It is customary that whenever I go to my Nana’s house I turn the car speakers as low as possible. She has super hearing. Sometimes I forget, and the following conversation takes place:
“What’s up Nana Boo?”
“I heard you before you got the house, girl. I told you about playing your music too loud.”
“It wasn’t too loud.”
“I heard you before I saw you.”
“Yes ma’am. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t bring attention to yourself.”
Don’t bring attention to yourself.
Physically this is impossible. I am a black woman over six feet tall. My laugh sounds like an exploding mouse. I squeak loudly and speak quickly when I get excited. I like knock in my trunk and bass in my music. Don’t bring attention to yourself. I frequently heard this warning as a girl and well into my adult life. I rarely take it as a slight on my grandmother’s account – though she is the master of throwing parasol shade. She spoke to me with a quiet urgency in her warning. In the wake of the murders of Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland, and other black lives that vigilantes and mainstream media deemed irrelevant, I understand her warning better from the perspective of sound.
As a loud, squeaky black woman I am especially attuned to how my sonic footprint plays into how I live and if I should die. As a black woman, the bulk of my threat is associated with my loudness. My blackness sonically and culturally codes me as threatening due to the volume of my voice. This is amplified, as a southern black woman. I exist and dare to thrive in a country that historically and socially tries to deflate my agency and urgency. The clarity of my sentiments, the establishment of my frustration, and the worth of my social and cultural interventions are connected to how others hear my voice. It is not what I say but how I say it.
Black women navigate multiple codes of sonic respectability on a daily basis. Their sonic presence is seldom recognized as acceptable by society. Classrooms, homesites, corporate spaces, kitchen tables, and social media require a different tone and volume level in order to gain access and establish one’s credibility. Like other facets of their existence, the way(s) black women are expected to sound in public and private spaces is blurry. What connects these spaces together is a patriarchal and racially condescending paradigm of black women’s believed inferiority. A black women’s successful assimilation into American society is grounded in her ability to master varying degrees of quiet and silence. For black women, any type of disruptive pushback against cultural norms is largely sonic in nature. A grunt, shout, sigh, or sucking teeth instigates some type of resistance. Toning these sonic forms of pushback—basically, silencing themselves—is seen as the way to assimilate into mainstream American society.
In what follows I look at the tape of Sandra Bland’s arrest from this past summer to consider what happens when black women speak up and speak out, when they dare to be heard. As the #SayherName movement attests, black women cannot express sonically major and minor touchstones of black womanhood – joy, pleasure, anger, grief – without being deemed threatening. These sonic expressions force awareness of the complexity of black women’s experiences. In the case of Sandra Bland, I posit that the video of her arrest is not a video of her disrespecting authority but rather shows her sonic response to officer Brian Encinia’s inferred authority as a police officer. I read her loud and open interrogation of Encinia’s actions as an example of what I deem sonic disrespectability: the use of sound and volume to contest oppression in the shape of dictating how black women should or should not act.
The sonic altercation in the video (see full-length version here) sets the stage for Encinia’s physical reprimand of Bland, a college graduate from Prairie View A&M who hailed from Chicago. Bland is not physically threatening—i.e. she emphatically states she’s wearing a maxi dress—but her escalating voice startles and even intimidates Encinia. Bland is angry and frustrated at Encinia’s refusal and to answer her questions about why she was pulled over. Encinia’s responses to Bland’s sonic hostility are telling of his inability to recognize and cope with her anger. In fact, he refuses to answer her questions, and she repeats them over and over again while he barks orders. Encinia states later in the dashboard camera that Bland kicks him and thus forces him to physically restrain her. However, Bland’s vocal assertion of her agency is more jarring than her physical response to Encinia’s misuse of power.
The dashboard camera footage is indicative of their vocal sparring match. Encinia’s voice starts calm and even. He explains to Bland he pulled her over for failure to indicate a lane change. Bland’s responses are initially low and nearly inaudible. However, after Encinia asks Bland if she is “okay,” her responses are much louder. She does not just follow orders but expresses her displeasure in sonic ways, while she stays in the car. His tone shifts when Bland refuses to extinguish her cigarette. Encinia then threatens to pull her out of the car for disobedience. He begins to yell at her. Bland then voices her pleasure in taking Encinia and his complaint to court. “Let’s take this to court. . .I can’t wait! Ooooh I can’t wait!” Bland’s pleasure in taking Encinia to court is an expression of her belief in her own agency. The act of voicing that pleasure is particularly striking because it challenges an understanding of courts and the justice system as hyperwhite and incapable of recognizing her need for justice. Her voice is clear, loud, and recognizably angry.
