Dr. Jose B. Cuellar

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By José B. Cuéllar, Ph.D.



David Carrasco, Ph.D. Editor-in-Chief


In his seminal study of Mexican immigration to the U.S., Manuel Gamio first documented the use of "chicamo" (sic). He showed that turn-of-the-20th century native "American Mexicans" in Texas used chicamo as a derogatory term for more recently arrived mexicanos (Gamio, 1930, 1971: 129, 233, 259). The term has since gone through some very significant conceptual and orthographic changes over the past seven decades (see Acuña, 1982; Beltrán-Vocal, Hernández-Gutiérrez, and Fuentes 1999; Córdova et. al, 1986, 1990: De la Torre and Pesquera 1993; Maciel and Ortíz, 1995; Mangold, 1971, 972; Rendón 1972; Velez-I. 1996).

During the late 1950s the meaning of "Chicano" largely transformed from a negative signifier of "Mexican immigrant" into a positive self-identifier of "U.S. natives of mexicano descent." By 1959, high school students of Mexican descent identified themselves proudly as "Chicano" (Mexicans born on the U.S. side of the border/un mexicano del otro lado") or "Mexican American/mexicoamericano.

"Chicano" took on a narrower more leftist working class and militantly nationalist Mexi-centric identity and social activist definition, especially among young adults of Mexican-descent with more than a high school education, from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s. During this period, as a means of resisting Euro/Anglo-centric colonialism, a growing number of us also started utilizing precolonial native images and symbols, while drawing indígena identity and inspiration, from a great variety of Mesoamerican traditions such as the Apache, Azteca-Mexica, Maya, Chinanteca, Huichol, Hopi, Tolteca, Tarascan, Tzotzil, Pima, Purepecha, Pueblo, Yaqui, and Zapoteca. By the end of the 1970s, "Chicanismo" referred to the driving conciencia/consciousness of the shared struggles for human and civil rights. These struggles were known as "the Chicano movement," that emphasized the mestizo/mixed race and obrero/working class bases of our United States Mexican descent population (see Muñoz, 1989; Gómez-Quiñones, 1990). This movement transformed the ways immigrant and native Mexicans in the United States thought about past, present and future (García 1997).

More recently, during the 1980s/90s, the evolving definition of "Chicano" became even broader, more multinational, more equitable and multiple in ethnic and gender orientations, while strengthening its firm indigenista covenant. Entering the 21st century, there are growing numbers of U.S. natives and immigrants who claim various national origins and descents, (e.g., Anglo, Chilean, Cuban, German, Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Honduran, Irish, Puerto Rican, Peruvian, and Venezuelan) and also reserve the right to identify as "Chicana/o" or "Chicano(a)" or "Xican@" on the basis of their ideological orientation, that is their commitment to "Chicanismo."

Central among the outstanding artistic representatives of Chicanismo is JoséAntonio Burciaga, whose book Drink Cultura-C/S (1993) and murals Mythology of Maize and Last Supper of Chicano Heroes explore its core meanings. It is through a fine focus on Burciaga's written and painted work that we can grasp a broader understanding of Chicanismo (see Vélez-I. 1996: 244-64). He reflects both its political energy and the ephemeral artistry by examining, in his words: "the ironies in the experience of living within, between and sometimes outside, two cultures . . . Mexican by nature, American by nurture, a true "mexture" . . . the damnation, salvation, the celebration of it all"

Burciaga along with many other Mexican American academics, artists, and activists have struggled daily to combine complex clear critiques of U.S. society’s ethnocentric racism, machismo, and upper-classism with communal commemorations of the Mesoamerican chronology of cultural treasures and social tragedies. Out of this combined critique and celebration has evolved a contemporary Chicanismo with academic and artistic actions energized by the creative transculturation processes, and the renewed imagination of equality and democratic potential in our post-Y2K U.S.A. Many of these manifestations demonstrate direct links to both prehistoric past and postmodern present Mesoamerica.

