Saturday 13 March 2010

A piece of the Jigsaw or the Jigsaw itself? The Sociology of the ‘Cholo-Colombianos’

Introductory context

Attempting to ascertain social phenomena within the bounds of monocultural nation states tend to be intricate tasks. For whenever specific collective actions are undertaken by movements that do not subscribe to mainstream culture, these will tend to be identified as sub-cultural or countercultural, depending on the degree of deviance in which they may be incurring. Subsuming these in a qualitative fashion as counterpoised to common praxis, is typical not only of the State and its organization of the social world; it is also customary for the general public at large.

The aforementioned introductory lines are a case in point for Mexico as a country. Common knowledge is prone, both domestically and internationally, to view the land of the Aztec and the Spaniard as composed of a homogeneous Mestizo (mixed white and indigenous race) background that makes up the building blocks for the prevailing racial composition. But an uncomfortable truth has haunted the nation for decades. Racial minorities, composed of white Spanish descended peoples and that of the darker skinned Indigenous inhabitants, were left out of the unipolar mestizo blend, and they have grown apart from each other, not only in class terms, but also in the utilization of available economic and cultural resources. The playing out of their particular symbolic worldviews occurs within unevenly shared public spaces. Centuries of bloodshed and race intermingling gave way to the formation of a socio-political unit that nevertheless has endured the most severe of hardships. But in the end, Mexico is not really a monocultural nation.

And the main issue is that it has always been like this. The State has been perennially intent (since its postcolonial inception) in consolidating some sort of uniformity out of a disparaged society. In this context, we could not really say that any collectivity is concretely sub cultural, as there is no clear and definite identity for Mexicans as a whole. Despite that, it could be true that there exists common national symbols, and that whatever a few ensembles containing few peoples does not necessarily imply a threat to a vaguely understood but accepted set of values. Overall, there is not really one type of Mexican, but many of them constructing particular narratives under one same roof.

So in order to understand a phenomenon as the ‘Cholo Colombianos’ we have to take the previous backdrop into account. The second thing we have to do is to remove our prejudices from the table, because minority behaviour tends to be treated in pejorative terms, to say the least. Hence, the better way of delving into any group’s livelihood is by direct face to face in depth qualitative interviewing and participant observation. The following lines will be laid down as a result of a case study involving members of a group that has been basically referred to as an “unregenerate mass of unemployed and addicted youngsters” by the media, the State and civil society. I was personally involved in the interviewing and qualitative analysis of the data obtained, and my work was motivated, not in terms of how we could question the latter reference (that I personally find unfounded), but in how we could really comprehend how some people make their way in a contemporary world, were narratives tend to be overrun by an onslaught of en-masse directed criticisms, that tend to obscure or plainly soil minority practices.

Without trying to determine that a particular socio-economic status or class position stereotypically paves the way for specific group interests, it is still safe to pin-down the circle of individuals better known as ‘Cholo-Colombianos’ at the top-end of the lower class, if by that we understand, people who do not by themselves show any propensity to form part of a well established structure of class mobility (led by the upper classes), but who nevertheless are aware of a social world that can be transformed by the acting out of their potentialities in the acquisition of at least a partial slice of material consumption, which has in a sense established the material basis for their particular cultural habits. This by itself distinguishes the upper-lower classes from the rest of the disenfranchised bulk in this social categorization.

It is also necessary to differentiate occupations within that social echelon, to better try to tangibly locate our participants. The Mexican working class (which forms the lion’s share of the lower classes in Mexico) could well be divided in at least two forms. A first classification could include the lowest denominated of occupations, ranging from informal workers (which represents up to at least half of domestic commercial activities throughout the country and are centred around the main big metropolises of Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey) who are detached from a tax-collection structure, and on the other hand, we could also include manual workers (subsistence farmers, carpenters, mason workers, et cetera) and they both tend to be people with barely or, in some cases, no education or literacy at all. The main distinction between these and our interviewed subjects (upper-lower class), is that the latter are bearers of at least a basic primary education, and, in some of the cases interviewed, holders of a basic technical education that functions as the knowledge-basis of particular lines of work. In this sense, the ‘Cholo-Colombianos’ life is centred around a working week that pays off their leisure pursuits, which only become affordable thanks to an averagely paid job. They are able to provide for their attires (that distinguish them and sets them apart from others) and can simultaneously finance any entrance fees to local clubs that harbour the ambiance, music, and dance styles that they seek. But in the end, these guys do not maintain their families or offspring of any kind. Their earnings are directly invested in their own image, both in portraying it in symbolical ways, and by reproducing it in conjunction with other members of their clan. Working classes are centred on peripheral, but nevertheless well-established working class neighbourhoods. These communities supply the majority of work force necessary to maintain an agro-industrial economy as it is played out in Monterrey, the northern industrial hub of the country.

