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ETHNONYMS: The term Chicano is used to refer to Mexican Americans born in the United States and as a generic ethnic name for Mexicans in general. Regional names include Californios (California), Hispanos (New Mexico), Tejanos (Texas), and Tucsoneses (Arizona).


Identification and Location. Chicanos (feminine, Chicanas) are a diverse group of Mexicans born in the United States. Many Mexican immigrants, especially children educated in the United States, identify with the term. However, many people in both populations refuse to self-identify with that label. The term Chicano derives from Mexica (with the "x" pronounced like "sh" in English). Over the centuries the term came to be associated with the downtrodden, impoverished people in Mexican cities. After large-scale immigration into California beginning in the 1920s, the label became common among newcomers. In the 1960s and 1970s it became a rallying cry at protests and demonstrations. To activists it signified a rejection of a hyphenated label that was selected by non-Mexicans and laid out a non-assimilationist path to becoming American and adapting a bilingual-bicultural ethnic identity.

Most Chicanos are concentrated in the southwestern United States in what was once northern Mexico. Early settlements from Mexico began in the sixteenth century in places such as the present-day New Mexico, and most of those settlers had Spanish backgrounds. Therefore, into the early twenty-first century many people in that region preferred the term Hispanos despite the fact that a great amount of intermarriage with Indians had taken place. Throughout the colonial period other settlements were established in Texas, Arizona, and California, and in those areas settlers were mostly mestizos with their own regional labels. With large-scale immigration in the twentieth century that continued into the twenty-first century, the Chicano population spread into other regions of the United States, especially the Midwest and New York.

Demography. The Chicano population increased from approximately three million in 1940 to more than twenty million in 2000 (thirty million when all Latinos are counted), with the sharpest rise coming after the 1970s, when the Chicano movement peaked. Although many Chicanos are descendants of settlers from the early colonial period, the great majority of these people, especially in urban areas, are more recent immigrants or their children. In addition to population increases, the primarily rural character of Chicanos in the early twentieth century shifted to a pattern of residence in towns and cities. Many longtime residents have joined the flight to suburbia in all the major Southwestern cities. Nevertheless, there are still many small towns and rancherias, especially in New Mexico and Texas, where Chicano people have stayed put for centuries.

Lingusitic Affiliation. Most Chicanos consider Spanish their mother tongue, and except for recent immigrants most, though not all, also speak English. There are many variations in Spanish dialects among Chicanos. The Spanish spoken in colonial times differs from that of immigrants to the United States in modern times, with regional differences in Mexico adding to the changes over time. In addition, cultural contact and conflict with English-speaking American society has affected Chicanos' speech patterns. With the passage of time and generations spent in the United States, mastery of the English language was achieved. At the start of the twenty-first century a large proportion of the Chicano population spoke primarily English, with many people adhering to a bilingual style. However, large numbers of immigrants have made Spanish the dominant language among themselves. With the introduction of bilingual education programs in the 1970s, the transition to English became slower although much smoother for young newcomers, and it is now much more commonly and publicly accepted to speak Spanish as well as English. This linguistic model is a style that is emerging among many Spanish speakers in the United States.

History and Cultural Relations

Chicanos claim indigenous roots in Aztlan, the present-day southwestern United States, as descendants of the tribal peoples that resided there hundreds of years before Europeans came to the western hemisphere. According to legend, many Chichimeca tribes from Aztlan, including the Toltecs and Aztecs, migrated to the central valley of Mexico. With the arrival of the Spanish in 1519, a new way of life was introduced through conquest and colonization, a process that was in some respects repeated in 1846 with the incorporation of northern Mexican territory into the United States. Chicanos have been strongly influenced by the 1846 war with the United States and American-Mexican relations and interactions. United States intervention in the 1910 Mexican revolution, continuing immigration from Mexico to the United States sparked initially by that revolution, and numerous border issues revolving around people, resources, law, trade, and the difficulties associated with undocumented immigration have affected Chicano culture.

