How embracing chola culture in high school helped me understand my Latina identity

As a Latina teenager in Nebraska, my entire high school experience was basically one identity crisis after another.

During my freshman year, I was the nerdy, introverted bookworm. Longing for popularity of any sort, I traded in my glasses for contact lenses, tried out for cheerleading, and joined the squad as a sophomore. By junior year, I was a lead dancer in my school’s production of the musical Oklahoma!

As a high school senior, I was a cynical, angsty 17-year-old who listened to too much Death Cab For Cutie. I had ambitious plans to leave my dull hometown and go to college in New York City à la Felicity Porter (spoiler alert: Tuition in NYC isn’t exactly affordable, unless you have a rich parent to bankroll it — like Felicity did).

Sandwiched somewhere between my freshman and sophomore years, I experienced what I now lovingly refer to as my chola phase.

Chola and cholo are terms that typically refer to people of mixed indigenous and Mexican heritage. In the United States, chola and cholo culture is most prominent in places with high Mexican-American populations, like California and Texas. The culture is rich and complex — although it’s often relegated to being synonymous with gangs and impoverished communities and appropriated by non-Latinx communities.

Most depictions of cholas and cholos in American popular culture rely on one-dimensional tropes, accented with calligraphy tattoos and lowrider cars. Cholas and cholos are often associated with sartorial stereotypes, including khaki pants, white tank tops, flannel shirts, and bandanas.

While there’s more to chola/o culture than its signature fashion, it was this style that ultimately provided me with a sense of self-worth and belonging.

Navigating my Latina identity in a Midwestern state was challenging, to say the least. I didn’t have many Latinx friends. I didn’t relate to the portrayals of Latinas on TV or in movies — they were either maids or mistresses, often with heavy accents and ample bosoms.

As for me? Well, I was a lanky mixed kid who looked more ambiguously Asian than Latina bombshell. To make matters worse, I didn’t speak Spanish and my brother teased me for “talking white.”

I was constantly trying to reconcile my distinctly non-Latina appearance with my surname, which clearly indicated Latinx heritage.

So when it came time to organize my quinceañera, I faced yet another identity crisis: Was I Latina enough for a quince?

I knew nothing about the tradition — other than that it existed. My mother isn’t Latina, so she was equally ignorant. I didn’t have any older sisters or aunts to offer support. My father was encouraging — but with my extended family all living in Mexico, planning the massive party fell onto my shoulders. The months leading up to my 15th birthday are fuzzy. I was lost in a dizzying blur of poofy dresses, carefully choreographed dance numbers, and over-the-top tiered cakes.

As I fell deeper into the quinceañera abyss, I slowly morphed into the only popular depiction of Latinidad that I could somewhat identify with: the chola.

I bought baggy sweatpants and oversized white T-shirts from the men’s section at Walmart. Soon, my wardrobe almost exclusively consisted of anything made by Hanes. I began slicking my hair back into a tight bun held together by an ungodly amount of hair gel and bobby pins. I tweezed my eyebrows into pencil-thin lines and colored my lips with the finest rouge one could find at the local drugstore. Huge silver hoop earrings became my accessory of choice.

This was a suit of armor. It was a way to protect and legitimize my Latinidad, especially as my quinceañera approached.

In hindsight, I realize I was actually drawn to the power and history of chola/o culture. It was unapologetic, proud, and — most tellingly — certain.

Cholas were certain of their heritage, their roots, their identities. They didn’t need to explain themselves or figure out how to fit into a one-dimensional idea of what Latinas should look or act like.

I eventually outgrew my chola phase. But I learned the importance of owning my ambiguously ethnic appearance, my unconventional name that doesn’t roll off the tongue, my imperfect Spanish that stumbles along like a car running low on gas. That lesson has stayed with me. No one can take from my Latinidad.

And when it comes to the question of “Am I Latina enough?” — the answer is always yes.

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