Cross-posted from Amplify.
I’m pretty honest about not being into or knowing too much about certain types of media or issues and events that arise. Lady Gaga is one of those phenomenons I’m just not well versed on and have limited desire to be. With that said, I don’t follow her career, nor do I keep up on what she does or wears. This doesn’t mean I’m completely ignorant of what she produces and some of her songs; I have friends that are total stans!
Part of my lack of interest in her stems from recognizing some of the cultural appropriation she participates in. Most apparent to me was her use of costumes, which I’ve seen and grew up with by various performers, such as Celia Cruz and La Lupe (yeah she’s before Madonna, Cher, and Cyndi Lauper). It’s one thing to be inspired by an entertainer, it’s another thing to completely use and claim as one’s own aspects of their identity and performance art.
When I heard that Lady Gaga had leaked the lyrics to a new song “Born This Way” I wasn’t really giving it any thought. Then I read an article by Miguel Perez that discussed why some Latinos are turned off by some lyrics in this song and have connected them to racism. To be honest again, last time I really listened to or cared about something Lady Gaga did, it was when she did NOT cancel her concert in Arizona. I watched part of a video a fan uploaded about her commentary regarding SB1070 and wasn’t really impressed.
So, the history of Lady Gaga not having too many politically/socially conscious and happy Latino fans was nothing new to me. What was new to me was her use of some forms of language, so I read Perez’s article to see what was used. A full list of the lyrics to her song was provided by the website Pop Eater where you can see all of them and some snippets of her performing a bit of the chorus.
When I read the lyrics Perez discusses in his article, I found more issues with some of her lyrics in the rest of the song, including the part discussed. Below are the lyrics in question, I didn’t add any emphasis nor do I know how or if she capitalized any of the terms (as I would have), so I wrote them as I saw them listed:
Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Whether you’re broke or evergreen
You’re black, white, beige, chola descent
You’re Lebanese, you’re orient
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied, or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
‘Cause baby you were born this way
No matter gay, straight, or bi
Lesbian, transgendered life
I’m on the right track baby
I was born to survive
No matter black, white or beige
Chola or oriental made
I’m on the right track baby
I was born to be brave
Now, I have three issues with three terms she has used in this song: “Chola [descent],” “Orient/al,” and “transgendered.” Perez’s article only discusses the (mis)use of the first term “Chola” which over the past two generations in the US has been associated primarily with Mexican, Mexican-American, Chican@ and Xican@ women. As with many Spanish language terms, they are gendered. The term “Chola” is referring to a woman as it ends with an “a;” if it were to end with an “o” it would be masculine.
As someone who is not of Mexican descent, I was not raised with a familiarity of this term, however, when I began to read Gloria Anzaldúa, specifically Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, I was introduced to different languages. Among the various languages that have been derived from Spanish and English is Caló and Pachuco. From my understanding Pachuco was the language created by people of Mexican descent in the 30s and 40s (maybe even earlier as language is constantly evolving) and as Anzaldua writes in her fifth chapter “How To Tame A Wild Tongue:” “From kids and people my own age I picked up Pachuco. Pachuco (the language of the zoot suiters) is a language of rebellion, both against Standard Spanish and Standard English. It is a secret language. Adults of the culture and outsiders cannot understand it. It is made up of slang words from both English and Spanish” (p. 78).
Caló, many folks agree, emerged from the Pachuco language and is still used among youth and communities in attempts to have their own language that keeps outsiders out. It is through these languages that we have come to understand and recognize the term “Chola” which was embraced by many in social justice movements in the US (if you are unfamiliar with the Brown Berets I encourage you to read up on them and their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement). Today, it seems there is a different use and understanding of the term. As many folks may understand, the terms when used in-group as they were created by members of the community, they mean and represent something very different in comparison to what meaning outsiders using the term may associate.
As a result, we have some disagreement and even allegations of racism (which I think are more connected to White supremacy and Lady Gaga’s use of it in this song to her advantage than a hatred or dislike for a group of people), when outsiders, as Lady Gaga is, in using this term. I’m not surprised that Perez, who identifies as Mexican American, finds this use of the term inappropriate and oppressive. I’m also not surprised other commentators who identify as Latino do not share Perez’s perspective. After all not all Latinos are of Mexican descent. Nor are all Latinos speaking the same language.
Another aspect that was not addressed in Perez’s article that I believe to be important to this discussion is her misuse of the term “Orient” and “Oriental” as a proper noun. Now, call me old school, but I thought that these terms were only used when talking about rugs and noodles, never in talking about people. So why are so many folks choosing to focus just on the term “Chola” when this term is just as offensive and has a long history of vilifying people from various Asian backgrounds?
Finally, her use of the term “transgendered” and associated that with “life” is just wrong, grammatically and in general. We do not say “womened” or “maned” to describe someone’s gender identity, so why are we doing that for transgender? It’s wrong folks, please know this and spread the word! Now, when we attach a community to a word like “life” or “lifestyle” that’s a whole lot more ish to deconstruct. I’ll look to GLAAD’s (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Reference Guide suggestions to help clarify why using terms such as “life” and “lifestyle” are incorrect and what alternatives are offered:
Offensive: “gay lifestyle” or “homosexual lifestyle” Preferred: “gay lives,” “gay and lesbian lives” There is no single lesbian, gay or bisexual lifestyle. Lesbians, gay men and bisexuals are diverse in the ways they lead their lives. The phrase “gay lifestyle” is used to denigrate lesbians and gay men, suggesting that their orientation is a choice and therefore can and should be “cured
Although this description speaks specifically to LGB communities, I think we can also apply it to trans people as well. Claiming that there is a “transgender lifestyle” is wrong. The lives of transgender people are often always already ignored and not valued. As a result, I can see how some folks may argue that Lady Gaga even mentioning trans people (even if grammatically incorrect) is a step in the right direction. However, these are not the types of steps we need! What does it mean to us that we appreciate less than exceptional forms of media simply because we see ourselves somewhat represented? Our standards and expectations must be higher. I think for many of us here at Amplify this is why we do the work we do.
It seems fitting that I end with some of Anzaldúa’s thoughts about language:
“..for a language to remain alive it must be used….So if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex-Mex, and all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy myself. Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me my tongue will be illegitimate.
I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: India, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue-my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence” (p. 81).