Her voice crescendos throughout the video, signifying her growing anxiety, tension at the situation, and anger for being under arrest. However, Bland’s voice begins to crack. Her sighs and grunts signify upon her disapproval of Encinia’s treatment of her physical body and rights. Once handcuffed, Bland’s voice is very high-pitched and pained, a sonic signifier of submission and Encinia’s re-affirmation of authority. She then is quiet and a conversation between Encinia and another officer is heard across the footage.
Many critiques of Bland center around her ‘distasteful’ use of language. One critic in particular described the altercation as “an African American woman had too much mouth with the wrong person and at the wrong time.” The assumption in those critiques is that she was not properly angry. Instead of a blind obedience of Enicnia’s inferred authority (read: superiority), she questions him and his inability to justify his actions. Sandra Bland’s sonic dis-respectability (dare I say, ratchet), is a direct pushback against the cultural and social norms of not only rural Southern society but the mainstream American (inferred) belief of southern black folks’ blind respectability of white authority and law enforcement.
Although Bland was a graduate of a southern HBCU, I do not want to assume that Bland possessed the social sensibilities that upheld this unstated social practice of blindly obeying white authority. Her death runs parallel to those of Emmett Till and Mary Turner. The circumstances of Till’s death swirled around his alleged whistling at a white woman – read as a sonic signifier of Till’s black masculine sexuality instead of boyhood – and disregard for white femininity, a protected asset of white men’s authority. Till, from Illinois like Bland, allegedly ignored his cousins’ warnings about the ‘proper protocol’ of interacting with white folks. Mary Turner, a black woman from Valdosta, Georgia, spoke out publicly against the lynching of her husband in 1918. She and her unborn child were also lynched in response to her sonic audacity. Before her death, members of the mob cut open her belly and her unborn baby fell on the ground; it was stomped to death after it gave out a cry. Turner’s voice disrupted white supremacy. Her baby’s lone cry re-emphasized it. Sound grounds much of the racial and gendered violence in the South.
The Southern U.S. emphasizes listening practices as part of social norms and cultural traditions. Listening was an act of survival more so than vocalizing the challenges facing black folks. (Jennifer Stoever’s upcoming book on the sonic color line addresses how advertisements for runaway slaves, for example, mentioned whether they were good listeners, as a way to codify whether they were compliant slaves.). Consider my grandmother’s warning about not bringing attention to myself. In her eyes, by not bringing attention to myself I’m able to remain invisible enough to successfully navigate society’s expectations of my blackness and my womanhood. Silence and listening are tools of survival. Contrarily, Bland’s loud disapproval and emphatic use of curse words registered her blackness and womanhood as threatening. She was coded as less feminine and therefore threatening because of her direct verbal confrontation with Encinia. She was not quiet or polite, especially in the south where quiet is the ultimate and sole form of women’s politeness and respectability. The combination of these multiple representations of black women’s anger invoked Encinia’s hyper-authoritative response to regain control of the situation.
Black folks are increasingly pushing back against “being in their place.” Sandra Bland’s death is rooted in an unnecessarily escalated fear of black women literally speaking their truth to power. In a moment where black women are speaking on multiple wavelengths and levels of volume, it is imperative to single out instances and then implode outdated cultural and social practices of listening.
Featured image:”Sandra Bland is Her Name” by Flickr user Light Brigading, CC BY-NC 2.0
Regina Bradley is a writer, scholar, and researcher of African American Life and Culture. She is a recipient of the Nasir Jones HipHop Fellowship at Harvard University (Spring 2016) and an Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Armstrong State University. Dr. Bradley’s expertise and research interests include hip hop culture, race and the contemporary U.S. South, and sound studies. Dr. Bradley’s current book project, Chronicling Stankonia: Recognizing America’s Hip Hop South (under contract, UNC Press), explores how hip hop (with emphasis on the southern hip hop duo Outkast) and popular culture update conversations about the American South to include the post-Civil Rights era. Also known as Red Clay Scholar, a nod to her Georgia upbringing, Regina maintains a critically acclaimed blog and personal website – http://www.redclayscholar.com. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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“When I wear my eyeliner, me siento más macha (I feel more macha) I’m ready to fight” (54)
Makeup has long been an intentional part of a chola aesthetic: in particular, the skillful sign of bold black eyeliner or a carefully arched, thin, brow. The quote above by Norteña Xótchil, one of author Norma Mendoza-Denton’s interviewees, reminds us that make-up not only creates a sense of empowerment but also evokes the idea of physical strength (“feeling macha”). Norma Mendoza-Denton’s ethnographic study Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice among Latina Youth Gangs (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008) presents a project of high ambition, and even higher execution, in its carefully crafted discussion of the linguistic and cultural practices of Latina youth gangs at Sor Juana High School in northern California. Homegirls offers much needed insight into the relationship between language style and the cultural, lived experiences of Latina youth gangs. She centers her analysis on the linguistic, the cultural, and the phonetic, and in this way she pushes students of ethnic studies and sound studies to consider how young Latinas craft and articulate their own identity through meaning-making practices that challenge tropes of deviancy that are often unfairly cast on young women of color.
