Around the time Fergie dropped her hit “Fergalicious” and the spoof “Chongalicious” followed, many people outside the Latinx community discovered what it meant to be a chonga. Although sometimes referred to by different names such as a chola, pachuca or chuca, there are some standard features for this Latinx figure. Drawn on eyebrows. Glued down hair and bangs. Customized hoop earrings. Undeniable sass. Chances are if you collected Homies figurines, you knew all about that chola style.
Still, the chola icon has been parodied for far too long without much of a glimpse inside the subculture. As someone who turned to chola culture at an arduous point in my childhood, I feel the need to share my own knowledge and experience. This isn’t the be-all and end-all telling of chonga culture, rather it is simply a stroll down El Camino Chuca circa 2003.
My perception of the world began to change as my nine-year-old self came to grips with what was happening to those around me. By this point in my life, I’d been wearing a sports bra for three years—shout out to the FDA for allowing all those hormones in our food. However, my body was set to change again very soon. Girls I knew at school were already getting their periods. The stakes were raised and if you wanted to have friends you had to do more than just offer everyone Rebanaditas de sandía, you had to be cool.
In the Texas border town where I spent my formative years, telenovelas sold us fame and sex on TV as we grappled with the rise of chat rooms and getting all the chisme from people’s Nextel walkie-talkie beeps. ¿Me oyes? It was no longer chido to be a ‘little girl’. You couldn’t perrear to reggaeton at the school dance in floral print and ruffles. Everyone around me was blooming into pre-pubescent versions of themselves, while I still hung out in the tree house my abuelito built and played with Betty Spaghetti. Cholas were all around me, so I decided to take a page from their book and become one of them.
Growing up with a single mother and a large family, there wasn’t much money to go around. Still, in my resolve to put the wheels in motion, I went to the dollar store—pockets lined with quarters I’d collected from under our porch—and began to peruse the cheap makeup section. I picked up the essentials like eyeshadow, lip gloss and blush. The colors were all wrong for my skin, sickly shades peeking through the cheap metallic plastic packaging, but I felt as if I had struck dollar store gold.
My desire to be cool overpowered my fear of looking ridiculous. After all… I, too, wanted to wear form-fitting double denim and sparkling blue eyeshadow! I, too, wanted to pretend to be J.Lo pretending to be Selena eating hot sauce that matched her perfectly red lips and singing Bidi Bidi Bom Bom!
With my makeup haul, I headed back the three blocks it took to get to my house. The air was filled with musica Norteña as I skipped through sunbleached parking lots and cracked sidewalks littered with Tecate bottle caps. The metallic streamers of the neighborhood used car dealership encouraging me along the way, something in the way they waved in the wind made me feel like I was on the brink of something great.
I locked myself in my mother’s bathroom while she was at work and tried to decide how I’d reinvent myself. My face was far too round, my hair parted down the middle and coaxed into small pigtails. I looked like the Precious Moments baby dolls my cousins collected. Transformation would not be an easy task.
First up were the eyebrows, signature chuca style would dictate: the thinner, the better. I didn’t have the courage to shave them off and draw them back on, so I found my mother’s tweezers and plucked them until my forehead was red and quivering. In the end, they were short and thin enough to make it seem as if I was perpetually shocked.
Next followed the eyeshadow, I picked a baby blue because it seemed like the easy choice. With a clammy finger I rubbed the powder onto my eyelid haphazardly. Subtlety was not my strong suit. I looked rough, but I knew that with practice I would get better. La guinda del pastel was the lip gloss which was a suspicious shade of brown, labeled “Café con Leche” but looked more like “Caca en Leche”.
With my work done, I looked in the mirror and saw someone completely different. I smiled. Then, I decided to parade my new look around the house.
“You look like a clown,” one brother commented.
“Is that chocolate or poop on your face?” asked another as they high fived and walked off laughing.
It was enough for me to abandon chonga style and dodge questions about my eyebrows for a while. At least, until I moved to a new school shortly afterward. Faced with the reality of being the newbie in class, trying to come to grips with a new social hierarchy, I approached the coolest looking girls in class. They both had necklaces with their names written in gold and thin bangs that ran down their faces and evoked a sexy cucaracha vibe. With oversized fleece jackets and brown Polo boots, their style was undeniably chonga. I admired their bravado and made it my goal to befriend them.
