Chicano Movement as the Consequence of Marginalization of Mexican Americans

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Since the European discovery of the continent they named “America,” capitalism and colonialism have emerged as global, interdependent systems that generate wealth for capitalists at the expense of the marginalization of those deemed inferior. Out of this violence, the unique concepts of, mestizaje, Latinidad, and later, Chicanismo, have emerged to describe the identity of those descended from both the oppressor and the oppressed. The concept of chicanidad needs to be transformed into a movement of true revolutionary and anti settler-colonialist potential by reframing el movimiento to: reject the imposed sovereignty of the United States and other settler-colonial structures, prioritize the needs of the indigenous nations Chicanxs stand on, and actively recognize that socially-constructed identities like race and gender are deliberate power structures whose complex layers and hierarchies are meant to create divisions among racialized and “othered” groups in order to uphold white dominance.

In order to begin asking ourselves how we can reconceptualize the concept of Chicanidad, or even latinidad, we need to understand why these racial categories come about. From Omi and Winant’s fundamental Racial Formation in the United States, we know that race is both a social construct—without basis in biology—and a social reality that shapes everyday lives (Omi & Winant 110). It is a way of “othering” groups that emerged through the discovery and capitalist development of the so-called “New World” (105). Racialized distinctions served to justify the violent removal of indigenous peoples from their land as well as the exploitation and commodification of African chattel slaves, which provided capitalist settlers with free land and labor on the basis of white supremacy. It has also been a justification for the exploitation of nonwhite wage labor, and “these processes of racial governance: slavery, coerced labor, and colonialism, persist in our contemporary moment through new discourses and practices” (Dei 20). For example, “Black and African bodies are influenced by the structural and capitalist bases of colonial imperialism such that an analysis of Black/African identities and subjectivities cannot be outside of [this] materialist paradigm.” (Dei 17) Dei suggests that the Black identity is intrinsically tied to capitalism and colonial imperialism. This oppositional relationship exists as a power structure in which Black, but other racialized groups too, are placed in opposition with whiteness and in relation to one another by those considered white, in order to ascribe different values to their labor and prevent collaboration amongst groups. In this way, “White supremacy and capitalism, although working in different ways on different bodies, have always fostered colonial and imperial projects” (Dei 26), and they function as interlocking and interdependent structures. Therefore, dismantling these power structures is the only way for Chicanidad, and other racial power movements, to fight white supremacy and the racial hierarchies that come with it.

Unfortunately, the Chicanx movement has been largely focused on improving its material conditions within these frameworks in the United States. Although indigenous practices have always been tied to communal use and responsibility for the land, rather than ownership, Chicanxs have often centered their struggle around entitlement to lost private property. For example, Chicanx activists such as Reies Lopez Tijerina have ardently fought to retrieve the lands that Mexican landowners lost as a result of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 (Mantler 184). These lands originally belonged to different tribal nations to be collectively used, and were taken by mestizos under either New Spain or the Mexican government. This alludes to a desire from Chicanxs to achieve the settler, arguably white, status that they once had, rather than a desire to return to the original use of the land under the sovereignty of those whose lands were forcibly seized.

Although there can be some value in improving material conditions for Chicanxs within the United States legal structure while it exists, it will not have lasting or meaninful results if activists prioritize working from within the White Supremacist framework of the United States and other settler nations. Instead of questioning the inherently-racial and oppressive systems of wage labor and land allocation—all based on the removal of indigenous relationships to land and the exploitation of landless workers—they focus on how they can improve their status inside the racial hierarchy. Dei describes such a decision as a “weakness that opportunistically seeks out and thrives in moments of division” (Dei 8). The Chicanx movement must choose between fighting to become White—or closer to white—at the expense of other racial groups, or fighting to dismantle the capitalist settler nations that allow for White Supremacy to exist. In order to do the latter, we must begin the work of rebuilding indigenous nationhoods, starting with those in the regions occupied by the United States.

This entails engaging in difficult discussions with many indigenous governments, and assumes that indigenous nations will be willing to include mestizos and other groups into their sovereignty. How can we, Chicanxs and marginalized peoples, reject a settler society that we participate in every day? How can we help indigenous nations restore their nationhood when indigenous self-governance itself has been severely impacted by colonization? How will we achieve the numbers and militarization needed to de-legitimize settler nations on indigenous land? This work will not be completed in my lifetime, and these are questions I cannot claim to have the answers to alone. However, we can begin laying the foundation by incorporating and highlighting the fight of indigenous peoples into the Chicanx movement, engaging in conversations with the indigenous tribes of the land we reside, and building organized numbers that are willing to work toward giving back sovereignty to indigenous nations.

