What’s Really Sad

By Irene M. Sanchez

Xicana Ph.D.

What’s really sad.

Representation is important. I see that as a Chicano/Latino Studies teacher everyday. Representation is important, but it is not enough if all our idea of representation does is reinforce tired stereotypes that mock the most powerless within a certain culture/community. I get satire and its importance in culture and using comedy/skits to educate people (Hello Teatro Campesino). After showing my students a documentary recently on Chicano/Latino politics in the 1990s, they were shocked at a scene where there was a comedy group dressed in different characters representing the Chicano/Latino community. A student asked me shocked, wait why do they do THAT miss? I said because some folks thought and still think that kind of stuff is funny. This student and the rest of the class let me know they did not think it was funny. It’s similar to the reasons I don’t think the latest SNL skit with Melissa Villasenor and Selena Gomez was funny. No this isn’t some “woke conspiracy” or “self hate” on myself or my culture, it is actually because the opposite is true. I love our culture/community and I love working with students from our community, teaching them our history and encouraging them to hold their head high no matter how others have labeled them in a society that looks down on certain people till this day.

A Peek at Pico skit on SNL gave some people something to laugh at, but I have to ask which people? I see many folks from the Latino community claiming it is good representation or hey can’t people take a joke? That’s fine, you have your opinion, and I can have mine. I don’t think we would be arguing if there was more representation in Hollywood, media, literature, politics, or in our school’s curriculum. Just kidding, I think we would still be debating no matter what because if we are talking about broad Latino representation, it is hard to be all to everyone. This tired stereotype of cholas/cholos though is specific to Chicanos, even if not many people want to admit it. Yes I am looking at people claiming it makes Latinas look bad, unless you are talking about a subset of mainly Chicanas among the larger Latina group, I would disagree that it makes ALL Latinas look bad. That is not who was mocked in this case. Many times in recent memory Latinas in privileged positions have also participated in marginalization of Cholas. (See the essay I wrote on Exceptionalism and some people who use the word sCHOLArs in academia back in 2018 here.)

Many times when I see cholas (or cholos) I am reminded of the history of pachucas and pachucos and how they were criminalized for what was a particular style of young Chicana/o youth (as well as African American and Filipino Youth) of a particular time period. As Catherine S. Ramirez researched (as cited in Rodolfo Acuna’s Occupied America), pachucas experienced discrimination much like the pachucos, but with the added layer of their gender including being called “girl hodlums” and “Black Widows” and the press spread lies that pachucas were infected with venereal disease. Acuna writes about how pachucas were demonized by the press and public and stated, “Naturally the press blamed the Mexican parent; the use of Spanish and their low standard of living were blamed and contrasted them to the self-perceived “wholesome” American way. Mexican women were at the same time portrayed as passive, as violent, and as having loose morals.” That’s sad.

Photo: Jack A. Herod. The Los Angeles Times. 1942

I can still remember the first time I met a pachuca. I already knew her for years. I was in high school. There was a family BBQ at my parents house and my tia was sitting at a table with me when she was looking at me, then said hey listen be careful with your eyebrows, don’t shave them or they won’t ever grow back and she took a napkin and wiped part of her eyebrow off at the table. I was shocked. (She later quickly painted it back on.) She then said to me proudly that she used to be a pachuca. I already knew what that meant from watching a documentary and taking my high school’s first Chicano Studies class in 1996 as a freshman and if there is something else I know from my dad’s family is that she wasn’t messing around. This was life advice. I was like ok Tia, I won’t shave my eyebrows. During this time my eyebrows were getting thinner due to plucking them (or letting my older sister practice her makeup skills on me). To this day I look at the right one and see how part of it doesn’t grow back because of that time period of my life. When I saw the skit, I thought of my eyebrow and then thought, wait, I had never heard of anyone poking their eye with eyeliner, maybe mascara, but that isn’t just cholas, but anyone who uses mascara. That was sad, but not as sad as when…

I told a boy whose cousin was dating my sister that I couldn’t date him in high school because he was from a gang that was in another part of the IE and I didn’t want to make some of my friends upset with me. I knew what was ok and what wasn’t. Chicanas aren’t dumb.

