Cholombianos — a New Art Exhibit Unpacks a Mexican Subculture That Takes Its Cues from Colombia

Stefan Ruiz Cholombianos
Photo Credit Stefan Ruiz

Don’t be fooled by the intense hairstyles and intimidating fashion of this unique, somewhat misunderstood Latin subculture — Cholombianos are not dangerous or aggressive in any way; in fact, they are one of the more peaceful Mexican teen subcultures, and they are slowly disappearing.

As with so many other cultures around the world, within the larger framework of a city or a country subcultures exist and thrive as a way for individuals (often teens trying to find themselves) to express themselves and find their place in society. Subcultures can be influenced by a mutual interest in a specific activity (such as skaters or gamers) or a type of music (such as grunge or punk). In this case, Cholombianos are inspired by a mixture of musical genres as well as cultural styles and anti-establishment messaging. 

The culture began in Colombia, as the name might suggest, but it truly took off and thrived in the 1980s and 90s in the Mexican city of Monterrey, where a shared passion for cumbia music mixed with a desire to stand out and go against the norm led to a loyal community of Cholombianos. While that community still exists today, it is dwindling due to a lack of understanding and unfair targeting that has led to unjust treatment from police and other authorities.

Which is why photographer Stefan Ruiz has taken it upon himself to visually celebrate this often-misrepresented subculture, and share the beauty, uniqueness and progressive style with the world. His photo exhibit, appropriately entitled “Cholombianos,” will be displayed this September in the Northlight Gallery at Arizona State University, and in the coming year he will also be releasing a photography monograph showcasing his work from his study of Cholombiano culture. The exact date of that release is still TBD, but it’s safe to say we’re waiting with bated breath to see his magical photos come to life in person and in print.

Here’s what you need to know about this interesting subculture — a culture that should be celebrated and remembered for pioneering a style that has allowed Latin youth to express themselves in a unique and progressive way.

How Cholombiano Culture Gained Popularity in Mexico

Cholombiano fashion wasn’t always identified as its own unique culture, and it certainly wasn’t always celebrated or painted in a positive light. The culture actually began in Colombia’s Caribbean coast, where cumbia music, a mix of Spanish melodies and African beats, was born back in the 1960s. The music, which is arguably one of Colombia’s most prized exports, combines African drumming with mellow beats and slower tempos that are perfect for casual listening and slow dancing. The music is happy and peaceful, much like the Cholombianos who love it.

Stefan Ruiz Cholombianos
Photo Credit Stefan Ruiz

Cumbia music gained popularity not just in Colombia, but throughout Latin America, ultimately taking off in the Mexican city of Monterrey, where local musicians and DJs embraced this style of music and developed an even slower version of the genre, called cumbia norteña, which featured the accordion as the main musical instrument and played a more mellow rhythm. 

As the popularity of cumbia music took off in the late 80s and 90s, so did the style of the passionate teen fan base as they gathered and danced to the music. Originally calling themselves Colombianos, which simply means Colombians in Spanish, these teens celebrated their roots and expressed their style in unique, outlandish and unprecedented ways. It wasn’t until recent years when the subculture was dubbed as “Cholombianos” thanks to a documentary segment for Vice in 2011. The name caught on, and a few years later author Amanda Watkins released a book, entitled Cholombianos, celebrating the urban subculture that is more than just a fashion trend or a passing style. Her book showcases this unique culture and how the cultural migration on the border cities has impacted a young generation of Mexican youth trying to distinguish themselves. Her book features hundreds of photos to help understand this unique subculture in a deep and meaningful way. 

And it is clear that the Cholombiano style is something to be celebrated.

The Unique Look of Cholombiano Culture

It is a blend of LA cholo style mixed with street culture, hip-hop fashion, and above all, intricate and otherworldly hairstyles. Picture baggy dickies, oversized button-up shirts (often in a plaid or tropical print), graphic t-shirts with religious iconography and graffiti-style text, and handcrafted accessories that give a shout out to their neighborhood or crew. It’s a blend of extreme fashion-forward style mixed with Caribbean vibes plus anti-establishment messaging and a religious influence. While all of those stylish qualities are notable and unique on their own or when mixed together, it’s really the Cholombiano hairstyles that leave a lasting impression. 

While Cholombianos typically consist of both male and female teenagers, the men often sport the wildest hairstyles. Their looks are unlike anything you have seen before. First of all, it looks like it would take an entire gallon of hair gel to make these hairstyles work and last for more than 5 minutes. It is also clear that they require an incredible amount of patience, time and dedication to get their hair so perfectly slicked back, gelled down, spiked and parted and curled and shaved all at once.

Their dramatic hairstyles are nothing short of masterpieces, created with intricate detail and a ton of effort. Generally, the format for their sculptural styles involves long sideburns that are slicked down onto their face, with a rectangular patch of hair shaved off in the back of the head so that there is a floating section of hair below it, usually featuring a rat-tail. Sometimes their hair is parted dramatically and slicked down on either side; sometimes there are spikes, sometimes bangs that are separated into small sections that look like a fine-tooth comb. And to make the drastic hairstyles even more apparent, Cholombianos often wear hats that sit on top of their heads awkwardly. 

It sounds unreal until you see it with your own eyes, which is exactly why you need to see this style with your own eyes. 

Celebrating Cholombianos with a Unique Photo Exhibit

Northlight Gallery at Arizona State University Cholombianos
Photo Stefan Ruiz

Photographer Stefan Ruiz saw something in this Mexican subculture that needed to be shared. Especially considering the unfair treatment of this cultural group, and the fact that the subculture is dwindling in the face of oppression, Ruiz realized it was more important than ever that this culture be celebrated and remembered. Because of their extreme style — a style that is undeniably anti-establishment — Colombians are often targeted by local police in Mexico. Despite the fact that they are, at their core, peaceful, mellow people, they tend to be unfairly harassed, especially after Monterrey became a hub for cartel-related violence because it was a pathway to wealthy cities on drug routes throughout the country. 

But Ruiz, and others who understand Cholombiano culture, describe them as mellow, peaceful, music-loving people. “The music they dance to is slowed down,” Ruiz explains, “so if anything, all they do is smoke some weed and dance in circles, very slowly, kind of huddled together. They aren’t bad kids, they’re just from the wrong side of the tracks.” 

Ruiz is on a mission to ensure that this Monterrey youth is not forgotten, and he is using his photographs to celebrate who they are and how they have influenced future generations of cultural-inspired fashion. The photos are simple, clean and uncluttered by fancy sets or backdrops. It’s a documentary style of portrait photography, as Ruiz has described it, which allows him to really capture the essence of Cholombiano culture, without any other distractions. 

“I wanted to keep the image clean because they’re interesting enough on their own and I think the background will just distract,” he said in the documentary segment for Vice. “I wasn’t trying to make some kind of social statement about where they live or about anything like that. It’s more about them and their style.” 

Ruiz’s photo exhibit “Cholombianos” will be displayed beginning this September in the Northlight Gallery at Arizona State University, and in 2020 you can look out for his photography monograph showcasing his work celebrating Cholombiano culture.