On the term Chicano/a …
The recent UCLA broadcasting of Jesús Treviño’s 1972 documentary “Yo Soy Chicano” (I am Chicano) precipitated much interest in the Chicano Movement as well as in the term Chicano, which, next to Mexicano/a, is the term of longest, continuous use – going back to the early 1900s – among Americans of Mexican descent to describe themselves. In 1995 I wrote an essay, citing 58 sources, about the term Chicano and its use historically within our community. In this blog I touch on some of that essay’s key points. I organized my essay by time periods, but history does not cooperate with arbitrary calendars. So, there is some overlap between and among categories.
Cholos, Pochos, Chicanos…
Cholos, Pochos, Chicanos. These are the people we meet at the turn of the 20th century. The first chicanos were the cholos. Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio reports that in the early 1900s, Mexican immigrants to the U.S. were called cholos or chicanos while Americans of Mexican descent were known as pochos. (Source 1) Other scholars such as Harold J. Alford also document the use of cholos to refer to the recent Mexican immigrants, noting that to the immigrant the native-born (U.S.) Mexican was a pocho, and to the pocho, the immigrant was a cholo. (Source 2)
By about 1920, chicano had subsumed cholo to describe newly arrived Mexicans. Chicano scholar Ernesto Galarza, Texas linguist Edward R. Simmen and others note that in the early 1900s, chicano was a common term of ethnic identification. (Source 3, Source 4) In his memoirs of this period, Barrio Boy, Galarza says that, “Crowded as it was, the colonia [aka barrio] found a place for these chicanos, the name by which we called an unskilled worker born in Mexico and just arrived in the United States.” (Source 4).
Although chicano was a neutral term, a simple term of identity, there were some chicano-pocho culturally based dynamics. Some chicanos felt the pochos were becoming too “American” (i.e., losing their language and culture) while some pochos resented the chicanos for their reluctance to adapt to the U.S.
In what he represents as the earliest recorded use of chicano, ethnographer José Limón cites a 1911 anecdote (reported in a Texas Spanish-language newspaper) in which a chicano pokes fun at a pocha who is attempting to assimilate into Anglo society. (Source 5) “Los abolillados,” (“The Americanized Ones”), a Mexican song published in a Texas Spanish-language newspaper in 1928, makes fun of chicanos who are getting too “abolillados.” (Source 6) [The term “bolillo” was used to refer to Anglos in those days; thus, to become “abolillado” was to become “Americanized.”] Other scholars such as Gamio and Galarza (cited above) also comment on these pocho-chicano dynamics.
But All Mexicans look alike…
Circa 1930, the pocho-chicano class dynamics became irrelevant. For, to the racist-oriented folks there was no such thing as a pocho or a chicano. They were all Mexicans or “greasers.” (Source 2) In Texas and other states, people of Mexican descent, regardless of whether they were non-citizen immigrants or native-born Americans, were barred from restaurants, theaters, and other places. (Source 1) Scholars such as Abraham Hoffman (Source 7) and Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez (Source 8) report that during the Depression of the 1930s people of Mexican descent – as many as 1.8 million – were forcibly deported to Mexico in the late 1920s and early 1930s. There was no differentiation between U.S. citizens and non-citizens – the large majority of the people deported were U.S. citizens.
The “All Mexicans look alike” phenomenon had two noteworthy results. One was that it became a political unifier. The pochos and the chicanos joined forces to fight discrimination, especially in the workplace. Circa the mid-1930s, for example, Mexican agricultural workers staged several strikes in California (and elsewhere) around issues of racial discrimination, poor housing, and low pay. (Source 2, Source 9)
Another result was that it brought about an “anything-but-Mexican” period. Anti-Mexican racism and discrimination was so virulent that the term “Mexican” was often avoided, giving rise to terms such as “Spanish-American,” “Latin-American,” and similar appellations. Even organizations engaged in civil-rights work such as LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) and the G.I. Forum kept “Mexican” out of their names.
The Mexican American arrives…
From the late 1930s and through the 1950s, chicano was a neutral, descriptive term as well as a very positive one. The song “El Lavaplatos” (The Dishwasher), recorded in 1930, relates the satirical story of a Mexican who came to the U.S. and found work as a dishwasher because, “That is the decent work that many chicanos do.” (Source 10) Chicano in this period started the transition to being a term that described any Mexican in the U.S., native-born or immigrated.
Scholar and poet Tino Villanueva cites a 1931 poem in which chicano is used affectionately as is its plural form, la chicanada. The poem references Las Vegas, New Mexico, a town the poem says is full of chicanos, who the poet claims are the outstanding group of the community. Armando Rodríguez, who in the 1960s was the Director of the Office of Spanish-Speaking Affairs of the U.S. Office of Education, states that in his childhood, in the late 1930s, in San Diego, California, chicano “was our favorite name for our fellow Mexican-Americans.” (Source 11) César Chávez recalls that when he was about 10 years old, in 1937, chicano was what Mexican Americans called each other. (Source 12)
By the 1940s, some Mexicans in the U.S. were using geography-based terms to refer to themselves. In Among The Valiant: Mexican-Americans in WW II and Korea, which he wrote in the 1950s, Raúl Morín describes how chicano was a term of pride among soldiers in WW II and the Korean War. He reports that some soldiers of Mexican heritage described themselves as Spanish-Americans, Latin Americans, Texanos, Manitos, etc. and that,
Last were the Mexicanos (Mexicans), the proudest of all our groups, those boasting of being ‘Chicano’ or ‘Mejicano’‘ … (Source 13)
The 1940s also saw the end of the “anything-but-Mexican” phenomenon. According to scholar and musicologist Américo Paredes, this WW II generation coined the term “Mexican American,” which reflected their culture and heritage as well as their status as Americans. (Source 14) Morín elaborates on Paredes’ point, saying “…our people…cannot be called Spanish, Mexican, or Latin American” because we are not from those places, and we are different (culturally, etc.) from the Anglo, so we cannot simply be called “Americans.” Therefore, Morín says,
For this reason we have made the term ‘Mexican-American’ our choice. We then imply that we are proud to be Americans, and at the same time are not trying to deny our Mexican ancestry. (Source 13)
Since then, Mexican American has been used interchangeably with chicano/a.
Chicano comes into the public domain…
In the 1960s, the Chicano Generation –my generation, the sons and daughters of the WW II generation described by Paredes, Morín, and others – burst on the scene under the banner of the term chicano/a. Just as chicano/a emerged from the working class, so did we.
Based on our experiences—being spanked in school for speaking Spanish and having our names arbitrarily changed, etc.—we perceived that there was a societal campaign, carried out chiefly by the schools, to “de-mexicanize” us, to make us feel ashamed of our heritage. We fought that strenuously.
One way was to reach into our history and use a term, chicano/a, that we had grown up using, and had heard our parents and others use, a term that connoted pride in being of Mexican heritage. We shouted our heritage from the rooftops. We “re-claimed” our Mexican names. We named our organizations in Spanish. We peppered our speeches and presentations with Spanish phrases. We created art, music, bilingual poetry and other writings that reflected our heritage and our struggle, etc. We built a movement.
It was during this period that the media people began to use the term in their reports. Thus, Chicano came into the public domain. Up until now chicano/a was purely an internal term, used only within our community. Although we chose to use the terms chicano/chicana to refer to ourselves and to our community, we were aware, and respectful, of the fact that, as noted above, many of our people chose to use Mexican American. Thus, we often used Chicano and Mexican American (unhyphenated) interchangeably.
Circular Mexicans: Back to anything but Mexican…
We have come full circle. People of Mexican descent are the largest population of “Hispanics/Latinos” in the U.S. We comprise sixty-two percent (62%) of the estimated 60 million “Hispanics/Latinos” in the United States. (Source 15) We are not an invisible group. Yet, many folks today want to be “hispanic” “latino,” “latinx,” – anything but Mexican. These terms allow people to never have to say they’re Mexican. This plays right into the hands of the anti-Mexican crowd. Algerian psychiatrist Franz Fanon observed that a dominant group first seeks to destroy the language – and anything else that can generate ethnic pride – of an oppressed group. This was the intent of the “No Spanish Allowed” rules in schools that we beat down.
“Hispanic,” “latino,” “latinx” are generic terms, purposely bereft of ethnic identification. Frankly, it is impossible to be proud of being generic. And ethnic pride is absolutely essential to an ethnic-based movement, to fighting off racist attacks. We have to be somebody in order to be considered somebody. c/s
Copyright 2021 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Salomon write: firstname.lastname@example.org Among the Valiant book title used under “fair use” proviso of the copyright law. All other graphics copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions Inc.