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

PHOTO: Mural on Evergreen Avenue in Los Angeles.Maegan Ortiz/ ABC/Univision
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.

What's interesting here in Los Angeles is that when I tell people I'm Rican, no one questions that identity here or accuses me of misrepresenting myself. Maybe that's because Chicanos/Xicanos are used to having their own identity questioned, their pocho Spanish-Spanglish looked down upon even if the land beneath our feet in Los Angeles was once Mexico. Colonialism is complicated but to quote the poetisa Maria Mariposa Fernandez, "Yo no naci en Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico nacio en mi".

What complicates the Boricua identity compared to the Xicano is the matter of political status. While some Chicanos may still dream of the reconquista of Califas into Atzlán, Ricans from the Bronx River to the Rio Grande de Loiza are struggling with their status as United States citizens in name only but not in terms of self-determination.

This is why so much art in the Puerto Rican diaspora clings to clichés of coquis and arroz con habichuelas. In the absence of real political recognition, it's often easier to cloak oneself in false nostalgia. Chicano/Xicano art has some of this too, with open mics echoing references to tortillas de maiz.

I get it. I have been guilty of this. It's an effort in resistance but so much of this "fighting back" by going back means getting held back in our own stereotypes of what it means to be something from somewhere.

It was somewhat comforting to hear my kids identify themselves without hesitation as Ricans. When I was 15, before I found activism, I called myself everything but. There is a whole other side to them though, Chilean and Mapuche. How do I connect them to that when I lack that thread and there's not a huge Chilean/Mapuche community here in East Los, is another question.

My daughters cannot be Chicana/Xicana when they grow up. Buy I hope they will grow into their Ricanness. I know I'm still working on it.

Watch a video of Mamita Mala interviewing her daughters about their identities

Follow Maegan "Mamita Mala" Ortiz as she chronicles her adventures as a Nuyorican in LA, including being grateful for not having to smell her vecinos, her musings on different Spanglish accents and slang, her quest for the best schools for her daughters, how she gets around without a car, and the story of how the self-proclaimed original "Twitterputa" fell in love and ended up here in the first place.