Middle classes, on the other hand, are both more professional and educated (with at least secondary or tertiary degrees) and can be found in completely different subject positions, well placed in a class structure that is organized in a way that guarantees (at least in theory) social mobility. In this way, we could determine a kind of symbolic relation between the middle and upper classes. Aspiration for the former in this scheme, is not only portrayed by observing similarities of material uses like fashion and other elements like lifestyle options and choice of residence and consumption of automobiles, but by a whole array of symbolic choices that tend to be understood as “upper class” and which tend to be emulated because of tangible possibilities of doing so.

Essentially, the lower classes are not particularly and clearly accommodated in a position of mobile and hierarchical class structure like the one played out by the middle and upper classes, as they are far away from the scheme, as explained in the introductory context. However, as we have seen and will continue to do so throughout this paper, the ‘Cholo-Colombianos’ have found ways of giving meaning to their lives by delighting in a kind of recreation that goes beyond accepted conceptions of the term, but which in the end, harms no one. These activities require particular attention and a just explanation, not only for those involved in them, but for others who may have little or no knowledge of them and who could easily become victims of miscomprehension and of class-mongering.

Music & Dance

The ‘Cholo Colombianos’ use of music as differentiating practice is one of their most salient characteristics, as they have chosen a particular style throughout their projective phases since the 1980s. The Colombiano part of the name implies an appropriation of a Colombian cultural product - that is of their music - the cumbia Vallenata. The use of a foreign product takes place in a curious manner. Our lot does not take into account nation-specific particularities (besides music) for their enjoyment. They are attracted by the appealing rhythm of Colombian music, by its joy and simplicity of tune, and by its infectious melody that is very conducive (according to them) for effective dancing in both private and public arenas. It is also very important to say that the utilization of Colombian tunes is not something new but something that has been constantly imbibed by them since both their youth and the inception of the ‘Cholo Colombianos’ a few decades ago, in and around their own neighbourhoods. In their own words, “It was there, and we grew up with it”. So in this sense, the music being there means that it has been taken up by others in their own way of building their own group identity. In the end, it was preferred by them (contemporary members) particularly in order to conform their own bloc personality. At heart, Colombian music and dance reinforces the group’s symbolic worldview, both internally (as a mode of personal and signification) and externally, in the practice of public and social bonding processes like dancing and concert attendance in massive venues. It is important to mention that Colombian Vallenato music is not orthodox fare as Mexican autochthonous songs, which in comparison are favoured as the most conventional or popular throughout the nation.

Another final aspect that is fundamental to point out in order to more closely come to grips with the playing out of this particular group identity is dance. Cholo Colombianos have their own particular technique, but in a sense, the latter could be understood a syncretic way of dancing a foreign jingle but with a local flavour. It is a social dance style, not an individual one. This is further evidence of the bonding qualities of this the music of their choice.

Clothing & Fashion

The clothing style that characterizes the ‘Cholo-Colombianos’ is a curious blend of eclecticism. On one hand, the individuals conforming they have added to their own distinct style out of available domestic resources. On the other hand, depending on a foreign import for music does not necessarily exclude the possibility of enjoying it with a local taste. And that is specifically what has happened. Cholo Colombianos have developed their own clothing style in something that could be termed as a “fashion statement” that flaunts various elements and influences simultaneously. So following this argument, we can say that the Colombiano part of the fashion equation is represented by the use of well-established icons of Mexican extraction, but this are just utilized for symbolic motives. But be that as it may, these exclude the usage of icons, which could be understood and related to symbols of nationalism or patriotism in any way (I will come to this last point in the identity part of our account).

So the employment of icons like the Virgin of Guadalupe, cactuses (nopal) and or flowers in their attire is characteristic of them, and it tends to maintain their public use of identity within an established set of symbolic meanings that could well be understood by compatriots within Mexico. Another important thing to comment is that the ‘Cholo Colombianos’ have developed their clothing tastes and aesthetics (how they view themselves and others who share the public world) not only in counter position to others, but have developed their own motives (both internal and external) that could serve as justifications for behaving that way. Their social use of clothing is not to alarm others or to be against them. Nevertheless they definitely want to stand out from the crowd.

But in order to complete the fashion statement and eclecticism we have to completely flesh out the other part of their name and social identity, the Cholo part. Here is where we can picture the influence from the United States of America (and of television) in terms of a kind of aspirational opportunity of expansion for them as individuals and as a movement, but not as class awareness within a well-established social hierarchy (as explained before). This could be understood by the predisposition for particular brand names, which are not only related to, but which are worn by a particular circle that in a sense, and according to them, is placed above them - at least fashion wise. This latter band in question is the American gang culture of Los Angeles, which tends to leads the way in clothing matters. The interviewees questioned were clear about brand labels that are American in origin, and they were also clear in their reference of these as sort of higher placed outfits in a scale of socio-economic positions. Ironically, this usage of alternate, but well established trademarks, also serves the purpose of ‘refining’ or ‘cleansing’ their collective identity up to a point, as interviewees were clear on this as representing more austere (squared and line patterned shirts but nevertheless still colourful) but less stigmatized garments by other public peoples outside of their circle. The boys were clear about being overtly criticized whenever they wore cactuses, or representations of the Virgin of Guadalupe because of the “popular culture” feel that these symbols elicit. Overall, they believed that wearing a more Cholo-like, US influenced attire, dramatically reduced criticism and condescension. In this sense, we could safely say that (just like any other big tract of a big aspirational society that tends too look in the upper echelons of itself for solace when it comes to social mobility and distinction) ‘Cholo Colombianos’ not only revel in imports for their particular use in terms of identity formation, they also serve as safeguards or pressure relievers when it comes to manifesting themselves within a range of opposing or competing social blocs. ‘Cholo Colombiano’ fashion is not only a collective phenomena, it also stands for individual and very personal public statements that nonetheless show structural group guidance in their compounding. To sum it up, clothing style is shaped both by local and foreign influences, but has nevertheless conflated as a hybrid and healthy mix that they have incorporated in order to better represent them. Group identity is hence reinforced by dress.

