How I became to identify as Chingona
While working with Mujeres Mutantes the word Chingona came up in conversation. As I remember the story, Dalila Perez told “Zena” that I was Chingona. Not growing up in a family that spoke Spanish, I didn’t know what this word ment. It sounded bad ass and my interpretation of it was a woman who gets things done. Right away I identified with this word. An empowering affirmation of the Latina spirit, a sense of everything my heart told me to be growing up with the typical struggles of most Latinas that I have come to know.
The Chingona conversation extended with Norma of MosaicArte saying to put the word Chingona in red with blue stripes like the Chicago flag. The concept resonated with everyone. That idea waited in my mind to become some kind of graphic.
My grandparents did not teach their children or grandchildren Spanish because anyone speaking Spanish in school was physically punished. It also gave the abuelos a secret language that they thought the children wouldn’t understand. They wanted to assimilate to the white neighborhoods we moved into. They didn’t want to be called “spicks” or “wetbacks”. My grandfather always said “We are Americans!” with affirmation, and to this day that is what I say. I’m American because I was born in America. My parents were born here and some of my grandparents where born here. I am an American with a Mexican heritage.
My grandfather has since then apologized to me with tears in his eyes because he did not teach us Spanish. I forgave him and accepted his apology, I know that he did it with good intention to protect us. I told my grandfather to speak to the babies, our next generation of cousins my niece, my son, my little cousins in Spanish so they can hear the words and teach them. I ask my Spanish speaking abuelos how to say certain words in Spanish because I forget or don’t know. They forget too, I think because of their age but also because of not speaking the language often enough to remember.
I find solace in my Mexican culture. From growing up eating Mexican food my mother made for us, I would separate the beans for her, go to the store to by milk, tortillas and chorizo. I usually was able to find a quarter to buy a bag of Cheetos to eat on the way home, so I wouldn’t have to share with my brothers. We didn’t always have food but there was always tortillas, rice and beans in the fridge. My brother and I warmed up tortillas on the stove with sugar and butter before mom came home from work. On Sundays mom would sometimes get us conchas, gingerbread piggys, and sweet potato bread from the panderia on 18th street. On cold days playing outside mom would call us in with Abuelita chocolate. On special occasions we eat tamales, and carnitas. These flavors will always remind me of family of positive memories of my childhood.
I learned Spanish in pre-school at El Hogar del Nino, elementary school, high school and college but books don’t teach the slang words. I learned those from classmates, my students while teaching lifeguarding, hearing other parents swear at their daughters (my friends), from going to parties that played rockero music and from working on the South Side of Chicago at public pools where parents often did not speak English.
I learned about my Mexican customs and history while attending Kanoon Magnet school in the 80’s. At that time this was a school where kids were integrated equally by ethnic groups, economic class, various disabilities and somehow, we even had gay kids. We all grew up learning about each others differences and similarities. For the most part I would say, we all got along and learned about the Aztec culture, and traditional Mexican holidays. This is where I fell in love with the Dia de Los Muertos holiday before it became Disney famous. Almost all of our announcements were bi-lingual. Everyone in that school, at that time learned enough Spanish to understand. I had teachers tell me how to properly say my name, “Meh-lee-SAH” “Pah-LO-MO” con ganas!!! (rolling eyes emoji here), Mrs. Rodriguez tried.
In 2014 I was awarded the “Individual Artist Program Grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency”, they specifically asked we label it as such. I included in my budget proposal, a ticket to the Adobe Max Conference in Los Angeles, it was my Vegas/Disneyland. I was in awe at the creative professional work and myriad of new product launches to get excited about my career path again.
Brother, the printing company had a booth showing off their new garment printer, everyone was allowed to print one shirt. I still had the idea in my head about the Chingona flag. It always existed as shirt woman could wear to empower themselves and identify with the strong midwest work/life ethic Chicagoans grow up with. While learning about all the new Adobe products and abilities I found the Lust font. It was perfect, swirly, feminine, aesthetically pleasing, modern, clean and sexy. I had a hard time bringing in the font through the new Adobe Typkit because my Adobe login wasn’t working, I couldn’t remember which email I signed up with. I alone was holding up the t-shirt line and some guy was getting his panties in bunch making jag off comments to me. This was all I was able to print that day.
A short time later. I came back to finish the project and made stickers.
Some more time later. I worked with Pilsen Outpost to sell the shirts. I didn’t have money to buy shirts upfront so they paid for the initial printing and we agreed I would make $5 for each shirt they sold for $20. It was a win/win for both of us. I am forever grateful for them helping me get started and promoting this brand.
No woman exists on an island. Ideas are a cumulation of every nuance of our lives. Ideas are like babies waiting to be born, they appear in our minds, hoping you will bring them to life. They linger for a while but will leave to another mind hoping that person will bring them to life.
I created the Chingona brand to empower women to be brave when they feel like they should give up. I created it to be worn like a superwoman badge to do the things in life that you fear most but that must be done in order to save yourself and the family you want to create from breaking the cycles of learned fear and victimization to grow and be the best version of yourself to show others what they can overcome.
Have courage to share your story, your art with a world that loves and feels like all humans.
~ Meela Paloma
~ excerpt from the book “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert ~
He told them that they must live their most creative lives as a means of fighting back against the ruthless furnace of this world.
Most of all, though, he asked his students to be brave. Without bravery, he instructed, they would never be able to realize the vaulting scope of their own capacities. Without bravery, they would never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Without bravery, their lives would remain small—far smaller than they probably wanted their lives to be.
I never met Jack Gilbert myself, and now he is gone—he passed away in 2012. I probably could’ve made it a personal mission to seek him out and meet him while he was living, but I never really wanted to. (Experience has taught me to be careful of meeting my heroes in person; it can be terribly disappointing.) Anyway, I quite liked the way he lived inside my imagination as a massive and powerful presence, built out of his poems and the stories I’d heard about him. So I decided to know him only that way—through my imagination. And that’s where he remains for me to this day: still alive inside me, completely internalized, almost as though I dreamed him up.
But I will never forget what the real Jack Gilbert told somebody else—an actual flesh-and-blood person, a shy University of Tennessee student. This young woman recounted to me that one afternoon, after his poetry class, Jack had taken her aside. He complimented her work, then asked what she wanted to do with her life. Hesitantly, she admitted that perhaps she wanted to be a writer.
He smiled at the girl with infinite compassion and asked, “Do you have the courage? Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.”
So this, I believe, is the central question upon which all creative living hinges: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?
Look, I don’t know what’s hidden within you. I have no way of knowing such a thing. You yourself may barely know, although I suspect you’ve caught glimpses. I don’t know your capacities, your aspirations, your longings, your secret talents. But surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you. I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure.I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.
The hunt to uncover those jewels—that’s creative living.
The courage to go on that hunt in the first place—that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.
The often surprising results of that hunt—that’s what I call Big Magic.
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