In recent times, terms with negative connotations – like chingona and bruja – have become tools of empowerment for women, who proudly wear the words like badges of honor. This is despite the fact that previous generations used these words to demonize them. This reclaiming is exactly what inspired José Cordón‘s new photo exhibit, Lost But Chosen: A Tribute to Malditas. Many a telenovela character has employed maldita to condemn and insult women. However, in the Mid-City, Los Angeles neighborhood where Cordón grew up, maldita described a badass or a chingona but turned up a few notches.
“I remember maldita being like the word in our neighborhood for some of the girls who were part of the neighborhood gang,” the Guatemalan-born photographer tells me in a phone interview. “They kind of went beyond being a chingona. They went beyond just being a badass, like the maldita had even extra mischief in them. There was more desire to outdo the chingona. There was more desire to outdo the boys. This girl was just incredibly determined.”
Malditas continues to thrive today. For this series, Cordon turned his camera on women in their 20s, because they “normally don’t get enough credit… for some of the things that they are doing in mainstream America.” He called on young women of all races and ethnicities who embody the Chicana – another word that some have used pejoratively in the past – lifestyle. That is, women of color who identify “with the values of resilience and perseverance.”
Some of them he employed at his former Long Beach apparel shop, 1897. Others, like Laura, were more chance encounters. Cordón met her about three years ago at a Pep Boys. He went into the shop not expecting much in terms of service from the retail chain. Instead, he found many car enthusiasts eager to help their customers, including Laura, a young woman passionate about cars.
“When we were able to shoot her, I wanted to shoot her in the way that she is in every single day,” he says. “She’s a rockabilly gal. [Laura]’s a mom. She’s very humble. She’s very proud of her Mexican origins. And this is where she sees herself – in a ’52 fleetliner, as soon as she’s able to save some money.”
Taken by any other photographer, the image of Laura may have turned out completely differently. Instead of portraying her as strong and independent, it may have subjected her to the same sexist behavior she’s accustomed to as a woman working in a male-dominated industry. Oftentimes, the images we see of our own communities are extremely limiting. That’s why when an about 14-year-old José came across one of Estevan Oriol’s photographs, he felt a connection. Behind a chain-link fence, four women – who could have lived in Cordón’s own neighborhood – smiled at the camera.
“It was the first time, at 14 years old, that I felt that the girls in my neighborhood were portrayed in a way that not only exemplified the beauty – because that’s what he was striving for at his age when he was taking the picture – but it just seemed normal,” Cordón adds. “Living in the inner city, we were constantly looking at skate magazines like Thrasher. They were heavily catered to white folks and white America, so when [Oriol] took this picture, it looked like it belonged in a magazine. It was an incredible picture that made us – flannel-wearing, Dickie-wearing, Cortez-wearing, pomp, hair spray folks – look normal, like we belonged there.”
Cordón only began to delve into the world of photography in September. But Cordón, who’s an artist, has attempted to capture in his community in the past. However, audiences haven’t always been receptive. Back in college, he exhibited something similar to Malditas, which garnered plenty of backlash. People accused him of encouraging gang culture and the use of weapons. This series also prominently features guns, but the weapons are symbolic. Cordón wants us to see these women – who have overcome their own obstacles – as warriors, because that’s the maldita way of life.