Chicano or Chicana is a chosen identity for people of Mexican descent born in the United States. Variations include Chican@ (male-female inclusive) and Chicanx (gender-neutral). The identity may also appear as Xicano or Xicana, with Xican@ and Xicanx being the respective variations of this alternative spelling. The identity is sometimes used interchangeably with Mexican-American, although both terms have different meanings. In the 1940s and 1950s, prior to the Chicano Movement, Chicano/a was widely used as a classist term of derision, although it had already been adopted by some pachucos as an expression of defiance to Anglo-American society. Chicano/a was widely reclaimed in the 1960s and 1970s to express political empowerment, ethnic solidarity, and pride in being of Indigenous descent, diverging from the assimilationist Mexican-American identity. Many Chicano/a youth in barrios rejected cultural assimilation into whiteness and embraced pachuco/a and cholo/a identities as countercultural symbols of resistance.
The Chicano Movement faltered by the mid-1970s as a result of state surveillance, infiltration, and repression by U.S. government agencies, informants, and agent provocateurs, such as through COINTELPRO, a hyper-fixation on the masculine subject which excluded Chicanas and queer Chicanas/os from the Movement, and a growing disinterest in Chicano nationalist constructs such as Aztlán. The identity experienced a further decline by the 1980s as assimilation and economic mobility became a goal of many Mexican Americans in an era of conservatism, who instead adopted the terms Hispanic and Latino. As summarized by Earl Shorris, Chicano had "lost its fire." However, Chicanas/os continued to participate in building the foundations of the feminist, gay and lesbian, and anti-apartheid movements of the 1980s, which maintained its relevance at the grassroots level.
After a decade of Hispanic dominance, Chicana/o student activism amidst the early 1990s recession and the anti-Gulf War movement provoked a revival of Chicana/o identity and a demand for the expansion of Chicana/o studies programs. Chicanas, rather than Chicanos, were now largely at the forefront of Chicana/o activist movements and were critical in elevating Chicana/o identity. Though they faced critiques from "movement loyalists," Chicana feminists worked to address social problems of employment discrimination, environmental racism, healthcare, sexual violence, and capitalist exploitation in their communities and in solidarity with the Third World. While there had previously been widespread repression of the non-masculine and non-heteronormative Chicana/o subject in the Chicano Movement, Chicana feminists critiqued Chicano patriarchal authority as a legacy of colonization, informed by a desire "to liberate her entire people"; not to oppress men, but to be equal partners in the Movement.
Post-9/11, Chicana/o consciousness became increasingly transnational, informed by and expanding upon earlier traditions of anti-imperialism and Third World solidarity in the Chicano Movement. Chicana/o writers and artists connected U.S. foreign interventions abroad with domestic racial politics, asserting their Chicana/o identity while committing themselves to "the struggle for social justice of citizens and non-citizens." They recognized that while these struggles "may not be identical to their own," they are "equally rooted in power imbalances between the First World and the Third World." Building solidarity between Chicanas/os and undocumented immigrants remains an ongoing issue, as it did historically in the Chicano Movement, with obstacles of legal status and economic competitiveness working to maintain distance. In the 2010s, there was a resurgence of Chicana/o/x and Xicana/o/x identity, centered on ethnic pride, Indigenous consciousness, cultural expression, defense of immigrants, and the rights of women and queer Latino people; some even referred to it as a 'renaissance'. Recently, some have argued that Xicana/o/x identity is elastic enough to include people beyond those of Mexican origin, indicating a continued emphasis on deconstructing borders and emphasizing transnationality.
The etymology of the term Chicano is not definitive and has been debated by historians, scholars, and activists. Although there has been controversy over the origins of Chicano, community conscience reportedly remains strong among those who claim the identity.
Chicano is believed by some scholars to be a Spanish language derivative of an older Nahuatl word Mexitli ("Meh-shee-tlee"). Mexitli formed part of the expression Huitzilopochtlil Mexitli—a reference to the historic migration of the Mexica people from their homeland of Aztlán to the Oaxaca Valley. Mexitli is the linguistic progenitor or root of the word "Mexica," referring to the Mexica people, and its singular form "Mexihcatl" (/meːˈʃiʔkat͡ɬ/). The "x" in Mexihcatl represents an /ʃ/ or "sh" sound in both Nahuatl and early modern Spanish, while the glottal stop in the middle of the Nahuatl word disappeared.
The word Chicano therefore more directly derives from the loss of the initial syllable of Mexicano (Mexican). According to Villanueva, "given that the velar (x) is a palatal phoneme (S) with the spelling (sh)," in accordance with the Indigenous phonological system of the Mexicas ("Meshicas"), it would become "Meshicano" or "Mechicano." Some Chicanos further replace the ch with the letter x, forming Xicano, as a means of reclaiming and reverting to the Nahuatl use of the "x" sound. The first two syllables of Xicano are therefore in Nahuatl while the last syllable is Castillian.
In Mexico's Indigenous regions, mestizos and Westernized natives are referred to as mexicanos, referring to the modern nation, rather than the pueblo (village or tribal) identification of the speaker, be it Mayan, Zapotec, Mixtec, Huasteco, or any of hundreds of other indigenous groups. Thus, a newly emigrated Nahuatl speaker in an urban center might have referred to his cultural relatives in this country, different from himself, as mexicanos, shortened to Chicanos.
Usage of terms
Early recorded usage
The town of Chicana was shown on the Gutiérrez 1562 New World map near the mouth of the Colorado River, and is probably pre-Columbian in origin. The town was again included on Desegno del Discoperto Della Nova Franza, a 1566 French map by Paolo Forlani. Scholar Roberto Cintli Rodríguez places the location of Chicana at the mouth of the Colorado River, near present-day Yuma, Arizona. An 18th century map of the Nayarit Missions used the name Xicana for a town near the same location of Chicana, which is considered to be the oldest recorded usage of the term.
A gunboat, the Chicana, was sold in 1857 to Jose Maria Carvajal to ship arms on the Rio Grande. The King and Kenedy firm submitted a voucher to the Joint Claims Commission of the United States in 1870 to cover the costs of this gunboat's conversion from a passenger steamer. No explanation for the boat's name is known.
The Chicano poet and writer Tino Villanueva traced the first documented use of the term as an ethnonym 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. There is ample literary evidence to substantiate that Chicano is a long-standing endonym, as a large body of Chicano literature pre-dates the 1950s.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Chicano/a was reclaimed by pachucos as an expression of defiance to Anglo-American society. Chicano/a at this time was still widely used among English and Spanish speakers as a classist and racial slur to refer to working class Mexican American people in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. In Mexico, the term was used interchangeably with Pocho "to deride Mexicans living in the United States, and especially their U.S.-born children, for losing their culture, customs, and language." The Mexican archeologist and anthropologist Manuel Gamio reported in 1930 that the term Chicamo (with an m) was used as a derogatory term by Hispanic Texans for recently arrived Mexican immigrants displaced during the Mexican Revolution in the beginning of the early 20th century.
By the mid-20th century, Chicano began to be used to reference those who resisted total assimilation, while Pocho referred (often pejoratively) to those who strongly advocated for assimilation. In his essay "Chicanismo" in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures (2002), José Cuéllar, dates the transition from derisive to positive to the late 1950s, with increasing usage by young Mexican-American high school students. These younger, politically aware, Mexican Americans adopted the term "as an act of political defiance and ethnic pride," similar to the reclamation of Black by African Americans. The Chicano Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s furthered the reclamation process of Chicana/o, challenging those who used as a term of derision on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border.
Demographic differences in the adoption of Chicano/a identity occurred; because of the prior vulgar connotations, it was more likely to be used by males than females, and less likely to be used among those of 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. Ana Castillo notes an example of how Chicana has been used as a classist term of derision to refer to "[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." Castillo herself considers Chicano/a to be a positive identity of self-determination and political solidarity. Some identify that Chicano is widely known and used in Mexico and may still be associated with a Mexican American person of low importance, class, and poor morals (similar to the terms Cholo, Chulo and Majo).
Chicano identity was widely reclaimed in the 1960s and 1970s by Mexican Americans as a means of asserting their own ethnic, political, and cultural identity while rejecting and resisting assimilation into whiteness, systematic racism and stereotypes, colonialism, and the American nation-state. Chicano identity was also founded on the need to create alliances with other oppressed ethnic and Third World peoples while protesting U.S. imperialism. Chicano identity was organized around seven objectives: unity, economy, education, institutions, self-defense, culture, and political liberation, in an effort to bridge regional and class divisions among people of Mexican descent. The notion of Aztlán, a mythical homeland claimed to be located in the southwestern United States, mobilized Mexican Americans to take social and political action. Chicanos/as originally espoused the belief in Chicano/a as a unifying mestizo identity and also centered their platform in the masculine body.
In the 1970s, Chicano identity became further defined under a reverence for machismo while also maintaining the values of their original platform, exemplified via the language employed in court cases such as Montez v. Superior Court, 1970, which defined the Chicano community as unified under "a commonality of ideals and costumbres with respect to masculinity (machismo), family roles, child discipline, [and] religious values." Oscar Zeta Acosta defined machismo as the source of Chicano identity, claiming that this "instinctual and mystical source of manhood, honor and pride... alone justifies all behavior." Armando Rendón wrote in Chicano Manifesto (1971) that machismo was "in fact an underlying drive of the gathering identification of Mexican Americans... the essence of machismo, of being macho, is as much a symbolic principle for the Chicano revolt as it is a guideline for family life."
