The Challenges of 'Cha Cha': What is Latina Beauty?
Allure magazine, US
Cynthia Rose
What do the words "Latina beauty" mean? Just like the words Latinas choose to describe themselves - "Latina", "Chicana", "Mejicana", "Norteña", "Hispana", "Mexican-American", "Tejana", "Nuevo-Mejicana" and "Indo-Hispana" are only a handful - concepts of Latina beauty involve a range of cultures, with very different opinions.

But women whose roots come from south of the US border agree on one thing: to mainstream "America", their beauty beliefs are invisible. US Latinas are frequently told that they enjoy a rising profile, that advertisers are working to reach them and companies are keen for their skills. Yet, when a Latina looks at television or flips through magazines, how she sees this progress represented may not look familiar. "Public" Latinas are those who most closely fit mainstream ideals: they have light skin, anglicized features and tall, svelte figures.

Latinos make up a booming 9% of the USA's population; their tastes are visible on the street and in the shopping mall. But real appreciation of Latina beauty and style exists in a parallel universe. This semi-underground involves families, churches, community organizations, and the Spanish-language media. English-language niche publishing does try to target Latinas. But its fashion and beauty stress assimilation, demonstrating the powerful hold anglo image maintains over advertising and media.

When it comes to official fashion, from Vogue to store windows, Latina style's only gain has been a fetish for Frida Kahlo. Despite Frida's posthumous fame (everywhere from earrings to Madonna's parlor), movies offer the major crossover point for Latina looks. Stars like Rosie Perez ("Night On Earth", "White Men Can't Jump", "Do The Right Things"), Sonia Braga ("Kiss of the Spider Woman", "The Milagro Beanfield War"), Maria Conchita Alonso ("Colors", "Moscow on the Hudson"), Elizabeth Peña ("Blue Steel", "Down & Out in Beverly Hills", "La Bamba") and Elpidia Carillo ("Salvador", "El Norte") have become popular and widely recognised. Yet they suffer a special kind of frustration: Hollywood was there ahead of them, seven decades ago.

Take the sassy, streetwise persona of Rosie Perez. Her tough cookie act fits a whole tradition of "fiery comic Latinas": one shaped by actresses like Carmen Miranda and Lupe Velez. (During her 1940s reign, Velez got top billing as "The Mexican Spitfire"). Between the '20s and '40s, Hollywood presented Latina "glamour" as the flip side to such spicy clownishness. "Spanish" beauty was pale and patrician, epitomized in the dark, dreamy elegance of women like Raquel Torres, Dolores del Río and Maria Montez.

Those charismatic stars remain Latina heroines. (Other actresses, from Rita Hayworth to Raquel Welch, buried their ethnicity by altering their names.) But, once allowed into Hollywood, even the pioneers endorsed its beauty fantasies and taboos. Those who refused, like Maria Felíx, had to take their chances outside the US system. Hollywood's Latina stars rarely played real women from their own cultures - instead, they were Dark Others, pan-American temptresses. Their "exotic" looks were also seen as interchangeable; Latinas played Native Americans, Asians, Arabians, Polynesians.

Movies entrenched their stereotypes of Latina beauty in heartland America. Women from the South or from Spain were seen as icy Castilian beauties, feisty "hot tamales", golden-hearted whores and radiant-if-tearful sufridas (sufferers). These caricatures still resonate today. But, says the actress Elpidia Carillo, preconceptions are just one problem. Equally daunting is the way beauty is "owned" by anglos.

Born in Michoacan, Mexico, Carillo has been appearing in films since she was 17. When the film "Salvador" brought her to Hollywood, she faced demands which had to do with appearance, rather than acting or accent. "Right away, everyone started saying I must work out, I needed to lose weight, I really should have plastic surgery. Everyone wants a skinny blonde just like Michelle Pfeiffer!"

Carillo now works steadily in both films and television. But, often, even her lithe frame and expressive face are rejected as "too ethnic". No one wants to admit, she notes, "that Mexican women should have round faces."

Along with those round faces come other Latina characteristics: dark skin, strong noses and short, curvaceous bodies. Mainstream arbiters view all of these as "beauty problems". Yet they are also embodiments of an Amerindian heritage - traits which link us to some of our hemisphere's most ancient philosophies. For instance, in mesoAmerica, two things we view separately were regarded as indivisible: rostro y corazón (literally, "face and heart"). The Aztec sages taught that humans entered this world "without a face". Only learning, plus a role in society, could produce "beauty".

