San Antonio professor explains origins, rebirth of term Chicano

Term Chicano derived from Indigenous people in Mexico

SAN ANTONIO – The term Chicano is derived from Indigenous groups, and while it’s been used for decades, it’s an identifier that has been recently reborn.

The term Chicano became popular during the U.S. Civil Rights movement and specifically during the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement known as the Chicano Movement.

This social and political movement lasted from the 1940s to the 70s and was an important moment in the history of many Mexican-Americans.

“Out of that movement came this kind of consciousness raising of Americans of Mexican descent who felt this this new sense of pride in being indigenous Americans. Trying to bring to light was that we don’t have to assimilate,” said Dr. Lori Rodriguez, assistant professor of Mexican American studies at Palo Alto College.

While that movement was based on resistance and improving social, economic and working conditions for Mexican-Americans, the term Chicano has a rich history that dates back to Mesoamerican cultures before the arrival of the Europeans.

“That’s where the term Chicano comes from. It’s from the Mexico, the Indigenous Mesoamerican empire,” Rodriguez said. “We look at the term like Mexico when it comes in the Mexica, which is the original term for the Aztecs in that area.”

Many historians believe the word Mexico came from the Nahuatl-speaking Indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico who ruled the Aztec empire.

Rodriguez said as the Chicano movement ended, the term Hispanic was introduced in census data by the U.S. government as more of a blanket term. This led to a shift away from the use of Chicano.

“Instead of changing the system, it was kind of trying to fit into the system, saying we’re American, Hispanic, which kind of privileges Spain. So you see the politics behind these terms, which is why I feel like it’s really important for us to understand them,” Rodriguez said.

But the term Chicano has continued to evolve, even diving deeper into Indigenous cultures.

“Then there’s xchicanx starting with an x. It starts and ends with the x and the x honors the Nahuatl language, which largely had the x as the ‘ch’ sound,” Rodriguez said.

The Nahuatl people are the largest Indigenous group in Mexico and more generations of Mexican-Americans are connecting with the past.

“I love teaching it because students get really excited and then they want to learn more, and their identities start shifting with how they see themselves and how they see themselves in the world and in relation to other cultures,” Rodriguez said.

(Dr. Rodriguez also previously discussed the term Latinx on KSAT News Now. You can watch that discussion below.)

About the Authors:

RJ Marquez is co-host of KSAT News Now and reports for Good Morning San Antonio. He's been at KSAT since 2010 and covered a variety of stories and events across the San Antonio area. He also covers the Spurs for on-air and digital platforms, including his Spurs newsletter. RJ has reported stories for KSAT Explains.

Rick Medina is a Video News Editor at KSAT. A graduate of the University of Texas' prestigious Radio-Television-Film program, he has been in the news business for more than 20 years. Rick is also a documentary filmmaker, helming the award-winning film festival favorites, “The Opossum Begins” and “Amigoland.” He is originally from Brownsville.