Nuances in Chicanx and Latinx Studies
Since its inception, Chicanx and Latinx Studies has maintained its interdisciplinary nature, incorporating perspectives of history, political science, psychology, and others (Cal State LA, Department of Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies, n.d.). Chicanx studies are common in the U.S. Southwest such as in California, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico due to the area’s long standing large Chicanx population sizes. A small portion of this Mexican population in the Southwest predated the land seizures by the U.S. due to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Puerto Rican Studies is more visible in states with larger populations of Puerto Ricans, such as New York. Latinx Studies is a broader discipline that overlaps and covers all Latinx groups in the United States. There are many nuances to the use of these terms and the two approaches to the discipline, which will be discussed below.
Just because Chicanx and Latinx Studies launched as a discipline rooted in well-considered principles stemming from the Chicano Movement, one cannot understate the vast diversity, complexity, and nuance of identity that exist within the umbrella of Latinx. While identity, community, and culture are sites of commonality within the discipline, they are also sites of contention.
What follows are some of the key concepts subject to debate amongst scholars and practitioners of Chicanx and Latinx Studies:
What is it?
Chicanismo is an ideology applied to what it means to identify as Chicana/o/x:
Chicanismo involves a crucial distinction in political consciousness between a Mexican American and a Chicano mentality. The Mexican American is a person who lacks self respect for his cultural and ethnic heritage. Unsure of himself, he seeks assimilation as a way out of his "degraded" social status. Consequently, he remains politically ineffective, in contrast, Chicanismo reflects self-respect and pride in one’s ethnic and cultural background… The Chicano acts with confidence and with a range of alternatives in the political world (Muñoz, Jr., 2007, p. 97).
Why is it controversial?
Because Chicana/o/x signifies a Mexican American who is political and takes action to further a specific agenda, there are Mexican Americans who are apolitical and/or who are explicitly conservative who object to the term and what it represents.
Chicana/o/x and Xicana/o/x
What does it mean?
The term, Chicanx, is commonly accepted as “connoting political awareness or consciousness and refers to U.S.born persons of Mexican descent” (Vargas, 2017, p. xxi). There are numerous origin stories of the term, but according to Juan Gonzalez in his book Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, students at Texas A&M started calling themselves Chicanos in the early '60s. Gonzalez attributes university students identifying as Chicanxs to the fact that they were one of the biggest demographic groups on campus and because they gained control of the student government. They started using the term Chicano in order to reclaim a word that was originally pejorative towards those that were born north of the Rio Grande border, inverting it by rooting it in the positive of their existence within Aztlan, or the place stories claimed was the Homeland of Aztec peoples. In this way, Chicanx became a way for them to connect with their Indigeneity and heritage South of the Border (Gonzalez, 2022, p. 117). Please see the section on Aztlan for more of the origin story and controversy around it.
In his book Brown Eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons from the Chicano Movement, 1965-1975 (2005), George Mariscal expands on the tension inherent for those of Mexican origin residing in the United States. The following quote helps us further understand a Mexican perspective on the Chicano identity:
According to Mexicans, the word "chicano" was born from a corruption. It is a corruption of "mexicano: Small Mexican? Chi-cano? On the contrary, the word has no fixed origin and surfaced among the people to name a reality: the intensification of mestizaje [mixture] … But the chicano is like the tide in the sea of history, like a shore that never ends, in perpetual movement, it frees itself from the Mexican ocean, arrives on the American beach, and although something remains, the rest returns to the open sea but before it can arrive, as in a cyclical return, it rises again. Thus the chicano is an instability (and has been for more than a century), an anomaly… like the Rio Bravo and Rio Grande, the wall between two culture. Thus the chicano is a human "no man’s land," the border in living flesh (Mariscal, 2005, 29).
Xicana/o/x is generally understood to mean the same thing as Chicana/o/x, with the spelling variation used to pay homage to indigenous roots by using the letter X, which is a sound found in the Nahuatl language.
Why is it controversial?
Colleges and universities with a history of Chicanx Studies courses and departments, especially in the Southwest, have had to choose whether to keep the name of Chicanx Studies or build on the work of Chicanx Studies and, in the spirit of inclusivity, change the name to Latina/o Studies or Latinx Studies.
One case in particular that can be examined is La Raza Studies at San Francisco State University. Although La Raza Studies was the genesis of the fight for Ethnic Studies and creation of it, the Department of La Raza Studies was renamed Latina/o Studies in Fall 2011. Perhaps one flaw in the name La Raza Studies is that it translates to English as “the race studies.” In the spirit of inclusivity of University students from Spanish-speaking backgrounds, the College administrators and faculty decided to move forward with Latina/o studies. There are additional critiques of La Raza, see that section below. However, as of 2016, the Mexican American Studies department at CSULA has changed its name to the Department of Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies (CLS), presumably also as a gesture of increased inclusivity of non-Mexican Latinx communities. Many other universities have similarly shifted their name to include Latina/o/x studies.
