The origin of the word “chicano” is disputed. Some critics claim it is a shorterned form of “Mexicano” (“Mexican” in Spanish). The word “Mexico” as spoken in its original Nahuatl, and by the Spaniards at the time of the conquest, was pronounced originally with a “sh” sound (“Mesh-ee-co”), as opposed to current pronunciation, and was transcribed with an “x” as was the usage in Spanish at the time. The difference between the pronunciation and spelling of “chicano” and “mexicano” stems from the fact that the modern-day Spanish language experienced a change in pronunciation regarding a majority of words containing the “x” (for example: México, Ximenez, Xavier, Xarabe). The “sh” sound was dropped[clarification needed] and in most, but not all, cases accompanied by a change of spelling (“x” to “j”). The word “Chicano” in the US was evidently not affected by this change.
The Chicano poet and writer Tino Villanueva traces the first documented use of the term to 1911, as referenced in a then-unpublished essay by University of Texas anthropologist José Limón. Linguists Edward R. Simmen and Richard F. Bauerle report the use of the term in an essay by Mexican American writer, Mario Suárez, published in the Arizona Quarterly in 1947. Mexican Americans were not identified as a racial/ethnic category prior to the 1980 US Census, when the term “Hispanic” was first used in census reports.
Some believe that the word “chicamo” somehow became “chicano”, which (unlike “chicamo”) reflects the grammatical conventions of Spanish-language ethno- and demonyms, such as “americano” or “castellano” or “peruano”. However, Chicanos generally do not agree that “chicamo” was ever a word used within the culture, as its assertion is thus far entirely unsubstantiated. Therefore, most Chicanos do not agree that “Chicano” was ever derived from the word “chicamo”. There is ample literary evidence to further substantiate that “Chicano” is a self-declaration, as a large body of Chicano literature exists with publication dates far predating the 1950s. There is also a substantial body of Chicano literature that predates both Raso and the Federal Census Bureau.
As stated in the Handbook of Texas:
“According to one explanation, the pre-Columbian tribes in Mexico called themselves Meshicas, and the Spaniards, employing the letter x (which at that time represented a “sh” and “ch” sound), spelled it Mexicas. The Indians later referred to themselves as Meshicanos and even as Shicanos, thus giving birth to the term Chicano.”
Thus far, the origins of the word remain inconclusive, as the term is not used outside Mexican-American communities, further indicating that the term is primarily self-identifying.