To understand Chicanos, it is necessary to comprehend their Mexican roots. The Spanish interrupted the evolution of indigenous lifestyles and fashioned a colonial empire that remade the land, people, and culture. Land, labor, and wealth came under Spanish dominance, and debt peonage ensured that Indian laborers and their children would remain in bondage indefinitely. Significant cultural and scientific achievements of the Indians were destroyed, but the cultural and racial mixing that were to define the future Mexican people and nation were initiated. Spanish architecture, religion, language, and other institutions and practices were glorified as Indian culture was denigrated, but many amalgamations led to a new Mexican culture. New foods, religious beliefs and practices, social customs and cultural traditions, and other syncretic developments arose and evolved. Similarly, the colonists imposed a sexual conquest on the vanquished that led to a new hybrid people of all colors and appearances. It also left a sociopsychological heritage in which skin color and physiognomic traits became associated with feelings of inferiority and superiority, with whiter skin hues being privileged. Whether a person appears to be European or Indian, white or dark, still is significant among Mexicans as well as Chicanos.

In the Southwest (Aztlan) for almost five hundred years there have been additional cultural changes and innovations that have affected the Chicano people. Those changes started in 1598 with the first permanent settlement in New Mexico, well before the first English settlements in New England. Over the subsequent centuries, until Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821, a series of excursions into adjacent areas expanded the Spanish/Mexican presence into Texas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and parts of Utah. The northern Mexican province also experienced rich cultural exchanges and creations and racial miscegenation that made the Southwest a distinct region within the United States. Certain cities, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and San Antonio, Texas, have preserved some of that flavor.

With the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 and the arrival of waves of American settlers in the newly acquired territory, a new order was established. In the overall culture conflict and intercultural hostility that followed, control of land resources and the labor structure and the distribution of the wealth favored the Anglo-Americans. After the 1910 revolution large-scale immigration from Mexico began. With ebbs and flows, that immigration has continued to the present time. It has met with periodic anti-immigrant backlashes, such as the repatriation of the 1930s, Operation Wetback in the 1950s, and the anti-Mexican prejudice in the United States since the 1980s that has been characterized by legislation to dismantle affirmative action and bilingual education. Subsequent events showed some improvements in cultural relations, but the historical experiences of tension and hostility have not ended.


Initially, the Santa Fe settlement in 1598 was established as a base to seek mineral resources in the area, but eventually it became permanent except during a short period after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Throughout the Southwest missions and small rancherias (hamlets) dotted the region. In California an establishment of pueblo, presidio, and mission leaders controlled civil, military, and religious life among the native California Indians as well as the settlers. Towns and regions, as well as rivers, mountain ranges, and other geographic phenomena, still are known by labels imposed in that era, including San Antonio, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Sacramento, El Paso, San Diego, and Colorado. In the twentieth century, older settlements grew and developed and new communities were founded. In the new locales a common pattern emerged known as the barrio (neighborhood) settlement as newcomers moved to empty spaces next to work sites where mines, ranches, railroads, cash crop fields, and light industries needed their cheap labor. The railroads helped create a migrant stream through the Midwest to Chicago and other industrial cities. These barrios of often makeshift residences usually were spatially separate and visually distinct from Anglo-American neighborhoods, commonly on "the other side of the tracks," in both rural and urban regions. They also created a sense of community that helped Chicanos deal with culture shock and eased their adaptation to American life and institutions.

After World War II the Chicano population grew and became increasingly urban, and many Chicanos moved to the suburbs in the second half of the twentieth century. Starting in the 1970s, Chicago and New York became home to hundreds of thousands of Chicanos. In the 1990s many southern states developed Mexican immigrant enclaves. Traditional settlements still exist in places such as New Mexico and southern Texas.


Subsistence. Self-sufficient ranches and farmlands are owned and operated by small numbers of Chicanos who trace their heritage to the early centuries of immigration. However, the vast majority of Chicanos participate in the industrial and service economy and work for wages.

Commercial Activities. Chicanos are employed as farm workers, construction workers, assemblers in light industry, and increasingly in the service sector. In the last half of the twentieth century there was a steady but slow movement into skilled and professional positions, and various business enterprises and professions flourished. Overall, Chicanos lag behind Anglos in these higher-status positions. Chicanos, including many immigrants, constitute the largest segment of the American agricultural labor force and were a major factor in the unionization efforts that helped change conditions for farm workers nationwide late in the twentieth century.

Many Chicano entrepreneurs work in the commercial food sector, running restaurants, taco stands, and cantinas (bars). Chicano food is a syncretic Spanish-Indian mixture, but corn, beans, and squash still constitute the American trinity that supported tens of millions of Indians for centuries (supplemented with chiles and later rice, pork, beef, and sea-food. The impact of Chicanos' success in these enterprises is reflected in the spread of Mexican food throughout the United States.

