For as long as I can remember, I have been Chicana, yet, I have always grappled with understanding what exactly that means. From a young age my parents instilled a Chicano pride in me: “We are Chicanos,” nothing less and nothing more. I took this identity to heart and never looked back. In the third grade I had a t-shirt that boldly pronounced me as “Chicana” in a swirly font that vaguely mirrored the Chicago billboard from the Broadway musical. When asked by my 8 year old peers what ‘Chicana’ meant, I did not have a good answer: “Its what I am, its like Hispanic, but different.” Often, I would walk away from these conversations as confused as my peers. I would return home to ask my parents “what is Chicana? And why is it different from Hispanic? And what is Xicana with an X?” Every time, it felt like I got a different answer.
When I left New Mexico, for college in Los Angeles, I had more understanding around my identity, enough, I thought, to defend it in the face of skeptics. I knew that “Hispanic” was a term created by the US government for all people of ‘Spanish-speaking descent,’ (plus Brazilians) that only acknowledges their Spanish heritage, and ignores the diversity of ethnicities, nationalities and cultures from which “Hispanics” come. I knew that the term “Chicano” was reclaimed during the Chicano movement as a conscious alternative to ‘Hispanic’ for those peoples who had resided in the US for more than one or two generations. Yet, I still struggled with defining what “Chicano” meant for me, in simple terms.
I was once again struck by this realization my first week of college as students of all races and places asked me what I was, “ethnically speaking”. I felt let down, because I was supposedly in the historic heart of the Chicano movement, yet no one seemed to know what “Chicano” meant. One student from East LA, asked me where I was from, and then what I “identified as.” After I tried to explain ‘Chicano’ to him, using everything from my family’s generational history in the US, to the specificity of New Mexican culture, he said, “So you’re Mexican, just like me.” “Not exactly” was all I could reply.
I have never considered myself to be Mexican, or Mexican-American for that matter, because my family has resided in New Mexico for over 14 generations. We are “puro puro Nuevo Mexicanos,” the people who were attached to the land when the US obtained Mexican territory in 1848 at the end of the Mexican American War. Perhaps we were Mexican 166 years ago, but it is not accurate to say that we are now: our Spanish, our food, our music, and even traditions are different from those in Mexico, and all are heavily influenced by the American Indian peoples native to New Mexico, with whom we have lived alongside and mixed with, for generations. As a people we have changed over time, and now we occupy a space and culture removed from Mexico, and in many ways isolated from the United States. This adds another complex layer in my quest to define ‘Chicano,’ as the term seems to differ based on regions in the US. For some ‘native New Mexicans,’ being Chicano may mean something different than it means for Chicanos from Los Angeles or Texas.
All of this has led me to the conclusion that I need to explore Chican@ identity in a more formal fashion. For this purpose, I have crafted a special project to complete with Generation Justice. With this project, I looked to the wisdom of other New Mexicans who identify as Chican@. Based off their stories, I have created a radio segment about the complexity and often fluidity, of identifying as Chican@ in the Land of Enchantment. My goal was to compile a variety of definitions and personal stories around what the term “Chican@” means for different people, in order to better inform my own understanding of this identity and highlight the particularity of New Mexican Chicano culture. There is no simple definition of Chican@. It is complex, contains variety and can mean something different to each Chican@. With this project, I hope to contribute to the Chican@ collective consciousness: our documentation of our existence, and our right to self-identify in a country that has tried to keep us boxed in and checked out.