As a Mexican American linguist, I knew this day would come.
People keep asking me the origin of Chicano. “Isn’t it indigenous?” they say.
:takes a deep breath:
Okay, promise you won’t get mad? Allí vamos.
Let’s get one thing straight: no matter what the origin of “Chicano” ultimately turns out to be, we Chicanos get to decide what it means for us, okay? If we decide (as we increasingly do) to spell and pronounce it “Xicanos” or “Xicanx” as a nod to Nahuatl, we can. It’s ours.
That being said, let’s start with the theory that so many of my carnales embrace: it’s a truncated form of the word “mexicano” as pronounced in the 16th century, i.e. /meʃikano/ or “meshicano” (note that “Nahuatl” and “Aztec” were originally “meshicano” in colonial Spanish).
This hypothesis is probably wrong. In the other Mexican X posts, I’ve shown again and again that Nahuatl “x” (-sh-) became Spanish “x” (-sh-) for a few decades until the ongoing consonant shift made it an aspirated “h” sound (/x/). “Mexicano” (from “Mēxihcatl”) is no exception. It became “mejicano” (as some nations actually spell it).
Some groups of Nahuas (Indigenous speakers of Nahuatl) began calling their language “mexicano” (pronounced “meshicano”), but I’ve found no evidence that these Native peoples (from Durango, Nayarit, Morelos) immigrated to the US in large enough numbers to influence the pronunciation among existing Mexican Americans. We simply can’t prove that possibility. I wish reality were otherwise.
In fact, as far as attestations go (i.e., actual documented use of a word), “Chicano” doesn’t appear until the early 20th century, in the US. Anthropologist José Limón uncovered mention of the word in a 1911 Spanish-language newspaper, La Crónica.
As you can see, it appears that Mexican Americans used the term as a slur against uncultured members of their community, often recent immigrants. Raza tended to reject the term, as a result.