Exploring Chicano Identity and Music

By Stephanie Jiménez

Part 1: Who is and is not Chicano


Essentially, Mexicans were never homogeneous although portrayed as such. Beyond the tendency to group people together by their countries, the mestizo identity, and the claiming of la raza have become synonymous with ‘Mexican.’ Mestizo is a term that was imposed alongside several other detailed racial categorizations (e.g., mulatto, castizo, cholo) by the Spanish organized Mexican caste system (Levitin, 2011). The caste system was abolished in 1821 when Mexico became independent from Spain, and over time, being mestizo became largely embraced by the general population as people continued to mingle. Being mestizo in Mexico places people in a less obvious category, neither Black, nor Indigenous, nor White, which became widely accepted and romanticized (Spears-Rico, 2015). La raza, much to a similar understanding, is a modern term coined by writer José Vasconcelos in 1925 referring to “the race” of people and community of diverse Latin Americans (Polletta, 2017). Similar to “We the people,” this term does not encompass all people, and has been used in many cases to exclude diverse populations who do not fit the stereotypes of mestizaje or fit into what is perceived to be the singular Latin American “race” (Contreras, 2017). Mestizaje, and being for and a part of la raza, is rather important to the Chicano identity as will be detailed throughout the series of articles. 


Though the idea of likeness of the Mexican population dominates today, it is necessary to remember the history of Mexico’s diversity in order to understand the particularities of where the Chicano identity is historically linked and loyal to. Mexico’s pre-Hispanic boundaries reached up to what is now Canada. Most Mexicans can trace parts of their ancestry to Indigenous peoples from the Americas, whose existence throughout the Americas are under investigation of existing much earlier throughout the Americas than the Bering Land Bridge theory suggests (Gannon, 2016). Thousands of tribes have been evolving and migrating along the entirety of all three Americas (North, Central, and South, plus Caribbean) since these lands were populated (it is worth noting theories of even earlier pre-Columbian contact between Indigenous Americans and Africans (Legner, n.d.)). In a sense, the diversity of Mexicans began earlier than the start of colonization and was changed further once the Europeans settled throughout the continents and brought enslaved Africans with them. Though integrated and recognized even by the colonial caste system, the Afro-Mexican population is only now being federally recognized for the first time in the 2020 census (Agren, 2020). Other influences on Mexico’s diverse demographics, we can look to Mexico’s shrinking boundaries due to the United States-Mexican war from 1846-1848 that left Mexican borders where they are today. Immigrants made their way to Mexico as new borders created new opportunities, especially during the industrial revolution bringing significant numbers of Chinese, French, and German immigrants to Mexico (Secretaría de Gobernación, n.d.). 


Despite the diversity of the Mexican population that was overviewed, Chicano culture remains relatively homogenous by identifying as Mexican, i.e., mestizo (mixed) Indigenous descendants. First and foremost, Chicanos are Mexican descendants yet there are particular factors that play into how Chicanos differ from the average Mexican. The history of Mexicans living in what is now the U.S. can go as far back as a few generations to many centuries ago. Generally accepted qualifications for Chicanos include that some families lived in those Chicano rich regions since before the Mexican-American war, or before the Spanish-Mexican war of independence, and even as early as pre-colonial contact. Chicanos can also be only a few generations past immediate migration, as in two or more generations past. This length of territorial history, however, offers a complex identity crisis for Chicanos. Is the homeland for Chicanos that of Mexico as Chicanos are defined as being of Mexican descent first and foremost, or is their homeland of Aztlan? The Aztecs are just one Indigenous culture in Mexico and happen to be the rulers of the last Indigenous empire, the Aztec Empire, before the Spanish took over. There were hundreds more Indigenous peoples, many of whom in fact played a part in the fall of the Aztec Empire by siding with the Spanish conquistadors. Indigeneity is not always talked about or a topic of pride for all Mexicans since there are many negative stereotypes associated with Indigenous people in Mexico. Not every Mexican is Azteca, while not every Mexican feels strongly connected to Aztlan. Yet, for Chicanos, adopting the Indigenous identity was not only a revival of culture reestablishing a sense of homeland and security from discrimination from the U.S.


