Thirty years since its UK release, we look at the impact chola gang-girl masterpiece Mi Vida Loca has had on current pop culture.
Thirty years since its UK release, chatting to feted director Allison Anders, we look at the impact chola gang-girl masterpiece Mi Vida Loca has had on pop culture (FKA Twigs, Gwen Stefani – we’re looking at you). This one’s for the mothers, warriors, sisters… survivors!
It’s the mid nineties. Gang violence in the state of Los Angeles is at an all time high. Allison Anders is shooting her cult chola girl-gang movie Mi Vida Loca in the reportedly no-go neighbourhood of Echo Park. Talking to Anders now, twenty years later, she’s characteristically cool about the very real threat of violence that shrouded the set. “I had a thirteen year old gang-girl working with locations and she’d say, ‘We can go down here, everyone will be safe, we can’t go down there, that’s not our neighbourhood’.”
Anders recalls the one time she lost it on set, “Just shouting, ‘You be on time, you stop getting high, you learn your fucking lines!’” she clucks. Anders’ methods were, let’s say, unconventional; in the name of authenticity, she street-cast real life Echo Park gang members. “The girls I was working with, they were getting shot at and standing alongside people getting killed. It was a gnarly time, but I kept all the violence off-screen because I wasn’t interested in that. I was interested in the girls, the subculture as a pop culture, the music, the clothes, and how they interacted with one another.”
90s indie, coming-of-age “hood tales” are two-a-penny in Hollywood, but Anders’ lore about a girl-squad so tightly bound by loyalty and love is irresistible: the romance; the fatalism; the pseudonyms Whisper, Giggles and La Blue Eyes; the low rider whips that swing like the chica’s hips; the boys in their hair nets; and the honey-glazed, 7-11, drive-thru neighbourhood – the film is an aesthete’s wet dream.
The opening scene unfurls like gangster Ernesto’s hydraulically-powered transformer truck, Suavecito. A half naked señorita is revealed as the trunk lifts away from the body of the car, the tyres flex, as Ernesto languidly cruises through a dusty LA. Cut to “Sad Girl” staring moodily into the lens, all pompadour hair and provocatively painted plum lips as she has three dots painted under her left eye, all the while with a baby on her lap.
The plot came from “the neighbourhood”, explains Allison. “My daughter came home from school and told me this story about two girls: ‘Christina had a baby with Ernesto and then Marta had a baby with Ernesto and now they don’t get along,’ she said. I was like, ‘Who is this Ernesto? I gotta meet this stud’, and when I saw him he was just this tiny kid.”
The plot centres around two cholas, nicknamed Sad Girl and Mousie. They grow up together; as children on their block’s fire escape, as teenagers backcombing their hair in the mirror and as young women getting “jumped in” (initiated into their gang). Eventually, they betray each other by having a baby by the same man, Ernesto. Sad Girl (Angel Aviles) and Mousie (Seidy López) were played by trained actresses and Mi Vida Loca is also Selma Hayek’s first film appearance. Aviles recalls auditioning mainly out of curiosity. “Even now, 2015, they’re not making films about these women, who at the time were considered to be this ugly, underbelly of Los Angeles. I thought, why make a film about these girls? The war paint, the tattoos, the crime – it was bad. I found it intriguing. I was raised in New York which may as well have been a different universe.”
I wondered how difficult walking onto a set with a bunch of gang members might be for a twenty two year old stage-school kid. “These days, it’s termed BFFs, back then we called it ‘being down for your shit’, which means the same if you’re in LA or in the middle of the Amazon. It’s how you relate to your clan. I remember thinking these girls are legit, they love hard and they fight hard. I went in with respect and that’s what I got.” Aviles recalls preparing for the “cussing-match” between Mousie and Sad Girl on the fire escape. “Seidy and I were really good friends, so we knew each other’s trigger points, but I walked around set like, ‘What shall I say to that bitch?’, and I remember, even though it’s 25 years ago, Whisper said, ‘You should tell her, her pussy ain’t made of gold.’ I was like, ‘What?’, she was like, ‘Yeah.’ I was 22 years old, not from a small town in the Mid West, I was straight from New York City and I was like, ‘This girl is strong!’”
Susan Bertram designed the film’s wardrobe, and began by heading to “Compton Swap Meet in Echo park where the girls usually shopped. There they could get their buckled belts made up with their initial in old English scripture, or they could get ‘EC’ embroidered on the back of their jackets.” Allison constantly refers to the hand drawn magazine, Teen Angels, which has become something of a canonisation for the scene’s aesthetic (issues now go for hundreds of dollars on Ebay). The pages are filled with low-rider illustrations that inspired the artwork of the opening credits; hands in prayer, pierced flaming hearts, melancholy Madonnas and Pachuca girls with tears etched on their faces.
Mousie and Sad Girl’s uniforms tell different Chicana narratives. Mousie’s more overtly sexual style harks back to Pachuca style of the 1940s, which was the first pop-subculture for Mexicans in the United States. The old-school look was flamboyant and controversial, bending the rules of feminine dressing. While men dressed in wide Zoot Suits, women wore high heels, high skirts, and higher hair and occasionally their Pachuco boyfriend’s trousers.
