Jose Antonio Burciaga and Notions of Chicanismo by Lucayo Casillas

January 15, 2020
Franz Kunst
 (Image of mural from a newspaper clipping, Chicano Art and Artistry Series)

Guest post from Manuscripts processing assistant Lucayo Casillas

As I entered the second month of my internship at the Special Collections library in Redwood City, I took on the processing of my second collection: the papers of the Mexican-American artist and poet Jose Antonio Burciaga. As to be expected with this type of work, delving into Burciaga’s collection has been like a journey through time. What has stood out to me during the processing are aspects of the zeitgeist within Mexican American society during the late 20th century, especially in terms of efforts to define and redefine Mexican American identity. Much of Burciaga’s work was intertwined with this effort. Between the 1970s and 1990s, the author/artist was part of a movement of Mexican-American artists and intellectuals who actively engaged in conceptualizing and re-conceptualizing what constituted Mexican-American thought and culture. Temporally, Burciaga’s affiliation with this literary, artistic, and intellectual dimension of what has been labeled the Chicano Movement, developed in the wake of Mexican American activism and self-determination that emerged in the mid-20th century.  Mexican American demands for civil rights, socio-economic amelioration, political representation, and justice for discrimination from what many Chicanos called “Anglo” society, prompted the rise of this Chicano Movement.

 It was during this period of agitation and unrest that the term “Chicano,” which once had a derogatory connotation, was appropriated by Mexican-Americans to designate Mexican-Americans.  The history surrounding this term is a prime example of this theme of Mexican-American identity that, like other Latino identities, has come to be recognized as a product of the interaction between European, Amerindian, African, and eventually (US) American cultures from the fifteenth-century to the present. Its root likely lies in terms used by Nahuatl speakers to denote the place and ruling people within the Aztec Empire. From these terms the Spanish derived the names Mexico and Mexicano. In the Latinized term Mexico, the Nahuatl pronunciation of the x in Mexica with a voiceless postalveolar sibilant [ʃ] (i.e. an “sh” sound), was changed to the Spanish “h” sound signified by the Spanish letter “J.” The fragmentation of the term Mexicano into Xicano/Chicano, the pronunciation of the Nahuatl consonant, and the subsequent colloquialization of the new term, were all popular gestures that reflected Mexican-American promotion of indigenous influences on modern Mexican culture and identity.

 Mexicans have grappled with their indigenous heritage since it became problematized by Spanish colonization in the 16th century. The coming of the conquistadors induced the rise of mix-raced mestizo populations, alongside the development of race-based caste systems that placed Indians peoples and enslaved Africans on the very bottom. After Mexico’s independence struggle in the early 19th century, Mexican elites cited indigenous (mainly Aztec) legacies in a romantic nationalist fashion when conceiving and justifying notions of Mexican nationhood. Indian heritage and populations of extant Indian tribes themselves, however, were still problematic forces for the nation that rose out of European colonization into mestizo liberalism. This is evident in the multitude of bloody wars throughout the 19th century between the Mexican state and autonomous Indian tribes that resided on lands that the Mexican state had claimed as its own.  Thus, the popular trend among conventional and urban Mexicans of embracing Indian heritage and culture instead of denouncing these, or deeming Indian culture as backward, is much more of a 20th century phenomenon that burgeoned during the Second Mexican Revolution. One can look to the works of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera for examples of this. The embrace of indigenous heritage by popular Chicano culture, I believe, was a late 20th century manifestation of this pro-indigenismo trend. Among many Mexican Americans, the term Chicano therefore emphasized the continuity of a mixed indigenous and European heritage that is observable, for example, in the proliferation Nahautl words in Mexican Spanish.

For some, the term Chicano also represented an ideological rebuke and rejection of the hegemony of European descendants in the Americas, and the English speaking United States in a Latin-American world that, of course, once included a good chunk of what is now the United States before the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.  And to many Chicano activists, artists, and intellectuals, The US annexation of what was northern Mexico in no way signified a complete separation of the region from the rest Latinoamerica, evinced in the ways in which Mexican and Latino populations and cultures have continued to define the western United States. Hence we have the contemporary Mexican-American and migrant-activist slogan, “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” Such sentiments were captured by a short article I found in this collection that was written by Chicano activist Rueben Salazar in 1970. In Who is a Chicano? Salazar boldly proclaimed that:

A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself. He resents being told Columbus “discovered America when [his] ancestors, the Mayans and the Aztecs, founded highly sophisticated civilizations centuries before...the Italian Explorer’s trip to the “New World.” Chicanos resent also Anglo pronouncements that Chicanos are ‘culturally deprived” or that the fact that they speak Spanish “is a problem.” Chicanos will tell you that their culture predates that of the Pilgrims, and that Spanish was spoken in the Americas before English, and so the “problem” is not theirs but the Anglos who don’t speak Spanish.

After delineating these issues and sentiments, as well as the types of socio-economic predicaments and civil rights crises that Mexican Americans were facing at the time, Salazar then concluded his piece with the statement that such issues explain why “Mexican American activists flaunt the barrio [ghetto] word Chicano as an act defiance and a badge of honor.” Salazars’ words bear certain potency when seen in light of that fact that he was killed by a policeman just months later at an anti-Vietnam War protest that was organized by Chicanos against the drafting of Mexican Americans, while issues of Mexican American civil rights still needed to be addressed. (Series Research Clippings).

