The September Issues

 

THROUGH INTIMATE PHOTOGRAPHS AND INTERVIEWS WITH CHICANX ARTISTS, PHOTOGRAPHER DEVYN GALINDO EXPLORES THE DEEP SIGNIFICANCE OF CHOLX FASHION AND CULTURE, AND HOW MAINSTREAM, EUROCENTRIC MAGAZINES AND BRANDS HAVE CO-OPTED THE STYE. THE FEATURE OFFERS AN AUTHENTIC, HONEST UNDERSTANDING OF THE VIOLENCE AND BEAUTY OF THE CHOLX LIFESTYLE, IN THE WORDS OF THOSE WHO GREW UP WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.

photography DEVYN GALINDO
words ALMA ROSA RIVERA
graphics rich westkoast

I remember the days when being a Chola was the worst thing you could possibly be. Every first-generation Mexican American’s parent’s worst nightmare was that their little mijita or junior would join a gang. Their second was a daughter bringing some tatted up peludo and saying “Papas, meet my new novio!” There is not much that I personally can tell you about being in a gang, or having family who is associated. What I can tell you is that when I was growing up it wasn’t a glamorous thing. Back then it wasn’t being marketed as the main fashion aesthetic for the Chicana youth. Instead, it was a lifestyle that, like a lotus flower, was held by ancient roots and grew out of the murkiest of waters. I distinctly remember the Cholas in my high school. My parents knew a few of their parents, so I knew for a fact that they didn’t have money. Their look was about being clean and working with what they had. They wore clothes from thrift stores, dollar hoops, and plain white pro clubs, always with a hair tie grasping the excess fabric into a great big bundle of love. Their shoes were clean, and they always smelled good. The women were like thorny roses; vicious as they were beautiful, and man, they were very, very beautiful. But if being a chola is being like a thorny rose, then the Pachucas were the concrete they came out of.

In the 1940s Pachuco/a culture made its way into America in a little legendary city called Los Angeles. It was a way of life that, like Cholo culture, had its own dialect, codes of respect, and estilo that were as extravagant as they were political. The men were known to wear zoot suits and the women long tapered pants. They wore big pompadours that were adorned with beautiful flowers, but hidden within were friendly razor blades patiently waiting for an enemy’s touch. Although some traditions created by these veteranas are not practiced anymore, they have evolved into what would now be known as modern day Cholo culture. A large amount of what we know of this culture came from the 1960s and 70s, but the truth is that gang rivalries have been alive since the late 1920s. Even through today’s gentrification, you can still find pieces of those members from long ago, sometimes in a nickname, or maybe in their barrio inscribed somewhere in cement or a wall. They remain there for now, but like all hieroglyphs, these too will soon become pillaged.

Flash forward to today, it seems that the term Chicana has become a synonym for Chola. Many of us are starting to think that because we have roots in Mexico that we can also adopt this lifestyle. Suddenly there are brands dedicated to selling us “the look”, and it’s even making its way onto the runway. Magazines like Vogue, which epitomizes eurocentricity, are suddenly interested in who we are. They want to know about both Chicanos and Cholas. They want to know about our neighborhoods and the people raised out of them. Loved or hated, Mexicans in 2018 are making headlines. Because of all of this I wanted to write an article that reminded the reader that there is more than just the visual. There is so much more story about these individuals than the clothes that they wear or that infamous chingona war paint.

We were honored to be welcomed into the intimacy of each of these local Los Angeles artist homes. All of them are so different from the next—some identified as Cholas, others almost hold a resentment to the lifestyle. One thing they all agreed on, was that this lifestyle is no joke; that it had claimed the lives of loved ones like a beast with a spontaneous killing pattern. Each of these individuals are so special, that they surprised even my own expectations of who they were. Some, who carried themselves with the weight of a brick house when spoken to, held voices as soft as dandelions.

The thing about Cholas specifically is that most people are just plain curious in who they are. They often wonder about what the eyes behind that perfect winged eyeliner have seen. What I hope people may consider instead is, when can we get past the trauma? When can we end the street violence? When will be the day when we can sit down with these Queens of the barrio and find out what makes their hearts want to fly to the moon?

