The Nickelodeon Cinema, I Street, Chula Vista. Ten o’clock Friday night. "Hello,” I say to three Chicana girls as we come away from the ticket “Are you going to see Mi Vida Loca? They nod.
“Well, would you talk to me about the film afterward?” “Oh, sure,” the oldest one says.
We file into the theater and settle down in our seats, waiting for the start of the film about girl gangs in East L.A. The Chicanas I’ve met are Priscilla, Michelle, and Nadine. Priscilla, the oldest, explains that Michelle is her cousin and Nadine is her friend. They’re both 14. They’re not in a gang, they say.
Priscilla says, “We lived in Long Beach, and my brother was in a gang. I was only nine at the time, but he got shot at a party down the street from our house. We moved out only a week later. Well, we were getting ready to move because the gangs were getting so bad. I mean, we were shot at in our house and everything, so we moved to Tlicson. We had to get away from there.”
Mi Vida Loca, a three-part melodrama with a documentary edge, reflects the lives of young Latinas as they deal with the contradictions of machismo and the more independent ideas of American culture. Jealousy almost ends a lifelong friendship between Sad Girl and Mousie when each has a baby by 16-year-old Ernesto, a smooth-talking store clerk turned drug dealer.
Sad Girl’s sister tries to live the “normal” life of a college student until she falls for her prison pen pal and he stirs up neighborhood rivalries. Their friend Giggles is released from jail with some revolutionary ideas for her homegirls: computers are the key to the future, and sticking by your man isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In the end, Ernesto dies in a drug deal, and Sad Girl and Mousie are left to depend on each other.
There are tense scenes of girls being jumped ,into a gang, the initiates beaten up by their own members, and many other scenes of violence and conflict. The film ends brutally, when a child is killed in a gang retaliation.
Nadine, Michelle, and Priscilla are engrossed as the images flash across the screen, cultural symbols of tattoos, black makeup, rap music, James Brown oldies, lowriders, cursing, and urban slang. Occasionally, there are bursts of laughter from the girls, but for the most part they react with smirks and howls of recognition.
Once we are outside the theater, we sit down on a bench and watch the other filmgoers emerge from the dark. The girls seem willing to talk about their impression of the film, their boyfriends, brothers, styles, whatever.
Was the movie realistic? Did it portray the way it is for you now?
“Yeah,” Michelle answers, “it’s the same. It’s everything the way it happens in the streets. The talking, the language, the attitude, everything.”
Nadine answers with her laconic, one-word “Yah.”
It’s the first time the girls have seen the film?
“Yeah,” Michelle says. “They took it out of Tucson, because they said it wasn’t appropriate for the...that it was really bad because of the Bloods and the Crips. And they changed the name of the movie Blood In, Blood Out, too, because of the Bloods and the Crips.” Blood In, Blood Out is a film about the early years of the Southern California prison gang the Mexican Mafia.
So they think Mi Vida Loca is going to be provocative for gangs. Do you think so?
Michelle answers, “No, they already know everything.”
In the film there was a scene in which the gang girls give each other street names, which they tattoo onto their fingers. Do you have nicknames too?
Only Michelle answers. “It’s Giggles, like in the movie. I got that because when I was hanging out with a lot of people, I used to always laugh. Even when it wasn’t stupid or anything, you know, I would still laugh about it.”
Priscilla smiles at this and says, “I think it is, like, she is very quiet and to herself.”
In the film the girls had babies really early. Is that something you see?
Priscilla says yes.
Giggles adds, “Yes, some of them. Yeah, you’ll find that.”
But these are girls who tend not to go to college.
Giggles agrees, and both she and Nadine say they might want to go to college later.
So you try to avoid hanging with gangs? Giggles says, “We hang with a lot of them, but I don’t see myself getting pregnant from a guy, not like that.”
Giggles says when they hang with gangs, it’s just for fun, not violence. Their neighborhood is predominantly Chicano and is a close group, but they’re still sometimes bothered by the police.
“Yeah, they will bother you,” Giggles says. “Like, you could be sitting right there or you could be walking somewhere, and they will pull up and ask where you are going or what you are doing. Maybe if it is getting late in the night they will do that. But if it is early at night or noon, they won’t do it. They will just pass by.”
In the film, there was a black guy at one of the parties. Do the Chicano gangs mix with the black gangs?
“They are separate,” Nadine says. “Some of them come to parties if they come from the neighborhood.” And there was a mixture of black and Latino music in the film.
“Rap music and oldies and those kind of songs,” says Giggles.
Priscilla responds, “Yes, I think that’s the music that they listen to, the black music. But they don’t get along; where we live, the blacks j and Mexicans are against each other.”
