Latino Studies Chicano Literature
Rafael C. Castillo
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0140


Chicano literature began as a critical and creative response to discrimination and prejudice that affected Mexicans who immigrated into the United States after the 1900s, as well as those naturalized citizens who became Mexican Americans with roots in the American conquest of the Southwest after 1848. The term “Mexicano” was initially pronounced “Meshicano” during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. Centuries later, the “sh” sound became a harder tonal “ch,” spelling it with an “x” and linguistically evolving into a hard “ch” sound. Chicano then became a shortcut term for Mexicano as working-class youth adopted it. Thus, Chicano is pronounced “Xicano,” with a “ch” sound for the “x.” Many Mexican Americans who were naturalized Americans after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo used the term “Chicano” derisively to identify working-class Mexicans not fully accepted by their Mexican compatriots because they were mestizo, they lacked education, and they spoke a mixture of English and Spanish, forming clever neologisms. The term “Chicano” itself was also embraced by a growing base of Chicanos, who rejected Latin American, Mexican American, Hispanic, and even Latino (“I don’t speak Latin, therefore I am not Latino”) during the nascent Chicano movement, along with the farmworker movement. Although scholars tend to trace the embryonic origins of Chicano literature to writings that derive from the explorers Cabeza de Vaca and Hernan Cortés, these writers did not use the term “Chicano” in their references, nor did they call themselves “Chicanos.” What is striking, however, is that the tales, legends, and myths passed down orally manifested themselves in the folktales, legends, and stories of la llorona (the Weeping Woman)—a version of La Malinche, the betrayer of the Aztec Empire and paramour of Cortés, known as Dona Marina. Historically, these stories of conflict and conquest, of love and rejection, of heroes and traitors, of tragedy and comedy, become enmeshed in the social, geographical, and environmental landscape that eventually became Chicano literature. Chicano literature is therefore written by a group of people who identify with the political, cultural, and social Chicano movement, and who use expository writing, autobiography, fiction, poetry, drama, and film to document the history of Chicano consciousness in the United States. From this early Chicano movement, and the long marches of the United Farm Workers, emerged a literature giving voice to the disenfranchised, the working-class, the migrant worker, and the field hand, both male and female alike, as they fought for the right to tell their story in the growing body of American literature, just as the once rejected Walt Whitman fought to have his musings and writings accepted in the years following the American Civil War. The collective stories of sin and redemption, of territories lost and gained, of legends and myths ingrained in the greater Southwest are reflections of hundreds of years of human toil as Chicano literature evolved into another chapter of American literature.

General Overview

In the 1960s, Chicano literature burst onto the American scene with an array of playwrights, poets, novelists, and journalists, all capturing the ethos and consciousness of Chicanos. Lomeli 1989 is part of a collection that includes New Mexico novelist Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima was one of the first to capture, in English, the folkloric and mythic elements of Chicanos’ struggle for self-identity, while Grajeda 1979 gives prominence to Tomás Rivera’s novel . . .  y no se lo trago la tierra ( . . . and the earth did not part), written in Spanish, as giving voice to migrant field hands with legends and tales familiar to Mexicans as bona-fide experiences evoking dignity and a sense of history and family honor. Both Rivera’s and Anaya’s work became the benchmark for developing Chicano literary frameworks, even though dramatic short acts by Luis Valdez were developing quickly. Broyles-González 1994 provides a good assessment of the playwright Luis Valdez and his dramatic troupe as they entertained migrant workers with pastoral plays and skits detailing scenes of police brutality plus folkloric tales of ancient legends interlacing family dialogues with generational barrio history. Leal 1979 gives an interesting historical assessment, assigning Anaya, Rivera, and Valdez as part of the generational period whose experiences include the migrant generation (1900–1930s), the Mexican American generation (1930–1960), and the Chicano movement, all linked to the US civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements. Chicano literature then becomes a response and counter-narrative to the hegemony of American literature that excluded ethnic voices not germane to the Anglo-American literary heritage. In California, a collective group from the University of California-Berkeley formed the publishing outlet Quinto Sol (the Fifth Sun), a mythic allusion to the Aztec Fifth Sun, when the world is destroyed and reborn. López 2010 and Cutler 2014 provide a strong commentary on Nick Vaca and Octavio Romano, who formed Tonatiuh International, a publishing venue to publish Chicano writers ignored by the American literary establishment and give social critiques of flawed American social science assessments of Chicanos. Anaya 1972 also provide an excellent overview of Aztlan iconography and historical references dealing with Chicano literature as reflected in the struggles of working-class Chicanos who had stories about their heritage, history, culture, and hybrid language, complete with drama and art, all documenting a history of a people denied access to the American dream. The term “Chicano Renaissance” was coined by Felipe D. Ortego y Gasca (in Ortego y Gasca 1971) in response to the flowering of Chicano literature during the heyday of the Chicano movement.

  • Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. Berkeley, CA: Quinto Sol, 1972.

    A novel about Antonio, a young boy growing up in New Mexico with Ultima, a spiritual healer, who guides him into manhood.

  • Broyles-González, Yolanda. El Teatro Campesino: Theater in the Chicano Movement. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

    An excellent compendium of El Teatro Campesino, with an analysis and overview of diaries, interviews, and unpublished material on the early foundational work of Luis Valdez and this groundbreaking theater company.

  • Cutler, John Alba. “Quinto Sol, Chicano/a Literature and the Long March through Institutions.” American Literary History 26.2 (2014): 262–294.

    DOI: 10.1093/alh/aju018

    An excellent analysis and re-examination of how independent journals provided a counter-narrative and academic resistance to institutional dominance.

  • Grajeda, Ralph. “Tomás Rivera’s Appropriation of the Chicano Past.” In Modern Chicano Writers: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Joseph Sommers and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, 74–85. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979.

    An assessment of Tomás Rivera’s novel and its connection to Chicano migrant history, with an emphasis on critical theory.

  • Leal, Luis. “Mexican American Literature: A Historical Perspective.” In Modern Chicano Writers: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Joseph Sommers and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, 18–30. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979.

    A seminal study grounding Chicano literature to its historical origins and early beginnings.

  • Lomeli, Francisco A. “Revisiting the Vision of Aztlan: Origins, Interpretations, and Theory vis-à-vis Fact and Fiction.” In Aztlan: Essays on the Chicano Homeland. Edited by Rudolfo Anaya, Francisco A. Lomeli, and Enrique R. Lamadrid, 1–24. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

    Part of a collection of essays devoted to all things Aztlan and its relationship to Chicanos in general.

  • López, Dennis. “Goodbye Revolution—Hello Cultural Mystique: Quinto Sol Publications and Chicano Literary Nationalism.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. 35.3 (Fall 2010): 183–210.

    DOI: 10.1353/mel.2010.0006

    An overview of Quinto Sol Publications and the Grito Sol Writers, as they were commonly called during the heyday of its publication history.

  • Ortego y Gasca, Felipe. “Chicano Renaissance.” Social Casework 52.5 (May 1971): 294–307.

    DOI: 10.1177/104438947105200507

    A response to the explosion of Chicano literature in both mainstream and minority-owned publications.

  • Rivera, Tomás. . . . y no se lo trago la tierra. Houston, TX: Arte Publico Press, 1995.

    A salt-of-the-earth collection of stories linked to migrants and their families.

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