In any case, Chicano might be an abbreviation of Mexicano, although Chicanos prefer to see themselves not as Mexico’s children but as its ancestors. According to legend, Aztlán, their Xanadu, located in either present-day northern Mexico or somewhere in the American Southwest, or maybe as far as Oregon, was the place where the Mexicans originated in their journey for a promised land, which they ultimately found in a region of five lakes where Mexico City was built. In their mythology, an eagle sitting on a rock in a lake, devouring a serpent—the symbol at the center of the Mexican flag—was a divine sign for them to settle there.
My research suggests that the original appearance of Chicano in print is traced to 1947, in a story by Mario Suárez published in Arizona Quarterly. I have also seen other etymologies for Chicano. The word acquired fresh currency in the sixties, during the civil-rights era. Some people spell it Xicano.
(Curiously, I’ve never come across a Chicano calling himself Aztleño,
meaning “dweller of Aztlán.”) On several occasions, I’ve seen the word
connected with chicanery: according to Merriam-Webster, “deception by
artful subterfuge or sophistry.” In this regard, the word suggests a
double conscience, an idea—linked to W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk
(1903)—that characterizes, broadly understood, the identity of minority
people. Daniel Chacón has a collection of stories titled Chicano Chicanery (2000).
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Octavio Paz’s birth.
Mexico’s only Nobel laureate for literature, Paz was an extraordinary hombre de letras:
a poet, an essayist, a publisher, a diplomat, as well as “a
philanthropic ogre,” a phrase he used in one of his numerous books to
talk about the role of the state in modern society but which some of us,
his admirers, prefer as a description of him. Paz’s ego was
inflammatory: a true cosmopolitan, he was ready to devour you if you
displayed any criticism of his oeuvre. In any case, arguably Paz’s most
famous book is The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), a monograph
about the Mexican psyche. Influence by Alfred Adler and other late
psychoanalysts, Paz used his considerable intellectual talents to offer
incisive opinions on his own country’s ethos.
The initial chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude is called
“The Pachuco and Other Extremes.” Awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, Paz
lived in Los Angeles in the forties, where he was exposed to
Mexican-American culture. Put succinctly, he found it appalling. Pachuco
was a social type of youth: defiant, dressed up in a zoot suit with a
hat, and embracing a distinct jargon. The ubiquitous comedian Tin Tan
still personifies the pachuco. The best portrait I know of the era is Luis Valdez’s play Zoot Suit (1979), about the zoot-suit riots of 1943.
Anyway, Chicanos hate Paz. Thus it seems unlikely, to me at least,
that they will celebrate his centennial. For they believe Paz
misrepresented them. In Paz’s view, pachucos—e.g., a particular type of
Chicano—suffered from an overabundance of culture. And, even more
scandalously, they were overwhelmed by an inferiority complex.
Is Paz right? In other chapters, he describes Mexicans as also
suffering from that complex. Bizarrely, among Mexicans he is an icon,
whereas among Chicanos he is Satan.
A student of mine from Los Angeles asked me that question. She wondered if the etymology of Chicano, a word the younger generation hesitates to adopt (they call themselves Mexican-American), might come from chico, not taken as child but as small. My student called my attention to Presumed Incompetent
(2012), a collection of academic essays edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y
Muhs et al., about the plight of working-class women of color in
academe. My student identified with the sections on Chicanas.
The question she raised, I said, comes at a time when the baggage
behind “the inferiority complex” is being reconceptualized. It used to
be that an inferiority complex was a defect. Nowadays, things are
different—especially in the context of the debate surrounding “the
triple package.” The thesis, made by the wife and husband writers Amy
Chua and Jeb Rubenfeld, is that certain immigrant minorities (Asians,
Jews, Hindus, etc.), on the road to success, exhibit three
characteristics: a superiority as well as an inferiority complex, plus
traction to make it to the top. The issue, of course, is why some
minority groups display this traction and not others.
I will leave the answer to psychologists. In any case, since
ancestral times Mexicans—and I am one—have nurtured an inferiority
complex. Chicanos do too. Is the name Chicano pushing them down, making them small? Can it be turned into an engine of success?
It all boils down, my student said, to “the colonial mentality”:
Chicanos feel inferior because they have been taught to feel that way.
But Hindus were also subalterns of empire and, depending on the region,
so were Asians. Not to mention Jews, whose plight as slaves in Egypt is
recalled every year during the Passover Seder.
My response: Etymology isn’t fate. Actually, unless one consents,
fate isn’t fate either. After all, having a double consciousness is
better than having only one.