Industrial Arts. Wood carving, weaving, jewelry, and other artistic traditions derive from the original settlements in New Mexico. Urban Chicano workers in the auto painting and body work, upholstery, and furniture industries have made a craft out of those occupations.

Trade. Chicanos rely on modern malls, but there are also barrio shopping centers and stores that cater to the local population. Many of those centers have become social, cultural, and political meeting places. Also, some of the old, dying Anglo city centers have been appropriated by the largely immigrant population and remade into sites for new retail enterprises; the Mexican outdoor market concept known as tianguis has moved products out into the streets. Small family-operated stores (tienditas) are still used for immediate needs. With the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, trade between Mexico and the United States burgeoned, and many Chicano entrepreneurs have benefited as a result.

Division of Labor. Status distinctions based on traditional "patron-peon" relations have almost disappeared among Chicanos born in the United States but persist among many newcomers. Living in the United States has made Chicanas more independent and educated. Two-wage earner households have become more common as women have broken away from the traditional gender roles defined by Mexican culture, which held women's work as household work. Also, low-paying service sector employment often requires both husband and wife to work. Increasingly, the younger generation of males has grown to accept and champion these changes. Although middle- and upper-class status has become a reality for a growing segment of this group, many first- and second-generation Mexicans still work as dishwashers, gardeners, domestics, and janitors and in other service occupations with low pay and little status.

Land Tenure. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War was intended to protect Chicanos' land ownership and property rights, but Anglo Americans were able to dispossess them of property ranging from small farms to large ranches. As late as 1966, attempts to bring public attention to the corrupt and illegal way in which those lands were taken were unsuccessful. The only remaining pockets of original real estate are in New Mexico. However, members of the Chicano middle class have followed the exodus to suburbia to purchase homes and they take pride in their new real estate.


Kin Groups and Descent. Traditionally, descent largely followed the Western European bilateral models, but with a strong emphasis on patriarchy in regard to status, respect, and authority. Kinship practices emphasize family and extended family networks. Despite the influence of generational change in America, these beliefs and customs have persisted. Individualism, although growing, is still typically superseded by family concerns. Compadrazgo (coparenthood) stems from the Catholic influence and is practiced in baptisms, where godmothers and godfathers become comadres (comothers) and compadres (cofathers) of the baptized child's parents. Male dominance sometimes results in a machismo complex that negatively affects male-female relations but more often emphasizes providing care and protection for one's home and family. A gender and age hierarchy of authority usually is headed by the oldest male and female, especially the grandparents, who may take over the primary care of their grandchildren when those children's parents need help.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Romantic love as the basis for marriage has become typical among American-born Chicanos, but among newcomers the choice of a mate still is scrutinized carefully by elders. Socially mobile Chicanos born in the United States tend to intermarry more with Anglos, and exogamous marriages are slightly more common among Chicanas with higher status. The average age for marriage is low compared to that for Anglo Americans. Weddings and the celebrations associated with the marriage are often grand, festive, well-attended affairs catered by the bride's family. Postmarital residence is almost always neolocal. Occasionally financial need necessitates temporary living arrangements with the bride's or the groom's parents.

Domestic Unit. Nuclear family units are more common among acculturated Chicanos, but the extended family is characteristic of most households. Patriarchy traditionally has been the foundation of the household, tempered by Marian Catholic ideology, which places females in an exalted position. However, these customs are being transformed through modernization and Americanization. The sense of obligation and responsibility that a person owes to family elders and parents remains in force.

Inheritance. Most traditional inheritance practices have been replaced by American customs. Although senior females have rights, the general practice is to transfer land and property to the oldest son.

