She stands proud, a cold stare emanating from eyes catted out by black eyeliner. Or she sits defiant, legs wide open and swathed in men’s khaki work pants. Her eyebrows are plucked into a high arch, her lips lined dark brown, and her Aqua Net-teased tidal wave of hair defies all authority, including the law of gravity.
She is the chola — a Chicana whose tough glamour is associated with lowrider and gang culture — and the subject of Qué Chola, an exhibit at the National Hispanic Cultural Center that runs through Aug. 4. In the show, the archetype of the chola becomes much more than a potentially dangerous woman with claw bangs: her distinctive style and demeanor mark her as an emerging symbol of cultural pride. As curator Jadira Gurulé writes, despite the chola’s ubiquity in Chicanx and, increasingly, popular culture, “the complexity of who and what she represents is a story that largely remains untold.”
Qué Chola’s tale is told via representations of the chola and her milieu by more than 25 mostly Southwestern artists, including santero Arthur López, painter Póla López, portraitist Gaspar Enríquez, and photographer Miguel Gandert. The groundbreaking show sees the chola figure straddling several contexts: folk art, feminist theory, Aztec and Catholic mysticism, and pop cultural appropriation.
Gurulé said she broached the idea of a chola-focused show to former NHCC director Rebecca Avitia during a visit to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. “It’s an idea that was really informed by my own reading of Chicana feminist scholarship about cholas and pachucas,” the Albuquerque-raised Gurulé said. “As a young woman deciding who I wanted to be in the world, I was always very attracted to chola figures. And a huge part of it was the way they got to be in the world — which was tough and in the public sphere, and saying and doing what they wanted.”
Chicana feminist writer Catherine S. Ramírez’s 2009 book, The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory (Duke University Press) argues that the chola’s precursor, the 1940s-era pachuca, was “rendered invisible by Chicano cultural nationalism.” The World War II-era pachucas were the female counterparts to pachucos, the Chicano rebels who dressed in baggy zoot suits that openly defied the wartime rationing of fabric. The hallmarks of early ’40s pachuca style — penciled eyebrows, dark lips, and teased hair — defined the pachuca, too, as an integral part of a sassy, quite possibly delinquent youth subculture. Her fashion sense was handed down to the chola.
Like many a chola herself, the word cholo has a mysterious and complicated past: Four hundred years ago, it was considered a racial insult, but beginning around the ’60s, it came to describe a new generation of southern California pachucos. According to the Spanish colonial casta system — a classification used to describe mestizos, or persons of mixed European, indigenous, and/or African heritage — cholo was a derogatory word. It was adopted by young Californians, following in the pachuco tradition, who used the term to designate themselves as the next generation of rebels operating outside mainstream Anglo-American society.
The rise of the cholo (and his embrace of the word) coincided with the Chicano Movement and its elevation of both mestizo and indigenous heritage, as cholo fashions evolved from zoot suits to nondescript work pants, T-shirts, and undershirts that recalled prison uniforms. By the 1990s, the cholo had become a recognizable part of pop culture, with films such as Blood In, Blood Out (1993) and rapper Snoop Dogg’s embrace of Long Beach, California, lowrider culture. But as Ramírez and Gurulé argue, somewhere along the way, the chola — like the pachuca before her — never quite got her due.
For several of the artists in Qué Chola, she is elevated to a near-mystical figure. Póla López’s acrylic painting Coatlicue and Chola includes a recognizable chola, complete with requisite bold makeup, hoop earrings, and Pendleton plaid buttoned only at the top over a revealing tank top. She casually rests her arm (or “leans like a cholo,” to co-opt the 2007 hit song by rapper Down AKA Kilo) on a statue of Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess who gave birth to the moon, stars, and Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and war. In an artist statement, López cites the story of Spanish conquistadores ordering the Mexican people to bury the only surviving statue of Coatlicue when it was discovered in Tenochtitlan, because the snake-wrapped figure was deemed too frightening for the public.