From the beginning of the Chicano Movement, Chicana activists and scholars have "criticized the conflation of revolutionary commitment with manliness or machismo" and questioned "whether machismo is indeed a genuinely Mexican cultural value or a kind of distorted view of masculinity generated by the psychological need to compensate for the indignities suffered by Chicanos in a white supremacist society," as noted by José-Antonio Orosco. Academic Angie Chabram-Dernersesian indicates in her study of literary texts formative to the Chicano Movement that most of the stories focused on men and boys and none focused on Chicanas. The omission of Chicanas and the masculine-focused foundations of Chicano identity eventually created a shift in consciousness among some Chicanas/os by the 1990s.
Xicanisma was coined by Chicana Feminist writer Ana Castillo in Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma (1994) as a recognition of the shift in consciousness since the Chicano Movement. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Xicana/o activists and scholars, including Guillermo Gómez-Peña, were beginning to form a new ideological notion of Xicanisma: "a call for a return to the Amerindian roots of most Latinos as well as a call for a strategic alliance to give agency to Native American groups," reasserting the need to form coalitions with other oppressed ethnic groups, which was foundational in the formation of Chicano identity. Juan Velasco states that "implicit in the 'X' of more recent configurations of 'Xicano' and 'Xicanisma' is a criticism not only of the term 'Hispanic' but of the racial poetics of the 'multiracial' within Mexican and American culture." While still recognizing many of the foundational elements of Chicano identity, some Xicana feminists have preferred to identify as Xicana because of the masculine-focused foundations of Chicano identity and the patriarchal biases inherent in the Spanish language.
Scholar Francesca A. López notes that "Chicanismo has evolved into Xicanismo and even Xicanisma and other variations, but however it is spelled, it is based on the idea that to be Xican@ means to be proud of your Mexican Indigenous roots and committed to the struggle for liberation of all oppressed people." While adopting Chicano identity was a means of rejecting conformity to the dominant system as well as Hispanic identity, Xicano identity was adopted to emphasize a diasporic Indigenous American identity through being ancestrally connected to the land. Dylan Miner has noted how the emergence of Xicano identity emphasizes an "Indigenous and indigenist turn" which recognizes the Indigenous roots of Xicana/o/x people by explicitly referencing Nahuatl language and using an 'x' to signify a "lost or colonized history." While Chicano has been noted by scholars such as Francisco Rios as being limited by its focus on "race and ethnicity with strong male overtones," Xicanismo has been referred to as elastic enough to recognize the "intersecting nature of identities" (race/ethnicity and gender, class and sexual orientation) as well as roots "from Mexico as well as those with roots centered in Central and South America."
As poet and writer Luis J. Rodriguez states, both Xicanx and Chicano "mean the same thing"; referring to Xicanx as "the most recent incarnation of a word that describes people that are neither totally Mexican nor totally what is conceived as American." As Rodriguez remarks on the term's inclusivity, "Xicanx are all genders and gender non-conforming ... And even though most US Mexicans may not use this term, there is, nonetheless, in the Xicanx areas of the country, a third culture with its own dialect, food, and ethnic stamp." Xicanx has been used when referring to the need to destabilize "the principle of putting cisgender masculinity at the center of life" within the community. Artist Roy Martinez describes Xicanx as "not being bound to the feminine or masculine aspects," stating that "it's not a set thing" that people should feel enclosed in, but that it is a fluid identity that extends beyond fitting within the gender binary. Martinez also suggests the identity should extend beyond borders: "A lot of people are like 'Oh you weren't born in Mexico, so these identifiers exclude you... ' I feel like Xicanx is inclusive to anyone who identifies with it."
Distinction from Mexican American, Hispanic, and Latino
Legal scholar Ian Haney López records that, in the 1930s, "community leaders promoted the term Mexican American to convey an assimilationist ideology stressing white identity." Academic Lisa Y. Ramos notes that "this phenomenon demonstrates why no Black-Brown civil rights effort emerged prior to the 1960s." As a precursor to the Chicano Movement, anti-assimilationist Mexican American youth rejected the previous generation's racial aspirations to assimilate into Anglo-American society and developed an "alienated pachuco culture that fashioned itself neither as Mexican nor American." Pachucos themselves adopted Chicano identity to emphasize their opposition to assimilation in the 1940s.
The rise of Chicano/a identity during the Chicano Movement opened new possibilities for Black-Brown unity through rejecting assimilation: "Chicanos defined themselves as proud members of a brown race, thereby rejecting, not only the previous generation's assimilationist orientation, but their racial pretensions as well." Chicano/a leaders, organizations, and demonstrations learned from and collaborated with Black Power movement leaders and activists. As a result, Mexican American became used by those who insisted that Mexicans were white and wanted to assimilate, while Chicano became used by those who embraced a non-white and non-assimilationist worldview.
Hispanic was first promoted in the 1970s but it was not until the 1990s that the term was used on the U.S. Census. Since then it has widely been used by politicians and the media. For this reason, many Chicanos reject the term Hispanic.
While some may embrace Chicano/a and/or its variations, others prefer to identify themselves as:
- Mexican American; American of Mexican descent.
- Hispanic; Hispanic American; Hispano/hispana.
- Latino/a, also mistranslated/pseudo-etymologically anglicized as "Latin".
- American Latino/Latina.
- Latin American (especially if immigrant).
- Mexican; mexicano/mexicana
- Mestizo; [insert racial identity X] mestizo (e.g. blanco mestizo); pardo.
- californiano (or californio) / californiana; nuevomexicano/nuevomexicana; tejano/tejana.
- Part/member of la Raza. (Various definitions exist of what would be such a "universal race".)
- Americans, solely.
Chicana/o identity embodies elements of ethnic, political, cultural and Indigenous hybridity. These qualities of what constitutes Chicano/a identity may be expressed Chicanos/as differently, although they are still Chicano/a. As Armando Rendón wrote in the Chicano Manifesto (1971), "I am Chicano. What it means to me may be different than what it means to you." Similarily, writer Benjamin Alire Sáenz wrote "There is no such thing as the Chicano voice: there are only Chicano and Chicana voices." The identity thus may be understood as somewhat ambiguous (e.g. 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!").
However, as substantiated by Chicanas/os since the Chicano Movement, many Chicanos/as understand themselves as being "neither from here, nor from there," in reference to the United States and Mexico. Juan Bruce-Novoa, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at University of California, Irvine, wrote in 1990: "A Chicano lives in the space between the hyphen in Mexican-American." Being Chicano represents the struggle of being institutionally acculturated to assimilate into the Anglo-dominated society of the United States, while maintaining the cultural sense developed as a Latin-American cultured, U.S.-born Mexican child. As described by Rafael Pèrez-Torres, "one can no longer assert the wholeness of a Chicano subject ... It is illusory to deny the nomadic quality of the Chicano communtiy, a community in flux that yet survives and, through survival, affirms its self."
From a popular perspective, the term Chicano became widely visible outside of Chicano communities during the American civil rights movement. It was commonly used during the mid-1960s by Mexican-American activists such as Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, who was one of the first to reclaim the term, in an attempt to assert their civil rights and rid the word of its polarizing negative connotations. Chicano soon became an identity for Mexican Americans to assert their ethnic pride, proudly identifying themselves as Chicanos/as while also asserting a notion of Brown Pride, drawing on the "Black is Beautiful" movement, inverting phrases of insult into forms of ethnic empowerment. As journalist Rubén Salazar described in a 1970 Los Angeles Times piece entitled "Who is a Chicano? And what is it the Chicanos want?": "A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself."
After it was reclaimed, Chicano/a identity became a celebration of being non-white and non-European and worked against the state-sanctioned census categories of "Whites with Spanish Surnames," originally promulgated on the 1950 U.S. census, and "Mexican-American," which Chicanas/os felt encouraged assimilation into European American society. Chicanos/as asserted ethnic pride during a time when Mexican assimilation into whiteness was being actively promoted by the U.S. government in order to "serve Anglo self-interest," who tried to claim Chicano/as were white in order to deny racism against them, as noted by Ian Haney López.
The U.S. Census Bureau provided no clear way for Mexican Americans or Latinos to officially identify as a racial/ethnic category prior to 1980, when the broader-than-Mexican term "Hispanic" was first available as a self-identification in census forms. While Chicano also appeared on the 1980 census, indicating the success of the Chicano Movement in gaining some federal recognition, it was only permitted to be selected as a subcategory underneath Spanish/Hispanic descent, which erased Afro-Chicanos/as and the visibility of Amerindian and African ancestries among Chicanas/os and populations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
Chicana/o ethnic identity is born out of colonial encounters between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Alfred Arteaga writes how the Chicana/o arose as a result of the violence of colonialism, emerging as a hybrid ethnicity or race. Arteaga acknowledges how this ethnic and racial hybridity among Chicanos is highly complex and extends beyond a previously generalized "Aztec" ancestry, as originally asserted during the formative years of the Chicano Movement. Chicano ethnic identity may involve more than just Spanish ancestry and may include African ancestry (as a result of Spanish slavery or runaway slaves from Anglo-Americans). Arteaga concludes that "the physical manifestation of the Chicano, is itself a product of hybridity."
Afro-Chicanos/as, most of whom have origins in working class community interactions, have faced erasure from Chicano/a identity until recently. "Because so many people uncritically apply the 'one drop rule' in the U.S., our popular language ignores the complexity of racial hybridity," as described by Afro-Chicano poet Robert Quintana Hopkins. Black and Chicano/a communities have engaged in close political interactions "around civil rights struggles, union activism, and demographic changes," especially during the Black Power and Chicano Movement struggles for liberation in the 1960s and 1970s. There have also been tensions between Black and Chicano/a communities because of "increased competition for scarce resources," which has "too often positioned workers of different races in opposition to each other." Afro-Chicano photographer Walter Thompson-Hernandez reflected on how there were difficulties in his personal life because of racial conflicts between Black and Latino communities, yet stated how "being able to connect with other Blaxicans [Black-Mexicans] has allowed me to see that in all of my conclusions and struggles, I was never alone." Similarily, Afro-Chicano rapper Choosey stated "there’s a stigma that Black and Mexican cultures don’t get along, but I wanted to show the beauty in being a product of both.”
