Over several years, Federico Gama documented the lives of cholos in Mexico City: a community descended from the Chicanosâ€”American citizens of Mexican ancestryâ€”which embodies, like no other, the cross cultural fusion that distinguishes North America. The result of this work is Cholos a la Neza, Otra Identidad de la MigraciĂłn, a projectâ€”now presented here in Nuestra Miradaâ€”that documents the impact of Mexico Cityâ€™s urban culture on young indigenous migrants. In 2008, the work was nominated for the All Roads Prize awarded by the National Geographic All Roads Project. Gama, who is 47, and a nationally and internationally recognized photographer, created a spare and truthful record by immersing himself in a universe at once close and strange. He transformed that mix of proximity and distance into a story that reveals youth, identity, and the difficult permanence of origins.
Text and Photographs by Federico Gama
Translated by Ted O’Callahan
Children of the border. The cholos represent a unique cultural phenomenon in Mexico. They are the immediate descendants of the Chicano gangs of the 1950s (known as pachucos) which means they carry a legacy marked by cultural uprooting.
Chicanos, historically, were U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. They were proud of their mixed cultural heritage but both cultures consistently rejected them and they eventually created a distinct identity. On the one hand, they had the nationality of a countryâ€”the United Statesâ€”which did not quite accept them. And on the other, while paying tribute to a â€śtrue culture,â€ť a mythical and symbolic past, their lives had nothing to do with the world of their grandparents. In other words, they were too Mexican to be American and too gringo to be Mexican.
From them and from the deep fusions of cultures they embodied, came the cholos: the boldest representatives of Chicano culture, the protagonists in a phenomenon of borders and prevailing cultures in parts of both Mexico and the U.S. Hence, the cholos of Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl (also known as Neza, Nezayork or MiNezota) can be understood as a kind of cultural implosion that takes elements from various geographies but remains part of a single origin. That is to say, they are Mexicans from Mexico City who consider themselves Chicanos and yearn to live in Los Angeles. In short, there is a gringomexicano ghetto in the center of Mexico, a border phenomenon in the very heart of a culture.
Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, a poor area of Mexico City, is the place where this way of life, this means of belonging, developed. Young people there feel marginalized by the big city, and that has consequences: they donâ€™t identify with youth culture in central Mexico but instead with their cousins, brothers, and uncles who are going to work as â€śespaldas mojadasâ€ťâ€”â€śwet backsâ€ťâ€”o n the other side of the border.
This photographic work delves into the world of the cholos of Nezayork: thousands of young people who speak Spanglish, who congregate in gangs to maintain control of more than 80 districts of the municipality, and bestow on themselves the names of the famous gangs of East Los Angeles.
Love, violence, and faith. In Nezayork violence is a way of life. Some of these young men have been carrying a gun since they were 12 years old. They wear baggy clothing; paint graffiti or gang tags, which are called placazos, on the walls of the houses; and engage in drive-by shootings with neighborhood enemies.
However, this urban tribe is also known for other things; that is, being a cholo is not simply being a delinquent. It also means belonging to a cultural movement that includes a wide range of urban popular art such as the mural, the placazo, low-riders (cars and bikes fitted with special accessories, and painted with striking colors and shapes), comics, film, music, and the special arrangements of their clothing and personal items.
Among cholos there are also atavistic values that most young Mexicans have forgottenâ€”if they ever had themâ€”such as solidarity among members of a barrio, a love for oneâ€™s mother, and faith in La Virgen de Guadalupe. They pay great respect to the memory of the dead but do not fear death. They feel a great pride in being Mexican and sharing a pre-Hispanic history.
The funny thing is that these values did not reach them through the official discourse of the state; it was precisely the opposite. They learned them from relatives or friends who spent many years outside of Mexico working as espaldas mojadas in the United States. In other words, it was the mythical Chicano who transmitted the certainty of identity. And it was the Chicanos, too, who are held up by the Neza cholos as genuine living gods: the ones, who bring money from El Norte, wear Nikes, brave encounters with the gringo police, ride around in loud cars with their girls, and come to visit carrying enough cash to treat everyone to endless rounds of free drugs and alcohol. That is, Chicanos have everything a young man from Neza might dream of. And that dreamâ€”a desire that is forever unfulfilledâ€”keeps the cholos, and the imperfect community they have constructed, alive.