What’s a Chicano?

So, what do we call you?






Spanish Surnamed?


or maybe just American?

And what about Chican@ and Latinx?


Well, it’s complicated so let’s start with the term Chicano. This is an pre-columbian term from the Nahuatl language used by the Aztecs to describe their original homeland in what is currently the Southwest of the United States.  The term was not very important or widely used until in the 1940’s when it was chosen by Pachucos to describe themselves. Pachucos wore flamboyant baggy zoot suits and lived in LA. Many of them crossed the border for work and finding themselves culturally marooned as they left  Mexico and foreigners as the entered America, created their own culture, style, and chose the name–Chicano. Then, in the 50’s and 60’s activists like Corky Gonzales and others were drawn to the name in part because other names didn’t fit.


Hispanic wasn’t a good fit because that denoted someone from Spain. Most of the brown Spanish speaking people in the southwest had migrated in the late 1890’s during the era of Porfirio Díaz in Mexico. In an attempt to modernize Mexico he put in place policies favoring large Haciendas and built railroads throughout Mexico. The low prices forced many to sell their lands and abandon the peasant lifestyle that had thrived in central Mexico. This also brought social disruption and poverty, followed by crime, forcing many to flee their native lands. Most of these peasants were Mestizo and Native Indians. They often began to travel to/from America’s southwest for work seasonally and many ultimately settled in Los Angeles. So–why would a bunch of Mestizos pushed off their land after generations of Spanish colonialism want to be identified as Hispanic? Well, lots of them didn’t. Interestingly one of my great grand parents from Mexico was Spanish and in family discussions it was always pointed out–he’s actually, like actually, Spanish, like, from Spain Spanish and he had blue eyes. So like most in Mexico there was a little bit of heritage linking back to Spain but the term Hispanic also came with the colonial connotations that didn’t resonate well with the community.


Spanish Surnamed was used in the 60’s to denote people with a Spanish sounding last name. This was used in government statistics and official reports. Ralph C. Guzmán researched and analyzed the deaths of US Service members in Vietnam and found that a disproportional number were being killed in the front lines of the war. This had a major impact in the Mexican American communities growing resistance of the Vietnam war.


Hispano is a term that was used in the 1800’s to describe the Spanish/Mestizo settlers in the Southwest. They set up many small villages including Colorado’s first non-native Indian town, San Luis in 1851. The term fell out of use before the 1900’s.


Latino? Well, this is a term used exclusively in the States to describe people whose origin is from Latin America and didn’t gain popularity till the 1990’s. It’s definitely a bit silly. Calling someone whose heritage is Brazilian and someone who is from Cuba–Latino is like grouping together a Russian and Portuguese person and calling them Euros. These people have different cultures, histories, languages, etc…


Mexican? By the 60’s many of these communities were 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants and their connection to Mexican culture was fairly weak. As many were Mestizo Indians, the term Mexican also didn’t really resonate with everyone.


Mexican-American, or maybe just American–right? Well, the privilege that came with being an unhyphenated full blooded American was routinely denied to brown people living in the barrio. In the 30’s 400,000 US Citizens were deported to Mexico singled out solely for their race. So, being American and brown did not equate to being an American with the full rights and privileges.


So, activists in the 60’s picked Chicano to self-identify and everyone was happy, right? No! Some the [brown] community was really offended by that term. They had spent years learning English, trying to integrate and build a space for themselves in the American Dream. Many saw continuing to speak Spanish and staying in the barrio as a failure and were desperate to shed their differences. They tried to build space for their differences under the umbrella of America and are now being called Chicanos?


In Atravesando Fronteras, the poet Gloria Anzaldúa describes the struggle best.  “Chicanos did not know we were a people until 1965 when Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers united and I am Joaquin was published and la Raza Unidad party was formed in Texas. With that recognition, we became a distinct people. Something momentous happened to the Chicano soul–we became aware of our reality and acquired a name and a language (Chicano Spanish) that reflected that reality. Now that we had a name, some of the fragmented pieces began to fall together–who we were, what we were, how we evolved. We began to get glimpses of what we might eventually become.

Yet the struggle of identities continues, the struggle of borders is our reality still. One day the inner struggle will cease and a true integration take place. In the meantime, tenemos que hacerla lucha. ¿Quién está protegiendo los ranchos de mi gente? ¿Quién está tratando de cerrar la fisura entre la india y el blanco en nuestro sangre? El Chicano, sí, el Chicano que anda como un ladrón en su propia casa.” 



In 1970–shortly before he was killed in the Chicano moratorium riot–LA Times Journalist Ruben Salazar also answered the question, Who is a Chicano? and What Is It Chicano’s Want? in this article.

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