by Telodigo Sinmadera

Who is a Chicano? What does the term Chicano mean? Where does the term originate? Why have Mexican-Americans in the past objected to being known as Chicanos? Why do so many Mexican-Americans today take pride in being Chicanos? There questions are frequently asked when the subject of the Chicano Movement comes up. This article seeks to clarify the origins and meaning of the term Chicano and attempts to explain some of the implications of being a Chicano.

A Chicano is an individual (usually with a Spanish surname) of Mexican parentage or ancestry who lives in the United States. Chicano is often used synonymously with Mexican-American, although many Chicanos presently make an ideological distinction between the two terms.

Scholarly research has yet to provide an historically documented explanation of the origin of the term Chicano. However, many Chicano researchers believe that the term comes from Mexicano, which is the Spanish word for “Mexican.” The word Mexicano was used in ancient Mexico to identify a member of the Aztec Indian tribe. In modern usage, however, anyone born in Mexico, regardless of ethnic heritage, is a Mexicano. If the letters m and a are dropped from Mexicano the word becomes xicano. The letter X is pronounced sh in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Xicano is therefore pronounced Shicano or Chicano. With this background we can readily see the probable evolution of the word Chicano. Strictly speaking, Chicano simply means “person from Mexico.”

However, the word Chicano has developed negative connotations in the past, for reasons that will not be discussed below. Notwithstanding, today the word has, for many persons, very positive connotations.
The chart that follows attempts to place n chronological order the important events of the 20th century which bear relevance to the understanding of past and present conditions surrounding the Mexican-American or Chicano population in the United States.

    • 1910 Mexican revolution.......Bandit
    • 1920 Massive Mexican; Immigration to U.S, field worker, peon
    • 1930 Labor Strikes; deportations, troublemaker, welfare parasites
    • 1940 Urban Riots .........juvenile delinquents
    • 1950...."Operation Wetback"...wetback Foreigner, undesirable
    • 1960

Present Chicano Movement - EMERGING (from within and outside the Chicano community)

  • cultural pride
  • dedication to the community
  • pluralism
  • militancy
  • nationalism

Let us briefly discuss the relation between some of the historical events outlined above and the evolution of the word Chicano in the United States. Manuel Gamio, a distinguished Mexican scholar has established that the term Chicano was used to identify Mexican immigrants in the early part of the present century. A brief review of circumstances surrounding this immigrant group is most appropriate to gain a better insight into the relationship between socio-economic condition among this group and the use of the term Chicano.

The Mexicans immigrating to the U.S. in the early part of this century were largely refugees from the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution. While the Revolution is seen as a necessary and beneficial occurrence it nevertheless produced chaos for many years, thus causing serious disruption in the lives of the Mexican people. As a result, such important areas as education, job training, etc. were sorely neglected in strife-torn Mexico. Consequently, many immigrants to the U.S. during this time were for the most part uneducated and unskilled. These factors, combined with unfamiliarity with the English language, tended to qualify the Mexican immigrants for only the most menial, unskilled types of jobs, usually in agriculture. These then were the Chicanos of the early 1900’s.

In the eyes of many Americans, the name Chicano thus became associated with persons who were poor, unskilled, uneducated, ignorant, and backward. Additionally, the U.S. newspapers popularized the notion that Chicanos or Mexicans came from a country where almost everyone was an unprincipled, immoral bandit. Individuals of Mexican descent born in the United States were of course influenced by this propaganda. U.S. citizens of Mexican ancestry were reluctant to associate themselves with the recent immigrants. They took pains to let it be known that they were “Spanish Americans” or “Early Californians,” rather than undesirable Mexicans or Chicanos. This denial on the part of many native born Mexican Americans, of kinship with the immigrants, tended to further hinder the newcomers acceptance into the American mainstream.

Since Chicanos or Mexicans made their living primarily in farm labor, the California agricultural strikes of the ‘20’s and ‘30’s – largely organized and led by Chicanos – probably served to place one more stereotype on the group, that of undesirable troublemakers. Reaction form the growers and unsympathetic authorities took two forms: (1) use of force to halt unionization efforts, and (2) deportation (mostly forced expulsion) to Mexico. Chicanos were thus prevented from obtaining better wages and living conditions in the fields. Furthermore, the unfavorable economic conditions brought on by the Depression forced many unemployed Chicanos onto the welfare rolls. The result was not only the creation of another stereotype (as perennial welfare recipients), but brought on unfavorable action on the part of the government. Thousands of Chicanos were deported, among them many bonafide U.S. citizens.

