by Victor Mendoza-Grado and Ricardo J. Salvador
FAQ from soc.culture.mexican. for a more recent version of this FAQ see, Newsgroup SOC.CULTURE.MEXICAN, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) # 46
This term is used frequently in the United States to refer indiscriminantly to any person that speaks Spanish. As such, it is imprecise and often inappropriate in that it includes people from more than two dozen countries, spanning all of the American continent, the Caribbean and Spain. The term does apply specifically, however, as the proper name for the native people of Spain, and for this reason it is as incorrect to use it to refer to any and all Spanish-speakers as the term "English" would be to refer to citizens of New Zealand, Australia or the United States.
This term is often used to refer collectively to all Spanish-speakers. However, it specifically connotes a lineage or cultural heritage related to Spain. As many millions of people who speak Spanish are not of true Spanish descent (e.g., native americans), and millions more live in Latin America (cf., "Latino" below) yet do not speak Spanish or claim Spanish heritage (e.g., Brazilians) this term is incorrect as a collective name for all Spanish-speakers, and may actually be cause for offense.
This term is used to refer to people originating from, or having a heritage related to, Latin America, in recognition of the fact that this set of people is actually a superset of many nationalities. Since the term "Latin" comes into use as the least common denominator for all peoples of Latin America in recognition of the fact that some romance language (Spanish, Portuguese, French) is the native tongue of the majority of Latin Americans, this term is widely accepted by most. However, the term is not appropriate for the millions of Native Americans who inhabit the region.
Specifically, the nationality of the inhabitants of Mexico. Therefore, the term is used appropriately for Mexican citizens who visit or work in the United States, but it is insufficient to designate those people who are citizens of the United States (they were born in the U.S. or are naturalized citizens of the U.S.) who are of Mexican ancestry.
It is important to explain why [some] people feel it is important to make . . . a distinction. U.S. citizens who are troubled by this often point out that most immigrants do not distinguish themselves by point of origin first, (i.e., German-American), but simply as "Americans" (another troublesome term, but we won't get detoured by that here). Here are some reasons why many U.S. citizens of Mexican extraction feel that it is important to make the distinction:
Not "Americans" by choice A scant 150 years ago, approximately 50% of what was then Mexico was appropriated by the U.S. as spoils of war, and in a series of land "sales" that were coerced capitalizing on the U.S. victory in that war and Mexico's weak political and economic status. A sizeable number of Mexican citizens became citizens of the United States from one day to the next as a result, and the treaty declaring the peace between the two countries recognized the rights of such people to their private properties (as deeded by Mexican or Spanish colonial authorities), their own religion (Roman Catholicism) and the right to speak and receive education in their own tongue (for the majority, Spanish) [refer to the file GUADHIDA, the text of the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, on this same subdirectory]. Therefore, the descendants of this population continue to press for such rights, and many hold that theirs is a colonized land and people in view of the fact that their territory and population was taken over by military force.
Mexicans first, "Americans" second? Another and more numerous class of U.S. citizens of Mexican extraction are either descendants of, or are themselves, people who conceive of themselves as _temporarily_ displaced from Mexico by economic circumstances. As oppossed to the waves of European migrants who willingly left their countries due to class and religious discrimination, and sought to make their lives anew in the "new world" and never to return to the "old land," these displaced Mexicans typically maintain strong family ties in Mexico (by visiting periodically, and by investing their incomes in homes or kin in Mexico), and usually intend to return to Mexico provided they can become economically secure. Therefore these people maintain and nurture their children in their language, religion and customs.
However, There is great tension within this population between those of Mexican birth who conceive of themselves as temporary guests in the U.S., and their descendants who are born in the U.S., are acculturated with the norms of broader U.S. society in public schools, and are not motivated by the same ties that bind a migrant generation of Mexicans. This creates a classic "niche" of descendants of immigrants who are full-fledged U.S. citizens, but who typically do not have access to all the rights and privileges of citizenship because of the strong cultural identity imbued in them by their upbringing and the discriminatory reaction of the majority population against a non-assimilated and easily identified subclass. This group of people feels a great need to distinguish itself from both its U.S. milieu and its Mexican "Mother Culture," which does not typically welcome or accept "prodigals." This is truly a unique set of people, therefore, in that it endures both strong ties and strong discrimination from both U.S. and Mexican mainstream parent cultures. The result has been the creation of a remarkable new culture that needs its own name and identity.
Mexican-American is commonly used to recognize U.S. citizens who are descendants of Mexicans, following the pattern sometimes used to identify the extraction of other ethnic Americans (e.g., "African-American). This term is acceptable to many Mexican descendants, but for those who do not identify with a Mexican heritage, but rather with a Spanish heritage, it is unacceptable (cf., "Hispano," below). Also, for those who do not view themselves as "Americans" by choice, this term is problematic, and for others the implication that the identity of the bearer is unresolved, or in limbo, between two antipodal influences, belies their self-concept as a blend that supercedes its origins and is stronger, richer and more dynamic than either of its cultural roots.
This term is preferred by that subpopulation, located primarily in the U.S. southwest, who identify with the Spanish settlers of the area, and not with the Mexican settlers (specifically, the Creole Spanish-Native American race). There is in fact an important number of these people located along the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico and in the northern Sangre de Cristo mountain range of the same state. This group has been traditionally a very closed and conservative one, and recent evidence provides important explanations for this: they seem to be descendants of persecuted Jews who fled Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries and sought refuge in what were then the farthest reaches of the known world. They survived by minimizing their contact with outsiders and by hiding or disguising their religious and cultural identities as much as possible. Historical researchers call them "cryptic Jews."
A relatively recent term that has been appropriated by many Mexican descendants as unique and therefore reflective of their unique culture, though its first usage seems to have been discriminatory. The most likely source of the word is traced to the 1930 and 40s period, when poor, rural Mexicans, often Native Americans, were imported to the U.S. to provide cheap field labor, under an agreement of the governments of both countries. The term seems to have come into first use in the fields of California in derision of the inability of native Nahuatl speakers from Morelos state to refer to themselves as "Mexicanos," and instead spoke of themselves as "Mesheecanos," in accordance with the pronunciation rules of their language (for additional details, refer to the file MEXICO on this same subdirectory). An equivocal factor is that in vulgar Spanish it is common for Mexicans to use the "CH" conjunction in place of certain consonants in order to create a term of endearment. Whatever its origin, it was at first insulting to be identified by this name. The term was appropriated by Mexican-American activists who took part in the Brown Power movement of the 60s and 70s in the U.S. southwest, and has now come into widespread usage. Among more "assimilated" Mexican-Americans, the term still retains an unsavory connotation, particularly because it is preferred by political activists and by those who seek to create a new and fresh identity for their culture rather than to subsume it blandly under the guise of any mainstream culture.
For additional information and resources on Chicano Studies, a good starting point is the Chicano-Latino Network (CLNET) accessible through the University of California - Los Angeles Gopher Server: gopher.ucla.edu 70 under the heading: ->Chicano/LatinoNet
Source: Professor Vernellia R. Randall’s Race Racism and the Law website