Regardless of their particular Indigenous identities, if the consensus is that Chicanos can both be Indigenous/Mexican descendants who had the border cross them or crossed the border themselves, what makes Chicanos different from Mexican-Americans? Mexican-Americans in Pittsburgh, are they Chicanos? Or is being Chicano or Mexican-American more about the individual/community’s relationship with the U.S.? Although Chicanos identify as U.S.-American, there is a long history of discrimination like “othering,” close-knit communities. Even as each generation further acculturated into the United States, the color of their skin, and practice of  Mexican culture and Spanish language kept them very separate from the dominant crowds. The formation of the Chicano identity then is mixing acculturated aspects of dominant culture and keeping aspects of Mexican culture to maintain a sense of security and tradition. This was done so well, that these communities now hold their own identities that are neither Mexican, nor U.S.-American, but both. 


Being Chicano is being connected to Mexico while also being entangled in U.S. life. It is about the border, being both Mexican, and U.S.-American but not enough for either (Personal Communication, November 2020). Chicano can be a title taught, passed down, or ultimately picked for yourself. Being Chicano can have a lot to do with how long your family has been in the U.S. meaning that third generation or more are likely to identify as Chicano than as strictly Mexican. While a Chicano is uniquely Mexican (as the actual word “Chicano” implies having possibly deriving from the Nahuatl word Meshica), there has been significant cross-cultural mixture with other U.S. residents which over time, continue to contribute to differences that separate Chicanos from other Mexicans (like music, art, dialect, etc.). Chicano communities are proof that borders are both effective in separating people from the land yet ineffective in separating the people from their community, much like the workings of a diaspora.


Part 2: Are Chicanos a diaspora?


Is being Chicano about being Mexican in the United States or is it about where the ancestral homeland is? The motherland in general is Mexico as that is where the Aztec empire was centralized, however that motherland of Mexico is made of Indigenous peoples who were residing beyond the boundaries of the Aztec Empire. Did these Mexicans (now Chicanos) from 500 years ago ever leave their homelands? As of the 2010 U.S. census, the most significant percent population of Mexican-Americans by state are as follows: 

31% California
31% Texas
28% New Mexico
26% Arizona
20% Nevada
15% Colorado
12% Illinois
9.7% Oregon

Did the border cross Mexicans? The Afro-Yaqui Music Collective, a music group in Pittsburgh, discusses in their music how they believe the border crossed them [Mexicans and Indigenous peoples], and that some do not even believe in the federal borders. This conflation of ancestry, allegiance, changing borders, and migration brings to question whether Chicanos can be considered a diaspora. 


A diaspora by Merriam-Webster dictionary definition, defines people who have settled far from their ancestral homelands, and defines the movement and migration of people away from an established or ancestral homeland (Merriam-Webster, 2020). So, what is the ancestral homeland to Chicanos? Homeland is not a nation in this case. Aztlan is the prophetic motherland of the Aztecs told to be the region from which several groups of Indigenous peoples migrated from in search of a new–Tenochtitlan, aka, Mexico City (Maestri, 2019). Tenochtitlan, while made up of multiple Indigenous peoples, was last ruled by the Aztec Empire making it one of the most prominent connections for Chicanos to identify with. Indigeneity is not always talked about or a topic of pride for all Mexicans. There are negative stereotypes associated with Indigenous peoples, many of their rights have been taken away, and Mexico in many ways aligns itself with Western culture. So not every Mexican is Azteca, and not every Mexican may identify as Indigenous. The Chicano movement starting in the 1940s in the U.S. led to the recognition that somewhere in what is now the United States, was originally Aztlan, and that Chicanos residing in the U.S. are not only connected to Aztlan by literally being in the North where Aztlan is told to have existed, but by being descendants of those Indigenous people who migrated and re-homed themselves in Mexico. 


Whether simply a mythical reclamation of homeland or not, much of Chicanos’ connection to Aztlan is about rightful belonging and reclaiming a lost territory that has been laced with “frustration and powerlessness” over their ages old relations with the U.S. (Jacklyon315, 2016). With regards to whether or not Chicanos are a diaspora, on the one hand this does not make sense seeing that Chicanos currently reside on their ancestral homelands. On the other hand, there have been several periods of migration starting during prophetic times and continuing with Mexicans returning (migrating) to the U.S. today. The discussion of Chicanos as a diaspora must also take into account the effects on identity by stolen landscapes forcing cultural changes alongside the borders inflicted by the Spanish, and U.S. governments. While migration is occurring, Chicanos raise the question of to what degree nationalities vs. physical landscapes and history identities are loyal to.


