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Crossing La Linea


Southern California freeway sign.

As mentioned earlier, the Sept./Oct. issue of Print magazine includes my feature on Mexican-American visual culture.


Photo courtesy Sal Rojas.

Last summer, I interviewed cholo, Chicano, self-styled “pocho,” and expatriate Mexicano illustrators and graphic designers in L.A., San Diego, and Tijuana; this article draws on those interviews, as well as an extensive conversation with the brilliant Chicano cultural theorist Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, well-known for his seminal essay on rasquachismo, a sort of Mexican-American bricolage. (I may post some excerpts from that interview—or the whole tamale, if there’s any interest.)

bigote con fondo chilo (2).JPG

“Bigote con fondo chilo,” courtesy Jorge Verdin.

The visuals, from nortec designer Jorge Verdin, stencil artist Acamonchi, and hardcore tattooist-to-the-stars Mister Cartoon, are too cool.


Stencil-art graffiti, Acamonchi. Courtesy Acamonchi.

Keywords: Mexican-American, Chicano, cholo, pocho, rasquache, rasqauchismo, mestizaje, graffiti art, stencil art, East L.A., San Diego, Tijuana, nortec.

As always, here’s a teaser. (Note: This is a remix of the edited graphs that appear in the Print story.)

More and more, fashion, music, and design are giving props to the barrio culture of East L.A., where Mexican-Americans make up 97 percent of the population. Black-and-silver color schemes, a shout-out to East L.A.’s identification with the down-and-dirty Oakland Raiders, seem to be everywhere, these days. So does the font known as Old English—shorthand, in barrio culture, for authority, an association forged by the use of gothic script for official proclamations in colonial Mexico.

True to form, the America that ignores urban decay in the barrios (as long as their social pathologies don’t spill into white neighborhoods) has nonetheless managed to mass-market that badass icon of rebel cool, the cholo, or Chicano gangmember. The mainstream sees real-life gangbangers “as frightening stereotypes: lethal, faceless, and vaguely nonhuman,” writes Leon Bing, in Do or Die. But skinning the image of badness and selling it as off-the-rack rebellion is the stuff of marketers’ dreams. That’s why “mainstream America is learning how to say a new word: cholo,” as USA Today gushed in 2003, when the trend first broke. That’s why Old English lettering is cropping up on designer gringa-ware such as Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B line, and even, madre de dios, Gap cords, modeled by Madonna. It’s why celebrities such as Eminem, Beyonce, and Justin Timberlake of N-Synch (!) are making pilgrimages to L.A.’s inner-city badlands to get one of Mister Cartoon’s tattoos, done in the black-and-gray “fine-line” style originated by cholo gang members behind bars.

From the other side of the neighborhood line, marketers’ crossover dreams can look like cultural imperialism, to resurrect a phrase from more radical times. And for those who strike the devil’s bargain of selling the look and feel of their own culture, those dreams can taste like sellout.