The term “cholo” has become somewhat commonplace in the American lexicon. The well-known Mexican-American subculture and style has even sparked some controversy around non-Latino celebrities like Lana del Rey and Rihanna, who have appropriated chola style. There have been several movies made about cholo culture like “American Me” or “Blood In, Blood Out” that have become instant cult classics, but what does the term “cholo” really mean?

For many Latinos, the term “cholo” has a specific meaning. If you’re from the West Coast of the United States, it’s most likely to mean a style of dress, or a person with gang affiliation, usually of Mexican descent. But for Latinos from South America, the term has an entirely different usage and meaning. For Latinos from the Andes region, “cholo” is used to denote a person of Indigenous ancestry. These different terms have coexisted in the Latino community for a very long time and are often seen as homonyms, words that sound the same and are often spelled the same, but that have particular origins and meanings.

In this episode of Latino USA, we try to answer the question of whether these two terms are truly homonyms or if, in fact, they are the same.

We interview Michael Flores, a former gang member and cholo from Los Angeles. He shares his experience with being a cholo and how that led to his imprisonment, and eventually, his acting career.

And we hear from Marco Avilés, a journalist, and the acclaimed author of two books on Andean cholo culture called “De dónde venimos los cholos” and “No soy tu cholo.” He explains how growing up he used to run away from the term “cholo,” but now wears it like a badge of honor.

Illustration by Alex Charner. 


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5 thoughts on “I Am A Cholo

  1. you interviewed a former gang member now actor etc who identifies proudly as “cholo”…
    there is No pride in representing a violent gang banging scumbag…I don’t care what a
    ‘swell’ guy he is now… bottom line.. Gang culture is pure evil. You have no idea what sort of horrible impact your
    actor /producer whatever guest had on other peoples lives during his ‘gang days’. And I laughed out loud when he wondered why he was chosen for criminal type roles …stating he is not violent. Well he undoubtedly was violent for a considerable stretch of his life. Cholo is essentially
    ‘asshole’ or predator… you really need to quit normalizing your sickening culture of territorial dog like
    criminals. Kind of like your sickening Macho idealogy…talk about a vile personality trait, doesn’t get much more abhorrent than that.
    Your program is ridiculously racist by the way…. talk about a divisive non inclusive title for a radio program.
    How about doing a program focusing on the excessively violent impact and murder rate your “cholo”
    people have in cities like los angeles where they are numero uno at murder and the most destructive elements of any society including drug trafficking.
    You suck to the highest order you racist idiot.

  2. This is an interesting take on the word Cholo, but for those growing up in the Barrio mothers of sons who thought they were good boys always said ” stay away from them Cholos ” as if.
    Also the afroism in the Latino community is just to much emphasis, the other half ain’t saying Euroism to Spain if so we have lost our Identity we need another narritive labels besides Latinx or Latino I feel. We are neither .

  3. Hola Emilce,

    My name is Olga Rodriguez-Ulloa, an Assistant professor at Lafayette College. I really enjoyed your piece on cholos, connecting North and South. I wanted to tell you that I’m working on a book about cholas in the Andes and beyond, entitled Sadistic Cholas. Sex and Violence in Contemporary Peru. In the book, I argue there is a novel appropriation of the racial slur chola for trans-feminist collectives and individuals in Peru. I liked Marco’s remarks on Bolivian cholas, but I felt it was somewhat incomplete. There is an unprecedented political use of the word that represents a revindication that does not erase the term’s violence and, particularly its exploitative nature when referring to women. Since the colonial period cholas -as the counterpart of cholo (dog)- were perceived as “bitches,” “whores,” or “sluts,” ready to “betray” their race by sexual relations with white men. This made them target for all kinds of disciplining violence.

    Let me know if you want to talk more about this. I would love to! My phone number is 917-975-9930. I’m copying a link to a talk I did at IU on how the image of the chola intersects with the women subversives during Peru’s Internal War of the eighties.

  4. I’m of Bolivian and Chilean blood. My parents used “las cholitas” as an endearing term to address the indigenous women of the Andes. I believe my dad was 100% indigenous, while my mom was partly so due to her father being a Spaniard.
    It’s interesting to hear the name used in such a negative way – for some of the people of Mexico and Central America, but also South America.

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