When we walked in, we saw the young men in army fatigues and the old men in leather vests and the biker gang of all ages near the bar with Budweisers and lime-flavored beer salt in the middle of their table. Then we saw the young woman in black booty shorts and a black bra top and two loose braids, breathing fire in and out and winking when she was done. She burned the hairs on her arms and wiggled slightly in time with the heavy rock song, her body like the farther ripples of a rhythm.
We had walked into Chingona Fest 2016. My computer wants to autocorrect chingona to chignon, which is perhaps the opposite of chingona. A chignon is a tight, neat, French-style bun - your ballet teacher, your librarian, your gymnast, your executive; a chingona, in Mexican slang, is a badass woman, with a mohawk at a rock concert or a messy bun writing an essay or a wild mane at the end of a long swim. Chingona, of course, can carry different meanings. Traditionally, the term wrapped up more derogatory ideas - a woman who couldn’t control herself, a woman of stubborn character, a woman who thought she was hot shit but was really a hot mess.
But chingón - that’s been a man who gets shit done. So in the past ten years, in South Texas, chingona has been taken back by las mujeres del Valle. A chingona is a woman who gets shit done. Chingona Fest 2016 was, apparently, a celebration of this evolution - a chance to see the chingona in many possible forms.
It also took place at the American Legion of McAllen, so the crowd was an odd mix of army veterans and spouses, tattooed women with biker vests, and matrilineal family clusters that made me miss my grandmothers, chingonas in their own right even if the word never entered their New England or Italian vocabularies.
I went with 4 other women, all teachers. We had missed the roller derby team; we walked in for the fire-eater who, power to her, had people staple dollar bills to her body as tips. (She’s friends with the guy who eats glass at open mic night at the counter-culture bar on 17th street). The next act was an awesome rockabilly band from San Juan and Edinburg, Los Gatos Locos. The lead singer was certainly chingona. She spoke warmly and welcomingly to the crowd with a rich voice running over hints of raspy Janet Joplin. When she sang Bobby McGee, the floor filled with couples, notably a man and woman with matching long grey hair and sensible shoes, and a gangly 60-something-year-old woman in a pink dress with no bra, dancing with her arms over her head.
When our chingona sang a slower song, that pink dressed woman’s spectacle was eclipsed by the quiet closeness of another older couple. He wore a black vest - “Atomic Veteran - Christmas Island” - and she wore a knee-length denim skirt with cowboy boots. They both had gray hair. Her chin doubled at her neck and his belly bulged but they moved like a lazy river, navigating the floor with the confidence of years together. His hand was lightly on her back, her head was lightly on his chest.
We left after a 12-year-old girl with tight curls sang “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” and her mom played a set of 4 bluesy heartbreak songs while dressed as a unicorn. In reality the whole thing was kind of weird, but none of us regretted the $5 for the variety of people watching, the chance to see other peoples’ versions of badass women.