Hoop earrings are a rite of passage for many Latines — a form of expression passed down by our ancestors, idols, and inner circles. We grow up seeing them worn by many of the women in our lives, be it family or community members (school teachers with tight huggies, bus drivers with enviable nameplate bamboo hoops, and pop icons (the beloved late Selena Quintanilla-Perez, Jennifer Lopez to name a few). “Wearing hoop earrings is part of our heritage that begins nearly at birth,” says Carmen Lopez, the Puerto Rican-Mexican-American founder of secondhand designer retailer Current Boutique, noting that it’s tradition in many Latinx communities for girls to have pierced ears from infancy.
“As babies mature, the hoops get bigger,” notes Nicole Acosta. As the Mexican-American creator of HOOPS Project, an ongoing artistic endeavor documenting the earrings’ significance in marginalized cultures, she’s witnessed firsthand how the design is a source of both identity and bonding. “We see our mothers, sisters, tias [aunts], and grandmothers adorning themselves with gold jewelry. Putting on gold hoops is a ritual — something passed down to us.”
Many outside these tight knit groups might see hoops as a fashion trend passing in and out of favor. But for those who have grown up adorning their ears with metal circlets, the item is a cultural marker. “I inherited my mother’s collection of gold hoops and will pass them down to my daughters,” Lopez says.
The origins of the hoop, however, have a global reach. “The earliest documentation of hoop earrings dates back to Mesopotamia and Nubia,” says fashion professor Henry Navarro Delgado. Ancient frescos from around 2500 B.C.E. showcase Sumerian royals wearing gold hoop earrings. Around the same time, royalty of all genders in Egypt wore gold hoops and were mummified with well-decorated ears.
As trade routes took gold hoops to Asia, the style spread across the Aegean world and beyond. Hoops continued to be worn across all corners of the globe including in Indian and Romani cultures — even pirates during the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe decorated themselves with the striking accessory. Meanwhile, across the ocean, the circular adornment had its own meaning within many civilizations native to South America. “Gold jewelry was worn by ancient cultures across the Americas, not only in Mesoamerica,” Delgado says. Aztec emperors wore gold earrings as did high-ranking members of Mayan and Incan society. When the Spanish began colonization in Latin America, they stole much of this goldwork to melt it down. Some artifacts show gold hoop earrings used to hold larger gold plates.
Thus, for many Latines, the significance of gold jewelry — and, in turn, hoops — delves much deeper than aesthetics. “Our Indigenous ancestors adorned themselves from head-to-toe in jewelry as a form of self-expression,” Acosta says. “They’re a symbol of culture and identity. They’re more than a fashion statement. When we wear them, we pay homage to where we come from.”
In the 20th century, hoop earrings began to play a defining role in modern society as both a fashion statement and cultural touchstone for the Latin American diaspora living in the United States. “Large hoop earrings have been associated with Latina style in North America since the Chicano Pachucas of the ‘30s and ‘40s,” Delgado says, noting that in modern times the look is most closely associated with Latines, African Americans, people of Indian descent, and Native Americans. In the 1970s gold hoop earrings were the go-to style for Black and Latine women at discos (think Diana Ross and Cuban singer La Lupe). And by the ‘80s, gold hoops were part of the uniform of the chola subculture — a specific style that also included Dickies pants, tight tank tops, and lots of eyeliner — adopted by many young Mexican-American women in working-class communities within Southern California.
Celebrities also ushered gold hoops into the mainstream in the ‘80s and ‘90s when they appeared in music videos and song lyrics in the emerging underground music genre developed by Black and Latinx artists. By the late ‘90s stars such as Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, and Jennifer Lopez were rocking chunky doorknockers and large skinny loops alike.
But in tandem with the rise of hoop earrings, a damaging stereotype began to emerge: that women who wore the style — and glossy gilded metal in general — were low-class. One might argue this misconception peaked in the early ‘00s when Carrie Bradshaw described the casual jewelry she wore as “ghetto gold for fun” in an episode of Sex In The City. Still J.Lo never abandoned her oversized gold hoops and wore them in the 2001 “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” music video — openly defying, perhaps, the misconception that gold hoops are unsophisticated.
In many ways this stigma began to shift in the mid 2010s when gold hoops started to be seen on fashion runways, editorial photoshoots, and worn by non-Latine celebrities like Khloe Kardashian, Emily Ratajkowski, and Bella Hadid. As is the case many trends that originate with people of color, unfortunately, the negative preconceptions around gold hoops began to diminish when white women got involved. Still, it was heartening to see stars of Caribbean and South American descent continue to fully embrace the look, like Cardi B and Selena Gomez, as well as longtime hoop stalwarts Aguilera and Lopez.
Two years later, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) also helped to reclaim gold hoops for Latines when she donned a large gold pair with bright red lipstick (another cultural marker) at the U.S. Capitol Building when she was sworn into Congress. The Puerto Rican descendant’s accessory choice was just as intentional as her white suit. “Lip and hoops were inspired by Sonia Sotomayor, who was advised to wear neutral-colored nail polish to her confirmation hearings to avoid scrutiny. She kept her red,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. “Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman.”
By opting for an accessory so dear to her personal history Ocasio-Cortez was saying more than a women in big jewelry should be taken seriously — she was also showing it’s OK to unapologectically display who you are in all walks of life. This is something Acosta wholeheartedly believes as well. “When we wear our big gold hoops, we’re telling the world to accept us. It’s a deliberate choice, a political statement, and declares we have full autonomy over bodies,” she says. “We’re reclaiming our identity from thousands of years of colonization. Hoops help us feel protected … and are an act of resistance. They’re ancient but also the future.”