As the marketing buzz controversy surrounding Lady Gaga’s new single grows, it should be pointed out that, as with arguably other aspects of her act, this is nothing new.
The lyrics in question in Gaga’s new single, “Born This Way,” center around an oddly-phrased call for self-empowerment:
Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Whether you’re broke or evergreen
You’re black, white, beige, Chola descent
You’re Lebanese, you’re Orient
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
‘Cause baby you were born this way
What sets Gaga’s use of the term apart, for now – there’s been no video released for “Born This Way,” though she will perform it at the Grammy Awards on Feb. 13 – is the direct use of the word Chola in the lyrics, as opposed to visual shorthand. And that’s where the controversy comes in: the word it’s derived from, Cholo, originated in the 16th century as a slur, similar to “mutt,” in both Perú and Mexico. But in the U.S., some would argue that they’re tied in with the Chicano identity and culture, following the lineage of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s.
While the examples she uses in the stanza are questionable at best – “Orient”? Really? And is “beige” supposed to stand in for mixed-race people? – the use of Chola, besides serving as an awkward short-hand for Latinas, might be an attempt to play on the image of the Chola as a street-smart, empowered woman And Gaga is far from alone in using this maneuver.
Perhaps no other American pop singer has used Chola imagery to her advantage more than Gwen Stefani. In the video for No Doubt’s first hit, “Just A Girl,” Stefani introduced herself to mainstream audiences in the tank top, Dickies and Old English lettering long associated with the culture. As a solo artist, she returned to a glammed-up version of the look in the videos for “Hollaback Girl” and her collaboration with Slim Thug, “Luxurious.” Jennifer Lopez used chola-like make-up, though not in a neighborhood setting, in her 2005 video for “Get Right.” Three years ago, Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, a Southern California native like Stefani, followed suit, donning the look for portions of the video for her duet with Ludacris, “Glamorous.”
YouTube has provided a bigger platform for the chola “look,” and in the case of the blogger known as Baby Smiley, opportunities for national television exposure, with “chola makeover” segments like this one involving Sandra Bullock on Lopez Tonight:
And then there’s the case of Chloe Michalopoulos, a Greek-American blogger who put up 55 videos as Ask A Chola, including this one on “Chola Culture,” and identified herself as “Soledad,” a Mexican, before her identity was exposed this past November:
(Speaking of Michalopoulos, on Monday, according to O.C. Weekly, she compared the revelation of her identity to the furor currently directed at the hosts of the BBC show Top Gear. Not exactly a sound move for someone who once rejected accusations she “mocked brown people.”)
There is a certain subversiveness in Baby Smiley getting to dismiss Bullock, who fits most “mainstream” definitions of beauty, as looking like “scrap metal,” even if it’s played for laughs. But for some, like the group Chicanos Unidos Arizona, the word chola carries a different meaning, as reported on Examiner.com:
Phoenix-based Chicanos Unidos Arizona spokesperson Cecilia Maldonado understands Lady Gaga’s intent, but thinks the terms “Chola” and “Orient” are harmful. “These are stereotypical terms. “Chola” is as derogatory as the “N” word when referring to a Hispanic female.”
Robert Cardenas of MEChA thinks Lady Gaga may help popularize the term. “Right now, Chola isn’t a widespread word. But after this song is released, it could be used against Latinas. This is very disappointing.”
Having grown up in Mexico, I can at least partially corroborate Maldonado’s statement: Cholo was very much used as a stand-in term for crook; my mother once freaked out when she saw me attempting to grow my hair long, having decided a ponytail was a first step of sorts into adopting the overall look – and from there, perhaps, worse behavior. It was blatant stereotyping on her part, of course, but it was there. And it won’t be long until we find out if that’s the vision Gaga chooses to present.
Top photo by Marco Patino