On Chicano Art…. con safos
While hanging out with Cheech Marín in Corpus Christi during a showing of his collection at the Art Museum of South Texas, I asked him about the origin of “Cheech” and he told me what you can now get from Wiki: an uncle, upon seeing him a couple of days after birth, said he looked like a “chicharrón”, a fried pork skin, as in the snack you buy at el H.E.B., here in Texas. I told Cheech that my aunt Beatriz used to call me “Chicharíto” (little pea) when I was very young, which evolved from the endearing diminutive term “Cesaríto” for César, and then became “Chícharo” (pea) as I got older. Fortunately for me, except with my aunt, Chícharo never stuck.
The origin of the term “Chicano” is similarly circuitous and a bit of a mystery to me because, as with nicknames, these designations evolve and become versions, some academic and some popular, and it becomes hard to tell if there is such a thing as a correct one.
México got its name from the Mexíca tribe, pronounced “Meh-chí-cah”, also known as the “Aztec” people. They populated and ruled the valley of central Mexico at the time of the Spanish intrusion into the Americas. After all, if a Mexicano can be pronounced and even spelled as “Mejicano”, I can also hear “Mechicano” in reference to the Mexíca, and that then aptly becoming, at some particular time in the U.S.A., “Chicano”. Pero al fín del cuento, simplemente no se. For all I know, “Chicano” may have resulted from some inane word-play.
The first time I remember hearing the word “Chicano” was during the 1960s when a close friend from my barrio referenced us as being “Chicanos”. Being a “Chicano” somehow seemed like a good enough fit for me though I had no idea why, but I also remember, in subsequent times, realizing that “Chicano” was also considered a somewhat uncivil term in “polite” social circles. It must have been in the last years of the past century that a friend, a well-known academic in cultural and art matters, was supposed to lecture in my hometown of Laredo and was advised to stay away from the term “Chicano”. Arrgh….
But that was then…. Laredo has moved beyond those days. In late 2021 I had a much heralded show, “En Mi Casa” at the LCA (Laredo Center for the Arts) and there was great effort to embrace this artist’s unabashedly “Chicano” art. One big surprise was being presented with a Key to the City of Laredo by the then Mayor, Pete Saenz, and an official Mayoral Proclamation was read and the word “Chicano” was part of it. It is a new day in Laredo.
For me, all this “Chicano” business started in the 1970s during the early years of the Chicano political civil rights movement to which I was drawn in San Antonio, Texas. Besides civil rights, a big part of this deal was self-determination regarding our own cultural identity. We started to shift away from being “Mexican” or “Mexican-American”, to being, well, what?….the term “Chicano” already existed but was merely a down-home barrio expression for a Mexican-American denizen of the barrio. More and more, we started referring to ourselves as “Chicanos”, perhaps because it was less acceptable, edgier, and therefore more rebellious than Mexican-American ever could be.
Thus “Chicano” became synonymous with the Chicano political movement and being politically with-it Mexican-Americans in politically-charged times. I have a vague recollection of a prominent San Antonio politician being quoted in one of the local papers as derisively saying the word “Chicano” originated from “chiquero”, the Mexican word for pigsty. That remark was a reaction to the heat generated by political pressure. Remember, the Chicano political movement was mostly propelled by young activists impatient with the pace of political advancement; the mood was “If not now, when?”….cynical, mordant humor circulating among us had Jesus Christ, dying on the cross, telling Mexican-Americans “Don’t do anything until I return”…. obviously it was a generational thing: it came as a jolt to mainstream Mexican-American politicians because the Chicano movement was pushier and more radical. In the end, though, most politicians reconciled with the new political reality and became a positive part of it, certainly so, here in Texas. It was the unrepentant vendidos that faded away, though some still vex us, ensconced in the wrong political party.
Today, the term “Chicano” has lost a bit of the old political edge and its usage is fairly accepted as a specific alternative to Mexican-American, rather than the more remote designations of “Latino” or “Latinx”, neither of which I personally relate to at all. My primary problem is with the “Latino” catch-all designation itself….Spanish is of course a Latin language, as is French and Italian, but we don’t call those nationalities “Latinos”. I’ve tried tracing the origin of the term “Latino”, as it applies to us, but have come up empty though I’ve long suspected that it originated in Argentina, a very Eurocentric South American nation composed of, besides the displaced native populations, numerous and extensive European diasporas. Nothing wrong with being Eurocentric; it simply doesn’t speak for me.
“Latino” is at least twice removed from the specifics of who I am; first, I am a bi-lingual person that speaks español, of which Latin is only the root language, and secondly, I am generationally far enough removed from my European ancestral roots that, culturally speaking, there’s only a trace, at best. As a Mexican-American, the culture I belong to is contemporary Chicano culture and identify as Chicano. More generally….that catch-all thing again, I don’t mind being referred to as a Hispanic because it relates me to all those other nationalities of the Americas that speak the language that binds us.
I do understand that the term “Latinx” is meant to be an inclusive term sensitive to gender-difference issues, certainly a good thing. There is bigotry around those issues and it is time for that sector of the general population to stop thinking of gender differences as abhorrent abnormalities and accept people as they are born to be, as themselves. Better to deal with the bigotry itself than encode sensitivity, as if that fixes anything. Maybe the term belongs in academia where I am told it originated….just pronouncing Latinx is off-putting enough for me.
By my own estimate, Chicano Art seemed retro from the onset in the early 1970s, where I specifically come in. Traditional media was the way to go: prevalent was figurative painting, print-making and posters. There wasn’t much sculpture nor was there much of the newer less, traditional modes, nor even abstraction, which was already not new at all. I was one of the few who were into abstraction and sympathetic to the political activism of the time, as were a very few others known to me. Chicano Art was about content that was culturally and politically relevant….for it to be “Chicano art”, you had to put the “Chicano” in it. Though my own work now reflects the influences of what was once American contemporary art during my formative college years, the mid-1960s, I put those influences to good use and it became a visual characteristic of my work rather than an end in itself. Chicano Art manifests itself as a specific art phenomenon with an ethnic aspect and a corresponding cultural and political attitude; that, as opposed to an art reflecting the attitude of an art world that is a culture unto itself.