A new art exhibit at The National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico is generating a lot of buzz and giving visibility to an often overlooked cultural group: the chola.
Perhaps you’ve heard the term chola before, or maybe it’s new to you, but more often than not, this term comes with some negative connotations. The chola, aka the subculture of young Mexican-American, working class women, often associated with street gangs, rarely gets attention in the art world. But the Qué Chola Exhibition is changing the conversation about chola culture by providing a visual representation and artistic celebration of everything that chola culture represents, and how it continues to influence future generations of strong Latina women.
Defining Chola Culture
Cholas are sometimes referred to as homegirls, and are known for their tough demeanor and street style. Generally speaking, chola culture was more prevalent in Southern California and on the west coast. Cholas model a feminine fierceness, to say the least. They are rough around the edges, somewhat hard in appearance, and have a unique style that reflects their perceived “don’t mess with me” vibe. Think baggy khaki pants, white tank tops, suspenders, flannel shirts, thinly plucked eyebrows, slicked-back hair, lots of dark red, matte lipstick and lip-liner and even more dark eyeliner. You most likely have a fairly distinctive image in your mind and it’s right on target.
This Latina subculture and chola style is a famous aesthetic from the late 80s and 1990s, in part thanks to films like Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life), but it didn’t begin then. It actually dates back to the World War II era, when pachucas (the precursor to cholas) altered their style and formed a rebel subculture that rejected the extremely white, patriotic fashion trends of the time. Rather than the defined waistlines, longer skirts, bobby socks and bouffant hairstyles, pachucas embraced a different look, with tighter sweaters, shorter skirts, heavy makeup and nonconformist style.
According to Chicano studies scholar Dr. Rosa-Linda Fregoso, author of the 1995 article “Pachucas, Cholas, and Homegirls in Cinema,” in a piece for Vice, “pachucas embody the rebellion against domesticity and challenge the idea of “appropriate female behavior.” Being a pachuca back in the day was a type of “feminismo popular” or folk feminism that didn’t come from an academic consciousness, but from a critique of patriarchal culture embedded within the Chicano community.”
Shortly after that era, chola subculture gained popularity, and the chola style also evolved. Chola culture developed into a tougher, Latina subculture with an identifiable style of dark eye makeup, flannel shirts, oversized khaki pants and tattoos. These Mexican-American, urban females were often associated with gang activity and life in low-income neighborhoods.
But they are so much more than that.
Cultural experts argue that the chola represents more than just a gang member or Latina trying to survive in a rough neighborhood. The chola represents strong, independent women battling sexism and fighting to establish their independence. The chola represents a part of Latina history when women had to establish their strength and perseverance in order to survive. The chola is more than just a potentially dangerous female linked to criminal gang activity. It is about using what you have to survive and thrive in a poor neighborhood where you have to clutch to your culture and you roots with everything you have.
An Inside Look at The Qué Chola Exhibition
Considering how culturally significant chola culture is you might think there are plenty of artistic exhibits and pop culture celebrations of the chola. But sadly, you would be mistaken. While certain Hollywood films and pop stars (we’re looking at you Gwen Stefani) have flaunted chola style and have made certain cultural references, there haven’t been many (if any) true artistic and visual celebrations until now.
This past March, The National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico launched a new exhibit called the Qué Chola Exhibition. The unique exhibit utilizes a combination of various art forms, including photography, paintings and sculpture, to expand the meaning of a chola and change the image of chola culture. The Qué Chola Exhibition features pieces from artists hailing from New Mexico, Arizona, California, Texas, and Colorado.
One featured artist, Pola Lopez, said she expressed excitement to participate in the exhibit. “The chola…you can’t mess with her,” explained Lopez. “She’s beautiful and represents us in many ways.” Her piece, entitled “Coatlicue and Chola” depicts a homegirl leaning against a statue of an Aztec goddess. Another featured artist, Nanibah Chacon, set out to create an image of a chola if she had been represented in mid-century advertisements. Her painting, “Xicana Classic,” depicts a chola from the 1970s sitting on a red circle and smiling with confidence.
In addition to the pieces on display by select artists, there is also a photo board on display at the exhibition. According to the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s website, the Qué Chola Photo Board is an “opportunity to honor the Cholas in our lives, past and present, by sharing photos of homegirls showing off their style and pride.” Visitors, supporters, participating artists and spectators are encouraged to submit their photos honoring the cholas in their lives, celebrating both where they come from as well as their unique style and strength.
And because no art exhibit would be complete without on-theme refreshments, the Qué Chola Exhibit also has a unique, limited-edition beer called Chicanisma, a dark Mexican lager created especially by the Marble Brewery for this event.
Why This Unique Art Exhibit Matters for Latinx Culture
For starters, this art exhibit is significant and important because it is raising awareness, increasing visibility, and changing the conversation around chola culture. It is undeniable that using various artistic expressions to present the chola in a positive, and very real way will shift the perception from a violent gang member to a strong female fighting to establish her place in the world.
According to the exhibit’s curator Jadira Gurule, the chola is more than a so-called dangerous female gang member linked to criminal activity, and it is important that we clear up that misconception and present the chola in a more authentic way. For example, the chola also represents strength and perseverance for a lot of Latinas across several generations.
“Many within our communities either were, or admired and wanted to emulate, the chola growing up. She also represents real people with real experiences. The chola is a persona developed in response to racism and sexism. To reduce her to a gang member is shallow,” explains Gurule to the Associated Press.
According to the museum’s website, “the Chola is a significant figure in the Latina imagination for the ways that she represents a feminine strength, power, and resilience in the face of racial, gender, and economic adversity. She is a figure that many young Latinas in the U.S. admire and emulate. The last few years have seen a surge in interest in the Chola as a figure and this exhibition will explore this dynamic from a feminist perspective through art and popular culture.”
Through the work on display, the exhibit will present images of the chola as an urban warrior, a mentor, a mother and political figure. The artwork will visually represent what chola culture truly means — strength and independence that go beyond a fashion statement and stand for the struggle and the toughness that cholas had to possess. It attempts to change the narrative of this often-misunderstood culture.
The Qué Chola Exhibit is on display at The National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico through August 4th.