Lowriders, skinny eyebrows, winged eyeliner, Dickies, and Ben Davis. East Los Angeles, El Paso’s Segundo Barrio, the Southwest, and San Francisco’s Mission District. There is a certain aesthetic and lifestyle that comes to mind when you hear the word “cholo” or “chola.” But the term goes back centuries to Spain and means different things to different people across Latinx nations. In an effort to evolve what we associate with terms we have always known in our culture and expand our understanding of them, we want to unpack what “cholo” actually means.
We’re going as far back as possible to where the word cholo actually came from, understand what it has really meant over the centuries, and how it has been used to identify groups of Indigenous and Latinx people til this very day.
The Word “Cholo” Comes From the Windward Islands
The word “cholo” is said to be from the Windward Islands. It means a mixed-breed dog and the Spanish would use it as an insulting way to describe Indigenous people or people of mixed Indigenous, African, and Spanish descent.
The Term Was First Recorded in 1609
“Cholo” was first seen in print in 1609, when Peruvian writer Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, himself part Indigenous (considered the first known “mestizo” in “the history of America”), wrote that “the child of a Black male and an Indian female, or of an Indian male and Black female, they call mulato and mulata. The children of these they call cholos.”
But Also Appeared as “Xolo” in a 1571 Nahuatl-English Dictionary
In 1571, the word “xolo” was included in Fray Alonso de Molina’s Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary, Vocabulario en Lengua Castellana y Mexicana Y Mexicana y Castellana. In Nahuatl, the term means “slave, servant, or waiter.”
It Was Used Derogatorily to Describe Mixed-Race People
The word “cholo” was used to describe someone who had one Indigenous and one mestizo parent. Since the term was used to separate people of color and place them below white Spaniards in the caste system, it was used to stereotype people of Indigenous descent and identity in a negative way. “Cholo” became synonymous with the idea of being “less than,” uneducated, lazy, and poor.
In Spain, Cholo was Synonymous with Mestizo
In the Spanish and Mexican casta/caste systems, cholos were deemed those who had one Spanish and one mestizo parent. As we noted earlier, however, it also was used to denote people who were the children of people with African and Indigenous parents. The unifying link between both is that cholos were associated with being mestizo/having Indigenous blood.
How You Were Categorized Determined Legal Rights and How You Were Treated in Society
Back in the colonial times, being placed in a certain category and on a certain level of the Spanish/Mexican casta system dictated your whole life. It would tell you your legal protections, reflect your wealth, inform you of what taxes you were to pay, and how you were to be treated in society. This was all based on race/color and “purity” of blood.
In Colonial Mexico, “Cholo” Co-existed with the Word “Coyote”
Cholos were considered people who were 75% Indigenous and 25% Spanish. Another word used to describe this mix — one mestizo parent and one Indigenous parent — is the derogatory “coyote.”
Cholo is an Alleged Shortening of Nahuatl Cholollán
Another theory to where the word “cholo” comes from is that it is a shortened version of the Nahuatl Cholollán. Cholollán means “the place of the flight,” and from it came the name Cholula, which was a pre-conquest city-state in Mexico.
The Word Was Used in English in 1851 in the book Moby Dick (But it Wasn’t the First Instance)
The word “cholo” appeared in the classic novel, Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, in 1851. The author is credited with using the word first in English, but it appears that it was used and described in English in 1819’s Letters on the United Provinces of South America and 1835’s Progressive Dictionary by Samuel Fallows.
In Ecuador and Other South American Countries, “Cholo” is Used to Describe Those With Indigenous Blood
Cholo not only described Mexicans under the Spanish casta system but was, and is used, to describe the Indigenous peoples of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. In these countries, the Aymara, and Quechua are among the largest Indigenous groups.
In Peru, It Can Be Seen as Either Derogatory or as a Term of Affection
The word “cholo” or “chola” can be seen as a pejorative term in South America, or a positive one. In Peru, for example, while some are offended by it, others have embraced and reappropriated “cholo/a” to show their Indigenous pride. It is also used as a term of endearment between people.