I remembered further back to a story I rarely mention when I had a date/time to get jumped into the local gang in middle school, but they canceled the occasion because they talked to higher ups and told me jokingly, but not, that I was a schoolgirl, but I could still hang out with them (even though I barely got by middle school and almost got kicked out of high school and then went to community college where I did get kicked out) That was sad, but more the part I didn’t do well in school, I got to keep my friends for the moment and was labeled as a schoolgirl by them (I realized a compliment from them) although later in my higher education would meet many people (including other Latinos) who would question my intelligence and my very presence in the same classrooms as them. That’s sad, but not as sad as when…

Fast forward to undergrad, when I moved to the Central Coast of California. I was a college advisor in an academic program and led the opening of the first college center at a high school. I was tasked to work with 9th graders. I was scolded for working with a gang intervention program to go about recruiting more students, but I told my boss, hey I did my job and met my numbers and told her I thought they should get a chance just like anyone else should. She told me they were taking resources away from other more deserving students. I proceeded to do things the way I wanted and would get in trouble for it. One morning this group of young boys from the program came to my portable. Some of them were holding their permission slips to be in the college program. They surrounded my desk standing over me. I look up at them. They asked me if I used to be in a gang. I asked them what made them think that. They pointed out the way I dressed which I hadn’t thought much about until that point. When I assured them I had never officially been in one, they then asked, why aren’t you scared of us? I asked them why should I be? They told me because everyone else is and sat down to talk more. That was sad, but not as sad as when…

I was working for a summer program and we took the students to the beach on 4th of July. Some of the students had been in the system already and some were trying to recover credits to graduate or get their GED’s. That day we got off the bus and two students who were in the program who let it be known they didn’t want to be there were immediately mad dogging a young man from a rival gang as soon as we got off the bus. They told him something because they assumed he was alone. I scolded them and said don’t be doing that and then was called a f…king “b” by them (not the first time). We went to the beach and found a spot for our students. Just as dark was settling in, the fireworks started to go off. I look to my right and see that young boy from the rival gang walking towards us with about 10-15 of his friends. There was a scuffle, there was pushing, students and staff were getting hit, we were trying as staff to keep these other boys away from our group. They then zeroed in on one boy in our group that had nothing to do with the incident off the bus, but he was recognized by them. He told them he didn’t want any trouble and even though he didn’t know how to swim, he ran into the ocean. The other boys taunted him for “running away” from a fight and flashed their guns from the shore as the fireworks were booming. I ran towards him. The boy then flashed me his gun on his waistband and I told him we didn’t want trouble and to leave us alone. It was then the 2 boys in our group who had instigated the first encounter off the bus ran away and all the boys in this rival gang ran after them. After they ran away I ended up riding in an ambulance and spending the evening with one of the girls in our group in the ER after she was hit and had a panic attack. That was really sad.

Fast forward to grad school, I called my mother crying one night when I was starting my second year. It was raining and cold, I was living in Seattle and I had just heard that other Latino students in my program said I was ghetto and not academic enough. My professor had a way of telling me this as well I wrote about in this book. At that point I had hit a low. I was considering dropping out of my program. I didn’t like being the one that barely graduated high school and went to a community college as my professor loved to point out in a not so nice way. I called my mom, I told her I was called ghetto, and she responded “If they want to see ghetto I can drop them off in the middle of East LA and see what they want to call ghetto.” I remember laughing and thinking woah mom chill, but I laughed with my mom, and it is those moments I remember. I am the daughter of two East LA born and raised parents. I was raised in the IE, no that’s not bad, that’s good. When I went home that winter for holiday break I listened to my parents and realized I sounded similar. I wasn’t aware I even had an accent before I went to graduate school in Washington, but I’ve been reminded in many places and situations since I do and that I am “different”, but I think the difference now from the many incidents in grad school is like my mom made me realize, I don’t’ care to hide who I am or where I am from. That’s good, but there were still many more sad things throughout the years and more when I started teaching high school Chicano/Latino Studies…

