...people still ask me about "us"

By Frankie Firme ~ Contributing Editor
Published on LatinoLA: June 17, 2011


As always, I'm a DEEP lover and promoter of Chicano Music and all things CHICANO.

...and as usual, I have been getting e-mails from younger artists and curious people asking me "So, what IS Chicano, Frankie?

So, here's just another take from MY Brown side of Town.

~ Chicanos ~

One popular folklore tale version about the origin of the term "Chicano" came from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua.

It is there, it is said, is where numerous surviving members of indigenous Indian tribes fled to escape the Spaniards during their conquest and subsequent harsh rule and maltreatment during the "lost dark ages" of official and factually lacking history of Mexico, circa 1500~1700.

There came to be a large population of mulatto/European/Indian mixed breed of people not fully accepted by either the ruling Spanish society, nor the indigenous Indian tribes because of their mixed blood, which signified forced, involuntary and sometimes humiliating subjugation by the marauding Spanish conquistadores & other European military forces, and the interbreeding with African slaves. ..basically, a "mongrel" or "bastard" race of people, as we became known in Europe during this time period.

These people became known as "Xicanos" from a long lost Aztec Nahuatl language word meaning "of two worlds," being that they spoke their native language and picked up the Spanish language as a result of subjugation and co-habitation for over two centuries.

In the rough & rugged mountainous-desert terrain of northern Mexico bordering the U.S., these "Xicanos" co-existed with warrior tribes of the area, most notably the TIGUA and the YAQUI tribes, also inter-mingling with the neighboring MESCALERO APACHE tribe from the area now known as New Mexico and southern Arizona.

They eventually identified and blended in with one of the three groups, and themselves became skilled horsemen, hunters, and fighters‘«™but still were unable to trace or establish firm pure ancestoral "roots" they could claim or boast of, thus remained unofficially "Xicanos."

It is from this group that famed Mexican Revolutionary General Pancho Villa drew a large segment of his army after his parting ways with the Spanish government, and controlled the northern portion of Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917. His army also included a number of American mercenaries of mixed Mexican descent.

Many veterans of this war settled in this area to escape the assassinations and imprisonment that awaited most Revolutionary leaders after the established Government of post-revolutionary Mexico, which was financed by European benefactors and who decreed all Revolutionaries as a subversive threat to the new government.

The two neighboring border towns in this area, El Paso, Texas, on the U.S. side, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, on the Mexican side, were violent, dangerous, and rowdy places to be in the early 1900's prior to the outbreak of WW I, and the U.S. established one of its largest military bases there, Fort Bliss, to address the problem.

Charged with protecting the U.S. border and railways, the area surrounding Fort Bliss was a constant source of violence and mayhem due to the conflicts between the different Native tribes, the Mexican revolutionary war veterans, disgruntled Confederate Civil War veterans and their descendants, the local populace, and the U.S. soldiers and Mexican police in the area,

Border raids, murders, robbery, and kidnappings were a constant way of life, and the area also served as a sanctuary for wanted fugitives of both sides of the border.

Unable to fully communicate with the locals or understand fully the cultural differences in order to make peace, the U.S. Army began recruiting these "Xicanos" into their forces to help police the border and quell some of the violence, along with serving overseas as cavalrymen in Europe during WW I, which had some astounding success, although little has been documented in American history.

Because most of them came from the Mexican state of Chihuahua, the "Xicanos" became known as the "Chihuahua-Mexicanos" , or in it's shortened slang form, "CHI-CANOS."

Already skilled horsemen, gunmen, and war veterans, already bi-lingual in Spanish and Native tongues, many of the new recruits were given an American type military education, thus learning a third language, English!

Because of their superior horsemanship and fighting skills, along with their educated tri-lingualism, (some still even spoke the native Aztec tongue of Nahuatl), and the authority granted them by the U.S. government as soldier-policemen, they were both feared and loathed by the envious locals who perceived them as "traitors" and "sellouts" because many of them assumed American citizenship and chose to live north of the border, where they were unaffected by the corruption and mismanagement of the newly-established Mexican government, but still able to enforce U.S. law upon local Mexican citizens, thus causing much suspicion and mistrust on both sides of the color lines, as loyalties were always in question, thus, CHICANOS got their first taste of disreputation.

After WW I, many of the Chicanos were discharged from the U.S. Army as America downsized after the war, so they followed the building boom and farming progress out west with the railroad and establishment of farms and businesses. There arose a new middle class of Mexican-Americans, descended from well-to-do Mexicans who had fled persecution and illegal property acquisition by the Spanish~European supported post Mexican revolutionary government.

Many of these 2nd and 3rd generation Mexican descendants were well-versed and educated in the English language, with many beginning to lose their Spanish language skills, and were thus dubbed "pochos". The origin of this word and term has developed numerous historical folklore versions over the past 100 years, many which are untraceable and debatable. (One story has it that it was a mocking term to Mexicans who couldn't spell or pronounce "Pancho" with an accent, the Jim Crow term for Mexican men at the time)

Though the folklore, stories, and rumors abound in many different directions about Xicanos, Chicanos, and pochos, the one striking similarity is that it identified a proud, colored-skinned, Spanish-surnamed & bi-lingual speaking race of "different" people that were easily the target of unfair scorn, ridicule, suspicion, mistrust, and discrimination. They were easily targeted as social scapegoats for social ills of the time.