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A close examination of the JoséAntonio Burciaga murals illustrate the four major themes of his Chicanismo: a) the power of the creative earth and Mexican labor forces together; b) political transformation through powerful leadership; c) family links extending back to prehistoric times in Mesoamerica; and d) transculturated imagination of a complex indigenous identification, imagination and inspiration, spirituality and sagacity. First some concise descriptions of Burciaga's written and painted works and then some concluding thematic comments on the public presentation of Chicanismo (also known as Xicanism@).

Burciaga’s Drink Cultura contains twenty-six stories and commentaries, starting with the symbolic significance of c/s (con/safos) as a perennial Chicano graffiti sign-off and closing with a cheeky proposal for a national magazine for los muertos/the dead. Between these two we also learn about the joy of a jalapeño pepper-induced gastronomic ecstasy and the significance of Cinco de Mayo/Fifth of May. Although Burciaga’s never gives us a precise definition of "Chicanismo," his essay "The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes" details how and why in 1989 he painted a mural by that name on the east dining hall wall of Stern Hall’s Casa Zapata, the almost three decades-old Chicano-theme student residence at Stanford University, where he served as resident artist and fellow from 1985 until just before his death. His essay strongly underscores how the mural is an excellent representation of the essence of Chicanismo.

The idea for The Last Supper mural came to him while designing another mural on the mythology and history of corn/maiz. Burciaga conceived the Mythology of Maiz mural for an inside wall of the Casa Zapata Dining Hall at Stanford University in 1985, and finished painting it May 1987. Using the mythically valuable number six as a constant (six humans, six corn stalks, six animals, and six ant tunnels in the shape of a rib cage), Burciaga painted a Chicano mural representing elements of the many Maya myths surrounding maíz and its creation. At its four sides, Burciaga painted a different colored corn to represent each of the four cosmic directions. At the upper right hand corner, as a satirical comment on the Judeo-Christian concept of creation, Burciaga represented a iconoclastic Chicano transformation of Michaelangelo’s Adam complete with head-bandana and goatee, eye-shades and cigarette in hand, pachuco cross and teardrop tatus. In his words, "The central background color is a vibrant white, yellow, orange to red representing the energy of creation. The green corn stalks form a wreath. Above is a mountain range depicting the Southwest desert of Aztlán."

Burciaga originally conceived the central panel of his three-part mural’s as a depiction of a larger than life Christ and his twelve apostles at the Last Supper dining on corn tortillas, tamales and tequila instead of bread and wine. As a positive response to the negative reaction of some students to his Mexicanized Last Supper, Burciaga decided to replace the figures of Christ and his twelve apostles with those of thirteen Chicano heroes.

Burciaga's response to these criticisms is exemplary of the Chicanismo methodology of incorporating the voices of oppressed people into the creative process. He conducted a 200 person sample survey in 1988, asking 100 Stanford Chicano students and 100 Chicano community activists, to list their thirteen heroes with explanations for their choices. The stratified results of the 140 responses showed that the younger students scattered the votes over a total of 240 candidates while the older activists concentrated their votes on 60 who played important parts in American history, particularly during the 1960s/70s period of the Chicano movement.

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Burciaga realized that the survey responses collectively reimagined the definition of a Chicano hero/ine as a mythical, historical, symbolic, military or popular culture figure. In the final analysis, the results respond to some critical questions. Does a hero/ine have to be a Chicano/a to be included? If only thirteen individuals are to sit at the table, how should they be selected? What about the others who receive significantly fewer votes? The answers are painted on the wall. Burciaga decided that the top thirteen vote getters should sit at the table, and those who got fewer votes should stand behind them.

Sitting at the very center of the Last Supper table is Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the legendary Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary hero killed in Bolivia. Three seats away from Che’s left sits Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the assassinated civil rights leader who inspired efforts for equality all over the world. Obviously not all Chicano heroes are of Mexican descent.

Still, the eleven other heroes at the table son mexicanos! To Che’s immediate left is Ricardo Flores Magón, the exiled Mexican revolutionary intellectual who after publishing community newspapers and organizing political parties in San Antonio, Texas and Los Angeles, California died in Levenworth Federal Prison from beatings received for leading an escape of more than 70 prisoners. On Magón’s left is Benito Juárez the Zapotec native of Oaxaca who became Mexico’s greatest president during the late 1800s, and author of the often-quoted "el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz —respect for another’s rights is peace."

Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz (1648-1695), the 17th century mexicana feminist nun poet, with ever increasing influence sits next to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To her left sit two important Chicano scholar activists. Born into a Crystal City, Texas migrant farm worker family, Tomás Rivera, Ph.D. became an influential award-winning writer and higher education leader who served as the first Chicano president of the University of Texas at El Paso and the University of California at Riverside before his untimely death. Ernesto Galarza, a child immigrant to the United States from Jalisco, received a Ph.D. from Columbia University and pioneered an exemplary multidisciplinary style of Chicano community-centered activist scholarship that combined organizing farm laborers and writing critical analyses of their political and economic conditions, reflexive autobiographic prose, poetry and children’s literature.

Emiliano Zapata, the indigenous Mexican revolutionary leader who remains a heroic icon for native campesinos from Chiapas to California, and beyond, sits right of Che. On Zapata’s right sits César E. Chávez, the founding United Farm Workers (UFW) President from Yuma, Arizona who dedicated his life completely to la causa of improving the living and working conditions of laborers in the fields of California. Dolores Huerta, Chavez’s co-founding UFW Vice-President who has continued la lucha since Chavez’s death sits to his right. Next to her sits Luis Valdéz, CEO of Teatro Campesino and professor at California State University at Monterey Bay, as well as award-winning writer and director of plays and films (Zoot Suit and La Bamba). Frida Kahlo, the daring German-Mexican surrealist painter and contemporary feminist icon sits between Luis Valdez and Joaquin Murieta, the native Sonoran who migrated to northern California during the gold rush of the 1850s and became a legendary "Robin Hood"-like outlaw and all-out avenger of his wife’s rape-murder by "gringo 49ers."

Early California-native and San José’s first mayor, Tiburcio Vázquez, an educated poet who turned outlaw following a fight that killed a so-called "Yankee" constable, stands directly behind Murieta and between a Stern Hall employee originally from Mexico and another from El Salvador. Directly above Frida Kahlo stands her famous husband, revolutionary Mexican artist Diego Rivera. To his right stands Geronimo, legendary Apache leader, and Willie Velásquez, founder of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

Slightly to the right and behind Che stands the murdered President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, between three Stern Hall workers and Gabriela Mistral, the Chilean writer who in1945 became the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Standing directly over Che’s right is Nicaraguan freedom fighter Augusto C. Sandino. And over Sandino’s right shoulder stands John Towns, Stern Hall food service worker and native Texan of African descent.

Burciaga painted a red-head-banded skeleton image of death/la muerte directly over Che’s head, because death received enough votes to stand behind the lucky 13. Burciaga called la muerte a heroine, and great avenger and savior from la vida.

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Just over Che’s left, shoulder to shoulder with death, stands Carlos Santana, the Mexican immigrant guitarist who revolutionized Latino rock, serenading the chosen thirteen. To Santana’s right, between Enrique Mares and Juan Carlos, two Stern Hall employees from Mexico, stands Ignacio Zaragoza, the Seguin, Texas native who commanded the Mexican army that toppled the French troops in Puebla on Cinco de Mayo in 1862. Luisa Moreno, the upper class Guatemalan artist who migrated to the U.S.A. and became a labor organizer among United States Latina workers (from Florida cigar makers and San Antonio pecan shellers) and students during the 1930s, later was deported to Mexico as an undesirable alien during the McCarthy era, stands to Zaragoza’s right. To Moreno’s right standing among a multiethnic crew of Stern Hall workers is Los Angeles Times reporter and editorial writer, Rubén Salazar, the award-winning newspaper and television journalist killed by a Sheriff’s tear gas projectile while sitting in East Los Angeles bar on August 29, 1970, shortly after an unprovoked police attack on the Chicano Moratorium March Against the Vietnam War in East Los Angeles, California. In the upper right hand corner of the Last Supper mural, JoséAntonio Burciaga placed his Mexican-born parents, María Guadalupe Fernández Burciaga and José Cruz Burciaga.