Chicanx is not only contested in the context of academic disciplines. According to an article on remezcla.com titled “Why student group M.E.Ch.A’s proposed name change has set off a fierce, multi generational debate,” by Aaron E. Sanchez, “Several chapters voted in favor of removing the terms ‘Chicanx’ and ‘Aztlán’ from its designation. While there is currently no final decision on the change or what the new name would be, many are putting forth words that are more inclusive of Afro-Latinos, Indigenous Latinos, Queer Latinos, Latinos from different Latin American countries, and more” (Sanchez & Martinez, 2019).
The Chicano Movement
The Chicano Movement addressed different social problems and issues, a "movement of movements", as described by Chicano and Latino Studies Professor Jimmy Patino. As presented in the Video below, Chicano! Struggle in the Fields, the first was the fight for farm worker's rights, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta through the United Farm Workers (UFW). This became the heart of the Chicano Movement and sought to improve the working conditions of farm workers but eventually extended and their efforts led to everyone having more labor and educational rights.
The second part of the movement was related to land rights of Mexican people and the reclamation of lands, led by the lawyer and activist Reies Lopez Tijerina. Tijerina challenged the unlawful transfer of land that took place after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 through formal court challenges, protests, and even staged an armed raid to reclaim territory in New Mexico.
The third branch of the Chicano Movement was the rise of student activism and self-empowerment, as conveyed in Video above, Chicano! Taking Back the Schools. For example, Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, an activist and former boxer, organized the National Youth and Liberation Conference in Denver, Colorado in 1969. This became a powerful organizing effort and brought in Chicanos from around the country to meet, take part in cultural workshops and events, and politicize and organize their own schools and communities. They drafted El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán (Spiritual Plan of Aztlán), to acknowledge the Indigenous ancestry and homeland of the Aztec people and also to map out a plan for Chicano nationalism and self-determination. In 1969, Chicano and Chicana students met at an historic conference at UC Santa Barbara to draft El Plan de Santa Barbara based on the identity and philosophy of Chicanismo to propose a larger plan to advocate for self-determination and empowerment, Chicano nationalism, and the central role of higher education in achieving liberation at the community level. The result of the conference was the establishment of the student organization, M.E.Ch.A (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), and became the blueprint for the establishment of Chicano and Chicana Studies programs and departments throughout the UC System. Featured in the Chicano! Taking Back the Schools video above, another example of the student movement was the East Los Angeles Walkouts that took place in 1968, where thousands of Chicano students took part in non-violent protests by walking out of their schools to protest unequal educational opportunities, a lack of Chicano-themed course and curriculum, and a lack of Chicano and bilingual teachers. (Noriega et al, 2010)
Reis López Tijerina (9/21/1926 - 1/19/2015)
He was probably one of the leading experts on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo out of necessity. According to his memoir, They Called Me King Tiger: My Struggle for the Land and our Rights (2000), Tijerina “organized Spanish-speaking families across the Southwestern US to seek repatriation of land obtained by North American anglos in violation of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo” ( p. vii). Tijerina is seen in contradiction to César Chávez’s peaceful protest efforts and was in favor of more violent, sometimes armed opposition (Haney-López, 2003, p. 158). He organized under La Alianza Federal de Mercedes or The Federal Land Grant Alliance and argued that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed Mexican property rights. In June 1967, Tijerina stormed a courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico to make a citizen’s arrest of an abusive district attorney with an ensuing gunfight and twenty held hostages. As a result, Tijerina was convicted to two years imprisonment (Haney-López, 2003, p. 159). Tijerina formed alliances across ethnic boundaries, specifically with African American Militants such as the Nation of Islam (NOI) (Mariscal, 2005, p. 187).
Latina/o/x/e and Hispanic
What does it mean?
The term Hispanic and Latinx are pan-ethnic identity that includes many people whose origins are from Latin America, including Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and South America. It is not a purely linguistic distinction - people with origins in countries where Haitian Creole, French, Portuguese, English, and many indigenous languages, such as Haiti, Brazil, Jamaica, and many others, are included, whereas someone from Spain would not be. A panethnic label is used as an "umbrella" term to categorize a set of ethnic subgroups with a shared culture, language, and history.
