The “Cholo Day” situation at Fenton High School was recently covered by several media outlets, made it on Reddit and drew comments from readers who were deeply offended, and others who didn’t get what the big deal was.
The story reached Juani Olivares of Flint. She’s president and CEO of the Genesee County Hispanic Latino Collaborative, which serves as an advocacy group for area families and works to raise Hispanic cultural awareness.
“It wasn’t OK,” she said. To her, there were several problems with it, namely stereotyping and oversimplification.
Olivares said that intention does matter — perhaps the participants didn’t mean to insult Latino people, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to partake in different cultures. The difference is knowing how to appreciate a culture, without accidently (or intentionally) mocking it.
For Heather Laube, sociology professor at the University of Michigan-Flint, it’s about power. “People who belong to social groups that have more social power just can’t appropriate words, dress, hairstyles from groups they and others have historically oppressed and marginalized,” Laube said.
Olivares, who identifies as Mexican, said that there is a way to partake in different cultures without insulting them.
To her, the main issue is caring enough to do research about a group. “We are a melting pot; we are in the United States. We do need to know the difference between the cultures,” she said, and care about what’s appropriate.
“Cultural awareness” is knowing that Cinco de Mayo has little relevance to the various Latino communities in Michigan. Mexicans would celebrate their actual Independence Day, which is Sept. 16. Cultural awareness is knowing that Olivares speaks Spanish, not “Mexican.”
Each state in Mexico has its own traditions, clothing and dishes. “We all make enchiladas, but we don’t make it the same way,” she said. “It’s about respecting those cultures and not making these assumptions.”
National Hispanic Heritage Month is Sunday, Sept. 15 to Tuesday, Oct. 15. Olivares said this is a good time to learn about culture.
Some people wonder why some racial slurs and terms can be used within a group of people of color (POC), but it’s not OK for white people to also use the words. “Words have meaning and when that meaning is meant to create or maintain a social hierarchy it matters a lot who uses them,” Laube said.
Some words were created by white people to use against minorities. Sometimes POC use the same words amongst themselves, often in jest. “When POC use these terms they take back some of that power,” Laube said.
The term “cholo” itself is problematic because it tends to refer to a Latino male gangster. It can also refer to a man of partly indigenous ancestry, in Latin countries. Either way, it’s derogatory.