Commentary: Miami ‘chonga’ culture as a tool of empowerment
University of Florida professor Jillian Hernandez is author of “Aesthetics of Excess: The Art and Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment.” (Courtesy of Crystal Pearl Molinary)
Growing up between my mother’s house in Miramar and my grandmother’s in Hialeah, I straddled two entirely different worlds. The order and austerity of my suburban neighborhood sat in stark contrast to the industrial wasteland that jostled with the chaotic hum of Caribbean influence. According to Jillian Hernandez, author of “Aesthetics of Excess: The Art and Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment” (Duke University Press Books; $27.95), the key to transitioning between these two worlds was dressing the part.
As the women who raised me always taught me: Makeup, heels and dresses were essential adornments for even the most rote errands. I was conditioned to be “presumida,” to take studious care in my image and appearance, and I took to the practice fondly, even as a little girl. I loved choosing my outfits, which I would often select in emulation of my favorite pop stars or film characters. As I grew up, my ideal shifted — and with it, I switched to bigger earrings and dark lipliner, and I smoothed my curly hair into a slick center part with hair clips, letting my ringlets spill out over them in an unruly mass.
As I transitioned into adulthood and a professional career as a cultural worker in the Miami art world, the colorful, oversized shirts I would excavate from thrift stores, paired with high-waisted shorts and a top exposing just a hint of midriff, would become a sort of calling card of my personal style.
Hernandez would declare the act of being “presumida” as one of rebellion in the face of white supremacy. It served as a means of obtaining legitimacy and acceptance from a culture that couldn’t have been more different from my own. But despite my best attempts, I moved through these worlds with apprehension — as my female classmates mocked me for being too “dressy,” as my male classmates created a fantasy out of my “Latinidad,” and as my personal style stood out in a sea of pristine black and white.
Within the messiness of my own personal history lies the heart of Hernandez’s empathic research into the politics of identity and aesthetics for Black and Brown girls. A culture of excess as a cloak for belonging “is why Celia Cruz wore spectacular gowns and wigs, why the late Chicana singer Selena bedazzled her bras with sequins and rhinestones,” and why the author’s Puerto Rican grandmother wore impeccable hair and makeup to work as a seamstress, just as my own Cuban grandmother did to cut hair in the garage of her North Miami home. Done in the spirit of assimilation, this culture of excess ironically only succeeded in othering and dividing us even further, as Hernandez’s rigorous study of body and identity politics uncovered.
“Aesthetics of Excess” is grounded on learnings obtained through Hernandez’s seminal program, Women on the Rise!, an outreach initiative that offered instructional art-making and praxis to young Black and Latina women in Miami. In the WOTR workshops, local female artists such as Hernandez, Anya Wallace and Crystal Pearl Molinary shared images by and of contemporary artists — including Ana Mendieta, Laura Di Lorenzo and Mimi Davila, Wangechi Mutu, Kara Walker, and Nicki Minaj — prompting discussion and active art-making like collaging and drawing, based on their reactions to the bodily aesthetics of these women’s images and works. She launched the program in partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), North Miami, in 2004. But as many of Miami’s longtime arts patrons know, MOCA’s board later decamped to the Design District, and the ownership of Women on the Rise! fell squarely within this dispute.
Hernandez threads this turmoil as a case study that proves much of what the book declares.
The book focuses predominantly on the “chonga” aesthetic, a look that is marked by hypersexualized clothing, bold jewelry and crinkled hair. If you’re a Black or Brown girl who grew up in Miami, chances are you went through a chonga phase. Based on consistently negative reactions from both WOTR participants and the public at large, and experiencing simultaneous appropriation and disapproval of the program by museum donors and workers, Hernandez examined why it continues to make people so uncomfortable.
According to her, the chonga aesthetic is simply the wrong kind of excess — it’s the kind of bodily appearance that doesn’t allow Latinos to assimilate into white culture and thereby raise their social status.
“I am struck by the continued negative responses to images of Latinas that embrace the aesthetic of excess,” says the University of Florida professor, during a phone interview. “I think that there’s still an investment among Latino people who aspire to success through association with whiteness to distance themselves from the aesthetics of excess.”
Noting that Black women viewed the chonga aesthetic as cultural appropriation, while white Latinas viewed it as trashy, Hernandez discusses how the Chonga persona is often viewed as an aggressor and is widely the subject of mockery and disdain. She breaks down the race barriers that exist between Latin, Afro-Latin and Black women as oppressive tools that keep us from uniting in a shared activism against white supremacy.
“Black girls view Latina girls as more privileged, which might seem surprising given the landscape of visual culture,” she says. “Even though we do have these representations of Black women that are very complex and affirming, Black girls and black women are still policed much more heavily than Latino girls.”
Building upon the lack of Latina representation in visual culture, Hernandez highlights how the contemporary art world is loath to exalt Latina perspectives and embodiments unless they’re created by the “right” kinds of artists — pointing to the staged “chonga cheerleaders” photographs of Luis Gispert, for example, and the more candid chonga imagery produced by Nikki S. Lee, both of which received wide acclaim.
She addresses how Davila and Di Lorenzo, who went viral with their video parody, “Chongalicious,” faced being pigeonholed into these personas. She additionally notes that she’s been unable to place an exhibition about chonga aesthetics at a single Miami exhibition space.
“It feels like such a part of the identity here in Miami, and the fact that it is kind of tossed aside and not considered a part of the history is really concerning,” she says. “But I think it just goes back to a lack of representation generally in the mainstream.”
Dissecting the politics of aesthetic excess is complex work. It requires Latina women to reckon with their oppression. But reading Hernandez’s work suggests that excess is ultimately a tool of empowerment, designed to make us more visible and break down barriers of class, gender and race.
As Hernandez notes, aesthetic excess can make class burn — we just have to be willing to dress the part.