A Case for Hipsters (of color)?

by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse

Lives in rapidly gentrifying neighborhood: check

Occasionally shops at Urban Outfitters, thrift stores, or grandma’s house: check

Tends to party in other rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods on weekends: check

Is likely to know or at least recognize 1 or more people a week on Last Night’s Party, Cobra Snake, or Blue States Lose: check, check, check

Spends more time per week changing hairstyle than showering: ok, ew, sooo NOT check

With the exception of the final point, I qualify pretty solidly as a card-carrying member of hipsterdom (*though, according to Carmen, the first rule of being hipster is never admitting to being one*). I’m what one could call a “conscious hipster,” as oxymoronic as that sounds. I genuinely care about the world. I blog about race and gender, I recycle, I hold doors for the elderly. . . but I also devote a lot of time to fashion, music, and other facets of materialism on which I find worthy enough to throw money. Does that make me a bottomless pit of indifference? I think not.

Unfortunately, pop references to hipsters are never quite flattering and, to be honest, I think most of us “have it coming.” After reading the piece on Wes Anderson, and the responses thereafter, I began to wonder whether my pending defense of hipsters had a future in the metaphoric trash heap. Afterall, this site, among many others, has been nothing close to forgiving for hipsters’ behavioral faux-pas, including, but not limited to: political indifference (passed off as white liberalism), superficiality, aversion to personal hygiene, endorsement of the objectification of women under the guise of post-modern feminism, and an inexplicable hunger for overpriced clothing that looks as though it’s been bought, sold, and worn three times over.

And more than anything, perhaps as a means of highlighting their flaws while simultaneously skirting the risk of inciting the wrath of equal rights groups or the anti-racist blogger community (*wink wink*), they are portrayed as overwhelmingly white.

The problem that lies therein, however, is that in this attempt to criticize a group that is considered to be teeming with silent predators to developing neighborhoods by way of its voracious consumerism in the face of poverty and quasi-colonial gaze, the people of color who make up a sizeable portion of the hipster clans in major cities are swept under the rug, virtually ignored for the sake of ease. Given, it’s much easier to stereotype a group when they are all exactly alike, right? Yet once the idea of color or class or queerness ends up in the mix, the critics get a little vertiginous, as their previously asserted sweeping generalizations may end up pulling them into a vortex of inaccuracy.

I decided to do a little impromptu research into the history of people of color in the United States who would probably be considered hipsters, at least if they were somehow superimposed over a backdrop of post-millennial modernity. I thought of Pachucos (more on them in a sec), people of color who were members of the beat generation, the followers of and participants in rock in its earliest (predominately black) stages, and even my mother, who identified as a “hippie” during her college years (and sometimes still does, though, nowadays, more as an optional fashion statement as opposed to an indication of political voice). Long story short, they’ve been out there for quite some time— people of color trickling back into the movements to which they gave birth, later to be co-opted by whites, and vice versa, and it’s still very much the case today. One particular “hipster” cultural movement, if you will, is one for which I have yet to find a name.

Hispanipster or Alterna-tino/a doesn’t have a nice ring to it. I didn’t want to try anything that even vaguely referenced borderlands or immigration because, well, those are overtly cliché and would be ripped apart by academics. So forgive me for having no name for a group of young people who identify as Latino who happen to have always been present and thriving despite receiving little acknowledgement by the popular media or the clueless general public. They’re the Latinos Laura Martinez over at Mi Blog Es Tu Blog hints at when she writes open letters to advertisers, reminding them that “Hey, we’re not all alike,” the Latinos who comprise the writing crew over at Guanabee, and they’re the Latinos I happen to call my friends and go out with on weekends.

And for the record, no, that was not a “Hey, I have Latino friends! Aren’t I so awesome and knowledgeable about Latino issues?” plug.

I note the entertainment + friendship factor here because without them, I would never have been exposed to Nacotheque, the party founded by DJs Amylu Meneses and Marcelo Cunning (pictured below). According to their myspace page:

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The music is an eclectic mesh of Spanish-language, rock n’ roll, new wave, indie rock, baile-funk, nouveau-eighties, electropop, disco, cumbia, and some hip-hop.