Chicano/a political identity developed from a reverence of pachuco resistance to assimilation in the 1940s and 1950s. Pachucos were negatively perceived by Anglo-American society: "Pachuco determination and pride grew through the 1950s and gave impetus to the Chicano movement of the 1960s ... By then the political consciousness stirred by the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots had developed into a movement that would soon issue the Chicano Manifesto–a detailed platform of political activism," as stated by Luis Valdéz Pachuco political action has been identified as a precursor to the Chicano Movement. By the late 1960s, according to Catherine S. Ramírez, the pachuco figure "emerged as an icon of resistance in Chicano cultural production," despite the absence of postive portrayals in Mexican-American literature and art prior to the Chicano Movement as well as the omission of the same reverence for the pachuca figure, which Ramírez credits with the pachuca's embodiment of "dissident femininity, female masculinity, and, in some instances, lesbian sexuality."
By the 1960s, Chicano/a identity was consolidating around several key political positions: rejecting assimilation into Anglo-American society, resisting systemic racism and the American nation-state, and affirming the need to create alliances with other oppressed ethnic groups and Third World peoples. Political liberation was a founding principle of Chicano nationalism, which called for the creation of a Chicano/a subject whose political identity was separate from the U.S. nation-state, which Chicanos recognized had impoverished, oppressed, and destroyed their people and communities. Alberto Varon writes that, while Chicano nationalism "created enduring social improvement for the lives of Mexican Americans and others" through political action, this brand of Chicano nationalism privileged the machismo subject in its calls for political resistance, which has since been critiqued by Chicana feminism.
Several Chicana/o writers state that Chicano hypermasculinity inhibited and stifled the Chicano Movement. Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga identifies homophobia and sexism as obstacles to the Movement which deprived Chicanas of critical knowledge about a "grassroots feminist movement where women of color, including lesbians of color, [had] been actively involved in reproductive rights, especially sterilization abuse, battered women's shelters, rape crisis centers, welfare advocacy, Third World women's conferences, cultural events, health and self-help clinics and more." Sonia Saldívar-Hull writes that crucial texts such as Essay on La Mujer (1977), Mexican Women in the United States (1980), and This Bridge Called My Back (1981) have been relatively ignored, even in Chicana/o Studies, while "a failure to address women's issues and women's historical participation in the political arena continues." Saldívar-Hull notes that when Chicanas have challenged sexism, their identities have been invalidated.
Chicano political activist groups such as the Brown Berets (1967-1972; 1992–Present), originally founded by David Sánchez in East Los Angeles as the Young Chicanos for Community Action gained support for their political objectives of protesting educational inequalities and demanding an end to police brutality. Paralleling with groups such as the Black Panthers and Young Lords, which were founded in 1966 and 1968 respectively, membership in the Brown Berets was estimated to have reached five thousand in over eighty chapters mostly centered in California and Texas. The Brown Berets were critical in organizing the Chicano Blowouts of 1968 and the national Chicano Moratorium, which protested the high number of Chicano casualties in the Vietnam War. Continued police harassment, infiltration by federal agents provacateur via COINTELPRO, and internal disputes led to the decline and disbandment of the Berets in 1972. Sánchez, then a professor at East Los Angeles College, revived the Brown Berets in 1992 after being prompted by the high number of Chicano homicides is Los Angeles County, seeking to supplant the structure of the gang as family with the Brown Berets.
At certain points in the 1970s, Chicano was the preferred term for reference to Mexican Americans, particularly in scholarly literature. Chicano/a fell out of favor as a way of referring to the entire population in the 1980s following the decline of the Chicano Movement as a result of state surveillance, infiltration, and repression by U.S. government agencies, informants, and agent provocateurs, a hyper-fixation on the masculine subject which excluded Chicanas and queer Chicanas/os from the Movement, and a growing disinterest in Chicano nationalist constructs such as Aztlán. In the 1980s, Latino and Hispanic were imposed on Chicana/o populations to encourage a more assimilationist worldview during an era of conservativism. Reies Tijerina (who died on January 19, 2015) was a vocal claimant to the rights of Latin Americans and Mexican Americans, and he remains a major figure of the early Chicano Movement. Of the term, he wrote: "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."
Since the Chicano Movement, Chicano has been reclaimed by Mexican-Americans to denote an identity that is in opposition to Anglo-American culture while being neither fully "American" or "Mexican." Chicano culture embodies the "in-between" nature of cultural hybridity. As early as the 1930s, the precursors to Chicano cultural identity were developing in Los Angeles, California and the Southwestern United States. Former zoot suiter Salvador "El Chava" reflects on how racism and poverty forged a hostile social environment for Chicanos/as which led to the development of gangs: "we had to protect ourselves."
Barrios and colonias (rural barrios) were founded throughout southern California and elsewhere in neglected districts of cities and outlying areas with little infrastructure. As a result of alienation from public institutions, some Chicano youth became susceptible to gang channels, drawn by the rigid hierarchical structure and assigned roles of gang life amidst a world of state-sanctioned disorder. Pachuco/a culture developed in the border areas of California and Texas as Pachuquismo in the 1930s and has been credited as an influence to Chicanismo. Mexican-American zoot suiters on the west coast were influenced by Black zoot suiters in the jazz and swing music scene on the East Coast.
In Los Angeles, Chicano zoot suiters developed their own cultural identity, as noted by Charles "Chaz" Bojórquez, "with their hair done in big pompadours, and 'draped' in tailor-made suits, they were swinging to their own styles. They spoke Cálo, their own language, a cool jive of half-English, half-Spanish rhythms. [...] Out of the zootsuiter experience came lowrider cars and culture, clothes, music, tag names, and, again, its own graffiti language." As described by artist Carlos Jackson, "Pachuco culture remains a prominent theme in Chicano art because the contemporary urban cholo culture" is seen as its heir.
Many aspects forming Chicano cultural identity, such as lowrider culture, have been stigmatized and policed by Anglo Americans who perceive Chicanos as "juvenile delinquents or gang members" for their embrace of nonwhite style and cultures, much as they did Pachucos. These negative societal perceptions of Chicanos were amplified by media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times. Luis Alvarez remarks how negative portrayals in the media served as a tool to increase policing of Black and Brown male bodies in particular: "Popular discourse characterizing nonwhite youth as animal-like, hypersexual, and criminal marked their bodies as 'other' and, when coming from city officials and the press, served to help construct for the public a social meaning of African Americans and Mexican American youth. In these ways, the physical and discursive bodies of nonwhite youth were the sites upon which their dignity was denied."
Chicano rave culture in southern California provided a space for Chicanos to partially escape criminalization in the 1990s. Artist and archivist Guadalupe Rosales states that "a lot of teenagers were being criminalised or profiled as criminals or gangsters, so the party scene gave access for people to escape that." Numerous party crews, such as Aztek Nation, organized events and parties would frequently take place in neighborhood backyards, particularly in East and South Los Angeles, the surrounding valleys, and Orange County. By 1995, it was estimated that over 500 party crews were in existence. They laid the foundations for "an influential but oft-overlooked Latin dance subculture that offered community for Chicano ravers, queer folk, and other marginalized youth." Ravers used map points techniques to derail police raids. Rosales states that a shift occurred around the late 1990s and increasing violence effected the Chicano party scene.
Chicano/a identity functions as a way to reclaim one's Indigenous American, and often Indigenous Mexican, ancestry—to form an identity distinct from European identity, despite some Chicanos/as being of partial European descent—as a way to resist and subvert colonial domination. Rather than a "subculture" of European American culture, Alicia Gasper de Alba refers to Chicanismo as an "alter-Native culture, an Other American culture Indigenous to the land base now known as the West and Southwest of the United States." While influenced by settler-imposed systems and structures, Alba refers to Chicana/o culture as "not immigrant but native, not foreign but colonized, not alien but different from the overarching hegemony of white America."
The Plan Espiritual de Aztlán (1969) drew from Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1961). In Wretched, Fanon stated: "the past existence of an Aztec civilization does not change anything very much in the diet of the Mexican peasant today," elaborating that "this passionate search for a national culture which existed before the colonial era finds its legitimate reason in the anxiety shared by native intellectuals to shrink away from that of Western culture in which they all risk being swamped ... the native intellectuals, since they could not stand wonderstruck before the history of today's barbarity, decided to go back further and to delve deeper down; and, let us make no mistake, it was with the greatest delight that they discovered that there was nothing to be ashamed of in the past, but rather dignity, glory, and solemnity."
The Chicano Movement adopted this perspective through the notion of Aztlán—a mythic Aztec homeland which Chicano/as used as a way to connect themselves to a precolonial past, before the time of the "'gringo' invasion of our lands." Chicano/a scholars describe how this reclamation functioned as a way for Chicano/as to reclaim a diverse or imprecise Indigenous past; while recognizing how Aztlán promoted divisive forms of Chicano nationalism that "did little to shake the walls and bring down the structures of power as its rhetoric so firmly proclaimed." As stated by Chicano historian Juan Gómez-Quiñones, the Plan Espiritual de Aztlán was "stripped of what radical element it possessed by stressing its alleged romantic idealism, reducing the concept of Aztlán to a psychological ploy ... all of which became possible because of the Plan's incomplete analysis which, in turn, allowed it ... to degenerate into reformism."
