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They Were Chicanos but Now Proudly Say They’re Pochos

Pocho.

For generations it was an insult, if not a fighting word, aimed at Mexican Americans aloof from their ancestry and awkward with Spanish.

The pocho was said to be without an identity, in limbo between being Mexican and American. “It was divisive. It meant you were uncouth, uncultured,” explains self-proclaimed pocho Esteban Zul.

Now, Zul says, it’s time to wake up to the obvious: Pochos don’t lack an identity. Pocho is an identity--a rich one, which should be eagerly seized.

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Zul and co-conspirator Lalo Lopez are the publishers of Pocho!, a humor magazine that uses the epithet as a rallying call. Lopez and Zul think Latinos are secure enough to satirize not only those who stereotype or stigmatize them, but themselves as well.

Much of the ideology of civil rights-era Mexican American activism--called Chicanismo--was about being taken seriously. Pochismo, the pocho ethos, is about not taking anything too seriously.

Zul and Lopez, both 34, both born in the United States, say they were inspired as boys by the 1970s Chicano movement, which demanded equal rights from an often hostile mainstream. Pochismo contends that, by now, Latinos in L.A. pretty much are the mainstream. If you’re too dim to get that, the pochos are ready to mock.

Pocho! ridicules public officials, television, movies and news shows that portray Latinos as a threat to society. And it thumbs its nose at self-appointed Chicano culture cops who argue that Mexican Americans must think and speak alike to survive.

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So Edward James Olmos is as likely to be skewered in the magazine for self-importance as Pete Wilson is for attacking affirmative action.

Spanish TV ads for unhealthful foods are spoofed by fake products that boast, “I can’t believe it’s not lard!” The Taco Bell Chihuahua--the subject of a protest by a national Latino group that found it offensive--is brought to heel in Pocho! simply by having the pooch explain that he wants some Taco Bell. “Porque sabe a comida de perro” (It tastes like dog food.)

That attitude has built a solid following for the self-published “zine,” whose distribution is up to 20,000 copies after three years. The magazine runs many of its features on a Web site, www.pocho.com.

Predictably, Pocho!'s irreverence has also prompted criticism and even outrage from some who either don’t get its humor or don’t want to. Anti-immigration groups have mistakenly believed that characters in Pocho! parodies--such as rabid Chicano nationalists or Latino gangsta rappers--were real, and have cited the magazine as proof of a conspiracy to return California to Mexico.

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Most critics, however, are Latinos. Their letters and e-mails pour into the magazine regularly. Hard-liners attack Pocho! for not being political enough. Some were appalled by a recent cover photo of a cross-eyed Che Guevara, which they saw as sullying a martyr, while the editors thought they were harmlessly toying with a radical chic icon.

Others, like an e-mail from “A Hispanic Female with a Master’s Degree,” say Pocho! should “have some pride in our Hispanic culture and roots rather than make a mockery of them.”

Lopez and Zul have no patience for those objections. Lopez, who has a master’s degree in architecture from UC Berkeley, says Pocho! doesn’t have to put forth positive images because pochos have nothing to prove or apologize for. He thinks a diet limited to agitation and propaganda has left hard-core Chicanos “irony deficient.”

Raul Villa, 38, an Occidental College English professor and Pocho! reader, believes that the magazine’s boldness “has a lot to do with them seeing Latino culture as inevitably part of the mainstream.

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“We’re everywhere, even if we’re not always incorporated into institutions like the arts and media,” he said.

To Villa, Pocho! represents “the next wave in Chicano identification. It represents a certain self-confidence. It says, ‘OK, I’m not Mexican like my great-grandfather might have been, but that’s all right with me.’ ”

Perhaps for those reasons, Pocho! has a strong following in places such as Montebello and Whittier, the heavily Latino suburbs east of East Los Angeles. Lopez lives in that area, which he sees as a fascinating contrast to his marginalized childhood as the son of a gardener and a maid near the San Diego-Tijuana border.

“It’s so unusual for me to see all these Bobby Brady-type families, so boring, suburban and middle class--and everybody’s brown!”

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Lopez and Zul see that Latino stronghold in suburbia not as the conclusion to an American dream, but a middle step to pocho paradise. They envision a world of pocho universality, where all will be touched by pochismo (and presumably magazine sales will soar).

Lopez tells you about a cousin’s recent wedding: Sitting with the bride’s Indian immigrant family, Lopez learned that they employed a Central American nanny who could cook Indian food better than anyone else in the house.

That, he explains, illustrated how we are all becoming each other. As employers and workers, husbands and wives, parents and children, the people at the wedding were adapting to form a family and community unbound by old ethnic rigidities.

That’s where the notion of pocho takes you, Zul says. “It’s more inclusive than Chicano,” which is limited to Mexican Americans. “Someone from Guatemala or Honduras can be a pocho, and soon, anyone can be a pocho.” It will happen so naturally, he says, that “no one will even notice.”

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Zul and Lopez acknowledge that they, too, will face extinction, and relish the prospect. Just as they feel pochos are poised to displace the “Chicano-saurus Mexes,” they anticipate the world outgrowing their pocho philosophy.

“Someday some kid’s going to tell me pochismo’s full of it,” Zul said. “When he comes, I hope I can say, ‘I’ve been waiting for you. Let’s destroy it.’ ”


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