Socialization. Most Chicanos follow American working-class practices in child rearing, with older siblings and parents providing an example and guidance, but among immigrants uncles, aunts, and grandparents also play a role. Class differences account for a considerable degree of variation. Personal honor, respect for the aged, and proper courtship protocol are still stressed. In addition to home influences, children are formally socialized in public or private (mostly Catholic) schools. Especially among newcomers, long work hours have often weakened parental influence. Juvenile and adolescent peers have taken over the tasks of socialization in those circumstances.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Massive immigration has created a large unskilled and semiskilled stratum along with the working-class and middle-class strata. The lifestyle contrasts between these classes are considerable. A small well-off segment is composed of a mix of Americanized Chicanos and immigrant entrepreneurs. Deeply ingrained class, cultural, and racial beliefs and practices from the colonial and contemporary Mexican periods strongly influence attitudes and behavior among Chicanos. Historically, these patterns have generated intragroup difficulties, strains, and conflict. Although it has become more complex in the American context, racism still affects interpersonal relations. Feelings of inferiority and superiority persist and have been strengthened by American racism. This feeling has taken on a cultural and linguistic dimension, with earlier generations looking down on recent arrivals and judging them to be ignorant and backward.

Political Organization. Since the New Deal Chicanos have generally voted for the Democratic Party, but some dissatisfaction surfaced during the late twentieth century. During the Chicano movement a failed third party effort, La Raza Unida, was launched in south Texas. With Chicano social mobility has come more support for conservative causes. A small minority has been won over by the Republican Party because of its focus on family values and abortion. Undocumented and documented immigrants, who are unable to vote and who fear deportation, are limited to publicizing their concerns. Political developments, including changes in Mexico, have made some Chicanos more concerned with events in the homeland, especially with the advent of bi-national citizenship, which grants Mexican immigrants in the United States the right to vote in Mexican elections.

Although Chicanos are still underrepresented in local, state, and federal government offices, many Chicano legislators and other leaders were elected in the late twentieth century. Some organizations, such as the Mexican American Political Association in California, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials nationally, and the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, have helped with registration and campaigning. Affirmative action, bilingual education, educational programs, and job training are key issues in their political agenda.

Social Control. Respect for authority is strong in the family, but poverty and discrimination have taken a toll in many households, leaving the legal system to maintain social order. A sense of instability and uncertainty remains from the colonial period, with racism, cultural marginalization, and other social problems persisting into the present time.

Conflict. Difficulties with educational and policing institutions are common. Police-community relations remain troublesome, as a serious street gang and crime problem is characteristic of inner-city neighborhoods in most South-western cities. Similarly, immigration officials and border patrol agents (La Migra) are recognized as a source of hostility and mistreatment among immigrants and their families. The 1960s Chicano movement was a watershed event in terms of resistance to and efforts to eliminate educational and occupational discrimination against Chicanos. These struggles have led to improvements in bilingual education, increases in public jobs, and a heightening of public awareness of Chicano issues and affairs.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. A Mexican Catholic ideology is pervasive in the Chicano population, a syncretic development that integrates Indian patterns into those of Europeans. The Virgin of Guadalupe, a brown-skinned icon associated with the Indian-mestizo population in Mexico, has become a patron saint and is widely recognized throughout the Americas. Special days of obligation and observance, saint worship, and rituals of baptism, marriage, and death are followed as a matter of habit even among those who are not religious. Evangelical Protestantism has made inroads in Mexico and among Chicanos in the United States.

Arts. Woodworking, sculpture, pottery, and mural and other painting genres are characteristic of traditional and modern Chicano art. Graffiti mural art has become common in cities. Oral lore, music, and poetry have been reinterpreted for modern tastes. Plays, movies, and theater have affected Chicano people in ways that sharpen social and political sensibilities, much as early works such as the Teatro Campesino reflected the United Farm Worker movement in California.

Medicine. Modern medical practices dominate, but traditional folk beliefs have persisted. Curanderos (folk healers) and yerberos (herbalists) are sought by some people to treat virtually any ailment.

Death and Afterlife. Wakes, funerals, and burials are informed by a Mexican Catholic ideology that stresses social as well as religious practices and beliefs. This is a time to reaffirm ties with family and friends and celebrate the passage to the afterlife. Christian fundamentalism has made inroads among the old and new Chicano population, making religion more literal through the teachings of the Bible. However, it is still common for Chicanos to integrate indigenous customs into their worldview. The afterlife is symbolized in the Mexican-American celebration of El Dia de Los Muertos (" The Day of the Dead"). This event features masks, dolls, and sugar figures and cakes in the form of skulls and skeletons. Large gatherings of family and friends join in ritualized funerary rites.

For other cultures in The United States of America, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10, and under specific culture names in Volume 1, North America.


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views updated May 17 2018


CHICANOS. SeeHispanic Americans .

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