Chicano vs. Latino vs. Hispanic

Chicanismo derives it’s origins in the Chicano Movement which sought, among many things, to answer the existential questions: Where did we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going?

In a (eurocentric) lexicological context chicano derives from the mexica tribe (the nahuatl autonym which in english is pronounced Mah~sheek~ah). An autonym is the name which a group gives its own self whereas an exonym is that which is given a group by another. The exonym dominates when given to a colonized group by the colonizer which, case in point, is why we refer to the indigenous mexicans as aztecas versus mexicas (much like dine is what the navajos call themselves).  Note: the aztecas did not have a written language which makes this analysis eurocentric insofar as it relies upon written nahuatl translations for contextualization.  The term mexica was used to name mexico (mah~sheek~oh/meh~sheek~oh) and those who reside there mexicanos (meh~sheek~ah~noze).   mexicanos was shortened to chicanos (she~cahn~ohs) which as you may note was spelled phonetically; that is the ‘x’ (which in nahuatl produces the ‘shee’ sound) was replaced with ‘ch’ because it produces the ‘shh’ sound in spanish whereas the ‘x’ produces a ‘hee’ sound (mexico=meh~heek~oh).  As a way of symantic decolinzation, that is honoring nahuatl phonics which , again, would produce the same pronunciation (sheek~ahh~noze) but spelled “xicanos” many chicano activists use ‘x’ in place of ‘ch’ to spell the adjective as to honor it’s pre-colonial semantics.  This is also done for the spelling of names, i.e. Xris, again, as a form of decolonization.  Also, to honor the xicana feminist movement, i would add the queer aztlan movement, it is common to employ the spelling xican@s (xicanas/os), as to disrupt the misogynistic undertone of spanish grammar which privileges males in that to use the ethnonym as an adjective (i.e. latino community) or describe a co-ed group of individuals identified as chicanos and chicanas you would use the masuline form of the ethnonym xicano(s)/chicano(s)/latino(s)/hispano(s), etc.  Those who wish to employ a more technical way to disrupt this grammatical misogyny use the suffixes -a/o or -as/os instead of @/@s.  Further disrupting the intrinsic patriarchy of written spanish it is a strategic practice to place the feminine before the masculine whereas it is grammatically incorrect to do so according to the spanish royal academy.  The  ending -o is the masculine suffix for words whereas the ending -a is the feminine ending.  If speaking about both genders one traditionally ends the word with -o/os in spanish which, again, privileges the masculine over the feminine.  My apologies for reifying this. 

chicano has transcended the original racial pejorative of describing an american-born individual with mexican-born parents or parent who would be termed mexican american in a politically correct way.  chicanismo, for some, is not a ethnic/racial category or essence such as “blackness,” rather it is a social and political consciousness attached to the chicano movement (see MEChA founding documents El Plan de Santa Barbara/El Plan Espiritual) defined as pledging to the commitment of seeking social-, economic-, political-, and educational-justice for all chicanos or la raza in the U.S., particularly, those from “aztlan” or the ancestral homelands of the aztecas (area of contemporary united states which mexico conceaded at the end of the mexican-american war which is also believed to be the ancestral homeland of the aztecas).  chicanismo membership should not, for many, be extended to those outsde of la raza (those who share indigenous/spanish heritage or as described below, mestizos).  However, bestowing honorary chicano membership to allies is more accepted today with the advent of racial/ethnic inclusion, colorblindness and american multiculturalism.

It is commonly held that “latino” it is short for “latinoamericano” or “americano latino”. “latino”, as an ethnic identity, is preferred by the majority of latin americans who come from the regions outside of north america.  Many who do not self-identify with chicano or hispanic (see below for my analysis of the social phenomena)  prefer “latino”.  ”latino” is yet another european social-construct-that is a creation of european scientists devised to categorize or classify humans into groups based upon phenotypic traits such as skin color-and pays homage to the fact that most “latinos” have spanish ancestry (spanish being a latin-based language).  “latino” like “hispanic” is widely viewed as making invincible or erasing one’s indigenous roots.  In identity politics when having to choose between the lesser of two evils, per se, the preference of “latino” has become widely popular among american mestizos as to avoid using “hispanic” to self-identify, reasons for which I expand upon below. On the same token many raza avoid using chicano because of its orthodox connotation of having mexican/mexican american ancestry or due to its association with chicanismo.  chicanismo ideology has been critiqued as being anti-american, anarchical, seccesionist, radical, violent and even reverse-discriminatory.  Let me take a moment to acknowledge that “la raza” is also a contested identity.  Many dwell on the literal translation-the race-and note that this also essentializes many peoples in a very reductionist fashion. 

