Yo Soy Chicana

Taking on a new meaning of inclusion, social activism

By Chrissie Castro
Published on LatinoLA: January 31, 2000

Yo Soy Chicana

?Yo soy Chicana!

Three words that have taken me a long time to declare.

?Yo soy Chicana!

It hasn't always been that way. I was in a Chicano sociology class, and raised my hand because I didn't know the meaning of the word "abrazo" on a test. Everyone stopped and stared, and even the professor started to laugh. "Who's this girl, trying to front like she's one of us?" their faces said. "She doesn't even know the word for 'hug'."

It made me feel like I was an outsider, taking a course on something I was close to, but that I couldn't call my own. After all, I reasoned, the professor had said, "If you have a doubt that you are Chicano, you're not. And don't pretend to be."

I who couldn't even understand the "Chicano" language wasn't going to try to be something I was not. Beside, I was a mixture of different cultures, a creation of Navajo-Mexican-Austrian blood.

It took time. Eventually I realized that it wasn't about knowing the Spanish language that made me Chicana. Nor was it a pure blood line to Mexico. It was my anger over inadequacies in this city's public school system. It was the detached disbelief that I had upon experiencing my first taste of racism and my resolve to never let it happen again. It was my quest to find who I was, and what I was about, and actually finding it. It's the continuous search, and so much more passion, education, belief, revelation, awareness, anger, love, sadness, hope, rejection.

So, if you ask me, I won't say I was born Chicana because I've learned that "Chicana" doesn't simply mean that you are a certain ethnicity. No, it means that you are aware that there's a struggle going down with your people and that you will make sure you'll stand up and do something about it.

That activist mentality has nothing to do with whether you are mixed -- as in my case -- or if you're family roots go back to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central or South America.

And that's exactly what students in California and other parts of the Southwest are struggling to point out. Just as the struggles of the people are changing, the term Chicano and Chicana are changing to connote a political consciousness rather than a nationalistic or cultural affiliation.

Yet, it is easy to understand why the term has that association. If you look to the past and read Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar's 1970 Los Angeles Times article, "Who is a Chicano? And what is it the Chicanos want?" you'll understand.

"A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself," the article reads. "He resents being told Columbus 'discovered' America when the Chicano's ancestors, the Mayans and the Aztecs, founded highly sophisticated civilizations centuries before Spain financed the Italian explorer's trip to the 'New World'."

While his words show that the self-described Chicanos of the time were of Mexican ancestry, he also makes inference to a deeper message. The word Chicano, he says, alludes to a historical and political consciousness. It identifies that you are aware and angered over the social, economic, scholastic and employment inequity that people face while living in barrio neighborhoods.

While students know the role of Mexican Americans such as Ruben Salazar had and have in the Chicano civil rights movement, they also understand that the word now has a different context because of the changing demographic in cities like our own.

"With the grand influx of raza in the 80s and 90s of Central, Caribbean and South Americans into cities like Chicago, New York, Miami, L.A., the term Chicano/a in progressive student activism has had to shape-shift, undergoing metamorphosis, into a new term for all raza, because oppression sees no nationalistic boundaries. And neither shall we," says Georgie Noguera, a self-described Chicana activist.

Although Georgie strongly identifies herself as being Chicana, when asked what she is, she finds she has to say, "I'm Chicana. Well, my parents are from Guatemala," because of people's assumptions that she is of Mexican descent. She stresses that although she is proud of her Guatemalan heritage, the term Chicano/a is more a political ideology that has taken her time to cultivate.

"I believe the term means a raza mujer or hombre that actively strives to liberate and empower their people wherever they may be and fight to end oppression everywhere," she says. "That entails combating their manifestations as perceived through sexism, homophobia, and racism, as well as classism."

Yaneth Rodriguez, another self-identified Chicana, explains her experience. "In high school, Chicano was Mexican American to me," she remembers. "But then I took a Chicana literature class and I read Chicano writers and I thought this wasn't only a Mexican American experience. I thought 'I feel this way as well.' I identified with them."

Yaneth's parents are from El Salvador and while she says she is proud to call herself Chicana, she understands the hesitation some may feel in using that word.

"When I began to identify myself as Chicana, I was worried that I was denying where my family was from, because most people assume that Chicana translates to Mexican American. I realized that I just have to talk to people about it, and explain so that they understand what it's all about," adds Yaneth.

Friends and family are not the only ones to resist the changing meaning of the word. At a recent national conference of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlan), the student organization that is spearheading the issue, there was some resistance toward the inclusive definition of the word.

While most California MEChA organizations supported the changing definition, there were some schools from other parts of the Southwest that were adamantly against it.

"We went to Nationals (MeCHA's national conference) and I came back more sad than angry," Yaneth said. "I thought, 'I can't believe this. We're striving to combat oppression, yet people are oppressing us within our own movement.'"

Georgie said she felt those opposed just had a poor understanding of the changing situation. "That's basically an ignorance of the demographics or of the reality in the barrios," she says. She adds that those resistant to accepting non-Mexican Americans self-identifying as Chicanos are just not exposed to it and are impeding the route to positive change. "I'm disappointed, but not dissuaded from continuing the struggle."

And that same sense of determination is also felt by Yaneth, who maintains that there will be unity within the Latino activist community although it may take time. "Love unifies us," she says. "Love for our people, our culture, our history and our future. For so long, we've been oppressed and for so long we've had people struggle. And we want to make it better. We all have this common goal."

The question seems to be whether or not the inclusive meaning of the word will sustain, or even change in popular culture. But, in the hearts of Chicanas like Georgie, Yaneth and me, that's really of little consequence. We, along with many others, know that the words Chicano/a has to do with an evolved state of mind, and is not a group into which you are born.

Now more than ever do I understand what Ruben Salazar was saying in his "Who is a Chicano?" article when he said that the word Chicano is as difficult to define as the word "soul."

Thirty years after they were written, those words are still all too true.

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