Colonization and the Construction of Patriarchal Ideals in Chicano* Hip-Hop
Beautiful women. Expensive cars. And groups of men standing around enjoying both. These are some of the key images associated with hip-hop. As a product of a culture that is deeply intertwined with American patriarchal ideals, Chicano hip-hop is no different. Since the 1990s, the genre has displayed misogynistic, even violent, tendencies. These patriarchal tendencies were ingrained in Chicano culture from the beginning as Mexican Americans started to develop a unique cultural identity within the US context. Without addressing the patriarchy in the United States, Chicanos have allowed these ideas to become a pillar of their culture, including their art. And, in this case, their hip-hop. Yet some Chicano rappers are now trying to change that.
Since its origins, hip-hop has been a form of expression for marginalized working-class communities. For young Chicanos, the concept of Chicanismo, developed during the Chicano Movement, became intertwined with the genre. As young Chicanos began to use hip-hop as a form of expression during the early 1990s first with the rapper Kid Frost, Chicanos relied heavily on the concept to remain relevant. In 2009, Richard Rodríguez, a professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside, defined Chicanismo as a complex nationalist strategy to preserve history and legitimize new identities within a US context. For young men, this meant identifying with “la raza” (Mexican American culture) and promoting their carnales/brothers. But to break down the patriarchal ideals of Chicanismo in hip-hop, we must first contextualize how the patriarchal ideals of the US became pillars of Chicano culture.
The Chicano movement, often referred to as “El Movimiento,” developed in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement as a response to the injustices Americans of Mexican descent suffered in the United States. It sought to provide Mexicans in the US with a unified identity that embraced their multicultural experiences and honored their Mexican heritage. Coming from working-class backgrounds, Mexican American youth had limited knowledge of their culture. They were not taught their history within grade school education and were dissuaded from access to higher education. Investigating their cultural ties led Mexican Americans to seek new identities and develop arts and traditions unique to their experiences. As Chicana scholar Rosa Linda Fregoso put it in 1981: “There is no Chicano core-essence awaiting that inward journey of discovery, without a language, codes, or location outside of history.” Developing a cohesive identity within the US became an integral aspect of the Chicano movement. For those advocating for their community, “Chicano” became a unifying political identity.
Without ties to a land and people, Chicanos had to hold on to any parts of their Mexican culture they deemed important. As Fregoso writes in The Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture, which draws from the work of the Jamaican scholar Stuart Hall, Chicanos “excavated a historical past and constructed and reconstructed memories of a Mexican culture of struggle and resistance in order to develop a cohesive group identity.” But as the Chicano movement sought approval from the American society, they also took on identities synonymous with the US, which included many patriarchal aspects of the American culture. In this process, women were often left out of the conversation. Instead, patriarchal tendencies were ingrained into the newfound Chicano identity.
Seeking to fit into a conservative “family-oriented” American ideal, for example, Chicanos tried to portray themselves as a “good, family-oriented” community. As a result, women within the Chicano movement were relegated to gendered caretaker roles, and those able to take on leadership had their work invisibilized and given credit to male leaders. As Ramón Gutiérrez wrote in 1993: “Women were denied leadership roles and were asked to perform only the most traditional stereotypic roles — cleaning up, making coffee, executing the orders men gave, and servicing their needs. Women who did manage to assume leadership positions were ridiculed as unfeminine, sexually perverse, promiscuous, and all too often, taunted as lesbians.” Women were expected to care for their children and partners to illustrate the “family” image the movement sought to present.
As a result, women within the Chicano movement were relegated to gendered caretaker roles, and those able to take on leadership had their work invisibilized and given credit to male leaders.
These gendered roles were so damaging that women began to leave the Chicano movement and created their own branch of the movement, the Chicana movement. “We have been treated as nothings, and not as Revolutionary sisters,” Gloria Arellanes famously said in 1970 after resigning from the Brown Berets, the Black Panther Party–inspired Chicano Party.
These patriarchal norms can also be seen through the Chicano art movement, especially in the music of early Chicano hip-hop. As Pancho McFarland points out in Mexica Hip Hop: Male Expressive Culture (2012), male rappers often perceive women in the gendered roles of mother, daughter, cook, maid. In Kid Frost’s 1990 song “La Raza,” for example, women are seen as either sexual beings to play a role for Chicano men or images of La Virgen. Before any lyrics, the video zooms in on Black and Brown women in bathing suits dancing around cars. Similar images play throughout the video. Any other time women appear on screen, they are in a crowd of men but do not say any lyrics or move. The video promotes other Chicano musicians or street artists, but all are male. While men contribute art to the video, women seem to only contribute their looks.
