13 Things You Should Know About Cholo Culture
Odds are if you grew up in the 90s you knew at least one cholo at your local high school. But did you know that the phrase “cholo” goes way back to 1609? Originally a derogatory term used by Spaniards for mixed-blood descendants of the Spanish Empire, the word seems to have evolved since then to have meaning outside of ethnic heritage. Having been reclaimed by Latinos of mixed heritage, the term has come to mean many more things. So for all you cholos, cholas, cholitas, and chongas out there, here are the 13 things you should know about cholo culture.
1. Why did they call us Cholos?
So what is a Cholo? And where did the word even come from?
A Peruvian text dating back to 1609 features the first known use of the word. The writer, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, wrote the book in Spanish and it was called Comentarios Reales de los Incas.
“The child of a Black male and an Indian female, or of an Indian male and Black female, they call mulato and mulata. The children of these they call cholos. Cholo is a word from the Windward Islands; it means dog, not of the purebred variety, but of very disreputable origin; and the Spaniards use it for insult and vituperation”.
Vega himself was the son of a Spaniard and a royal Incan mother and was one of the first Latin-American born Spanish writers to be widely read in Europe and enter the western canon. Vega may have been one of the first men to write down cholo, but it is heavily suggested the term predates him.
Later on, in Colonial Mexico, the terms cholo and coyote were used interchangeably to describe Mestizo and Amerindian ancestry.
2. Who let the Anglos learn about the term “Cholo” anyway?
So by the 1700s, the term cholo is being thrown around in Latin America. So who let English-speakers know about cholos anyway?
You can blame Herman Melville for that.
In the popular 1851 novel Moby-Dick, Melville uses the term to describe a Spanish-speaking sailor.
The term showed up again in 1907 in the Los Angeles Express. A headline read “Cleaning Up the Filthy Cholo Courts Has Begun in Earnest,” and the article repeatedly used the terms Mexican and cholo interchangeably. The term “cholo court” was used to refer to the poor areas where Latinos tended to live.
Once the word was integrated into the English language, it caught on and was used to mean “Mexican” or “Latino” generally by those who would look down on them.
As Latino immigrants were recruited to work agricultural jobs in the early 20th century, their communities grew and white Americans grew to use the term “cholo” against them.
3. Zoot Suit Riot
When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, the U.S. started deporting people of Mexican descent. Sources suggest that between 500,000 and 2 million Mexican people were expelled from the country, including 1.2 million U.S. citizens who were deported illegally. Mexican communities in the United States struggled to keep their homes and families together, and Latino youth began creating their own “Chicano” and “Cholo” subcultures, as they were referred to by American newspapers.
Zoot suits – baggy clothes that would hide the shape of one’s body – became a staple of early cholo culture. Barrios were full of the iconic look, and white Americans noticed. Tensions exploded in June 1943 with the Zoot Suit Riots, a series of pogroms against Chicano youth where American military men and white civilians joined forces to attack and strip children, teens, and youths of their zoot suits.
Police aided rioting servicemen and at the end fo the riots more than 150 Latinos had been injured, with 500 Latinos charged with rioting and vagrancy.
Cholo culture was forever to be tied from then on to insurgent behavior and criminality, justifying the attacks against Latino communities for years to come.
5. Chicano Pride
Long before the modern image of the cholo with facial tattoos, was the idea of the political radical from the 1960s. Cholo culture took a page out of the Black Power movement and fought back against police brutality and repression. Again criminalized by the American government, the Chicano Pride movement sought to address negative ethnic stereotypes of Mexicans in mass media and the American consciousness. The term Chicano itself was used interchangeably with cholo as a derogatory term for Latinos, but the movement sought to change that.
The movement was targeted, like other activist movements of the era, by COINTELPRO, the U.S. Counter Intelligence Program that largely aimed to surveil and disrupt leftist organizations.
6. Cholos and Gangs
With the rise of America’s criminalization of Latino organizing, Mexico and Central America saw a rise of deported Chicano youth returning to its streets in the 1970s. Groups that stuck together were not accustomed to life in Mexico and were largely viewed as American due to their appearances and language.
Soon the groups came to be associated with gangs, mostly bringing together young boys and men between the ages of 13 and 25 years old. Many of the gangs from this era actually formed in the United States – like MS-13, Latin Kings, Norteños, Sureños, and the 18th Street Gang. The groups which were established in the U.S. continued in Latin America and cholos brought American street culture back with them. With few jobs and school opportunities available to them, the groups began to make alliances with local drug cartels based on particular regions and cities.
