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Ilan Stavans has a Chicano problem

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Revised 8/11/2015

By Tlakatekatl

A few years ago, I made a note on my blog about finding a 16th-century map called “Desegno del Discoperto Della Nova Franza,” Venice, 1566, by Bolognino Zaltieri, that contains the term “Chicana” (link).  As it turns out, there are other 16th century maps that also contain this term.  This is important for many reasons, one of them being the continued debate over the etymology and antiquity of the term Chicana and Chicano.

The following map update was sparked by a recent article, “Do Chicanos Have an Inferiority Complex?,”  by Ilan Stavans, which has drawn a lot of attention from the Chican@ community.  In the article, Stavans attempts to trace the etymology of the term Chicano while simultaneously using it to psychoanalyze that community.  Unfortunately for him, he fails at both.

I won’t address the bigger issue with his assessment—I’ll leave that to veteranos who’ll undoubtedly pick his fallacious argument apart.  Rather, this post will hopefully serve to put to rest the erroneous notion, repeated by Stavans, that the terms Chicana and Chicano are no older than the mid 20th -century.

In his piece, Stavans claims to have “researched” the origin of the term Chicano and discredits the accepted explanation among many Chican@s that it’s derived from the Nahuatl pronunciation of Mexicano.  The fact is that the letter “x” was substituted for “sh” by the early chroniclers due to the absence of that sound in Spanish.  In time, some words with the “x” were Hispanicized with the letter “j” while others were transformed by the Spanish equivalent of “sh”  to the “ch.”  Hence, Me(shi)cano is thought to have been shortened to Chicano over the centuries. Or so the story goes…

Stavans is skeptical of that story, and perhaps rightly so.  However, he ignores the principle of “Occam’s razor” and proceeds to complicate it even further.  Astonishingly, Stavans states with absolute confidence that “the original appearance of Chicano in print is traced to 1947, in a story by Mario Suárez that was published in the Arizona Quarterly.”[1]  Had he dug a little deeper, Stavans would have discovered that in fact, the earliest known example of the term Chicano in print (in the United States) was in 1926, by a former immigrant laborer turned writer, Daniel Venegas.[2]  So much for research.

While conducting actual research on this, I came across a little known book by Arnoldo C. Vento, Mestizo: The History, Culture, and Politics of the Mexican and the Chicano: the Emerging Mestizo-Americans (1998) that briefly talks about the early explorer maps.[3] In referring to the etymology of the term Chicano, Vento says that: “One only has to look at a map to discover the archeological ruins of ‘Chicanna’ in southern Mexico to verify its pre-Colombian origin.”[4] He doesn’t provide a map or source for his claim, but his statement shows that at least since 1998, someone was aware that the term Chicana had ancient origins dating prior to 1848.  Although contrary to my findings, he places “Chicanna” in southern Mexico.

Later, I had a conversation with Kurly Tlapoyawa (the main admin for this blog) about the 1566 map with the term Chicana, and he told me that he’d also found a 16th-century map with the term as well!  What’s more, his map dated to 1562, four years earlier than mine.  Upon further inspection, the map Kurly found—the Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio / avctore Diego Gvtiero Philippi Regis Hisp. etc. Cosmographo; Hiero. Cock excvde” (1562)–otherwise known as the “Diego Gutierrez Map,” turns out to be the source for the map I found.[5]   See for yourself in the comparison below (click images to enlarge).

Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio / avctore Diego Gvtiero Philippi Regis Hisp. etc. Cosmographo ; Hiero. Cock excvde. 1562 ; Hieronymus Cock excude cum gratia et priuilegio 1562, also referred to as the “Diego Gutiérrez Map” (1562),

Detail: “Desegno del Discoperto Della Nova Franza,” Venice, 1566; Bolognino Zaltieri.

It is almost certain that Zaltieri’s 1566 map was based on Gutiérrez’s 1562 map, especially given the propensity for cartographers to copy each other in those days.  Although the cartographic style differs, many of the place names for “Nueva Espana” are virtually identical.  The placement of the name “Chicana” is roughly the same on both maps, and falls somewhere on the northwestern edge of the Mexican state of Sonora.  I’ve compared the antique maps with a Google map of the same region, and the “Chicana” on the maps falls somewhere just north of modern day Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, Mexico (see map below).  This place is a natural park called Parque Natural del Gran Desierto del Pinacate, named after the largest peak there “El Pinacate.”  This is from the Wikipedia page:

“El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve (Spanish: Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar), is a biosphere reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site[3] managed by the Federal government of Mexico, specifically by Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources, in collaboration with state government of Sonora and the Tohono O’odham….It is in the Sonoran Desert in Northwest Mexico, east of Gulf of California, in the eastern part Gran Desierto de Altar, just below the border of Arizona, United States and north of the city of Puerto Peñasco. It is one of the most significant visible landforms in North America seen from space. A volcanic system, known as Santa Clara is the main part of the landscape, including three peaks; Pinacate, Carnegie and Medio.”