Nacotheque is beating the stereotype of parties that host Spanish-sung music and teaching the world what else is out there in the Spanish-sung indie/underground music scene. PAPERmag.com went so far as to dub Nacotheque as “The Spanish MisShapes”, but with more animated DJs and more fun party people. As Claire Frisbie from NYRemezcla.com explains, by blending their own backgrounds and musical tastes, “this dynamic duo have a knack for highlighting new music from all over Latin America and Spain, boasting an enviable collection of music, new and old, popular and obscure”.

And the founders have no qualms about making fun of the “scene” in which they play a significant part, as evidenced by the party’s name:

“Nacotheque” is a made up name combining the words naco and discotheque. “Naco” in Mexico is a way to describe the Latin American hard-drinking, jalopy-tinkering working class – whom Americans would consider cheesy white trash.

Reviving a pejorative term for the sake of profit is not exactly an original idea, nor is an underground Latino dance-music-style culture. In fact, the U.S. has seen quite a few such movements over the years, including the Pachucos, whom I mentioned earlier, who are defined as:

Mexican American youths who developed their own subculture during the 1930s and 1940s in the Southwestern United States. They wore distinctive clothes (such as Zoot Suits) and spoke their own dialect (Caló). Due to their double-marginalization stemming from their youth and ethnicity, there has always been a close association and cultural cross-pollination between the Pachuco subculture and the gang subculture. For this reason, many members of the predominant (Anglo) culture assumed that anyone dressed in pachuco was a gang member.

The term “Zoot Suit Riots” refers to the violent conflict that ensued between white sailors and Pachucos following WWII in Los Angeles. Poignantly documented as a musical play by Luis Valdez and immortalized by Edward James Olmos’ portrayal of the play’s narrator El Pachuco on Broadway, the portrayal of the riots and its participants in Zoot Suit gives the impression that the expression of culture through music, dance, and fashion can bear far more meaning than its creators may initially intend or than its spectators may be willing to acknowledge.

For some of my friends, and many of the young people who identify with the partygoers to whom Nacotheque caters, there is significant meaning in music choice and fashion sense, one that is linked to their sense of Latinidad. Fernando, an Argentine who immigrated to the United States as a child, and who has the most eclectic album collection known to man, feels that his expression of self through style is indicative of something more than buying power:

I love being Argentinean—I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. But I do love breaking the stereotype. I love to be unique. I don’t want to look like anyone else . . . or be anyone else. I don’t want to be a FREAK, you know, but I have to be different . . . constantly changing . . . innovative.

Unfortunately, despite the growing Latino population in the United States, the media representations of the Latino community are anything but “different . . . constantly changing . . . innovative.” Advertising agencies, tv show producers, and music executives cater to its Latino audience with blinders tightly fastened. All Latinos look the same, sound the same, act the same, and like to consume the same goods and participate in the same activities, or at least the average viewer/listener would gauge based on what the media tells us, including the Spanish-language networks, whom Fernando considers an ally in the continued perpetuation of stereotypes of Latinos:

[The typical ''Latino'' stereotype is] evident in any show or commercial you see on the Latino networks. For God sakes, they’ll have a political commercial with reggaeton blasting in the background. Reggaeton does not appeal to all Latinos, in case they didn’t know.

Expecting many Americans to have a firm grasp on Latino culture and history seems high, but not entirely, once you consider how quickly they learned and believed stereotypes about Latinos they gained from the limited media exposure time given to the group. Claudia, a visitor to the United States from Mexico, and frequent Nacotheque attendee recounts:

[People react in shock when they find out I am Latina] from time to time, yes. Mostly “you don’t look Mexican at all” I can look Asian, European, or Latin—but from Argentina or whatever. Once a girl told me that it was a good thing that I was being told that I don’t look Mexican because by Mexican they mean short brown and ugly.

Wow.