7. The Chola Fashion
While cholo culture evolved in the 80s and 90s, it also became a part of the American fashion industry. Men moved away from the traditional zoot suits and towards loose-fitting khaki pants, white knee-high socks, creased jeans, and plaid or flannel shirts over white tank tops.
Women, on the other hand, left a more lasting impression on American makeup and fashion with their signature pointed eyebrows, outlined lips, and heavy gold chains. The manicured black baby hair and slicked back ponytails were also iconic, referenced today in countless music videos and runway looks. Selena Gomez, FKA Twigs, Rihanna are just a few celebrities who have rocked the Chola look.
8. Cholo Music
Who didn’t love the 2007 hit, Lean Like a Cholo? If you didn’t know what a Cholo was by then, odds are you were living under a rock. Down AKA Kilo slid into the top hit charts with his tune on the cholo lifestyle, but he was certainly not the first. Back in 1979, punk rock band The Dickies recorded “I’m a Chollo” for their album, Dawn of the Dickies.
Oddly enough, cholo culture would be tied to American goth music and oldies. The connection isn’t entirely clear, but “Cholo Goth” is definitely still a thing.
9. Cholo Iconography & Tattoos
Of course, we couldn’t have an article on cholos without mentioning tattoos! Some of the most iconic body art in the world rests on the backs of cholos and cholas worldwide. Though much of it is associated with Christian imagery (think the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and countless crucifixion scenes) and calligraphy, cholo tattoo culture has also evolved some of its own new imagery.
One of the most iconic of this new tattoo world is the “smile now, cry later” set of masks, normally associated with theater. The image pays homage to the pain and suffering many people living the cholo life experience – a short amount of joy sometimes for a lifetime of consequences.
10. The Cholo Lingo
Along with a mixture of American and Latino culture came a mixture of the two languages: Spanish and English. Spanish words slid into the Cholo English lexicon, and words like vato, neta, wey, prieto, and jeta became standard in graffiti, tattoos, and other written corners of the cholo world.
What do those words mean? Well, vato is “dude,” wey is “dude,” prieto is “racist or uptight dude,” and jeta is “sour face.”
11. Cholos and Lowriders
Back during the 40s and 50s, Los Angeles-based Mexican-American youth started redesigning cars, painting them and lowering them for aesthetic purposes. It became a cultural phenomenon and political statement, reinventing the American automobile for the Latino community.
California wasn’t having it, and in 1958 the state outlawed operating any car modified so that a part was lower than the bottoms of its wheel rims.
Cholos were quick to circumnavigate the restrictions. A customizer named Ron Aguirre developed a way of bypassing the law in 1958 by using hydraulic pumps and valves that could change the height of a car at the flick of a switch. The next year, Chevrolet would introduce the Impala, which happened to have a frame excellently suited for lowering and modifying with hydraulics. The rest is history.
12. Cholo “Homies” Toys
If you were a Latino kid in the late 90s or early 00’s you probably remember these little figurines, also known as Homies. The adorable characters were created by David Gonzalez and based on a comic strip that he created, The Adventures of Chico Loco. The toys have become collectibles across the world and spawned dozens of imitations.
Homies became so popular the Los Angeles Police Department complained that the toys were promoting “gang life.” Some Latino advocacy groups, such as the Imagen Foundation, also felt the figurines promoted anti-Latino stereotypes. However, the fears turned out to be unsubstantiated – Homies have been shown to help American adolescents with their cultural identity and self-esteem. As the toy line has expanded, the various characters have also shown a greater range of lifestyle choices and possibilities.
13. Cholos Go Mainstream
If you’ve ever played Grand Theft Auto, you’ve likely encountered cholo culture and characters. In fact, in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, there is a gang called “The Cholos” who dress and act exactly like, well, cholos!
In this day and age, we’ve seen cholo fashion, art, lingo, and more go mainstream.
Napolean Dynamite featured two characters simply referred to as “Cholo No. 1” and “Cholo No. 2.”
Prayers, the cholo goth band founded in 2013, is fronted by the iconic Rafael Reyes, a.k.a. Leafar Seyer. Their lyrics explore the harsh realities of street life and cholo culture.
With cholo culture referenced at so many twists and turned in popular culture, it’s almost impossible to miss. Who is your favorite cholo?
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