"Chicano." Insulting?

Hey Matt!

Where does the term "Chicano" come from? Is there a country called "Chican"? My family considered it a derogatory name for Americans of Mexican descent, derived in Texas in the aftermath of the war with Mexico (1846-1848) or the Texas rebellion (1835-1836).

-- Trex in Point Loma

A surprisingly touchy word, considering how "acceptable" it seems. The origins, as usual, are fuzzy, but most sources don't trace it back as far as those historical unpleasantries. It looks like "Chicano" followed the same path as the word "queer"-- an insult co-opted from the insulters and worn proudly by the insultees. We've gathered up stories about the word's history, thrown out the oddballs, and have ended up with this.

"Chicano" is probably derived from the pronunciation of "Mexican" by people from the central part of Mexico, far from the U.S. border. They would have spoken an indigenous language and would have said something akin to "Meh-schee-cahn-o." ("Mexico" actually is an indigenous Nahuatl word.) Most discussions say "Chicano" was in use in Texas and the Southwest by 1910 and might be an Anglo invention, a shortened form of the native pronunciation. It referred then to agricultural workers and other immigrants and was an insult only if you looked down on that group. (In 1910 you probably did.) But the word is also well known in Mexico, used as an implied insult by those who distance themselves from any indigenous roots. It could mean anything from ignorant to criminal and dangerous. In the Alice family experience, Mexicans from the interior of the country even today barely recognize the border area as part of their country. So, Trex, if your family is Mexican, they might very well have considered "Chicano" an insult.

With the rise of race consciousness in the 1960s, "Chicano" was the perfect word for Brown Pride activists to grab to identify themselves as American born but with Mexican cultural heritage. It has now passed into mainstream U.S. language and has lost its negative connotations.

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