Mexican America
Mexican America: Glossary

Mexican America: Glossary

Anglo: In Texas, New Mexico, and other areas of the United States with a large Hispanic or Mexican American populations, Anglo (from Anglo-Saxon) refers to white English speakers, their cultures, and their historical perspectives.  This term, which is rooted in real social and territorial conflict, reflects a long-standing perception of cultural difference between the descendants of English- and the Spanish-speaking colonists.

Asian Exclusion: East Asian workers played a key role in transforming the economy of the American West in the decades following the Mexican-American War in 1848.  The Chinese began arriving inCalifornia with the gold rush of 1848.  Over the next fifty years, they became important in railroad, mining, agricultural, and fishing industries.  The Chinese met hostility on U.S. soil, and their rising presence triggered a xenophobic and racist backlash across the United States .  Laws were passed to exclude Chinese, Japanese, and other Asians from American citizenship and even residence.  Laborers fromMexico were recruited to work in California to fill the vacuum created by excluded Asian labor.

Aztec Empire: The Aztec Empire was the last civilization to rule the ancient and densely populated Valley of Mexico before Spanish colonization.  It began as a federation of three lake-side cities, Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopán, also referred to as the Triple Alliance.  Warriors from these cities conquered or intimidated neighboring nations into an enormous tribute-based network for exchanging raw and finished goods.  The Aztec referred to themselves as Mexica.  The language spoken throughout the Aztec Empire was Náhautl.

Aztlán:  According to their own stories, the Aztecs, also know asMexica, migrated to central Mexico from a distant homeland.  Called Aztlán, it has an important place in Chicano mythology.  As a symbolic reclamation of their place in American history, Chicanos located Aztlán in the Southwest United States, in the area conquered during the Mexican-American War. 

Benito Juárez: Benito Juárez (1806-1872) was Mexico ’s president from 1858 to 1872, during a period of political and social reform known as La Reforma.  Famous for resisting the French occupation during the 1860s, and for limiting the influence and privileges of the military and the Catholic Church, he is cherished as one of the nation’s best-loved leaders.  Juárez, who spoke only Zapotec (an indigenous language from southern Mexico ) throughout his childhood, remains Mexico ’s only indigenous president to date.

Charreada: The Mexican spectacle of equestrian and ranching sports is celebrated in both Mexico and the United States to maintain the traditions associated with the charrería.

Charrería:  Mexican rodeo and equestrian traditions, including the performance and paraphernalia of musicians, riders, and cowboys, are known collectively as charrería

Charro: In Mexico , cowboy and rodeo traditions have evolved into a national sport accompanied by elaborate fanfare.  The charro, with his broad sombrero and matching outfit, is the gentrified version of the humble vaquero, or cowboy.  Charro attire, known for its elaborate decorative metalwork, is closely associated with equestrian sports and crafts like saddle making. 

Chicana, Chicano: In the late 1960s, men and women of Mexican descent in the western and southwestern United States were developing new political strategies and elaborating new identities.  Chicano, for men, and chicana, for women, are old labels that were reclaimed to signal engagement in the struggle for social justice and equity in housing, education, labor rights, and other areas.  Still current, chicano indicates a cultural outlook rooted in the indigenous past, one that does not favor Hispanic origins or whiteness, but absorbs and reinterprets American popular culture.

China Poblana: The china poblana is the legendary figure in Mexican popular history who incorporated Chinese silks into the traditional women’s dress to invent the china poblana dress. According to some accounts, the original china poblana was a woman enslaved in Asia and finally sold in the colonial city of Puebla.  While shrouded in historical and ethnic ambiguity, she is a figure who reveals Mexico as a center of global exchange between Asia and Europe.

Conjunto:  In the early 1900s, farming communities in South Texas were dancing to a style of music they called conjunto.  After World War II, many South Texans left the region for better job opportunities, particularly in the western United States and the Midwest, and brought conjunto along with them.  Though South Texas is still the center of conjunto performance, over the decades the music has evolved into several regional varieties.  Called música norteña on the Mexican side of the border, conjunto musicians play the accordion, the bajo sexto (a 12-string guitar), bass, and drums to perform songs styles such ascorridos, polkas, rancherascumbias, and the vals.

Corrido:  The corrido is a type of Mexican ballad that tells dramatic stories about love and betrayal, confrontations with the law, and other popular themes from the imagination and real life of communities living along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Cumbia: Originally from northern Colombia ’s Caribbean coast, thecumbia is a set of rhythms that illustrate the centuries-long encounter between Native Americans, Africans, and their mixed descendants.  Once stigmatized as “race music” in Colombia , the cumbia has become ubiquitous on dance floors and radio stations across Latin America.  This more commercial cumbia, with its simpler percussive arrangement, exploded in popularity over the second half of the 20th century, with fans in Mexico , El Salvador , Argentina , and elsewhere.