Today, this past remains hidden from many Latinos - and almost all anglos. Far from being seen as a proud part of our hemisphere's history, dark skin and indigenous features can be branded "lower-class". Racism like this is hardly confined to northern America; in cultures from India to Japan, Africa to South America, light skin has been prized and guarded for many, many centuries. US Latina blood derives from Mexico, Spain, the Caribbean, Central and South America and, in so many cultures, there can never be one standard of "beauty". But each culture has used skin color to discriminate.

Dr. Maria Cristina García was born in Cuba, then raised in Costa Rica and Miami. Now a specialist in immigration history, she is the Head of Latino Studies at Cornell University. Says García, "Skin-color snobbery exists in every Latino community. Even children may be encouraged to marry someone of lighter skin, to 'whiten' the next generation. Things improved for awhile in the '60s. But, at the moment, darkness is once more seen as a liability."

Dr. García feels US Latinas are caught in a vicious circle, a conflict between the anglo norm and more traditional ethnic values. "It is always women who articulate concerns about skin color. But our women feel huge pressures when it comes to appearance. Pressures from the family, from the media, from 'Hispanic' magazines."

She waves at the stack of videos sitting on her office shelf. "Just take a quick glance at movies or TV. The more noble a character, the fairer her skin will be. Heroic Latinas - lawyers or doctors - might be confused with Italians. The smaller, darker women usually play drug addicts, hookers, gang members and maids."

Some of Dr García's students have names like Muffy Martinez or Tiffany Fernandez. Many, she says, firmly reject the terms 'Latina' or 'Chicana' - because they wish to be known only as Americans, "or, perhaps, as Hispanics". Subtly and not-so-subtly, the magazines, movies and ads around them discourage such young women from taking real pride in an ethnic appearance. Even magazines aimed at them as Latinas are rife with DOs and DON'Ts; guidelines which imply Latinas have "natural" impulses they need to guard against.

"DON'T over-accessorize," advise these directives. "DON'T wear dangling earrings"; "DON'T use loud lipstick"; "DO wear graceful jackets that fall below the hipline". On the one hand, Latinas are flattered with praise about their "flair". On the other, they are warned that even that flair must be strictly monitored. ("Make sure your lipstick and nail polish match"; "Remember that colors can be too bright"; "Don't dress for the office as if it were a cocktail party"). True Latina self-expression, hints the propaganda, may be indiscreet or over-theatrical...tacky.

Marisela Norte is a woman who defies all Don'ts; she would never change her appearance for the office. In downtown Los Angeles, she works as part of a medical team. Outside job hours, however, Norte is a recording star. Via New Alliance Records, her bilingual story-poems have become suprise best-sellers. One linking thread in their observations is a fashion-sense Norte likes to call "cha cha".

Cha cha, she explains, is Latina glamour defined by Latinas: an attitude towards style which encourages DOS and throws out DON'Ts. This cha cha aesthetic favors extravagance and expressiveness (DO get a huge spiral perm with arching, sculpted bangs!), just as it endorses bold, assertive makeup (DO choose lipsticks with names like "Fuschia Fabulosa"!). Cha cha relishes clashing colors, strong silhouettes, plunging necklines - or Doc Martens worn with a baseball cap embroidered "meXico". (Cha cha also means feeling free to sport your own tattoo; Norte's personal favourite is a crown of thorns inked into her lower back.)

It was the women of her family, says this poetess, who encouraged her to trust in Latina beauty. Lacking money or mainstream encouragement, they taught her how to improvise. "When I was small, my Mom and Dad were way too poor to go out. But Mom would just mix highballs, put on a tight skirt and high heels. They would play great music and turn our living-room into a nightclub."

Latina style loves to perform, and revels in dramatic gestures. For, in all Latino cultures, "beauty" means more than display. Beauty means the acting-out of some age-old debates. Those debates - about what it looks like and what it means to be female - rage afresh in every generation and in every family. Says Norte: "Our beauty involves your Mom, your lover, your aunts, your best friends, Hollywood, politics, Mexican movie stars, grandparents and godparents. Our kind of beauty is dialogue."

