Saturday, March 1, 2008

Can you wear cultural capital?

How is cultural capital signaled through dress? I had not given this question much thought until I met Dario and Dagoberto (pseudonyms) a little under a week ago. They are Juniors at a local high school and volunteered to participate in my qualitative study about Latina/o students’ perceptions of their educational environment. Both Dario and Dagoberto are successful students—they participate in a college preparation program, are taking AP courses, have high educational aspirations and a strong sense of direction about how to achieve their academic and professional goals. They interacted with me respectfully, they answered my questions thoughtfully and intelligently—I got the sense that they are ‘serious students’. Stop for a moment to recognize the image of a ‘serious student’. Who/what does that look like?

Dario and Dagoberto were dressed like “cholos”. Matute-Bianchi (1991) asserts, “students who affect the stylistic symbols of this category are frequently identified by others [students, school personnel, and police] as ‘gang-oriented’, ‘gang bangers’, or ‘gang sympathizers’. Some of the most common identifying characteristics of cholo attire can be generalized as baggy pants (often Dickies or Ben Davies brand), solid colored t-shirts (white, black, navy blue, etc), and perhaps a flannel shirt in the winter.

Through our interviews I learned that neither of these students were gang members. I also learned that they were aware that dressing like ‘cholos’ and being ‘good students’ was perceived as contradictory by their peers and their teachers. Dario felt it necessary to explain that “just because I dress like this doesn’t mean I can’t do good in school” and Dagoberto recounted an experience where he was confronted by a bona fide ‘gang banger’ who confused him with a member of the rival gang. I got the sense that they recognized their attire evoked negative reactions—that it was a liability. I also implicitly understood that the unintended consequences of their dress were simply collateral damage and that it was worth it to them. I got the sense that shedding their ‘cholo’ attire would leave them vulnerable—that they would also be shedding their hard image and this image was their protection.

Dario and Dagoberto are doing all the right things, but is their dress making all the wrong statements? What does ‘cholo’ attire signal to school personnel? Are they perceived as threatening and dangerous like the ‘other gang bangers’? Are they perceived as less serious about academics? Does it signal a lack of cultural capital in the schools and the right cultural capital in their neighborhoods? Are the social consequences of shedding this attire greater than the educational consequences? Are they compromising?


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