When I was growing up I never heard the word “Chicano.” No one in my family used it and I never heard it in the neighborhood even though there was a sizable Mexican population in Back of the Yards. I’m reminded of this because I was just reading Ethnic Chicago edited by Melvin G. Holli and Peter d’A. Jones, Grand Rapids, Michigan, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1984. What reminded me of never having heard the word “Chicano” was Chapter VIII written by Louise Año Nuevo Kerr titled, “Mexican Chicago: Chicano Assimilation Aborted.” She uses “Chicano” throughout the chapter to refer to Mexicans who came from Mexico illegally, who were part of the bracero U.S.-Mexican agreement during WWII, were from Texas and therefore were American citizens, or had ancestors from Mexico.
So I’m thinking back to the very first time when I heard “Chicano” and I remember I first heard it at Divine Heart Seminary in Donaldson, Indiana, when I was a freshman. There were only three Mexican students out of 130 at DHS: Fred Casillas from Gary, Indiana, Tony Hernandez from Los Angeles, and me. There was also Hiram De Jesus, a Puerto Rican from Cleveland, Ohio. I remember Ken Jones, an African-American who was from Detroit, telling me when we had our first family visits that he wanted me to meet his mother. He insisted that I meet her for the whole week leading up to our first family weekend visit. Well, when I finally met her, I was surprised that she was Mexican. That explained why Ken wanted me to meet her so badly. Hiram also wanted me to meet his mother, whom I did. I was surprised that she was so young. She was only twenty-nine even though Hiram was fifteen. Fred and Tony were sophomores and Hiram and I were freshmen. Tony was my big brother when I visited DHS in eighth grade. Hiram and I were in Enrico Mordini’s Spanish II class with other sophomores.
Anyway, one day, Fred calls me a Chicano, but I had no idea what he was talking about because I had never heard the word before. He then explained it to me. None of this made any sense to me at first. I attended a Lithuanian Catholic school with mostly Lithuanian and Mexican students in a neighborhood that was home to Lithuanians, Mexicans, Germans, Italians, Poles, and other ethnic groups that in general maintained their ethnic customs, but got along well with everyone else. This Chicano movement that Fred described to me was something that was entirely new to me given where I had grown up.
One day after Fred returned to DHS from a weekend visit home, he wore a brown beret with a patch that said “Chicano Power” and a picture of brown clenched fist with an iron manacle with a dangling chain that had a broken link on the end. He also wore a white T-shirt with the same exact message and image. Fred made me feel like I was some sort of traitor for not having the same feelings as him about the Chicano movement.
Well, when I went home one weekend soon after, I had my father take me to Old Town to Bizarre Bazaar where I bought the same beret, “Chicano Power” patch, and T-shirt that Fred had. My father didn’t understand why I wanted these items, but he bought them for me anyway. He asked me to explain what they meant, but he didn’t seem to understand and didn’t give them too much importance. When my mother saw me wearing the beret with the patch and the T-shirt, she thought I had joined a gang. None of my friends understood why I would wear “Chicano Power” even after I explained it to them. All their parents thought that I had joined a gang, just as my mother did. Everyone misunderstood me. Luckily, I was only home for the weekend.
When I returned to DHS, Fred was so proud of me. Tony didn’t think much of my commitment to the Chicano movement. Since Hiram was Puerto Rican, it really didn’t affect him in any way. Surprisingly, none of the priests or brothers acknowledged my new apparel, much less reproach me for it. In general, unless you violated the seminary rules or you committed a sin, everyone pretty much left you alone. The only one who was really excited about all this was Fred. I was disappointed that I went through all this trouble to buy these items and no one, other than Fred, really cared. After a while, I stopped wearing the beret and the T-shirt. When I returned home for the summer, they stayed in my dresser drawer. I never again heard anyone in Chicago mention the word “Chicano.” Everyone I knew in Chicago was American.