I'm Mexican-American, but I Won't Call Myself Chicana

Natalie Rivera
Natalie Rivera

My family was nothing out of the ordinary when I was growing up. My parents came to the US in their teens from their respective homes in Mexico, crossing the border illegally, only to become US citizens in the '80s under the Reagan administration. I was born in North Hollywood, CA, and was raised in nearby San Fernando. When I was around 4 years old, my mother worked shifts at the McDonald's drive-through at 5 a.m. when she was pregnant with my younger brother. My father worked landscaping and delivered Domino's pizza over the weekend up until I was about 10 years old. Every month was another baptism, communion, birthday party, quinceañera, or wedding with my very large Mexican family (I have roughly 75 cousins. No, seriously. My dad and I counted.). My aunts and uncles all came into this country under similar circumstances; one of my father's brothers also delivered Domino's pizza to make a living.

I still can't seem to bring myself to identify with one specific label: Chicana

My middle and high schools, like the neighborhood, were predominately Latinx, specifically Mexican-American. Most of my classmates were first-generation, and some of them were Mexican immigrants themselves. Friends, bullies, crushes, and even teachers weren't too different from me. We were almost all, in one way or another, a product of the Mexican-American experience, whether that meant having parents who crossed the border or simply growing up with Univision playing in the background 24/7. It wasn't until after college that I began meeting more people who weren't Angelenos. To this day, people who I meet for the first time in the city (I now live in Koreatown, a mere 30 to 40 minute drive from home) still tell me how rare it is that they meet someone who is actually from LA. Little do they know they're unicorns for me, too.

Because so many of the friends, coworkers, and acquaintances I've met in the last several years do not look like me, I've felt I've had a responsibility to share my upbringing with them. I was in my mid-20s the first time I described myself as first-gen, a term that wasn't a thing where I grew up since everyone just assumed you were one. Because of our political climate, I feel more inclined to self-describe as a Mexican-American, first-gen, or — as one of my protest signs once read — "The proud daughter of Mexican immigrants." But while I'm glad to share my family's story, I still can't seem to bring myself to identify with one specific label: Chicana.

The Meaning of Chicano and Chicana

Merriam-Webster defines the word "Chicana" as an American woman or girl of Mexican descent. By dictionary definition, yes, I am Chicana, but growing up the word seemed, at least to me, to have a different connotation.

While historians can't pinpoint the word's exact origins, Chicano — or the female Chicana — has been widely used to describe Mexican-Americans in the US since the early 20th century. For a while, the word was a pejorative, used to describe Mexican-Americans of low social standing. Chicanos reclaimed the word during the Mexican-American civil rights movement in the '60s, also known as the Chicano Movement, which was led by a new generation of Mexican-Americans, mainly in California and Texas, who demanded better labor conditions for migrant farmers, political empowerment, and school reform. Two of the movement's most prominent leaders were Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who cofounded the United Farm Workers of America, the country's first farmers union and a major win for the labor movement.

My hometown is widely proud of its Chicano history. We have a mural dedicated to Chavez, and our local cafes will usually have at least one piece of Chicano art hanging on the walls. My teachers taught us about Chavez's legacy in middle school, and the university I went to — also in the valley — has a Chicana/o studies department. Yet, the word to me meant more than its Merriam-Webster definition; it meant you were a woke Mexican-American, one willing to fight for la raza, or the race. Students at my school who identified as Chicano/a seemed well-versed in the injustices faced by our people, both past and current, and dedicated to combating them. Because of this, Chicano/a seemed more than just a label or term. It was a way of living, and so self-identifying as one meant you weren't just Mexican-American, but a proud, activist Mexican-American.

Whether it was immigrant rights, or just a deeply felt appreciation of Chavez's and Huertas' efforts, proud Chicana/os I've come across always seemed to be self-aware. I was not — or at least not to that extent. I was never involved in any student protest or political demonstrations growing up, and any time I learned something else about the Chicana/o Movement, I merely took in the knowledge without applying it into my daily life. I felt some guilt over this, but like many teens my interests didn't include activism or politics, but mostly music, magazines, Harry Potter and, well, boys (16-year-old me would have done poorly on a Bechdel Test.) Also, because the community I grew up in was predominately Mexican-American, I rarely witnessed discrimination towards Latinxs. In fact, white kids were more likely to be the outcasts. While TV and film told a different story, everyone in the community I grew up in pretty much looked the same. Because of this, I was more or less ignorant about the the Latinx struggle. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I didn't care, it's just that it never resonated with me the way it did with some of my classmates.