While acknowledging its romanticized and exclusionary foundations, Chicano/a scholars like Rafael Pèrez-Torres state that Aztlán opened a subjectivity which stressed a connection to Indigenous peoples and cultures at a critical historical moment in which Mexican-Americans and Mexicans were "under pressure to assimilate particular standards—of beauty, of identity, of aspiration. In a Mexican context, the pressure was to urbanize and Europeanize .... 'Mexican-Americans' were expected to accept anti-indigenous discourses as their own." As Pèrez-Torres concludes, Aztlán allowed "for another way of aligning one's interests and concerns with community and with history ... though hazy as to the precise means in which agency would emerge, Aztlán valorized a Chicanismo that rewove into the present previously devalued lines of descent." Aztlán has since declined as a concept as some Chicano/as argue for a need to reconstruct the place of Indigeneity in relation to Chicano/a identity.
The appropriation of a pre-contact Aztec culture has since been reexamined by some Chicano/as who recognize a need to affirm the diversity of Indigenous ancestry among Chicano/as. Patrisia Gonzales analyzes how Chicanx people are descendants of the Indigenous peoples of Mexico who have been displaced because of colonial violence, positioning them among "detribalized Indigenous peoples and communities." Roberto Cintli Rodríguez describes Chicano/as as "de-Indigenized," which he remarks occurred "in part due to religious indoctrination and a violent uprooting from the land," detaching them from maíz-based cultures throughout the greater Mesoamerican region. Rodríguez examines how and why "peoples who are clearly red or brown and undeniably Indigenous to this continent have allowed ourselves, historically, to be framed by bureaucrats and the courts, by politicians, scholars, and the media as alien, illegal, and less than human."
Gloria E. Anzaldúa has addressed detribalization, stating "In the case of Chicanos, being 'Mexican' is not a tribe. So in a sense Chicanos and Mexicans are 'detribalized'. We don't have tribal affiliations but neither do we have to carry ID cards establishing tribal affiliation." Anzaldúa also recognizes that "Chicanos, people of color, and 'whites'," have often chosen "to ignore the struggles of Native people even when it's right in our caras (faces)," expressing disdain for this "willful ignorance." She concludes that "though both 'detribalized urban mixed bloods' and Chicanas/os are recovering and reclaiming, this society is killing off urban mixed bloods through cultural genocide, by not allowing them equal opportunities for better jobs, schooling, and health care." Inés Hernández-Ávila emphasizes how Chicano/as should recognize and reconnect with their roots "respectfully and humbly" while also validating "those peoples who still maintain their identity as original peoples of this continent" in order to create radical change capable of "transforming our world, our universe, and our lives."
Anti-imperialism and international solidarity
During World War II, Chicano youth were targeted by white servicemen, who despised their "cool, measured indifference to the war, as well as an increasingly defiant posture toward whites in general." Historian Robin Kelley states that this "annoyed white servicemen to no end." During the Zoot Suit Riots (1943), white rage erupted in Los Angeles, which "became the site of racist attacks on Black and Chicano youth, during which white soldiers engaged in what amounted to a ritualized stripping of the zoot." Zoot suits were a symbol of collective resistance among Chicano and Black youth against city segregation and fighting in the war. Many Chicano and Black zoot-suiters engaged in draft evasion because they felt it was hypocritical for them to be expected to "fight for democracy" abroad yet face racism and oppression daily in the U.S.
This galvanized Chicanx youth to focus on anti-war activism, "especially influenced by the Third World movements of liberation in Asia, Africa, and Latin America." Historian Mario T. García reflects that "these anti-colonial and anti-Western movements for national liberation and self-awareness touched a historical nerve among Chicanos/as as they began to learn that they shared some similarities with these Third World struggles." Chicano poet Alurista argued that "Chicanas/os cannot be truly free until they recognize that the struggle in the United States is intricately bound with the anti-imperialist struggle in other countries." The Cuban Revolution (1953–59) led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara was particularly influential to Chicanos, as noted by García, who notes that Chicanas/os viewed the revolution as "a nationalist revolt against "Yankee imperialism" and neo-colonialism."
In the 1960s, the Chicano Movement brought "attention and commitment to local struggles with an analysis and understanding of international struggles." Chicanx youth organized with Black, Latin American, and Filipino activists to form the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), which fought for the creation of a Third World college. During the Third World Liberation Front strikes of 1968, Chicanx artists created posters to express solidarity. Chicano poster artist Rupert García referred to the place of artists in the movement: "I was critical of the police, of capitalist exploitation. I did posters of Che, of Zapata, of other Third World leaders. As artists, we climbed down from the ivory tower." Learning from Cuban poster makers of the post-revolutionary period, Chicanx artists "incorporated international struggles for freedom and self-determination, such as those of Angola, Chile, and South Africa," while also promoting the struggles of Indigenous people and other civil rights movements through Black-brown unity. Chicanas organized with women of color activists to create the Third World Women's Alliance (1968-1980), representing "visions of liberation in third world solidarity that inspired political projects among racially and economically marginalized communities" against U.S. capitalism and imperialism.
The Chicano Moratorium (1969–71) against the Vietnam War was one of the largest demonstrations of Mexican-Americans in history, drawing over 30,000 supporters in East Los Angeles. Draft evasion in the Vietnam War was a form of resistance for Chicano anti-war activists such as Rosalio Muñoz, Ernesto Vigil, and Salomon Baldengro. They faced a felony charge—a minimum of five years prison time, $10,000, or both. In response, Munoz wrote "I declare my independence of the Selective Service System. I accuse the government of the United States of America of genocide against the Mexican people. Specifically, I accuse the draft, the entire social, political, and economic system of the United States of America, of creating a funnel which shoots Mexican youth into Vietnam to be killed and to kill innocent men, women, and children...." Rodolfo Corky Gonzales expressed a similar stance: “My feelings and emotions are aroused by the complete disregard of our present society for the rights, dignity, and lives of not only people of other nations but of our own unfortunate young men who die for an abstract cause in a war that cannot be honestly justified by any of our present leaders.”
Important anthologies such as This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981) were produced in the late 1970s and early 80s by lesbian of color writers Cherríe Moraga, Pat Parker, Toni Cade Bambara, Chrystos, Audre Lorde, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Cheryl Clarke, Jewelle Gomez, Kitty Tsui, and Hattie Gossett, who developed a poetics of liberation. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press and Third Woman Press, founded in 1979 by Chicana feminist Norma Alarcón, provided sites for the production of women of color and Chicana literatures and critical essays. While first world feminists focused "on the liberal agenda of political rights," Third World feminists "linked their agenda for women's rights with economic and cultural rights" and unified together "under the banner of Third World solidarity." Maylei Blackwell identifies that this internationalist critique of capitalism and imperialism forged by women of color has yet to be fully historicized and is "usually dropped out of the false historical narrative."
In the 1980s and 90s, Central American activists influenced Chicanx leaders. The Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC) supported the Esquipulas Peace Agreement in 1987, standing in opposition to Contra aid. Al Luna criticized Reagan and American involvement while defending Nicaragua's Sandinista-led government: "President Reagan cannot credibly make public speeches for peace in Central America while at the same time advocating for a three-fold increase in funding to the Contras." The Southwest Voter Research Initiative (SVRI), launched by Chicano leader Willie Velásquez, intended to educate Chicanx youth about Central and Latin American political issues. In 1988, "there was no significant urban center in the Southwest where Chicano leaders and activists had not become involved in lobbying or organizing to change U.S. policy in Nicaragua." In the early 90s, Cherríe Moraga urged Chicanx activists to recognize that "the Anglo invasion of Latin America [had] extended well beyond the Mexican/American border" while Gloria E. Anzaldúa positioned Central America as the primary target of a U.S. interventionism that had murdered and displaced thousands. However, Chicanx solidarity narratives of Central Americans in the 1990s tended to center themselves, stereotype Central Americans, and filter their struggles "through Chicana/o struggles, histories, and imaginaries."
Chicanx activists organized against the Gulf War (1990–91). Raul Ruiz, co-chair of the Chicano Mexican Committee against the Gulf War, stated that U.S. intervention was carried for "to support U.S. oil interests in the region." Of the work involved, Ruiz stated, "we were the only Chicano group against the war. We did a lot of protesting in L.A. even though it was difficult because of the strong support for the war and the anti-Arab reaction that followed ... we experienced racist attacks [but] we held our ground." The end of the Gulf War, along with the Rodney King Riots, were crucial in inspiring a new wave of Chicanx political activism. In 1994, one of the largest demonstrations of Mexican Americans in the history of the United States occurred when 70,000 people, largely Chicano/a and Latino/a marched in Los Angeles and other cities to protest Proposition 187, which aimed to cut educational and welfare benefits for undocumented immigrants.
In 2004, Mujeres against Militarism and the Raza Unida Coalition sponsored a Day of the Dead vigil against militarism within the Latino community, addressing the War in Afghanistan (2001-) and the Iraq War (2003–11) They held photos of the dead and chanted "no blood for oil." The procession ended with a 5-hour vigil at Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural. They condemned "the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) and other military recruitment programs that concentrate heavily in Latino and African American communities, noting that JROTC is rarely found in upper-income Anglo communities." Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara organized a benefit concert for Latin@s Against the War in Iraq and Mexamérica por la Paz at Self-Help Graphics against the Iraq War. Although the events were well-attended, Guevara stated that "the Feds know how to manipulate fear to reach their ends: world military dominance and maintaining a foothold in a oil-rich region were their real goals."
