Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

3.1: What is Chicanx/Latinx History?

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    Chicanx/Latinx Studies Disruptions in U.S. History

    At the turn of the 21st century Joseph Rodríguez and Vicki L. Ruiz, two prominent Chicanx/Latinx studies historians, completed a comprehensive review of U.S. history textbooks, finding the representation of Latinxs to be lacking in both quantity and quality, particularly before 1985. In “At Loose Ends: Twentieth-Century Latinos in Current United States History Textbooks,” they observed,

    While United States survey writers have infused their narratives with stories and actors from African American and women's history, Latinos are still too frequently reduced to numbers, faceless statistics who wander in and out of the text—nameless lost souls, seemingly at loose ends. Individual stories remain untold in these baseline narratives, especially with regard to women’s aspirations and attainments.1

    The authors found common issues across several U.S. history survey texts including the homogenization of diverse Latinx groups in terms of their national, ethnic, and racial identity as well as their immigration status and classed experiences; disconnected information across large swaths of time; omission of groups’ histories in the U.S. before the 20th century; and an overall lack of context and nuance, particularly with regards to U.S. imperialism in Latin America. Many textbooks portray “the history of the United States and its culture as the direct and exclusive result of the ingenuity, initiative, and hard work of Anglo-Saxon settlers and their descendants. Almost unfailingly, when people of color were discussed at all in these books… they were portrayed as obstacles or threats that intrepid Anglos were forced to overcome.”2 In sum, U.S. history textbooks fall short in their representation of Latinxs. Latinx history also lacks representation in K-12 curricula and mass media (for more on this, visit Chapter 8: Education and Activism and Section 10.1: Chicanx and Latinx Identities and Culture, respectively), leaving students and the general public with large knowledge gaps on the subject. 

    The field of Latinx history emerged, at least in part, to disrupt dominant (mis)representations (including the omissions) of Chicanxs and Latinxs by revising, recasting, and correcting historical narratives from the vantage point of the colonized, the immigrant, the refugee, and the exile3 and to demonstrate that Latinx history is U.S. history. 

    An Overview of Chicanx/Latinx History: Three Approaches 

    Chicano studies and Puerto Rican studies programs were founded beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and history emerged as a key subfield over the next three decades. In “Looking Back on Chicano History: A Generational Perspective,” Chicano historian Albert M. Camarillo describes the foundational Chicano history literature that emerged as being “concerned with ‘bottom up’ approaches, working-class formations, racialized urban experiences, and group identities shaped by race, ethnic/cultural, and class factors.”4 In other words, the majority of first-generation scholars, many of whom were men, applied a race and class analysis to the Chicano past to understand present conditions, particularly their subordinate racial and socioeconomic status and political disenfranchisement. They also examined identity development, community formation, and civil rights advocacy.  

    While making important advances, early histories tended to be geographically limited to urban settings in Texas and California, were generally focused on a restricted chronology bookended by the U.S. War with Mexico and World War II, and they often disregarded women beyond their role as “producers (laborers) or reproducers (mothers).”5 As the field matured in the 1980s and into the 1990s, emerging scholars greatly deepened and expanded the scope of the field, “both building on and challenging the field’s foundational scholarship.”6 Particularly notable are the studies that centered gender and sexuality as analytical categories, which will be explored in detail in the following sections. Collectively, these early scholars were journeying into uncharted territory, building the road as they walked. 

    The 1990s also marked the emergence of Latino studies, including Cuban American, Central American, and Domincan American studies, which like Chicano and Puerto Rican studies, came about as a result of student and faculty activism, but this time the advocates were mostly comprised of so-called new Latinos. “The Communist Revolution in Cuba, the civil wars in Central America, the end of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, and the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act (1965) in the United States, to name a few events, prompted a rapid and dramatic increase in the number of migrants, exiles, and refugees arriving to the United States during the late twentieth century.”7 These events drastically changed the national demographics and there were now sizable populations in the U.S. from over a dozen countries in Latin America who complicated “our understanding of Latino history, the Latino experience in the United States, and the ways race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality affect integration.”8