Because of this, in the 1920's and late 1930's, the title began to wane as many found it easier to assimilate within themselves by just calling themselves "Mexicans" once again until the early 1940's, when Mickey Rivera of Pachuca, Mexico, developed a new baggie style of dress known as the "Zoot Suit", which he imported to growing city of San Diego, California, home of one of the largest U.S. naval bases in the U.S. , and near the border town of Tijuana, one of the most utilized border crossings from Mexico at the time for migrant farm workers, thus, home to a large U.S. military & Mexican-American population, and this begat another melting pot of assimilation similar to El Paso, Texas .

Worn by popular Mexican actors TIN-TAN and CANTINFLAS during Mexico's golden age of movies, the style became popular with young Mexican-American & African-American teenagers at the outbreak of WW II, who were discriminated against going into white American nightclubs, movie houses, restaurants and other public establishments, so they developed their own counter culture, along with a unique lifestyle of dress, music, dancing, and slang language known as "calo", and inter-mingling with African Americans, who also suffered discrimination, much to the chagrin of white society of the time, who believed Latinos and Blacks to be inferior.

Although the style of dress became popular with teenagers and jazz musicians across America, it became the unofficial uniform publicly assigned to Mexican-Americans during WW II and shortly after by the American press, most notably William Randolph Hearst's Los Angeles Examiner newspaper.

Once again, the "Chicano" term arose in a sense of pride and ethnic identification, as once again, a particular people were distinguished as "different", with a foothold in two worlds and no "pure" established roots‘«™and uninformed people noticed and became uncomfortable.

An ugly historical episode occurred during 1943-44 in Los Angeles in which the Zoot Suit style of dress, the term "Chicano", along with the slang term of "Pachuco" (originally meaning a Mexican-American person from El Paso, Texas) were all racially and arbitrarily intermingled by the American media of the time to define government subversive and violent Mexican gang members, to divert attention from America's initial war effort shortcomings and defeats, once again making the term "Chicano " a source of scorn and self loathing among Mexican-Americans ("Mexican-American" itself not a recognized term until the 1960's).

After WW II and the Korean War, despite distinguishing themselves in battle gallantly on numerous occasions, the Mexican-American veterans still faced racial discrimination and inequalities at home, and organizations like The G.I. Forum were formed to address these inequalities, but there was still minimal representation outside of grass roots organizations for the non-veteran Mexican-American population, so the racial discrimination and inequalities continued to exist in the United States.

In the 1960s, after generations of racial intolerance, discrimination, inequities, double standards, and prejudice‘«™ the American Civil Rights movement, the demand for better educational opportunities akin to their Caucasian-American counterparts, and the Viet Nam war helped empower a new generation of Mexican-Americans, who once again took up the mantle of CHICANO.

In response to white America's demand that "Mexicans need to go back to where they came from or know there place" and the increase in INS raids and forced deportations when demands for equal rights were made, along with nationally televised brutality of Black civil rights marchers in the south and farm workers in California, a new racial awareness came to be, as people of color no longer accepted social inequalities and subjugation, no matter how subtle.

Nobody could deny the fact that in 1969, 20,000 of the almost 50,000 Americans killed in the Viet Nam War were Spanish-surnamed, and the CHICANO MORATORIUM made this their primary focus of addressing the social inequalities of the time, as an inordinate number of Latinos were being subject to the military draft, especially in the barrios across America.

At the same time, Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers Union defied then California Governor Ronald Reagan and the major agricultural corporations, and exposed the squalid conditions, poor and inhumane treatment, and physical brutality farm workers were being subjected to as a condition of employment. More than 90% of the farm workers picking the nation's fruit and vegetable crops across the southern United States were Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, and received no support or defense from Mexico‘«™so the people once again became CHICANOS in their own defense.

‘«™thus, joining the CHICANO WAR MORATORIUM, the CHICANO MOVEMENT came to be throughout the southwestern United States , demanding equal rights in a variety of platforms, including better working conditions and wages for farm workers, better access to government employment (including law enforcement and fire departments on all levels), equal access to higher education, improvements in public education from grades K to 12 for all minorities, voter's rights, equal access to public programs (including student college loans previously reserved mostly for whites), equal access to healthcare, equal access to home buying and business loans, equal access to political offices, Chicano studies programs in colleges & universities, the recognition of many previously ignored Latino war veterans for bravery, the recognition of Chicanos as Americans, and the end to discriminatory practices against all Latinos in society.

As in most situations where social change comes to be, violence inevitably occurred, blood was shed, and people died during these movements, most notably, popular Chicano TV & newspaper journalist RUBEN SALAZAR.

Once again the American media, at the behest and approval of the Government (behind the scenes, of course), once again stepped in and began a "spin" publicity campaign alluding that many Chicano workers and supporters for social change were subversives or gang members, once again inspiring self-loathing and mistrust among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who feared deportation & exclusion, and a division in the people occurred as concessions were slowly made to only a few at a time, and the Chicano Moratorium/Movement slowly faded after the end of the Viet Nam war and end of the draft around 1973.

Subsequent similar Latino American movements by Puerto Ricans in New York, South Americans in Chicago, and Cuban Americans in Florida occurred at the dawn of the Reagan Presidential Administration and the era of "political correctness" in the 1980's, prompting the Reagan Administration to tack on a "politically correct" American title for some minorities (as in "African American" instead of "Black") , and to label all Spanish-surnamed people "Hispanic" for political expediency and convenience.

Despite all of this, the term CHICANO is still a source of historical pride for some, and a source of discomfort and distaste for many.

‘«™and some people are still scratching their heads as well‘«™.

About Frankie Firme ~ Contributing Editor:
Frankie Firme is the Al Capone of the microphone and the Hitman of West Coast Chicanop Soul heard daily on world wide Internet radio station
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