Hot Girl Somos

There Is Power in Our Latina Aesthetics — Ask These Chongas, Cholas, & Around-the-Way Femmes

As a working-class Cuban and Puerto Rican girl growing up in a Catholic home in New Jersey and, later, Miami in the 1990s, I received an intense education in how to be a so-called “good girl.” 
In a lot of ways, virtue was measured by how a young woman presented physically, not necessarily by her code of ethics. A “good girl” dressed modestly and didn’t flaunt her body. Her makeup was “natural,” her hair was straight, and there would be no signifiers of anything that could be considered de la calle: big hoop earrings, gelled curly hair, winged eyeliner, dark lipsticks, and neither form-fitting clothes nor baggy pants and basketball jerseys. 
For many of our immigrant families, survival and social mobility meant fitting into Euro-American standards of beauty and comportment. As such, I was instructed to present a femininity drawing from white ideals: lightness, thinness, and a closet of clothes with a “classic” fit that didn’t accentuate my curves or totally disguise them. If I didn’t, there was a whole vocabulary for mocking and excluding femmes from around the way that shamed girls like me into aesthetic conformity: cafre, chusma, chunti, and more. And it worked — for a while. 

The education in who not to be — the chola, the chonga, or the around-the-way girl — has led many of us to internalize shame about our racialized femininity.

jillian hernandez
As Latine femmes, many of us have been trained in the performance of gender and (hetero)sexual respectability, resulting in the policing of our appearance and how we show up in the world. The education in who not to be — the chola, the chonga, or the around-the-way girl — has led many of us to internalize shame about our racialized femininity. To belong and to be valued, we felt that we had to disassociate ourselves from the femmes in our communities who refused to alter themselves for acceptance.
Becoming a young mother to my daughter and working with teenage girls in Miami through feminist art outreach in the early 2000s, I started to become aware of how I had internalized these respectability politics. One day, a young girl compared me to a Bratz doll, and I was low-key offended because I thought myself an artsy-fartsy hipster. In fact, I had prohibited my daughter from playing with Bratz dolls because I thought they were overly sexual. But this comparison helped me realize that my body was signaling “around the way” even when I didn’t think it was — and that it was something to embrace rather than run away from. 
Confronting my unacknowledged biases led me to reclaim the working-class aesthetics that Latine femmes use to find and display our power in public spaces. If I considered myself a feminist, it would be critical to understand the chonga, or Bratz, Miami aesthetic as an expression of resistance to U.S. assimilation and respectability politics. As I explore in my book "Aesthetics of Excess," these around-the-way aesthetics signal femme autonomy and, because of this, they are disciplined. Our styles are often read in the U.S. as tacky, over the top, and deviant, even as they are simultaneously spectacularized, desired, and appropriated. Even our countries of origin have gendered hierarchies of beauty that stem from colonialism’s devaluation of African and Indigenous aesthetics. 

"Around-the-way aesthetics signal femme autonomy and, because of this, they are disciplined."

jillian hernandez
Today, I am thrilled to be witnessing an explosion of cultural activity that reclaims Latine femme aesthetics from around the way. Popular platforms like Veteranas and Rucas and Documenting the Nameplate are archiving Latine working-class styles through displaying people’s personal photo collections, and artists like La Goony Chonga, Zahira Cabrera, and Yvette Mayorga take inspiration from the fashion of their blocks to create works of art. Even the academy is feeling the shift as the Homegirl Association is organizing its second annual La Chola Conference for the fall at the University of Colorado.      
What these projects show is that our aesthetics are a source of abundance. They keep us innovating, making the bag, and connecting to others. There are now fashion and beauty brands by Latines and for Latines like Bomba Curls, Sweet Street Cosmetics, and Honey B Gold that are creating an alternative market that bypasses mainstream cultural appropriation that celebrate and build wealth in our communities
For Refinery29 Somos, I spoke with seven artists who are moving our culture forward with their unapologetic Latine femme style to learn how aesthetics empower them, who they draw inspiration from, and how they are maintaining and creating in the midst of so much violence and uncertainty in the world.

Kro Vargas (Krocaine), Colombian and Ecuadorian Nail Artist in Miami

You are in full control of your style, and you can decide how you want to look and feel on certain occasions. I’ve always expressed myself through my style and especially through my nails. My mom’s fashion sense is the reason why I dress how I do today. My grandmother was the one who introduced me to nail art when I was a little girl. Without her, I probably would not be doing nails today. She put me on to my biggest passion.
I find a lot of comfort in knowing I help my clients feel better. Whether they’re getting intricate designs or not, something I’ve learned in this industry is that a fresh manicure always makes my clients happy and boosts their confidence. My clients make me happy, and I enjoy the quality time we share during these appointments. It’s definitely a great way to get through these wild times.

Zahira Cabrera, Dominican Artist and Sociocultural Critic in Puerto Plata

Style is wrapped up in who you are, what you like, who you want to be, and how you want to be viewed. I draw a lot from my mother and daughter, who are both naturally stylish and very femme, and the cool Black and Latina girls I looked up to in the ‘90s Bronx. Every day, you get to choose how you will outwardly express and present yourself. My mood dictates if I want to present as a boi, femme, or a little of both. I determine if I will honor my foremothers’ traditional dress, if my look will be giving “little hoe on the prairie,” ‘hood punk chic, or retro pinup. That feels like power to me. 