Burciaga's commitment to a Mesoamerican context shows in the setting for the entire collection of heroes-a cornfield! Above the human group are the tassel tops of a milpa or cornfield, which has ancient roots in Mesoamerican culture. A tall Tolteca monolith standing on each side frameThe Last Supper of Chicano Heroes mural, clearly exposing its Mesoamerican roots. And La Vírgen de Guadalupe, also known as Tonantzin inNahuatl, the spiritual heroine in Mexican culture and patroness of the Americas (see Elizondo elsewhere), lofts directly above Che and la muerte, with a beautiful multicolored fiesta ribbon above her head stretching from one Tolteca monolith to the other. Below Guadalupe’s feet, flying just above death, is an "angelito negro" painted by Burciaga in response to the poignant Mexican bolero, "Angelitos Negros," that asks why artists never paint black angels.

Thus, while we see that the Chicanos heroes painted on this Stanford dining hall wall come from all over, and represent all colors, sexual orientations and socioeconomic classes, in the late 1980s they generally remained mostly of Mexican descent, revolutionary working-class, males of color, well-educated, and prematurely dead. Moreover, most gave their lives, some violently, to the struggle for social justice. Burciaga summed it all up with the following dedication inscribed on the Last Supper table cover: "and to all those who died, scrubbed floors, wept and fought for us."

"Xicanisma" is a contemporary extension of 20th Century Chicanismo that is ideologically rooted in the Chicana feminist "Mexic Amerindian" consciousness that rejects machismo, exclusionary ethnocentrism and nationalism while emphasizing our prehistoric tendencies toward interdependence and cooperation that transcends gender, class, race, and geographic boundaries (see Castillo 1994). As we enter 2YK, "Xicanism@" appears more frequently as an orthographically distinctive identifier and definer of the U.S. Mexican consciousness that is at once more feminist, cultural guerilla, and more Amerindio than ever.



Acuña, Rudy. Occupied America: The Chicano Struggle for Liberation. New York: Harper & Row. 1982.

Beltrán-Vocal, María Antonia, Manuel de Jesús Hernández-Gutiérrez, and Silvia Fuentes. Eds. Mapping Strategies: NACCS and the Challenge of Multiple (Re) Oppressions: Selected proceedings of the XXIII Annual Conference of the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies held in Chicago, Illinois, March 20-23, 1996. Phoenix, Arizona/Hermosillo, and Sonora: Editorial Orbis Press. 1999

Burciaga, JoséAntonio. Drink Cultura-C/S--Chicanismo. Santa Barbara, CA. Joshua Odell Editions. 1993.

Castillo, Ana. Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico. 1994.

Córdova, Teresa, et. al. Eds. Chicana Voices: Intersections of Class, Race, and Gender. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1986, 1990.

De la Torre, Adela, and Beatríz M. Pesquera. Eds. Building With Our Hands: New Directions in Chicana Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Gamio, Manuel. Mexican Immigration to the United States: A Study of Human Migration and Adjustment. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930) New York: Dover, Inc. 1971.

García, Ignacio M. Chicanismo: The Forging of a militant Ethos among Mexican Americans. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press. 1997.

García, Mario T. Memories of Chicano History: The Life and Narrative of Bert Corona. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1994.

Gómez-Quiñones, Juan. Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise, 1940-1990. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1990.

Maciel, David and Isidro D. Ortíz. Eds. Chicanos and Chicanas in Contemporary Society. Boston: Allyson & Baker. 1995.

Mangold, Margaret M. La Causa Chicana: The movement for justice. New York: Family Service Association of America. 1971, 1972.

Muñoz, Carlos. Youth, Identity, Power. London: Verson. 1989.

Rosenbaum, Robert J. Mexicano Resistance in the Southwest: The Sacred Right of Self-Preservation. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Rendón, Armando. Chicano Manifesto: The History and Aspirations of the Second Largest Minority in America. New York: Macmillan. 1971.

Vélez-I., Carlos. Border Visions: Mexican Cultures of the Southwest United States. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press. 1996.


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