Column: Who Is a Chicano? And What Is It the Chicanos Want?


A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself.

He resents being told Columbus “discovered” America when the Chicano’s ancestors, the Mayans and the Aztecs, founded highly sophisticated civilizations centuries before Spain financed the Italian explorer’s trip to the “New World.”

Chicanos resent also Anglo pronouncements that Chicanos are “culturally deprived” or the fact that they speak Spanish is a “problem.”

Chicanos will tell you that their culture predates that of the Pilgrims and that Spanish was spoken in America before English and so the “problem” is not theirs but the Anglos who don’t speak Spanish.


Having told you that, the Chicano will then contend that Anglos are Spanish-oriented at the expense of Mexicans.

They will complain that when the governor dresses up as a Spanish nobleman for the Santa Barbara Fiesta, he’s insulting Mexicans because the Spanish conquered and exploited the Mexicans.

It’s as if the governor dressed like an English Redcoat for a Fourth of July parade, Chicanos say.

When you think you know what Chicanos are getting at, a Mexican-American will tell you that Chicano is an insulting term and may even quote the Spanish Academy to prove that Chicano derives from chicanery.

A Chicano will scoff at this and say that such Mexican-Americans have been brainwashed by Anglos and that they’re Tio Tacos (Uncle Toms). This type of Mexican-Americans, Chicanos will argue, don’t like the word Chicano because it’s abrasive to their Anglo-oriented minds.

These poor people are brown Anglos, Chicanos will smirk.

What, then, is a Chicano? Chicanos say that if you have to ask you’ll never understand, much less become a Chicano.


Actually, the word Chicano is as difficult to define as “soul.”

For those who like simplistic answers, Chicano can be defined as short for Mexicano. For those who prefer complicated answers, it has been suggested that Chicano may have come from Chihuahua — the name of a Mexican state bordering on the United States. Getting trickier, this version then contends that Mexicans who migrated to Texas call themselves Chicanos because having crossed into the United States from Chihuahua, they adopted the first three letters of that state, Chi, and then added cano, for the latter part of Texano.

Such explanations, however, tend to miss the whole point as to why Mexican-American activists call themselves Chicanos.

Mexican-Americans, the second largest minority in the country and the largest in the Southwestern states (California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado), have always had difficulty making up their minds what to call themselves.

In New Mexico they call themselves Spanish-Americans. In other parts of the Southwest they call themselves Americans of Mexican descent, people with Spanish surnames or Hispanos.

Why, ask some Mexican-Americans, can’t we just call ourselves Americans?

Chicanos are trying to explain why not. Mexican-Americans, though indigenous to the Southwest, are on the lowest rung scholastically, economically, socially and politically. Chicanos feel cheated. They want to effect change. Now.

Mexican-Americans average eight years of schooling compared to Negros’ 10 years. Farm workers, most of whom are Mexican-American in the Southwest, are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act unlike other workers. Also, Mexican-Americans often have to compete for low-paying jobs with their Mexican brothers from across the border who are willing to work for even less. Mexican-Americans have to live with the stinging fact that the word Mexican is the synonym for inferior in many parts of the Southwest.


That is why Mexican-American activists flaunt the barrio word Chicano — as an act of defiance and a badge of honor. Mexican-Americans, though large in numbers, are so politically impotent that in Los Angeles, where the country’s largest concentration of Spanish-speaking live, they have no one of their own on the City Council. This, in a city politically sophisticated enough to have three Negro councilmen.

Chicanos, then, are merely fighting to become “Americans.” Yes, but with a Chicano outlook.