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Because Chicanx rhetoric is so centered around indigenous identity, it may seem redundant to stress the need for Chicanxs claim their indigenous identity. In fact, it is precisely the Chicanx movement’s use of superficial and damaging definitions of indigeneity that has prevented a focus on the fight for indigenous sovereignty and self-governance. Settler nations often use a rhetoric that presents indigeneity as a homogenized racial group within settler statehood. However, indigeneity is not a racial group: rather, it is a term to describe a complex network of different peoples and nations, each with an ancestral duty and relationship to their land, that are still in existence. Settler states were built on top of already-existing nations with their own unique societal structures. The conceptualization of indigeneity as a race rather than a relationship to land allows for the sovereignty and existence of indigenous peoples to be called into question through blood quantum theories that are key to sustaining settler power. The Chicanx movement often fails to recognize this and perpetuates the racialization of indigeneity. For example, the use of Aztec symbology is famously present in Chicanx imagery, poetry and prose. This conceptualization of Chicanxs as not only indigenous, but ostensibly Aztec by extension, is complicit in the erasure of present indigenous nations, and dismissive of the realities of indigeneity in the so-called Americas. In regards to foundational Chicanx works such as El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan, Cristina Beltran explains in her work,“Patrolling Borders”, that “the Chicano is called on to recognize his Aztec origins and claim Aztlan as the Mexican territories lost to the United States in 1848” (Beltran 601). However, such Azten origins do not exist for many Chicanxs. For the most part, we are not Aztecs; they were a transient mexica empire subjugating already-existing tribal nations, and their empire did not encompass the entire expanse we now call Mexico. My Purépecha ancestors, for example, were among the only nations whose warriors successfully warded off the multiple attacks of the Aztecs until both were threatened by Spanish conquest.

When El Plan declares a new “mestizo nation” (Beltran 601), while tying “mestizo” identity to indigeneity, it strips indigenous people of their varied and complex histories and implies that mestizos are the remnants of their indigenous descendants and effectively erases the existence of indigenous nations in the ground mestizos stand on. Moreover, the concept of mestizaje (miscegenation) that is used to define Chicanidad and Latinidad is also deeply flawed. Such a term clearly denotes a mixing of racial groups, specifically Spaniard, “Indigenous”, and sometimes African. However, we must remember that indigeneity is not a racial category but an ancestral relationship to a land. Because of this, the concept of mestizaje is at odds with indigeneity and has been used to justify settler privatization of land within Mexican rule. Those identified as mestizo have used their indigenous ancestry to emphasize “the grandeur of an Aztec past, while treating the present and future of the sixty-three Indigenous pueblos as something to be overcome through biological erasure, through mestizaje, and cultural incorporation” (Blackwell 102). Mestizaje effectively becomes a tool to claim ownership of indigeneity while portraying indigenous society as inferior compared to the mestizo, who is endowed with Spaniard blood. This rhetoric is reminiscent of White Supremacist notions of manifest destiny. In Anzalduas classic Borderlands, “she continually constructs a dominant narrative of subjectivity in which [mestizo] subjects represent multiplicity and insight while others signify unenlightened singularity” (Beltran 604). This classically Chicanx and indigenista portrayals of mestizaje allows for notions of superiority reminiscent of Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, in which a new, evolved “American” is forged through the process of settler colonialism and capitalist modernity (Turner).

In order to prioritize the needs of indigenous peoples and advocate for indigenous self-governance, Chicanxs must recognize their indigenous, not mestizo, identity, as one that has been fragmented by colonial practice and separated through racialization and blood quantums. We must recognize that we are not made up of genetic percentages; rather, we represent the totality of each of our ancestors: not only are we indigenous, but we have also sided too often with our colonial ancestry, using indigenismo to displace our alienated indigenous family. Those deemed mestizo must make radical changes to seek the acceptance and authority of the indigenous nations they occupy, and take up causes that indigenous people voice and that promote a return to indigenous self-governance. On the other hand, we must be conscious of the role that migration has played in indigeneity and colonialism. I am indigenous to the Purépecha tribes of Michoacan, not to the Kumeyaay nation my family immigrated into decades ago. Similarly, many people from outside the “American” continent have been brought here through coercion, violence, or due to desperate situations brought forth by the same power structures that allowed for the colonization of this continent. Radical Chicanxs, latinxs, and other marginalized peoples not indigenous to the Americas must engage in serious discussions with the local indigenous tribes to determine what role, if any, we can take to be accepted as inhabitants and transplanted members of their nations.

