The etymology of Chicano is surrounded in mystery. I’ve seen its roots traced to Nahuatl, specifically to the term Mexica, as the people encountered by Hernán Cortés and his soldiers conquering Tenochtitlán in the early quarter of the 16th century where known. In Spanish, the word is pronounced Meshika: the x functions as sh. Mexico, as a nation, opts to look at the Mexicas as their defining ancestors. Curiously, when first registering the name, the missionaries spelled it Méjico, with a j. It transitioned to an x when the country ceded from Spain, becoming independent in 1810.
In any case, Chicano might be an abbreviation of Mexicano, although Chicanos prefer to see themselves not as Mexico’s children but as its ancestors. According to legend, Aztlán, their Xanadu, located in either present-day northern Mexico or somewhere in the American Southwest, or maybe as far as Oregon, was the place where the Mexicans originated in their journey for a promised land, which they ultimately found in a region of five lakes where Mexico City was built. In their mythology, an eagle sitting on a rock in a lake, devouring a serpent—the symbol at the center of the Mexican flag—was a divine sign for them to settle there.
My research suggests that the original appearance of Chicano in print is traced to 1947, in a story by Mario Suárez published in Arizona Quarterly. I have also seen other etymologies for Chicano. The word acquired fresh currency in the sixties, during the civil-rights era. Some people spell it Xicano. (Curiously, I’ve never come across a Chicano calling himself Aztleño, meaning “dweller of Aztlán.”) On several occasions, I’ve seen the word connected with chicanery: according to Merriam-Webster, “deception by artful subterfuge or sophistry.” In this regard, the word suggests a double conscience, an idea—linked to W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903)—that characterizes, broadly understood, the identity of minority people. Daniel Chacón has a collection of stories titled Chicano Chicanery (2000).
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Octavio Paz’s birth. Mexico’s only Nobel laureate for literature, Paz was an extraordinary hombre de letras: a poet, an essayist, a publisher, a diplomat, as well as “a philanthropic ogre,” a phrase he used in one of his numerous books to talk about the role of the state in modern society but which some of us, his admirers, prefer as a description of him. Paz’s ego was inflammatory: a true cosmopolitan, he was ready to devour you if you displayed any criticism of his oeuvre. In any case, arguably Paz’s most famous book is The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), a monograph about the Mexican psyche. Influence by Alfred Adler and other late psychoanalysts, Paz used his considerable intellectual talents to offer incisive opinions on his own country’s ethos.
The initial chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude is called “The Pachuco and Other Extremes.” Awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, Paz lived in Los Angeles in the forties, where he was exposed to Mexican-American culture. Put succinctly, he found it appalling. Pachuco was a social type of youth: defiant, dressed up in a zoot suit with a hat, and embracing a distinct jargon. The ubiquitous comedian Tin Tan still personifies the pachuco. The best portrait I know of the era is Luis Valdez’s play Zoot Suit (1979), about the zoot-suit riots of 1943.
Anyway, Chicanos hate Paz. Thus it seems unlikely, to me at least, that they will celebrate his centennial. For they believe Paz misrepresented them. In Paz’s view, pachucos—e.g., a particular type of Chicano—suffered from an overabundance of culture. And, even more scandalously, they were overwhelmed by an inferiority complex.
Is Paz right? In other chapters, he describes Mexicans as also suffering from that complex. Bizarrely, among Mexicans he is an icon, whereas among Chicanos he is Satan.
A student of mine from Los Angeles asked me that question. She wondered if the etymology of Chicano, a word the younger generation hesitates to adopt (they call themselves Mexican-American), might come from chico, not taken as child but as small. My student called my attention to Presumed Incompetent (2012), a collection of academic essays edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs et al., about the plight of working-class women of color in academe. My student identified with the sections on Chicanas.
The question she raised, I said, comes at a time when the baggage behind “the inferiority complex” is being reconceptualized. It used to be that an inferiority complex was a defect. Nowadays, things are different—especially in the context of the debate surrounding “the triple package.” The thesis, made by the wife and husband writers Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, is that certain immigrant minorities (Asians, Jews, Hindus, etc.), on the road to success, exhibit three characteristics: a superiority as well as an inferiority complex, plus traction to make it to the top. The issue, of course, is why some minority groups display this traction and not others.
I will leave the answer to psychologists. In any case, since ancestral times Mexicans—and I am one—have nurtured an inferiority complex. Chicanos do too. Is the name Chicano pushing them down, making them small? Can it be turned into an engine of success?
It all boils down, my student said, to “the colonial mentality”: Chicanos feel inferior because they have been taught to feel that way. But Hindus were also subalterns of empire and, depending on the region, so were Asians. Not to mention Jews, whose plight as slaves in Egypt is recalled every year during the Passover Seder.
My response: Etymology isn’t fate. Actually, unless one consents, fate isn’t fate either. After all, having a double consciousness is better than having only one.Return to Top