A word about names: Why I call myself a Mexican-American

Kip Téllez

UC Santa Cruz

Do not make the all too common error of mistaking name for things. If a thing is despised, either because of ignorance or because it is despicable, you will not alter matters by changing its name.  If men despise Negroes, they will not despise them less if Negroes are called "colored" or "Afro-American."   W.E.B. Du Bois, 1928. 

I have always believed that you should call people what they want to be called.  Admittedly, this seemingly simple task turns confusing when referring to members of ethnic groups in the US.  Nevertheless, considering which terms are most descriptive and sensitive makes sense.  And I believe that explaining the use of ethnic identify terms is important, even if such explanations may engender disagreement. 

To illustrate the importance of terms when describing ethnic groups in the US, I would like to recount an experience I had early in my teaching career.  It was a school district in-service where a very well respected multicultural educator was giving a talk.  He was addressing this very topic, the confusion over terms referring to ethnic minority groups in the US, and told us that it is indeed difficult to keep current, mentioning, as a fictional example, that an "African-American" friend of his had joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, attended a fundraiser for the United Negro College Fund, and later wrote a letter in praise of the Congressional Black Caucus.  Nearly everyone in the crowd got the "joke" and giggled a bit.  But the two African-American teachers who were sitting next to me did not laugh.  And I knew why it was not funny to them. 

Those of "Latino" origins may find the references we use to refer to their ethnicity similarly confusing and sometimes humiliating.  To explore these terms and my particular use of "Mexican-American", as opposed to other terms, I created the following table suggesting the inclusion of each term and the inferences they imply. 





A general term used to refer to all persons whose ethnic background emerges from a Latin American or those who lives or has lived in a Spanish-speaking country.  Widely used on both US coasts.

Politically neutral for the most part.  However, the term Latino is often used to demonstrate solidarity among people who do not share a common country of origin.  In Los Angeles, for example, both Salvadoreños and Mexicanos would likely be considered Latinos. 


Again, a general term referring to all persons whose ethnic background is from a Latin-America or largely Spanish-speaking country.  In Texas, where many persons are of Mexican descent, the term Hispanic is commonly used. 

Implies an association with Spain, or at least the Spanish language.  Naturally, many Mexican-Americans do not want their identity linked to Spain, the nation that obliterated the native peoples of Mexico.  The novelist Sandra Cisneros reportedly refused to be interviewed by the publication Hispanic Business because of their use of the term. 


Refers primarily to those of Mexican origin.  Used primarily on the west coast. 

This term was once used derogatorily, then adopted by activists to demonstrate solidarity.  Politically powerful, still used by some who grew up in the civil rights era, but becoming more rare. 


Refers to those whose parents or grandparents have their origins in Mexico. 

Preferred by some authors who may wish to eliminate the confusing term "American" from their reference. 


Refers to those whose families emigrated from Mexico and who are living in the US, irrespective of their generation. 

Descriptive for the most part.  However, some Latinos view the term as exclusionary and fear a fractioning of political strength if used widely.  The citizens of Lima, Guayaquil, Bogota, Michoacan and Guadalajara argue, correctly, that they are Americans too.  Those living in the US often forget the continental implications of the term "American," so the term Mexican-American overfills the population under discussion.  Something like Mexican/United States would make more sense, but such a term is not commonly used and plainly too cumbersome. 

Based on common usage and accuracy, I have chosen to use the term Mexican-American, but this choice is not trouble-free or without vagaries

Each of the terms has certain advantages.  As I mentioned previously, Latino is a very broad and inclusive category, but I believe that many issues are specific to Mexican-Americans.  I am not in favor of the term Hispanic, for many of the same reasons given by Sandra Cisneros.  The term Chicano reflects a political orientation I favor, but its reference is a bit narrow for many, especially recent immigrants from Mexico.  The term Mexican-descent eliminates the "American" problem, but this term could refer to those who are of Mexican descent who are living in any country.  I believe that unique context of Mexicans in the US warrants adding the term American.   

In paper not widely read, John Dewey fought with the same terminology challenges we face today, suggesting that "bad" hyphens separate; "good" hyphens attach.  While Dewey was clearly opposed the conservatives of his day who wanted all immigrant groups to remove their ethnic affiliations, he recognized that the plurality of the US must be a part of the national identity.  On the other hand, as Ryan (1995) points out, Dewey believed that "what stood to the right of the hyphen must have its due" (p. 364).  As a modern progressive educator, I find yet another reason for choosing Mexican-American. 

In addition, I would like to continue the tradition of reference established by scholarly organizations nationwide (e.g., the Mexican-American Studies departments at various universities).  Mexican-American also implies that even those who are recent immigrants will be staying in the US, and the data indicate that this is indeed the case.  Finally, this is the term that my own family typically uses and the one most comfortable to me.