For Angel, then aged 22, Sad Girl’s style had to be a more masculine take on chola garb than Mousie’s. “When I read the script, Allison had noted that Sad Girl had a ‘wall of hair’. I wanted her look to be extreme. She’s overcompensating all the time, so I wanted
her lips darker and sharper than everyone else, to have both her hands and her face tattooed. The first time I came out of hair and makeup everyone was like, ‘That’s legit’.”
The wardrobe has undoubtedly contributed to the film’s enduring appeal and Sad Girl’s look has become a blueprint for chicana style in the west. Professor of Anthropology at UCLA and author of Homegirls, Norma Mendosa-Denton, argues a flick of eyeliner could become a political act for chola girls. “They had different ways of doing make up, so if you saw someone from far away, you could tell what gang they were in,” she says.
Jay Wejebe worked as the makeup artist on set. Anders remembers a “22 year-old kid with no experience, who tells me to ‘take the girls to Woolworths and let them pick their make up’, because that’s where they shopped.” Anders hired him on the spot. Anders and I discussed Lana Del Rey’s continued use of the look, and the fact that, well, she might be missing a few details. “Yeah, well I think cross-pollination is natural, but what she might not notice are the little chola bracelets that were made from car parts, or that you had your hair high so you could conceal a weapon in it if you needed to.”
Like Echo Park itself, the chola lifestyle has been taken to the salon: polished and blow-dried and, in Norma’s words, “de-fanged and deodorised, which in part is down to the “Hispanic population stratifying. There are Chicano professors and business people and a Chicano president might not be too far off if the Bush’s get their way.” Mendosa-Denton stresses that the word “chola” is not a derogatory term. “It simply defines the look of a young Latina girl who is part of a gang,” she asserts. “When I say ‘gang’, I mean just another youth subculture. It’s only adults in power that make ‘gangs’ appear dangerous.”
It’s a film with a tribal subculture, a lingo and a uniform, packaged in lingering shots of the girls in Nikes, tall tees, mini skirts, rolled down dungarees and gold hoops; in short, it’s a sartorial wellspring. “What fashion takes is the sexiness and the feeling of being alive that comes from being in this get-up where everyone stares at you”, explains Mendosa-Denton. “They don’t take the tiny ‘chanclas’ (flat little espadrilles) that cholas would wear, because they might have to run from the cops.”
Mendosa-Denton suspects that Grand Theft Auto San Andreas may too have been an impetus. “You’re in this alternate world with these Mexican gangster guys with heavy Chicano accents. The advertising is meshing with real-life icons of Chicano aesthetics and re-branding them,” she explains. But unlike Hip hop culture, which was exhaustively plundered by designers in the early 90s (see Chanel’s much Tumblr-d 1991 collection), the adoption of the chola has been comparatively slight. It’s “A countercultural backwater that people are mining, but Taylor Swift wouldn’t go there yet, you know?’, the professor continues.
Take into account Kendall Jenner’s baby-haired LOVE cover, Nasir Mazhar’s fashion column inches, and it-girl du jour FKA Twigs’ style – which itself is a love letter to the 90s Cholita – and indicators show that fashion’s found a new fling. “These Chicano emblems that were once stigmatised, like the teardrop tattoo, are transitioning from underground to mainstream. It’s almost a de-ethanisation” says Mendosa-Denton.
Carol Morgan, Global Trend Tracker at Central St Martin’s, thinks the pull of a “gang” is too much to resist. “Everyone is sitting at home plugged into their iPhone. People want to belong without having to communicate, so they do that by getting dressed. Gang-dress is perceived to be violent and that’s always appealing,” she suggests and Shaun Cole, Course Leader for MA Fashion Cultures at LCF, agrees. “Fashion since time immemorial has loved the glamorous hard girl,” he claims. Morgan would argue that it’s part of the reason Nasir Mazhar’s “gang-land romance” is so feted. “When you see it on the street it can be menacing, and that can be very empowering for a girl.”
Like most street styles, chola dress was a reaction to marginalisation, so what does it mean when Rodarte designs an entire collection around chola gang-girls? Homage and exploitation become increasingly difficult to pull apart. Fashion’s piratical nature (see YSL’s lauded 1967 collection, Africa) has long been accepted, and only recently placed under the microscope with words like “appropriation” being bandied-about. Take Tijuana-based feminist-group Sad Girl Y Que’s reaction when Lana Del Rey’s “Sad Girl” moniker raised its head. “She is this blonde heiress, with teardrops painted on her face, making music videos where she’s sat in the ‘hood’. She’s taken all these symbols from a culture that isn’t hers to make profit. It’s obviously offensive.” See our Sad Girl Y Que profile back on page 48.
“Suddenly, there were all these white girls calling each other ‘Mousie’, which was great, but we had no intention of making anything ‘cult’”, hollers Anders. “We knew at the time that the film was important for the neighbourhood”. And if you don’t believe her, see Angel throwing the Echo Park gang-sign in the film’s poster artwork. When I ask Anders what her intentions were with the film, she takes a moment. “To make a love story about the romance that the girls felt for each other, that they felt for Ernesto, and for the neighbourhood. Echo Park is so beautiful.
You know, the hills really do echo.”
All images from the film Mi Vida Loca courtesy of Allison Anders
Words: Nellie Eden