I recently came across a video about the Chicano Moratorium March of August 29, 1970. In case you’ve never heard of it, the march was a watershed moment in the Chicano Movement, in which the Los Angeles Police met a peaceful Chicana-Chicano-led protest against the Vietnam War with extreme violence. The ensuing police riot claimed three lives, most notably that of journalist Ruben Salazar. It remains an important chapter in Chicana-Chicano history. Yet the video claims the Chicano Moratorium “sparked a movement in defense of Latinx lives.”
I have to admit, this bizarre rewriting of Chicana-Chicano history caught me by surprise. While it may be in vogue to adopt trendy terms like “Latinx” in an attempt to be more inclusive, this video in effect erases a part of history that many consider very important. I am not alone in feeling this way. The participants in the Chicano Moratorium most certainly did not identify as “Latinx” or “Chicanx,” and no amount of historical revisionism is going to change that.
After watching the video, I had many questions. Why did its producers feel entitled to effectively erase an identity that so many fought to gain respect for? Why did they feel the need to retroactively assign an identity to people who had never adopted it? But mainly, I wondered why the promoters of the term “Latinx” felt the need to cling to such a Eurocentric/anti-Indigenous identity in the first place.
The “x” in Latinx is an attempt to un-gender the term Latino, yet it still pays deference to a Eurocentric ideology that actively denies the Indigenous and African heritage of the people it claims to represent. If one is serious about non-gendered terminology, why cling to a European language as the basis of one’s identity? Why not simply adopt an Indigenous term? Wouldn’t this be more reflective of our cultural inheritance as native people?
Personally, I prefer to identify as Mazewalli, a term in the Nawatl language that means “Indigenous person.” Like many Mesoamerican languages, Nawatl is a non-gendered language. As an Indigenous man who descends from the Nawa peoples of Puebla, I think it is far more powerful and meaningful to my identity if I use a term in the language of my ancestors.
Mexico is one of the most linguistically diverse nations on the planet, with 62 Indigenous languages still being spoken. This means we can use a multitude of authentic, culturally specific labels to describe ourselves that better reflect who we are.
The very idea of a “Latin America” and “Latin” people comes from the French intellectual Michel Chevalier, who sought in the late 1800s to create an umbrella term that would unite colonial subjects under a generic “Latin” identity. In doing so, Chevalier hoped to assist Napoleon III in expanding the French empire. Chevalier hoped that if he could persuade Mexicans to adopt a “Latin” view of themselves, they would be more inclined to align themselves with French interests. In 1968, John Leddy Phelan, in his “Pan-Latinism, French Intervention in Mexico, and the Genesis of the Idea of Latina America,” explains Chevalier’s intentions:
“In order to forestall such a dismal prospect, Chevalier had an emphatic answer. France must reassert in a vigorous fashion that hegemony over the Latin world which belonged to her since the time of Louis XIV. Chevalier exhorted, ‘Only she [France] can prevent this whole family [the Latin nations] from being engulfed in the double inundation of the Germans or the Anglo-Saxons and the Slavs. To France belongs the role of awakening the Latins from the lethargy in which they are now submerged in the two hemispheres, to raise them to the level of other nations and to put the Latins in a position where their influence can be felt in the rest of the world.
“If Mexicans embraced the ideals of ‘Latinism,’ the French would now be their ‘Latin’ brethren as opposed to the ‘Saxons’ who also had interests in Mexico. As historian Thomas Holloway notes, ‘Napoleon III was particularly interested in using the concept to help justify his intrusion into Mexican politics that led to the imposition of Archduke Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico…’”
Unfortunately, the idea found a home among Mexico’s ruling elite. The notion that Indigenous people would be “improved” by transforming them into Latinos was a central part of Jose Vasconcelos’s idea of “La Raza Cosmica,” a racial fantasy that promoted whiteness as the “door to the future” for Indigenous Mexicans. In her book Seeing Indians: A Study of Race, Nation, and Power in El Salvador, author Virginia Q. Tilley breaks down the racism of “La Raza Cosmica” thusly:
“Vasconcelo’s cosmic race concept had, however, little or nothing to do with Indians. Although citing the admixture of Indigenous and black blood, he saw the true value of la Raza in its European Spanish and French — hence, ‘Latin’ — cultural (racial) roots. In ‘La Raza Cosmica,’ his tone about Indians was indeed dismissive: those Indians not already ‘Spanishized’ (españolizados) had ‘no other door to the future than the door of modern culture, nor any other future than the road already cleared by the latino civilization.” His goal was to eliminate Indianness by turning Indians into ‘latino-mestizos’ through cultural change, rather than truly to obviate and eliminate anti-Indian bias. Indeed, he believed that marginalizing — even eliminating — the Indigenous peoples was essential to Latin America’s international security and standing.”
Knowing the origin of the term “Latino,” I cannot bring myself to embrace it. No matter how you slice it, terms like “Latin,” “Latino,” “Latina,” and “Latinx” represent a racist-colonialist mindset that actively erases people of Indigenous and African origin. Why should we continue to promote a term that privileges whiteness at the expense of Brown and Black people? Sadly, in the race to be inclusive, a variety of alphabet-twisting terminology has emerged.
Some promote the usage of “Chicanx,” but this strikes me as just a trendy response to “Latinx.” And as we’ve seen in the case of the unfortunate Chicano Moratorium video, it can lead to the actual erasure of Chicana-Chicano history. By renaming the historical Chicano Movement the “Chicanx Movement,” well-meaning folks are attributing to the Chicano Movement an idea that did not even exist at the time.
By appropriating and retrofitting the past for purposes of the present, proponents of the “Chicanx Movement” are creating a false narrative that reeks of Orwellianism and historical revisionism. Well-intentioned or not, this is dangerous. I think simply using the term El Movimiento would be a reasonable solution that both respects our history and serves as a gender inclusive term.
Now let me be clear, gender inclusivity is absolutely important, and deserves our full attention. But I don’t think rewriting the identities of those who participated in historical events simply to appease current attitudes is the best way to do it. And to be perfectly honest, “Chicanx” is far less problematic than “Latinx” ever will be. After all, it’s not the “X” that is the cause for concern, it’s the “Latin” part that denies our cultural inheritance.
A recent notice from the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies even employs the term “[email protected]/X.” I won’t even hazard a guess as to how that nonsense is supposed to be pronounced. It appears that the Chicana-Chicano identity is destined to be revamped over and over again until it’s just a meaningless jumble of nonsensical letters and symbols. I have often joked that #[email protected]/X is just around the corner. I find this trend both unfortunate and misguided. Perhaps the next iteration of our identity can be decided by having a cat run across a keyboard?
Just a [email protected]…
This article was originally published on Medium.
Kurly Tlapoyawa is an archaeologist, author, filmmaker, and ethnohistorian. He is the founder of the Chimalli institute.