Donning white eyeliner, big-hooped earrings and a red, white and blue beaded necklace with a pendant of a boy holding a Puerto Rican flag, 12-year-old Gisselle Bermudez walked through her Miami middle school feeling like she was the flyest thing around. That’s when another student, someone she didn’t even know, stopped her in the hallway and said, “you’re a chonga.” Gisselle paused, smiled and embraced what was hurled as a slur, walking away forcefully and unscathed in her Air Force 1s and Brazilian jeans.
While Gisselle has now traded in those colorful stretchy pants for form-fitting skirts and switched from white to black eyeliner, the 21-year-old Latina is still championing the chonga identity given to her as a girl, reinventing it as something that is empowering.
"It's the way I reclaim my womanhood and my Latinidad, said Gisselle. "It's forceful. I’m comfortable with making people uncomfortable. I'm not ashamed of my body or the way I look. I'm proud of my overall aesthetic. For me, it's embracing my colonized roots, my Caribbean flair and African grounds.”
Gisselle’s reclaiming of the chonga identity is reflective of a larger subculture of working-class, hyperfeminine, hypsersexual and hypervisual Latinas, particularly from Florida, who are adopting the slight and recreating it as something political.
According to Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez, an ethicist and theologian who studies Latina embodiment, bodies of resistance and chonga culture, the term "chonga" is Spanglish slang that, while different, shares some similarities with "chola." The latter, she says, is predominantly used to describe Mexican-American women in the West Coast, while chonga encompasses various poor and working-class Latinas in South Florida and Orlando.
She notes that both terms were also constructed within their respected Latino communities. “It was privileged, assimilated Latinas, wealthy Latinos, the light-skinned established Latinos, those of the third and fourth generations who label other Latinas as ‘chongas.’ They are saying, ‘these people aren’t good enough.’ They are rejecting them,” said Prisca.
Chonga connotes un-acceptance of Latinas who resist to fully assimilate into US culture. It categorizes them as problem-starters and, thus, opens them up for both “othering” and ridicule that, while originating in Latino communities, extends outwards.
During the last presidential election, for instance, Saturday Night Live introduced Mimi Morales, a get-out-the-vote worker from Florida. With her big-hooped, gold earrings, side slicked hair and an accent, which was actually more evocative of Latinas in New York than in the Sunshine State, Mimi’s incompetence drew in laughs as she offered vapid commentary on the presidential debate and warded off sexual touching from her “protective” Dominican boyfriend. Mimi, of course, was supposed to represent a Florida chonga.
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