Genre Scenes: Genre scenes are realistic works of art that portray everyday life—a detailed landscape, a home interior, or a public setting filled with workers, families, or other members of a community engaged in the tasks or particularities of their daily existence.  Mexican genre scenes from the 1700s and 1800s offer glimpses of household objects, popular fashion, and the general social order in an era before photography.

Great Depression: From about 1930 to 1940, the United States and the entire world suffered through a wide-scale economic depression.  In the United States , it coincided with a period of drought in the Midwest that created an ecological and farming crisis known as the Dust Bowl.  Lasting until World War II, the Great Depression affected all Americans, with many losing their homes, businesses, and livelihoods.  As many as half a million Mexicans and Mexican Americans left the United States forMexico during this decade.  Unknown thousands of them were U.S.citizens forcibly deported to Mexico to minimize the competition with white American workers for jobs.

Guerrilla: Guerrilla is the Spanish word for an irregular force of local fighters who are organized to sporadically combat, or at least ambush, the better-equipped armies of foreign invaders.

Guerillero: In Spanish, someone who fights in a guerrilla is called aguerrillero.

Hispanic: Over 2,200 years ago, when the Romans conquered the Iberian Peninsula, they renamed the place Hispania, which is better known now as España, or Spain .  By 1500, Spanish Catholics, who had been in the process of reconquering the land from Spanish and North African Muslims, took their fight across the ocean to the Americas .  What were Spanish colonies several centuries ago are today Mexico and the Spanish-speaking republics of the Caribbean and Central and South America.  As an indicator of a common history and language, many people with roots in the Spanish-speaking Americas are referred to asHispanic.

Hispano: For about 250 years, before New Mexico became part of theUnited States , it was an isolated, but relatively populated frontier region in northern Mexico .  The first nonindigenous settlers in the area were Spanish, or at least identified themselves with the norms of Spanish culture (regardless of ethnicity).  Like their descendants today, they called themselves hispanos as a way of distinguishing between themselves, local Pueblo communities, other Native Americans, and later arrivals from the eastern United States and Mexico .

Indian: The diverse native peoples who live in the Americas have their own names.  In the histories written by European colonizers, they are often called Indians.  This old term, which is based on a geographical mistake, is rich in history, but also controversy.

Latino: People with roots in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speakingAmericas today increasingly identify themselves as Latino.  It is a term most commonly used within the United States to unite this ethnically and culturally diverse population.  In order to disown the legacy of colonialism, this broader term is sometimes used as a replacement forHispanic.

Maguey:  Also known as the century plant, the maguey (Agaveamericana) was cultivated in Mexico about 8,000 years ago.  Since then it has had a prominent place in the everyday life and economy ofMexico .  The maguey plant is still cultivated for its fibers, which are used to make rope and rough textiles.

Malinche: La Malinche is a historical figure whose real biography is shrouded in the myths surrounding the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.  Also known by the Spanish name Doña Marina, and the Náhuatl name Malintzin, she was the indigenous translator for Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés and his army as they moved from the Mexican coast inland towards the grand Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, and beyond to Honduras.  A controversial figure representing both motherhood and betrayal for the Mexican nation, La Malinche gave birth to Hernán Cortés’s first and favorite son.

Manifest Destiny: Throughout the 1800s, Americans, including recent immigrants from Europe, poured over the Appalachian Mountains and moved West toward the Great Plains.  By 1848, following the U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War and the California gold rush, many Americans felt it was their God-given right to expand across the continent and rule it from shore to shore.  This belief, rooted in ideas about nation, race, and progress, is called Manifest Destiny.

Mariachi:  Mariachis, groups comprised of vocalists, trumpeters, violinists, and various bass and guitar players, are today consideredMexico ’s traditional musical ensemble.  Originating in the state of Jalisco, mariachi music transformed itself from a regional to a national music between the 1930s and 1950s. 

Matachines: Representing different regional styles, the matachines are masked performers who dance in areas of Northern Mexico and the Southwest, often in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  Originally commemorating the expulsion of the Moors from southern Spain in 1492, this dance was introduced to Mexico to facilitate the Christianization of Native Peoples.  The dances of the matachines developed into a symbolic retelling of the military conquests and spiritual imposition of the Spanish colonizers.

Maya:  The term Maya is used to group together the related contemporary and historical communities and language groups of southern Mexico (including the Yucatan), Guatemala , Belize , Honduras, and El Salvador .  The Mayans developed an enduring writing system that was in use even during the initial period of Spanish colonization.  Because the region where Mayans lived was politically fragmented, poor in precious metals, and highly resistant to Spanish cultural intrusion, some Mayan communities maintained their independence until the end of the 1600s.

