In most cultures, you greet each other by shaking hands, bowing your head, or simply saying hello. But for Latinos (and lots of people of color), our most popular forms of acknowledgment is not to bow down but rather to nod our head up, as if to say "what's up" or "orale." It's ubiquitous in today's culture, but it actually wasn't very common 60 years ago.
The exact origin of the casual upward head nod greeting isn't known, some think it can be attributed simply to the head nods we all employ while listening to music. However, we do know that this form of greeting became particularly popular among Latino gangsters known as cholos. The upward nod can also be traced further back to 1940s, during the Zoot Suit era. The Zoot Suit fashion worn by Latino youths featured "high-waisted, wide-legged, tight-cuffed, pegged trousers," along with "a long coat with wide lapels and wide, padded shoulders," and "accessorized with long, dangling chains and wide-brimmed hats." Because the hats were so wide, in order to see, they had tilt their head upward. It was even incorporated into the way they dance.
Generally speaking, nodding upward between friends is a positive way to acknowledge each other. In the book, The Social Psychology of Nonverbal Communication, authors Aleksandra Kostic and Serbia Derek Chadee write, that "Though other types of affirmative head movement have been absorbed cross culturally, the affirmative head-nod is well documented as a nearly indication of accord, agreement, and understanding. Researches have found cultural differences in the meaning of head-nod cues." They conclude that although there are variations of the head-nod, the communication is generally a positive one. However, as noted in Latino culture, when dealing with a nemesis or a stranger, nodding upward can also communicate "what's your problem?," as a way to acknowledge their presence in a confrontational way.
As Latino youth progressed from the Zoot Suit phase, their rebellion was in tact. The only thing that seemed to change was the fashion, and the terminology of their affiliation. They went from being called pachucos to cholos. The proper definition of the word cholo dates back to the 1600s, and its origins vary depending on the Latin American country. Back then the word meant of mixed ethnicity. Webster Dictionary defines the word, as its most recognizable form that we know today, to describe a Mexican-American youth who belongs to a street gang. In the short clip below, the origins of the cholo in the United States is explored, and half way through the video, you can see clear images of gang members. One young man in particular is depicted by posing with his head firmly upwards.
Cholos, and gangs in general, began sprouting in neighborhoods around Los Angeles in the 1950s. In the film La Bamba, a movie directed by Luis Valdez and set in the '50s, Bob Morales, brother of the late pop singer, Ritchie Valens, was portrayed as a cholo. Here, we see actor Esai Morales (as Bob), do the head-nod in its full glory.
In the info graph below you can see a useful timeline of cholos fashions and uses in pop culture.
We asked members of the Facebook group, Cholo Nation & Gangster Life (Unida), about their first recollections of this form of greeting, and the head-nod seems so ingrained in their culture they couldn't remember where they actually learned it in the first place.
"I grew up with it in the '50s and early '60s," said Augustine Lomelin. When we asked him where he learned it, he said: "I'm 68 years old. I would have to go back to about 1954 and really think about it."
"I grew up with it in the '60s, and it was a sign of respect to original gangsters in their hood," Mychelle Estrada Chicana said. "It's a form of respectful greeting, whether you knew them personally or not from da hood."
So, the next time you see your pals on the street, and you raise your head up to acknowledge them, remember to pour one out for the peeps who created that greeting in the first place.