Maybe 2007 will be their year

The girls have not enlisted any marketing agency nor made any money. What they have done, however, is bring worldwide attention to the chonga -- an exclusively Miami term for a particular kind of Miami girl. There are no chongas, say, in Los Angeles or New York. There might be girls who look like chongas elsewhere on the planet, but the word is used only right here.

There are no examples of chongas in popular culture, really. In the late Nineties, two characters on the Fox comedy skit show Mad TV (Lydia and Melina) dressed and acted kind of like chongas. Bratz dolls -- the sexy-eyed, thick-lipped toys that have names like strippers (Jade, Roxxy, and Valentina) -- are chongalike in appearance. The closest thing to a chonga in a movie is probably Rosie Perez's character in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. But that was released in 1989, a year before Mimi and Laura, and most present-day chongas, were even born.

Locally there are known chonga hot spots: the Westland Mall in Hialeah, the Dolphin Mall, and the Mall of the Americas. The last, located in West Miami-Dade off the Palmetto Expressway, is affectionately known as "Mall of No Americans" because of its lack of English speakers, its Latin American dining choices in the food court, and the shortage of nationally known retail stores.

It's not difficult to find chonga-looking girls there; all you have to do is walk in the door. On a recent weekend, I found Yunaisy Gonzalez and her friend Yeney Yero sitting at a table eating chicken, plantains, beans, and rice. Between sips of Materva, they tried to explain the chonga phenomenon.

"Everybody when they were in, like, sixth grade, was a chonga," said eighteen-year-old Yunaisy. Both girls were dressed in tiny shorts and even tinier tube tops. They wore big earrings and bangle bracelets, and spoke English with distinctly Cuban-Spanish accents.

The two said that no, they weren't chongas, but they used to be. They also tried to give their definition; it's largely a style thing, but there's a bit of attitude involved. "They think they can fight other people," Yunaisy commented. "You know, when you're little, you think you're the shit."

They stopped dressing like chongas in high school, because, as Yunaisy put it, "You change and you realize it's stupid."

The phenomenon, it's generally agreed, was first spotted in Miami in the late Eighties or early Nineties after Miami Vice and during the rise of Luther Campbell and his Miami bass music. Nationally Kurt Cobain and his legions of unwashed, flannel-shirt-wearing fans were popular, but these girls in Miami took their style cues from black urban culture and that of cholas, Mexican-American gangster girls who live in East Los Angeles.

Chongas were almost always teenagers, and usually Cuban, the children of recent immigrants. Many lived in Hialeah. In the early days, this new fashion trend meant wearing tight white bike shorts with a color thong panty underneath, oversize basketball jerseys, and, of course, lots of flimsy (usually fake) gold jewelry. Eyebrows were plucked to extreme, ridiculous half-circles. Hair was pulled tightly into ponytails, except for two strands at the front, which were either slicked down with gel or made to curl in bouncy ringlets to frame the face.

Over the years, the chongas' style evolved into wearing so-called Brazilian jeans (tight, stretchy, pocketless pants that allow for freedom of movement while dancing and, above all else, accentuate the rear end) and tiny tops. Parents were pressed into buying $150 necklaces or earrings with their daughters' names scrawled in eighteen-karat gold; poor girls had to settle for fake gold and generic terms such as "Baby Girl" and "Sexy." It spread to the suburbs of Westchester and Sweetwater, and eventually into the upper-class areas of Aventura and Coral Gables.

Lately some young ladies have given the style a preppy twist by wearing Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirts with their Brazilian jeans, but the polos are tight and teeny, not loose and casual; the girls who prefer this look are called "prepongas," a combination of prep and chonga.

"It all seems to have started when I was in middle school," observed Yamil Piedra, a 29-year-old comedian who grew up in Hialeah. "I don't remember them being called chongas back then, though."

Piedra has made the rounds at local comedy clubs and included the chonga style in his routine. He's noticed that the chonga style has evolved slightly, although it's still somewhat of a rite of passage for the eleven- to sixteen-year-old girls in the area. "It's just a phase," he said. "It has to be a phase. There's no way girls can go into a working environment like that. Can you imagine a chonga as a 25-year-old teacher?"

Piedra, who was featured on the TV show Last Comic Standing, recently posted a one-minute thirty-eight-second chonga skit on his MySpace page. It's called Chonga Chat. In it he dresses up like one of the girls from his middle school memories and pretends to be on a late-night dating chatline TV commercial.

"I's lives in Hialeah," he says into a cordless phone in a tough voice. Piedra, who is normally a beefy, muscular guy, sports a high ponytail, red lips, and a white tank top, with chest hair peeking out the top. "What do you mean waz Hialeah? Iz the most beautiful citeez in Miami. Peek up the phone right now and talk to hot chongas."

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