Frankie Quiñones displays a textbook Chicano look: a bandanna over his eyebrows, a white tank top and a fake bigote that brushes over his upper lip. In a black-walled San Diego nightclub this year, he stood in front of millennial, mostly Mexican American fans dizzy on craft beer and vodka, leading them in a set of exercises he calls Cholofit.
Quiñones is a comedian — playing a character he created, Creeper. His typical moves include “cholo squats,” which, Quiñones says in one of his videos, is an effective, convenient exercise “whether you’re locked up or you’re at your homie’s barbecue and it’s time to represent with your clica for a photo. Feel that burn. Represent.” Others include “cholometrics,” where two participants go chest-to-chest “like I’m about to throw down, and then you get the resistance right there, you see?” Cholofit cardio is pretty much just Quiñones and his class running from a cop.
Clearly, then, this isn’t the latest high-end fitness craze out of Calabasas, but a sketch-comedy take on the age-old Mexican American bad boy, the cholo, as he’s transported into a world occupied by young gourmands in Lululemon gear. María Herrera-Sobek, an associate vice chancellor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says the historic view of Mexican Americans as anything but fitness freaks adds to the contrast. “Mexicans didn’t do aerobics,” she says. “They exercised by working in the fields.”
In the past couple of years, Quiñones has evolved from touring comedy clubs as a small-font opener to becoming a YouTube sensation. His Cholofit clips have gotten millions of views and dominate the Latino comedy website, Más Mejor, launched in 2016 by Lorne Michaels’s production arm Broadway Video amid criticism that its “Saturday Night Live” on NBC has long suffered from a lack of Hispanics. Quiñones’s oddball repertoire has helped to put a comedic spotlight on barrio gentrification seen in places such as Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights, where Latino locals have militantly resisted the kinds of leisure rituals Quiñones is sending up. In an era when SoulCycle, CrossFit and hot yoga often represent a demographic that’s anything but brown, Quiñones has found a way to satirize these modern rituals while also making a little fun of himself.
Still, the Southern California native says he had to convince East Coast suits that a spoof of a cholo, a Southwestern U.S. archetype born after World War II, could resonate from coast-to-coast. “People told me the character was too ethnically specific,” the 37-year-old says.
His shtick joins a strong Latino cultural stream fed by “Despacito,” the multiplatinum hit, and “Coco,” the animated Pixar Dia de los Muertos tale that made more than $200 million domestically. “We, on the West Coast, complain a lot about East Coast bias — and the bias proves true when it comes to Latinxers in mass media,” says William A. Nericcio, an expert in Latin-American culture at San Diego State University. “But cholo culture and pachuco power comedy means we are ready for prime time.”
SNL veterans Fred Armisen and Horatio Sanz served as creative anchors for Más Mejor, and it was Sanz who phoned Quiñones out of the blue two years ago to ask him to join. “I was like, What?!” the comedian says.
Quiñones had been performing as Creeper on video and on stage for nearly five years. After he joined Mas Mejor in 2016, the character went big with “Cholo Whisperer,” the tale of a middle-class family that’s having trouble taming its pet-like adopted ex-con. “I ain’t answering to no white boy,” Creeper says in the clip. Eventually Creeper is domesticated with regimented daily time in the yard — the back yard.
The comedian used it as a base to relaunch Cholofit, which contrasts a gentrifying Los Angeles increasingly obsessed with precious produce and K-12 school scores with its working-class, Latino plurality increasingly obsessed with rising rents and residential displacement. “Don’t forget to show respect to the O.G. and his ruca right there in the corner, eh,” Creeper says in the video “Cholofit Advanced,” as he leads exercises. “They got towels and water for you and, also, a lot of wisdom, eh. Look: You can see that fool’s aura or whatever — it’s glowing right now.” Actors appearing as fit hipsters in the latest yoga gear nod studiously.
The old-schooler and his ruca — or lady — in the clip are played by Quiñones’s parents. He says Creeper was based on his dad, a carpenter with a cholo mustache, a low-rider car, and a closet full of Pendleton shirts that Quiñones raided when he started doing the character on stage. “My dad works hard,” Quiñones says over fish tacos at El Compadre, a classic, red-banquette restaurant in L.A.’s Echo Park. “He came from nothing. Now he owns two houses. But he still talks like a cholo.”
As early as elementary school, Quiñones, who grew up in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley and in Ventura County, would “grab a sprinkler head and pretend it’s a microphone” so he could perform bits for his family, he says. He listened to eight-track tapes and vinyl recordings of Cheech & Chong, Richard Pryor and George Carlin. And he was also influenced by TV’s “In Living Color” and “Culture Clash,” a Chicano sketch comedy show that aired on Fox in 1993. After college he worked at a tech firm in Silicon Valley before bailing to work full time on comedy more than 10 years ago.
Last year, the performer tried out unsuccessfully for SNL, but he notes that friend Melissa Villaseñor didn’t land her groundbreaking role on the show (she’s been touted as its first Latina) on her first try. In the meantime, he’s performing in two television shows while doing voice work for Cartoon Network, and he’s warmed up for Craig Robinson and Paul Rodriguez. “There’s a community of minority comics,” Quiñones says. “It’s important we all help each other.”
Creeper is but one of a handful of his stage and video characters, including “bro” real estate agent Afradooshie, “magical party guy” Pechanga and gossip girl Juanita Carmelita, who is based on an aunt. His cholo, however, is clearly the star of his repertoire. “People come up to me quoting lines from Creeper at my live shows,” he says. “It’s like they have a relationship with him.”
The success speaks to the growing appeal of Chicano culture and Spanglish content in a country where Latinos now make up the largest ethnic or racial minority group. The cholo is now recognized in places as far away as Japan, where low riding is a subculture, and Thailand, where cholo fashion has a foothold.
José Manuel Valenzuela Arce, a cultural studies professor at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, says one of the earliest uses of the term cholo comes from Peru, where it refers to indigenous people. That meaning carried over to 20th-century Mexico, where it was used as a pejorative to describe dark-skinned peasants.
During the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, Caucasian servicemen attacked Mexican American “pachucos,” a subculture characterized by flamboyant suits. After that, youths in the Southwest embraced and remixed that underdog image. They adopted Pendleton shirts, thick, khaki pants and even hairnets (kept on after restaurant shifts) as a proud, sometimes rebellious mode of dress, Valenzuela says. A cholo is not necessarily a gangbanger, but he can be, and he often looks the part. Quiñones likens cholo culture to hip-hop, in that it has multiple facets, including low-riding, tattoo culture and mural art.
Nericcio of San Diego State calls Quinones’s comedy “Chicanosmosis, the purposeful fusion of Latinx and gringo cultures.”
Quiñones says that while on stage, he gets heckled by conservatives. His humanization of what some might see as an outlaw archetype was not inspired by President Trump’s demonization of Hispanic immigrants, but does help provide another side to the story.
And criticism from Mexican Americans “hurts a little more,” he says. Some Latinos think Creeper is a bad look for their culture, particularly in this political environment, and tell him “you’re feeding stereotypes,” Quiñones says. “But I love Creeper. I embrace him. He’s about positivity and wisdom.”