropriated.
Remember, this is a culture — not merely an aesthetic. But it’s one that has been appropriated over and over again. Examples include Givenchy’s 2015 Fall collection, which appropriated Cholx culture in what they called “Victorian Chola,” Lana Del Rey’s “Tropico” video, Gwen Stefani’s “Luxurious” video and Ann Hathaway’s role in the movie Havoc. Even in Thailand, there are young men who dress and act in ways they say are “inspired by Mexican gangs.” That’s only a few examples. With Halloween coming up, don’t dress up as a Chola/Cholo.
3. Aren’t all cholos, cholas and cholxs gang members?
Nope! Contrary to popular belief, a good portion of those in the subculture are not affiliated with gangs. (Though I don’t really think it matters, because respectability politics are bullshit.) It’s important to mention this question, because U.S. government uses this so-called association to police, demonize and criminalize those within the subculture — along with Chicanxs and Latinxs as a whole.
4. Chicanxs and Cholxs can be queer!
While our representation is quite small, we exist! Folks like the Homo Cholo ( AKA Deadlee) are hypervisible. In June, after the Pulse shooting, he put out a video that “takes viewers to different queer spaces in L.A.”
This Spring We are Mitú posted a beautiful video featuring a poem by a queer Xicana couple. Last month, Huffington Post shared a short film by Karla Legaspy “[That examines] the complicated reality of being a young, queer kid of Xicana identity attempting to express thoughts and feelings while navigating the cultural expectations of family.” Many of us grew up in families that are very conservative and very hetero/cis-normative, so this representation is crucial.
I was raised by strong, resilient, take-no-shit cholas. Even now, as a non-binary femme Chicano, so much of that upbringing is ingrained in who I am. It is how I resist. It is how I decolonize. It’s how I fight against machismo, why I’m a feminist and so much more.
My Brownness is infinite and ever-growing, but also soft and tender, and I think that knowing and learning my history shows how I am taking my ancestors with me. How we are taking our ancestors with us!