Labor organizing against capitalist exploitation
Chicano/a and Mexican labor organizers played an active role in notable labor strikes since the early 20th century including the Oxnard strike of 1903, Pacific Electric Railway strike of 1903, 1919 Streetcar Strike of Los Angeles, Cantaloupe strike of 1928, California agricultural strikes (1931–41), and the Ventura County agricultural strike of 1941, endured mass deportations as a form of strikebreaking in the Bisbee Deportation of 1917 and Mexican Repatriation (1929–36), and experienced tensions with one another during the Bracero program (1942–64). Although organizing laborers were harassed, sabotaged, and repressed, sometimes through war-like tactics from capitalist owners who engaged in coervice labor relations and collaborated with and received support from local police and community organizations, Chicano/a and Mexican workers, particularly in agriculture, have been engaged in widespread unionization activities since the 1930s.
Prior to unionization, agricultural workers, many of whom were undocumented, worked in dismal conditions. Historian F. Arturo Rosales recorded a Federal Project Writer of the period, who stated: "It is sad, yet true, commentary that to the average landowner and grower in California the Mexican was to be placed in much the same category with ranch cattle, with this exception–the cattle were for the most part provided with comparatively better food and water and immeasurably better living accommodations." Growers used cheap Mexican labor to reap bigger profits and, until the 1930s, perceived Mexicans as docile and compliant with their subjugated status because they "did not organize troublesome labor unions, and it was held that he was not educated to the level of unionism." As one grower described, "We want the Mexican because we can treat them as we cannot treat any other living man ... We can control them by keeping them at night behind bolted gates, within a stockade eight feet high, surrounded by barbed wire ... We can make them work under armed guards in the fields."
Unionization efforts were initiated by the Confederación de Uniones Obreras (Federation of Labor Unions) in Los Angeles, with twenty-one chapters quickly extending throughout southern California, and La Unión de Trabajadores del Valle Imperial (Imperial Valley Workers' Union). The latter organized the Cantaloupe strike of 1928, in which workers demanded better working conditions and higher wages, but "the growers refused to budge and, as became a pattern, local authorities sided with the farmers and through harassment broke the strike." Communist-led organizations such as the Cannery and Agricultural Workers' Industrial Union (CAWIU) supported Mexican workers, renting spaces for cotton pickers during the cotton strikes of 1933 after they were thrown out of company housing by growers. Capitalist owners used "red-baiting" techniques to discredit the strikes through associating them with communists. Chicana and Mexican working women showed the greatest tendency to organize, particularly in the Los Angeles garment industry with the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, led by anarchist Rose Pesotta.
During World War II, the government-funded Bracero program (1942–64) hindered unionization efforts. In response to the California agricultural strikes and the 1941 Ventura County strike of Chicano/a and Mexican, as well as Filipino, lemon pickers/packers, growers organized the Ventura County Citrus Growers Committee (VCCGC) and launched a lobbying campaign to pressure the U.S. government to pass laws to prohibit labor organizing. VCCGC joined with other grower associations, forming a powerful lobbying bloc in Congress, and worked to legislate for (1) a Mexican guest workers program, which would become the Bracero program, (2) laws prohibiting strike activity, and (3) military deferments for pickers. Their lobbying efforts were successful: unionization among farmworkers was made illegal, farmworkers were excluded from minimum wage laws, and the usage of child labor by growers was ignored. In formerly active areas, such as Santa Paula, union activity stopped for over thirty years as a result.
When World War II ended, the Bracero program continued. Legal anthropologist Martha Menchaca states that this was "regardless of the fact that massive quantities of crops were no longer needed for the war effort ... after the war, the braceros were used for the benefit of the large-scale growers and not for the nation's interest." The program was extended for an indefinite period in 1951. In the mid-1940s, labor organizer Ernesto Galarza founded the National Farm Workers Union (NFWU) in opposition to the Bracero Program, organizing a large-scale 1947 strike against the Di Giorgio Fruit Company in Arvin, California. Hundreds of Mexican, Filipino, and white workers walked out and demanded higher wages. The strike was broken by the usual tactics, with law enforcement on the side of the owners, evicting strikers and bringing in undocumented workers as strikebreakers. The NFWU folded, but served as a precursor to the United Farm Workers Union led by César Chávez. By the 1950s, opposition to the Bracero program had grown considerably, as unions, churches, and Mexican-American political activists raised awareness about the effects it had on American labor standards. On December 31, 1964, the U.S. government conceded and terminated the program.
Following the closure of the Bracero program, domestic farmworkers began to organize again because "growers could not longer maintain the peonage system" with the end of imported laborers from Mexico. Labor organizing formed part of the Chicano Movement via the struggle of farmworkers against depressed wages and working conditions. César Chávez began organizing Chicano farmworkers in the early 1960s, first through the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) and then merging the association with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), an organization of mainly Filipino workers, to form the United Farm Workers. The labor organizing of Chávez was central to the expansion of unionization throughout the United States and inspired the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), under the leadership of Baldemar Velásquez, which continues today. Farmworkers collaborated with local Chicano organizations, such as in Santa Paula, California, where farmworkers attended Brown Berets meetings in the 1970s and Chicano youth organized to improve working conditions and initiate an urban renewal project on the eastside of the city.
Although Mexican and Chicano/a workers, organizers, and activists organized for decades to improve working conditions and increase wages, some scholars characterize these gains as minimal. As described by Ronald Mize and Alicia Swords, "piecemeal gains in the interests of workers have had very little impact on the capitalist agricultural labor process, so picking grapes, strawberries, and oranges in 1948 is not so different from picking those same crops in 2008." U.S. agriculture today remains totally reliant on Mexican labor, with Mexican-born individuals now constituting about 90% of the labor force.
Struggles in the colonial education system
Chicana/o students often endure struggles in the U.S. education system, which has been identified as a colonial institution exercising control over colonized students. Chicana/o communities have engaged in numerous forms of protest and direct action against the colonial education system, such as walkouts. On March 5, 1968, the Chicano Blowouts at East Los Angeles High School occurred as a response to the racist treatment of Chicana/o students, an unresponsive school board, and a high dropout rate. It became known as "the first major mass protest against racism undertaken by Mexican-Americans in the history of the United States." Sal Castro, a Chicano social science teacher at the school was arrested and fired for inspiring the walkouts, led by student activists such as Harry Gamboa Jr., who was named "one of the hundred most dangerous and violent subversives in the United States" for organizing the student walkouts. The day before the walkouts, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent out a memo to law enforcement to place top priority on "political intelligence work to prevent the development of nationalist movements in minority communities." Chicana activist Alicia Escalante protested Castro's dismissal: "We in the Movement will at least be able to hold our heads up and say that we haven't submitted to the gringo or to the pressures of the system. We are brown and we are proud. I am at least raising my children to be proud of their heritage, to demand their rights, and as they become parents they too will pass this on until justice is done."
In 1969, Plan de Santa Bárbara was drafted as a 155-page document that outlined the foundation of Chicana/o Studies programs in higher education. It called for students, faculty, employees and the community to come together as "central and decisive designers and administrators of these programs." Chicana/o students and activists asserted that universities should exist to serve the community. However, by the mid-1970s, much of the radicalism of earlier Chicana/o studies became deflated by the colonial academy, which aimed "to change the objective and purpose" of Chicana/o Studies programs from within. As stated by historian Mario García, problems arose when Chicanas/os became part of the academic institution; one "encountered a deradicalization of the radicals." Some opportunistic faculty avoided their political responsibilities to the community while university administrators co-opted oppositional forces within Chicana/o Studies programs and encouraged tendencies that led "to the loss of autonomy of Chicano Studies programs." At the same time, "a domesticated Chicano Studies provided the university with the facade of being tolerant, liberal, and progressive."
Some Chicanas/os argued that the solution was "to strengthen Chicano Studies institutionally" by creating "publishing outlets that would challenge Anglo control of academic print culture with its rules on peer review and thereby publish alternative research," arguing that by creating a Chicano space in the colonial academy that Chicanas/os could "avoid colonization in higher education." They worked with institutions like the Ford Foundation in an attempt to establish educational autonomy, but quickly found that "these organizations presented a paradox." As described by Rodolfo Acuña, while these organizations may have initially "formed part of the Chicano/a challenge to higher education and the transformation of the community, they quickly became content to only acquire funding for research and thereby determine the success or failure of faculty." As a result, Chicana/o Studies had soon become "much closer the mainstream than its practitioners wanted to acknowledge." For example, the Chicano Studies Center at UCLA, shifted away from its earlier interests in serving the Chicana/o community to gaining status within the colonial institution through a focus on academic publishing.
Chicanas/os continue to acknowledge the US educational system as an institution upholding Anglo colonial dominance. In 2012, the Mexican American Studies Department Programs in Tuscon Unified School District was banned after a campaign led by Anglo-American politician Tom Horne accused it of working to "promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." Classes on Latino literature, American history/Mexican-American perspectives, Chicano art, and an American government/social justice education project course were banned. Seven books, including Paulo Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and works covering Chicano history and critical race theory, were banned, taken from students, and stored away. The ban was overturned in 2017 by Judge A. Wallace Tashima, who ruled that it was motivated by racism and had deprived students of knowledge, thereby violating their Fourteenth Amendment right. Because of the historical and contemporary struggles of Chicanas/os in the colonial education system, many doubt its potential for transformative change; as Rodolfo Acuña states, "revolutions are made in the streets, not on college campuses."
