Part Cuban, part Bolivian, Jamie Balbuena is Founder and Lead Designer of Bandida, a Latina-focused street wear line dedicated to reappropriating the machista lexicon often used to depict the oversexed mami and turning it on its head for community strengthening and feminist empowerment. Born and raised in the DC area, Jamie now resides in El Barrio and draws from the strength of New York’s uptown Latinas and fashion icons we all love, like Selena, to develop the philosophy of her sexy yet politically informed line. Jamie believes in style with a literal message and addresses issues of femininity “with a middle finger in the air.” Yas girl!
She got real with us on her aspirations for Bandida and let us know what’s up on her favorite neighborhood spots and passions outside of the line. You can snatch a sassy crop top to get the last bit of summer looks in, here on her website or pop over to Frank’s Chop Shop on the Lower East Side where you can femme politick while Jamie braids your hair.
Jamie Balbuena, Photo via www.modern-notoriety.com
Bandida is girl power in Spanglish. It’s feminism through a bi-cultural, multi-ethnic lens. Our motto is: You have to be a little malcriada to make it in America.
How did Bandida start?
I was pretty unsatisfied with the jobs I was getting after graduating, so I started creating graphics as an expression of my own Latinidad in my free time. I was inspired to put the art on shirts after realizing that most latin themed shirts at the time were either too specific or too simplistic. It was either like “100% Boricua” or “Latinas Do It Better”, or corny and sexist with shit like “Big Melones.” WTF? What about mixed Latinas? What about Latinas who have more to say than “I do it better because of my big Latin boobs”? I set out to convey a female perspective that was rebellious and aspirational instead.
I sold most of my gold jewelry and had shirts printed for me and a few friends. Interest grew and people wanted to buy them so I kept making more.
I’m continually inspired by the bravery and sacrifice of the immigrant experience. I’m inspired by women of all backgrounds making waves in creative fields. My friends and family are a constant source of inspiration.
How do you think your line is empowering for Latinas?
Bandida encourages Latinas to take ownership of the unique obstacles we face and use them as fuel to break the mold. Also, Bandida looks good, and when you look good you feel good. Feeling good is powerful.
You play around a lot with language and spanglish in your clothing. How do you identify with the terms you use like flaca, chola, chulita, fina, etc?
They’re all terms I’ve been called and decided to have an “Y Que?” attitude about. That attitude is expressed by every Loca and Sin Verguenza who wears Bandida, regardless of demographics. I identify with these words by using simple graphics to express the complexities of Latinidad.
“Our motto is: You have to be a little malcriada to make it in America.”
In Bolivia, where my mom is from, Cholas are the indigenous and mestiza working-class women. Spanish colonizers throughout South America used the word Chola as a slur, but it has evolved as a source of pride. Cholitas in Bolivia are seriously becoming style icons. Chicanos later adopted the term in the 1960s. The Chicano movement is still so relevant today, and obviously Cholas in the US are fashion icons as well. Both types of Cholas are something all Latinas should admire. They not only represent strength in the face of oppression, but also having the audacity to maximize your own style in spite of denigration. That spirit is what Bandida is all about.
How do you hope the women who wear your clothes feel?
First, I hope they feel excited to step outside. The response you get from wearing Bandida is priceless. You run into other women who just get it and men who get the humor in it, but also get a “don’t fuck with me” vibe. It’s dope. I also hope they feel like they’re part of an extended family that is unified and empowered by its complex identity.
I was wearing my Loca muscle tee in my neighborhood the other day and little old ladies were stopping me in the street cracking up, asking me to show their friends. They were Mexican, Puerto Rican and Dominican. They wished they had something like that growing up. I took it as a sign that I’m doing something right.
What’s your professional background in? Are you in fashion full-time?
I graduated from Parsons School of Design in NYC, but my real fashion training came while interning for the first female street wear brand, Married to the Mob. I’ve been freelancing for different companies and brands for a few years. Not all of my work is fashion-related, but I’m definitely a full-time creative.
What do you do on the side, then?
I love to sing and braid hair. I’m actually really blessed because my hobbies have also become side-hustles. I sing back-up for indie artists and braid hair at Franks Chop Shop on the LES.
“Cholas are something all Latinas should admire. They represent strength in the face of oppression [and] having the audacity to maximize your own style in spite of denigration.”
Who are some fashion icons you admire?
SELENA always. She is the prototype. I love girls that express toughness and femininity at the same time – Chongas on the east coast and Cholas on the west coast. I also really admire Bianca Jagger, Aaliyah and Frida Kahlo.
Describe the perfect night out.
Dinner with friends followed by a rap show, followed by more food.
What are some of your local neighborhood spots?
I’m based in NYC and reside in East Harlem AKA El Barrio. My favorite spots in the neighborhood are Agua Fresca and Camaradas. There’s so much good food and drink in New York but some favorites are Negril Village, Ipanema and Casa Mezcal. I really don’t go clubbing unless theres a live performance – SOB’s usually comes through for me.
What are some of your favorite spots to shop at? Could you provide readers with a list of shopping recommendations?
I shop everywhere from sample sales to mom & pop shops in Harlem. Besides that I recommend Zara, Niketown, and The Vintage Room on Stanton. This summer I lived in the $9 camisoles from Target, and high-waisted shorts from Mystique Boutique in SoHo.
Jamie Balbuena, Photo via www.modern-notoriety.com
Provide us with a final message you want Remezcla readers to get out of their understanding of Bandida.
I’m just a girl who likes clothes, and I believe style can send a message. Bandida is about addressing the issues from within our communities (machismo, marianismo) and from outside (marginalization, fetishization) with a middle finger in the air. Look closely at our Chulita shirt. It’s about flourishing in the face of obstacles, and looking good while doing it.