“I like your necklace,” I squeaked in the direction of the taller girl of the two.
“I like your eyebrows,” she replied not smiling.
“Can I sit with you?” I pushed. They looked at each other.
“Only if you promise not to wear that shirt again,” the shorter one snapped.
I looked down at my chest to find a bright blue unicorn emblazoned on my T-shirt. ¡Que tonta! I grimaced and assured them that my mom had bought it, it wasn’t really my style.
“Jaja ¡no mames!” said the taller chola. “Bueno, my name is Lupe.”
“They call me Flaca. You can come over to my house this weekend, si quieres. We could give you a makeover,” the smaller one offered.
Hiding the excitement from my face was difficult. I nodded like an insane bobble head then accepted the invitation and instantly began daydreaming about how fabulous I would soon become. Finally, I had the chance to be CrazySexyCool like that TLC album I always saw at Sam Goody.
That weekend, my mom drove me to the other side of town to Flaca’s house. She seemed happy that I had made friends at school so quickly. I smiled secretly to myself and thought of long acrylic nails and beauty marks.
It was a sunny day, but we didn’t spend any time outside. The girls combed my hair twice, slapped some gel on it and gave me a high ponytail and long, thin cucaracha bangs. Lupe looked at me afterward and I mean really looked at me.
“I’m gonna lend you a shirt my prima gave me. It will look really good on you since you have boobs.” she said with a pensive hand placed upon her chin.
With my hair done and my outfit changed, it was time for makeup. Flaca did my lip liner, while Lupe focused on my eyebrows which had gone all out of shape from a lack of maintenance. Then came the eyeshadow. The girls were much more skilled than me and opted for a two tone blend of pink and purple. To finish, there was the bubble gum pink lip gloss that was so sticky my lips could barely move.
“Andale, güey.” Lupe said to Flaca. “She’s like another person.”
Flaca looked me up and down then whispered, “Vamos a ver.”
We followed Flaca to her bedroom which was covered in portraits of Tweety bird. In the far right corner she had a desktop computer complete with a webcam on top. She opened up MSN Messenger and scrolled to find a friend, a chuco no doubt.
“K pasa, Peanut” she wrote into the small pop-up window.
“K pasaaa, Flaca” he wrote back.
“Let’s send him a picture and see what he says.” Flaca suggested as she opened up another window and our made-up faces appeared on screen. “Put up the deuces.”
“The what?” I asked looking at her baffled.
“The peace sign,” replied Lupe.
We all held up two fingers next to our faces. I grinned like a giddy school girl. Lupe and Flaca blew kisses like seasoned pros. Then, Flaca took the picture and hit ‘send’.
“K guapaaas,” replied Peanut upon receiving the image.
“Oye, he thinks you’re guapa!” Flaca screeched turning to me.
Lupe and Flaca winked at each other. It was official. We were actually friends.
That year, I would spend all my free time at Flaca’s house learning makeup tricks, watching scary movies and feeding my Neopets on her computer. I have countless stories that take place in her house or in her neighborhood somewhere. Her barrio felt like a second home to me. We were always eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos con limón and laughing our heads off together there. We were uña y carne.
At school, things were different. I was no longer seen as the new girl, but as a chola. Flaca and Lupe taught me a lot about myself. They taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be. They taught me how to look sweet, but talk tough.
I grew less and less nervous around them, because I knew they had my back and they didn’t think I was tonta for reading books and writing poems. They accepted me for who I was, their comadre. Although, before long Flaca’s parents would get divorced and move her to a different school. Lupe would get a boyfriend and be too concerned with her besitos y TQMs to hang out with me anymore.
Without my mentors by my side, I would grow out of my chuca phase. My focus would move onto other things like school grades and extracurricular activities. I still kept the chuca attitude I had learned deep down inside. I had become a tough girl, a girl who could speak her mind and stand up for herself, even if I didn’t have the eyebrows to show it anymore.
Ashuni Pérez was born in Arizona’s red rock country, grew up on the Texas-Mexico border and now resides on Spain’s east coast. She is a co-founder of The Skinned Knee Collective, an online art magazine. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in PYLOT Magazine, Genre: Urban Arts, Rainbowed., Vagabonds, TWD’s Tinajero Papers and Peach Fuzz Magazine among others.