Rejection of borders
Chicanas/os often reject the concept of borders through the concept of sin fronteras, the idea of no 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. Some Chicanas/os identified with the idea of Aztlán as a result, which celebrated a time preceding land division and rejected the "immigrant/foreigner" categorization by Anglo society. Chicana/o activists have called for unionism between both Mexicans and Chicanas/os on both sides of the border.
In the early 20th century, the border crossing had become a site of brutality and dehumanization for Mexicans. Protests in 1910 arose along the Santa Fe Bridge due to abuses committed against Mexican workers while crossing the border. The 1917 Bath riots erupted after Mexicans crossing the border were required to strip naked and be disinfected with various chemical agents, including gasoline, kerosene, sulfiric acid, and Zyklon B, the latter of which was the fumigation of choice and would later notoriously be used in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany. During the early 20th century, Chicanos used corridos "to counter Anglocentric hegemony." As described by Ramón Saldivar, "corridos served the symbolic function of empirical events and for creating counterfactual worlds of lived experience (functioning as a substitute for fiction writing)."
Newspaper Sin Fronteras (1976–79) openly rejected the Mexico-United States border. The newspaper considered it "to be only an artificial creation that in time would be destroyed by the struggles of Mexicans on both sides of the border" and recognized that "Yankee political, economic, and cultural colonialism victimized all Mexicans, whether in the U.S. or in Mexico." Similarly, the General Brotherhood of Workers (CASA), important to the development of young Chicano intellectuals and activists, identified that, as "victims of oppression, Mexicanos could achieve liberation and self-determination only by engaging in a borderless struggle to defeat American international capitalism."
Chicana theorist Gloria E. Anzaldúa notably emphasized the border as a "1,950 mile-long wound that does not heal." In referring to the border as a wound, writer Catherine Leen suggests that Anzaldúa recognizes "the trauma and indeed physical violence very often associated with crossing the border from Mexico to the US, but also underlies the fact that the cyclical nature of this immigration means that this process will continue and find little resolution." Anzaldúa writes that la frontera signals "the coming together of two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference [which] cause un choque, a cultural collision" because "the U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds." Chicana/o and Mexican artists and filmmakers continue to address "the contentious issues of exploitation, exclusion, and conflict at the border and attempt to overturn border stereotypes" through their work. Luis Alberto Urrea writes "the border runs down the middle of me. I have a barbed wire fence neatly bisecting my heart."
Not aspiring to assimilate in Anglo-American society, Chicano/a youth were criminalized for their defiance to cultural assimilation: "When many of the same youth began wearing what the larger society considered outlandish clothing, sporting distinctive hairstyles, speaking in their own language (Caló), and dripping with attitude, law enforcement redoubled their efforts to rid the streets of this emerging predatory class." Alfredo Mirandé identifies that "the criminalization of the Chicano resulted not from their being more criminal or violent but from a clash between conflicting and competing cultures, world views, and economic, political, and judicial systems." Criminalization historically led to the rise of Chicano gang culture as a way to resist Euro-American racism. Sociologist Martin Sànchez determined after a ten-year study that "Chicano gangs sought to maintain a separate culture and physical space in order to protect their neighborhoods."
The historical image of the Mexican in the Southwest was "that of the greasy Mexican bandit or bandito," who was perceived as criminal because of Mestizo ancestry and "Indian blood." As stated by Walter Prescott in 1935, "there is a cruel streak in the Mexican nature ... this cruelty may be a heritage from the Spanish and of the Inquisition; it may, and doubtless should be, attributed party to Indian blood." The "greasy bandito" stereotype of the old West evolved into images of "crazed Zoot-Suiters and pachuco killers in the 1940s, to contemporary cholos, gangsters, and gang members." Pachucos were portrayed as violent criminals in American mainstream media which fueled the Zoot Suit Riots; initiated by off-duty policemen conducting a vigilante-hunt, the riots targeted Chicano youth who wore the zoot suit as a symbol of empowerment. On-duty police supported the violence against Chicano zoot suiters; they "escorted the servicemen to safety and arrested their Chicano victims." Arrest rates of Chicano youth rose during these decades, fueled by the "criminal" image portrayed in the media, by politicians, and by the police.
The Zoot Suit Riots and the Sleepy Lagoon case served as an origins point for "the beginning of the hyper-criminalization of Chicana/o youth." In the 1970s, there was a wave of police killings of Chicanos. One of the most prominent cases was Luis "Tato" Rivera, who was a 20-year-old Chicano shot in the back by officer Craig Short in 1975. 2,000 Chicano/a demonstrators showed up to the city hall of National City, California in protest. Short was indicted for manslaughter by district attorney Ed Miller and was acquitted of all charges. Short was later appointed acting chief of police of National City in 2003. Another high-profile case was the murder of Ricardo Falcón, a student at the University of Colorado and leader of the United Latin American Students (UMAS), by Perry Brunson, a member of the far-right American Independent Party, at a gas station. Bruson was tried for manslaughter and was "acquitted by an all-White jury." Falcón became a martyr for the Chicano Movement as police violence increased in the subsequent decades. This led sociologist Alfredo Mirandé to refer to the criminal justice system as "Gringo Justice," because "it reflected one standard for Anglos and another for Chicanos."
The criminalization of Chicano/a youth in the barrio remains omnipresent. Chicano/a youth who adopt "a cholo or chola culture" endure hyper-criminalization. While older residents "embraced the idea of a chola or cholo as a larger subculture not necessarily associated with crime and violence (but rather with a youthful temporary identity), law enforcement agents, ignorant or disdainful of barrio life, labeled youth who wore clean white tennis shoes, shaved their heads, or long socks, as deviant." Community members were convinced by the police of cholo/a criminality, which led to shaming, hyper-criminalization, and surveillance "reminiscent of the criminalization of Chicana and Chicano youth during the Zoot-Suit era in the 1940s." Sociologist José S. Plascencia-Castillo refers to the barrio as a panopticon, a space which leads to intense self-regulation, as Chicana/o youth are both scrutinized by law enforcement to "stay in their side of town" and by the community who in some circumstances "call the police to have the youngsters removed from the premises." The intense governance of Chicana/o youth, especially those who adopt the chola/o identity, has deep implications on youth experience, affecting their physical and mental health as well as their outlook on the future. Some youth feel they "can either comply with the demands of authority figures, and become obedient and compliant, and suffer the accompanying loss of identity and self-esteem, or, adopt a resistant stance and contest social invisibility to command respect in the public sphere."
Gender and sexuality
Chicana women and girls often confront objectification in Anglo society, being perceived as "exotic," "lascivious," and "hot" at a very young age while also facing denigration as "barefoot," "pregnant," "dark," and "low-class." These perceptions in society engender numerous negative sociological and psychological effects, such as excessive dieting and eating disorders. Social media may enhance these stereotypes of Chicana women and girls. Numerous studies have found that Chicanas experience elevated levels of stress as a result of sexual expectations by their parents and families. Although many Chicana youth desire open conversation of these gendered and sexual expectations, as well as mental health, these issues are often not discussed openly in Chicano families, which perpetuates unsafe and destructive practices. While young Chicana women are objectified, middle-aged Chicanas discuss feelings of being invisible, saying they feel trapped in balancing family obligations to their parents and children while attempting to create a space for their own sexual desires. The expectation that Chicana women should be "protected" by Chicano men may also constrict the agency and mobility of Chicana women.
Chicano men develop their identity within a context of marginalization in Anglo society. Some writers state that "Mexican men and their Chicano brothers suffer from an inferiority complex due to the conquest and genocide inflicted upon their Indigenous ancestors," which leaves Chicano men feeling trapped between identifying with the so-called "superior" European and the so-called "inferior" Indigenous sense of self. This conflict is said to manifest itself in the form of hypermasculinity or machismo, in which a "quest for power and control over others in order to feel better" about oneself is undertaken. This may result in abusive behavior, the development of an impenetrable "cold" persona, alcohol abuse, and other destructive and self-isolating behaviors. The lack of discussion of sexuality between Chicano men and their fathers or their mothers means that Chicano men tend to learn about sex from their peers as well as older male family members who perpetuate the idea that as men they have "a right to engage in sexual activity without commitment." The looming threat of being labeled a joto (gay) for not engaging in sexual activity also conditions many Chicano men to "use" women for their own sexual desires.
Heteronormative gender roles are often enforced in Chicano families. Any deviation from gender and sexual conformity is perceived as a weakening or attack of la familia. However, certain Chicano men who retain a masculine gender identity are afforded some mobility to secretly engage in homosexual behaviors because of their gender performance, as long as it remains on the fringes. Effeminacy in Chicano men, Chicana lesbianism, and any other deviation which challenges patriarchal gender and sexuality is highly policed and understood as an attack on the family by Chicano men. Chicana women in the normative Chicano family are relegated to a secondary and subordinate status. Cherrie Moraga argues that this issue of patriarchal ideology in Chicano and Latino communities runs deep, as the great majority of Chicano and Latino men believe in and uphold male supremacy. Moraga also points to how this ideology is upheld in Chicano families by mothers in their relationship to their children: "the daughter must constantly earn the mother's love, prove her fidelity to her. The son–he gets her love for free."
Queer Chicanas/os may seek refuge in their families, if possible, because it is difficult for them to find spaces where they feel safe in the dominant and hostile Anglo culture which surrounds them while also feeling excluded because of the hypermasculinity, and subsequent homophobia, that frequently exists in Chicano familial and communal spaces. Gabriel S. Estrada describes how "the overarching structures of capitalist white (hetero)sexism," including higher levels of criminalization directed toward Chicanos, has proliferated "further homophobia" among Chicano boys and men who may adopt "hypermasculine personas that can include sexual violence directed at others." Estrada notes that not only does this constrict "the formation of a balanced Indigenous sexuality for anyone, but especially ... for those who do identify" as part of the queer community to reject the "Judeo-Christian mandates against homosexuality that are not native to their own ways," recognizing that many Indigenous societies in Mexico and elsewhere accepted homosexuality openly prior to arrival of European colonizers.