“Her fierceness is a characteristic that I see in Los Angeles (LA) Cholas,” the Las Vegas, New Mexico-born López writes of the Aztec goddess in an artist statement. Of the chola, “She is as intimidating as Coatlicue, and you definitely will be ‘called’ on your truth and falsehoods.” López draws parallels between the chola’s long nails and the claws of Coatlicue, and the spidery jelly bracelets the chola wears and the webbing of the snakes on the goddess’ skirt. Both figures display voluptuous breasts, which are, as López puts it, “symbols of ‘she who feeds us.’ ”
Elsewhere in the back gallery at the NHCC, santero Arthur López’s Anima Chola embraces the chola’s spiritual side, as well as the positive transformation of her identity. His hand-carved wood bulto is a play on the Roman Catholic tradition of depicting an anima sola, a soul said to be writhing in purgatory among flames. Of his chola figurine, who resists the flames in a tank top, hoop earrings, bandanna, sky-high bangs, and a beatific expression, López writes, “As with the lone soul in purgatory, it can seem lonely when society casts stereotypes on one’s cultural identity. Like the lone soul who is awaiting the cleansing by fire to be accepted into heaven, the Chola culture has transformed from a derogatory term for Latin American women.”
The show also incorporates more lighthearted representations of chola culture, such as the Albuquerque-based All Chola clothing line, whose T-shirts, jackets, and hats are branded with Old English typefaces, replete with phrases like “All Chola,” “All Badd,” and “All Bruja.” A screening room plays a loop of “Sh— Burqueños Say,” a video produced by the Albuquerque-based Blackout Theatre Company. The YouTube video features the chola-looking character, Lynette (Lauren Poole), incorporating local phrases (“Eee, I know, huh?” “You’re all mad or what?”) and pronunciations (“drawling” for “drawing,” “sangwich” for “sandwich”). Both All Chola and the video underscore an awareness of the stereotype and yet a loving embrace of the irrepressible camp of the chola’s aesthetic expressions.
The exhibit displays the birthplaces and current residences of each artist, making it possible to connect the dots between chola representation in Texas, New Mexico, and northern and southern California. “That crossover was a cool thing to be able to show,” Gurulé said, “because I think the specifics and the intricacies of the aesthetics and expression of chola identity can kind of vary from place to place. But there’s also these similarities that tie things together, and so it was important to talk about both that specificity but also the regionalism.”
That far-reaching yet close-knit community of chola culture is key to its understanding. One viewer wrote in the comment book, “This is like seeing my family album,” and, indeed, an interactive photo wall in the middle of the show allows visitors to post their own chola photos. But the exhibit underscores that its various representations of cholas are forged by the social factors that these artists have experienced in common — among them, racism, sexism, poverty, and violence. “The Chola persona is a defiant and necessary act of survival in the face of hardship,” Gurulé writes.
Qué Chola also tackles head-on the tricky politics of cultural appropriation, seen in the adoption of chola aesthetics by non-Chicanas from runway designers to Japanese youth to pop stars like Gwen Stefani and FKA Twigs. Gurulé said that for non-Chicanas, the glamorous yet rebellious chola image may simply be hard to resist. “She really allows for this feminine expression, but also to not necessarily have to choose just one version of yourself, and to be able to have this toughness and own who you are. I think there is something very seductive about what she offers in that regard, in a way that isn’t just specific to Chicano culture.”
“Where is the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation?” a text panel asks. “Does all popular culture reinforce stereotypes?” Near the end of the exhibit, one image seems to defy stereotype, instead celebrating the boundary-blurring power of the chola aesthetic. Miguel Gandert’s 1986 photograph ’51 Chevy, David and Cheryl, Albuquerque shows a Hispano male posed in his pickup truck, grimacing at the camera with his arm draped possessively over a female companion. Though she could be Anglo, with light-colored eyes, skin, and blond hair, Cheryl displays certain hallmarks of chola style: big hair, razor-thin eyebrows, and most of all, a defiant stare. The viewer might wonder if the couple is of mixed race, and then after that, they might wonder whether that matters. Whether she’s a güera or not, her confident so-what glare displays a state of being that is, well, all chola. ◀
▼ Qué Chola; through Aug. 4
▼ National Hispanic Cultural Center, 1701 4th St. SW, Albuquerque; 505-246-2261, nhccnm.org
▼ $6 adults, $5 for New Mexico residents; free for youth 16 and under