Cholo/a Culture in Streetwear

Hispanic Heritage Month: Honoring the Origins of Cholo/a Culture in Streetwear

Lylah Permanna

Cholo/a culture is synonymous with streetwear in a variety of stylistic and cultural forms for both men and women, such as layering with flannels, clean-cut Dickies, over-sized attire, Chuck Taylors, and low riders just to name a few. The Cholo influence is seen everywhere, from being the source of inspiration for fashion campaigns around the globe to sparking subcultures with a devoted following in Japan. We often do not appreciate that streetwear staples derive from a history of Latino resistance and unity in the City of Angels.

The World War II era marked a period in U.S. history in which the government heavily enforced assimilation and racism against non-white communities, and facilitated a criminalization campaign against working-class Latinos, many of whom lived in L.A. Fast forward to today, Cholo culture is a highly booming and creative space for Latinos in Streetwear but it was not always embraced by the world with open arms.

As early as the 1930’s, much of the Latino identity and street culture in L.A. stemmed from working class migrants, as well as resistance efforts against white-American favoring politics and street gang culture. In other words, Cholo culture bloomed from the systems of adversity and racism that sought to squash the Latino voice in the U.S. During this time, Latinos living in L.A. who resisted white-American norms in ideology and dress were called Pachucos. 

Tensions between white America and the Latino community became blatantly apparent during the Great Depression, in which the U.S. government actively coerced over a million Mexican Americans to leave the country, of which around 60% of them had legal citizenship. As a result, American politics adopted a culture of criminalizing Latino culture and anything associated with it, including their streetwear attire.

This criminalization heightened following the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, in which U.S. American sailors and officers openly and repeatedly attacked the Latino community in Los Angeles. The sailors targeted young Latino’s wearing Zoot Suits, a style of baggy formal suit wear that represented strength, independence, and defiance from the norm. At one point, Zoot Suits were banned by the City of Los Angeles as a means to target the Latino community and ration cloth for the war effort.              

Moving forward into the 1950-60’s, the Cholo identity formed from it’s parent culture of Pachucos (influenced by Black American jazz culture) continued to use fashion as a means of expressing Latino resistance and pride in L.A. and throughout the southwestern parts of the U.S. Latino creators expanded the use of baggy, affordable garment wear inspired by migrant farm workers and street-life, and expanded it to what today includes items such as bandanas, big-hoop earrings, gothic-style tattoos, thick eye-liner, and customized muscle cars. 

With their unconventional, edgy look that in many ways screams defiance and the independent “f*ck-off” attitude that Chola/os embodied, it is no wonder that Cholo culture has made significant waves to modern streetwear. What started as a subculture of Latinos in the City of Angels has immensely impacted the daily clothes and styles we wear around the globe. Cholo Culture fashion is so much more than a street aesthetic; it is symbolic of Latino/a creation and liberation.

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