Cholo Goth: Subculture or Post Modern Appropriation?

The term Cholo Goth has been floating around the internet for a while now, a term coined by the vocalist Leafar Seyer of the band Prayers. The term has gone mostly undefined until this video appeared on the internet Wednesday. I'm going to embed the video bellow and suggest you watch it first, to give context to the rest of this article.

I first discovered this band a year ago, very much enjoyed the sounds of their music, and even reviewed their album on this episode of the Cemetery Confessions podcast. However I was very curious and cautious as to what the term "Cholo Goth" was, whether music genre, or one of the new, postmodern identities we've been seeing pop up in recent years.

Wikipedia defines Cholo thusly: “Cholo (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈtʃolo]) is a loosely defined term that has had various meanings relating to the connotation of people of indigenous heritage, who in many cases have some Spanish blood (mestizos), or who have adopted elements of Spanish dress, language or culture.[1] Its use has migrated from the initial negative ethnic designation as originated by Hispanic criollos in the 16th century. The precise usage of "cholo" has varied widely in different times and places. In modern American usage, it most often applies to the low-rider sub-culture manner of dress.” -source

The Urban Dictionary definition is here.

Let's talk about the first part of this video. It begins in a very relatable manner, prejudice, discrimination, ostracization from a culture you grew up in, the struggle to find your self-identity and trying to rectify different aspects of self and culture. He speaks on goth pageantry, dark and occult symbolism, and his adoration for many goth bands, he even brings up Christian Death in a separate interview here. Then the video takes a sharp turn and jumps into his gang life. I'll get to that in a second but first I'd like to make a quick aside.

I would like to examine several issues with this article, I'd like to look at post modern identities and the erosion of subculture, violence and gangs as they relate to goth, and several other peripheral issues. I would like to point out, that as a musical genre, I think Cholo Goth works. It's in line with what we see in music genre's and I think it's more or less an inevitable progression (as I said I enjoy the music). However there is a distinction between genre and subculture, and I'd like emphasize that point.

Gang Life

It really shouldn't have to be pointed out that gang subculture, and goth subculture, are not compatible. However I think it can be easy to jump to conclusions and judgments about those who participate in gangs, and I think there is a human element here we can not simply dismiss. Often those who join gangs at an early age have no other choice; the culture is a product of the environment. According to the wiki page, Leafar joined the Sherman Grant Hill Park 27 gang when he was a teenager in order to save his father's life after a skirmish at a local market. This is clearly a powerful motivator, and something difficult to fully grasp, unless you've been in the situation yourself.

In addition, many stay in gangs due to a sense of family. Just as with any subculture, goth included, often members feel rejected and ostracized by mainstream culture, ultimately finding a home and sense of purpose among their surrogate family. Gang life in relation to socialization, is a replacement for a lack of that same socialization from school, family, church, or other formal communities. This leads to a satisfaction of the unmet psychological and emotional needs of gang members.

The way in which the two subcultures (gangs and goths) express this oppression is very different however. While goths often internalize, and seek to create change through social activism, gangs take a very different, oppositional and confrontational track. "Involuntary minorities tend to cope by opposing acculturation or assimilation in response to their historical subjugation by the dominant mainstream society of the U.S. This helps serve to explain the oppositional position taken by involuntary minority Latino gang members in response to being involuntary minorities, by engaging in behavior that differs from mainstream norms of the U.S." Those behaviors being disruptive acts to perceived norms, such as truancy from school, violence, criminal activity, etc.

I'd like to be clear, while there may be similarities at a subcultural level, and because gang life is promoted in this video, I do not condone gangs, "Sociologists have found that areas or communities that are infested with gang crime tend to have poor quality social and economic life, poor schools, youths who fail at school, infiltration of violence into the community, housing and property values go down, businesses might flee, unemployment might surge, and eventually the community might become completely disorganized that people will not want to live there." -source -source 2

Violence is inherent to gang subculture, and while not a tenant of goth subculture, the majority of goths are very peaceful and even pacifistic in nature, seeking to address injustice through intellectual and philosophical means rather than violent ones. Often you will hear goths say because they have been victims of violence or discrimination, and they know how that feels, they make a conscience decision to NOT perpetuate that cycle which will hurt others, and in turn themselves. Personally, as a goth, I believe any action that hinders or prevents the ontological vocation of humanization for someone else, in turn is harmful to my own vocation for humanization.