In Bolivia, the Term is Also Used to Denote Indigenous Blood
As previously mentioned, Bolivia is one of the countries where “cholo” is used to describe those with Indigenous blood. But it has yet another meaning in the South American country.
It Has Also Been Used to Describes Indigenous People Who Moved to the City From the Campo
In Bolivia, “cholo” is also used to describe Indigenous people who have left the campos (the countryside) to travel to the city.
Bolivians Have Turned the Word Cholo Into an Empowering One
The word “cholo” has seen an evolution from a completely insulting term to one of empowerment. Bolivia, as well as other countries, has reappropriated the term (and that of “chola” or “cholita”), turning it into a symbol of Indigenous pride and national pride.
Bolivian Cholitas Become Fashion Icons
The cholitas in Bolivia took the name, and their iconic Indigenous style, and wore both with pride. These ladies are internationally known for their bowler hats; colorful garb which includes a shawl with brooch; layered skirt with petticoats; embroidery; and jewelry.
In Ecuador, Cholos Pescadores Are Indigenous Fishermen
In Ecuador, there are indigenous fishermen known as “cholos pescadores.” They live and work along the Ecuadorian coast, in the provinces of Santa Elena, Guayas, and Manabi.
Cholo Went on to Categorize “Lower Class” Latinxs
In the United States, in places along the U.S./Mexico border, the word “cholo” was used to describe “lower-class” Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.
U.S. Cholo Culture Emerged from Pachuco Culture
The cholo/a culture that we know today emerged during the 1960 and ’70s and is an extension of and descendant of, the pachuco/culture of the 1940s and ’50s. Both have served as a way for marginalized Chicanos to self-identify, have pride in their heritage, and create something new from the blend of Mexican and American influences.
It Coincided with the Chicano Movement
The rise of the positive use of the word “cholo” and cholo culture coincided with the Chicano movement of the 1960s. As Chicanxs were rising up, organizing, and demanding their civil rights, “cholo” was turned on its head, reclaimed and now used to express Chicano pride and identity.
An Aesthetic is Tied to the Word Cholo/a
Along with the new version of “cholo” being used in the 1960s, came an aesthetic that would remain instantly recognizable for decades since. Cholo/a culture is intertwined with Nike Cortez sneakers, skinny eyebrows, acrylic nails, winged eyeliner, Ben Davis and Dickies, flannel shirts (with only the top button buttoned), lowriders, shaved heads, Chicano prison-style tattoos, and even a specific terminology (Caló).
Cholo Goths and Cholombianos Are Subcultures of Cholo Culture
Cholo culture doesn’t end with what we have known, from the 1960s to the 1990s, and beyond. It’s evolving, inspiring offshoots that take the aesthetic and join it with other cultures and influences. Cholo goths meld the cholo world with the darker, moodier goth one, while Cholombianos take cholo, Mexican (from Monterrey), Colombian cumbia, and reggaeton influences and blend them into a unique subculture all its own.
The Word Chola Has Grown to Be Associated with Strong Chicanxs
More and more research has been dedicated to chola culture and what it means beyond the popular makeup looks and style choices. The one thing that emerges from both this and pachuca culture is the fact that these are strong, Chicanx, Latinx women who hold their own and remain badass in the face of racism, discrimination, adversity, and more. The term “chola” has grown to mean a woman who is like this or aspires to be (although it is part of an actual culture and not something to just try on because it sounds good).
The Term Cholo/a and It’s Look Has Been Appropriated
Which leads us to our next point. The chola aesthetic is perpetually popular, with so many YouTube videos on how to do chola makeup, a new generation of Chicanxs and Latinxs recreating throwback looks, and many people “paying homage.” While it is hard to define exactly where cultural appreciation ends and cultural appropriation begins, chola culture (including the word “cholo/a”) isn’t a costume or a mood — it is an actual culture that was born from resistance and emerged from hardship. Therefore, in essence, the fruits of that — no matter how badass — should really be enjoyed by its people and not minimized into a mere fashion trend by others.