Mestizaje or having spanish and indigenous ancestry is the trait which binds la raza but which is not shared, nor affirmed, by all individuals of la raza.  Note that not all individuals, whether self-identified as chicano, latino or hispanic accept the use of the term la raza for a myriad of reasons.  I use the term as a “catch-all” descriptor. Most of those considered members of la raza are biologically/genetically “mestizo”.  “mestizo,” yet another european construct, is generally used to describe individuals with indigenous ( mesoamerican/pre-colonial/pre-columbian) and spanish genes and/or biological essence (this includes many contemporary native americans or genizaros).  The first documented mestizo was the child of “La Malinche” or “La chingada madre” or Malinalli Malintzin or Doña Marina, who was a nahua/aztec/mexica woman who married Hernan Cortes.  

 It is not well documented where the term “hispanic” originated but most attribute its etymology to “hispania” or the Iberian peninsula not “hispaniola” which is a Caribbean island. For this reason it is seen as making invincible the indiginous side of the  hybridity which resulted from spanish conquest, colonization and inter-breeding.  Most agree that “hispanic” is not interchangeable with “spanish”-the latter is ithe term used to describe those who come from the iberian pennisula the former used to describe american-born or naturalized members of la raza.  However, many mexican americans—particularly those with deep roots in aztlan— self-identify as “spanish,” which I claim is a distancing strategy which came out of the hostile racial climate of mid-twentieth century american society used to avoid being cast as mexican or mexican american due to the many negative associations with being mexican (culturally, nationally, socially).  Those associations led the dominant white to socially, economically, and politically marginalize/disenfranchise those of la raza who were marked as “other” by skin color, language, culture, etc.  Those marked as outsiders were oppressed/denigrated as to maintain white supremacy.  This resulted in many brown americans being forced to endure oppression of all sorts: physical brutality (including lynchings), segregation (residential/educational), enslavement (indentured servitude/exploitation), regimes of assimilation/cultural genocide (i.e. punitive assimilation/acculturation), unequal enforcement of legal sanctions, racial/ethnic profiling, surveillance, etc.  Due to the pervasiveness of racism, colorism, and “racist enthnocentrism” in American society many raza  vehemently defended their pure “spanish” heritage, and still do today, through narratives and documentation.  I’ll expand on this more below.

It is widely accepted that “hispanic” as an ethnic category was created by the U.S. government to distinguish european “whites” (anglo-saxon/european/”honorary” whites) from mestizos and even spanish american or criollos/creoles. In the first half of the 20th Century many mexican americans, mestizos and spaniards were categorized as “white” on census and vital statistic documents (i.e. birth cirtificates).  This did not translate into the possession of “whiteness” however.  Because spaniards are, for all intents and purposes, white europeans and more so due to the material benefits/privileges gained by the “possesive investement” in whiteness many raza sought to declare/defend their spanish or white heritage through producing birth certificates/census records of an ancestor which clearly states their race as “white”/”spanish”. 

Socially speaking, mexican americans wanted to be “white” or invested in whiteness as to enjoy the material benefits of “whiteness” also known as white privilege.  Legally, “white” americans could easily maintain their hegemonic status as long as mestizos were legally “white”.  Discursively, if mexican americans were honorarily “white” then they could not be considered to be socially/legally disadvantaged and racial stratification could be explained by cultural differences versus white nationalistic/supremacist ideology. The American racial hierarchy-with whites at the top-is preserved when claims of racial prejudice/discrimination are contextualized within race neutral, colorblind, equal opportunity and post-racial paradigms.   Furthermore, if mexican americans were legally “white” they could not bring litigation against institutional whiteness and were exempt from equal protection/opportunity.

After the supreme court case Hernandez v. Texas (1954), mexican americans became a “race-apart” (see the PBS documentary “A Race Apart”) and a protected class under the 14th Amendment.  This meant that mexican americans and other members of the “brown mennace” needed to be legally defined. 