Events in Los Angeles in the early ‘40’s created more misunderstanding and probably gave rise to additional stereotyping. Those who participated in street riot gang activities during the “Zootsuit Riots” (more appropriately the U.S. navy riots) in East Los Angeles were characterized as the lower class, troublesome element of the Mexican-American community, or the Chicanos. In the eyes of many community residents, being a Chicano probably became tantamount to being irresponsible and a law-breaker. Lack of awareness of the underlying reasons behind the social phenomena which gave rise to the riots served to re-inforce an already existing division in the minority community.

Those persons of Mexican descent who shunned any connection with gang activities and the conditions responsible for the unfavorable circumstances in their community were emphatic in their declarations that they were responsible and “good Americans,” and not like the troublesome element in their midst, which many identified as the Chicanos. The term Chicano again appears to have been a victim of circumstance, taking a negative connotation emanating from social and economic conditions whose origins could be traced to prevailing racist attitudes and practices of the dominant society. However, this was not understood in the community then as it is now.

Thus, social problems which have historically emanated from the ill-treatment afforded economically and socially deprived Mexican immigrants, as well as other poor persons of Mexican ancestry, have served not only to divide this minority group, but to stigmatize their proud heritage and identity – which is truly reflected in the term Chicano.

This proud heritage stems from centuries of high cultural evolution, beginning with the pre-Spanish Indian civilizations of central Mexico. The Aztecs, the most famous of ancient native peoples, achieved a level of social, political, economic, and religious organization recognized as among the most advanced in the history of mankind. Their capitol, Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), was one of the most beautiful and well-planned cities in the world. The Chicano’s roots also extend to Spain, a country which left lasting influence in Mexico during the colonial period. The outstanding accomplishments of the mestizos (the Indo-Hispanic population) in their great efforts to build Mexico into what it is today, are also part of the Chicano legacy.

This background is understandably a source of great pride for Chicanos. However, the dominant society in the United States, through its educational system and the mass media, has chosen to subvert the positive aspects of past achievements of this minority group, and has instead helped to create negative misconceptions. This distortion and neglect of the Chicano heritage has done much hard to the self-image of Chicanos.

Fortunately, times are changing. New awareness has come as a result of the Chicano Movement. For the individual Chicano, the Movement seeks to place things in their proper perspective. To be a Chicano today means, among other things, to have pride in one’s culture and history, to be dedicated to the betterment and welfare of the community, to be committed to action that will effectively accomplish the goals of self-determinism, and to work toward the establishment of a society where equal rights and equal opportunities truly exist for all.


LINK: Hispanic, Latino or Chicano?

Los Angeles Times
Ruben Salazar—His Goals Remain

Ruben Salazar was a most uncommon man who fought mightily for the cause of a group of underprivileged common men—those of the economically deprived Mexican-American community.
When Mr. Salazar, whose column appeared weekly in The Times, was killed during last Saturday’s East Side rioting, he died on the job at 42. He was covering that tragic event. We fervently wish he were here with us today, to help explain what really happened.

Born in Juarez, Mex., Mr. Salazar came to the Times 11 years ago as a city staff reporter and won awards for his intensive coverage of Mexican-American affairs.

In his 1963 series on what is now known as the Chicano community, he wrote of dropouts from inferior schools, of the Mexican-American’s lack of political power, of their search for identity in an Anglo world.
His final column last Friday declared: “The Mexican-American has the lowest educational level, below either black or Anglo; the highest dropout rate; the highest illiteracy rate.”

In that column, he reported that U.S. Senate hearings on such problems failed to evoke any interest—although Mexican-Americans are the nation’s second largest ethnic minority.

Sometimes Mr. Salazar, who joined the Spanish language TV station KMEX last April, was an angry man, and properly so, as he observed the inequities around him. Yet he spoke out with a calm vigor that made his words all the more impressive—and influential.