In the film, there seemed to be more conflict between the men and women. Is it that way in your experience?
Giggles agrees, “Yeah, with some of them.”
Do the girls have a lot of boyfriends? Do they compete with each other for boyfriends?
This topic brings light to the two younger girls. Giggles flashes her trademark giggle and admits, “Yeah!”
So it didn’t seem unrealistic that the boy in this film had a baby by two girls who were good friends?
“Yeah, it happens.” She’s all smiles now, as she explains the world of the young Chicana, “It’s crazy.”
“You’re supposed to have an ugly best friend,” Priscilla says. “So she won’t take your man.”
Do you think Nadine would take your boyfriend?
Giggles glances over at Nadine. “No,” she says, laughing. “We are different. We like different kinds of guys.”
Do you have the same problems with gangs in school as in the film?
Giggles pauses for a second. “In high school it will probably be worse than in junior high,” she says, looking off across the parking lot into the darkness.
“Because, see, if they don’t like you, they go straight up and they hit you. There ain’t gonna be no words to it.”
No words to it? I hope for clarification of the imaginative phrase.
“No. That’s how it is.”
Who will hit you?
“Like, anybody!” Giggles exclaims.
Will some guys do that too?
She looks at me as if I believe that boys were some kind of saints. “They will hit a girl,” she declares, in case I had any doubt about it.
Will some of the girls carry guns too?
“I don’t know yet, because I am not there yet,” Giggles says.
What I think was very interesting in the film was the makeup and the way the women wore their hair. And I see you have your hair like that. (Both Nadine and Giggles wear their hair in bangs and hanging long in the back, shoulder length.) Where does the style come from?
“I don’t know,” Giggles says. “Just, everybody does it. When it goes on, it keeps on going.”
And what about the eyes? They have their eyes made up very dark.
“Yeah, with dark eyeliner.”
And they had their lips very dark, almost black. Is that very popular?
What is that lipstick called?
“Black Orchid,” Michelle says. “Or they get black eyeliner and just use that.”
In the film they were talking about different generations of women. Some of them would have their hair blond. Is that still popular too?
“Yes,” Giggles says.
Priscilla, the older one, speaks up, “When I was growing up, I was into that style too. I grew out of that once I got to high school, thank God.”
Giggles’s friends also like to dye their hair. “We use red a lot, and orange.”
And they wear the same kind of clothes as the girls in the movie. How would you describe the outfit you are wearing now?
“Sneakers, baggy pants, and bodysuit,” she says, “and a belt with your initials on it.”
But Nadine’s belt has a Don it.
“That’s for a guy I used to see,” she explains.
But you always wear your hair long? You and your friends don’t cut your hair short?
Giggles shakes her head definitely, “No.”
And they like to have the tight curly style, like yours?
“Yeah,” she says and laughs. “And they wear a lot of makeup to school. With black eyeliner. Real thick on the top and light on the top. And they make their lips dark.”
But your mother didn’t mess with that? Your aunts don’t do that?
“No, my stepbrother dresses like his friends,” she confesses. “He is a cholito. And some of my cousins do.” He wears the hair net, too, because he dresses like a cholo.
“The nets come from the cooks,” Giggles says, “who don’t want to get their hair in the food.” Giggles says she has no idea how it became a fad.
Giggles also wears a gold necklace with what she says is the cross of the Virgin Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Finally I ask the girls how they would have made Mi Vida Loca different, what they would have changed if they’d directed the film.
Priscilla goes for this one. “The guys and girls are more together now. They work together. They party together. They do everything more together. The girls hang out with the guys. But in the film they showed them separate all the time, and now it’s like they are all together in the streets.”
Giggles doesn’t know why the film would have shown them that way. Priscilla speculates, “Those were from older days, maybe? The older generation?”
Before we leave, I ask to take their picture. They agree. I have to wait while they get ready and put on more lipstick. When I raise the camera to snap the picture, I see them throwing gang signs.
Saturday morning. Barrio Logan. Walking up Logan Avenue I see a sign, Reina’s Hair Salon, and step inside. “Hello,” I say to a young Hispanic woman who is standing beside a lady whose hair is being washed.
“Hello,” she says.
“I’m talking to women about the film Mi Vida Loca and about their lives. Have you seen the movie?”
“Not yet,” she says, giving me a look, “but my son has a copy of it.”
“But it just came out.”
“His friends from L.A. have a copy on video.”
Reina is a cosmetologist, and in her opinion the black lipstick on the young Latinas like the ones in the movie is just a fad. Long hair and copetes and black lips and dramatic eyeliner are just the girls’ way of saying, “Look, I am here!” Copetes are the high, fluffy bangs popular with Latinas. Originally the word referred to any kind of ornamental tuft or crest, like feathers on a military officer’s helmet.