What relationship do Chicanos and recent Mexican immigrants have? Chicanos themselves can be immigrants and/or descendants of immigrants, so this they have in common with Mexican immigrants. However, immediate immigrants may not quickly assimilate into Chicano communities, and many even be seen as outsiders to Chicanos. Chicanos are U.S. citizens, regard themselves as living on their ancestral homeland, and have developed a culture with relation to their long-standing history with U.S. development. Immigrants may be in the U.S. as visitors, be obtaining residency or citizenship, or have crossed illegally. Many feel foreign to U.S. culture and society and identify with migrational (i.e., economic, political, educational) pushes and pulls. Though both Chicanos and recent immigrants share the experience of being Mexican in the United States, Antonio Jiménez, who migrated to the U.S. in 1988 can attest to a common divide amongst Chicanos and recent Mexican immigrants. When he came to the States, Mr. Jiménez knew he would be treated as an outsider. He was denied access to the Chicano community in many cases because he was a Mexican immigrant. He was even bullied by Chicanos for being Mexican. At the same time Mr. Jiménez had been given a new label in the United States: Latino. He felt that Chicanos actually “separate from the Latino community” which in turn, further separated them from recent immigrants. Migrating to the U.S. presented Mr. Jiménez with new labels for his identity as a migrant, foreigner, “other,” and Latino, but never as a Chicano (Antonio Jiménez, January 2019, Personal Communication).


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Is it hypocritical for the Chicano community to (in some cases) reject Mexican immigrants? If being Chicano is about being Mexican in the U.S., what then justifies or explains Chicanos keeping themselves apart from  fellow Mexicans who have recently migrated (or settled) around Chicano communities? Chicanos speak a kind of Spanglish, mixing English and Spanish with vocabulary, grammar, and U.S. slang (including Black American English). Is it maybe the unique language difference? Is it their unique family/settlement history, or maybe because many Chicanos identify more with U.S.-American culture? 


Chicanos disassociating from immediate Mexican immigrants has two effects, 1) it creates a sort of hypocritical or at least ironic understanding of their identification with their Mexican heritage and 2) it allows for a solid formation of a uniquely Mexican/U.S-American community. The experience of migration may be keeping Chicanos at a specific understanding of themselves: having been a part of the United States for so long while also being strikingly different from the dominant U.S-American. Chicanos are at many times loudly and proudly Mexican, mixing Spanish with English, and maintaining distinctly Mexican traditions and religion. Being a Chicano means their Mexican-ness is never expressed alone, it is mixed with U.S-American culture. Why is it important to consider diaspora when talking about Mexicans in the U.S. if there really is no clear answer to whether or not Chicanos are a diaspora? The different histories of Mexican descendants are not homogenous and there are many ways to theorize and learn from these communities. One way to appreciate the influences of migration and cross-cultural influences on the Mexican diaspora is by exploring music. 


Part 3: Chicano music–created or adopted by Chicanos?


Chicano music today is very diverse, but what is the general criteria for Chicano music, if any at all? Are there particular genres that are exclusively Chicano, or can Chicano music encompass other genres or hybrids? Is Chicano music exclusively made by Chicano people or can any Mexican and/or Mexican American musician contribute? Further, does the music have to talk about Chicano culture and/or issues? To answer these questions, I will overview Cumbia and Chicano rap while also mentioning other important Chicano musical influences.


Are there particular genres that are exclusively Chicano, or can Chicano music encompass other genres or hybrids? For this article, I interviewed Antonio Jiménez, a now United States citizen from Hidalgo, Mexico who migrated to the U.S. in 1988. I also received some input from University of Pittsburgh students. I was interested in obtaining a clearer definition of Chicano with reference to Chicano music from each of these contributors who also helped define some artists and genres that they found to be distinctly Chicano. Mr. Jiménez believed that Chicano music could be its own unique genre. He discussed how, obviously, the music includes a mixture of Mexican and U.S.-American music, but that Chicano music could not be labeled solely as Chicano because the music itself is from ‘all over.’ Cumbia for example is from Colombia, polka influences in Tejano music are from Poland and Germany, east and west coast hip hop influence Chicano rap, etc. Chicano music is its own in the sense that Chicanos are making, practicing, and listening to it, but it is entirely a mixture of music from different cultures. 