STAR MONTANA
BOYLE HEIGHTS, CA

30 YEARS OLD, PHOTOGRAPHER

AR: CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND?

SM: I was born in 1987. I grew up in the 90s. My mom was a Chola. She became a Chola when she was 10. She was born in 1960, so she grew up in the 70s, and she never got out of her gang. She didn’t take her gang around me, but basically for women it’s different. You don’t have to get out of your gang, you can choose to step out, especially when you have kids. And so my mom stepped out of her gang when she had me, and she was a heroin addict and she got clean when I was about a year and a half. But then she joined like AA and NA and so like almost everybody in East LA is in NA & AA [and] were like gangsters, like Cholas and Cholos. And so, everybody I grew up around were ex Cholas and Cholos, but they were like sober and clean. I grew up around all the craziest people who had survived being Cholos and Cholas.

AR: AT A YOUNG AGE WERE YOU AWARE OF THE DANGER AND THE VIOLENCE? YOU DON’T SEE NOTHING ROMANTIC OR BEAUTIFUL ABOUT IT?

SM: There’s nothing romantic about it. It might sound insane but there was a war in the streets in the 90s and that was your soldier’s uniform. There wasn’t anything romantic. When you put that on, you’re basically putting on a uniform and you might die.

AR: I REMEMBER A PHOTOGRAPHY PIECE OF A CHOLA IN YOUR LAST EXHIBIT, “I DREAM OF LOS ANGELES.” MOST PEOPLE WOULD THINK YOU PUT THAT PHOTO BECAUSE YOU’RE ENCOURAGING IT, BUT IN REALITY YOU TOOK IT BECAUSE YOU SAID IT WAS SOMETHING THAT YOU WANTED TO END. 

SM: I have so much love for the youth. I don’t want anybody to die. I’m so against violence… I’m waiting for the day when it [is] extinct, when the actual war on the streets is gone. I’m so against people romanticizing it, because it’s not gone. When you romanticize or give nostalgia to something that killed so many people you are disregarding the whole history of what it actually meant. You didn’t live through it and there’s so many of us who have PTSD because of it. It’s not that I’m against my culture. I’m against the violence that the costume entails. It’s still there. It’s still there in the street.

AR: HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT PEOPLE WANTING TO MAKE CHOLA CULTURE MAINSTREAM? DO YOU THINK IT HELPS OR MAKES THINGS WORSE?

SM: They tend to always do that. Mainstream fashion or media always take any type of subculture or counter culture and try to profit off of it and capitalize off of it. They’ve been doing that since the 1900s with Jazz. I’m not fine when they take away where the actual origins come from. We have to fight about who the origin makers [are] and why we are advocating for our voices. Like, I’m not against Cholas but I’m against this romanticized faux-Chola culture and I‘m only against it because there’s still gangsters killing each other in the streets.

AR: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT CHOLAS IN A FEW WORDS?

SM: It’s something people think they know but they really don’t understand.

MARINA (COOKIE)
21 YEARS OLD, STUDENT/ EVENT ORGANIZER

C: I’ve dealt with so much shit because of this lifestyle. Everyone from my neighborhood…everyone I grew up with, my brothers, my mom’s family…are dead, locked up, or out on the streets. But that’s reality. So when I see these little girls that tell me they look up to me…I can relate but when they start to glorify it…that’s when I step in and tell them my experiences from it. I’ve lost too many friends. I’ve lost] two friends this year to the streets. I’ve been stabbed before, I’ve been shot at, I’ve got jumped by grown men. And then I see a lot of these guys who are in gangs rape women, like I’ve seen it in front of me and it’s like you feel so helpless at times…and especially like the older cats and gangs that [make] you feel helpless. Especially being a woman [and] part of this. You feel sometimes like the men are the ones who take charge…usually it’s about money, drugs and just, you know, power.

AR: WAS THERE A CERTAIN EXPERIENCE THAT MADE YOU WANT TO GET OUT OF BEING IN A GANG?