My friend Kristal, a Native New Yorker and fellow baile funk-o-phile shared a similar experience:

So many people have reacted in shock in finding out that I am Latina. I have always asked people why the surprise. The thing they usually cite is my light skin. Sometimes I am asked if I am Spanish or what kind of Latina am I. Where are your parents from? I answer Colombia and Puerto Rico. Aren’t people black there? I mentally shake my head, but then go on to explain that Latinos are come in all different shades. That like the U.S., there was immigration from many countries and of course slavery of Africans and indigenous peoples.

. . . Plus I cannot tell you how many times drugs have been mentioned to my mother and myself. We just have to educate that person. Acknowledge that, yes, drugs have been a part of the turbulent history Colombia, but the country has so much to offer in terms of music, dance, science and environment.

Clearly, despite the prevalence of stereotypes, my Latino friends are able to bounce back, to challenge an interjection of ignorance (or even an intentional acceptance of stereotypes) and respond in a way that educates their interrogator. While it’s rare that the public actually considers the work that people who counter stereotypes put out as anything but examples of exceptions to the rule, I find that many young people, especially by way of forms of cultural expression that are universal, are exploring how to bridge the gap between “international” and “domestic.” Nacotheque and Latino hipsters (“Lipsters”?) are discovering, one party and one outfit at a time, that as trivial as their form of revelry may seem to the outside viewer, there is more than what meets the eye. While “breaking a stereotype,” so to speak, is not something that is necessarily being done intentionally, especially considering that, as Claudia asserts, my friends and many others are simply “being themselves”, it is inevitable that as more and more people who lack familiarity with Latino culture are exposed to people like them, the image of “Latino/a” that it set by the media will begin to erode.

Not only does their mere existence challenge stereotypes that emerge from the “outside” (“Oh my, a Latino who likes ROCK?”), but also those that are rooted “within” the Latino community, internalized and accepted as a part of what being authentically Latino means. Fernando, Claudia, and Kristal all noted that some people within the Latino community questioned their identity or connection to Latinidad as a result of their being “different,” and at times, this question of authenticity came from members of their own families. Yet as my friends exist within what post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha would call the Third Space, a sense of culture in which a synthesis of two or more cultures is key, little attention is paid to old binaries that constitute what is “American” and what is not. Claudia made an incredibly insightful note on how her sense of identity has emerged as a result of a rapidly changing world:

. . . my generation. . . I think it is more of a globalization thing. . . [has] more choices than the ones [my parents] had back then. It is not only “American” influences that we get today, [but influences] from all over the world. I grew up in Mexico and that’s why most of my cultural influences are Mexican, but I have the possibility of traveling, of listening to music from all over the world, especially in a city as international as NY.

Globalization—the friend and foe of a post-modern existence. As it stares us in the face here in Claudia’s statement, it makes me wonder what is to come of the stereotypes that we know so well and cling to so tightly, partly in fear of losing ourselves.

But as Kristal reminded me, stereotypes have their place too:

Nacotheque is fun because they celebrate these stereotypes such as the telenovela. They play theme songs from them and everyone dances to them and sings [along]. . .

And that despite their prevalence, there is still room to be yourself:

I get complimented on the fact that people do not think I look Latina! As if it will help me succeed in life. I usually correct them and say that I am proud to be Latina and then mention that Latin American Studies was my major in college that I love to speak Spanish and travel to Latin America…I tend to go on and on..

I make/made a conscious choice to speak Spanish. When I was younger, I did not want to speak it. I was somewhat embarrassed until my late teens when it hit that I should . . . really embrace my culture and be proud of it.

So next time you think of all “hipsters” as mindless, misguided, generic people ruining a neighborhood or two, remember this. What you may see is a fashion statement, sure, but there are politics that go far beyond a party or two. The very act of being oneself is not a trend, and despite appearances, my friends and I don’t quite fit as neatly into the hipster mold as one may expect when they catch our vintage shoes or asymmetrical haircuts in a glance. I’m not acting as an apologist for the “bad” hipsters that are out there, but it’s worth noting that (prepare for a cheesy line in 5…4…3…2…1) just like snowflakes, no two are exactly alike :-)