The Gringa, The Chola, and The Dilemma
“In the American context, in which racial and economic boundaries (past and present) govern mechanisms of cultural exchange, appropriation has been largely one-sided and has been synonymous with exploitation.”
What happens when a gringa throws on a bandana, baggy pants, heavy eyeliner, a tank top, huge ass hoop earrings, and thick lip liner? Well, a hot mess—IF you’re Sandra Bullock, that is. Over the past few years, the mainstream has seen white girls adopting the chola get-up, whether it be cosmetic influence to sporting a thugged out ensemble, from Fergie to Gwen Stefani. Two little words describe this phenomenon: cultural appropriation—a term that many women of color are the victims of.
I’ll need a moment: Sandra Bullock’s chola makeover on the George Lopez show.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the lingo, a chola is roughly defined as the following (courtesy of Urban dictionary):
A chola is a firme hyna (latina) that wears a lot of makeup: thick eyeliner, liquid eyeliner on top going out of your eye dark brown or red lipstick and eyebrows drawn on or really thin. We mostly have permed hair with hella gel or straight and arched on top. We kick it with people in our own barrio and not really claiming a color mainly your raza. (Brown Pride) or (Barrio)and wear baggy or tight cloths with nike cortez shoes.
Stevie Ryan is the home girl Lil Loca.
It’s no secret that in mainstream Anglo America, people of color usually don’t get praised for our creativity until someone white does it first. From Elvis and the Beatles stealing songs from Black artists, anime jacked from Japan, hip hop abducted from ghetto street corners to corporate offices, and feather hairpieces from Native American traditions, America has perfected the art of cultural drive bys. Too often, it’s the impersonator who will receive the credit, not the originator. White people who adopt the ways of Latinos, Blacks, Asians, or Native Americans might be considered edgy, cool, and innovative, however, it does little to help progress cultural acceptance for minorities.
Selena Gomez goes gangsta for MTV.
Exhibit A: YouTube sensation Stevie Ryan has now made it to the silver screen, but before that, she was most known for her alter ego, Lil’ Loca, a thugged out Chicana chola, engaging in humorous misadventures with the vatos from around the way. Ryan has received kudos for her short skits but also has come under fiery criticism from Latino/a artists and writers for fakin’ the funk. The reality is that at the end of the day, Stevie can take off the lip liner because being a chola isn’t a way of life for her—but for some Chicanas, it is.
Honestly, I wanted to like Stevie’s skit, and found myself chuckling at her chola-esque skits. But my chuckling dwindled when it came to my attention that she wasn’t a Latina. Even though Stevie said that she based her character off girls she knew growing up in Cali, watching it would still make me uncomfortable in the presence of someone who was Latino/a. While her character is funny, she is also apolitical, and fails to capture the essence of brown pride and survivor logic of cholas around the way. Ryan may have the best intentions, but what about the audience? What is the fine line when impersonating a woman of color—the fine line that tread into mockery?
While Ryan clowns it up as Loca, real life cholas get criticized by other members of their own community for giving into stereotypes. Latina women who live the chola life are stereotyped as less intelligent, uncouth, dangerous, and less welcomed into mainstream gringo culture because they don’t fit the ideal image of white womanhood. Their feminine identity is therefore a threat. Kiyan Williams notes,
“The different ways in which certain bodies are valued based on race, gender, and location belies the presently operating de facto racial and gender codes in a supposedly post-racial country. I am reminded of this reality daily on the campus of Stanford University where many white male students can be seen donning sagged jeans, fitted hats, and basketball sneakers, reflecting a cool and edgy but safe heterosexuality. Less than five minutes away in East Palo Alto, or further away in Oakland, the same clothes on Black and Brown men signify a criminal threat that warrants state intervention and, possibly, death.”
There is a danger when a culture is perceived to be a trend or something that can be imitated without substance. For many Mexicanas, the chola identity is associated with deep pride and not simply about being a gangsta bitch. The danger comes with walking a fine line—and cultural appropriation is its name.
So next time gringas think about how it’d be cute to do a chola impersonation based on a YouTube tutorial, they should ask, who does it benefit? How do I fit into cultural appropriation and privilege in taking aspects of another culture?
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