Reina believes Mexican films and Madonna are the true sources of the hair and makeup fads. “You know,” she says, “the movie stars, they always, they are, like, the ones that started with this heavy makeup. Like Madonna? Heavy lipstick. Sometime they’ll go back to red lips. Now we’re going to black lips.” But do you find that the Chicanas like to look like the American girls or Spanish girls, Mexican girls, or...?
“Mixture,” she says. “Both cultures or both traditions, like, the Mexican tradition for the long hair. And makeup. Both Mexicans and Chicanas usually wear a lot of makeup without blushes. We always wear makeup. Part of the Spanish tradition. We spend a lot of money on makeup in Mexico. But now with this very dark makeup, even more. Cover Girl, Max Factor, Revlon, these are the American products in Mexico.” Reina travels to Chicago, Spain, and New York to give lectures on hair and makeup. “Like, when I came to San Diego 12 years ago," she says, “it was real hard for me to convince the people, Mexican women, to just give me the opportunity to cut their hair once.” There is a world of difference between the way hair is done in Mexico and the way it is done in America.
“The problem is mainly the water,” Reina say's. “The water’s real hard. Has a lot of minerals in it. Ruins the hair, and then it’s the chemicals. They don’t know how to apply the products. They know how to cut hair, but nobody teaches them sanitation, chemistry, the mixing, the timing. They use the same products as we use up here, but the result is different. They don’t use enough water for rinsing, and they leave parts of the chemicals still in the hair. And the chemicals burn the hair, and it falls out. Or the color is not even, or the curl is not even.
“I tell my clients, Tm not going to do your hair if you keep going to TJ to get it done.’ ” She looks at me. “Because, you see, they expect me to do miracles.”
Reina goes to check on progress with a customer. An attractive Mexican woman with short hair is also watching the customer, whose hair is being washed by an assistant.
“They go to Tijuana,” Reina laments, “because they can get their hair done cheaper.”
She leans down close to the customer. “How much do you pay over there?” Reina asks the woman.
“And you pay how much here? Sixty dollars. You learned your lesson?”
Why do some women choose to cut their hair short, when long hair seems so popular with others?
“Well, it’s more practical. Some people may think that women have to have long hair in order to look feminine, but it’s not true. You can still look feminine with short hair.”
Her husband, for example, who is from South America, she mentions, not Mexico, loves her short hair. “But the Mexican culture is still into long hair. That’s why all the teenagers, they have long hair, because the father doesn’t like, or mother, to cut their hair. When they grow up, after 18, they cut their hair.”
So it’s a kind of independence.
“Independence, yes. Because I think they are tired of the experience from the macho. They want their freedom, their independence, to be able to do whatever they want.”
So machismo is a big problem for Chicanas? But once they’ve been here for a while, they become more and more independent?
“More and more independent, yes,” she says. “Nobody likes machismo.”
Then how does it keep going?
“Some Mexican men are still machos,” she says, “but they are about 30, 35.” Young boys like her son Pedro, who’s 16, are not machos. Her son, she says, is very “liberal.” As most sons are influenced by their fathers, her son is influenced by his father. Rut Pedro’s father is not from Mexico, she reminds me.
Although Mexican girls have more freedom in America — they don’t have to have babies and depend on men — still Reina believes that the young Chicanas have a difficult time surviving in American society.
“I think that it’s a very big problem for them, you know, to survive in this society with all those, um. how do you call them? All the contradictions they have. Because sometimes they have the American way, and they have the Mexican way. Sometimes they’re caught in the middle.” And the Catholic Church, she believes, doesn’t have the influence to solve the problems any longer.
Her son has four passports, from Mexico, South America, Panama, and the United States. Reina tells her son to take advantage of “the good things" of the United States. “But machismo is not a tradition of America but of the Mexican culture.
“Sons follow the father. The way the father treats the mother, the brother treats his sisters,” Reina states. “The brother controls the system. The way that the father treats the mother, then he treats the sister, and then he treats the same way his girlfriend and his wife. The brother is trained to protect the women in the family. He takes over the father role. He protects the honor of the family.
“When the boyfriend wants to, you know, go with the sister, sometimes he has to go and ask for permission to the brother, evert if they still have the father alive. The brother takes control of the family. That’s why they have a lot of respect at home, and they honor him a lot. He has to respond, you know, be like the macho, the man of the house. That’s why he is a macho. That comes from the home.