Could the name “Chicana” on the maps be referring to it?  Given it’s importance to the various indigenous people that have inhabited the region, like the San Dieguito and the Hia C-ed O’odham, it’s definitely a possibility.  Further research led me to a doctoral dissertation, “Centeotzintli: Sacred Maize a 7,000 Year Ceremonial Discourse” (2008), by Roberto Garcia Rodriguez (Dr. Cintli) that also references the maps (this dissertation is now available in book form, link).  As far as I can tell, he’s the only person who’s ever published anything on the Gutiérrez map’s mention of the term Chicana.  However, slightly different from my observation, Dr. Cintli places the site at the mouth of the Colorado River which is west of El Pinacate.  About the “Diego Gutierrez Map,” he says:

“Perhaps the first fully illustrated map of North and South America, this shows the site of Chicana at the mouth of the Colorado River, near present-day Yuma, Arizona. This may be the earliest recorded use of the word Chicana anywhere. (Other sixteenth-century maps have Chicana in a nearby location, and an early eighteenth-century map of Nayarit Missions places Xicana at the top/center of the map, near the same place; this too may be the oldest written reference to the word Xicana). A little to the south of Chicana is the region of Aztatlam and the site or city of Aztatlam. While this may not be the actual mythic/historic Aztlán, it may be the earliest attempt to depict on a map the purported point of origin of the Aztec/Mexica.”[6]

Possible location of place called "Chicana" found in 16th-century maps

El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve

In short, contrary to Stavans erroneous conclusion,  there’s no doubt that the term “Chicana” has been around since at least the mid 16th-century, as the maps clearly demonstrate, and is of obvious indigenous origin.  It remains to be seen whether the terms on the maps are the direct ancestors of the modern day term that gained popularity during the Chicano movement of the 1960s-70s.  With this finding, I hope that Chican@s will finally put to rest the debate over the antiquity of the word and look into its evolution and possible connection to the maps.

– mexika.org


[1] Ilan Stavans, “Do Chicanos Have an Inferiority Complex?,” The Chronicle of Higher Education Blogs: Lingua Franca, February 20, 2014, http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2014/02/20/do-chicanos-have-an-inferiority-complex/?cid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en.

[2] Daniel Venegas, Las aventuras de Don Chipote, o, Cuando los pericos mamen (Arte Publico Press, 1999).

[3] Arnoldo C. Vento, Mestizo: The History, Culture, and Politics of the Mexican and the Chicano : The Emerging Mestizo-Americans (Lanham, MD; New York; Oxford: University Press of America, 1998).

[4] Ibid., 221.

[5] Diego Gutiérrez and Hieronymus Cock, “Americae Sive Qvartae Orbis Partis Nova et Exactissima Descriptio / Avctore Diego Gvtiero Philippi Regis Hisp. Etc. Cosmographo ; Hiero. Cock Excvde. 1562 ; Hieronymus Cock Excude Cum Gratia et Priuilegio 1562.,” 1562, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/map_item.pl?data=/home/www/data/gmd/gmd3/g3290/g3290/ct000342.jp2&style=dsxpmap&itemLink=r?ammem/gmd:@filreq%28@field%28NUMBER+@band%28g3290+ct000342%29%29+@field%28COLLID+dsxpmap%29%29&title=Americae%20sive%20qvartae%20orbis%20partis%20nova%20et%20exactissima%20descriptio%20%2f%20avctore%20Diego%20Gvtiero%20Philippi%20Regis%20Hisp.%20etc.%20Cosmographo%20;%20Hiero.%20Cock%20excvde.%201562%20;%20Hieronymus%20Cock%20excude%20cum%20gratia%20et%20priuilegio%201562.

[6] Roberto Garcia Rodriguez, “Centeotzintli: Sacred Maize a 7,000 Year Ceremonial Discourse” (Doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2008), 247.

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2 Comments on Ilan Stavans has a Chicano problem

  1. Good work bro… I did tons of research on the topic for about a dozen years. There’s a reason I switched to my maiz research… for the past dozen years or so… but you are accurate… the 1562 Gutierrez map is clear on this… whether it is a mistake or if it is in a slightly different place etc is not as important as that it is clearly on that map, the Zaltieri map and a few others. Wish I had time to share more, but can’t right now: XColumn@gmail.com Dr. Cintli

    • Tlazoh, Kurly, for reposting this piece I did a few months ago, cuando la cago Stavans. I’m also glad that you liked my response, Dr Cintli. I’m still waiting to read your response on the Ruben Salazar status-quo-mentary which we briefly discussed on the Historia-list. Adelante!

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