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THE NEW YORK TIMES
A Latina Eyes the Fad For Flounces
By MIREYA NAVARRO
August 11, 2002
SOMETHING strange happened to me the other day when I looked in the mirror: I felt I was impersonating a Latina.
I am no prisoner of fashion, but this season it has been impossible to go into stores and not pick up a few items from the latest fad a turquoise bracelet here, a matching necklace there, a ruffled blouse, a three-tiered skirt. The look tends to Latina in the extreme, almost folkloric, straight out of the closet of a Mexican ranchera singer or a Puerto Rican plena dancer. It is not one I remember ever wearing when I was growing up in Puerto Rico, except for school plays or Halloween. It can verge on the tarty side, resembling the get-ups the sultry cantina girls wear in Western movies.
So one day this summer I absent-mindedly dressed for work with a flowing, bright-colored skirt and some turquoise jewelry and Orale! I was suddenly as self-conscious as if I had put a basket of fruit on my head à la Carmen Miranda.
The truth is, despite what J.Lo and the fashion magazines suggest, there is no single Latina look. I myself lean toward businesslike clothes. But that has not kept me from putting on dangling earrings or loud colors or other staples of my Latina sense of style. Of course, by my mother's standards, I have been hopelessly Americanized. "Put on some blush, at least!" she commands during my visits to San Juan, finding me way too pale and natural-looking and too much like the tourists who walk around the city in sneakers, T-shirts, shorts and no eye makeup.
The trick for me since I moved to the mainland more than 20 years ago has been to use these elements as accents, not throw on all of them at once and risk looking like "la puerca de Juan Bobo," the pig in a Puerto Rican folk tale that is overdressed and overperfumed by her owner, Juan Bobo.
But these days, it seems, I am out of touch.
Wanda Negrón, editor in chief of Cristina, the Miami-based magazine published by the talk show host Cristina Saralegui, said that Latina styles tend toward overadornment, toward the provocative look of Shakira, the Colombian pop star long earrings, leather, beads, bandana and that's just for starters. (Shakira also dyes her hair blond and belly-dances on her videos.)
It is a mix of trends, Ms. Negrón said, in much the same way that Latino culture represents different races, ethnic groups and nationalities.
And it's just like music, mixing it up, blending hip-hop with rock and Caribbean and South American rhythms. "There are no rules," Ms. Negrón said. "You're fashionable when you have 20,000 things on. We want to have a little bit of each thing that reminds us of our ancestors."
But can you tell a real Latina underneath all the clothes as easily as, say, you can tell who learned to do the salsa in a studio?
A true Latina look, it seems to me, must also come from such intangibles as self-image and attitude. Sandra Guzmán, author of "The Latina's Bible: The Nueva Latina's Guide to Love, Spirituality, Family and La Vida" (Three Rivers Press, 2002), said Latinas are partial to tight rather than loose clothing because the idea of hiding your curves is anathema to their idea of femininity. This is a reflection, Ms. Guzmán said, of how comfortable Latinas feel about their bodies no matter what their size.
"The genuine Latina look is this sense of comfort in your own skin, whether you're wearing very tight jeans or a beautiful ruffled, flowing skirt," she said. Ms. Guzmán wore leather pants well into her seventh month of pregnancy.
But in their sensuality and femininity, she said, the latest fashions remind her of her mother and grandmother.
The fashions, she said, "are a reminder of this classy, feminine past."
"They feel much better than the midriff jeans that were in last year," she continued. "I've seen it referred to in magazines as the peasant look, too, but a lot of us came from the tropics, and that loose cotton blouse that allows you to survive the heat is the kind of dress women of all economic strata wore."
Not every Latina is about to dress herself in ruffles and flourishes. In places like Stamford, Conn., casual wear geared to the urban chick low-rise pants and tank tops still rules with the high-school set. Many girls own big, chunky turquoise necklaces and bracelets, but wear the jewelry only with black or white clothing nothing much more colorful than that.
Karla Chavez, 15, who was born in Ecuador, said a flowing skirt makes her look bigger. "I'd like to wear it because it looks comfortable," she said, "but personally I don't think I have the body for something like that."
Elena Jetto, 16, a Puerto Rican Italian-American, said the Latina look had not caught on with her. "Gap is forever over here," she said.
Miss Jetto's mother, Celia Bosch, 45, said she was reminded of what she wore as a college student in the 1970's empire waists, embroidery on shirt collars or sleeves. But neither she nor her friends have re-embraced the look.
"I'd love to wear it, but where would I go?" she said. "The look here is Ann Taylor."
Ms. Bosch and I have known each other since kindergarten. When we lived in Puerto Rico, we did not wear anything resembling the Latina look. Instead, we followed the fad of the moment. Sometimes we were Twiggy in miniskirts and boots (in 85-degree weather!). At other times we were high-fashion models in the ankle-length skirt called the midi or hippies in hip-hugger pants. Ruffles? Only if our mothers made us, usually for First Communions and weddings.
But with age comes nostalgia, and I now embrace what I once found corny and overdone. That is why I bought ruffles this summer, even at the risk of becoming a walking stereotype. I draw the line, however, at anything off the shoulder with red lipstick.
Some Latinas did not have to shell out any money to look fashionable this season. Lys Méndez, 20, a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who was born in Mexico City and brought up in Riverside, Calif., said she had always loved and worn shawls and other indigenous Mexican styles. But she isn't sure the popularity these fashions are now enjoying is more than one season deep.
"What worries me is that they're not integrating it into the mainstream, but that it's a trendy thing that's going to be dropped," she said.
Betty Cortina, the editorial director of Latina magazine, also wonders if the Latina look will fall by the wayside as another look takes over. But, on the other hand, she noted that the Latino population in this country is now 35 million and a powerful influence not just in fashion but in popular music, entertainment and food.
"Latinas are saying, `This is great,' " Ms. Cortina said. "The world is paying attention to us."
Sí, but please don't call us cuchi-cuchi.