I do find value in Leafar's statements about revealing the other side of violence in his music, the hurt and pain and tragedy it causes. However promotion of gang life, is promotion of violence by proxy. The use of violence in media and video games as an excuse is also a tragedy to me. Especially because he is a member of a subculture, which is inherently set apart from the mainstream; there should be a realization that what happens in the mainstream should not be adopted without proper analytical thought. Simply because violence is "part of American culture" does not make it OK. I'd also like to point out there is a psychological difference between onscreen violence and real life violence.  Romanticised violence is an escape, and a fantasy for the baser human nature in a safe expressive way. The debasement, emotional scarring, hardening of psyche and horror of an actual violent act bear no relation to the sterilized portrayal of an action movie or video game.

"The collective chauvinistic spirit of America defends our national interests and shores with immense vigor. This is part of the psyche of our culture, an eighteenth century remnant of the need to protect our nascent nation from legitimate threats. Yet there is another, more antiquated archetype that we remain wed to: the individualistic chauvinism born in the gunslinger, frontier spirit of the Wild West. In that not-so-bygone era, a cross exchange would be grounds to un-holster your weapon and blow away your enemy. This motif, and the root of our chauvinism from the micro perspective, survives in the stand your ground laws recently exposed by the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida. If the United States were an individual, it would be in therapy for anger management issues and a dysfunctional attachment to violence. It’s time to break this collective, unconscious addiction. Our unrestrained affinity with the archetype of violence truly impoverishes our nation in tragic ways, yet it is amenable to change if we first come to recognize its existence." The fact that these ideals are embraced by gang culture further iterate the  incompatibility with goth culture on any group or subcultural level.

A subculture is a departure from the mainstream because on some level, they have found fault with that culture and I think there is an obvious hypocrisy in the justification. "Everyone else does it, so why shouldn't we" mentality.

To further the disparity of gang and goth subculture, as is on display in this video, gangs are inherently masculine, full of testosterone, and full of boys trying to prove who's dick is bigger. There is a very masculine culture presented, which is not compatible with feminine goth culture, calling himself a kid, and others kids, reinforces the mindset of childish masculine culture seeking to prove self worth and authority through acts of dominance in a perceived “manly” fashion. Granted, he seems to be trying to rectify his emotional expressions with his masculine ones. I do see this as a positive, and I am glad he's found a group that accepts him for it.

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Post Modern Culture

What is goth, and why does everyone get so pissy about new groups coming around tagging on the word goth to their adjective of choice? A lot of times we aren't so sure, other than the fact that it just doesn't feel right. Goth culture has to evolve though doesn't it? Those who try to put boundaries on the culture are just elitist pricks aren't they? Let me try to put a voice to these concerns, and explain why etymology is so important.

Goth is so unique and diverse because you can be goth, and part of Indian culture, you can be goth and part of African culture, you can be goth and part of Latino culture, an ethically diverse culture is a wonderful thing. We have seen some in goth culture, trying to segregate by race, for example groupings like Afro-goth. I think this is dangerous. Another danger is the appropriation or acculturation of goth, by blending it with other cultures, such as street goth and ghetto goth, this not only erodes the meaning of the word goth, but the meaning of the subculture as a whole. This is part of post modernism, as represented by the theory of neo tribes, where cultural groupings are made up of transitive identities, with fluid membership and boundaries. The problem with this, is once you remove the structure and consistency of a subculture, it ceases to be substantive, ie. if everything is goth nothing is. That's why a balance between growth and historical knowledge is necessary. Yes, a static culture is a dead culture, however an overly fluid and ephemeral culture is a meaningless one. Goth can continue to evolve but it must always have an identity based in consistent values and ideals, and a boundary as well, otherwise it is no longer goth and by definition it ceases to be a subculture. *If you are interested in learning more about what a subculture is and what neo-tribes are, check out my article which approaches these topics from a sociology perspective.

Pastel goth, health goth, street goth, nu goth etc. while generally structured fashion or music trends, separate from goth subculture, they can still serve as an erosion to the substantive nature of goth, especially if considered complimentary to, or included as part of the goth subculture. Generally these groups or trends are capitalizing on an already established, obscure subculture. Often appropriating to give the new grouping a sense of legitimacy or edginess, ultimately threatening to muddle what we consider goth to be.