“To me, a macho is the one who goes and drinks and comes back drunk, and you say, ‘Where have you been?’ 'Who cares? I’m the macho of this house,’ you know?”
Was there a time when it did help the family?
“Macho? It never did anything for the family.” The American system helped changed the Mexican family. The women have more independence, Reina believes. “They go to school. They are able to care for themselves, working. If they get married, they can have children. Before when the man was macho, they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t go to school. They had to stay home.”
I ask Reina if she has problems with gangs here.
“Not as much anymore. Here I don’t have metal bars on windows. I don’t need a lot of security.”
What changed it? “What made it stop? They raised the rents here, for business and apartments. You can’t find a one-bedroom apartment here for less than $375. It used to be real cheap here — $75, $ 100. And then they no longer rent them to Mexican nationals. Sometimes I leave my car open and nothing happens. Twelve years ago when I first moved here, it was terrible. Now, almost everybody who lives in this area owns their own property.” If I want to see the real Mexican culture, Reina tells me, I have to go and hear the banda music. “It’s like the lambada,” she says with a laugh, “but a cowboy lambada. They dance like they are riding a horse. We can take you. Let’s see. Tony, can you come with us?”
Tony, who is working with a customer, says he can.
“Yeah, let’s go! Let’s go tonight.”
“Wait until dark.” “Yes, let’s go. That’ll be fun!”
“It’s in National City. La Mision is in National City. It’s just for teenagers. They don’t bring adults. They dance all night long, until 2:00 in the morning," says Reina. “Here’s how it’s done!” says Tony, as he leads his customer out of her chair, and they begin dancing. With her hair still in curlers, she yells and laughs and has the time of her life.
“Oh, that’s fabulous! All right! All right!”
“We’ll meet here about 9:00,” Reina says.
Music, picture-taking, screaming, laughing as I learn the dance.
It’s 9:00 p.m. (15 after), and I’m waiting for Reina in front of her shop. I notice that there are not many people about. Next to the salon, a man wearing a cowboy hat stands behind his gate. He looks as if he has been standing there for hours, watching. Across the street, the only light on the entire block is from a storefront church. I can see the Mexican preacher holding up his Bible with one hand and bringing down his other hand in a gesture of declamation.
I walk over and introduce myself to the man behind the gate. He eases up to me in a crisp American accent and tells me he can’t speak English.
But if I am looking for Reina, she just left a few minutes ago. I thank him and go across the street and peep into the church. These 30 or so worshipers, scrubbed and dressed in their best white clothes for the occasion, listen contentedly, devoutly. This is a mission, but it is certainly not Catholic.
I go back to the shop, but still no Reina. An older man comes by and I ask for her. Does she live in the back? He tells me yes, and I go to the back of the store, climb a set of steps to the apartment door. Through the glass I can see a well-kept, super-clean living room. A gray-haired woman opens the door and smiles toothlessly.
She doesn’t speak English, she says in Spanish. What I make out is that Reina will be back soon. It’s nice to see you, come again, as I thank her and leave.
I leave Reina a note and take off. I’ll find the clubs myself. The first one is near the last exit before Mexico and across some railroad tracks.
The neon sign — Mi Cabana La Mision Nite Club, Live Mariachi Band — lights up the velvet black night like a distant star. Pickup trucks fill the parking lot. A big group plays banda music. Fast tempo. I hear what sound like tubas. The crowd is in the 25 to 45 age group — women in short skirts or tight pants, men in cowboy outfits, hats, boots, shiny belt buckles. A young Chicana is the manager. As we go inside, I’m searched by a guy who could double as a highway patrolman.
From my seat, I can see the Techno Banda band performing, 12 young musicians. To my left, a string of waitresses dressed in black pantyhose, hot pants or tight bicycle shorts and cowboy boots take turns busting empty bottles in a barrel before picking up their next orders of Mexican beer.
The dancers gallop together, skin tight, with legs intertwined. Women kick heels back in a Charleston style, men bend the women back, as in a tango. During the break, the mariachi band of six old men serenades the tables, while the young musicians go into the parking lot to smoke cigarettes.
I follow them outside and ask about the club. The customers are older Mexican nationals. If I want to see a different kind of Mexican music, I should go to La Ponderosa, where they play techno.
Looking for the Ponderosa, I ask directions from a Chicano couple at a fast-food store. They tell me I am within a block of the club, and they look surprised that I am going there. But then they say, “Right on.”
The parking lot is full, and as I cruise through it, I see a knot of homeboys sitting in their cars with the doors popped open, letting the music flow out. I park and approach the entrance. A bouncer, wide and unsmiling, greets me. I explain that I would like to talk with the owner. He tells me to wait and then disappears inside. A few minutes later, he returns with a young, attractive Mexican woman.