Mesoamerica: Mesoamerica is a term used to describe the land and culture between central Mexico and Nicaragua .  This fertile, diverse, and densely populated region has been economically and politically connected for millennia.  It is also one of the centers of scientific and cultural innovation in pre-European America .

Mestizo: A Spanish term meaning “mixed,” mestizo is the racial formula often used to ethnically categorize Latin America, and particularly Mexico .  Although it usually refers to a person of mixed European and indigenous ancestry, the term historically has also included people of mixed African ancestry as well.  Like all racial labels, it is subject to significant local and personal interpretation.

Mestizaje:  From the Mexican perspective, the notion of mestizaje, or racial mixture—in this case predominantly between native peoples and Europeans and their descendents—is at the core of what many Mexicans and Mexican Americans consider their national identity.  Implicit in this idea, however, has been a notion of progress that includes mestizos and whites, while equating native people with the premodern past and diminishing the historical African presence in Mexico .

Metate: The metate is an ancient piece of technology used by indigenous women in Mesoamerica.  It is a flat, slightly convex grinding surface made from stone, usually with three or four legs.  After soaking dried corn grains in limewater to remove the outer hull (thereby maximizing its nutritional value), the women grind the processed corn on the table-like metate with another stone resembling a rolling pin.  The dough created on metates makes the tortillas that have been the staple food of Mesoamerica for millennia.

Mexica: The people whom today we call Aztec, called themselvesMexica.  The term Aztec was adopted in the 19th century as a way to distinguish contemporary Mexicans from the historic empire encountered by the Spanish in 1519.

Mexican American: This term describes a wide category of people who live in the United States and who have a familial link to Mexico or Mexican culture.  It can include people who have roots in the territory conquered by the United States in the Mexican-American War, and who might not speak Spanish, as well as recent immigrants, some of whom might speak an indigenous language.

Mexican-American War: The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) was a territorial conflict between the United States and Mexico .  It has its roots in the secession of Texas from Mexico in 1836, and its annexation by the United States in 1845.  This war was devastating forMexico , which was invaded by U.S. armies and lost the upper half of its territory (from California to Texas) to the United States under terms set by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  Worse off were the Mexican citizens who suddenly found themselves living in the United States .  Many found themselves dispossessed of their land by new English-speaking settlers, particularly from the American South, and were relegated to second-class citizenship for generations.

Mexican Revolution: The Mexican Revolution was a civil war fought on several fronts across Mexico from 1910 till about 1920.  Several famous figures such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa took part.  This war, involving movements as diverse as indigenous farmers seeking land redistribution, organized industrial workers, and local elites seeking greater political representation, all united against the 30-year rule of Porfirio Díaz.  While Mexico ’s new liberal constitution was written in 1917, the country’s full transition to a peaceful democracy was not complete until the end of the 1920s.

Moctezuma: Moctezuma was the Aztec emperor who encountered Hernán Cortés and his able translator, La Malinche, also known as Doña Marina, during the Spanish invasion of Mexico in 1519.  Held hostage by the Spanish in his splendid palace in Tenochtitlán (latter-day Mexico City), Moctezuma died from wounds reputedly inflicted by Aztecs angry at his perceived incapacity to expel the foreign invaders.

Moors: The Moors were North African Muslims who ruled the southern half of Spain during Europe’s Middle Ages.  After centuries of warfare between several small Christian and Muslims kingdoms, Catholic Spain succeeded in uniting itself by 1492 and expelled the Muslim (Moorish) and Jewish communities.  This major historical event, known as thereconquista, or reconquest, was retold in epic tales and plays.  Across Hispanic America, the story of this conflict between Moors and Christians was retold and reinvented to reflect local experiences of Spanish conquest and colonization.

Muralism: On the heels on the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), the Mexican government engaged in a serious mission to fund the arts, and art education.  Murals, large paintings on walls in public spaces, became a means of creating a democratic art form that could uplift and dignify working men and women.  Several prominent Mexican artists united around this idea, known as muralism, throughout the 1920s and 1930s.  The most famous are José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Música Norteña: see Conjunto

Náhautl: The language spoken throughout many indigenous communities in central Mexico is Náhuatl.  This was the language spoken throughout the Aztec Empire and taught in Aztec schools.  Moving into the countryside following the conquest, Spanish priests learned indigenous languages and created new schools.  These priests revolutionized Náhuatl and Mayan languages with the introduction of Latin letters.  Indigenous communities were considered outside the Spanish social order, but still very much related to it.  Náhuatl and Maya languages had a strong literary and administrative presence during the colonial period.

