I am Chicana and I am proud: Reclaiming My Identity and Indigenous Heritage

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Since the 15th century, colonialism focused on eliminating the indigenous identity of the people of the Americas. This was done mostly through forced religious conversion, stopping natives from speaking their indigenous languages in favor of Spanish, and abandoning their customs and traditions. While I have grown up in a “Mestizo” household, I don’t really like using that term to define myself. I feel that, like “Hispanic” and “Latino,” Mestizo was made to emphasize the demise of the “Indios” that were forced to assimilate to European ideals and norms; thereby keeping indigenous identity at a second-class citizen status. It is a way to further push people away from an indigenous heritage that was robbed from them. Both my parents’ families have lived in the same area of Mexico for many generations. An area which was once inhabited by a thriving indigenous community called the Cohuixcas — our ancestors.[1] However, because much of our history has been lost since the Spanish conquest, we know very little about those whom we descend from. Our connections to our ancestors further dwindle as time goes by; Nahuatl hasn’t been spoken since four or more generations back and less and less people are aware of the origins of traditions that were passed down from out ancestors. Because of the discrimination against “Indios” in Mexico, many are willing to do away with any part of an indigenous identity they may have left.

Having been raised in a country and culture that promotes a White European identity as the true American identity, I have increasingly felt the need to define who I am and re-claim the identity I feel was taken from me and my ancestors many generations ago. As such, I do not feel that “Hispanic” or “Latino” properly define who I am as a descendant of Mexicans living in the United States.

People from “Latin America” have been classified differently by the United States government over the last century. As incredible as it sounds today, before 1970, the U.S. Census Bureau classified Mexicans, Cubans and Puerto Ricans as whites.[2] However, this was not something that helped these communities since it actually made it easier to treat them unjustly under the law. A prime example of this unjust and unequal treatment can be seen in Hernandez v. Texas.[3] Later on, the term “Hispanic” was first used on the 1980 census, introduced by the Nixon Administration to classify this cohort of Spanish-speaking people.[4] Then in 2000, the term “Latino” was added alongside Hispanic as a census classification.[5]

As someone who was born and raised in the U.S. to Mexican parents, I have struggled with accepting either Latino or Hispanic to accurately describe who I am. Outside of the U.S., people do not really use these terms to identify themselves. You ask someone in Mexico, or another country south of the border, if they consider themselves Latino or Hispanic and they might look at you like you’re crazy or not even know what either means. Additionally, the history and meaning of these terms has made it particularly difficult for me to fully embrace them to describe who I am.

Hispanic refers to people who speak Spanish and who are descended from Spanish-speaking linage.[6] Latino, on the other hand, is used to signify that a person is from or descended from people from Latin America.[7] Neither of these terms, however, refer to race. Race options included in the census are White, Black, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.[8] While others may be able to identify racially within these categories, as someone who grew up in what would be considered a “Mestizo” household, but who is trying to reclaim and reconnect with their indigenous roots, I do not feel as I am able to check any of these boxes to identify myself. While American Indian may be the closest category I could racially identify with, this category tends to only be for those who are descendants or tribal members of a federally-recognized tribe in the United States. Thus, I would not appropriately fall in this category.

One term I have been able to identify with more is “Chicano” or “Xicano” (“Chicana” or “Xicana” in my case). No one entirely knows where this term originated, but there are two theories on how it might have come to exist.[9] One theory, is that the word may trace its roots to the Nahuatl term “Meshico,” the indigenous word which would evolve into the modern-day word “Mexico.”[10] Others say that “Chicano” is just another variation of “Mexicano.”[11] At first, its usage seems to be have been discriminatory against poor, often indigenous, rural Mexicans who worked as cheap field labor in the 1930s and 40s.[12] But, it was not until the 1960s during the outbreak of the civil rights movement that the term became popular.[13] During this time, young Mexican Americans embraced the “Chicano” label as a source of pride of their Mexican heritage and acknowledgement of their indigenous roots; resulting in their activism movement being labeled the “Chicano Movement” (also known as the “Brown Power Movement”).[14]