Once again I'm searched by a man at the door, then the manager asks me to follow her. The ticket-taker simply greets me as I pass.
There are two large lounging areas on my right. In one of these rooms is a bar where only non-alcoholic beverages are sold.
The manager, Jovita, tells me that her brothers started this club to give young Mexicans who are in the streets a chance to enjoy themselves. She praises her brothers for everything.
Meanwhile, she gives me a tour of the place. The main room is filled with about 200 dancing young people. The music is techno. I glimpse the DJ on-stage, standing behind an electric keyboard, singing into an attached microphone, dancing to his own music. He manages to capture the musical impression of a large band by programming a drum machine as playback for his one-man show.
At the Ponderosa, youths dance apart from each other. The music is fast, and upbeat, almost corny.
I dance with a young woman to see if I can do the steps. She laughs at my attempt to dance the quebrita. At one side of the dance floor, a couple of guys watch me for a moment and then they too laugh. When the number finally ends, I thank my partner, and as I pass the Mexican guys, they congratulate me.
At the bar I meet Jovita’s nephew, who is the bartender. He seems older than she is. How can it be that he is older?
His grandmother had 15 children. His father was 20 years older than his father’s sister, Jovita. His grandmother, he tells me, is around here somewhere.
“She is running the show,” he says. “My mother is over there. My uncle — he looks just like Cheech, of Cheech and Chong — is somewhere over there." When his uncle comes out, the bartender introduces us, and it is true, he looks like Cheech Marin.
So this is a family-run business?
“Yes,” the uncle says. “Actually they are the owners of several places.”
You’re here just for the summer?
“Yeah. I go to Penn State. I will be a sophomore in the fall. I’m trying to major in mechanical engineering, but I might change.” When he arrived here for school break, he tells me, there were more than 430 people packed into this place. “In both Mexico City and here this music is popular.”
I ask one young, attractive waitress, Elizabeth, if she had a moment to talk to me about Mi Vida Loca and about her opinions of it. Glancing at her watch, she says okay. We find an empty booth, and a few of the men inch closer to hear what we are talking about.
In the movie, the girls had a lot of conflict with the boys and their macho image. What do you think about that image?
Elizabeth laughs. “I don’t like it.” She flicks back her pretty black hair. “Even if guys look really good. But if he has a macho image, I don’t like it. I don’t like to be pressured. I like to be independent and take care of myself. I like guys in general, but not the macho-type guy.”
Do you have brothers?
Are they protective of you?
“Yeah,” she says, “they advise me, but they are not macho types.”
Do they check out your boyfriends?
“They checked out the guy I married and said he was a macho-type guy,” she recalls, “but I didn’t listen to them and married him anyway.” Did that marriage work out?
She shakes her head and laughs. “It doesn’t exist anymore. It lasted for two years and three months.”
Elizabeth looks anxiously at her customers. I thank her for her time and watch as she disappears into the crowd of shuffling bodies.
Jovita returns and sits in the seat Elizabeth has just vacated. I’m interested in the gold charms that hang on chains around her neck.
“I wear everything that is supposed to give you good luck. Right now this is in style, but it’s also supposed to give good luck. This one here is my name. Most Hispanic or Mexican people, they always have their name on a plate to let people know who they are. Some wear them very big. My mom gave me this one.”
I wonder if Jovita, like the girls in the movie, sees a lot of problems between girls and guys, with macho men.
“Yes, around here I have seen it a lot. Guys, sometimes they get mad with girls because sometimes they don’t want to dance with them. I mean, the girls pay their own money to come in,” she says. “It’s none of his business if she doesn’t want to dance. I mean, she pays to get in, she can do whatever she wants. Yeah, a lot of macho guys want to dance with me and stuff like that.”
And in the movie, the brothers are very protective of their sisters. Does Jovita have that in her family too?
“Yeah, that’s true. I have seen Americans, you know, their families, African-Americans, Filipinos, and all kinds of people, and I think that Mexicans and Latin families are more close than what I have seen in any other cultures. I think it is more of a respect they have.”
But that’s not macho?
What does Jovita define as macho?
“Macho is that — whatever they want to have, they want it now, whenever they feel like it. And they will hit somebody or curse somebody to get something. That’s what they use. That’s what I call macho.”
But, Jovita agrees, there’s a difference between that kind of behavior and the behavior of a brother who cares about his sister and cares about who she goes out with.
“I have two brothers,” Jovita says. “They protect me so much. We have this thing — we like to have people read our hands and read the cards for us, and we kind of have a belief in that. And this lady read my hand and she told me I have a protection, that my brothers protect me too much. And I think it’s true, because people don’t come too close to me that much. Because of my brothers. They are afraid or something. But my brothers are not macho types. What they do is just protect me, that’s all.
