Foreword Reviews

Claim your inner "chingona", a Spanish term for "badass woman"

Chingona banner

Executive Editor Matt Sutherland Interviews Alma Zaragoza-Petty, Author of Chingona: Owning Your Inner Badass for Healing and Justice

Latina girls in the United States face a daunting number of societal hurdles as they navigate through childhood and eye their future American dream. In many cases, these vulnerable children lack supportive elders who can help them defend against rampant misogyny, and the legacy of Catholicism’s patriarchy, poverty, inner city violence, substandard schools—the list goes on—all require a minor miracle nearly everyday to overcome.

In anticipation of the November 1st release of her new book, Chingona: Owning Your Innter Badass for Healing and Justice, we’re delighted to share a conversation between Alma Zaragoza-Petty and Foreword‘s Executive Editor Matt Sutherland. A first-generation Mexican American, social justice advocate, and co-host of The Red Couch Podcast with hip-hop artist Propaganda, Alma is one of the nation’s most thoughtful, important voices on the challenges facing young women of color.

“Zargoza-Petty’s compassion shines and her incisive account of her life provides sharp observations on what it’s like to grow up as the child of immigrants in the US. The result is a wise volume on discovering oneself.”-Publishers Weekly Order Now 877-373-0706

The etymology of chingona is fuzzy but the word has a troubled history which includes the first people of mixed-blood in the Americas, misogyny, rape. Would you please give us your preferred definition of chingona and why it became such a powerful force for Latina and other women of color?

Chingonas are badass, unruly women who break cycles of psychosocial generational trauma and live a life embodying the courage, leadership and ganas that it takes to do so. This term has become a powerful force of identity among Latina women because of many patriarchal and misogynistic messages we receive either from society and/or our own families that “calladitas te ves más bonita.” Many women of color have had to endure messages like these through colonization and settler colonialism which continues to pervade our countries and those that embody the chingona spirit can see themselves beyond those messages. They ring the bell for other women of color to wake up from the lie that we are not only meant to be here but to take all the space we deserve in spaces that have historically excluded us.

The book is strikingly, even wrenchingly honest at times, and shows you at your most vulnerable. Please talk about that aspect of telling the story of your path to being a fearless chingona?

I was very intentional in what I did and did not share. I never want to tell anyone else’s story so to be clear this is my specific story as a first-generation Mexican American. Not all women in similar positionalities have gone through what I have; though my story might resonate with theirs. I decided to be frank and honest about my personal experiences and from my own perspective because I value transparency and honesty and for a very long time, when adults, mentors, or caregivers only showed me a specific part of their lives, I felt more alone.

The intention with this book is to show that no matter the level of despair and agony you’ve faced—you are not alone. Sadly women and specifically brown women know too well the disposability and objectification we face at times. I was not always so fast and comfortable with telling my story though. I used to and sometimes still do get emotional and grieve parts of my story but that’s just it: being a fearless chingona means knowing that your story is just that, your story is not the totality of who you are nor your whole identity. We can choose to see ourselves beyond victimhood, we can choose to heal and put our experiences in perspective and in their right location—as experiences and not our worth.

Chingona is frequently used in a derogatory, misogynistic way against assertive confident girls and women—you, in fact, were often called a chingona as a youngster. But, at some point, you began to “wonder whether becoming a real chingona—a woman who represents strength, courage, and authenticity, who knows who she is, where she came from, and how to make life better for herself and others—was something to move toward, not away from.” You came to understand the word as a way to embrace your Indigena and Afrodescendiente heritage, rather than your Spanish roots. Can you talk about this transition and how you learned to embrace your inner chingona?

My pain and struggle—the wounds I had are what helped me embrace my inner chingona. Heartache and struggle can teach us if we let them. I underwent a paradigm shift as I decided to stop running away from discomfort and unease. I realized that perhaps it wasn’t a bad thing to be called a chingona, opinionated, or mean. Perhaps it was the people around me that could see themselves for who they were, I was reflecting back parts of themselves they didn’t like about themselves. I don’t blame them for not being aware—as you dig deeper into who you are and what you are made of, it can be despairing. At least, for me, it was scary to admit neglect, abandonment, and a violent past of colonization and its effect upon displaced peoples, including my ancestors. But it was also beautiful to realize the fortitude, wisdom, and courage that Indigena y Afrodescendiente peoples have—that I am alive! Their survival continues and I can relate to that, to that inner chingona journey of survivance, knowledge of myself beyond the white or patriarchal gaze.

You feel a strong connection to all those persecuted chingonas from centuries past. They’re your peeps and you seem to draw strength from them even if they died long ago. As you say, chingonas are a bridge to future generations. Maybe this is a stretch, but are you able communicate with them some how—through dreams or visions or strange feelings, or whispers in the trees?

Yes, and it is not a stretch; I feel intimately connected to my ancestors through these phenomena, like nature, including trees! I love the knowledge and wisdom that this supernatural and metaphysical world affords me. I love to live beyond the concrete and analytical.

Phenomenology deals with the study of how we experience these types of happenings—feelings, visions, dreams, etc. The meaning we make of these phenomena can be a tool for learning about the deeper meaning of our experiences themselves. This is the wisdom that many old spiritual leaders have taught us, including how not to take those instances too seriously. Non-attachment to our experiences is old wisdom, and I hear it in the trees!

“The book’s assertive languasge pulses with honesty and authority, urging women of color to stop being complicit in society’s expectations for them.”-Foreword Reviews Order Now 877-373-0706

Describe the ideal chingona candidate? And perhaps, while defining terms like Nepantla and cultural coyote—along with other attitudes and behaviors—you can help would-be chingonas self identify?

