Saturday, November 8, 2008
Chicanos: Cultural Identity In Flux
Growing up in the early 40's, I remember my older brothers calling themselves "Chicanos".
I had no idea then as to the origens of the word and I assumed it was a word to describe those of us born of Mexican ancestry. However, I never really used it to refer to myself and again assuming that the term "Mexican" sufficed, since my parents had immigrated from Mexico and I still spoke what I believed to be Spanish. One day, someone (from Mexico) called me a "Pocho". Though I didn't really know what the word meant, it sounded nasty. I came to understand that it had a contemptuous tone to it and meant "wanna be, used to be Mexican", not the real thing. Nonetheless, for years I believed that calling myself "American" was the correct thing , until one of my teachers said: "You are not 'American', you are Mexican." It wasn't until I started teaching Chicano Studies in 1972, that I again encountered the word Chicano, but this time it was being used in a different context, despite the negative connotations the word held. "I don't understand", we were told by fellow Mexicans, "Why you call yourself 'Chicano'? Don't you know that the word means "Chingado?!!" (One Fucked over) But the dilemma was this: If we called ourself Mexican, and were being told "You are not Mexican because you were born in the U.S. and no longer speak Spanish, and on the other hand, being told by Americans that we were not Americans because our parents came from Mexico, we were in cultural Limbo!
However, the Nuevos Chicanos of the late 60's were determined to take the old term and give it new meaning describing those of us born between two cultures, Mexican and American, who spoke a new language, half Spanish and half English, later dubbed Spanglish or Pochismo. It went something like this: "Mom, voy ir a la store pa' comprar un funny book y un pack of gum, 'orita vengo." Linguists on both sides were outraged. "Speak one or the other!" They demanded. My good friend and colleague, artist, poet Jose Montoya, one of the founders of the R.C.A.F. (Royal Chicano Air Force), offered a unique argument: "What we speak is Pochismo, a natrual language of the Barrio, and it demands that we possess TWO languages in order to speak and understand it." Jose turned this hodge podge of language into Poetry! So Chicano now became a word charged with cultrual pride, positivism, activism, self-determination, and like our "Negro" brothers who struggled to convince America (and their own people) that "Black is Beautiful", so we had to convince America, and ourselves that "Brown is Beautiful" too.
However, the media began to write about the new "Chicanos" and to show them on TV protesting the Viet Nam War, demanding college and high school courses relevant to their culture, speaking out against racism, discrimination, dressed in the long hair and the garb of the 1960's. Thus, was born the Chicano Movement. Yet, our very own people began to say "Why are you 'Chicanos' , making waves, rocking the boat? We should be grateful to be in America. You're nothing but a bunch of troublemakers, Marijuanos, greniudos, and comunistas!" In the midst of all this came Cesar Chavez and the farmworker struggle, giving the movement the validity it seemed to need. It gave us a righteous cause to fight for (La Causa), because many of us had worked in the fields as children. Theories abounded as to the origins of the word and one of the most popular was that it came from "Mexicano" a derivative of "Mexica", pronounced "Meshica", the term the Aztecs called themselves, and that it was later refined to "Meshicano", or "Mexicano", and hence, shortened to the term "Chicano." Thus, to align oneself to a great culture of Mexico's past was optimal for the Chicanos. At the same, to complicate matters came other cultural labels for us to choose from (see my post on "Cho & Lo" called ("Always Read The Label First"), like Mexican-American, which we quickly rejected as being too Americanized, and later terms like Latino, Hispanic etc. each having to be weighed in. We lost a lot of loyalists to these labels. Author/Historian Rudy Acuna who visited our campus one day warned "Never give up the word 'Chicano' because it defines a very small group of us who have special needs in this society. We fought too hard for the word."