Artworks that celebrate the cholo traditions are vibrant, dynamic and express the identity of people. But what is behind the cholo's life and culture?
The history of cholos
When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, the U.S. started deporting people of Mexican descent. Between 500,000 and 2 million Mexican people were expelled from the country, including 1.2 million U.S. citizens who were deported illegally. Mexican communities in the United States struggled to keep their homes and families together, and Latino youth began creating their own "Chicano" and "Cholo" subcultures, as they were referred to by American newspapers.
Long before the modern image of the cholo with facial tattoos, was the idea of the political radical from the 1960s. Cholo culture took a page out of the Black Power movement and fought back against police brutality and repression. Again criminalized by the American government, the Chicano Pride movement sought to address negative ethnic stereotypes of Mexicans in mass media and the American consciousness. The term Chicano itself was used interchangeably with cholo as a derogatory term for Latinos, but the movement sought to change that.
With the rise of America's criminalization of Latino organizing, Mexico and Central America saw a rise of deported Chicano youth returning to its streets in the 1970s. Groups that stuck together were not accustomed to life in Mexico and were largely viewed as American due to their appearances and language.
Soon the groups came to be associated with gangs, mostly bringing together young boys and men between the ages of 13 and 25 years old. Many of the gangs from this era were formed in the United States – like MS-13, Latin Kings, Norteños, Sureños, and the 18th Street Gang. The groups which were established in the U.S. continued in Latin America and cholos brought American street culture back with them. With few jobs and school opportunities available to them, the groups began to make alliances with local drug cartels based on particular regions and cities.
While cholo culture evolved in the 80s and 90s, it also became a part of the American fashion industry. Men moved away from the traditional zoot suits and towards loose-fitting khaki pants, white knee-high socks, creased jeans, and plaid or flannel shirts over white tank tops.
Women, on the other hand, left a more lasting impression on American makeup and fashion with their signature pointed eyebrows, outlined lips, and heavy gold chains. The manicured black baby hair and slicked back ponytails were also iconic, referenced today in countless music videos and runway looks.
Tattoos and graffitis became one of the prominent representation of cholos. Some of the most iconic body art in the world rests on the backs of cholos worldwide. Though much of it is associated with Christian imagery (think the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and countless crucifixion scenes) and calligraphy, cholo tattoo culture has also evolved some of its own new imagery.
The image pays homage to the pain and suffering many people living the cholo life experience – a short amount of joy sometimes for a lifetime of consequences.
Cholo subculture incorporated more graffiti as a form of artistic expression, often associated as the rebel against authority. Graffiti has origins in the beginnings of hip hop culture in the 1970s in New York City, alongside rhyming, b-boying, and beats. It was used to publicly display their artistic expressions with their social and political opinions in response to their lack of access to museums and art institutions, and the continuous strife, discrimination, and struggle of living in the city. Because graffiti is illegal in most cases, this form of art has flourished in the underground, requiring little money and providing an opportunity to voice what is often excluded from dominant histories and media. From here, although graffiti remains the major form of street art, other mediums have evolved - including stenciling, stickers, and wheatpasting.
Graffiti often has negative associations with serving territorial purposes for gangs, displaying tags and logos that differentiate certain groups from others, therefore marking their "turf". Within Chicano barrios, gangs use their own form of graffiti or tagging to mark territory or to serve as an indicator of gang-related activities. Gang members also often use graffiti to designate membership, differentiate rivals and alliances, and mark ideological borders. Imagery of gang-related graffiti often consists of cryptic symbols and initials with unique calligraphy styles.
On the other hand, Chicano/Cholo artists also use graffiti as a tool, to express their political opinions, indigenous heritage, cultural and religious imagery, and counter-narratives to dominant portrayals of life in the barrios. Similar to other forms of art within, graffiti has become another tool of resistance, reclamation, and empowerment as Chicanos make their own space for expression and popular education.
Cholo art being a part of Chicano art movement is now commonly recognized as a form of public art, embraced by museums, art critics, and art institutions. But its significance for many cholos remains in the barrios, reiterating the importance of accessibility and inclusion in relation to their identity and community in their artwork. In times of conflict, such murals have offered public modes communication and self-expression for members of these socially, ethnically and racially marginalized communities, and have become effective tools in facilitating dialogue, challenging injustices and stereotypes that impact their neighborhoods and peoples, and in the end, elevating their community.
This is a very basic introduction to cholo art as a part of chicano movement and in general to cholo history and lifestyle. The art works on the photos belong to Cancun based artists Twin One and Happy One.
What do you think about cholo art? Have you seen it before?