Monday, January 05, 2009

New Year's Blog Tour - Introducing La Cholita

Photo by Brandon Showers

She lives on a quiet street in one of those indefinable parts of L.A., wedged between Hollywood and Silverlake. It took me two tries to find the address she'd texted me and just like a man, I was forced to call for directions. On the phone, La Cholita spoke with a youthful enthusiasm – not with an Eartha Kitt growl or a Mae West purr that one might expect upon seeing her photos.

When Cholita opened her front door, I was surprised to see that she wasn't much taller than me. "You're so tiny," I couldn't help but exclaim. She threw open her arms and she gave me a tight hug as if we were best friends who hadn't seen each other since high school. She laughed. "I know. Everyone says that."

La Cholita is not her creator, nor is she exactly an alter ego. (She also asked me not to use her real name to preserve her mystique and no, I didn't make her up.) Cholita is an extension if you will, of the 25 year-old Latina who grew up in Highland Park watching musicals from the 1930s and 40's. As we talked in her hot pink living room, I saw glimpses of the platinum blonde vamp in the happy, energetic woman with freckles under her make-up. It's hard and yet, wasn't hard to imagine her wowing audiences in a sparkling costume and leaving them wearing a g-string and pasties. But I got to know the the phenomenon known as La Cholita.

All I Need Is The Girl
Photo by Mr.40 Chev
Six years ago, after her mom took her to a burlesque convention, La Cholita burst onto the L.A. scene as the first and only Latina dancer.

"I had a really hard time finding my way in," she said. "It was like this secret society
and when I'd ask friends who were doing it, they were very hush hush about how to get started."

At that convention, she was dazzled by the burlesque queens, some who were still flashing their goods like they had when we were fighting the Nazis. Cholita's only disappointment was that there were no Latinas.

"It seemed ridiculous to me because Latinas are the most sensual and passionate women in the world but we are also kind of conditioned to keep it all under wraps," she said. "My disappointment quickly turned to enlightenment when I realized that's it! This is what I am meant to do! All of those years singing, dancing and dressing up as a young girl was all in preparation for my ultimate calling: Burlesque Starlet."

Cholita signed up for a burlesque class that again didn't throw open the doors. But it did crack them open a little. All the students would have their chance to dance on-stage at The Derby in the retro-cool neighborhood of Los Feliz. Cholita realize
d everything was up to her – the choreography, costume and music – for her to stand-out among the veterans and new girls before a demanding audience.

"When my heel hit the stage, I knew it was right," she said. "I couldn't do anything else."

The audience loved her and La Cholita, the burlesque starlet was born.

You Gotta Get A Gimmick
Photo by Mr.40 Chev
La Cholita made her official debut as a Lowrider Loca wearing her name crystallized in Old English across her corset. She's appeared with a Dia de Los Muertos calavera mask painted on half her face, as an Aztec goddess and in a folklorico dress from Chiapas. (My favorite are her beaded pasties of the Mexican flag.) At the end of each number, she throws up an East L.A. sign - her signature move - and has a loyal following of couples, Latinas and cholos and old pachucos who love her for representing la raza.

But burlesque, with its roots in old school Hollywood glamor - many of the women boast looks clearly inspired by Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow – cast La Cholita as one of the bad girls.

"Some of the other dancers told me that my image wasn't sexy, that the street element was too tough and my energy was too intense," she remembers. "At first I felt bad but then I remembered that the reason I started was because I wanted to be different, I wanted girls to feel inspired, I wanted to represent a strong Latina and show that our curves are something to be proud of, that our culture is something to be proud of."

Since then La Cholita has performed around the world, winning the coveted Miss Viva Las Vegas title in 2007 and appearing on Carson Kressley's "How to Look Good Naked", Telemundo and Eyewitness News. She's danced for corporate clients Hornitos, Christina Aguilera and European surgeons. She now models for ChicanaWear Clothing, La Pachuca, Secrets in Lace, Stop Staring, Dainty Dames, Ignition, and My Lucky Girls Creations.

"I knew girls who gave up because they couldn't make ends meet," she said. "There were times when I was almost evicted and lost my power or water and had to hide my car from being repossessed. But I wouldn't give up."

Little Lamb
Photo by Mr.40 Chev
"I've always been an outsider," Cholita said. "My childhood wasn't all rainbows and lollipops."

When she was grew up with her single, artist mom in Highland Park. She wasn't brown enough for the chicano kids in her neighborhood, nor could she relate to the privileged kids in the private prep schools her mom enrolled her in. She didn't form a relationship with her father until she was fourteen and he was dying of cancer.

"I was really awkward and I'd come home crying that I hated my chubby legs, curly hair and freckles and that I hated my mom for giving them to me."

Cholita escaped her self-loathing through dance and acting lessons her mom scrapped to provide, and through the glamor of old movies. And yet, she was fascinated by the cholas she'd see hanging in her neighborhood and at the car shows where her uncles would proudly show off their lowriders.

