It was 1995, and Selena Quintanilla took the stage to perform "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" at the Astrodome in her iconic shimmery purple jumpsuit. The late singer exuded confidence not only in her dance moves and passionate vocals, but in her signature red lips. The lipstick shade would become symbolic of Quintanilla, so much so that it was included in a limited-edition MAC makeup line, which sold out in five hours in 2016.
While it might represent a classic makeup trend for many, the color means much more to the Latina community. Frida Kahlo, Celia Cruz, Quintanilla, and now Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez— all women who represent different periods of time, industries, and communities — all turned to crimson lips as an embodiment of their confidence and femininity.
"There is something going back decades and decades about the importance of always having your femininity on display," Regina Merson, founder of Latina-driven makeup brand Reina Rebelde, tells Refinery29. "There is a ritual about painting your lips red, and it's not by accident that these women, especially women who were trailblazing as far back as 50 to 60 years ago, were all grabbing [that shade]."
In a society where Latinas are told to keep quiet or hide in the background so that they aren't labeled as "spicy" or "fiery," red lipstick has become a symbol of fighting back. Just look at the women who have proudly worn the color on their lips: Kahlo, who transformed her struggles into vibrant art and defied society's beauty standards. Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, who played an important role in the conscious elevation of Afro-Latinidad. Quintanilla, a Grammy-award winning artist who was one of the first Latinas to be open about her struggles with cultural self-identity. And Ocasio-Cortez, who takes a stand for political injustices and wears her favorite lip color proudly as an unconventional congressional candidate.
The shade has even made its mark on the world of comedy. If you watch Cristela Alonzo's Netflix stand-up special Lower Classy, you'll notice that the comedian also opted for red lipstick. "I wore red on my Netflix special intentionally," Alonzo, the first Latina to create, write, produce, and star in her own network sitcom, tells Refinery29. "I wanted my words to be the most important thing on that stage. I decided to go for a bright red to highlight my mouth so that people knew my words were important."
I decided to go for a bright red to highlight my mouth so that people knew my words were important.
All these women had or have something to say, and they all turned to a lipstick color to send a message. "It announces your presence. You wear the perfect red lipstick, and you’re there," says Merson. "There’s a prerequisite to putting on red lipstick, and that’s self-confidence. There’s an innate self-confidence in being Latina; we want to be noticed, and we want to be respected. The red hits all of those marks that we’re after."
With this lipstick shade, there is a higher message to be sent in a world that tries to shut out the Latinx community. It's that we've been fighting for decades, and we're not going to stop. Latinxs have a place in this world, and they're going to make sure you see them. As Occasio-Cortez told Elle, "Any attempt to make femininity trivial or unimportant is an attempt to take away my power. So I’m going to wear the red lipstick." And that's that.
— Presented by Olay —