According to the UCLA sociologist G. Cristina Mora, the term Hispanic first officially appeared in the 1980 Census to categorize people from Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, but excluding Brazilians. Prior to this census, those of Latin American descent were referred to as "Spanish-speaking", "having Spanish origin" or "white" which was frustrating to advocates and activists at the time, including the National Council of La Raza, who were lobbying for more resources and programs in Mexican and Puerto Rican communities. Although the term Hispanic emerged as an more official term and adopted by many, the term has its detractors because it tends to emphasize Spanish culture at the expense of Indigenous culture, it is an English word, perceived as an imposed label, and associated with the more assimilated who are hoping to de-emphasize their Latinx culture. According to Mora (2019):
"Resistance to the idea of Hispanic emerged at a time when academics and started applying a much more critical lens to colonial history. There was a pushback and a sense that words matter - that by elevating "Hispanic" one is obscuring a history of colonialism, slavery, genocide, the Spanish legacy across the Americas. So "Latino" developed as an alternative, albeit an imperfect one" (Schelenz and Freeling, 2019, p. 1).
According to historian Ramon Gutierrez, the term Latino or Latina has its roots in the abbreviated version of Latino Americano that emerged after the independence movements of several countries in the early 1800s. It re-emerged in the late 1900s and can be found in memoirs and political literature in the 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was promulgated as a preferred substitute for the more official term Hispanic. It is considered a more inclusive term and has also been used to "center" the experiences of other subgroups such as Afro Latinos and Muslim Latinos, whose experiences are oftentimes left out of the discourse and research (Gutierrez and Almaguer, 2016). According to a 2013 Pew Center survey, only about 20% of respondents described themselves as either Hispanic or Latino. Slightly more than half of respondents (54%) prefer to use their family's country of origin (such as Mexican, Cuban, Guatemalan) to identify themselves and just over 20% used "American" to describe themselves (Lopez, 2013).
Latinx first emerged from online LGBTQIA+ discussion forums around 2004 (Yarin, 2022). One reason the term was developed was to drop the traditional heteronormative patriarchal dichotomy of identifying simply as a male or female. Furthermore, Latino is based on Latin languages; it is a gendered identifier. The “o” at the end of the word in Spanish signals a male identifier, in contrast to Latina, which because of the “a” at the end signifies female.
According to an article titled The Word Latinx IS a Betrayal to Latinidad, That’s Exactly the Point by J.A.O. the use of “x” in Latinx
... was a conscious decision. It was an homage to Indigenous Nahuatl languages, and functioned as a linguistic visibilization of the communities most directly impacted by colonial violence, and the land theft, enslavement, and blanqueamiento that go along with stamping out Indigenous lives. By abandoning the “o” in favor of the “x”, the word “Latinx” achieves a true neutrality, rather than embracing the masculine default as neutral (J.A.O., 2021).
Furthermore, J.A.O. states that Latinx became mainstream after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida after a shooter targeting queer and trans Latinx killed 49 people and wounded 53 more.
Additionally, Latinx is an identity that has provided a self-identifier in order to combat anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity, in turn, because Latinx is not a racial or national signifier. “I would never really be Puerto Rican so long as my Blackness was unambiguous to most people....The word 'Latina' also felt wrong because femininity felt wrong....I only knew discomfort, alienation, and isolation. So when I finally found the vocabulary, it was a relief....‘Latinx’ is a protest against those who are willing to go down with the ship: the people who are hellbent on maintaining the oppression of the most marginalized among us in Latin America and the diaspora (J.A.O.)
Although Chicanxs fit under the umbrella term of Latinx, not all would identify themselves as being Latinx. In the US, Latinx studies emerged in higher education in order to provide a pan-ethnic area of study for Mexicans, Central Americans, the Caribbeans, and South Americans. The term Latinx has also been used as it has been developed to describe college courses.
Why is it controversial?
Although Latinx and Latine have found a place in higher education and in the media, these terms have received backlash, especially online. On social media platforms, some claim that they will never adopt the term, that it is linguistic imperialism and that the term doesn't make any sense linguistically. Furthermore, some who oppose Latinx claim that “Latino” is not offensive to anyone and that it should not change because it is linguistically accurate.
A recent discipline that has emerged at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is Central American Studies (CAS). According to the UCLA library website, "Central American studies (CAS) is an interdisciplinary field that bridges ethnic studies and area studies. Because it does not fit neatly into disciplinary and institutional categories, CAS inhabits different spaces in each of the institutions where it has emerged. Central American Studies goes beyond the borders of the U.S. although in Ethnic Studies we usually focus within the U.S." In Harvest of Empire (2011), Juan Gonzalez states that Central Americans did not have a “collective desire for the material benefits of U.S. society; rather, vicious civil wars and the social chaos those wars engendered forced the region’s people to flee" (p. 129). The Central American civil wars that caused hundreds of thousands to flee and end up in the U.S. were military and political interventions fabricated by the US. Lastly, Central American Studies refers to the perspectives and study of issues affecting nations and communities of the Central American Isthmus” (Osorio, n.d.).
