As a Mexican American linguist, I knew this day would come.
People keep asking me the origin of Chicano. “Isn’t it indigenous?” they say.
:takes a deep breath:
Okay, promise you won’t get mad? Allí vamos.
Let’s get one thing straight: no matter what the origin of “Chicano” ultimately turns out to be, we Chicanos get to decide what it means for us, okay? If we decide (as we increasingly do) to spell and pronounce it “Xicanos” or “Xicanx” as a nod to Nahuatl, we can. It’s ours.
That being said, let’s start with the theory that so many of my carnales embrace: it’s a truncated form of the word “mexicano” as pronounced in the 16th century, i.e. /meʃikano/ or “meshicano” (note that “Nahuatl” and “Aztec” were originally “meshicano” in colonial Spanish).
This hypothesis is probably wrong. In the other Mexican X posts, I’ve shown again and again that Nahuatl “x” (-sh-) became Spanish “x” (-sh-) for a few decades until the ongoing consonant shift made it an aspirated “h” sound (/x/). “Mexicano” (from “Mēxihcatl”) is no exception. It became “mejicano” (as some nations actually spell it).
There’s simply no historical evidence that any group of people continued saying “Meshicano” anywhere in Mexico. It certainly could be that some isolated or secret group of people kept that usage alive, but we simply can’t prove that possibility. I wish reality were otherwise.
In fact, as far as attestations go (i.e., actual documented use of a word), “Chicano” doesn’t appear until the early 20th century, in the US. Anthropologist José Limón uncovered mention of the word in a 1911 Spanish-language newspaper, La Crónica.
As you can see, it appears that Mexican Americans used the term as a slur against uncultured members of their community, often recent immigrants. Raza tended to reject the term, as a result.
But it couldn’t have been universally seen as negative. As reported in the book Jose María de Jesús Carvajal: The Life and Times of a Mexican Revolutionary, a Río Grande River steamboat named “Chicana” was converted to a gunboat in 1870.
Whatever the nuances of the term, by the mid-50s the fight for civil rights had taken off, and gradually Chicano became a radical label, proudly embraced by activists in the 60s.
Growing up Mexican American in South Texas in the 70s and 80s, I would have never called myself Chicano. To most of us, those were Californian Mexicanos, heh. Now, however, many of us Tejanos also take pride in the name.
But how did it come to exist? The earliness of its appearance puts the lie to fanciful folk etymologies like Chicago Mexicanos → Chicanos. Other urban legends are even more far-fetched and undocumented, like the notion that before the creation of the Panama Canal, ships bound for the US would travel through the Strait of Magellan, stop in Valparaíso, Chile, and then in Mexican ports, picking up CHIlenos and MexiCANOS as they went. These are no more true than the silly “for unlawful carnal knowledge” meme that kids have been exposed to in school for generations.
To be honest, we may never know. Still…there is a theory.
Spanish, perhaps more than most other languages, uses an intriguing strategy to form nicknames and other affection terms among friends and family members: hypocorism (from the Ancient Greek “hypokorisma,” derived from “hypokorizesthai,” meaning “to use child-talk”).
Children, when learning to talk, often can’t actual say their own names or those of their friends/family. They make phonetic adaptations we adults find adorable, so we adopt them, too. A boy named Francisco calls himself “Panchico,” and his family goes with “Pancho” forever.
Non-speakers of Spanish may have noticed that nicknames often appear to have little to do with the original name. But there are phonetic rules at work here, under the surface. For example, the “s” sound often becomes -ch- (/tʃ/) in these loving diminutives. Here are examples:
Concepción → Concha
Feliciano → Chano
Graciela → Chela
Ignacio → Nacho
Isabel → Chabela
Jesús → Chucho or Chuy
José María → Chema
Lorenzo → Lencho
Luz, Luisa, Lucero → Lucha
Mercedes → Meche
Rosario → Charo
Salvador → Chava
Vicente → Chente
And there are dozens more.
When an adult mimics the speech of a child (when showing affection either to a child or a playful romantic partner), this s → ch substitution happens a lot (think “chones” for “calzones”), as does softening of ch to sh (shiquito instead of chiquito). So, from a purely linguistic perspective, “Chicano” may arise from such a context, a playful or friendly morphing of “mexicano” to show solidarity.
Or maybe not.
The jury’s still out on this one, guys. I want to emphasize that as far as we can determine, it was Mexican Americans who coined this term.
And, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I’m fine with the general consensus among my gente that our elders drew from “Mexica” to de-colonize the pronunciation of Mexicano, giving rise to Chicano/Xicano.