These issues influenced many of the themes that were central to Antonio Burciaga’s work. In a poem that I found entitled National Hispanic Week 1977, Burciaga mocked the initiative, calling it “a manifest destiny hangover.” Throughout the text he juxtaposed the positive and inclusive veneer of a National Hispanic Week in the US with major socio-economic and political issues that Latinos faced at the time. “During National Hispanic Week,” Burciaga wrote:

        Mexico celebrated its independence

        Puerto Rico struggled with colonial chains

        Panama struggled to get its waterway back

        And Latinoamerica still suffered from U.S. economic imperialism

        During National Hispanic Week

        La Resistencia surged ahead…..

Burciaga often approached these topics with a sense of humor and sarcasm. “During National Hispanic Week,” Burciaga teased that “Burritos and tacos were severed in federal cafeterias.” He then posed the question of whether or not National Hispanic Week was “a capitalist ploy of the frozen Mexican Food corporations.” Like Salazar, I think Burciaga bluntly raised these issues in his work as a part of his exploration of Chicano identity and of what constituted Chicano thought. In works like National Hispanic Week 1977, Burciaga aimed to present how Chicanos were thinking, even if such thoughts came off as tendentious to the greater the American public. (Series: Poems and Drawings)

            Along with issues surrounding civil rights, Burciaga also engaged with the concept of indigenous heritage when exploring Chicanismo. In a short article published around Columbus Day in 1992, the year that marked the quincentennial of that momentous event, Burciaga noted that while most Americans were interested in remembering “what happened 500 years ago,” Chicanos and Latinos represented and were more interested in “what happened ever since.” According to Burciaga, Latinos recalled this history with a “collective memory of wounds inflicted over 500 years.” Citing contemporary issues of discrimination, immigration and deportation, and the “invisibility” of Latino identity, history, and perspectives in the eyes of European Americans who share the Americas with these peoples, Burciaga stated that “until my memory is made part of American history, I cannot feel a part of the larger community” (Series: Research Clippings). However, despite his sharp criticism of the United States, Burciaga believed that being Chicano also made him distinctly part of the nation. In Drink Cultura 1993, for example, he wrote that “I am the Southwest, I am tortillas and frijoles, but I am also hamburgers and hot dogs.”

 El DiaPocho

Left. Illustration of a struggle between a conquistador and a Mexica eagle-knight on the front page of El Dia Magazine to commemorate the quincentennial of Cristopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492. The theme of the clash of civilizations is quite glaring. Series: Research Clippings.

Right. Cover of a satirical Chicano counter-culture magazine, called Pocho Magazine. The artists mock the quincentennial with “painful sarcasm” by dubbing it “500 years of  violent strikes,” while depicting a hip Chicano man striking a police officer in what appears to be a take on issues of police brutality in the Mexican-American community. The artists also mock Chicanismo with the title of the magazine, as “pocho” is a Mexican colloquial pejorative for a Mexican person who has lost their sense of traditional culture and identity. However, the notation below the title that states “hecho en Atzlan” (made in Atzlan, the ancestral lands of the Mexica – the Aztecs), clearly speaks to a core Chicanista concept: Mexicans are at home in the western United States, not simply due to the fact that the region was once part of Mexico, but also because of the long legacy of pre-Columbian interaction between North and Meso-America. Series: Chicano Studies at Stanford & Other Universities/Chicano press. 

While much of Burciaga’s work bore strong political overtones, in many of his projects he also sought to celebrate the richness of Chicano culture, with an emphasis on the cultural hybridity that a shared European and indigenous American heritage has brought about. A perfect example of this is a mural that Burciaga helped to create in Redwood City that I believe is no longer around. The mural was entitled Danza Mexicana and was completed in 1978. As the title suggests, the mural depicted traditional Mexican dances that reflect the transculturation that defines Mexican culture and identity. Against a quintessential desert backdrop, the mural displayed three forms of Mexican dance that have come to represent Mexican patriotism. These included: the Danza de los Viejitos which is primarily influenced by the Purepecha people of central Mexico; the Jarabe Tapatío, perhaps one of the most recognizable Mexican dances, in which men wear charro suits and large hat,  and women wear colorful china problana dresses; and the Danza del Venado, the deer dance of the Yaqui people of Northern Mexico.  With such imagery, Danza Mexicana was a clear statement that Mexican culture is comprised of European and Amerindian elements, and that this combination is what makes it distinct and aesthetically pleasing. The mural also reflects Burciaga’s interest in further emphasizing the indigenous side when imagining Chicano and Mexican identity. As he stated in a 1989 opinion piece called A Chicano is also Indian, Burciaga held that there was “a need to acknowledge and pay tribute to our ignored Indian heritage. A Chicano is both Hispanic and Indian.” In this same piece, Burciaga also declared that Chicano identity is something that is inherently politicized.

Danza Mexicana 

Original illustrations for the Danza Mexicana mural. Far left, Danza de los Viejitos. Center, the Jarabe Tapatío. Far right, Danza del Venado. Series: Murals and Muralism.

Danza Del Venado

Danza del Venado. Series: Murals and Muralism.

Danza Mexicana illustrations

Images of Danza Mexicana illustrations. Series: Murals and Muralism.

Ultimately, engaging with Burciaga’s papers really allows one to understand aspects of the ethos of Chicanismo and Chicanidad. His own writings and those from others, convey what and how Chicano artists and intellectuals were thinking, and a review of the artwork and ephemera in the collection will literally provide a glimpse of what Chicanismo and Chicanidad actually looked like during the latter part of the last century.

 ChicanismoEstos Tiempos

Covers of press published by Chicano students at Stanford. Series: Chicano Studies at Stanford & Other Universities/Chicano Press.


Tony and Cecilia Burciaga. Stanford University. Libraries. Department of Special Collections and University Archives.