Chicana/os may seek out both Western biomedical healthcare and Indigenous health practices when dealing with trauma or illness. The effects of colonization are proven to produce psychological distress among Indigenous communities. Intergenerational trauma, along with racism and institutionalized systems of oppression, have been shown to adversely impact the mental health of Chicana/os and Latina/os. Mexican Americans are three times more likely than European Americans to live in poverty. Chicano/a adolescent youth experience high rates of depression and anxiety. Chicana adolescents have higher rates of depression and suicidal ideation than their European American and African American peers. Chicano adolescents experience high rates of homicide, and suicide. Chicana/os ages ten to seventeen are at a greater risk for mood and anxiety disorders than their European American and African American peers. Scholars have determined that the reasons for this are unclear due to the scarcity of studies on Chicana/o youth, but that intergenerational trauma, acculturative stress, and family factors are believed to contribute.
Among Mexican immigrants who have lived in the United States for less than thirteen years, lower rates of mental health disorders were found in comparison to Mexican-Americans and Chicanos born in the United States. Scholar Yvette G. Flores concludes that these studies demonstrate that "factors associated with living in the United States are related to an increased risk of mental disorders." Risk factors for negative mental health include historical and contemporary trauma stemming from colonization, marginalization, discrimination, and devaluation. The disconnection of Chicanos from their Indigeneity has been cited as a cause of trauma and negative mental health:
Loss of language, cultural rituals, and spiritual practices creates shame and despair. The loss of culture and language often goes unmourned, because it is silenced and denied by those who occupy, conquer, or dominate. Such losses and their psychological and spiritual impact are passed down across generations, resulting in depression, disconnection, and spiritual distress in subsequent generations, which are manifestations of historical or intergenerational trauma.
Psychological distress may emerge from Chicanos being "othered" in society since childhood and is linked to psychiatric disorders and symptoms which are culturally bound – susto (fright), nervios (nerves), mal de ojo (evil eye), and ataque de nervios (an attack of nerves resembling a panic attack).
The term Chicanismo describes the cinematic, literary, musical, and artistic movements that emerged with the Chicano Movement. Guillermo Gómez-Peña writes that "the actual diversity and complexity" of the Chicana/o community, which includes influences from Central American, Caribbean, Asian, and African Americans who have moved into Chicana/o communities as well as queer people of color, has been consistently overlooked, even by Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Chicana/o artists therefore continue to challenge and question "conventional, static notions of Chicanismo."
With mass media, Chicana/o culture has become popularized internationally. In Japan, elements of Chicano culture including music, lowriders, and the arts, have been adopted. Chicano culture took hold in Japan in the 1980s and continues to grow with contributions from people such as Shin Miyata, Junichi Shimodaira, Miki Style, Night Tha Funksta, and MoNa (Sad Girl). Miyata owns a record label, Gold Barrio Records, that re-releases Chicano music in Japan. Chicana/o fashion, music, and other cultural aspects of Chicanismo have also been adopted in Japan. There has been debate over whether this should be termed cultural appropriation, with some arguing that it is appreciation rather than appropriation.
Chicana/o film is rooted in economic, social, and political oppression and has therefore been marginalized since its inception. Scholar Charles Ramírez Berg has suggested that Chicana/o cinema has progressed through three fundamental stages since its establishment in the 1960s. The first wave occurred from 1969 to 1976 and was characterized by the creation of radical documentaries which chronicled "the cinematic expression of a cultural nationalist movement, it was politically contestational and formally oppositional." Some films of this era include El Teatro Campesino's Yo Soy Joaquín (1969) and Luis Valdez's El Corrido (1976). These films were focused on documenting the systematic oppression of Chicanas/os in the United States.
The second wave of Chicana/o film, according to Ramírez Berg, developed out of portraying anger against oppression faced in society, highlighting immigration issues, and re-centering the Chicana/o experience, yet channeling this in more accessible forms which were not as outright separatist as the first wave of films. Docudramas like Esperanza Vasquez's Agueda Martínez (1977), Jesús Salvador Treviño's Raíces de Sangre (1977), and Robert M. Young's ¡Alambrista! (1977) served as transitional works which would inspire full-length narrative films. Early narrative films of the second wave include Valdez's Zoot Suit (1981), Young's The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982), Gregory Nava's, My Family/Mi familia (1995) and Selena (1997), and Josefina López's Real Women Have Curves, originally a play which premiered in 1990 and was later released as a film in 2002.
The second wave of Chicana/o film is still ongoing and overlaps with the third wave, the latter of which gained noticeable momentum in the 1990s and does not emphasize oppression, exploitation, or resistance as central themes. According to Ramírez Berg, third wave films "do not accentuate Chicano oppression or resistance; ethnicity in these films exists as one fact of several that shape characters' lives and stamps their personalities."
Chicana/o literature tends to incorporate themes of identity, discrimination, and culture, with an emphasis on validating Mexican American and Chicana/o culture in the United States. Chicana/o writers also focus on challenging the dominant colonial narrative, "not only to critique the uncritically accepted 'historical' past, but more importantly to reconfigure it in order to envision and prepare for a future in which native peoples can find their appropriate place in the world and forge their individual, hybrid sense of self." Notable Chicana/o writers include Norma Elia Cantú, Gary Soto, Sergio Troncoso, Rigoberto González, Raul Salinas, Daniel Olivas, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Luís Alberto Urrea, Dagoberto Gilb, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Luis J. Rodriguez and Pat Mora.
Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales's "Yo Soy Joaquin" is one of the first examples of explicitly Chicano poetry, while José Antonio Villarreal's Pocho (1959) is widely recognized as the first major Chicano novel. The novel Chicano, by Richard Vasquez, was the first novel about Mexican Americans to be released by a major publisher (Doubleday, 1970). It was widely read in high schools and universities during the 1970s and is now recognized as a breakthrough novel. Vasquez's social themes have been compared with those found in the work of Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck.
Chicana writers have tended to focus on themes of identity, questioning how identity is constructed, who constructs it, and for what purpose in a racist, classist, and patriarchal structure. Characters in books such as Victuum (1976) by Isabella Ríos, The House on Mango Street (1983) by Sandra Cisneros, Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por sus labios (1983) by Cherríe Moraga, The Last of the Menu Girls (1986) by Denise Chávez, Margins (1992) by Terri de la Peña, and Gulf Dreams (1996) by Emma Pérez have also been read regarding how they intersect with themes of gender and sexuality. Academic Catrióna Rueda Esquibel performs a queer reading of Chicana literature in her work With Her Machete in Her Hand: Reading Chicana Lesbians (2006), demonstrating how some of the intimate relationships between girls and women in these works contributes to a discourse on homoeroticism and nonnormative sexuality in Chicana/o literature.
Chicano writers have tended to gravitate toward themes of cultural, racial, and political tensions in their work, while not explicitly focusing on issues of identity or gender and sexuality, in comparison to the work of Chicana writers. Chicanos who were marked as overtly gay in early Chicana/o literature, from 1959 to 1972, tended to be removed from the Mexican-American barrio and were typically portrayed with negative attributes, as examined by Daniel Enrique Pérez, such as the character of "Joe Pete" in Pocho and the unnamed protagonist of John Rechy's City of Night (1963). However, other characters in the Chicano canon may also be read as queer, such as the unnamed protagonist of Tomás Rivera's ...y no se lo tragó la tierra (1971), and "Antonio Márez" in Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972), since, according to Pérez, "these characters diverge from heteronormative paradigms and their identities are very much linked to the rejection of heteronormativity."
As noted by scholar Juan Bruce-Novoa, Chicano novels allowed for androgynous and complex characters "to emerge and facilitate a dialogue on nonnormative sexuality" and that homosexuality was "far from being ignored during the 1960s and 1970s" in Chicano literature, although homophobia may have curtailed portrayals of openly gay characters during this era. Given this representation in early Chicano literature, Bruce-Novoa concludes, "we can say our community is less sexually repressive than we might expect."
Lalo Guerrero has been lauded as the "father 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 Mexican music, and during the farmworkers' rights campaign, wrote music in support of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers. Jeffrey Lee Pierce of The Gun Club often spoke about being half-Mexican and growing up with the Chicano culture.
Other Chicano/Mexican-American singers include Selena, who sang a mixture of Mexican, Tejano, and American popular music, and died in 1995 at the age of 23; Zack de la Rocha, social activist and lead vocalist of Rage Against the Machine; 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 influenced by the conjunto and norteño music of Mexican immigrants, has in turn influenced much new Chicano folk music, especially on large-market Spanish language radio stations and on television music video programs in the U.S. Some of these artists, like the band Quetzal, are known for the political content of political songs.
Hip hop and rap
Hip hop culture, which is cited as having formed in the 1980s street culture of African American, West Indian (especially Jamaican), and Puerto Rican New York City Bronx youth and characterized by DJing, rap music, graffiti, and breakdancing, was adopted by many Chicano youth by the 1980s as its influence moved westward across the United States. By the 1980s on the West Coast, Chicano artists were beginning to develop their own style of hip hop. Rappers such as Ice-T and Easy-E shared their music and commercial insights with Chicano rappers in the late 1980s. Chicano rapper Kid Frost, who is often cited as "the godfather of Chicano rap" was highly influenced by Ice-T and was even cited as his protégé.