“They won’t let me have a boyfriend. I do have one, though. But they don’t know. Well, one of them knows.” Sometimes Jovita has to keep things secret.
And her father?
“Yes, he protects me, but my mother protects me even more. My mother is like, ‘Oh, I don’t want you to go out because of this or that.’ My mother is kind of scared, maybe because when she was 15 she already had two kids.”
As we speak, her mother passes by us, carrying a stack of dishes.
“Well, it was 10 of us,” Jovita says. “It would have been 15 of us, but 5 of them died. I am the youngest. My mom was 42 when she had me. She was afraid I was going to be born with Down syndrome or that she was going to die.” Jovita believes these are the reasons why her mother is so protective.
Will Jovita have a big family?
“No, not really. I don’t think I can handle that. My mother had a lot of problems.”
But Jovita says she gets along pretty well with her overprotective brothers. “Like, right now, in the business, they listen to what I say, like, ‘Let’s do that because it will be better for us.’ They listen to everything I say.” She thinks about that for a moment. “I really like that.”
At 18, Jovita is in her last year of high school. She’ll carry on with the family business after graduation. “I am going to study some accounting and how to run a business and stuff like that, even though that’s not what I really like, but....
“I like singing. I used to dance in a group. Right now there is this guy who’s going to help me, ’cause I like to sing and I like to do modeling, even though I am fat. I like it. I like everything that has to do with entertainment. My nephew too likes to play guitar and everything, and he and his friend are really good at it. They want to make a band and everything. When you really like something, you do it with love. You put everything into it.
“Our whole family, we like to work together. That’s why I am saying we are very close, we help each other a lot.”-
Jovita doesn’t go to clubs that serve alcohol, even if her family owns them. In the Pon-derosa, there is no alcohol sold. All that is being served at the bar are juices, Coke, and coffee.
Are there any gang members here tonight?
“You would be surprised,” she says. “There are usually a lot of gang members here, but you won’t notice it because they come to have a good time, they are not looking for trouble. They don’t want to fight or nothing like that. We feel good about that, because we see them right here, and the next morning we see them dressed different, with their cholo dress and baggy clothes. They don’t come here dressed like that, because if they do, the girls won’t dance with them. Gang girls come here too, but they don’t dress like that either. ’Cause they won’t get to dance.
“When they come here, the girls dress with shorts, and tight skirts, and long boots.”
She Jooks around the club. “I don’t see any right now, but I know a lot of them come here. They will probably be at Contrero’s.”
Does the club play rap music sometimes? “Sometimes, yeah. They put on techno sometimes and change it. That’s how you can tell who the gang members are, ’cause gang members dance to anything. Those who are not gang members will come and say, ‘Take that off Play Mexican music!’ But if you play techno, rap, anything, the gang members keep dancing. They like both things.”
Sunday morning, 11:00. I call Reina and discover that she didn’t return from Tijuana to meet me last night because her car was stolen down there. “And I didn’t have any insurance in TJ,” she laments. I express my condolences for her bad luck.
As I hang up the phone, I remember an appointment in Logan Heights with Graciela and her daughters. I arrive at Graciela’s beauty parlor and find the three of them there. Brenda, the oldest, is 18. Vanessa is 14. They’ve both seen Mi Vida Loca and thought it was realistic.
“It was a good movie,” Brenda says, “for showing what people in gangs do. It showed what people can learn from gangs, what things are bad, and what things happen that can hurt people. Just the violence and everything.”
Can you describe the cholos and cholas, their activities in your neighborhood?
Overlapping each other, Brenda and Vanessa describe them hanging out in Chicano Park or at friends’ houses or at the Burger King, or they cruise down Highland on Sunday nights. There are a lot of cholos standing around on both sides of the street, “starting trouble” or just “kicking back.” If a guy from one gang hits on a girl from another gang, her gang “will probably be mad or something," Vanessa tells me. “They will tell her to stick with her gang.”
The women wear religious medals, and I ask how important the Catholic religion is to them. The girls give each other a look.
“Well, I’m Christian. I’m not Catholic," Brenda says, but when I ask her for a denomination, she says only that “it’s just Christian. We pretty much just follow everything in the Bible and stuff, but right now I’m not really going to church and stuff like that.”
Brenda begins to translate our conversation into Spanish for her mother.
Vanessa is a Christian too. “They take me to church on Sunday and take me, like, every Thursday to a get-together and read the Bible.” She doesn’t go to church every Sunday but every other Sunday, because she lives with an older sister who does not like church. (There are five sisters in the family, and one brother who had recently died.)