"I remember seeing cholas on the street corners with their crazy nails and their hair teased and just that opulent, over-the-top look," she said. "And yet, they were tough."

Her grandfather, a zoot suiter from the '40s, also had an influence on her developing style. "He'd tell me all kinds of stories probably because I was the only person who listened to h
im. He used to tell me you could get into a fight or kill a man but you looked good doing it."

She laughed and shook her head. "He always said in his day you had to represent." She then mimicked him. "Cholos nowadays, they don't got no style. In my day, I'd fuck a man up and still had a crease in my pants."

He passed away last November and Cholita occasionally had to buck up when she talked of him.

"My biggest validation was when he came to my shows," she said. "He really said he loved it."

Some People
Photo by Mr.40 Chev
La Cholita not only dresses the part of the "fuck-you-up" chola, she also lived the life. In high school, she began running with gangsters and dabbling in drugs. When she started to see her friends getting shot and dying, she knew she had to get out of the life if she wanted to live.

"I weighed 98 pounds and when I look at my high school prom pictures-" She sucked in her breath. "I was barely there."

Her mother taking her to the burlesque convention seemed to have opened an escape hatch.

"I was a 180 pounds when I started [dancing] and I've never felt more secure and more empowered." Even though she's getting naked before strangers on bars and theatre stages, the burlesque style of stripping is all on the dancer's terms.

"I decide what people see and what they don't," she said. "What I thought was my flaws are what make me stand out."

Ironically, corsets and fishnets are in her blood. Her grandmother on her father's side was once a burlesque dancer.

"When [that side of the family] found out what I was doing, they-" she makes a slicing motion through the air. "They cut me off."

Let Me Entertain You
Photo from Miss Viva Las Vegas Competition 2007
La Cholita's L.A. appearances are family affairs with her mom, tios, tias, cousins and friends cheering her on. She's backed by her own band and her fans come dressed to the nines to see her. Men treat her like a lady when they approach her after her performances. "I've never been treated more respectfully than ever in my life," she says.

She has driven audiences into ecstasy just by taking off a glove. At a performance at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, she sent an elderly man to the hospital. Her friend once told her that she's a force on stage.

"Every single time I'm standing in the wings, I'm nervous. I can barely hold it in. It's like I'm being electrocuted in the inside," she said.

As Cholita she doesn't feel intimidated about anything. She can approach a cute guy and ask him out. The second her music comes on and she steps out under the lights, something takes over her. She doesn't think about the moves. She gets off on the energy, feeding it and feeding off of it. She loves that she never knows what's going to happen and that no number is ever the same as the last.

But in more intimate situations, when she's with a guy, she admits, "I'm thinking, 'oh now I have to take off my bra' ... 'is the light hiding my cellulite from him?'" We laughed; I'm relieved that I have the same hang-ups as a woman who seduces audiences for a living.

"I'm more vulnerable as myself," she said.

La Cholita sees no limit to the possibilities. She sees designing a line of clothing, creating her own one-woman show and modeling. Her dream is to dance in Paris and tour Mexico, especially to perform on the stage of the Juarez theatre in Guanajuato, where she visited with her grandfather.

"I'm not ready for that," she said, pausing to think about returning to that theatre without him. "I am following my dreams, making things happen and representing where I've come from. I am very lucky and ever so grateful to have the support of mi familia."

To see the complete gallery of La Cholita's photos, her schedule of performances and more, visit her at VivaCholita.

Sherri won Berta Platas' drawing from yesterday's blog ... hurray!

The winner of my contest is
Teresa Carbajal Ravet! Thanks EVERYONE for reading and getting to know La Cholita!


Berta said...

Gosh! She's so... pneumatic. Gotta love a lady who makes her own way, fearlessly.

Ruby Champagne said...

La Cholita is one of the fiercest Performers I know...great article!
Ruby Champagne

Barbara Caridad Ferrer said...

Rock on! That was amazing, Mary.

And I know what the musical is, but I'm a geek that way. *g*

Teresa Carbajal Ravet said...

I enjoy being exposed and introduced to new artists, new art,... anything new! Thanks Mary. I'll be following La Cholita's career. Bravo!

Is Gypsy the inspiration?

Teresa Carbajal Ravet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mrs. V said...

I had to do a little bit of research on-line, and it looks like the lines were inspired from Gypsy. Thanks for the post.

Zulmara said...

Love the inspiration...

Gypsy was the inspiration...and you did an awesome job with telling Cholita's story...

Que cool are you...



Mary Castillo said...

Pnuematic? I've never heard it applied that way!

Thanks, Ruby!

Hey Barb, I'll roll that way, too.

Teresa, you're in the running!

That goes for you, too, Mrs. V.

Hi Zulmara, you're in as well!

Thanks for reading, everyone!

Mary C.

MadMike said...

Thank you so much for doing this story! I have been a fan of burlesque for a long time but have never seen ANYONE compare to Cholita.. try as they might.
You know you are in the prescence of greatness when you see her perform she is a true star! This story gave me such great insight and an even deeper appreciation for for her as an artist and a person.

