By Genevieve Finn
“Chingona means a lot of things. It means bad as fuck. That one bad bitch. Always on top. The shit, basically.”
So describes Sara Fernandez, a first year Psychology major and possible Chicano Studies minor at UCLA, a born and raised Angeleno, and owner of the Instagram account @ch1ngona_af.
A quick perusal of Sara’s Instagram yields an abundance of self love, cultural pride, political activism, and Selena Quintanilla-inspired outfits. Sara weaponizes her social media to showcase her modeling for art projects such as Zuly Garcia’s “A Hairy and Body Positive Galentines Day” and for Socal-based, Latinx-run brands such as Paisa Boys and Shop Apple Sauced. She posts regularly about cultural appropriation, gentrification, and being a Latina woman attending a predominantly white institution.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with Sara to discuss how she uses her personal style as a lens through which to view important cultural issues. Here’s what we learned:
Sara was raised in the Highland Park/Eagle Rock area of North East Los Angeles, a place once highly-populated by Latinxs, but which is now dealing with encroaching gentrification and loss of culture. With a laugh, Sara described how the Avenues gang now sometimes tags newly-built, expensive apartment buildings with graffiti reading mantras such as “Fuck you gentrifiers.” To outsiders, this might just seem like delinquency, but to those being evicted from their homes or forced out due to high prices, it’s actually a reclamation of their space. When asked if she liked growing up in North East LA, Sara responded emphatically, saying she wouldn’t be who she was without her vibrant neighborhood.
“But what about the gangs?” I asked, as someone who grew up in a predominantly upper middle-class white area. In response, Sara pointed out that gang culture is not the entirety of the Latinx community; it is instead only a small part of a much broader, diverse culture.
This statement also happens to be one aspect of the thesis, if you will, of one of the brands Sara models for: Paisa Boys. “They wanted streetwear for our people that doesn’t have anything to do with gang culture at all, because that doesn’t define our people,” said Sara of the brand.
Sara’s family friend Javi and his business partner founded Paisa Boys with the dual mission of creating non-gang-affiliated, gentrification-fighting streetwear, after seeing brands capitalize off cholo culture while simultaneously pricing themselves out of range for many of the people whose trends they were co-opting in the first place.
“Like Bella Doña, fuck Bella Doña!,” Sara exclaimed of one particular brand that has received criticism for using only white or light-skinned models and overcharging their merchandize. “They’re colorist as fuck. Their shit does not rep the hood when the hoodie costs $60.”
Unlike Bella Doña, Paisa Boys includes all Latinx people, regardless of skin color. In fact, their aim is encapsulated in their name. In Spanish, paisano means someone from your own community. Through her social media, Sara elevates paisano brands. Another company Sara has modeled for, Shop Apple Sauced, is a San Diego-based company run by a Latina mother of three. “She’s doing all of this on her own while raising three kids; it’s important to support your fellow women of color.”
Aside from brands such as these, Sara gets her clothing from thrift stores, shopping apps such as Depop, or as hand-me-downs from her three big sisters or her mother, who hails from El Salvador. In addition to being a housekeeper in West LA, Sara’s mother studied fashion at Santa Monica Community College and is a skilled seamstress; she even made her quinceañera dress. Sara’s favorite outfit is the yellow dress shown below.
Sara updates old-fashioned clothing inspired by her indigenous roots and ‘80s songstresses such as Selena Quintanilla and Sade with modern styles. (When I said I didn’t know who Sade was, Sara laughed and exclaimed, ‘Girl, you sleep!”). But her main point of sartorial interest is her accessories -- she has a giant wall of hoop earrings in her dorm! Her favorite place to get earrings is a treasure trove of a store on the corner of Cesar Chavez and Soto, where a pair only costs $1. Sara even has a post on her Instagram lambasting Urban Outfitters for selling “bamboos,” a term that refers to a specific type of hoop earring, under the name “Geographic Hoops” for $15.