While I do now, as an adult, participate in protests, and have created content bringing awareness to immigration rights, I do not feel my political activism can compare to that demonstrated during the Chicano Movement. Therefore I do not feel comfortable identifying as Chicana, and gravitate more to the labels Mexican-American and Latina. Even though I am, by definition, Chicana, I do not feel a personal connection to the word, nor do I feel my experience as a Mexican-American reflects that of the Chicano Movement or Chicano culture.

How Do We Shape Our Own Identities as Mexican-Americans?

I spoke to Gabriel Gutiérrez, department chair of Chicana and Chicano studies at California State University Northridge — which happens to be my alma mater — about the history of the word. Like me, Gutierrez also believes the word is more than its dictionary definition. However, he also believes the evolution of the term extends beyond the Chicano Movement. According to Gutierrez, for some people, the term has cultural connotations. Because we are Mexican-American, there is the expectation of being equally as Mexican as we are American, therefore making some of us desperate for a label that embodies our particular experience.

"You're going to have folks who identify with the term as sort of an alternative between Mexican and American identities," Gutiérrez told me. "In part because of the notion or the idea or the experience of not being considered, or not considering yourself, authentically Mexican or authentically American."

While self-identification can play a huge role in the Latinx community, just because a person gravitates to one label more than another doesn't mean the term itself is more or less accurate. In Mexico, some people choose to identify with their home state as opposed to their birth country. For example, someone might be more inclined to call themselves Michoacána than Mexican, identifying more closely with the state of Michoacán as opposed to just Mexico. Not one label is necessarily better than the other; it's just the way am individual feels more comfortable identifying. Because there are so many layers to a person, there are are multitudes of ways someone can identity, especially if you add heritage into the equation. And as Gutiérrez pointed out, our identity is not always fixed, but is often fluid. "In reality, many people experience multiple identities as they go through life," he explained. "So, the first realization might be a response to something they see in the news ,or a response to a particular law. Basically, the deeper of understanding in that regard, then the more types of identities come to form along those lines."

Gutiérrez also said that while some people do use Chicano/a as a literal term to mean born of Mexican parents, some people call themselves "Chicano/a" as a way to show pride. Like the activists of the Chicano Movement, some people might use the term to reclaim their heritage — something Mexican-Americans have historically been made to feel ashamed of, either by cultural prejudices or institutionalized racism.

"You have folks from kindergarten and on who are being taught to be be ashamed of their parents, or be ashamed of who they were," Gutierrez explained. "[They were taught] to not want to speak Spanish, and so that was inverted in a sense where people were looking at a combination of expression . . . of self-affirmation."

The struggle for self-affirmation and belonging is one I've personally dealt with most my life, and something I still have trouble grasping even in my late 20s. I used to envy the American families depicted on TV, wishing I came from a home that was uncomplicated, that allowed me to see my father on the weekends, and didn't come with the pressure of having to know two cultures and languages equally. I am ashamed to admit this now, but there was a lot of embarrassment that came with growing up Mexican-American — at least for me. Whether it was embarrassing myself with my broken Spanish or feeling left out because I didn't grow up watching Seinfeld or Friends, being a young, Mexican-American woman was so conflicting, I'd sometimes resent my own culture.

Looking back now, I've realized that this pressure, though sometimes enforced by family members and classmates, was really my own doing. Though I won't ever get the years I wasted stressing over the ideal Mexican-American woman I felt I had to live up to back, I can instead live my life subscribing myself to labels and identities I feel most comfortable with. As of now, those labels don't include the word "Chicana," and that's just fine. It should not be taken as an insult or a diss to those who do choose to embrace the term, but for what it is: my own personal, genuine self-reflection. On top of the many rights my people fought for, I have a feeling they also fought for the freedom of proudly and freely determining your own identity — and that's good enough for me.