Rudeboy said...

ORALE VIVA LA CHOLITA!!! Much Respect to you Mary for such a wonderful job. As an old pachuco I must admit Cholita is everyman's dream pinup. After reading this I respect her struggles and strength to rise above and become a beautiful role model and artist, she is a thriver and survivor. I was so moved by this piece I actually read it to my daughters.

Mary Castillo said...

Thank you so much MadMike and RudeBoy! Meeting Cholita will be something I'll remember for a long, long time.

XIOMARA said...

WOW GREAT BLOG! This should be a feature in a magazine. Cholita is such an inspiration and I can safely say that girls like Ruby Champagne and myself look up to her and try to emulate her style in hopes that we can be even half as good as her. Thank you Cholita for being you and opening doors can't wait to see what you'll do next! Thank you Mary for this blog I will definitely look for your books =)


Arlene said...

I agree with Xiomara this should be a feature in a magazine! I was crackin' up in the beginning of the blog when you talk about how tiny she is, because I had the same experience when I first met her. I guess because on stage and in photos she's so powerful and comes across larger than life.
I had no idea she had been through so much, it's nice to see such a glamorous talented woman representing where she came from.

Anonymous said...

When La Cholita hits the stage, the audience goes home happy! She's a feel good performer that just exudes energy full of passion and life. She stops the clock and mesmerizes, then it's over and all I know is that I feel good inside because she's a true performer with "heart". Great article, this should be a magazine feature, more people should experience a "La Cholita" performance! And more should experience your writing Mary, I'm buying your book! thank you!

Nate_dogg said...

No matter where she goes Cholita always stands out. She just naturally commands all the attention in a room without even trying.
I have been lucky enough to catch quite a few of her shows and I never get tired of seeing her.When she performs its almost like you are up on stage with her because you really FEEL it..She connects with the entire audience.
I have to state the obvious and say that she is absolutely stunning and has the most amazing curves which don't hurt either ;0)

DeAnna Cameron said...

Terrific post, Mary!
And just another reason why I think you deserve the Premio Dardos award I gave you on my writing blog. I've given them to all of my top 15 must-read blogs. You can check out more at if you're interested.
Take care,

Betty M said...

Gracias Mary for sharing this incredible story. I'm so tired of seeing the same 5 Latina's all the time and reading the same boring bullshit articles about how they are proud of their curves and their culture but somehow are a size 0 and the only culture they seem to possess is having Lopez as thier last name and a caramel skin tone.Cholita should be on the cover of Latina not Jessica Alba..Shit she should be on the cover of Vogue! I love that she is fearless and shows that we Latinas come in all shapes and colors.She is the epitome of an icon.
This story really needs to be published on a larger scale and brought to a broader audience!

Betty M said...

Gracias Mary for sharing this incredible story. I'm so tired of seeing the same 5 Latina's all the time and reading the same boring bullshit articles about how they are proud of their curves and their culture but somehow are a size 0 and the only culture they seem to possess is having Lopez as thier last name and a caramel skin tone.Cholita should be on the cover of Latina not Jessica Alba..Shit she should be on the cover of Vogue! I love that she is fearless and shows that we Latinas come in all shapes and colors.She is the epitome of an icon.
This story really needs to be published on a larger scale and brought to a broader audience!

cascabel said...

Well said Betty M! More people need to read this it's such a powerful piece.I love La Cholita and admire her bravery and resistance to conform!! YOU GO GIRL! I had heard of burlesque but assumed it was a fancy term for "exotic dancer" After reading this and going to her site I am soo inspired and fascinated. It is such a beautiful artform. She is oh so glamorous and beautiful I love that old hollywood classic starlet look she has.Can't wait to go to one of her shows.
Mary you are such a beautiful writer!

Anonymous said...

This girl is beautiful! I'll have to check out one of her shows. Sounds dynamite! I agree with other comments posted, she needs to be seen and recognized. Feature article on her, please!

Mary Castillo said...

Wow, I guess y'all liked reading about Cholita!

I do plan to write a larger piece for a magazine. When it is published, I'll let everyone know.

Betty M. I feel your exasperation with Hollywood. I laughed when I saw a story about Eva Longoria's weight gain for Desperate Housewives ... look, she's a size two instead of a negative 4! Hollywood and New York are worlds of their own and are often out of touch with the average person. I really like writing for Latino Future because they put women like Vida Guerra on the cover and profile actors and musicians who don't get a lot of attention.

I've not yet seen Cholita perform in person. But she had a video on her profile and man, she was powerful. I can't wait to see her, too.

Thanks everyone and make sure to check out Margo Candela's contribution to the blog tour!

P.S. I won an award? Cool!

lacholita said...

I would like to thank everyone for all your wonderful comments, your love and support mean the world to me and drive me to keep going!
Mary, it was such a pleasure to sit and talk with you. You are a gem!I hope we have the opportunity to collaborate in the future.

rachael said...

she's amazing!!

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