Throughout the book, speaking chola – an urban, gendered variation of Chicana English – becomes an audible badge, a marker of experience rather than a punch line, a culturally appropriated costume, a music video fad, or linguistic variety in need of policing. Recently, celebrity white or non-Latina women, such as Gwen Stefani and Lana Del Rey, have adopted telltale signs of a chola aesthetic – the crisp centered hair part, baggy pants, big hoops and/or only-the-top-buttoned plaid shirt. By focusing on the language styles of cholas, Mendoza-Denton encourages readers to think beyond the stereotypical images and sounds that so often circulate in mainstream media about cholas. Homegirls offers Sound Studies and Chicana/o Studies scholars a notable addition to the growing literature on the intersections of language, race, and sound.
“You gotta take pride to do your clothes
you know I have to iron,
when I go out I have to iron my shirt for half an hour
or forty-five minutes, you know,
my pants, you know
they gotta be
you know they gotta-” (56)
Homegirls joins conversations on Latinas and gang culture (Fregoso 2003; Miranda 2003; Ramírez 2009), which have historically been male-centered. Thelma, one of the Norteña girls, demonstrates in the quotation above her engagement with an aesthetic practice often linked with Latino gang members. Although the topic of language and linguistic identities, specifically bilingualism and translating, are emerging topics within Chicana/o Studies, Mendoza-Denton’s work joins that of a small number of scholars who take on Latina/o language practices and identities as the central focus of their work. She observes, in fact, how identity and meaning-making processes are intertwined to language, as are other social markers of identity such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, and accent. Homegirls joins recent discussions that demonstrate specifically how accents are vocal stand-ins for a person’s racialized, classed, and gendered experience. Where Fregoso and Miranda center their discussion on the cinematic representations of cholas and a historical account of pachucas respectively, Mendoza-Denton’s work is more in line with Miranda’s ethnographic approach to Latina youth gangs. Homegirls listens to the women’s voices and allows them to speak for themselves. This approach yields a work that reminds us how language identities are racialized when conflated with other racial markers, how they negotiate power relations (in/out group dynamics), and how they can also function as political forms of resistance.
“My dad dice que me miro como lesbian (says I look like a lesbian), my mom dice que qué guangajona (complains that it’s baggy). How much you wanna bet that I can go outside like this y no me dicen nada (they won’t say anything)” (151)
Maureen, a 14-year-old participant, speaks above to the code switching that many of the young women in this study practice. Mendoza-Denton re-imagines the chola as an innovator, highlighting the role of language and the body in creating new cultural practices. For example, in Chapter 5, the author heralds an exciting discussion on play and applying makeup as forms of gendered performances expanding on notions of beauty and grooming amongst Latina youth. She writes, “The symbolic and unconventional use of makeup among the girls claiming Norte and Sur at Sor Juana High School literally painted gender and ethnicity on their bodies,” marking a critical intervention in how the chola aesthetic racializes and genders bodies, yet also functions as a self-directed performance (152). In paying close attention to the symbolic meaning of makeup and its application, the ritual of carefully drawing the brow dismantles the mainstream appropriation of this often-criminalized look.
Mendoza-Denton’s close phonetic analysis demonstrates how the visual aesthetic coupled with a sonic aesthetic speaks to the political implications of embodied linguistic and cultural practices. The chola vocal aesthetic challenges traditional notions of femininity, closely associated with politics of respectability through Spanish honorifics like “usted,” within the Chicano family. This idea echoes other studies that show how pachucas, precursors to contemporary homegirls, with their extravagant attire and deviant behavior embody an adolescent rebellion against the patriarchal Chicano family and how pachuquismos forged a stylized linguistic resistance. Such stylized linguistic and embodied resistance can be seen in the excerpt below from T-Rex, one of Mendoza-Denton’s most candid participants in her study.
T-Rex: A girl could be more macha than some guys. For example me.
Norma: You think you’re more macha than guys?
T-Rex: I am more macha.
Norma: What makes you macha?
T-Rex: The way I act. The way I don’t let them step on me. (164)
In this brief excerpt, T-Rex articulates her notions of being ‘macha,’ a prime example of a discursive and material Latina youth practice that transcends the boundaries of normative gendered expressions for Latina youth. We are accustomed to seeing urban cholas with curiosity, envy, or both. Mendoza-Denton allows us to hear them and gain a deeper understanding of their social practices.