It is claimed that the ethnic category “hispanic” did not appear in U.S. Census or government documents until the 1970’s.  The categories which are employed today are “White-non-Hispanic” or white Americans, “White-Hispanic” or “criollos” (whites from Latin America i.e. those of German descent who come from Argentina) and “Hispanic-non-White” or mestizos.  These categories butress the pervasive colorism which persists among la raza which unabashadly divides latin americans into phenotypic castes with lighter skin signifiying stronger spanish biology/genetics which is seen as intrinsically more valuable or superior in latin american societies.  Further complicating the issue, many “coyotes” (black, native, spanish), “mullatos” (black and Spanish: NOT PC), afro-cubans, brazilians, portuguese, haitians, domincans, belizians, etc. do not self identify with being “hispanic”, “latino”, or “chicano” despite being externally ascribed the ethnic identity “hispanic”. 

All these terms are problematized, especially by critical theory, as treating la raza as essentially monolithic and criticized as being unable to account for the many overt and subtle differences which exist within and between the various “hispanic/latino” sub-groups.  Similarly post-colonial theory holds that these racial/ethnic categories are remnants of the colonial project which, among many things, was designed to divide, label, categorize, differentiate, essentialize and “other” la raza.  Many post-structuralists see race as socially constructed subjectivities/positionalities versus biological/genetic essences or independent variables.  The widely adhered-to colonial era ethnic categories, which are uni-ethnic also do not acknowledge the existence of bi/poly-racial individuals or those who wish to affirm a raceless persona (i,e. american versus mexican american).  Social science, and the like, tend to treat these racial/ethnic categories as independent variables which can easily be plugged into structural equations for quantitative data extraction and/or analysis.  This for, critical theorists, reifies the racial hierarchy because quantitiative racial/ethnic data is commonly used to compare la raza with other racial/ethnic groups but particularly white americans who define whiteness but whom do not soley possess, or invest in it. whiteness is usually placed at the center of data analysis and untilized as the norm or benchmark of normativity. For example, when talking about the “achievement gap” it is meant the difference or gap between any ethnic/racial group’s academic measure (i.e. test scores) and their white counterparts (until recently the data for whites was more “ideal” or reflective of better academic performance. 

These racial/ethnic categories described above can be “externally ascribed”, meaning people are placed into these categories by decoding markers of difference such as skin color, language/accent, cultural expressions/aesthetics, etc. by means of what many call the “normative gaze”.  “Externally ascribed” identities are widely seen as complicating an individual’s “internally ascribed”, or self-reported/self-determined, racial/ethnic identity.  The way in which someone comes to determine their “internally ascribed” racial/ethnic identity is explained/detailed through racial/ethnic identity formation models (Erickson, Helms, Phinney).   These models are usually linear and sequential as to suggest that one progresses along a continuum, starting with childhood, eventually “arriving” at an “authentic” racial/ethnic identity.  These models also suggest that an individual progresses forward through stages of identity formation and do not allow for identity regression, for example, meaning once you’ve passed through the “immersion/emersion” stage (Helms) or racial/ethnic identity formation, for example, you will never return or go back through it or the preceeding “disintegration” (Helms) stage.  

So what does this say about racial/ethnic identity politics in america?: that so much social value is given to race/ethnicity in america that much is at stake in affirming an “internally ascribed” identity which may or may not trump any “externally ascribed” identity especially if the “externally ascribed” identity is stigmatized.  Socially speaking, so much is attached to racial signifiers like ethnic/racial categories that we will deny or avoid affirming our “true” (not with a capital T as this is all subjective and socially constructed) racial/ethnic heritage and arm ourselves with a less-denigrating identity, i.e. “spanish”.  This is one conundrum that biological “whites” don’t have to navigate and even enjoy the ability to appropriate other racial/ethnic identities without reprisal: proof positive of “white privilege”.  Ironically, white americans do avoid affirming a “racist white” identity and can “other” such whites.

Most young americans of color wish to be socially defined in colorblind or raceless terms in order to be emancipated from having assumptions made about their intrinsic character, abilities and worth based upon their externally ascribed race/ethnicity (usually determined by phenotypic traits).  While it may be a reality that american society is no longer overtly racist, cultural reproduction persists.  The american (neo)liberal notion that we are a post-racial society defined by equal opportunity (aka colorblind meritocracy) discursively denies the pervasiveness of racism/racial discrimination and makes invincible the taken-for-granted racial hierarchy that stratifies americans.  This leads many to the “culture of poverty” paradigm or discursively attributing the many social/political/economic disparities which occur along lines of race/ethnicity in america (again as compared to their white counterparts) to the cultural deficiencies of the subjugated racial/ethnic minority groups versus white privilege, white nationalism and white ethnocentrism and racism.