Chicano rap is a unique style of hip hop music which started with Kid Frost, who saw some mainstream exposure 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 A.L.T., Lil Rob, Psycho Realm, Baby Bash, Serio, A Lighter Shade of Brown, and Funky Aztecs Sir Dyno, Chingo bling, and Choosey.
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 and San Jose, such as Jenni Rivera, began to experiment with banda, a jazz-like fusion genre that has grown recently in popularity among Mexican Americans
In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, a wave of Chicano pop music surfaced through innovative musicians Carlos Santana, Johnny Rodriguez, Ritchie Valens and Linda Ronstadt. Joan Baez, who is 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 español) by Cubans, Puerto Ricans, such as Joe Bataan and Ralphi Pagan and South America (Nueva canción). 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. There were many bands that emerged from the California punk scene, including The Zeros, Bags, Los Illegals, The Brat, The Plugz, Manic Hispanic, and the Cruzados; as well as others from outside of California including Mydolls from Houston, Texas and Los Crudos from Chicago, Illinois. 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 European sources when introduced to the US in major cities. The rock band ? and the Mysterians, which was composed 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.
Pop and R&B
A small collection of Chicano techno artists like DJ Rolando, Santiago Salazar, and Esteban Adame have produced music for independent labels like Underground Resistance, Planet E, and Rush Hour. DJ Rolando's "Knights of the Jaguar," released on the Underground Resistance label in 1999 is the most well-known Chicano techno track, charting at #43 in the UK in 2000 and being named one of the "20 best US rave anthems of the '90s" by Mixmag, who stated "after it was released, it spread like wildfire all over the world. It's one of those rare tracks that feels like it can play for an eternity without anyone batting an eyelash." Salazar has founded music labels Major People, Ican (as in Mex-Ican, with Esteban Adame) and Historia y Violencia (with Juan Mendez a.k.a. Silent Servant). Salazar is also affiliated with Underground Resistance and has worked with DJ Dex, David Alvarado, and Roque Hernandez. He released his debut album Chicanismo in 2015.
El Teatro Campesino was founded in 1965 as the cultural wing of the United Farm Workers. Chicano/a performance art continued with the work of Los Angeles' comedy troupe Culture Clash, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Nao Bustamante, known internationally for her conceptual art pieces and as a participant in Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.
Chicano performance art became popular in the 1970s, blending humor and pathos for tragicomic effect. Groups such as Asco and the Royal Chicano Air Force illustrated this aspect of performance art through their work. Asco (Spanish for naseau or disgust), composed of Willie Herón, Gronk, Harry Gamboa Jr., and Patssi Valdez, created performance pieces such as the Walking Mural, walking down Whittier Boulevard dressed as "a multifaceted mural, a Christmas tree, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Asco continued its conceptual performance piece until 1987.
In the 1990s, San Diego-based artist cooperative of David Avalos, Louis Hock, and Elizabeth Sisco used their National Endowment for the Arts $5,000 fellowship subversively, deciding to circulate money back to the community: "handing 10-dollar bills to undocumented workers to spend as they please." Their piece, entitled Arte Reembolsa (Art Rebate) created controversy among the art establishment, with the documentation of the piece featuring "footage of U.S. House and Senate members questioning whether the project was, in fact, art."
The Chicano visual art tradition, like the identity, is grounded in community empowerment and resisting assimilation and oppression. Prior to the introduction of spray cans, paint brushes were used by Chicano "shoeshine boys [who] marked their names on the walls with their daubers to stake out their spots on the sidewalk" in the early 20th century. Pachuco graffiti culture in Los Angeles was already "in full bloom" by the 1930s and 1940s, pachucos developed their placa, "a distinctive calligraphic writing style" which went on to influence contemporary graffiti tagging. Paño, a form of pinto arte (a caló term for male prisoner) using pen and pencil, developed in the 1930s, first using bed sheets and pillowcases as canvases. Paño has been described as rasquachismo, a Chicano worldview and artmaking method which makes the most from the least.
Graffiti artists, such as Charles "Chaz" Bojórquez, developed an original style of graffiti art known as West Coast Cholo style influenced by Mexican murals and pachuco placas (tags which indicate territorial boundaries) in the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, Chicano graffiti artists from San Antonio to Los Angeles, especially in East LA, Whittier, and Boyle Heights, used the artform to challenge authority, tagging police cars, buildings, and subways as "a demonstration of their bravado and anger," understanding their work as "individual acts of pride or protest, gang declarations of territory or challenge, and weapons in a class war." Chicano graffiti artists wrote con safos (loosely translated to expressing a "so what" or "the same to you" attitude)—a common expression among Chicanos on the eastside of Los Angeles.
The Chicano Movement and political identity had heavily influenced Chicano/a artists by the 1970s. Alongside the Black arts movement, this led to the development of institutions such as Self-Help Graphics, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, and Plaza de la Raza in Los Angeles. Artists such as Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, and Judith Baca created art which "stood in opposition to the commercial galleries, museums, and civic institutional mainstream." This was exemplified with Asco's tagging of LACMA after "a curator refused to even entertain the idea of a Chicano art show within its walls" in 1972.
Chicano muralism, which began in the 1960s, became a state-sanctioned artform in the 1970s as an attempt by outsiders to "prevent gang violence and dissuade graffiti practices." This led to the creation of murals at Estrada Courts and other sites throughout Chicano/a communities. In some instances, these murals were covered with the placas they were instituted by the state to prevent. Marcos Sanchez-Tranquilino states that "rather than vandalism, the tagging of one's own murals points toward a complex sense of wall ownership and a social tension created by the uncomfortable yet approving attentions of official cultural authority." This created a division between established Chicano/a artists who celebrated inclusion and acceptance by the dominant culture and younger Chicano artists who "saw greater power in renegade muralism and barrio calligraphy than in state-sanctioned pieces." Chicano poster art became prominent in the 1970s as a way to challenge political authority, with pieces such as Rupert García's Save Our Sister (1972), depicting Angela Davis, and Yolanda M. López's Who's the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim? (1978) addressing settler colonialism.
The oppositional current that Chicano art is based in continued into the 1980s, bolstered by a rising hip hop culture. The Olympic Festival freeway murals, including Frank Romero's Going to the Olympics, created for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles became another site of contestation, as Chicano and other graffiti artists tagged the state-sanctioned public artwork. Government officials, muralists, and some residents were unable to understand the motivations for this, describing it "as ‘mindless', ‘animalistic' vandalism perpetrated by ‘kids' who simply lack respect." Los Angeles had developed a distinct graffiti culture by the 1990s and, with the rise of drugs and violence, Chicano youth culture gravitated towards graffiti to express themselves and to mark their territory amidst state-sanctioned disorder.
Following the Rodney King riots and the murder of Latasha Harlins, which exemplified an explosion of racial tensions bubbling under in American society, racialized youth in Los Angeles, "feeling forgotten, angry, or marginalized, [embraced] graffiti’s expressive power [as] a tool to push back." Chicano art, although accepted into some institutional art spaces in shows like Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, was still largely excluded from many mainstream art institutions in the 1990s. By the 2000s, attitudes towards graffiti by white hipster culture were changing, as it became known as "street art." In academic circles, "street art" was termed "post-graffiti." By the 2000s, where the LAPD once deployed CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) units in traditionally Chicano neighborhoods like Echo Park and "often brutalized suspected taggers and gang members," street art was now being mainstreamed by the white art world in those same neighborhoods.
Despite this shift, Chicana/o artists continued to challenge what was acceptable to both insiders and outsiders of their communities. Controversy surrounding Chicana artist Alma López's "Our Lady" at the Museum of International Folk Art in 2001 erupted when "local demonstrators demanded the image be removed from the state-run museum." Previously, López's digital mural "Heaven" (2000), which depicted two Latina women embracing, had been vandalized. López received homophobic slurs, threats of physical violence, and over 800 hate mail inquiries for "Our Lady." Santa Fe Archbishop Michael J Sheehan referred to the woman in López's piece as "as a tart or a street woman." López stated that the response came from the conservative Catholic Church, "which finds women's bodies inherently sinful, and thereby promot[es] hatred of women's bodies." The art was again protested in 2011.
Manuel Paul's mural "Por Vida" (2015) at Galeria de la Raza in Mission District, San Francisco, which depicted queer and trans Chicanos/as, was targeted multiple times after its unveiling. Paul, a queer DJ and artist of the Maricón Collective, received online threats for the work. Ani Rivera, director of Galeria de la Raza, attributed the anger towards the mural to gentrification, which has led "some people [to] associate LGBT people with non-Latino communities." The mural was meant to challenge "long-held assumptions regarding the traditional exclusivity of heterosexuality in lowrider culture." Some credited the negative response to the mural's direct challenging of machismo and heteronormativity in the community.
Xandra Ibarra's video art Spictacle II: La Tortillera (2004) was censored by San Antonio’s Department of Arts and Culture in 2020 from "XicanX: New Visions," a show which aimed to challenge "previous and existing surveys of Chicano and Latino identity-based exhibitions" through highlighting “the womxn, queer, immigrant, indigenous and activist artists who are at the forefront of the movement.” Ibarra stated "the video is designed to challenge normative ideals of Mexican womanhood and is in alignment with the historical lineage of LGBTQAI+ artists’ strategies to intervene in homophobic and sexist violence."
- Caló (Chicano)
- Chicano Movement
- Chicano Moratorium
- Chicano nationalism
- Chicano Park
- Cholo (subculture)
- Cosmic race
- Josefa Segovia
- Latino punk
- Los Siete de la Raza
- Mexican Americans
- Race (U.S. Census)
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