While the term “Chicano” seems to emphasis and celebrate the indigenous roots of Mexican culture and identity, “Hispanic” and “Latino” lean more towards emphasizing the results and effect of colonialism in both the United States and Latin American countries. Because Hispanic literally means from Spain, Spanish-speaking, and specifically connotes a linage or cultural heritage related to Spain, it emphasizes a European-centered identity and completely ignores the indigenous heritage that is part of many Mexicans and Mexican Americans. While Latino seems to be more well-accepted because it is more geographical and is used if you come from a Latin American country, it still dismisses the differences and identities that exists within the Americas. By definition, it favors European cultural invasion, not indigenous or African roots.[15] The Latino identity that is most prevalent and embraced is that of the “white Latino” which again contributes to the notion that European identity is superior, and that indigenous identity should be ignored or eventually extinct. As history has shown, such as in the Treaty of Guadalupe, preference is always given to those who fit the “White” ideal of what it means to be an American.[16]

By embracing myself as a Chicana I am embracing a part of me that was meant to be destroyed and that should make me less than; a part that makes me unequal for having indigenous blood in the eyes of society, the law, and the government. But I refuse to let these colonialist goals dictate how I perceive myself and devalue the history and heritage that I was not intended to know.

Chicana to me means that I am part of a community of that choses to go against the status quo of letting the ruling government or entity decide who I am and what parts of me are valid and worth protecting and recognition under the law. Not letting myself be pushed into a “one-size fits all” category that includes all Spanish-speaking people and actively ignores that distinct histories and cultures that affect who we are today and how we are treated. It means continuing the fight that my Chicano community started to not be ignored or remain invisible no matter who tries to keep us that way. It is keeping the fighting spirit of my ancestors alive and being proud their legacy.

I am Chicana, I am indígena, I am proud, and I am here.

[1] Antecedentes Históricos del Municipio de Teloloapan, teloloapan.gob.mx, http://teloloapan.gob.mx/antecedentes-historicos-del-municipio-de-teloloapan/ (last visited May 29, 2018).

[2] Marlon Bishop & Camilo Vargas, The Invention of Hispanics, latino usa (May 2, 2014), http://latinousa.org/2014/05/02/invention-hispanics/.

[3] Hernandez v. Texas, 347 U.S. 475 (1954). Hernandez was convicted by an all-white jury for murder. He appealed saying that he was not judge by a “jury of his peers” and the State countered by saying that since Mexicans are considered members of the “white” or “Caucasian” race, he was in fact judged by a member of his peers. The Supreme Court was unconvinced and pointed out that those of Mexican ancestry were still treated differently than whites regardless of this classification.

[4] Nicki Lisa Cole, The Difference Between Hispanic and Latino, ThoughtCo. (Jan. 5, 2018), https://www.thoughtco.com/hispanic-vs-latino-4149966.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Race, U.S. Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/topics/population/race/about.html (last visited May 28, 2018).

[9] Roque Planas, Chicano: What Does The Word Mean And Where Does It Come From?, Huffpost (Oct. 21, 2012 10:39 am), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/21/chicano_n_1990226.html.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Are Chicanos the same as Mexicans?, mexica.net, http://www.mexica.net/chicano.php (last visited May 28, 2018).

[13] Id.

[14] Chicano Movement, Brown University, http://www.brown.edu/Research/Coachella/chicano.html (last visited May 28, 2018); Mestizaje and Indigenous Identities, era.anthropology.ac.uk, http://era.anthropology.ac.uk/Era_Resources/Era/Peasants/mestizaje.html (last visited May 28, 2018).

[15] Planas, supra note 9.

[16] Richard Delgado, Juan F. Perea, & Jean Stefanic, Latinos and the Law 21 (1st ed. 2008).

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