Cholos, Cholas, Cholo Power, and Cholita Brown

Posted on 16. Aug, 2008 by in peru

Buy a ‘Cholo Power’ t-shirt on CafePress and support Expat Chronicles – Peru or Mexico versions.

Before moving to Peru I misunderstood the term ‘cholo’ for what it means in the States, where cholo has morphed into meaning Mexican gangster – the stereotype having a shaved head, tattoos, and knee-high ankle socks pulled up. The 70s and 80s era cholo had slicked-back hair, maybe under a hair-net, and a tank-top muscle shirt or flannel with only the top button fastened.

So when I moved here and heard the word, I assumed they were talking about thugs. It wasn’t long before things didn’t make sense. Under my first clarification, cholos are the indigenous people, descendants of the original people who inhabited Latin America before the Spanish colonization. In Peru, the women with hats and long, braided hair who carry their babies in a blanket like a backpack wrapped tight around their bodies. I’ve since been explained that it means anybody with indigenous heritage, which is basically everybody in Peru.

Before my second clarification, I misunderstood a cholo question with my basketball team after a game. José asked if I liked cholas. I told him I hadn’t had one but that my girlfriend was somewhat brown. The whole team broke out in a laugh. I didn’t expect such a reaction. So while it means anybody with indigenous blood, it’s still used to talk about the purebloods.

I was telling Rosa this story a few weeks later. She argued that she’s not brown. She claimed to be fair-skinned and white. I told her she’s out of her mind and that she’s brown. She told me ‘we are all cholos’ – the politically correct line. However, you hear ‘cholo’ used in a derogatory way towards the poor people who can’t read or are ghetto in some way. Not all Peruvians are of equal bloodline. The higher concentration of whiter, Spanish blood, the higher the class.

Some time later, I told the this conversation with Rosa to my coworkers. They laughed hysterically and created an office nickname for her: Cholita Brown. Whenever they invite me to something or ask me what I am doing over the weekend, I say I don’t know and they all say, “Aahh, La Cholita Brown!”

Rosa is not so cholita given our trip to the gym last week. My new gym is on Octavio Munoz, a street supposedly packed with thieves and scoundrels. Upper class Peruvians tell me it’s dangerous and to be careful. Not only have I never had a problem, I have never felt unsafe. I took Rosa and she immediately told me she didn’t like my gym because “es muy cholo.”

I got stared at my first few weeks going there, but I get stared at everywhere I go. After a few weeks, the regulars stopped staring and I even got to know some of them, as I would in any American gym. The weights are ancient, but weight’s weight. There are two large rooms with dance classes which are always packed. There’s one room with five heavy bags and bag gloves. There’s a kickboxing team that occasionally trains in there. There’s a café, a computer lab, and a game room with ten pool tables. All of this under one roof for 1 sol ($0.33) per entry. I think it’s a bad ass gym, but I’ll yield to the locals and accept the fact that maybe it’s a cholo gym.

There is a T-Shirt they sell in the tourist shops. It resembles the logo of Inka Kola, a popular Peruvian soda brand, but it reads “Cholo Power.” I got the great idea to wear this shirt around Arequipa. It’s funny because nobody’d call me cholo.

Buy a ‘Cholo Power’ t-shirt on CafePress and support Expat Chronicles – Peru or Mexico versions.

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4 Responses to “Cholos, Cholas, Cholo Power, and Cholita Brown”

  1. Simon

    19. Aug, 2008

    Hey, very entertaining blog. The blow-by-blow of someone getting to know Arequipa brings back a lot of memories. I’ve spent quite a bit of time there, probably back early-ish next year, see:
    http://bidsta.blogspot.com/search/label/Arequipa
    http://bidsta.blogspot.com/search/label/Peru
    http://www.andean-observer.com/ (still putting this site together)

    Peruvians definitely have a mass of complexes to do with race, ethnicity and class. As far as I can gather, there’s at least three different senses of cholo/a:
    1. people call each other ‘cholo’ in a buddy-pally kind of way, a bit like huevón/boludo/cabrón in Chile/Argentina/Mexico (or like Colombian girls calling each other ‘marica’). Peruvians may sometimes refer to themselves collectively as ‘cholos’ in the way your girlfriend did.
    2. But, to describe an individual or group in normal conversation as ‘cholo[s]’ is often interpreted as disparaging, and people can get pretty offended if you use it too loosely (‘indio’ is worse). This is because of the underlying racism and the tendency to look down on ethnic origins, despite the outward recognition that ‘somos todos cholos’. In a group of Peruvians I know here in NZ, a girl from Ayacucho got really upset at another girl from the coast using ‘cholo’ in what the second girl thought was an inoffensive way.
    3. ‘Cholita’ is different again, when used in an affectionate way with a girl. My arequipeña ex-girlfriend used to like me calling her ‘mi cholita’ — it being kind of a generic thing, like ‘gringo’ is for us. It’s also milder to talk about a girl of indigenous appearance as a ‘cholita’, especially if she’s young and pretty, although again you wouldn’t necessarily say it to her face at first.
    Anyway, as a gringo you get forgiven most things, but there is a lot of sensitivity around this, and (as in the US or anywhere) a lot of it depends on who s saying and what the tone or context is.

    look forward to reading more posts.

    Simon Bidwell

  2. matt

    20. Apr, 2009

    lol she is actually kinda light compared to my chola… lol

  3. Carlos

    10. Aug, 2009

    Lol thanks for your Definition Cholo

  4. Jimmy Huero

    17. Dec, 2009

    The “Lean Like a Cholo” video can out a couple of years ago. After that “Lean Like a Chola” really expoloded on YouTube, it is quite funny.

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