In framing the chola aesthetic as a transgressive type of beauty, Mendoza-Denton poses that the cholas in this study act as cultural producers who assign alternative meanings to femininity through their body and speech. Recalling Xóchitl’s remarks about mascara, the eyeliner serves in one form as a tool for a racialized feminine ideal of beauty, while simultaneously a sign for “willingness to fight” for other girls (154). Eyeliner, in this example, very visibly displays the complex interactions and negotiations of gender norms and agency. In this sense, Mendoza-Denton grants the reader a primary example of how cholas participate in a type of feminine gender expression that challenges expected ways of acting, which includes speech.
From Mendoza-Denton’s conversation with T-Rex, we see that speech and accent are just as meaningful in the construction of this alternative aesthetic. T-Rex, explains how the eyeliner is a “power-based interpretation” that when correlated with a tough, or even threatening, manner of walking—the use of the body—cholas command power and respect. Here, her intervention serves not only to gain a deeper understanding of Latina youth practices but also frames the chola as an empowered, vocal (what some would consider, mouthy) woman. Too often cholas receive harsh criticism or complete disregard for their assumed subversive behavior, criminality, and social deviance. In Homegirls, Mendoza-Denton challenges those notions by finding the symbolic capital in how these young women employ discursive, material, and phonetic practices.
The final two chapters of the book focus on the specific linguistic features relevant to studies of language and sound. Mendoza-Denton highlights phonetic variation among the girls speech in how their realization of /I/ demarcates core speakers from members of the group in the periphery yet points to similar speaking characteristics for girls of both gangs. The author’s focus on the stigmatized Th-Pro set (i.e. something, nothing) in the speech of Latina girls demonstrates how it discursively positions theses young women’s interactions and group affiliation due to its frequency and saliency. These later chapters demonstrate one of the author’s most significant contributions: projecting a specific accent is often linked to the creation of an identity. As Mendoza-Denton writes, “How speakers pronounce their words says a lot not only about the identities that they wish to project, but also about the history of the language(s) that they speak” (231). These linguistic variations give readers insight on the importance of how distinctive discourse markers are vital in the creation of stylized identities for young women of color.
Norma Mendoza-Denton has produced a rich account of a community largely ignored and misinterpreted in the conversations on Latina youth culture in the United States. As she reminds readers in her conclusion, Homegirls is one of the only studies of its kind that documents gang dynamics outside of discussions regarding violence, control over territory, or drug trafficking. While this approach provides a much-needed focus on the self-making and cultural processes amongst youth of color, I wonder if some significant discussions might be left out with this approach. Although there is large need for research on this topic that deviates from traditional approaches (such as criminality, violence, drug trafficking) when working with youth, particularly women of color, in her effort to subvert these sociological mainstays Mendoza-Denton avoids certain experiences that leave out pertinent context.
For example, in her discussion of the young women’s makeup practices, Mendoza Denton mentions the perceived threat they pose to teachers and police at school but does not go into more detail. These questions are not to discount the contributions of the book but rather to introduce future considerations for work surrounding Latina youth gangs. However, for Mendoza-Denton, the focus on the creativity and agency these young women embody is never lacking:
“So when you walk down the street,
you got the special walk, [begins to walk deliberately, swinging her upper body]
you walk like this,
you walk all slow,
just checking it out.
I look like a dude, ¿que no?
I walk, and then I stop.
I go like this [tilts head back – this is called looking “in”]
I always look in, I always look in,
I never look down.
It’s all about power
You never fucking smile.
Fucking never smile” (155-6)
Homegirls is at its finest when the reader is presented with excerpts like the quote above where T-Rex’s assertive physical and mental stance illustrates the linguistic and cultural practices that Mendoza-Denton seeks to highlight in her work. Mendoza-Denton’s contribution to this topic privileges the symbolic capital in linguistic, embodied, and cultural practices which sets up a platform for future work on Latina identities. When we read cholas in popular culture we might think of the aesthetic, the stereotypes, the big hoops, the dark lips, and the mascara. When we read Homegirls, Norma Mendoza-Denton compels us to consider the complex web of how linguistic and cultural practices (through material and vocal embodiments) speaks to the intersections of race, gender, and class amongst Latina youth gangs.
Featured image is of Yasmin Ferrada (the author’s sister) as photographed by King Kast. It is used with permission by the author.
Juan Sebastian Ferrada is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His work investigates the intersections of language and sexuality among LGBTQ Latina/o communities. Specifically, Sebastian explores the politics of Spanglish as a method for articulating ideas of sexuality and family acceptance within an LGBTQ Latina/o community organization. Sebastian earned a B.A. in Global Studies, in addition to a B.A. and M.A. in Chicana and Chicano Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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