Why You Might Want to Stop Using the Terms ‘Xicana,’ ‘Xicano’ and ‘Xicanx’ (OPINION)

I’d like to start off by saying that I self-identify as Chicano. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the word Chicano, it is a term that was widely adopted in the 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement and is used by people who are of Mexican descent living in the United States. There is no other term of self-identity that I feel more comfortable using. With that being said, I fully support the somewhat recent use of the word Chicanx to include non-binary people. I also support people who decide to use the terms Chicana or Chicano if they choose to identify with either the masculine or feminine versions of the word.

What I do not support are the terms “Xicana,” “Xicano” and “Xicanx”. I do not support the trending use of these new terms because I believe that it is disingenuous to the cause that it represents. When I come across someone who identifies with either of these three terms, the usual explanation is that they use it because they believe it’s their way of paying homage to their indigenous roots by using the letter X, which is a letter commonly found in the Nahuatl language. But I’d like to pose a serious question; how does replacing the Ch with an X show respect or pay homage to indigenous roots?

Let’s break this down.

The Mexica were a Nahuatl-speaking group of indigenous people who traveled from their unspecified homeland of Aztlán in what is believed to be somewhere in northwestern Mexico or the southwestern United States. They settled in a swampy lake which would come to be known as Tenochtítlan (present day Mexico City) after witnessing the prophecy of an eagle perched atop a nopal cactus with a snake in its beak.

Nahuatl is an indigenous language, which included numerous different dialects, spoken by the Mexica and many other indigenous groups in Mexico and Central America. The Nahuatl language was very widespread. It was spoken and written by many people in Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Now, when I say written, it’s very important to understand how this language was written prior to Spanish arrival. Nahuatl was not a written language in the present day sense that they used letters to represent phonemes to sound out words, no. The Nahuatl language was represented visually by the use of pictographs. A pictograph is a pictorial symbol (an illustration) used to represent a word or phrase. Nahuatl’s pre-Columbian pictorially written language was complex, beautiful, artistic, and ingenious.

Folio 13r of the Codex Magliabechiano, a mid-16th century Aztec codex. (Public Domain)

After the arrival of the Spanish and the subsequent downfall of the Mexica empire in 1521, the Spanish began transcribing the Nahuatl language using Roman letters. In the decades that followed, indigenous people still used pictographs in addition to the Roman alphabet being imposed on them by their Spanish colonizers. It was a short-lived conflict as the Spanish language eventually became the dominant language of Mexico. When Spanish colonizers attempted to transcribe Nahuatl, they had to find a way to make sense of phonemes (sounds) that were not found in their own language. This included the “sh” sound. For those of you who are Spanish speakers, you know that there is no “sh” sound in the Spanish language.

Tile mosaic with what is considered to be Cuauhtemoc’s last report to the Aztec governing council and last act as chief. Written in Nahuatl and Spanish. (Photo by Thelmadatter/Public Domain)

Because of this, colonizers needed to use a letter to represent this sound. So the Spanish decided to use the letter X to represent this foreign sound that they could not pronounce.

Now, let’s get back to the terms “Xicana”, “Xicano” and “Xicanx”. How many people using these new terms have actually studied Nahuatl or know indigenous people who have a grasp on the Nahuatl language? The fact that Nahuatl is no longer the language spoken by the majority in Mexico and the fact that Nahuatl is only taught in an academic setting at a handful of institutions in the U.S., my guess is not many.

Even for the people who do happen to know someone who speaks Nahuatl, they would know that the letter X in Spanish-transcribed Nahuatl is not used to represent the “ch” sound, it’s used for the “sh” sound. So unless people are pronouncing these words as “Shee-can-a,”, “Shee-can-o” and “Shee-can-ex” (which they aren’t), the alterations of these words make no sense. I see no connection to indigenous roots by using these variations of the words Chicana, Chicano, and Chicanx. If there is any connection by using the X in place of the Ch, it would be a connection to European colonizers.

I have noticed that these new terms have been used more and more recently. I’m unsure how many of the people using these terms know about the indigenous history of Mexico. We now have famous social media accounts using these words, which adds to their popularity. This only exacerbates the problem and encourages more people to use the terms. I’m only one person and I’m sure there are thousands of people out there using “Xicana”, “Xicano”, and “Xicanx” to self-identify. They are using these terms with a good heart. I get it—it’s important to recognize our indigenous roots. But we must do this in a way that truly highlights indigenous culture, not arbitrarily using a term you saw someone else use. Using a letter from a European language that was forced upon people during colonization in order to pay homage to an indigenous culture just seems counterintuitive to me, but hey, who am I to tell you how to identify?

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Dominick Ortiz obtained his B.A. in Chicana & Chicano Studies and Urban Studies and Planning from California State University, Northridge.

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