C: A lot of my friends died at a young age. I had a friend named Alex who was like one of my closest friends. I must’ve been 14 at the time. He was already like 19 or 20. He told me it’s too late for him. He’s like, you’re still young and you got way more to go. One night we were at a party, you know, things went wrong. Alex, unfortunately, was murdered and I saw it and it freaked me the hell out because that was like one of my best friends and it just, it fucking tore me apart. It didn’t take me a long time though. It took me until I was… around 15 or 16 [to be] like fully done. These traumatic moments that you experience you always carry with you…not a day goes by that I don’t think about a lot of my friends whose lives were taken.

AR: WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT GIRLS WANTING TO DRESS LIKE CHOLAS OR WANTING TO BE ONE, WITHOUT REALIZING THAT IT’S SO MUCH DEEPER?

C: It’s a certain kind of look, but it’s more to just that, you know, people think like, put on a pair of Dickies or Nikes like I’m a Cholo or Chola. No, like, it’s so much deeper than that, you know, I mean it goes way back to the Pachucos and zoot suiters. People don’t understand our struggles or what we had to go through… like what even those clothes put us through. And like just going back to what you said… a lot of people glorify it as a trend, but it’s not that.

AR: DO YOU HAVE ANY CURRENT DREAMS OR ASPIRATIONS?

C: To be honest, I really didn’t think I would be alive at this age. I really had no idea. Right now I’m in college so I plan on transferring to UCLA hopefully. Yeah. So I’m pretty stoked about that…and I’m taking it day by day…my goal is just to be happy whatever I’m doing, and just not go back to the past and just leave it behind. I mean I don’t know exactly what I want to do in life just yet, but I just know that I have an idea that I do want to be successful no matter where I’m at. And I know that I want to help people because… I know there’s a lot of people who need help with a lot of things… like me when I was younger, I didn’t have anybody really to turn to about a lot of things. So I wanted to just do the most I can for people.

AR: HOW DO YOU VIEW CHOLAS?

C: I have respect for them because I understand what it’s like to be in that lifestyle. You can’t fully understand until you’ve lived it yourself. It’s more than a look. It’s a cultural thing. I would want to see an end to the violence but not necessarily to the culture itself.

GG, GINA GONZALEZ
MONTEBELLO,CA
DJ AND RADIO HOST AT CHOLAS ROLAS Y AMOR

GG: My name is Gina Gonzalez, Born and raised in Montebello, Ca. I’m a mom of three and grandma of two. Boyle Heights is like my second home because it’s where I do my radio show.

AR: CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND?

GG: My background is…in different pieces. When I was 10, we got taken away from my mom. The state took us away. I grew up in a foster home for four years. That’s where I learned a lot about the Chola culture, you know? I learned how to fight in the foster home. I had to learn how to defend myself. I had to learn how just to keep myself safe because all the other girls were older. A lot of where those girls came from, like in my case, was nothing [like] being in a foster home, my mom just beat the shit out of me. A lot of these other girls were really bad cases and some of them came from gang related families, gang backgrounds. The thing about today is that a lot of these girls now think because they live in the hood, it makes them hood. I don’t see it that way. I’m sorry you didn’t get jumped into a gang. Are you putting in work? Are you running the streets? Are you stealing cars? Did you go do some time? You know, nothing like that...I’ve gone through a lot of shit and I’ve seen a lot of shit for me to wear what I’m going to wear and represent it. Some of these little girls are just nothing but little girls. That’s it. Period. You’re a little girl who’s trying to, you know, look like all Chola’d out when you’re not. A lot of them are hipsters, like weren’t you listening to Morrissey the other day and now you’re dressing in Dickies? And now you want to do a photo shoot like you’re a Chola. It don’t matter how sharp you’re gonna wing your eyeliner girl. That still don’t make you a gangster. I’m serious.

AR: YOU’RE A DJ AND RECORD COLLECTOR. YOU OFTEN SAY THAT REGGAE SAVED YOUR LIFE, WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THAT?

