Hoop Earrings

At mitú we celebrate our Latinx culture every single day. This month we partnered with Amtrak to highlight the legacy of our past and where it’s taking us in the future.

You’ll spot them in every Latinx ‘hood. All the girls have a pair. Some prefer them chunky, while others rock the thin joints. For years, I personally couldn’t be seen without my name-inscribed bamboos. Gold hoop earrings—part-ethnic symbol, part-protective armor—are a stunning piece of jewelry that have graduated to staple status among women of color.

High-end fashion brands and magazines refer to gold hoops as trends, accessories that are in or out depending on the season, but for Black and Latina communities, these statement pieces are more like heirlooms: gifts from elders that never lose their sparkle when gifted to the next generation. Among Latinx families, it’s not uncommon for parents to pierce their daughter’s ears during infancy. As babies and toddlers, many of us learn what it’s like to feel those gold-plated hoops dangling from our earlobes, touching against our cheeks as we sleep and leaving indented red circlets on our skin when we wake. 

For women of color, it’s always been this way. The New York Times reports that hoop earrings originated in Africa. They date back to the Nubia civilization around 2000 BCE. In Ancient Egypt, women and men of royalty also wore gold hoops. Queens and pharaohs like Nefertiti, Hatshepsut, Tutankhamen and Cleopatra used them as a way to enhance their beauty and sexuality. Even cats, deemed sacred animals, were adorned with yellow discs on their ears. It was common for Egyptians to be buried in their earrings; they believed the accessory would keep the deceased’s beauty intact even in the afterlife. 

Since then, gold hoop earrings have been adopted as status symbols among various cultures: Julius Caesar donned the earrings during his reign in Rome. Pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries wore them as an insurance policy; if they passed away during a voyage and their body washed ashore, the gold or silver hoop ensured they’d get a proper burial. In the 1800s, Ainu men and women in Japan wore brass circlets on their ears.

But in the U.S., the gold hoop earring began gaining prominence in the 1970s, when Black and Latina women of New York’s disco and early salsa era brought them into urban nightlife.

By the 1980s and ’90s, a new underground genre, hip-hop, helped make the piece a staple of around-the-way girls. Through music and films, the style traveled across the country, making its way to Latina subcultures like California cholas and Florida chongas. 

Like our moms, who first clasped hoops into our earlobes, these fly producers of culture and style taught us that this statement piece was ours to keep, protect and wear boldly in every space we occupy.

As a tween in Orlando, Florida, struggling with low self-esteem, my name-plated gold hoops gave me confidence. Like Ancient Egyptians, I saw them as an accessory that enhanced my beauty. Like early pirates, they signified value in my Black and Latinx neighborhood. And like my Latina elders, whose shiny yellow hoops once danced as they swayed to a new Latin rhythm, it offered me a cool no haute couture model could ever match.

While I always understood the power of my glowing hoops, I realized in my youth that not everyone appreciated it as I did. In the early 2000s, Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, arguably the most popular fashion-forward TV character of the time, described the radiant gold hoops she sometimes paired with Fendi, Prada, Chanel, Hermes or Céline as “ghetto.” After the well-off white character long appropriated the trend, she harshly dismissed them as inferior. It’s not the first time Black and Latina women were told their style and aesthetics were cheap—and it certainly wouldn’t be the last—but the pop culture moment sent girls of color a clear message: gold hoops are an unrespectable, lowly trend that you can’t take with you into so-called reputable spaces like college campuses, boardrooms or government buildings, unless, of course, you’re a non-Latinx white woman.

The harmful lesson on respectability politics impacted countless Black and Latina women growing up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Several think pieces by women of color illustrate how this message prompted them to ditch hoops for tiny studs or give earrings up altogether. Personally, I never could abandon my hoops. Being told throughout my life that “ghetto girls” like me don’t belong in prestigious academic spaces or newsrooms only encouraged me to bring my full self in every room I entered. But there was a period, early in my career, that my hoops did get smaller, daintier and lost their ostentatious bamboo shape. Now I wonder if even in my political decision to bring Quelly from the Block into the most upright of rooms, I was actually walking in as Raquel Lite.

Within the last five years, Latinas have been part of many cultural movements to reclaim gold hoops.

In 2016, Alegria Martinez, then a 21-year-old senior at Pitzer College, painted a mural on her campus that read, “white girl, take off your hoops!!!” The artistic protest reached a national audience and prompted a conversation on cultural appropriation. Martinez’s criticism was clear: “Women of color can’t wear their own style and culture because they are looked down upon when they do so… But on the other hand, white [women] are allowed to appropriate the fashion when it is beneficial to them or makes them look edgy,” she said, as reported by VICE. A year after Martinez’s mural, Los Angeles-based Puerto Rican artist Tanya Melendez, also known as NenaSoulFly, debuted Adornment, a photography exhibition that celebrated the iconic bamboo doorknocker earrings. With it, she sent a love letter to all the girls and women of color who grew up decorating themselves in gold jewelry. By 2019, Bronx-born boricua Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) brought the yellow hoop earring to the U.S. Capitol Building when she donned a sparkling pair as she was sworn into Congress. In response to her history-making look, Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter: “Lip and hoops were inspired by Sonia Sotomayor, who was advised to wear neutral-colored nail polish to her confirmation hearings to avoid scrutiny. She kept her red. Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman.”

These high-profile moments have empowered many Latinas, and women of color more broadly, to proudly strut down any street or hallway with the eye-catching piece of jewelry dangling from their earlobes. It’s more than a trend. For us, it’s freedom, it’s resistance, it’s self-preservation and it’s a timeless accessory that never needed a co-sign from the Bradshaws of the world. Like the Ancient Egyptians, you can bury me in my gorgeous gold hoops.

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