By: Arnoldo de León

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: September 19, 2019

Although the etymology of Chicano is uncertain, linguists and folklorists offer several theories for the origins of the word. According to one explanation, the pre-Columbian tribes in Mexico called themselves Meshicas, and the Spaniards, employing the letter x (which at that time represented a sh and ch sound), spelled it Mexicas. The Indians later referred to themselves as Meshicanos and even as Shicanos, thus giving birth to the term Chicano. Another theory about the word's derivation holds that Mexicans and Mexican Americans have historically transferred certain consonants into ch sounds when expressing kinship affection or community fellowship. In this manner, Mexicanos becomes Chicanos. The term has been part of the Mexican-American vocabulary since the early twentieth century, and has conveyed at least two connotations. Mexican Americans of some social standing applied it disparagingly to lower-class Mexicans, but as time passed, adolescents and young adults (usually males) used Chicano as an affirmative label expressing camaraderie and commonality of experience.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the designation gained mainstream prominence because of a civil-rights groundswell (see CIVIL RIGHTS) within Mexican-American communities. The catalyst in Texas was a dramatic farmworkers' march during the summer of 1966; the march from South Texas to Austin turned media attention to the plight of the state's army of agricultural field hands. Inspired by the courage of the farmworkers, by the California strikes led by Cesar Chavez, and by the Anglo-American youth revolt of the period, many Mexican-American university students came to participate in a crusade for social betterment that was known as the Chicano movement. They used Chicano to denote their rediscovered heritage, their youthful assertiveness, and their militant agenda. Though these students and their supporters used Chicano to refer to the entire Mexican-American population, they understood it to have a more direct application to the politically active parts of the Tejano community.

Almost from the initial mainstream appearance of Chicano during the 1960s, the Spanish-speaking population resented the word's broad usage, and this displeasure led to the cognomen's decline in general discourse by the late 1970s. The older generation remembered the word's earlier disparaging implications, and other Mexican Americans felt uncomfortable using Chicano in formal conversation. Most significantly, many Mexican Americans rejected the way self-styled Chicanos had taken the expression from its in-group folkloric context and appropriated it for common dialogue. It was this violation of folkloric norms that produced the word's repudiation from within by the early 1980s. Mexican Americans, Hispanics, or Latinos took its place. Chicano, however, remained a part of the overall in-group lexicon.

José E. Limón, "Expressive Dimensions of Heterogeneity and Change: The Folk Performance of `Chicano' and the Cultural Limits of Political Ideology," in "And Other Neighborly Names": Social Process and Cultural Image in Texas Folklore, ed. Richard Bauman and Roger D. Abrahams (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).

  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
  • Activism and Social Reform
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Arnoldo de León, “Chicano,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 17, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 19, 2019

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