Chicanos and Mexican American are terms generally used to refer to people of Mexican descent, living in the U.S. These terms however have different origins and connote varying meanings depending on the context they are used. Presumably, these terms can be viewed as the precursors to similar terms such as Latino and Hispanic.
There is no precise and accepted theory as to the origin of the word Chicano. Various theories have been advanced in this regard. One theory obtains that the word originated in Chihuahua, a Mexican City. Under this theory, it is believed that ‘Chi’ was added to the ‘cano’ derived from Mexicano, to refer to a descent of the city (Castro, 46). This theory was popularized in the 1960s, though it is not widely accepted.
Another theory opines that the word developed from the term ‘chico’, which Aglo- Americans in southwest and northern Mexico used to refer to Mexicans (Castro, 47). The term ‘chico’ had been used to refer to African-Americans in the Southern states, thus in order to specifically refer to Mexicans it was amalgamated with the ‘ano’ from the word Mexicano, to create Chicano.
The most accepted theory obtains that the word Chicano can be traced to the 1500 AD when Spaniards arrived in native Mexico (Delgado, 162). The Spaniards referred to the native Mexicas as Mechicanos (Lopez, 63). The Mexicas subsequently shortened the term to ‘chicano in reference to themselves as members of the lower caste. From thereon, the term became synonymous to Mexicans of low status.
When the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, many Mexican immigrants migrated to the U.S. Many of these immigrants were poor people, of the lowest class. On arrival, they adopted the word in reference to their low status, which they freely acknowledged. The term was also used in a derogative sense to refer to the immigrants by Mexicans and the Americans. It was used to distinguish the immigrants as they were not considered Mexican by the Mexicans, and likewise the Americans did not regard them as Americans and vice versa.
During the 1940’s, the term was adopted by the Pachucos to differentiate themselves from the immigrants arriving in 1941, referred to as Braceros (Delgado, 162). This set the stage for the use of the word to connote a dual cultural identity, that is, a blend of the Mexican and American culture.
With the continued increase in Mexican immigrants, a class system developed among them. The well off or rich Mexicans did not want to be associated with the poor ones. The term was thus employed to make such distinction. The well off Mexicans referred to the poor ones as Chicano, and often the term was used in a derogative sense. From then on the term was used to refer to poor Mexican immigrants.
The meaning of the term slightly changed during the 1960’s when the Chicano Movement began agitating for the empowerment of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. The term was then used to portray a sense of ethnic pride and political awareness (Castro, 44). This was meant to inculcate a feeling of pride and acceptance in the Mexicans present in America at that time. This would yield support to the cause of the Chicano movement. It is through such efforts that the conception of Chicanismo came into being.
The concept of Chicanismo proclaimed that the Chicanos were proud of their mixed (mestizo) heritage (Vento, 43); that of Mexico, Spain and America. It accentuated cultural, national and linguistic pride, in addition to the belief in economic and political self determination (Castro, 46). Virtually all Mexican-American civil rights movements emphasized Chicanismo. Accordingly, many Mexican-Americans at that time proudly associated with the concept. Some however did not refer to themselves as Chicanos.
The Chicano Movement would later become highly political and even started to agitate for return of land lost during the Mexican war (Rosales, 23). The movement also became quite radical even sometimes resorting to violence. This made the support the Movement enjoyed from many Mexican-Americans, especially from elites, to dwindle. The term also lost the appeal it had to Mexican Americans, and later was used to refer to highly politicized Mexican-Americans.
Even though the civil rights movement era reduced the derogative connotations associated to the word, they nevertheless still subsist. In fact the era produced another connotation to the term. This added to the long list of connotations associated with the term. Accordingly, there was need to come up with a term that could refer to Mexicans living in America without conjuring up any of the connotations. The term Mexican-American thus sufficed in this regard.
The term is to a great extent neutral and collective and refers to all Americans of partial or full Mexican descent. It also politically correct in the sense that it is free from the connotations associated with Chicano.
The term however has been criticized for propagating the assumption that all Mexicans are of Mexican heritage. Mexicans of Spanish descent thus find this term unacceptable. Accordingly, other terms that have regard to such heritage have been developed, such as Hispanic and Latino. However, since it is not easy to tell the heritage of a person, Mexican-American remains the best term to use.
Castro, R. Chicano Folklore: A Guide to the Folktales, Traditions, Rituals and Religious
Practices of Mexican-Americans. New York, Oxford University Press, 2000. Print
Delgado, M. R. The Last Chicano: A Mexican American Experience. Indiana, Author House,
Lopez, M. K. Chicano Nations: The Hemispheric Origins of Mexican American Literature. New
York, New York University Press, 2011. Print.
Rosales, F. A. Chicano!: The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Texas,
Arte Publico Press, 1997. Print.
Vento, A. C. Mestizo: The History, Culture and Politics of the Mexican and the Chicano: The
Emerging Mestizo Americans. Maryland, University Press of America, 1998. Print.