Religious symbols and Identity

Now, regarding the use of religious symbolism, a few things can be stated. First, it is clear that religious icons are used because of the impact that religion not only has had on the nation (a fundamental facet of Mexican life), but on families themselves and their sense of identity within and across narratives of everyday living. But is important to state at this stage, that regardless of the fact that some nations tend to establish bonds with particular religions in order to cement national identity (excluding theocracies as obvious examples), the ‘Cholo Colombiano’ use of religious iconography is not related to patriotic issues. In our case study, the symbols are worn for particular qualities that they expound. The Virgin de Guadalupe is worn because of the maternal symbolism and her ‘protective’ characteristics. In this case, we could relate the habit of displaying this image to a wider and more commonplace use. Regardless of the fact the Virgin de Guadalupe represented (and it still does) an important milestone for a sense of national identity ever since the formation of Mexico as a nation, it also depicts ideas of protection from various eventualities. The interviewees were very clear on the protective aspects of the usage of the Virgin, but also probed on the possibility that it in itself has become an object of emulation for the bunch of members that are “not so sure of why others do certain things but nevertheless imitate them because at least those others feel like they know what they’re doing”.

Moreover, it was also intriguing to learn that the Christ as a symbol was sporadically absent, as it in a sense represents the main and patriarchal figure of Catholicism, but one who does not posses fragmented qualities that could be integrated into individual necessities. On the other hand, I was witness of the common use of images of ‘minor deities’ or saints like ‘Saint Jude Thaddeus’ that functioned as repositories for specific broken-down demands like for example pardon from petty sins, whenever they were committed by the bearer. In this sense, the Virgin and the Saints are worn because they function as intermediaries between the porter, and the qualities that he seeks in those iconic figures directly, thus bypassing an intrusive and bloated clergy. In the end, the use of iconography in a material form also represents a kind of amulet for bad vibrations that are ever present in and around social arenas.

So belief is socially catholic for the ‘Cholo Colombianos’ as they have acknowledged being religious, but have subsumed it below family, an institution that in the Mexican case is anyway a pillar of religiousness. Thus a strong religious identification is inescapable in this context, and it both serves to legitimize the group as an ontological reality versus the external social world, as it also provides an in-group psychological and symbolic synthesis.

Now in order to better understand issues of collective identity as a whole we have to take into account individual experience and narrative that form a complementary dimension. This means that the guys do not have to give up much of what they consider being their own individual personalities in order to fit in with the crowd. Nevertheless, the ensemble does function as a space of representation where they play out their personalities in a more horizontal fashion. This means that they do value their families and religions highly, and both are prized above the ‘Cholo Colombiano’ bunch, but they find themselves more comfortable in forming part of an concept which does not only function as a collective identity, but as an outlet for their particular natures. An example of this is that they generally keep their nicknames and use them throughout their unique contribution. In short, family and religion are too hierarchical, so the group gives them a kind of support that is lacking in both the former. It is fundamental to state that the movement serves as a recipient for identity and that it is also established as a means to fulfil the normal expectations of these young adults, that of entertainment in a shared environment which is tailored for that purpose. Ultimately, the ‘Cholo Colombianos’ are not interested in political claims or ideologies of any sort, and are up to a point exempt from graffiti and violence, like gang fights, militancy or social frictions.

The ‘Cholo Colombiano’ phenomenon can help us to understand how complex Mexico really is and how it keeps becoming in its transition towards a multi-cultural and globalized nation, thus morphing in its own way, and integrating itself, in an ever expanding and inter-connected world. So with this backdrop in mind, it can be better to say that the movement could represent more of a kind of ‘subtle post-modern tribalism’, one that is not archaic or regressive in any way to a derogatory pre-nation state context of irrational and uncivilized group in-fighting for supremacy in the social world, but certainly one that takes elements from a contemporary semi-coalesced idea of nation, and which should not be seen as a threat to it, and that moreover should be taken for what it is, avoiding political and or socio-cultural intents of subsuming it under an advantageous idea of a homogeneous Mexican identity.

Juan Carlos Guerra / Monterrey, Mexico - February 2010