The lyrics accompany these misogynistic images with statements such as: “My cuete’s (rockets) loaded, it’s full of balas (bullets), I put it in your face, and you won’t say nada.” Here, rocket serves as a euphemism for penis and further expands upon the Chicanismo and misogyny in the music. Lyrics such as “I’m with my homeboys, my camaradas (comrades)” give the impression that while male counterparts are friends and worthy of acknowledgment in the eyes of Kid Frost, the sexualized women are not. They merely serve as objects and props to further the machiste (chauvinistic) image Chicanismo represents. As seen in the exclusion Chicanas faced when advocating for themselves in the Chicano Movement, women who step outside these roles are viewed as outsiders and made to feel their experiences are invalid.
But many Chicanos are currently envisioning a Chicano culture that no longer carries the same misogyny. Recognizing the harmful ways in which the colonial culture has impacted them, some artists are now embracing queerness, equitable societies, indigeneity, and the vulnerability that comes with accepting all parts of your history. In 2012, McFarland discusses the themes of the albums Día De Los Muertos and Red Star Fist by Los Nativos, which integrate their indigenous roots with modern-day hip-hop. Los Nativos are increasingly centering their Aztlan family lineage and integrating their long-standing history as an essential aspect of their identity. Within their raps, the group critiques racist policies, white colonialism, and the ways white supremacy has infringed upon the rights of indigenous communities. By being proud of their indigenous roots and uplifting indigenous Mesoamerican cultures, the group goes against an ideology that often says that engaging with nonwhite communities is un-American.
Recognizing the harmful ways in which the colonial culture has impacted them, some artists are now embracing queerness, equitable societies, indigeneity, and the vulnerability that comes with accepting all parts of your history.
Another rap group composed of Mexican immigrants in New York, Hispanos Causando Paniko, uses their music to move away from victimizing narratives of Latinx communities toward promoting their strength. Like Los Nativos, Paniko describes their power as coming from their Aztec ancestors and viewing themselves as “soldados.” In their lyrics, the group discusses social issues impacting their lives, including economic struggles. In their music videos, they strive to uplift their communities and neighborhoods, depicting graffiti made by Chicano artists. The group also appeals to the shared struggles of Chicanos by rapping in “Spanglish” and using words such as “holmes” (man or dude), common among Chicano youth. Since Spanish has often been associated with being less than English in the United States, creating music in Spanish while also acknowledging the language of “Spanglish” gives power and validates the experiences of Mexican Americans.
In 2016, scholars Jason Nichols and Melissa Castillo-Garsow best describe hip-hop as a “multilingual: multiethnic, international, global yet localized and regional collection of expression.” Hip-hop was not created to serve the patriarchy. Instead, it was a product of the shared experience among communities of color (starting with Black communities) that were forced to develop new identities within the United States. For Chicano, Afro-Latinx, and Black youth, the relationship to their heritage was diminished by US imperialism and colonization, and with those ties went their cultural identity. Many were forced to integrate the same culture that oppressed their ancestors, taking on the patriarchal and heterosexual ideas that came with colonization.
But hip-hop is also a unique genre that goes beyond the music and delves into the community. Over time, it has continued to develop a more well-rounded genre that is more representative of working-class experiences and inclusive and less patriarchal. This is partly because hip-hop artists are invested in understanding their communities, including the negative aspects. Chicano youth who developed their identities against the impact of colonization are now trying to understand their identity outside of the oppressive structures imposed upon them — they are decolonizing.
*I have chosen to use Chicano rather than Chicanx to reflect the exclusion based on gender and sexuality at this time. When discussing the progress and inclusion the movement has tried to make today, I would normally use Chicanx to reflect all members of the community.
Publab Fellow 2022
Brittney is a Doctoral Student at UC Santa Cruz’s Latin American and Latino Studies Program. Prior to starting at UC Santa Cruz received her master’s degree from CSU Northridge in Chicana/o/x Studies. Her research interests are Chicana youth organizing, social movements, and the role of social media in building solidarities. You can find her on LinkedIn.