A NYRican in LA: Can I Be Chicana When I Grow Up?

PHOTO: Mural on Evergreen Avenue in Los Angeles.

Where I live, Chicanismo/Xicansimo is everywhere. It's on the murals defaced with graffiti on Cesar Chavez Avenue. It's on the names of taco trucks and 99 cent stores. As I took the bus through downtown on the Day of la Virgin de Guadalupe I spotted Aztec dancers next to a Catholic church. The legacy of mestizaje is breathed in the air and it's carried in the blood.

The assumption is that it's carried in my blood and through my kids' veins too.

"Mami, what's a chicana?" my 5-year-old asked me one day after she came home from school.

My oldest daughter, who is 15, tells me that everyone at school assumes she is Chicana, a U.S. citizen of Mexican descent or a Xicana, one that identifies with Indigenous Mexico.

According to the 1993 film Blood in Blood Out that allegedly depicts parts of my East Los Angeles hood, "Chicano's not a color! It's the way you think and the way you live your life and if you're willing to give up your life for another carnal!"

That said, I don't think my daughters or myself could ever claim Chicana/Xicana no matter how long we live here. It's hard enough for already to claim Rican and I guess that's something that Nuyoricans and Chicanos have in common, defining identity and belonging in a place that is no longer what it used to be.

"There is only one Puerto Rican in this house!" my mother sometimes would proclaim angrily when my teenage self began asserting my Rican identity, thanks in large part to the amazing mentorship of Richie Perez and the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. I can't remember my mom ever using the term NYRican or Nuyorican, but she made it clear that she was born on an island I only knew from holiday visits and history. She was the real deal.

But is ethnic authenticity just a matter of what side of a border you were born on? Cherrie Moraga writes in Art in America con Acento, "To be a chicana is not merely to name one's racial/cultural identity but also to name a politic, a politic that refuses assimilation into the U.S. mainstream. It acknowledges our mestizaje - Indian, Spanish, and africano."

Except that's usually not how it works in the streets of Boyle Heights or Bushwick. There seems to be a fine line between acknowledging a complicated history and appropriation, which is not just for white hipsters anymore. In Los Angeles many Chicanos want to be Xicanos, with names in Nahuatl and inventions like Aztec yoga classes. To be Xicano is to claim a new radicalism, a return to what was -- but there is often a blindness to what that is. There are events to support the Zapatistas but a visible gaping chasm between the neo-indigenous and the indigenous immigrants who struggle to survive in Los Angeles.

Puerto Ricans and Nuyoricans are guilty of the same thing. On the island, it's trendy to get your DNA tested to see just how "Taino" you are, leading many to pull out the old "my great grandmother was Indian" line. Even where it may be true, the recreation of traditions often comes at the expense of marginalizing other parts of the mezcla that makes many of us. I don't see people rushing to find out their connections to slavery - on the Spanish or the African side.

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