Delana Delgado, Puerto Rican Photographer & Community Organizer in San Diego

I grew up thinking I had to lessen my feminine side in order to be respected as a woman. In reality, all I ever wanted was to be and look like the women I looked up to as a child: those confident, proud, and beautiful Latinas who were always rocking bold jewelry and lips, thick brows, and sultry hair. They were feminine and also had a commanding presence. My mother, sisters, titis, and cousins are all bold, unapologetic, and effortlessly sexy Boricua women whose powerful personalities still outshine their appearance, and it’s truly something that can’t be forged. 
One day, I literally just got tired of hiding. I was 27 years old minimizing all the things about myself that I used to love — for who’s approval? Leaning on beauty and style as a creative outlet allowed me to ease back into reclaiming my sexuality and identity.
In 2020 and 2021, I was unemployed for the first time in my life. Luckily, I was surrounded by my small circle of beautiful homegirls and friends who come from Latine households. We spent the year documenting each other on our cameras, taking walks in our neighborhoods, using each other as models and inspiration, and experimenting with new looks. This led me and my friend Checka Sardina to found the zine Around the Way Girls, where we feature local femme film photographers from San Diego who deserve more recognition. We’re now on Volume 3.

La Goony Chonga, Cuban-American Recording Artist in Miami

I’m very big on, “if you look good, you’ll feel good.” Looking your best and expressing yourself through style can be very empowering. There’s something about pulling a whole look with your makeup fully done that gives you that extra confidence. For my mom, it was a lipliner and long red nails. Meanwhile, my abuela and tías were always wearing hoop earrings. You could always hear their bangles and chancletas as they walked by. I always loved that. 

Madeline Alvizo Ramirez, Xicana Artist in Granger, Washington 

Making space for my barrio culture graphic tees, hoops, and pencil-thin eyebrows makes me feel like I am doing my part in being visible and taking up space in work and community environments. In my photography work of documenting chola culture around the nation, I've come to appreciate the various chola styles we have here in the United State and throughout the world. 
When I was younger, I remember looking up to my older sisters, primas, and homegirls, who taught me how to do Chicana pomps and hold my head up to not disturb our oversized hoop earrings. At the age of 40, I still love wearing tank tops and baggy overalls, chola bands (black jelly bracelets), and Converse, Huaraches or Cortez sneakers. Going to church or special events, like a quinceañera or wedding, looks like old-school pachuca vibes, feminine yet street.
These last couple of years have really made me examine my worth, my contributions to my community, and aligning my family in a direction of self-empowerment through the arts. I find inspiration in collective spaces that refuse to be dissolved, such as La Chola Conference Planning Committee, La Chola Vida Sisterhood, and MakerSpace Yakima. In these spaces, I find like-minded women who are making their way by relying on each other for empowerment, collective enrichment, event organizing, and more. I feel a strong sense of responsibility in being a voice when I see the BS we deal with for simply being ourselves. 

Jacquelyn Carmen Guerrero, Cuban-Puerto Rican Artist and DJ in Chicago

As a visual artist working in sequin and bead embroidery, I love wearing sequins as armor. Putting on a top or dress covered in sequins can completely change how I feel about myself. The sequins turn me into a warrior. 
The question of beauty itself feels a bit more complicated to me, as ideas of beauty have long been used to perpetuate harm. I do believe that discovering and defining your own beauty — how you are beautiful to yourself — is one of the most important and empowering processes we experience as humans. 
Going back through my Cuban maternal lineage, icons like Celia Cruz and La Lupe have influenced me through their aesthetics, their music, and their legacy as powerful and influential Afro-Cuban women. Other performance icons that inspire me include Juan Gabriel and Walter Mercado, flamboyant, gender-bending performers who entranced the world through their art and talents. Currently, contemporary Latine queer icons that inspire me include Sofia Moreno, Zemmoa, Chocolate Remix, Tokischa, Ms Nina, y más.
In addition to aesthetics, I find hope by focusing my energy on fewer projects that yield a greater impact, like working with my partner, Mexican-American house and techno music producer La Spacer (Natalie Murillo), on our multimedia production company TRQPITECA. Recently, we worked on our second TRQPITECA Queer Pride 2022, an all-ages event where hundreds gather to celebrate queer identities and dance music culture.

Yvette Mayorga, Mexican-American Artist in Chicago

I have always taken pride in looking good and wearing out-of-the-box clothes. There is no better feeling than thrifting a look. It's always been the punk in me. In my middle school and high school years, I was known to wear various clothing colors and layers at the same time while gliding on a thick eyeliner wing that almost touched my hairline. It was all about expressing my creativity through clothing with the little I had and being creative about it. Since 2016, my go-to color has mostly been black. I think it's my subconscious way of asserting how I am feeling about the world while still wanting to look fly.      
My style has always been inspired by my two older sisters and mom in the ‘90s. My sister Sandi always had bell bottoms, chunky shoes, big earrings, and a lined lip, while my sister Lupe wore baggy Selena t-shirts, lipstick, and big hoops. Meanwhile, mami always wore all of her jewelry and painted her long nails. I think I created a mix of the three styles growing up; I always looked up to and aspired to be them.
Going to my studio and making work is my way of feeling safe, loved, and inspired during a time that can feel so heavy for lots of us. I just have to remind myself that creating is so much more than a finished work. It is what keeps me grounded internally. I have to do it for my mental health. Creating is about pouring back into myself during a time that is hyper-draining, and that’s what keeps me going. All of this shit is so dark. Bringing light back in should do something, too, right?

More from Street Style

R29 Original Series