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Mendoza-Denton, N. (1996). ‘Muy macha’: gender and ideology in gang girls’ discourse about makeup. Ethnos 61 (1-2) : 47-64. . Presented by Karen Cralli, Iliana Perea, Patrick Humphries. Introduction.

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Mendoza-Denton, N. (1996). ‘Muy macha’: gender and ideology in gang girls’ discourse about makeup. Ethnos 61 (1-2): 47-64.

Presented by Karen Cralli, Iliana Perea, Patrick Humphries

  • Mendoza-Denton (1996) explores the role of power, femininity, and ethnicity in the discourse of gang girls and those discourses related to them.
  • In particular, she explores Mexican gang girls (cholas) and their use of make-up
    • Norteñas: identify with chicano and U.S. culture
    • Sureñas: identify with Mexican culture
a but b
A but B
  • Manyfeministscholarshaveidentifiedmakeup as a tool of oppressionthatimposes a certainfemininityuponwomen; the cholas, however, use makeuptoexpress a rejection of traditionalfemininity—thatis, theychallengetraditionalgender roles throughmake-up.


theoretical approach
Theoretical Approach
  • Performativity of gender (Turner, 1982: Butler, 1990, 1995)
    • Gender is socially constructed, and is the result of the “repeated stylization of the body within a rigid regulatory framework” (Butler, p.???)
    • The cholas “do gender” through their makeup choices and clothing choices
    • GOLDSTEIN????
    • BORDO???
  • Mendoza-Denton employed sociolinguistic interviews and performed ethnographic field work for 2.5 years
    • Developed personal relationships with the young women
    • Worked as an academic tutor at a high school
  • Population: high school-aged young women from Sor Juana High School in Santa Clara County, CA
    • Sor Juana High School:
      • Urban setting, majority of students are people of color, gang activity in the community
space and place
Space and Place
  • Mendoza-Denton does not address the issue of space, but it is fundamental to understanding chola makeup and culture
  • Cholas use makeup to project an intimidating image that is easily identifiable at a distance (a visual warning)
    • Chola makeup is akin to war-paint—a visible sign of willingness to fight
  • They are defenders and protectors of their own territory, which implies the existence of a threat or a need for defense
    • Their look rejects a mainstream sexualized femininity
      • It is dangerous to look femininepotential (sexual) threat to women of the community
the lexicon of makeup
“The Lexicon of Makeup”
  • Light-eyed girls often wear dark contacts
  • Light-skinned girls wear dark foundation
  • The cholas prize Physical strength and athleticism; heavier/curvy bodies are idealized—leaders are often “zaftig” (p. 58)
lexicon of makeup interpreted
Lexicon of Makeup, interpreted
  • Chola use of makeupis a form of reappropriation; they use a tool of traditionalfeminitytorejecttraditionalfeminitymakeupisusedtointimidate and establish “masculine”qualities
  • Cholas maintainsomeaspects of a “traditionallyfeminine” look (e.g. longhair).
    • Long hairmaysymbolizeMexicanheritageoridentity
  • DarkfoundationusedtoemphasizeMexicanheritage, wherethisis a point of pride
  • Darkfoundationalsousedtocoverbruises and hickies
  • Eyelinersymbolizes “hardness” orwillingnesstofight; thelongertheeyeliner, thetougherthe chola
  • Chola makeupindicatesgroupmembership; cholas can tellwhois and whoisnot a chola bytheir use of makeup, and whethersheissureñaornorteña.
cholas in their own words
Cholas in their own words
  • “Everybody looks at youbutnobodyfuckswithyou” (p. 57)
  • (To Mendoza-Denton aftershereceived a chola makeover): “You’rehard. Nobodycouldfuckwithyou, yougotpower. People look at you, butnobodyfuckswithyou…I look like a dude,¿ que no?” (p. 56)
  • “When I turnontheeyeliner, when I reallyputiton, youknowlong and shit, itmakes me feellikeanotherperson, itmakes me feeltough. Justwearingtheeyelinerevenwithouttheclothesmakes me feelbrave.” (p. 57)
  • “When I wearmyeyeliner, me siento más macha, I’mreadytofight” (p. 55)
chola discourse
Chola discourse




Looking in



By using the “tools of femininity” for unintended purposes, the cholas reject traditional femininity, instead establish themselves as powerful and intimidating figures.

Eyeliner length and lipstick/lipliner choice communicate willingness to fight, as well as group identification (norteña v. sureña).

criticisms questions comments
  • An internet search of “chola” leads tomockingimages and videos (chola halloweenmakeup and costumetutorials, mockingmusic videos and parodies). Doesthisimplythatsocietyrejectswomen’sabilityto be intimidating?
  • Whatnecessitatesormotivatesthe chola lifestyle? Isfemininityviewed as a liabilityor a danger?
  • Goingtocollege, leavingtheirspace/territory, thus no needfor “Warrior” image
  • Mendoza-Denton (1996) consistentlyreferstothe cholas as “girls,” ratherthan “youngwomen.” In doing so, the cholas are renderedharmless. Sherepresentsthem as toughgirlsthatgrowout of ganglife, with a sanitizedimage of whatganglife can mean forthe cholas (byignoringviolence, pregnancy, familytension, etc)
  • Cholas withinfamilycontext?
  • Analysis 15 yearslater
questions comments criticisms
  • Mendoza-Denton notes that as the cholas head off to college, they adopt a more traditionally feminine look.
    • Why? Does leaving the community eliminate the need for the chola look? Does the social environment of college encourage a more “mainstream” look?