In a eulogy, it is customary to conclude that such a man will be missed. This is utterly true of Mr. Salazar. For as Rep. Ed Roybal (D-Los Angeles), one of the few Mexican-Americans in Congress, mourned on leaning of his death: “Violence has deprived us of the man who best articulated the necessity for the peaceful of long overdue social reforms for the Spanish-speaking community in the United States… “One thing we do know, however, is that Ruben Salazar’s burden passes on to each one of us who remain behind, and we must continue to peacefully pursue his goals of social reform with steadfast determination.”

Those are big goals. He was a big man.

Reprinted from the los angeles times, friday, february 6, 1970
Who Is A Chicano? And What Is It the Chicanos Want?
By Ruben Salazar

A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself.

He resents being told Columbus “discovered” American when the Chicano’s ancestors, the Mayans and the Aztecs, founded highly sophisticated civilizations centuries before Spain financed the Italian explorer’s trip to the “New World.”

Chicanos resent also Anglo pronouncements that Chicanos are “culturally deprived” or that the fact that they speak Spanish is a “problem.”

Chicanos will tell you that their culture predates that of the Pilgrims and that Spanish was spoken in America before English and so the “problem” is not theirs but the Anglo’s who don’t speak Spanish.

Having told you that, the Chicano will then contend that Anglos are Spanish-oriented at the expense of Mexicans.

They will complain that when the governor dresses up as a Spanish nobleman for the Santa Barbara Fiesta he’s insulting Mexicans because the Spanish conquered and exploited the Mexicans.

It’s as if the governor dressed like an English Redcoat for a Forth of July parade, Chicanos say.

When you think you know what Chinos are getting at, a Mexican-American will tell you that Chicano is an insulting term and may even quote the Spanish Academy prove that Chicano derives from chicanery.

A Chicano will scoff at this and say that such Mexican-Americans have been brainwashed by Anglos and that they’re Tio Tacos (Uncle Toms). This type of Mexican-Americans, Chicanos will argue, don’t like the word Chicano because it’s abrasive to their Anglo-oriented minds.

These poor people are brows Anglos, Chicanos will smirk.

What, then, is a Chicano? Chicanos say that if you have to ask you’ll never understand, much less become a Chicano.

Actually, the work Chicano is as difficult to define as “soul.”

For those who like simplistic answers, Chicano can be defined as short for Mexicano. For those who prefer complicated answers, it has been suggested that Chicano may have come from the work Chihuahua—the name of a Mexican state bordering on the United States. Getting trickier, this version then contends that the Mexicans who migrated to Texas call themselves Chicanos because having crossed into the United States from Chihuahua they adopted the first three letters of that state, Chi, and then added came, for the latter part of Texano.

Such explanations, however, tend to miss the whole point as to why Mexican-American activists call themselves Chicanos.

Mexican-Americans, the second largest minority in the country and the largest in the Southwestern states (California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado), have always had difficulty making up their minds what to call themselves.

In New Mexico they call themselves Spanish Americans. In other parts of the Southwest they call themselves Americans of Mexican descent, people with Spanish surnames or Hispanos.

Why, ask some Mexican-Americans, can’t we just call ourselves Americans?

Chicanos are trying to explain why not. Mexican Americans, though indigenous to the Southwest, are on the lowest rung scholastically, economically, socially, and politically. Chicanos feel cheated. They want change. Now.

Mexican-Americans average eight years of schooling compared to the Negroes’ 10 years. Farm workers, most of whom are Mexican-American in the Southwest, are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act unlike other workers. Also, Mexican-Americans often have to compete for low-paying jobs with their Mexican brothers from across the border who are willing to work for even less. Mexican-Americans have to live with the stinging fact that the Mexican is the synonym for inferior in many parts of the Southwest.

That is why Mexican-American activists flaunt the barrio work Chicano—as an act of defiance and a badge of honor. Mexican-Americans, though large in numbers, are so politically impotent that in Los Angeles, where the country’s largest single concentration of Spanish-speaking live, they have no one of their own in the City Council. This, in a city politically sophisticated enough to have three Negro councilmen.

Chicanos, then, are merely fighting to become “Americans.” Yes, but with a Chicano outlook.




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