Oldies, Mexican American rock, Latin rock, Santana, Malo, Rosie and the Original, Ritchie Valens, Suavecito, Angel baby, Corazon Espinado by Santana ft. Mana, Celso Piña, Cholo Cumbia…these are the songs, artists, and genres that both Mr. Jiménez and Latinx college students provided. Let us take a look at Cumbia. Cumbia originated in Colombia and has a very intertwined history with African styles, as well as Indigenous ones which can be heard through the percussion instrumentation and bass-line patterns. This genre also uses European instruments and has become popular all throughout Latin America and has especially been adopted in Mexico. Cumbia has been adopted into Mexican national culture (especially in Monterrey, Mexico) and has become extremely popular in Mexican culture. What is the difference between Mexican, Colombian, and Chicano Cumbias though? I asked Mr. Jiménez this to which he replied, “competition determines who plays it better, what makes better sounds, what makes more sense” but in the end it is about “everyone having their own take on it” and Mexicans just have different instruments, and so do Chicanos. The dance is also different…much slower, [and] musicians use banjo, accordion, and have different singing styles. Techno-cumbia is very popular as well (which is a Tejano specific genre). From this list we can see that Chicano music has maintained popular Mexican music like Cumbia, but Chicanos also use newer genres, like Latin Rock, and Chicano rap which are distinctly U.S-American. 


Now let us take a look at Chicano rap and hip hop. Contrary to what many people assume about hip hop and rap, Latinx have greatly contributed to the early development of hip hop. It was predominantly Black but also Brown people who lived together in the Bronx who created hip hop to express their dreams and struggles through hip hop in the 1970s and on (Velasquez, 2019). Rap consequently branched from hip hop. Chicano rappers then took rap and hip hop and ‘carved out’ a new music culture by borrowing from and transforming hip hop. Rappers like Kid Frost and Proper Dos are Chicanos who lead the incorporation of break dancing, DJing, and graffiti art into Chicano culture with their music. Around the early 1980s, Sugar hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and other hip hop tracks made their way from coast-to-coast where Chicano youth for the first time were hearing Black and Latinx unifying under similar experiences in song. It quickly became the “it” thing and news artists quickly gained popularity. Rap and hip hop was different from their parents’ cumbias and old school Chicano soul music. The Chicano rap scene exploded in the mid 1990s. 


I wonder if this new cultural explosion might have contributed to Chicanos distancing themselves from Mexican immigrants as they were finding unity with Black Americans. The experience of migration may be keeping Chicanos at a specific understanding of themselves; the experience of having been part of the U.S. for so long but being strikingly different from the dominant U.S-American. Being a Chicano means their Mexican-ness is never expressed alone, it is mixed with U.S-American culture. To this we find Black American influence, Euro-American influence within Chicano music.


Chicano music today seems to gravitate towards U.S-American genres more than Mexican ones, possibly further distancing Chicanos from their cousins south of the border. Chicano music now is reviving psychedelic rock, and paving paths in bedroom pop, anti-pop, punk, etc. However, Chicano oldies and soul, cumbias, and Tejano music remain extremely popular and are frequently covered and remixed by contemporary musicians. The maintenance of older Chicano music, alongside the formation of new Chicano genres are not only seen in the U.S. or exclusively within Chicano communities. Much of this music is now just as popular in Mexico.  This suggests a dual evolution is happening. The distance between Mexican migrants and Chicanos may be reversing as we see a back migration of musical styles. Rap is a very popular genre in Mexico now–Mexican rappers even use English frequently. The popularity and frequency of Spanish language genres that are popular Chicano music, as well as U.S. music are now becoming popular Mexican music. As a result, a Mexican may hear Chicano music and understand its style of Cumbia mixed with rock and rap as simply being Mexican, unless specified in the song as being Chicano. Could this reverse migration of music between the U.S. and Mexico become a new means for connection, and even unification between Chicanos and Mexican immigrant counterparts?


Migration then, plays multiple roles within Chicano communities. Although Mexican, many Chicanos are not migrants, or are people who have much generational distance from those narratives. There is still much pride in their Mexican heritage, but they may experience a simultaneous distancing that they maintain by keeping away from immediate Mexican migrants. Regardless, various musical styles and genres stayed with both Chicanos and Mexican migrants, crossing national borders and cultural ones. These genres evolved with those of Euro-Americans and Black Americans. As Chicanos became more “Americanized” they solidified their own foundation of being all the above, American, Mexican, and Chicano. Chicano music is Cumbia, but also rap, rock, and soul. This diversity makes it hard to establish general criteria for Chicano music. What we have to go off of are the particular genres that may not be exclusively Chicano but represent Chicano lifestyles and experiences in the U.S. and are hybrids of Mexican and U.S.-American music styles. 



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