What does it mean?
According to Gloria Anzaldúa in her book Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Aztlán was the “Edenic place of origin of the Aztecs” and that the “Aztecs left the US Southwest in 1168 A.D.” (Anzaldúa, 2012, p.4). The Aztecs leave Aztán in search of a new homeland. Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec hummingbird deity (and the God of War), guided them, until they found their omen of an eagle eating a serpent on a cactus (p.5). Anzaldúa states that
The eagle symbolizes the soul (as the earth, the mother). Together, they symbolize the struggle between the spiritual/celestial/male and the underworld/earth/feminine. The symbolic sacrifice of the serpent to the “higher” masculine powers indicates that the patriarchal order had already vanquished the feminine and matriarchal order in pre-Columbian America (Anzaldúa, 2012 p. 5).
The Aztecs kept on course until they found their omen on a small island, on what was Lake Texcoco. They would eventually build the capital of their empire, Tenochtitlan, in the middle of Lake Texcoco and expand the city using chinampas (floating gardens). During the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and '70s, Aztlán was said to be in the Southwest United States, including Colorado, California, Arizona, Texas, Utah, New Mexico, Oregon and parts of Washington State. Aztlán served as a powerful symbol to Chicanos because it positioned them not as foreigners to the Southwest but instead as tied to the land through indigeneity.
Why is it controversial?
Some scholars believe that Aztlán is purely mythical, although others believe it is a historical account of a major migration. Not all Mexicans or Chicanos are of Aztec heritage or any indigenous heritage at all, and there are indigenous peoples and nations pre-existing in the lands of the Southwest United States.
What does it mean?
La Raza is a term used interchangeably with Mexicans, Hispanics, Hispanidad, Latinx, and Chicanx, and it can connote a broad community of Latinx peoples united in their experience of Spanish colonization and racial mixing. During the Chicano Movement the term was used widely to emphasize shared heritage.
Why is it controversial?
La Raza is derived and shortened from the phrase “La Raza Cósmica.” La Raza Cósmica or The Cosmic Race was a book and an ideology published in 1925 by Jose Vasconcelos, an intellectual, philosopher, and at one point Mexico's Minister of Education. His racial ideology is widely accepted as being an ideological project promoting “mestizaje” (or the racial mixing of European, Asian-descended, Native Americans, and Africans) as a means to a utopian society. La Raza Cósmica “condones a biopolitical order that, despite its decolonial intentions, ends up reproducing the Western racial hierarchy” (Quintana-Navarrete, 2021, p. 85). Furthermore, one problematic aspect of La Raza Cósmica ideology is that it promotes the notion that race is biological and that it is also spiritual and “arguing that they prove the fact that hybridization between antithetical types [races] tends to create better individuals” (p. 85). In other words, only by diluting indigenous racial and spiritual characteristics could indigenous communities be improved and absorbed into Mexico’s mainstream culture. As a result of this theory, Vasconcelos did promote racial miscegenation as a method to hybridize racially and create a fifth race or the “cosmic race” building from theories used to uphold eugenics policies that were used in the U.S. and Germany (p. 85).
However, the Chicano Movement did appropriate Vasconcelos’ concept of the fifth race as a way to unite under a shared identity deemphasizing European heritage and emphasizing Indigenous heritage rather than following Vasconcelos' implication that Indigeneity is improved when mixed with something better. However, others argue that this, and contemporary uses of mestizaje, still enable narratives that erase the existence of blackness and racism.
Chicana/o/x and Latina/o/x/e Feminism
What does it mean?
In the same way that there is no single definition or history of “feminism,” Chicanx feminism cannot be confined to a single definition. Women of varied races, classes, sexualities, and ideologies have always organized in many ways for many different goals (Gershon, 2022). It is no different or perhaps even more pronounced for Latinx feminists, because of the pronounced racial differentiation within its communities. But the most basic goals of Chicanx feminism have been the ability to fully participate in and lead the Chicanx Movement and the Chicanx academic discipline, and for the experiences, histories, needs, goals, and lens of Chicanx feminists to be centralized within that of Chicanx as a whole.
