[chi-kah-noh, -kan-oh]

Chicano (feminine Chicana) is a politically-loaded word for a Mexican American (in the sense of native-born Americans of Mexican ancestry, as opposed to Mexican natives living in the United States). The terms Chicano and Chicana (also spelled xicano) are used specifically by and regarding some US citizens of Mexican descent.


The origin of the word is not clear. Mexican researcher Villar Raso attempted to trace the origin to 1930s and 1940s California, although most Chicanos believe the terms far predates that assessment. Nevertheless, according to Raso, the term supposedly stems from "the inability of native Nahuatl speakers from Morelos state to refer to themselves as Mexicanos, and instead spoke of themselves as Mesheecanos, in accordance with the pronunciation rules of their language."

The pronunciation was supposedly misunderstood by some Mexican Americans, who exaggerated the sound. In both cases, the term and its pronunciation are analogous to the Nahuatl word Mexica.

Chicano poet and writer Tino Villanueva traces the first documented use of the term to 1911 as referenced in a then-unpublished essay by University of Texas anthropologist Jose Limón. Linguists Edward R. Simmen and Richard F. Bauerle report the use of the term in an essay by Mexican American writer, Mario Suarez, published in the Arizona Quarterly in 1947. Mexican Americans were not identified as a racial/ethnic category prior to the 1980s US Census when the term Hispanic was first used.

An alternate etymology that predates Raso holds that the conversion of the pronunciation of the "x" in Mexicano was converted to /ʃ/ or /tʃ/ as a term of endearment.

Some believe that the word chicamo somehow became chicano, which, unlike chicamo, reflects the grammatical conventions of Spanish-language ethno- and demonyms, such as americano, castellano, or peruano. However, this is highly unlikely and Chicanos generally do not agree that "chicamo" was ever a word used within the culture as its assertion is thus far entirely unsubstantiated. Therefore, most Chicanos do not agree that Chicano was ever derived from the word "chicamo". In fact, it is common knowledge within most Mexican American communities that the term "Chicano" has been used for centuries as an indigenous self-identifying reference. There is ample literary evidence to further substantiate that Chicano is a self-declaration as a large body of Chicano literature exists with publication dates far predating the 1950s. There is also a substantial body of Chicano literature that predates both Raso and the Federal Census Bureau.

As stated in the Handbook of Texas:

"According to one explanation, the pre-Columbian tribes in Mexico called themselves Meshicas, and the Spaniards, employing the letter x (which at that time represented a sh and ch sound), spelled it Mexicas. The Indians later referred to themselves as Meshicanos and even as Shicanos, thus giving birth to the term Chicano."

Thus far, the origins of the word remain inconclusive as the term is not widely used outside of Mexican American communities, further indicating that the term in primarily a self-identifying description.

One must note according to some experts that Chicano most likely originated though from Chicago, Illinois or Northwest Indiana by Mexican immigrants arrived in these areas during the early 20th century. The term most likely refers to "Little Man" from both the Spanish words Chico means "boy" and in linguistics of the Spanish language, "-ano" refers to a group of people.


The term's meanings are highly debatable, but most Chicanos view the term as a positive self-identifying social construction. Outside of Mexican American communities the term might take on subjective view but usually consists of one or more of the following elements:

Ethnic identity

From a popular perspective, the term Chicano became widely visible outside of Chicano communities during the American civil rights movement, although it was commonly used as a historical point of reference within those communities for some time, during the mid 1960s by Mexican American activists, who, in attempt to reassert their civil rights, rid the word of its polarizing negative connotation, and reasserted a unique ethnic identity and political consciousness, reconfiguring its meaning by proudly identifying themselves as Chicanos.

Political identity

According to the Handbook of Texas:

Inspired by the courage of the farmworkers, by the California strikes led by César Chávez, and by the Anglo-American youth revolt of the period, many Mexican-American university students came to participate in a crusade for social betterment that was known as the Chicano movement. They used Chicano to denote their rediscovered heritage, their youthful assertiveness, and their militant agenda. Though these students and their supporters used Chicano to refer to the entire Mexican-American population, they understood it to have a more direct application to the politically active parts of the Tejano community.

At certain points in the 1970s, Chicano was the preferred, politically correct term to use in reference to Mexican-Americans, particularly in the scholarly literature. However, as the term became politicized, its use fell out of favor as a means of referring to the entire population. Since then, Chicano has tended to refer to politicized Mexican-Americans.

Sabine Ulibarri, an author from Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, once attempted to note that Chicano was a politically "loaded" term, although Ulibarri has recanted that assessment. In fact, most agree that Chicano is widely considered to be a positive term of honor by many.

Ambiguous identity

  • In the 1991 Culture Clash play "A Bowl of Beings", in response to Che Guevara's demand for a definition of "Chicano", an "armchair activist" cries out, "I still don't know!!"
  • Bruce Novoa: "A Chicano lives in the space between the hyphen in Mexican-American", . . Houston: , 1990.

For Chicanos, the term usually implies being "neither from here, nor from there" in reference to the U.S. and Mexico respectively. As a mixture of cultures from both countries, being Chicano represents the struggle of being accepted into the Anglo-dominated society of the United States while maintaining the cultural sense developed as a Latino-cultured U.S. born Mexican child.

Indigenous identity

  • Ruben Salazar: "A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself.
  • Leo Limón: "...because that's what a Chicano is, an indigenous Mexican American".

Many individuals of Mexican descent view the use of the words Chicano or Chicana as reclamation and regeneration of an indigenous culture destroyed through colonialism.

Another theory is the origin of such terminology is from the Maya temple, Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula, a ruin of an ancient MesoAmerican civlization about 1,500 years ago. Chicano may be a Hispanized word for Chichen or the Mayan descendants, not limited to Aztec descendants or Nahuatl people.

Political device

  • Reies Tijerina: "The Anglo press degradized the word 'Chicano'. They use it to divide us. We use it to unify ourselves with our people and with Latin America.

However, it should be noted that Reies Tijerina was a vocal claimant to the rights of Hispanics and Mexican Americans, and he remains a major figure of the early Chicano Movement.

Term of derision

Long a disparaging term in Mexico, the term Chicano gradually transformed from a class-based term of derision to one of ethnic pride and general usage within Mexican-American communities beginning with the rise of the Chicano movement in the 1960s. In their "Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia," Vicki Ruíz and Virginia Sánchez report that demographic differences in the adoption of the term existed; because of the prior vulgar connotations, it was more likely to be used by males than females, and as well, less likely to be used among those in a higher socioeconomic status. Usage was also generational, with the more assimilated third-generation members (again, more likely male) likely to adopt the usage. This group was also younger, of more radical persuasion, and less connected to a Mexican cultural heritage.

In his essay "Chicanismo" in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures (2002), Jose Cuellar dates the transition from derisive to positive to the late 1950s, with a usage by young Mexican-American high school students.

Outside of Mexican American communities, the term might assume a negative meaning if it is used in a manner that embodies the prejudices and bigotries long directed at Mexican and Mexican-American people in the United States. For example, in one case, a prominent Chicana feminist writer and poet has indicated the following subjective meaning through her creative work.

  • Ana Castillo: "[a] marginalized, brown woman who is treated as a foreigner and is expected to do menial labor and ask nothing of the society in which she lives.

Ana Castillo has referred to herself as a Chicana, and her literary work reflects that she primarily considers the term to be a positive one of self-determination and political solidarity.

The Mexican archeologist and anthropologist Manuel Gamio reported in 1930 that the term chicamo (with an "m") was used as a derogatory term used by Hispanic Texans for recently arrived Mexican immigrants displaced during the Mexican revolution in the beginning of the early 20th century. At this time, the term Chicano began to reference those who resisted total assimilation, while the term Pochos referred (often pejoratively) to those who strongly advocated assimilation.

In Mexico the term is associated with a Mexican-American person of low importance class and poor morals. The term Chicano is not widely known or used in Mexico since indigenous groups which originated the term are a very small minority of the country's largely mestizo population.


The following terms are often used in conjunction with Chicano:

  • la raza (literal translation: "the race", however the term technically refers directly to "La Raza Cósmica" a 1925 work written by José Vasconcelos referring to the "the human race," which also connotes "el pueblo" or "la gente", both of which mean "the people"), which refers generally to the people of habla Hispana (Spanish speaking) America who share the cultural and political legacies of Spanish colonialism, including the Spanish language and culture, and their descendants,as well as their Meso-American indigenous roots.)
  • la raza de bronce ("the bronze race") (used to emphasize the "brown" or "bronze" Indigenous ancestry over their white or black ancestry)
  • americanista (common in early twentieth-century)
  • indigenist (common in early twentieth-century)
  • la raza cósmica (the cosmic race)

Chicano has criss-crossed to some from other Hispanic/Mexican-American communities: Some who may identify themselves as Californio, Hispano, Isleño, Mexican Texian, New Mexico Spanish, Spanish American and Tejano. The word chico, not "Chicano", as some Anglos commonly confuse the term, is sometimes described for a child of Mexican immigrants, or who resides in urban areas of (esp. Southern) California, Colorado and Arizona, or from a mestizo instead of fully Spanish background.


While many Mexican Americans embrace the term Chicano, others prefer to identify themselves as:

  • American (sometimes the term first like "American-Mexican")
  • American of Mexican descent
  • Hispanic
  • Hispanic American
  • Hispano/a
  • Latino/a
  • Latin American
  • Mexican(o/a)
  • Mexican American
  • Spanish
  • Spanish American
  • "Brown" people, race, pride, etc.
  • Californio, Nuevomexicano (New Mexican Spanish) or Tejano/a.

Norteño as in the Mexicans referred the Southwest U.S. as el Norte as opposed to Surreño, although anyone from the U.S. is NorteAmericano, since Mexico and Latin America (Central and South) long identified themselves as Americanos. Mexican Americans don't actually call themselves Norteños. The only people who identify themselves as Norteños are Chicanos from Northern California, compared to Surreño or Chicanos from Southern California and from areas of Arizona or New Mexico adjacent to the Mexican border (or Mexicans in general). The term can mean a Northern Mexican or "Mexicano del Norte" versus Southern Mexican or "Mexicano del sur". Many people presume they are a gang, when in truth they are a culture of over 100 years of Mexicans, over 300-400 years of Spaniards and over 2,000 years of Native Americans in Northern California wrapped up into one.

Social aspects

Chicanos, regardless of their generational status, tend to connect their culture to the indigenous peoples of North America and to a nation of Aztlán. According to the Aztec legend, Aztlán is a region; Chicano nationalists have equated it with the Southwestern United States. Some historians may place Aztlán in Nayarit or the Caribbean while other historians entirely disagree, and make a distinction between legend and the contemporary socio-political ideology.

Whether this is true is still debated by archaeologists who studied ruins of ancient Amerindian civilizations in Arizona (the Hohokam), California (the Imperial and Palo Verde valleys), Colorado (Mesa Verde national park), Nevada, New Mexico, Texas (the El Paso area) and southern Utah .

Political aspects

Many currents came together to produce the revived Chicano political movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Early struggles were against school segregation, but the Mexican American cause, or La Causa as it was called, soon came under the banner of the United Farm Workers and César Chávez. However,Corky Gonzales and Reies Tijerina stirred up old tensions about New Mexican land claims with roots going back to before the Mexican-American War. Simultaneous movements like the Young Lords, to empower youth, question patriarchy, democratize the Church, end police brutality, and end the Vietnam War all intersected with other ethnic nationalist, peace, countercultural, and feminist movements.

Since Chicanismo covers a wide array of political, religious and ethnic beliefs, and not everybody agrees with what exactly a Chicano is, most new Latino immigrants see it as a lost cause, as a lost culture, because Chicanos don't identify with Mexico or wherever their parents migrated from as new immigrants do. So in essence new immigrants are not Chicanos and their kids will not be Chicanos because Chicanoism is now only being prolonged by academics; it's an appreciation of a historical movement.

For some, Chicano ideals involve a rejection of borders. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo transformed the Rio Grande region from a rich cultural center to a rigid border poorly enforced by the United States government. At the end of the Mexican-American War, 80,000 Spanish-Mexican-Indian people were forced into sudden U.S. habitation. As a result, Chicano identification is aligned with the idea of Aztlán, which extends to the Aztec period of Mexico, celebrating a time preceding land division. Paired with the dissipation of militant political efforts of the Chicano movement in the 1960s was the emergence of the Chicano generation. Like their political predecessors, the Chicano generation rejects the "immigrant/foreigner" categorization status. Chicano identity has expanded from its political origins to incorporate a broader community vision of social integration and nonpartisan political participation.

The shared Spanish language, Catholic faith, close contact with their political homeland (Mexico) to the south, a history of labor segregation, ethnic exclusion and racial discrimination encourage a united Chicano or Mexican folkloric tradition in the United States. Ethnic cohesiveness is a resistance strategy to assimilation and the accompanying cultural dissolution.

Cultural aspects

The term Chicano is also used to describe the literary, artistic, and musical movements that emerged with the Chicano Movement.


Chicano literature tends to focus on themes of identity, discrimination, and culture, with an emphasis on validating Mexican American and Chicano culture in the United States. Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales's "Yo Soy Joaquin" is one of the first examples of Chicano poetry, while José Antonio Villarreal's Pocho is widely recognized as the first major Chicano/a novel. Other important writers in the genre include Rudolfo Anaya, Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto and Oscar Zeta Acosta.


In the visual arts, works by Chicanos address similar themes as works in literature. The preferred media for Chicano art are murals and graphic arts. San Diego's Chicano Park, home to the largest collection of murals in the world, was created as an outgrowth of the city's political movement by Chicanos. Rasquache art is a unique style subset of the Chicano Arts movement.

Chicano performance art blends humor and pathos for tragi-comic effect as shown by Los Angeles' comedy troupe Culture Clash and Mexican-born performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena.

One of the most powerful and far-reaching cultural aspects of Chicano culture is the indigenous current that strongly roots Chicano culture to the American continent. It also unifies Chicanismo within the larger Pan Indian Movement. Since its arrival in 1974, what is known as Danza Azteca in the U.S., (and known by several names in its homeland of the central States of Mexico: danza Conchera, De la Conquista, Chichimeca, etc.) has had a deep impact in Chicano muralism, graphic design, tattoo art (flash), poetry, music, and literature.


Lalo Guerrero is regarded as the "founder of Chicano music". Beginning in the 1930s, he wrote songs in the big band and swing genres that were popular at the time. He expanded his repertoire to include songs written in traditional genres of the Mexican music, and during the farmworkers' rights campaign, wrote music in support of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers.


In the 1960s and 1970s, a wave of Chicano rock surfaced through innovative musicians Johnny Rodriguez, Ritchie Valens, Carlos Santana, Linda Ronstadt. Joan Baez, who was also of Mexican-American descent, included Hispanic themes in some of her protest folk songs. Chicano rock is rock music performed by Chicano groups or music with themes derived from Chicano culture.

There are two undercurrents in Chicano rock. One is a devotion to the original rhythm and blues roots of Rock and roll including Ritchie Valens, Sunny and the Sunglows, and ? and the Mysterians. Groups inspired by this include Sir Douglas Quintet, Thee Midniters, Los Lobos, War, Tierra, and El Chicano, and, of course, the Chicano Blues Man himself, the late Randy Garribay.

The second theme is the openness to Latin American sounds and influences. Trini Lopez, Santana, Malo, Azteca, Toro, Ozomatli and other Chicano Latin Rock groups follow this approach. Chicano rock crossed paths of other Latin rock genres (Rock en espanol) by Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and South America (La Nueva Cancion). Rock band The Mars Volta combines elements of progressive rock with traditional Mexican folk music and Latin rhythms along with Cedric Bixler-Zavala's Spanglish lyrics.

Chicano punk is a branch of Chicano rock. Examples of the genre include music by the bands Los Illegals, The Brat, The Plugz, Manic Hispanic and the Cruzados; these bands emerged from the Los Angeles punk scene. Some music historians argue that Chicanos of Los Angeles in the late 1970s might have independently co-founded punk rock along with the already-acknowledged founders from British-European sources when introduced to the US in major cities. The rock band ? Mark and the Mysterians, which was comprised primarily of Mexican American musicians, was the first band to be described as punk rock. The term was reportedly coined in 1971 by rock critic Dave Marsh in a review of their show for Creem magazine.


Although Latin Jazz is most popularly associated with artists from the Caribbean (particularly Cuba) and Brazil, young Mexican Americans have played a role in its development over the years, going back to the 1930s and early 1940s, the era of the zoot suit, when young Mexican American musicians in Los Angeles began to experiment with Jazz-like Mexican music. This type of Latin Jazz came back into vogue in the 1990s and 2000s, with a strong recent example being the work of the singer Jenni Rivera.


Chicano rap is a unique style of hip hop music which started with Kid Frost, who began using Spanish in the early 1990s. While Mellow Man Ace was the first mainstream rapper to use Spanglish, Frost's song "La Raza" paved the way for its use in American hip hop. Chicano rap tends to discuss themes of importance to young urban Chicanos. Some of today's chicano artists include Lil Rob, Baby Bash, B-Real, Chingo Bling, Taboo (rapper) (from Black Eyed Peas), Stunta, Scweez,kinto Sol, Kemo the Blaxican, Mr. Criminal and Aztlan Underground.

Pop & R&B

Fergie (singer) (Pop music) singer of the Black Eyed Peas, Paula DeAnda, Frankie J, old member of the Kumbia Kings and associated with Baby Bash.


Other famous Chicano/Mexican American singers include Selena, who sang a variety of Mexican, Tejano, and American popular music, but was killed at age 23 in 1995; Zack de la Rocha, lead vocalist of Rage Against the Machine and social activist; and Los Lonely Boys, a Texas style country rock band who have not ignored their Mexican American roots in their music. In recent years, a growing Tex-Mex polka band trend from Mexican immigrants (i.e. Conjunto or Norteño) has influenced much of new Chicano folk music, especially in large market Spanish language radio stations and on television music video programs in the U.S. The band Quetzal is known for its political songs, while the Kumbia Kings had combined Mexican regional: cumbia, merengue and tropical, with American rap, hip-hop and rock rhythms, and Daddy Yankee although Puerto Rican, has connected well to Mexican-American/Chicano music styles.

Alternative Stories

In New Mexico or Nuevo Mexico or by its colonial term Nueva España, the term "Chicano" is synonymous with the term "mestizo". The ancestral stories indicate that "mestizo" and "chicano" are terms to describe peoples of the new world or mixed-blood. "Mestizo" literally means "mixed". Usually in the New Mexico areas many families trace their lineage from Spanish conquistadors or expedition settlers and intermarriage with native populations; more so and more directly with the Pueblo Indian culture. In fact today most sacred and public, traditional ceremonies or gatherings are a unique mixture of Spanish Catholic and Pueblo Indian traditions, most notably the Matachines or holy dancers. The matachines are the prime example of Roman Catholic traditions merging with traditional Kachina of Kiva dances of the Pueblo Indians. Today major matachine ceremonies occur in the Town of Bernalillo which is the county seat for Sandoval County in the state of New Mexico; as well as major matachine ceremonies held in several pueblos such as San Ildelfonso, Picuris, Santa Clara and San Juan. Some argue that the matachines also have a basis in Apache crown dancers, however ancestral stories from the modern Pueblo peoples indicate that crown dancing was a stolen tradition as the terms Apache and Navajo are considered ancient Pueblo words for 'enemy,' 'thief,' or even more derogatory, 'bastard.' It is known that the Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, Picuris, Keres, Zuni and other Pueblo lineages had considerable warfare with the Navajos or Dine and the Apaches or Ende. This relates to historic accounts and old stories indicating that the Navajo and Apache peoples descended from Athabascan raiders and refugees who settled on traditional Chaco or Pueblo lands thus causing an ongoing dislike among the New Mexican native populations. Spanish settlers adopted this hatred for Navajos and Apaches since they were now intermarried with pueblo peoples and thus were also victims to the notorious and sometimes deadly raids the tribes would perpetuate against both pueblo and Spanish settlers. "Chicano" is widely considered to have its basis and origin in the lands of New Mexico, in the urban settlements of Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces, Socorro, Santa Rosa, and Tierra Amarilla. Many contemporary Chicano writers indicate the term refers to Mexican-American peoples, however in New Mexico "Chicano" refers simply to those of direct Spanish and Pueblo descent and is considered 'very' different from Mexican-American; perhaps relating to the conflicts of traditional Spanish settlements in New Mexico that did not agree or even assist the populations of modern Mexico in their fight for independence, and remained loyal to the Spanish Emperial Crown. The ideology of Atzlan is more so a contemporary California-Chicano-Mexican-American concept since New Mexicans show loyalty to the Pueblo tribes and historically the Aztec tribes never reached New Mexico, however the Pueblos are known to have traded with them, and in some ancient stories the Aztecs are considered outcast pueblo peoples because they believed in human sacrifice and the other pueblos exiled them to the southern deserts. In fact Aztlan has no basis in North America since California was not associated with Aztec, Olmec, Zapotec or any other Mexican Tribal nation but had its own native groups such and Pipa Aha Macav better known as the Mojave people or Fort Mojave people, the Hohokam, the Paiute, the Cocopah, the Pah peoples, the Cahuilla and the Serranos who today look upon their sacred holy lands being described as Aztlan as offensive and derogatory, since they were ancient enemies with the Aztecs who tried at one point to invade but failed against the combined strength of the northern tribes.

Though debatable, "Chicano" is rooted in the modern tongue, and will probably be around for many more generations. Chicano in New Mexico is not solely an identity of anti-assimilation or radical term of protest, rather it is a culture in itself, with its own set of beliefs, its own ceremonies, and stories. Chicano today is widely used to describe those of Spanish descent living in New Mexico, Arizona and southern Colorado, even in Texas, however NuevoMexicanos make clear the dichotomy from Tejanos. Chicano is a favored self-identifying term over Raza, Hispanic, Mexican, Latino which fall short for the peoples of New Mexico in grasping the complexities and the deep historical rooting in both European and New World ideologies, a unique culture born of the conquests, and has endured in the hearts of modern New Mexicans for 500 years.

See also



  • Villanueva, Tino (1985). "Chicanos (selección)". Philosophy & Social Criticism 31 7.
  • John R. Chavez (1984). "The Lost Land: A Chicano Image of the American Southwest", New Mexico University Publications.
  • F. Arturo Rosales, "Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement" (Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1996). ISBN 1-55885-201-8

Further reading

  • Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1940, University of California Press, 2006.

External links


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