    Historians in Chicanx/Latinx studies continue to explore new ways to frame and teach history by posing questions such as: 

    Scholars worked to firmly establish Chicanx/Latinx history by interrogating these questions and more through cutting-edge scholarship and subsequent scholars would continue to push the boundaries of the field.9

    As you learned in Chapter 2: Identities, Latinx is a heterogeneous ethnoracial category that encompasses a wide array of peoples and experiences, thus the field of Latinx history likely includes people who may not identify with this label. As a result, historians in Latinx studies have had to conceptualize ways to bring these differences together in an intelligible area of study. The answer for many is to utilize a hemispheric approach, that is, examining transnational histories of the Americas, beyond national, regional, or even continental borders, accounting for the ways that power structures race, culture, gender, sexuality, and resources across time and space. Put another way, students are taught to think beyond borders that contain the nation-state and expand the scope and frameworks many U.S. historians rely on. Professor of history, African American studies, and urban planning, Kelly Lytle Hernández says that this approach “may be a little unsettling for students trained in more traditional narratives with strict borders, familiar institutions, and constant westward expansion,” but many find resonance with approaches that “dislocate national triumphs as a main historical theme, and instead highlight uneven, never complete power struggles” which provides a space for students to connect “past, present, and future.”10 A hemispheric lens also allows for an expansive examination of mobile commodities, ideas, and peoples in diaspora that flow across imperial geographies.

    Author Spotlight: Gloria E. Anzaldúa

    The U.S-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture.11

    Using her birthplace of South Texas, her Chicana-Tejana identity, and her queerness as a source of theorizing, Gloria Anzaldúa’s groundbreaking text Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) quite literally shifted the terrain of Chicanx studies and greatly impacted the development of borderlands studies, which became foundational for subsequent scholarship that has taken a hemispheric approach. Expanding on W.E.B. Dubois’ theory of double consciousness, Anzaldúa’s Borderlands theory challenges imposed nation-state borders, provides new frames for understanding identity, hybridity, and the material realities of people who reside in the b/Borderlands, extending the notion of a geopolitical border in order to explore the boundaries of gender, sexuality, spirituality, language, and other social locations, dislocations, and encounters. An artist's rendition of Gloria Anzaldúa’s portrait is displayed in Figure 3.1.1.

    A cartoon rendering of a portrait of Gloria Anzaldúa, smiling and wearing dangling earrings

    Figure 3.1.1:Nothing happens in the 'real' world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.” by dignidadrebelde, Flickr is licensed CC BY 2.0.

    Activity: Life in the Borderlands

    The following excerpt from Chapter 1 “The Homeland, Aztlán / El otro México” vividly illustrates Anzaldúa’s poetic vision of life in the Borderlands. Similarly, Figure 3.1.2 “I Will Never Stop Reaching for You” by non-binary artist and poet Jess X. Snow emotionally captures the longing felt by loved ones separated by the U.S./México border. The three people featured in the image are adorned with the light of a million shining stars, who, according to the artist represent “the millions of mothers, fathers, and children throughout history who attempt to cross the border into the U.S. Migrants risk enormous loss in the optimism of securing family and community in a new country.” The digital print depicts many images from Anzaldúa’s poem, most notably, her portrayal of the ocean. Read the poem aloud and examine the image closely. Then discuss the concept of the Borderlands with a partner or in small groups. How is history represented using poetry and art? What other themes and topics are addressed?  


    Wind tugging at my sleeve 
    feet sinking into the sand
    I stand at the edge where earth touches ocean 
    where the two overlap
    a gentle coming together
    at other times and places a violent clash.

    Across the border in Mexico
       stark silhouette of houses gutted by waves, 
           cliffs crumbling into the sea,
                  silver waves marbled with spume
                             gashing a hole under the border fence.

                             Miro el mar atacar
                     la cerca en Border Field Park
                 con sus buchones de agua 
    an Easter Sunday resurrection
    of the brown blood in my veins.

    Oigo el llorido del mar, el respire del aire,
         my heart surges to the beat of the sea.
               in the gray haze of the sun
                  the gulls’ shrill cry of hunger,
                         the tangy smell of the sea seeping into me.