I think Cholo Goth, as a music genre, is appropriately classified. It is then simply gleaning from goth culture to create something that is (without trivializing meaning to the individual) less substantive, yet unrelated. Whereas trying to identify as a subculture, implys a relation or inclusion with goth, and is ultimately harmful to the substantive, structured meaning of the goth culture. However I feel even being identified as a music genre has the potential for an eroding effect upon the goth subculture, as it can confuse the etymology, and those seeking to get into goth. The moment we allow those trends or neotribes to be considered part of the goth subculture, however, is the moment goth no longer has meaning. Also as I pointed out previously, this appropriation, or cherry picking certain aspects of goth culture apart from the others, and without respect for their meaning, can also be harmful to goth itself. Darkness =/= goth and outcast =/= goth sums it up.

So what then are these boundaries or rules, is the next logical question. I'm going to list what I believe to be the 5 elements of goth, which happen to also be what I use as the definition of goth. All of them I believe are strict enough to keep goth a subculture rather than something with more fluid identities and an ephemeral nature like neotribes, but also broad enough to allow for variation and personal meaning and application. Case in point, #3 the embrace of darkness, this is often stated as being intrinsic to goth yet it is able to have a plethora of meanings, being manifest in music, clothing aesthetic, artistic expression, emotionally, or even philosophically.

1. A social departure from the mainstream
2. An aspect of morbidity
3. The embrace of darkness
4. A sense of mystery, madness, or the arcane
5. an active pursuit of making these things part of one's daily life
-credit goes to Nephilim Incorruptus

While all of these must be taken in unison as the play off of each other, I believe the individual it is free to make whatever element you hold dear the center of goth for them. I would point out that while things like aesthetic, and music are not explicitly stated, they do fall under these categories.

So why gatekeep? I feel like my earlier comments covered that. No, we can not remain static. We've seen over the years, as a new generation joins goth (from what I've seen this comes about every 10 years) the scene changes. The mid 80's to 90's we saw goth move from just music and fashion to incorporate more aspects of a lifestyle, from the 90's to 00's we saw industrial/cybergoth/electronic become popular among goths, and now we have the more superficial fashion trends popping up. The key, again, is to balance the roots and constrictions of the subculture with future growth and evolution. The fear then, is the blending of subcultures to the point of transitive, post modern identities, where fluidity between each subculture is so common and accepted, the barriers and definitions between cultures collapse and they are no longer distinguishable from one another, therefore neutering their power to enact change, to be meaningful, to be unique, and even to exist.

However through all of this, goth has retained the spirit in which identifies it as obviously goth, even if you can't put your finger on it. From a sociological perspective, a subculture, or any culture, must have identifiers and boundaries to exist. Punk disappeared partially because of comodification by the mainstream. This is something that is avoidable with goth for many reasons, one of which is that goth is not a counter culture, but is able to exist congruently with mainstream culture. Mainstream constructs such as consumerism line up with goth ideals, however goth is still able to stand opposed to cultural imperialism, homogenization, patriarchy, mindless consumerism of mass produced low quality goods, etc.

I want to make clear, that boundaries on a subculture do not place restrictions on individuality of adherents. Yes, certain things are and are not goth, however that does not limit the interests any one individual may have outside of that culture. Take Indian culture for example, that has specific boundaries that make it unique, does that mean you can't be part of that culture and also wear blue jeans? No, however that alternatively does not make blue jeans part of Indian culture. Individualism in the goth subculture is a bit of an oxymoron when you really look at it, as individuality gets to a point where it is no longer goth, and that's OK. The entirety of your being does not need to be exclusive to goth, just as any other culture you can be an individual while still having membership within a group, however that doesn't mean every whim or interest you have should be labeled as such. All subcultures must be exclusionary to some extent by their very nature, however an individuals interests does not require that boundary.

Conclusions

I very much think Leafar should have freedom to express himself, his passions, his beliefs and the way he identifies himself, however that may be. Furthermore he seems to be a very genuine, intelligent, and likeable person whom I could see myself having friendly conversations with. I very much relate to his struggle to express himself in a life where people are trying to force him into a category he doesn’t agree or identify with. The issue I take, as stated before, is the blending and appropriation of cultures, the affiliation/promotion of gang life with goth, and the inherent violence that comes with that culture. So, should cholo goth exist? Well it's going to whether I like it or not. Personally I believe it should be relegated to a music genre, however if it goes beyond that, I do not feel it should be thought of as part of goth subculture. Does that mean we can't all sit down for a beer and share life stories? Absolutely not. No matter what group you are part of, or how you self-identify, we can all learn from each other, and become better people through respectful and kind interactions with each other. With a level of humility and compassion, if we are open to each other on this long road to the grave, we can make the world a better place to live.

-The Count runs the Cemetery Confessions podcast and The Requiem Podcast. For more info on The Count, click here.