Chicano: What Does The Word Mean And Where Does It Come From?

10/21/2012 10:39 am ET

Lots of people use the word “Chicano,” but what exactly does it mean?

Scholars can’t pinpoint the word’s origins, but there are at least two theories, according to Tejano historian Arnoldo de León. Some think the word may trace its roots all the way back to the Nahuatl term “Meshico,” the indigenous word better known for evolving into the modern-day word “Mexico.” Others think “Chicano” is just a variation of the Spanish “mexicano.”

Whatever its origins, Mexican Americans have used the word “Chicano” to describe people of Mexican origin living in the United States since the early twentieth century, de León writes. Originally wealthier Mexican-Americans used the term as a pejorative, a way to describe Mexican-Americans of lower social standing (likely with some racial overtones).

But it wasn’t until the outbreak of the civil rights movement in the 1960s that the term “Chicano” became popular. Students walked out in protest at public schools from Crystal City, Texas, to East Los Angeles. The United Farm Workers under the leadership of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta held marches and led the Delano grape strike.

When university students joined those and other political movements of the era, they adopted the term “Chicano” as a point of pride, upending its historically derogatory meaning. In his poem “I am Joaquín,” poet Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez ruminated on the Chicano cultural experience. Today, politicians like former Texas State Rep. Paul Moreno proudly refer to themselves as “Chicanos,” and several universities boast Chicano Studies programs.

While the term refers broadly to Mexican-Americans, some people avoid the label because of its ties to leftwing politics. But for those who embrace it, like actor Cheech Marin, many feel that Chicano more accurately describes them than generic terms such as "Hispanic" or "Latino":

Hispanic is a census term that some dildo in a government office made up to include all Spanish-speaking brown people. It is especially annoying to Chicanos because it is a catch-all term that includes the Spanish conqueror. By definition, it favors European cultural invasion, not indigenous roots.

Chicano isn’t the only alternate term Mexican-Americans have adopted to describe themselves over the years. As Francisco Arturo Rosales writes in his book Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement:

Francisco P. Ramírez, though his Los Angeles Spanish-language weekly “El Clamor Público,” proposed the term ‘la raza’ to denote Mexican Californians. Other self-identifiers were la población, la población California and nuestra raza española. Richard Griswold del Castillo, however, noted that, in the Mexican culture in California, “the increasing use of ‘La Raza’ as a generic term in the Spanish-language press was evidence of a new kind of ethnic consciousness.

The Chicano movement also embraced the term. Today, one of the most prominent Latino political organizations is called the National Council of La Raza.

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