         I walk through the hole in the fence
                to the other side.
        Under my fingers I feel the gritty wire
                rusted by 139 years
                    of the salty breath of the sea.

    Beneath the iron sky
    Mexican children kick their soccer ball across,
    run after it, entering the U.S.

                      I press my hand to the steel curtain—
            chain link fence crowded with rolled barbed wire—
    rippling from the sea where Tijuana touches San Diego 
             unrolling over mountains
                             and plains 
                                              and deserts,

    this “Tortilla Curtain” turning into el río Grande
             flowing down to the flatlands 
                      of the Magic Valley of South Texas
              its mouth emptying into the Gulf.

    1,950 mile-long open wound
                              dividing a pueblo, a culture
                              running down the length of my body,
                                      staking fence rods in my flesh,
                                      splits me   splits me
                                              me raja   me raja

                                      This is my home 
                                      this thin edge of 

                                       But the skin of the earth is seamless.
                                       The sea cannot be fenced,
                                 el mar does not stop at the borders.
                         To show the white man what she thought of his 
                                       Yemayá blew that wire fence down.

                                          This land was Mexican once,
                                               was Indian always
                                                    and is.
                                               And will be again

    Three family members are separated by the U.S./Mexico border and are reaching for each other through the border fence. They are flying above the ocean, adorned with the light of a million shining stars as a full moon illuminates the night sky
    Figure 3.2:I Will Never Stop Reaching For You” by Jess X. Snow, Justseeds is licensed CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

    In addition to taking a hemispheric or transnational approach, many Latinx historians take a thematic approach to research and teaching, focusing on key concepts, topics, and themes such as empire, conquest, wars of expansion, and revolution; migration and nation-building; industrialization and labor; and civil rights and resistance movements, among others, from the perspective of Latinx populations. 

    Furthermore, some Chicanx/Latinx and ethnic studies historians take a relational approach, which is the study of how one racial group is affected by the ways another group is racialized through co-constitutive historical, social, and political processes. Rather than studying a racially marginalized group in contrast to white supremacist and colonial power structures exclusively, which is the dominant paradigm in social science and humanities literature, a relational approach moves beyond a white/nonwhite binary to examine racially subordinated groups in relation to one another.12 In other words, “ attends to how, when, where, and to what extent groups intersect. It recognizes that there are limits to examining racialized groups in isolation.”13 Chicana historian Natalia Molina asserts that we can better understand how racial categories are formed and how they function if we think about race relationally and “zoom out” as we research, write, and teach. A relational view does not advocate for simply comparing and contrasting groups’ experiences, viewing them independently. Rather, groups are understood to be interdependent. Molina writes, we need to ask, “...who else is (or was) present in or near the communities we study—and what difference these groups’ presence makes (or made).”14 She continues, we must “consider how the lived experience of one group dramatically affected the experience of others.”15

    For those who plan to embark on a historical research project, choosing a research subject is usually the first task in the process. When doing so, Molina urges us to consider using an organizing principle other than solely race. For example, you can study the history of a neighborhood (and the different people in it) rather than focusing only on the experiences of Mexican Americans. Another option is to conduct research collaboratively with those who have different interests or areas of expertise. A third suggestion is to reconsider what you already know. Students do not need to discover a historical event or find new sources––they can take a known historical event or moment and reexamine it from a relational standpoint, perhaps applying a new lens. All three of these options are reflected in the following case study.