“We were, you know, born Catholic,” Brenda says. “We were baptized when we were little as Catholics, but, you know, as we got older, we got into seeing other things, you know? And we decided to become Christians.” When they came to a Christian church, they discovered the members were warmer and friendlier to them than the Catholic members.
Is virginity important?
Brenda looks over at her sister and asks, “Is what?” The question throws them.
“Um...it is,” Brenda says, squirming a bit.
Vanessa repeats the answer. “It is. Yeah, it is.”
Did your mother teach you that? To wait until you’re married?
“Right,” they say together. “Uh-huh.” Do boys usually respect you too, that you want to wait?
“Yeah. They do," Brenda sighs, relieved that the virginity question has passed. “I mean, there might be guys who’ll try to pressure you, but if you stand with what you believe in, your morals, you’ll be okay.”
So what did your mother tell you about men?
Brenda laughs. “About men? Well, you know, that you have to look at what kind of person the guy is, what kind of family he comes from. She didn’t want us to go out with men when we were too young. She made us wait till we were, like, 17 and stuff like that. But, I mean, I have a boyfriend now. She likes him.”
And what about macho guys?
“I don’t like machos,” Brenda begins. “I don’t like that, because I feel they should not have to portray this ‘big guy.’ They should be who they are.”
Vanessa explains that the machos have to prove that they are real men by risking their lives for membership and status in the gang. “They’re down to their gang,” she says, “because the gang leaders will tell them to do this or that to be down for their gang. They’re taking their life in their hands. They take risks.”
Growing up, both girls have seen what they consider macho men. Their older brother was very protective of them, they say. If a guy called to their house, their brother would want to know who he was and why he was calling his sisters.
“He wouldn’t like it, you know, if he saw us talking to a guy,” Brenda recalls. “He’d say, ‘Who’s that? Don’t be out there talking to them.’ ”
Even when the older girls went out on a date, he would check out the boyfriend. Brenda didn’t mind her brother doing that; in fact, she liked it because it showed that he cared about how they were doing. But since she was only 13 at the time, most of his concern was with her two older sisters.
Her brother and father were born in Mexico, and this may have had some effect on their being so macho, but Brenda’s not sure. She was born in Guadalajara, too, but she was brought up here in San Diego. Their mother wanted them all to be born in Mexico, and only Vanessa was born here. “It was an accident that she was born here," Brenda says with a laugh.
I ask Brenda to ask her mother, a cosmetologist, to talk some about hair and makeup styles that are popular.
In Mexico, she says, the style is “red lipstick, pink, orange, and, like, burgundy-ish,” but the eyeliner is a “fine line, not so heavy” as with the young girls in the United States. And they wear blush, not the pale skin, and have “more natural eyebrows," not so much makeup.
Have the styles changed since she grew up? When she grew up in Mexico, was it changing?
Through Brenda’s translation, Graciela says yes, the fashion’s always changing, so everybody tries to stay in style. Some of the styles are influenced by Mexican television, but many Mexicans get their styles from American television. People usually look at the United States.
Graciela wears her hair cut very close, short. Did she ever wear her hair long?
Remembering when she was single and younger, she smiles and says, “When you get married, have five daughters, you cut your hair short.”
Graciela says a lot of cholitas come to her shop for styling. They want a lot of copetes, bangs. “The cholas, the homegirls, they like the feathered-style hair, and they like it high or teased. And a lot of perm.”
Graciela leaves to attend to a customer, but Brenda and Vanessa continue talking about today’s styles.
“The baggy pants right now are in,” Brenda says, glancing over at her sister. “I mean, even — I mean, ravers wear that now. Cholos have always worn that, you know, but ravers, taggers dress like that now. Ravers are, urn...” Brenda begins, but her sister fidgets and stops her. “Go ahead, Ronnie, you..." Brenda turns to me and explains, “She’s a raver,” pointing to her younger sister.
Vanessa looks shyly at me. “I’m a raver,” she says. “Ravers dance, they make up any dance,” she says, “and just do it crazy, you know?"
Both Brenda and Vanessa have been part of girl gangs. When she was in high school, Brenda and her friends formed a party crew called Philosophy, which consisted of about ten girls. Their activities included going to the park and talking, having meetings about what they were going to do. Innocent stuff, according to Brenda.
Vanessa explains how you go about starting a party crew. First, you have to have a name, a membership of any number from 5 to 30, a street name for each member, and a symbol such as a hat or shirt. You have to “throw a party or do something so that people will know who you are.”