While Anglo beauty ideals relentlessly celebrate youth, Latina style dramatises the whole progress of woman's life. It hails her evolution from girlhood into sexuality - then, from unfettered adolescence to responsibility. The First Communion dress can give way to the quinciñera (15th birthday) ballgown; elaborate bridal wear to the hat-and-heels of maturity.

Behind this sequence lies a belief that woman's destiny ties her to others. Girl children, it is assumed, grow into workers, compañeras, wives, mothers, godparents, aunts. So Latina beauty remains highly dynamic; it has to embrace "cha cha" as much as it does high-church conservatism. In an ironic contrast to the pale, thin models of 'Vogue', its high glamour offers genuine reality - plus a genuine sense of female power.

Every Latina can discuss the culture's differing views about beauty, and few young women feel reverential about it. Many link the "beauty rules" they inherited to family repression. Yet equally few call for severing all links with tradition. Texas artist Terry Ybañez says the 'why' can be complicated: "From the the age of six, how I looked was part of the role I was given. Which was only to cook, to care for babies, to clean up around the house. I had no choices at all until I stormed off to college.

Back then, Ybañez considered her mother - who was deeply religious and devoted to her family and the needs of its men - "a really stupid woman." But, by the time she returned from college, that perception had changed. "I began to see my Mom in a very different light; I started to realize how she used her religion and family. We still disagree. But she taught me that every woman has to make her own survival system How she looks is part of that."

Through her art, Ybañez suggests her own options and her bright paintings capture "cha cha" beauty where it lives. They also delight in Latina beauty's piquant humor. One painting shows a dark, full-figured woman relaxed on a sofa. Dressed just in white heels, earrings and a mask, she is playing conjunto tunes on a cherry-red accordion. In the foreground, we can catch a glimpse of her future: a grinning calavera, Mexico's tragi-comic skeleton. As she flaunts a string of beads, a black wig and a pink hat, however, this bony companion looks irrepressible.

Ybañez says her art belongs "neither to Mexico or to the United States." Yet her work is a fresh expression of rostro y corazón - of beauty as a spiritual force beyond complexion or cosmetics. "I love," she says, "how Latina beauty involves so much, from our real American history to thoughts about age and community" So coming to understand it might enlighten everyone else?

Says Ybañez, "If outsiders want to explore Latina culture? I won't object. That's where change begins, and that's how people learn."

One longtime admirer of Ybañez' s view of beauty is the best-selling author Sandra Cisneros. Daughter of a Mexican father and a Mexican-American mother, Cisneros' early years were divided between Chicago and Mexico. Her writing has charmed many readers into seeing "American" beauty from un otro lado: taking a fresh look at it from another side.

The world of her books is rich in Latina bonds and relationships: from tocayas (women "related" because they bear the same name) to curanderas (community folk healers) to La Virgen de Guadalupe (Mexico's indian Virgin Mary, patroness of the brown-skinned). But Cisneros' style, just like her prose, is a cha cha mixture. She can be a minimalist in slicked-back hair, Spandex catsuit and silver cowboy boots. Or she can be more traditional: trajeada - elegant - in floor-length skirts, fulsome curls and rebozo shawl.

Many of the struggles her characters face involve beauty. In the home, the bedroom, the barrio and the anglo world, they are intent on dissecting Latina appearance. These are women defining what "Latina" means in a new age, and their questions leap from Cisneros' pages into our present. Can women with indigenous looks become "American beauties"? How do you transform rejection into pride? Will ignorance yield to cultural understanding?

Says Cisneros, "When I write, I have to keep all that in my head. Because every generation is caught up in it again. The women of our cultures have been given a huge hype. On one hand, the virgin/whore thing. On the other, the Frida sufrida, the tormented dolorosas. So many of us are not the women you see portrayed in films, by the church or in magazines."

So how can the non-Latina learn the truth about such sisters? Can she see Latina style as rich and sustaining, rather than "foreign"? Marisela Norte thinks this is already happening. But, she cautions, non-Latinas need some education. "Once we were always called 'ugly' and 'dirty'. Now, it's just the words that have changed - today, we're 'spicy', 'trendy' and 'hot'. People don't mean to be offensive, they just lack references. We're all either Frida or Jennifer Lopez. "

Norte sweeps her hair aside and her large earrings jangle. The lips anointed with Sparkling Burgundy part in a confident smile. "Nevertheless, I intend to grab that new audience. By the throat if I have to, you know? I'm taking them into my world. And no argument - they're coming with me!"

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