One trend Sara’s not a fan of? Non-Latinx people utilizing culturally significant Latinx religious imagery and practices for the sake of securing a spot in hipsterdom. She shared the following anecdote with me:
“I’ve noticed a lot of white girls wearing these Virgén de Guadalupe socks,” said Sara. “I remember this girl I went to high school with. She pulled up in these socks and I said, ‘Do you even know who that is?’ She was like, ‘Nah’. I said, ‘Then fucking take that shit off!!’”
For context, La Virgén de Guadalupe, not the westernized white depiction of the Virgin Mary, holds a special place of reverence for many Latinx Catholics, because she specifically appeared to an indigenous man as an indigenous woman. She is theirs; they identify with her and see her as a symbol of hope, forgiveness, and motherhood. Sara herself was raised Catholic, and though she doesn’t always agree with the Catholic Church, she does echo her people’s sentiment for La Virgencita, as she is lovingly known.
Sara expanded upon this topic even more, explaining to me that even the current trend of burning sage is culturally appropriating indigenous brujeria tradition. Many non-Latinx girls now burn sage and light candles for social clout without acknowledging the history behind the ritual.
“We take that shit seriously!” Sara explained. “That shit comes from our fucking ancestors. Women were killed in Latin America for doing that shit.”
Furthermore, there’s a correct way to perform candle-lighting and sage rituals. “The most sacred way of burning your sage is by growing it yourself, because you gave that plant love.” Buying it from someone else neutralizes its meaning. Sara also told me that when culturally-unaware women unknowingly burn candles of La Santa Muerte, which translates to “the Saint of Death,” they are trifling with the possibility of opening a portal for the dead to enter the world of the living. “That’s why they end up complaining about getting their fucking rooms haunted and shit! And it’s literally their fault!” Sara said with a laugh.
But while Sara finds humor in the situation, she eventually summed up her point with the utmost gravitas:
“White girls didn’t start wearing all this stuff until recently. Hoops were the way brown and black women could express ourselves. Even getting your nails done with the crazy-ass acrylics, it’s not until now that you see these white girls doing it. But, once we do it, we’re seen as ghetto, trashy, ratchet. But when they do it, it’s fucking fashion. It’s white people, taking: the only shit they know how to do. It’s in their nature.”
Even the now-trendy Nike Cortez shoes have a fascinating history. “[They] were known as the gang banging shoe. My dad got kicked out of Hollywood High School for wearing these, because they thought he was affiliated with MS-13. But this fool just wanted to twin with Eazy-E!”
In fact, Sara has a pair of Cortezes tattooed on her back to emphasize their significance. The tattoo also has the word “firme” underneath it. According to Sara, firme is an affirmation, “like “derecho y hecho”, or “yeah, that’s straight,” but it remains a special saying for her and her dad.
Sara’s father is the man she credits for fostering a love for her indigenous roots at a young age. Originally from Mexico, Sara’s father “made sure to decolonize [her] mind.” He ensured that his daughters loved their indigenous features, that they loved being brown, that they didn’t fall prey to eurocentric beauty ideals. He also taught Sara and her sisters that both English and Spanish were the languages of colonizers, even though their family identified with Spanish. “Due to colonization, my name is Sara, not Ixchel or Cualtzín,” Sara stated.
Now, as a Latina woman attending a predominantly white institution, Sara is both celebratory of her background but also highly cognizant of how it can breed differences with some of her fellow students.
“I only like five white people … nah, three!” Sara laughed. Knowing that mostly white-driven gentrification has majorly affected Sara’s home in recent years, her statement is definitely understandable. Sara related to me tales of her childhood best friends being kicked out of their homes, of those homes being torn down and built into newer, more expensive complexes, of seeing members of her community living destitute in the streets that once were theirs.
“Gentrification is literally war against the poor. It is the preservation of whiteness … It erases our culture completely,” said Sara. But through her Insta-activism, through her work with Latinx-founded brands and art projects, through the way that she chooses to dress each day, Sara is as a cultural scion of her people. In putting up such a ferocious fight against infringing forces, she certainly defines the word “chingona.”