GG: I used to be a super negative person. Everything was “oh well. I don’t care.” I was with a LAPD officer for seven years, [and] I was starting to get depressed cause he would cheat on me a lot. One day, my sister’s supervisor told me, “you need reggae.” He said I just needed some reggae in my life. So one day we went to the Dub Club, in Echo Park. The next day when I woke up, I could still hear the reggae music in my head. I couldn’t wait for next Wednesday to come. I started hanging out more in the reggae scene and stopped going to the hip hop clubs. I just started playing reggae music all the time. It just changed my way of thinking. My positivity. I love the way it makes me feel. I’m very lyrical. I can hear a song and if it’s super sad to me, I’ll cry. It takes me back to a memory. One song never has one memory for me. One song for me can have 100 memories. 50 memories. Just in that one song I’m going to play.

AR: DO YOU THINK THE WAY YOU LOOK IS A POLITICAL STATEMENT?

GG: Every now and then I go out and get done up with my earrings and my hair did. It doesn’t normally bother me when ladies look at me. When I’m around white people they look at me like I’m going to rob them or going to jump them but I don’t like getting political. I don’t like politics. Sometimes I want to tell them, “what are you staring at? Look at me, I’m Chicana. I’m proud of it.”

DJ SAD BOY. MANNY RODRIGUEZ 
OAKLAND, CA 34 YEARS OLD
DJ AND ORGANIZER OF NOCHE DE TRAVESURAS.

SB: I’m originally from Oakland. My dad was born and raised in Oakland tambien. When I was in my mom’s stomach he was trying to run away to Reno to elope with [her]. My mom’s brothers were in a different gang, so their intent was to jump [my dad] but he ended up shooting her brother in his head instead. He went to prison till I was 6 or 7. I’m not sure but that’s when I think I became a Norteño. He was kind of loco. He was definitely very misogynistic and homophobic. But I’m grateful for it now because it was a perfect embodiment of what I want to be far from. He kind of always wanted me to be a little mini him. He would like buy me everything he wore: Dickies, Cortez’s ,and white tees and he would try to train my hair back for the longest time. It didn’t work…I don’t know what the hell it was, vaseline in a hairnet?

AR: DO YOU STILL TALK WITH YOUR DAD?

SB: No… We got into a fist fight when I was 17 and I ran away. When I was 19 I tried to make amends with him, to be civil. The first thing he said was, “why aren’t you wearing socks? You’re going to get sick. You should know better.” Apparently, he told my tia after I left, “don’t bring that faggot around here anymore.” So I have not spoken to him since I was 20, and I’m 34 now.”

AR: AS SOMEONE WHO IDENTIFIES AS QUEER, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE TOXIC MASCULINITY YOU SEE IN CHICANO CULTURE OR CHOLO CULTURE?

SB: I definitely consider myself a feminist and activist. Even growing up and hearing all the ridiculous stuff my dad would say. We both love Zena, warrior princess. I know it’s because I was just a baby queer and because I’ve always been inspired by femmes. But him he’d be like “look at her. She’s so fine. I want to fuck her.” Even being young, it’s sad to say, but a lot of the time I was disgusted with my father. Especially when he drank a lot. There was times he would even hit on my girlfriend.

AR: I LOVE THAT YOU HOST CASUAL DREAMING, A QUEER OLDIES NIGHTS. DID YOU GET INFLUENCED WITH YOUR MUSIC THROUGH YOUR PARENTS?

SB: Definitely through my parents. My pops. Growing up with my mom was more Los Bukis, lots of banda. My dad was more oldies and West Coast hip hop. A lot of my family on my dad’s side listen to that kind of music, I think it can be a very Chicanx thing as well. We are exposed to it at a very young age, probably in our parents’ stomachs actually. With Casual Dreaming I wanted to re-write not so much history, but that part of our lives. I feel like oldies and even what they talk about, it’s not really queer material. It’s still very like cis hetero, but when we take those songs and we bring them into our environment with our [queer] genre, we’re like almost rewriting the intent of the song.

AR: WHAT’S SOMETHING YOU WOULD WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT YOU OR BEING CHICANX, THAT THEY WOULDN’T KNOW OTHERWISE?

SB: One thing, pertaining to Chicanx culture, is that I feel like we’re depicted as these characters. I think it’s important that other cultures know that we’re much deeper than that and that we have our family values and spiritual values as well. If people could just open up their minds and think outside the box about us, that would be my goal. There’s the beautiful, the bad and the deep.