    Sidebar: “Contemporary Peoples/Contested Places"

    In 1994, Sarah Deutsch, George J. Sánchez, and Gary Y. Okihiro conducted a collaborative study of Japanese internment and its effects on Boyle Heights.16 The study found that internment affected “Japanese and non-Japanese residents alike. The local high school lost one-third of its senior class due to internment. An English teacher at the school began a round-robin letter-writing campaign to encourage her students to write to their fellow classmates interned in the camps. In another notable case, a Mexican teenager went to live in the camps to demonstrate solidarity with his friends. These stories add a different experience to the prevailing ones of racism directed against the Japanese [communities] in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the difference here is that these folks lived in the same neighborhood, went to the same schools, shared favorite family foods, and thus were able to form ties more readily in the face of adversity. Examples such as these are startling reminders that internment had profound reverberations beyond the Japanese community.”17

    Taking into consideration all three approaches discussed in this section, Latin American and U.S. Latino historian Gerald E. Poyo succinctly defines Latinx history in this way:

    [It] spans at least five centuries, challenges strictly drawn historiographic boundaries, and includes many common themes, as well as involving questions of historical methodology, incorporating interdisciplinary approaches, providing chronologies and historical timelines, and creating dialogue among pertinent and diverse historiographic traditions. Latina/o history includes Latin American history, U.S. Borderlands history, Mexican American history, Cuban American history, Puerto Rican history, and the history of many other national groups and, of course, the relationship and impact of Latinas/os on the general trajectory of United States history writ large, especially immigration and ethnic history.18


    1 Joseph A. Rodríguez and Vicki L. Ruiz, “At Loose Ends: Twentieth-Century Latinos in Current United States History Textbooks,” The Journal of American History 86, no. 4 (Mar. 2000): 1690.

    2 David J. Leonard and Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo, eds. Latino History and Culture: An Encyclopedia (Milton Park, UK: Taylor and Frances, 2015), xxi.

    3 Adrian Burgos, Donna Gabaccia, María Cristina García, Matthew Garcia, Kelly Lytle Hernández, Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, María E. Montoya, George J. Sánchez, Virginia Sánchez Korrol, and Paul Spickard, “Latino History: An Interchange on Present Realities and Future Prospects,” The Journal of American History 97, no. 2 (2010): 426.

    4 Albert M. Camarillo, “Looking Back on Chicano History: A Generational Perspective,” Pacific Historical Review 82, no. 4 (Nov 2013): 500.

    5 Miroslava Chávez-García, “The Interdisciplinary Project of Chicana History: Looking Back, Moving Forward,” Pacific Historical Review 82, no. 4 (Nov 2013): 543.

    6 Alexandra Minna Stern, “On the Road with Chicana/o History: From Aztlán to the Alamo and Back,” Pacific Historical Review 82, no. 4 (Nov 2013): 581.

    7 “Introduction,” In Keywords for Latino/a Studies, 3.

    8 Burgos et al., “Latino History,” 428.

    9 Some of the pioneering scholars in Mexican American/Chicanx history include “Ernesto Galarza, George I. Sánchez, Carey McWilliams, Américo Paredes, Jovita González, Manuel Gamio, and Paul S. Taylor” (Camarillo, “Looking Back,” 499). Chávez-García notes these folks were preceded by radical newspaper writers of the nineteenth century who documented the Mexican and Mexican American experience (“Interdisciplinary, 544).

    10 Burgos et al., “Latino History,” 430.

    11 Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 4th ed. (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2012), 25.

    12 Daniel Martinez HoSang and Natalia Molina, “Introduction: Toward a Relational Consciousness of Race,” in Relational Formations of Race: Theory, Method, and Practice, Natalia Molina, Daniel Martinez HoSang and Ramón A. Gutiérrez, eds. (Oakland: UC Press, 2019), 1-18.

    13 Natalia Molina, “Examining Chicana/o History through a Relational Lens,” Pacific Historical Review 82, no. 4 (Nov 2013): 522.

    14 Molina, “Examining,” 522.

    15 Molina, “Examining,” 531.

    16 Sarah Deutsch, George J. Sánchez, and Gary Y. Okihiro, ‘‘Contemporary Peoples/Contested Places,’’ in The Oxford History of the American West, eds. Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A. O’Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss (New York, 1994): 639-670.

    17 Molina, “Examining,” 531-32.

    18 Gerald E. Poyo, “History,” in Keywords for Latina/o Studies, eds. Deborah R. Vargas, Nancy Raquel Mirabal, and Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes (New York: New York University Press, 2017): 83.  

    This page titled 3.1: What is Chicanx/Latinx History? is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Amber Rose González (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .