“Chingona is like a badass chick. She’s just down with herself and is strong and is like la firme woman, a strong woman … no apologies,” says Shavone Otero, a member of the Austin chapter of the Chulita Vinyl Club.
“It was like a bad word, but we’ve definitely reclaimed it,” adds Madeline Casas, another Austin Chulita.
On April 7, the women will perform at Chingona Fest ATX, a daylong celebration of art, music, food and civic engagement designed to unite and empower women of color. The event, which kicks off at 3:30 p.m. at Hops and Grain brewery in East Austin, includes performances from Cecilia + the Broken Hearts and a Selena tribute band, Bidi Bidi Banda. A portion of proceeds from the event will benefit local nonprofits Con Mi Madre and Latinitas.
Founded in Austin by Claudia Saenz in 2014, the Chulita Vinyl Club, a DJ collective for self-identifying Latina women, has grown into a national organization with seven chapters in Texas and California. With 16 members, the Austin branch is the second-largest and one of the most active.
Both Casas and Otero draw on elements of pachuca style for the look they bring to their gigs. The pachucas were part of a rebel subculture that emerged in Los Angeles and the southwestern United States in the 1940s. They were the female counterparts to pachucos, men who wore zoot suits and drove custom lowriders. Derided in the mainstream press at the time as gangsters and criminals, the movement was deeper than that, says Otero, who moved to Austin from Albuquerque, N.M., to attend grad school in 2014: “It was really focused on reclaiming Mexican heritage and identity.”
Pachuca pinup girls pushed boundaries. During an era when women wearing pants was considered taboo, they created their own cleanly tailored, feminized version of the zoot suit. They rocked voluminous bouffants, thickly lined cat-eyes and bold lips. They sassed the camera defiantly.
“I grew up with the lowrider culture. My dad owns a paint automotive business that my grandpa started, so I grew up with all the vatos coming through with all their lowriders, and I always wanted to be like the lowrider calendar girl,” Otero says. “Even just their poses were, like, fierce, which reminded me of my grandma because she was such a strong pachuca.”
Her personal style blends elements of that look with “just street and hip-hop influence.”
“At my core, I wear a lot of style reflecting Chicanisma. Just, like, growing up Chicana, not Mexican, not American, but a mix of both,” she says.
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There are no Chulita Vinyl Club fashion rules. The guiding vision of the collective is to create an open space for women to express themselves and find their own voices through music. Austin’s chapter is an eclectic group.
“We have a lot of women from Latin America. We have pretty diverse styles,” Otero says.
Casas’ style is ever-evolving and has gone through dramatic shifts. She was a hipster in high school, a hip-hop-oriented sneaker-head in college, and now, working as an aesthetician and planning to return to school for fashion design, she’s drawn to flowy feminine clothes with a ’70s vibe. Her current go-to look is a wrap dress.
“I love wrap dresses. (They) just fit the body perfectly — any body perfectly,” she says.
Neither woman has much patience for the dictates of high fashion. “I don’t follow designers so much or labels, but just whoever I think is being truly themselves through their style … not some sort of copycat thing, but … whatever resonates and identifies with them … that’s what I’m attracted to,” Otero says.
Casas is a secondhand shopping buff. She regularly makes the rounds on Austin’s vintage circuit. “I hit Powder Vintage, Prototype, Feathers, Stay Gold. There’s this new one, Uptown Cheapskate, they have this whole vintage section in the back that I really dig,” she says.
She chafes at the way designers appropriate street style into high-dollar duds, like the way the sneaker culture and baggy hip-hop gear she used to obsess over is showing up on runways. “Back in the day, people would probably think (wearing these things) was unprofessional or you were unintelligent in some way. Now because you’re putting this big-ass price tag on it, it’s all of a sudden top-notch designer, and I can’t get down with it,” she says.
“I will both rebelliously and proudly wear my hoop (earrings) because in a similar vein, that was like, ‘Oh, it’s not professional if you wear your hoops,’” Otero says. “But who said that wasn’t professional?”
One of her favorite pairs of hoops are bamboo “door-knocker” earrings. “That’s, like, quintessential hip-hop style,” she says.