There are folks out there who still don’t want us teaching our history and culture to our young people. That was and is still sad, but not as sad as I see young boys and girls who dress a certain way, talk a certain way, grow up a certain way stereotyped and how they are criminalized in our school systems. It is not as sad as the day I walked into a classroom the day after a young 14 year old boy had been gunned down on his bike and saw two young girls crying at one of the schools I teach at, the continuation school. I didn’t have them do work that day. The kids all grew up knowing each other in this city I teach in and these two girls were particularly distraught. I teach at 3 schools so I had to go eventually and on my way out I ran into another staff member and asked for help to get the girls someone to talk to about their friend. The staff member leaned into me and as if she hadn’t even heard what I said told me, “Well did you see the way he was dressed? He looked like an adult.” She did not get the girl’s help or support and I could see clearly in that moment exactly what I was dealing with. I was dealing with people who think people who dressed and lived their lives certain ways deserved to die for it. I disagree. That same day I drove to the spot where the young boy was killed. People were already gathered. It started to rain. A journalist I knew came up to me and asked if she could quote me, I politely declined and told her about what had happened at school that day. That was sad.

A few months later around graduation time in 2019, another young boy was killed. This time I knew someone he knew. His younger brother was one of my first students and a sophomore when he took my class. I drove after school to the spot his brother was gunned down. I had some sage. I glanced around and saw two older homeboys in their car drinking. They were on watch and saw me. I got out of my car and passed them, they looked at me and gave me a nod, I nodded back then took a moment as the clouds passed over the electric tower next to the spot where my student’s older brother took his last breath. His family moved away after that. I knew better than to talk to people at work about these things at this point. It all weighs heavy though. That’s sad.

Other points in my teaching high school life I have had students who tell me my books are familiar, particularly Always Running by Luis Rodriguez. One student told me excitedly he had read it before. I was surprised. I asked him where he read it before my class. He told me “In the halls miss” and laughed. That may seem good, but it is sad if the only place our students could get exposed to Chicano Studies or Chicano Literature before this class I teach is in juvenile detention.

This school year, I had a particularly brilliant student. She was quiet, but wrote in her assignments about how she liked learning this history. She had long brown hair, wore jewelry around her neck and hanging from her ears. Baggy pants and a tank top under a black hoodie. She asked to talk to me one day after school. I stayed. She told me thank you, but she was leaving the school and how this was her favorite class. I asked where she was going, she looked like she wanted to cry. She told me that she had been harassed at school by staff along with her brother for how they dress and that her mom didn’t want her having problems since she was a good student academically. She told me more and I asked if I could share her story with a school board member. She gave me permission. I called the board member after school and I was so pissed I cried. The board member was surprised that in a time of declining enrollment in our district that there are some folks in our schools that would make students feel so unwelcome that they want to transfer schools. I knew the feeling. I have felt unwelcome as their teacher many many times. I’ve been mistaken for a sub, for a student, for doing anything but teaching high school. The student left because people judged her for how she looked. That was sad.

In writing this, I want people to see another perspective that goes beyond whether this is good representation or not or if this can be all to everyone in the Latino community (Nothing can). All I know is that it is difficult to teach Chicano/Latino studies among the many stereotypes that continue to circulate, the judgment, the lack of opportunities, the graduation rates of Chicanos/Latinos, the numbers of us that go on to college and the numbers of us that don’t. I don’t like how in our society people can be judged so harshly based on who they are and where they come from and how early this begins with our students in school being judged in regards to who gets a chance and who doesn’t sometimes based on how they look/dress alone. The skit does nothing to help our young people with the things they deal with constantly/daily. I wrote about it years ago, because it isn’t just “Hollywood” that does these things. Academia does as well. We learn along our life journey to look down on certain people and make jokes out of them, yes even sometimes from our own community. We know people who belong to historically excluded groups are dehumanized, but there are some members of our communities that are dehumanized more than others. This isn’t about an ability to take a joke. Sometimes if you are representing a community, you do have a responsibility, but until more of us get the ability to share stories/jokes/art/media, for us and by us, I guess some are comfortable settling for stereotypes. I am not.

If you got to this point, thank you. I rarely write this much for an essay, but I guess it is as Selena Gomez said in the skit, some things are cathartic. Writing for me is one of them and I hope even if you don’t agree, you can see something good, bad, sad, or human in the stories I shared.

Be well.
Xicana Ph.D.

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