You are a chingona if you, for whatever reason, maybe struggle and pain, maybe nonconformity, realize you want to grow and change to be a force of good in the world. Maybe you are fed up with how things are or are fighting for how things are for others. It is hard to want to change and fight in our outside environs without first confronting the turmoil and angst within us. Nepantleras are ok with the in-betweenness of knowing you aren’t quite where you want to be but also can see where you might want to go. Maybe it’s an inspirational leader or mentor that helps you see how it could be. And along the process and growth you are ok with being in the in-between, it energizes you and you are complete there. This feeling doesn’t come easy, you fight to be ok in the in-between.

Similarly, cultural coyotes are those companions in life that help move you to new emotional, professional, and spiritual lands. They may have some more experience in those new lands and accompany or bring along others so that growth and change can happen. Being a chingona is a life-long process of leveling up not just in accomplishments but in contributions to your community through inclusive action.

Your school years in southern California around Los Angeles were marked by gang violence and a sense of futility. But you were also supported by some truly remarkable teachers who recognized your intellectual gifts, and “believed there was something else” in you besides the tough gang girl role you were playing. In light of your recent work supporting the educational opportunities of working-class college students, please talk about how important those rare mentor-type relationships with women were to your future, and how young women today might also benefit from such a lift?

In a book I recently read it stated that for every 100th soothing supportive word or act by a caring adult, teenage girls learn one way to self-soothe. This made me feel the real futility of my youth. I was starved for emotional connection and likewise, many young women need caring and supportive adults who can recognize their talents and what they can offer the world. This can begin to counter the misogynistic and violent messages women receive almost daily. Yes, the world is changing. We are becoming more aware of the negative impact of toxic patriarchal systems but we are also living in a time when young women are receiving misogynistic and over-sexualized ideologies online all the time.

It’s hard to hear vulnerable, encouraging messages when you come from a working-class background and are deemed “at risk” of teen pregnancy, school dropout, or incarceration and the world is quick to want to over-sexualize you. It’s all too much. Young women benefit from being mentored and encouraged in tangible ways. As a graduate student, I studied the role of low-achieving girls, those that didn’t get As in high school and learned that the difference between those who still decided to go to college and those that didn’t was an adult that encouraged them and the attitude that you can always try again (which they likely learned from a caring adult).

Intriguingly, you connect colonialism with the feeling of imposterism known to many women of color. You write, “Our ancestors, whether they were colonizers or the colonized or both, lived in systems of violence, oppression, and dominance, and they left behind for us the inferiority and superiority complexes of our communal history.” But today’s chingonas are the “generation of change agents,” you go on to say. Why are you optimistic this is true?

Because I have no other option! I choose to hope and have faith that as we heal on the inside we will also heal the communities around us. I am optimistic this is true because we are more aware now than in past generations about the effects of our experiences on our psyches. For many women, especially women of color in a society that is still governed, taught, and managed by predominantly white males across fields, it is so much easier to feel like an imposter. As we enter more spaces and diversify work environments and communities, we are literally changing history. This is how chingonas are change agents.

In high school, you went from failing most of your classes to straight As in a matter of months. This turnabout happened because you stopped fighting, you stopped being a chingona. Please explain this seemingly contradictory cause and effect and the conflictions it caused you?

Falling in line with what is expected is following the path of least resistance—it is giving in to the way we’ve decided is the right way to live life. This is the feeling I had when I just did what teachers and other authority figures in school expected of me. I had no room to question how and why we were being taught such a one-sided curriculum. I just got in line with what was expected and this is the opposite of being a chingona. Internally, I was letting my curiosity die and yet, this was considered success. This was the conflict I carried until I allowed myself to learn from non-dominant voices in history, art, and science and then also allowed myself to learn from the incredible wisdom in my own family and community. This helped me feel less one-sided in my understanding of the world. Less like a by-product and more like a chigona fighting to explain her existence.

Please describe your spiritual journey. Is there such a thing as a predominate chingona spiritual practice? If I may, what does your spiritual life look like?

Each chingona’s spiritual journey looks different. For me, growing up with a grandmother who loved the Virgencita de Guadalupe from our home, rather than a church—which I don’t ever remember her attending as a young girl in Mexico, my holy and spiritual journey became a very personal and intimate one. As I grew up and was made to attend mass and I encountered more religions and organized spiritual practices, it was a bit harder for me to accept, it still is.

I primarily practice ways to hold captive my thoughts for good, a Christian learning, and I also do love what Jesus is about—holding people in power accountable, ministering to the marginalized, and flipping tables/causing a scene when things are not as they should be (how Jesus did when religious leaders of his time made a mercado out of the church space). I love that Jesus.

Transcendental meditation is also something holy and spiritual for me because it has helped me to heal from my past by helping me manage anxiety and stress. There are many other things that I find holy and spiritual, communities of women coming together for a common purpose, nature, and learning from the wisdom it teaches us, and speaking with the Divine/prayer.

Okay, in closing, will you detail the reasons this very challenging chingona journey—to accepting the complicated histories of our lives, in the pursuit of mindbodyspirit and psychic-level healing—is so important, so necessary even?

As a society we are very good about analyzing and accepting what we can see. It’s taken many years of psychological and sociological work for people to realize how immensely disconnected we are to our spiritual, psychic, and embodied selves. It’s hard to have deep transformative change that heals us when we do not connect mindbodyspirit. I hope that by showing how I came to accept my very complicated history and even feel emboldened to consider myself a chingona is a blueprint for others to do the same. To dig deep, uncomfortably deep, and then experience the beauty and joy of healing.

Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month

Matt Sutherland

Load Next Article