Lastly, in order for the Chicanx movement and other nonwhite power movements to truly emerge out of the racial power structures of White Supremacy, which has been explained to function through the vehicles of capitalism, imperialism and colonialism, we must no longer fall for the trap of focusing on our struggles alone at the expense of another’s. The fight against White Supremacy can only function in an anti-colonial context, but also through the unification against all non-white and non-patriarchal struggles. Differences among racialized groups have been further delineated by capitalists through differential treatment of bodies based on multiple identities and phenotypic characteristics. During the Civil Rights Era, “ [w]hile many blacks…sought ‘jobs or income’ to combat poverty, the Chicano activists in Washington emphasized land and language rights” (Mantler 199). Such distinctions of “ varying degrees of direct intensity”(Dei 7) are created by those in power as a means to create tensions among the marginalized, even within homogenized groups.

For example, within the Black community alone, “intra-group whitening practices, rooted within the purposeful ‘divisions of labor’ imposed during slavery that were believed to allow blacks of a lighter hue to receive less physically demanding tasks, created levels of intra-group envy, friction and division with visible long-lasting legacies” (Aja 97). One of our movements’ key fatal flaws has been allowing such imposed divisions to stagnate anti-racist efforts. Within the Chicanx and Latinx school desegregation movement, the fight was to achieve legal inclusion into whiteness, at the expense of bringing “violent, often deadly, blows, to another racialized community or communities “(Dei 7). As Rochmes’ argues, “Latinos’ insistence on whiteness limited Latinos’ successes in court and prevented them from forming meaningful alliances with Blacks. Worse, it blinded Latinos to a central tenet of the critical study of whiteness— that whiteness is nothing but an ideology of supremacy” (Rochmes 8).

In short, Chicanx movement, along with other nonwhite power movements, tend to miss the point. Instead of questioning the inherently-racial and oppressive systems of wage labor and land allocation—all based on the removal of indigenous relationships to land and the exploitation of landless workers—they focus on how they can improve their group’s individual status in the racial hierarchy of a settler state. As Dei suggests, “[w]e need radical pedagogies that challenge and subvert dominant ways of thinking, and further promote education practices and relations among learners in a spirit of sharing, reciprocity, appreciation, and validation” (Dei 14) among all layers and intersections of marginalization. The Chicanx movement, as both a colonized group of indigenous ties to the seized lands of the “Americas” and the descendants of colonizers who seized those very lands, have the duty to forge Chicanismo in a way that advocates for the return to material, indigenous sovereignty over the land while including the struggle of all marginalized groups under the current capitalist, colonial global structure.

Works Cited

  1. Aja, Alan A. (2012). Anyone But Blacks: [email protected] s, El Nuevo Blanqueamiento (Neo-Whitening), and Implications for Black–Brown Alliances. Souls, 14(1–2), 88–116
  2. Cristina Beltrán (2004). “Patrolling Borders: Hybrids, Hierarchies and the Challenge of Mestizaje,” Political Research Quarterly. 57:4, 597–607
  3. Dei, G. J. S. (2017). “Chapter 1: [Re]framing Blackness and Black Solidarities Through Anti-Colonial and Decolonial Prisms: An Introduction.” Reframing Blackness and Black Solidarities through Anti-Colonial and Decolonial Prisms.
  4. Mantler, G. K. (n.d.). Black, Brown, and Poor: Civil Rights and the Making of the Chicano Movement. The Struggle in Black and Brown: African American and Mexican American Relations during the Civil Rights Era.
  5. McCormick, J., & Ayala, C. J. (2007). Felicita’ La Prieta’ Mendez (1916-1998) and the end of Latino school segregation in California. Centro Journal, 19(2), 13–35
  6. Omi and Winant: Michael Omi & Howard Winant, selections from Chapter Four, Racial Formation in the United States. 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2015).
  7. Turner, Frederick Jackson, 1861-1932. The Significance of the Frontier in American History. Madison State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1894. 
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