“Some crews make fliers, you know, pass fliers out,” adds Brenda.
Vanessa says she became a raver when her friends in the gang voted her in. “They want me to be in,” she says. “There’re about 14 girls.” Vanessa adds that she couldn’t be with her gang much because she lives with her older sister, who is strict on her because she is only 14. When she does get out, though, Vanessa likes to go to clubs like the Retro on College and the Bronco on University and J.J. Hot Rod Club and to private houses. But some of the clubs are only for people over 21.
What do you have to represent your crew?
“You wear a hat with the name on it. You all go out together to parties or things like that. You have car washes to raise money to buy hats and stuff.” The members wear their hats and shirts “just to show, like, who you’re from.” Sometimes they spray-paint the party crew name on the back of a shirt or jacket. She brags about her own burgundy-and-white hat, which. unfortunately, she didn’t have with her. They have a president, treasurer, and elected officers, she tells me, better than the gang organization in Mi Vida Loca.
Vanessa explains, “I wanted to be a raver, well, like, I just want to, because I know how to rave and everything, so I just thought I would be in it.” She says she understands their “mentality.”
She tells me that there is a male group, which her girl party crew is a part of. Sometimes they organize a meeting with another crew, a guy crew, or a girl crew. They never meet with the guy crew for dating.
Do you have a nickname?
“Yes,” says the 14-year-old, ‘Reminisce.’ It’s like memory,” she says, “because I like to reminisce. I picked it myself because, you know, that’s what I hope we do — reminisce.”
Brenda is “Sweets.” She says, “You pick something that fits your personality.”
Although party crews are not hard-core gangs, the girls explain to me, they can quickly become as dangerous. “Before three years ago,” Brenda says, “the party crews seemed nice. I liked the idea because, you know, it was a whole bunch of people getting togwiher and going out, having a good time, dancing. But it’s, like, after a while you have to watch yourself because, you know, the crews can become dangerous.” They were at a crew party not long ago when somebody got into an argument over a shirt. Somebody started firing, and one guy was killed and another wounded.
“Now there is a lot of violence,” Vanessa says, “because everybody comes strapped. And a lot of people — every guy has a gun, or you could get a gun, you know?”
Do girls in the gangs compete over boys?
Vanessa says definitely no.
What would start a fight or a disagreement between the crews?
“It’s just the thing — I don’t know. Just, like, someone gives somebody a bad look. So that person tells the crew, and that crew dislikes the other crew. Now they want to fight each other, you know?
So why is there more tension between party crews now?
“I don’t know,” Vanessa says. “Maybe competition.”
“Yeah, competition, jealousy,” Brenda agrees.
What are the disadvantages of joining a crew?
“When a crew gets a bad name,” Brenda says, “if a couple people do something wrong, that means everybody’s going to not like the whole crew. You know? It’s, like, problems at school.” I tell them what Jovita said last night in the Ponderosa, how when the cholos come to the club, they don’t wear baggys because they don’t want people to know that they are bangers.
“Because, you know, sometimes,” Brenda says, “sometimes they think they’re all macho and everything, but they try to hide it, you know, so they won’t...so nothing’ll happen. Nobody’ll hit them up, like, ask where you’re from or something. You know? Like, right now you can’t tell who are ravers and who are cholos, because ravers right now look like cholos too. They dress alike and everything. It’s like, all the ravers and taggers, some of them dress like cholos now.”
About taggers, Vanessa laughs and says, “They’re, like — they spray-paint on the freeway and everything. They’re crazy because they’ll, like, hang off the freeway to write, and someone will be holding their legs, so they’re pretty much putting their life in their hands.”
Brenda regrets taggers’ graffiti, because they could channel it into another kind of art, like murals. “Like in Southeast there’s, like, really nice pictures on the east side,” she says. “They’re spray-painted and they’re really nice.
“But tagging, it’s very dangerous because the police look for them now,” Brenda says. “It’s against the law now.”
Reina’s son Pedro was a tagger, but now he works with the police to help them stop tagging. “He was on TV," Reina had told me proudly. “He was talking with those guys who were trying to help. He takes groups of taggers and shows them how to paint parks and paint murals instead of graffiti and tagging. And he’s in charge of it. He gets paid by the police department. He’s very excited about it. They do decorations on stained-glass windows too.”
Even though there are taggers in their neighborhoods and the cholos are still around, it is the ravers that are the rage now. Ravers are becoming so big that Brenda thinks that the cholos are old news. They’re too macho, she says. “To tell you the truth, it’s moving to the side.” Vanessa nods in agreement. “The cholos have moved to the side. They should have made Mi Vida Loca two years ago, because that was when the cholos were more popular.”