During “el movimiento” what did it mean to identify as a Chicano/Chicana?

Written by Salamata Bah

In 1967, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales wrote an epic poem entitled “I am Joaquín/Yo Soy Joaquín”. This epic poem became widely circulated during El Movimiento or the Chicano Civil Rights Movement during the 60’s and 70’s. Like the Black Freedom Struggle, the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a time period in which Mexican Americans forcefully challenged their oppression and fought for a broad range of issues such as farm worker’s rights, land rights, better education, voting rights and other civil liberties. Most importantly, El Movimiento was also about the rejection of America’s definition of what it means to be Mexican American. During this time, many Mexicans started to express a new racial identity under the term Chicano/Chicana. Furthermore, they brought all the elements of a Chicano/a identity under the broader philosophy of Chicanismo.

The circulation of “I am Joaquín/Yo Soy Joaquín” was a significant turning point in El Movimiento because it sparked the construction of the Chicano/a identity among young Mexican students. Eventually, this would inspire the Chicano student movement of the 1960s in East Los Angeles. Prior to this turning point in the 1960s, from 1930 to 1960, “the claim to be white stood at the center of many Mexican Americans’ self-understanding”.1 For instance, in Texas, severe Jim Crow segregation encouraged Mexicans to assert a white identity more aggressively.2 On the other hand, in urban cities like Los Angeles, Mexican communities tended to “rarely if ever display their [Mexican] ethnic heritage in public”.3 Overall, earlier advocacy groups emphasized assimilation into the dominant white society and still had hope in the American dream.

Therefore, during the 1930s, Mexican Americans simply emphasized the American part of their identity, valued American patriotism, and ignored their Mexican origins. They believed “assimilation was the only path toward equal status in a racist society”.4 Despite this faith in American democracy, their self-understanding as being white did not match their lived reality because they were still oppressed by the dominant white society. They experienced segregation in employment, housing and education; they were viewed as wetbacks or dirty Mexicans; and they were actively mistreated by government policy that clearly favored white lives. However, prior to the 1960s, this sense of alienation did not mobilize Mexican Americans to political action, let alone cause them to completely embrace a non-white identity.5

However, In 1965, Mexicans were finally able to organize one of the most prominent Mexican movements in U.S History. In California’s Central Valley, César Chavez organized farm workers into a union in an effort to boycott abusive field owners. Another instance of Mexican activism was in 1966 and 1967, when Reies López Tijerina led the land grant movement in New Mexico, which challenged the illegal ways the U.S government acquired land from Mexicans. Although both of these instances of Mexican activism provided an example to be followed by Mexican communities, they still left a huge gap for the younger generation of Mexican Americans. While both of these movements encouraged pride in the Mexican identity it wasn’t until Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales and his poem “I am Joaquín”, that the building of a new racial identity became a significant goal in El Movimiento.

“I am Joaquín” did not necessarily offer a definition of the Chicano/a identity, however it did provide a starting place for younger Mexicans who were seeking an answer to their identity crisis. Essentially, “I am Joaquín”, “highlighted the self-doubts and confusions at the heart of the Mexican identity”6 thereby sparking a search for identity by younger Mexican Americans. The poem did this in three ways; by recognizing the indigenous roots of Mexicans, recognizing the oppression Mexicans have faced while trying to assimilate, and by evoking a tone of pride in being Chicano/a.

“I am Joaquín” recognizes the indigenous roots of Mexicans by talking about the “indigenous ancestors prior to the Spanish conquest”.7 Gonzales does this by arguing that to be Mexican is to also be a proud and noble Cuauhtémoc, a Mayan prince, or the eagle and serpent of the Aztec civilization.9 He goes on to talk about Mexican history during the Spanish conquest and connects it to Mexican American history under the U.S, by commenting on assimilation and oppression. On the harms of assimilations, Gonzales writes:

I look at myself
and see a part of me
who rejects my father and mother
and dissolves into the melting pot
to disappear in shame9

With this line of commentary, Gonzales directly challenges the older Mexican generation way of defining their identity based on assimilation. Gonzales notes the plight of Mexicans in America by recognizing Mexican labor has “made the Anglo rich” yet “equality is but a word”.10 After pointing out the various ways Mexicans have been oppressed in America, he still ends on an empowering tone. He reminds Mexicans that they should be empowered by their identity because as a people they have endured countless trials and tribulations. And once again, they shall and will endure the oppression of America as proud Mejicanos, Hispanos, and finally Chicanos.

Once Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales laid the foundation for a new Mexican American racial identity to be built, Mexican American student-activists of the 60s built this new identity and they sought to create a militant movement for Chicano rights off of this distinct identity. The result of this effort was the creation of a Chicanismo culture, which is defined as the strong ethnic pride exhibited by Chicanos. During El Movimiento, if you identified as a Chicano or Chicana, it meant the core of your identity was based on the “nonwhite legacy of the Mexican American people”.11 Young Mexican American activists who saw themselves as Chicano/a rejected whiteness both “within their own community and that of Anglos”.12 They identified with the indigenous or Native American roots of the Mexican American experience and rejected those of the Spanish.

This radical stance often caused rifts even in families. In fact, there were cases in which children who insisted on calling themselves Chicano were kicked out of their homes by their parents. The older generation considered Chicano as an insult because in the past Chicano/a “was used to refer to the lower caste Mexicans”.13 These familial rifts represented a larger battle between political generations. The older generations who viewed themselves as white and American, disapproved the young Chicanos and Chicanas who were “demanding the complete overhaul of the entire [American] political system.”14

In Chicanos and Chicanas asserting an anti-assimilation, nonwhite identity, they were aligning themselves with El Movimiento. This new label often translated into taking negative physical stereotypes that were associated with Mexicans and turning them into a “banner of group membership and a source of pride”.15 Thus, the negative image of a “brown-skinned race” became “Brown Power”.16 And Chicano, a word that was understood as a derogatory term became a positive trademark of El Movimiento.

Influenced by the Black Power Movement, Chicanos further complicated their identity by comparing their lived experiences under oppression to other lived experiences of black and red identities. In other words, Chicanos saw their oppression as one with that of African-Americans and Native Americans. Therefore, they saw their struggle for freedom as one. This influenced their movement building during El Movimiento.

Ultimately, the terms Chicano and Chicana became “a litmus test for a political frame of mind” that aligned with El Movimiento.17 After constructing this Chicanismo, young Chicano activist were able build a militant movement that challenged the status quo of American society. Although, a significant turning point for Mexican Americans in this country, El Movimiento is still one of the least studied social movements. Understanding the identity crisis that young Chicanos had to grapple with in the 60s is key in understanding the complex context that surrounds today’s conversations about race, ethnicity and identity.

1López, Ian F. Haney, Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2004), 79.
2Lopez, 80.
3Mariscal, George, Brown-eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons from the Chicano Movement, 1965-1875 (University of New Mexico Press), 25.
4Muñoz Jr., Carlos, Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement, (London, Verso, 1989), 49.
5Lopez, 81-82
6Lopez, 160
7Muñoz Jr., 61
8Gonzales, Rodolfo, “I am Joaquín”. In Message to Aztlán: Selected Writings of Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, (Arte Público Press), 17.
9Gonzales, 23
10Gonzales, 25
11Muñoz Jr., 63
12Lopez, 206
13Lopez, 206
14Mariscal, 25
15Arce, Carlos H, “A Reconsideration of Chicano Culture and Identity.” (1981, Daedalus 110, no. 2) 184. http://www.jstor.org.ccl.idm.oclc.org/stable/20024728″
16Arce, 184
17Mariscal, 27