by Nancy Sepulveda
Bald-headed, tattooed Latinos in baggy khakis. Bandanas on display. Aggressive swagger. This image of the ‘cholo’ spans pop culture, from Lil’ Homies figurines to the music video for Bruno Mars’ hit Grenade. And, of course, these stereotypical Mexican/Latino gang bangers can be found in popular films from Selena (“Seleeenaasss!”) to Bruce Almighty.
But the meaning of ‘cholo’ has evolved. It may derive from the Nahuatl (Aztec) ‘xolotl,’ meaning ‘dog or mutt.’ In the 1800s it was a derogatory term flung upon meztisos and meant to imply a lesser class, a hodgepodge of ragtag half-breeds. In the 1900s, the rise and fall of zoot-suiters gave way to the cholo heyday – a prime some have idealized and are still trying to recapture, decades later.
Growing up in the ‘90s in Albuquerque (a city where, I kid you not, feathered-mullet ‘dos and penciled-on eyebrows are still a relatively common sight), my teenage self romanticized all things gangsta: gold rims on dropped Monte Carlos, Lowrider Oldies CDs, and the infamous “mi vida loca” three-dot tat placed conspicuously on a brow bone or thumb. The thug scene in ‘Burque at the time was a blend of pop-hop (mainstream hip-hop and rap) and old-skool style. Master P and his No Limit soldiers were bass-bumped back-to-back with Tears of a Clown and I’m Your Puppet. Insanely baggy Jnco jeans were sported one day, classic Dickies and a white wife-beater the next. Fast-forward to 2011, and there are still OGs clutching a forty of Old English in one hand, a rucha in the other, reminiscing about their glory days before la pinta.
Why has the lifestyle endured? In some ways it hasn’t, and lingers in the collective American psyche as stereotypical fodder. But the cholo culture is still alive and well in certain communities. Part of it is simply ingrained in some neighborhoods, as children emulate older siblings, who emulate older cousins, who emulate older tios, etc. But it’s also representative of the underdog’s need for power and dominance. Cholo-style emerged, as a group repressed by mainstream America began to push back, to demand equal respect and eventually fear. The classic cholo stance calls for shoulders back, chin raised, confident gait. A walk that says, “Look me in the eyes, vato, because I ain’t lookin’ at the ground no more.” Cholos rejected the menial labor and acceptance of second-class status that some of their parents tolerated. Unionizing in the loosest sense of the word. But many also abandoned respect for the law and human life; they twisted the Latino commitment to familia into commitment to the pseudo-families of gangs. The cholo image twisted into handcuffed high-school dropouts with ridiculously accented vernacular, where it remains today.
Will we ever see a resurgence of cholo popularity? Unlikely. But Latinos should take a page (not a whole chapter!) from the Cholo Guide to Life: challenge the status quo, demand respeto, and have pride in who you are and where you come from.
Contributor, Nancy Sepulveda
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those
of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.