Chicanx feminists have often sat within multiple movements simultaneously, the Chicanx movement, the feminist movement, the feminist of color movement, the LGBTQ movement, and others. This multifaceted movement orientation gave Chicana feminists a unique position from which to push other activists to be more thoughtful (Gershon, 2022). In "The Foundations of Chicana Feminism," Livia Gershon distills the work of feminist and lesbian writer Cherrie Moraga’s into three calls: for white feminist movement to examine its own racism, for the Chicano movement to address its sexism, and for both to challenge their homophobic tendencies (Gershon, 2022).
Chicanx feminism can be traced back to the Chicanx Movement of the 1960s; however, many Chicanx scholars have uncovered the roots of Chicanx herstories winding back through Spanish colonialism of the Caribbean, North, Central, and South American. In her foreword to “The Chicana Motherwork Anthology,” Ana Castillo firmly roots the Latinx woman and her activism in her experience of, and resistance to, colonization:
The blood on these lands - South, North, and Central America and the attendant islands near and around- the sweat and tears of original peoples; the buried placentas and ombligos of newborns; the wails of madres sufridas and the war cries of guerrilleras; the prayers of sacerdotas, brujas’ incantations, remedios de curanderas, y el hecho y en resumen, echoed or muffled, have all served as the foundation of . . . all the action produced by women of consciousness, day in and day out (Caballero, 2019, Foreword).
Why is it controversial?
Chicanx feminism has always created space in the community and in higher education, but it has simultaneously always faced individual or group suppression to Chicanx machismo. Many male Chicano activists expressed that they felt Chicana feminist groups were either trivial or harmful to the broader movement. Even when Chicanas were participating in “Chicano” groups within the Movement, they faced delegitimization. For example, although Ana Nieto-Gómez was elected president of M.E.Ch.A. in 1969, the year the group was formed, an effigy of her was hung by male students who felt a woman should not represent their organization (Ruiz, 2006). Another example of this in popular culture is the amount of media attention and accolades Cesar Chávez received for decades in comparison to Dolores Huerta, his co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association (which later became the United Farm Workers or UFW). However, in more recent years, Dolores has been given more mainstream recognition.
Sidebar: Dolores Huerta
Dolores Huerta (b. 4/10/1930) was born in New Mexico and before she was the right hand person of Cesar Chávez and the UFW, she was a schoolteacher. Huerta met Cesar Chavez while they both worked at Community Services Organization (CSO) where they gained labor organizing experience, even when CSO did not fully support that work (Rosales, 1997, p. 132). Huerta “was assigned to lobbying the California Legislature for pro-migrant worker legislation” and through that work CSO demonstrated that it could register and organize Mexican Americans to vote as a group (p. 132). After Chavez resigned from CSO, he recruited Huerta to help build the efforts of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). Huerta was at the side of Chavez when the UFW organization was in its infancy and the main support Chavez relied on was his wife Helen Chavez and Huerta (p. 134). Through all of this, Huerta birthed and raised 11 children.
Huerta is known for creating the demonstration chant “¡si se puede!” or “yes we can!” Yes we can was the slogan used by President Barack Obama’s campaign without giving the proper attributions to Dolores Huerta. Huerta was invited to the White House to receive a Medal of Freedom. President Obama stated in his remarks about the legacy of Dolores Huerta “Dolores was very gracious when I told her that I had stolen her slogan “¡si se puede!” “Yes we can!” knowing her I’m pleased that she let me off easy because Dolores does not play” (23 ABC News, 2012). Huerta continues to speak at local and national conferences about her involvement in the movement and politics.
Not all Latinx social movements and groups have resisted feminist goals and practice. A good example of what a Latinx community organization and movement of the 1970s looked like with gender equality as a central component is the Young Lords Party. From their 13-Point Program, Point Number 10 directed their organizational efforts to fight patriarchy within their movement head-on. The following is the text from Point Number 10,
We want equality for women. Machismo must be revolutionary... not oppressive: Under capitalism, our women have been oppressed by both the society and our own men. The doctrine of machismo has been used by our men to take out their frustrations against their wives, sisters, mothers, and children. Our men must support their women in their fight for economic and social equality, and must recognize that our women are equals in every way within the revolutionary ranks (13 Point Program and Platform of the Young Lords Party, 1969).
Contributors and Attributions
- Ramos, Carlos. (Long Beach City College)
- Tsuhako, Joy. (Cerritos College)
- Hund, Janét. ( Long Beach City College)
- Minority Studies (Dunn) (CC BY 4.0)
- Introduction to Sociology 2e (OpenStax) (CC BY 4.0)
- 7.2: History and Demographics is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Erika Gutierrez, Janét Hund, Shaheen Johnson, Carlos Ramos, Lisette Rodriguez, & Joy Tsuhako (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .
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