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The terms Chicano and Chicana (also spelled Xicana) were originally used by, and in reference to U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. The term began to be widely used during the Chicano Movement mainly amongst Mexican Americans, especially in the movement's peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The self-identify term Chicano is still of popular usage today.


Chican@s are of Mexican descent born in the United States or abroad. Currently, the term Chican@ has been appropriated as a political identity that can be claimed by other U.S. Latin@s. 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 term far predates that assessment. Nevertheless, according to Raso, the term supposedly stems from "the inability of native Nahuatl speakers from Morelosmarker state to refer to themselves as Mexicanos, and instead spoke of themselves as Mesheecanos, in accordance with the pronunciation rules of their language." It is also thought that the word may have roots in the term "Mejicano," an archaic Spanish and American spelling of "Mexicano," which through the last century linguistically evolved into "Jicano" or "Chicano". The pronunciation was supposedly misunderstood by some Mexican Americans, who exaggerated the sound. An alternate etymology that predates Raso holds that the conversion of the pronunciation of the "x" in Mexicano was converted to or as a term of endearment .

Chicano poet and writer Tino Villanueva traces the first documented use of the term to 1911 as referenced in a then-unpublished essay by University of Texas anthropologist José Limón.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

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". 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 used outside Mexican-American communities, further indicating that the term is primarily self-identifying.


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.. Some believe that Chicano can also represent Chicago, IL people who are from Mexico as of a combination of: Chi(cago)(Mexi)cano.(suggested by Carlos Flores). Others believe it was a corrupted term of "Chilango", an inhabitant from Mexico City; and even from the term "Chileno" by the Chilean presence in mid 19th-century California.

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 Mexicomarker, once attempted to note that Chicano was a politically "loaded" term, although Ulibarri has recanted that assessment. Chicano is 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

  • Rubén 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".

Another theory is the origin of such terminology is from the Maya temple, Chichen Itzamarker in the Yucatan Peninsulamarker, 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."

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.

Supposedly, in some non-indigenous social circles in Mexico which by American standards would be considered classist or racist, 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.


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 Sureño, 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 Sureño 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".

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 Nayaritmarker or the Caribbeanmarker while other historians entirely disagree, and make a distinction between legend and the contemporary socio-political ideology.

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 (not a native New Mexican) 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 do not 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 is 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.


QuetzalCoatlicue dance troupe member evokes the spirit of the four winds to bless the first train of the Hiawatha Line Rail to arrive at Midtown Station.
The Hiawatha Project.
Minneapolis, Minn.; United States.

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 Diegomarker'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 , poetry, music, and literature. Lowrider cars also figure prominently as functional art in the Chicano community.


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, and 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 Cubansmarker, 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 Britishmarker-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 Angelesmarker and San Josemarker began to experiment with banda, a Jazz-like Mexican music that has grown recently in popularity among Mexican Americans such as 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 Psycho Realm, Sick Symphonies, Street Platoon,Goretex, Theif Sicario, Delinquent Habits, Lighter Shade Of Brown, Lil Rob, SPM, Baby Bash, Chingo Bling, Lil Tweety and Aztlan Underground.

Pop & R&B

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 in 1995 at the age of 23; 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. Radio La Chusma is a Chicano Reggae band from El Paso mixing Aztec, African, and rock roots with a pro-immigration/ earth-spirit message.

See also


  1. Félix Rodríguez González, ed. Spanish Loanwords in the English Language. A Tendency towards Hegemony Reversal. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1996. Villanueva is referring to Limón's essay "The Folk Performance of Chicano and the Cultural Limits of Political Ideology," available via ERIC. Limón refers to use of the word in a 1911 report titled "Hot tamales" in the Spanish language newspaper La Crónica in 1911.
  2. Edward R. Simmen and Richard F. Bauerle. "Chicano: Origin and Meaning." American Speech 44.3 (Autumn 1969): 225-230.
  3. Moore, J. W., & Cuéllar, A. B. (1970). Mexican Americans. Ethnic groups in American life series. Englewood, Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. p. 149. ISBN 0135794900
  4. Vicki L. Ruiz & Virginia Sanchez Korrol, editors. Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia. Indiana University Press, 2006.
  5. Maria Herrera-Sobek. Chicano folklore; a handbook. Greenwood Press 2006.
  6. José B. Cuéllar. CHICANISMO/XICANISM@. In: Davíd Carrasco, Editor-in-Chief. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexico and Central America, Oxford University Press, 2002
  8. See: Adalberto M. Guerrero, Macario Saldate, IV, and Salomon R. Baldenegro. "Chicano: the term and its meanings." A Paper Written for Hispanic Heritage Month. Arizona Association of Chicanos for Higher Education 1999 conference Newsletter.


  • 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.
  • Michael A. Olivas, Colored Men And Hombres Aquí: Hernandez V. Texas and the Emergence of Mexican American Lawyering, Arte Público Press, 2006.
  • Rodolfo Acuna, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos,Longman, 2006.

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