A Look Back at the Movie that Taught America How to Dress Like a Chola

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Finally, it’s cool to be a chola. It was only a matter of time, but for some reason mainstream white America opted first to cannibalize a whole range of subaltern cultural expressions for its runways and music videos before finally digging its fangs into that unmistakable West Coast Chicana style. The proverbial nail in the coffin came about a year ago when a young singer from Lake Placid named Lana Del Rey and actually named Elizabeth Woolridge Grant teased her hair out, painted a couple of fake teardrop tattoos on her face, and posted up with her chicas on a generic “hood” stoop in a thirty-minute-long monument to artsy self-love that gave Kanye a run for his money.

But this was just the latest in a long line of appropriation going back to Gwen Stefani — who traded her South Asian bindi dot for a reverse pompadour and dark lip liner sometime around the turn of the millennium — not to mention more recent cases involving Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. Then there’s FKA twigs, and the whole haute couture baby hair phenomenon that’s got people so riled up. Sure, it’s not like there’s some sacred religious value to chola gear, but when a defiant gesture of subaltern self-affirmation turns into a fashion plaything-of-the-month for the dominant culture, well, it kinda loses its charm.

But the question remains: given that there are still very few university courses about chola style, and even fewer New York Times features, where are all these fashion vampires taking their cues from? Our bet is that it’s a little 1993 indie gem called Mi Vida Loca (a.k.a. My Crazy Life).

West Coasters may be like duhhhh, but outside of certain circles it’s hard to appreciate the cult phenomenon that was Mi Vida Loca. Never before had the chola lifestyle and its ride-or-die ethos been brought to the screen with such affection and authenticity as when Kentucky-born director Allison Anders rounded up a group of girls from the Echo Park Locas gang and let them do their thang for 92 minutes.

The story follows childhood friends and chola gangbangers Mousie and Sad Girl, played by Seidy López and Angel Áviles, whose deep friendship is complicated when Sad Girl sleeps with Mousie’s man, and gets pregnant along the way. Despite this betrayal, it’s them against a hostile world, and Mousie and Sad Girl must do their best to stick together. While the leads were trained actresses, and the film even featured early supporting roles by Salma Hayek and Jason Lee, the level of community involvement in the production gave the film a level of street credibility that has made it a beloved chola classic to this day.

Ultimately, the low budget drama did well with critics and has secured its place amongst the great Chicano-themed works of American cinema, but perhaps what most transcended into popular culture was Mi Vida Loca’s spot-on representation of chola style. From the bangs and hoops, to the rhinestones and chanclas, the film’s hair and make up department gave glorious expression to one of the U.S of A’s most distinctive home-brewed street styles.

And when the pop singers and fashionistas finally migrate, herd-like, to some other new fashion “discovery” (Sikh turbans? Yemeni janbiya daggers?) the real cholas out there will be keeping it real, Dickies, white midriffs, and all. And in case anyone forgets, we’ll have Mi Vida Loca to remind us where it all came from.