Latina Identity and The Politics of Red Lipstick

Red Lipstick Attack BeLatina Latinx
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“If you’re sad, add more lipstick and attack.”

– Coco Chanel


I wear lipstick under my mask. Red. It’s partly because, in the past, I didn’t go anywhere without lipstick. I could look like something the cat dragged in, but I had on lipstick. It’s also because it’s my secret no one can see. It makes me feel semi-normal, whatever normal is, in these pandemic times. But in truth, I think it’s more to do with the voice of my Grandmother in my head asking: te pusiste lipstick?  

My grandmother wore lipstick all the time. Liquid red lipstick. I think it was called Fire and Ice, or Jungle Red. That name always made me think of the 1939 film The Women when Rosalind Russell shows off her Jungle Red nail polish — which went with the red lipstick — and a stolen husband. It’s central to the movie. You should watch it.  

The history of red lipstick (and the color red) is diverse and has to do with bugs. Some credit the Ancient Sumerians with inventing and wearing lipstick — both men and women — about 5,000 years ago. They crushed red rocks into powder to color their lips red. Others say the Egyptians invented it first, crushing the insects of the kermes oak to get that vibrant color.   

The Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs used carmine too. According to Victoria Finlay, in her book, The Brilliant History of Color in Art, they used the insect cochineal — the Mayans and the Aztecs for cosmetics, the Incas to send messages with. (They would tie a series of knots on ropes, each knot had a color. Carmine meant the Incan armies.) 

Cochineal is a scaled insect, the size of a child’s small fingernail. It lives on a type of cactus known as the Prickly Pear. The cactus gets eaten up by the insect; it dies while the cochineal gets fat. The insects are then collected, dried, and finally crushed to make that magnificent red. 

Cochineal was the third most valuable import to Europe from the New World after gold and silver. 

Besides the bugs, I also associate red lipstick with the actresses of Old Hollywood: Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth, and Maria Felix, of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. These women were beautiful and had guts; the red lipstick gave them power. 

Not surprisingly, Adolf Hitler famously detested red lipstick. Women in Allied countries wore it as a sign against fascism. 

Suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman loved red lipstick because it intimidated men. Other suffragettes decided to adopt the color, to the point that at the suffragette march in New York City, you could spot cosmetics brand founder Elizabeth Arden passing out free tubes of bright red lipstick. 

From then until now, red lipstick has been a symbol of women’s liberation and rebellion. Today, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has given it renewed meaning and made it her signature. Her red is Styla’s Stay All Day Liquid in Beso.

After my Grandmother died, My Grandfather refused to clear her make-up cabinet in the bathroom. I would sneak in there, open up the mirrored door, and there it was, the bottle of liquid red lipstick. It would always make me feel better.

Maybe that is the real reason I wear it all the time. It’s in defiance, surely, but it’s also a call out to my Grandmother and all the other women in my life who wore red lipstick.