After grad school, she sometimes grapples with her identity as it relates to her work life. Items regularly dismissed as unprofessional — the hoops, some of her nose rings — are part of the street style that shapes her aesthetic. “I can be both; I can be where I come from but also be in a professional space,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll rebelliously wear some of these things in professional setting, which is a risk as a young woman to be taken seriously.”
These days, many of her favorite pieces come from artists she knows, both in Austin and from her hometown. Chulita Vinyl Club plays a monthly Frida Friday gig at Kebabalicious that combines music by women with a mercado full of women of color artists. (Frida Friday organizer TK Tunchez also curated the vendor space for Chingona Fest.) “I wear a lot of their jewelry or clothes, so out at the Chulita gigs I will support a lot of my artist maker friends.”
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As an organization, Chulita Vinyl Club is deliberate about where it performs. Creating safe space for both the Chulitas and their audience is important to them, and for the most part, making bold style choices and rocking gig looks they wouldn’t necessarily wear in their daily lives has been liberating. Except that one time when it wasn’t.
Casas had cornrows in the front of her hair the night the group was asked to play the opening of an upscale hotel bar, Upstairs at Caroline.
“That’s the only time I felt out of my element,” she says. “I did get a lot of stares while I was there.”
The gig, on a shared bill with cumbia funk outfit Superfónicos, seemed to be going well, until a few minutes before Casas took the wheels at the end of the night. “Everyone was still really high off, like, the Superfónicos energy, so we just read the crowd. The crowd wants Spanish music, we’ll keep playing Spanish music,” she says.
Her vinyl collection, largely drawn from records inherited from parents and her grandma, is heavy on old-school soul. She doesn’t have a whole lot of Spanish records, and her plan was to spin disco for the final 10 minutes of their set.
Then an agitated manager approached her with a startling demand: “Don’t play any more Spanish music, we don’t want that vibe in here,” he told her.
“And I was like, ‘OK,’ because I’m really shy. I wasn’t going to put Spanish music on anyway,” she says. But the lead Chula that night, Alejandra Dela Huerta González, was adamant that the group would not comply. “Whatever Spanish song you have in your collection, you put it on,” she told Casas. The manager responded by cutting off their sound and switching to the house system.
When the group videotaped their interaction with the manager and posted about the incident on social media, it made headlines throughout Central Texas. The hotel management offered an apology, characterizing the situation as a misunderstanding and promising to train staff on inclusivity.
But that event was an anomaly. By and large, Chulita Vinyl Club gigs build community, drawing diverse crowds who revel in the positive vibes.
“Honestly, it (brings) out a lot of the brown people I was looking for in Austin,” Otero says. “I come from Albuquerque, where I was spoiled by everybody looking like me. In the prominent downtown area, I went out and it was like mi gente all around. When I moved to Austin, I kind of had a culture shock because I was like, ‘Where are the people of color in the downtown area?’”
“Being from Austin, the black and brown community is so small, and we keep to ourselves most of the time,” Casas says. Chulita Vinyl Club and its male DJ counterpart Peligrosa have cultivated spaces that welcome Austin’s Latino and Latina music fanatics. More events are cropping up, too. A weekly cookout and dance party, La Cruda, hosted by DJ Ulovei, aka Miguel Angel, at Volstead Lounge reminds her of east side weekends she used to enjoy with her family.
“He makes tacos for everyone, like al pastor, barbacoa, all these tacos. Everyone’s just drinking, playing Tejano music, reggaeton, cumbias and just having a good time. … It’s like the Sundays that I grew up having at my great-grandma’s house.”
“I think it really is bringing us back together,” she says.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to correct a date for an event.
Chingona Fest ATX
Bidi Bidi Banda, Cecelia + the Broken Hearts, Mariachi Las Coronelas and Chulita Vinyl Club will perform. The event will also include food, vendors and the official release of Hops and Grains’ Chingona beer.
When: 3:30 to 10 p.m. April 7
Where: Hops and Grain, 507 Calles St. #101
Cost: (technically sold out)
In this series that combines music and fashion, Deborah Sengupta Stith talks to Austin musicians about how image plays into their art.