Native American: Native American is a term used most commonly in the United States to describe the indigenous peoples living between the Bering Strait in Alaska and Tierra del Fuego in Chile .  Native American is often used as a replacement for the older term, Indian.

Paño: Paños are graphic art works designed on handkerchiefs by Chicano prisoners in California, Texas, and the Southwest.  Like a letter that retells memories of both good and bad times, paños are often mailed as gifts to friends and loved ones. 

Peso: The unit of currency in Mexico and other Latin America countries.

Pulque: Made from fermented maguey juice, pulque was once a popular beverage throughout Mexico .  After the development of railways throughout central Mexico in the late 1800s, vast maguey plantations cropped up around Mexico City, supplying it daily with fresh pulque, which can spoil in as little as a day.   Since the 1920s, pulque has been largely replaced by bottled beer, which was marketed as more “modern and hygienic.”

Pulquería: Once a common sight in Mexico , but now found mostly in the countryside, a pulquería is a tavern where men consume pulque.

Olmec: From about 1200-400 B.C., a complex and regionally influential culture developed along the Gulf Coast of Mexico, in the area ofVeracruz and Tabasco.  Called Olmec by 19th-century researchers, we do not know what this stone-carving, monument-building, and jade-loving people called themselves.  What is certain is that many attributes of their civilization, such as astronomy and mathematics traditions, ritual ball games, and writing, were carried on and developed by other Mesoamerican civilizations until the Spanish conquest.

Pre-Hispanic: Pre-Hispanic is a term used to describe the period of Latin American history before the arrival of Spanish colonists—the first group of Europeans and Africans in North America.

Pueblo: The Spanish word for town, it is also used to describe the adobe village-dwelling indigenous peoples who still farm along the tributaries of the Rio Grande and Colorado Rivers of New Mexico andArizona.  Many of these pueblos, such as the Zuni or the Hopi, have maintained separate political and cultural identities from Spanish, Mexican, and later Anglo settlers who have since populated the Southwest.

Ranchera: A classical song genre in 20th-century Mexican popular music, the ranchera is often a love song, especially for the nation and countryside.  Rancheras were often featured in movies, and became favorite songs among Mexican and Latin American audiences watching Mexican films from the 1940s to the 1960s.

Ranching: The horse, cattle, and sheep cultures of the American West were introduced to central Mexico from Spain in the 1500s.  Outside of mining, this herding economy, which concentrated large holdings of land among relatively few families, came to dominate the social structure of northern Mexico, including areas as far north as Texas and California.  Ranching culture had at least two profound consequences—the destruction of the region’s grasslands, and the arrival of the horse in the cultures of the many tribes of the North American Great Plains.

Retablo: Spanish colonial art is known for particular kinds of religious imagery.  Retablos are painted pieces of wood (often depicting saints) that decorate church or home altars.

Rio Grande: Called the Rio Bravo in Mexico , the Rio Grande River rushes south out of northern New Mexico, and cuts the long border between Texas and Mexico .  Racist terms like “wetback,” or the Spanish notion of “mojado,” meaning “wet,” have their origin in the experience of migrants crossing of this dangerous river border.

Santero: When talking about Catholic devotional art, a santero is both an artisan and believer who crafts objects like religious figurines (santos), biblical paintings, and other decorative art for home altars or churches.

Santos: The lives of saints play an important role in the education and beliefs of Catholics.  Santos are the carved and painted wooden images of saints produced by santeros in places like New Mexico and Puerto Rico.

Tajadero: Spanish for a chopping knife, tajadero is the term used to refer to the axe-shaped money used in Mesoamerica in the pre-Hispanic period and up to the early colonial period around 1600.  One tajaderowas equivalent to about 8,000 cacao beans—the other prevalent unit of currency in the region.

Tejano: Tejano, the original Spanish term for a Texan, can be used to describe the Hispanic and/or Mexican residents of Texas both before Texan Independence (1836) and up to the present.

Tlaxcala: An island in the middle of the Aztec Empire, Tlaxcala was a Náhuatl-speaking confederacy that resisted Aztec conquest for over a century.  Allying themselves with Hernán Cortés’s small army of Spaniards and rallying other Aztec enemies, the Tlaxcaltecs played a key role in dismantling the Aztec Empire. 

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: see Mexican-American War

Vals: Spanish for waltz, this musical form was popular in the 19thcentury throughout Latin America, where it developed many regional interpretations from Texas to Peru .

Vaquero: Spanish term for cowboy.

Yaqui:  Living in the arid region of Sonora and Arizona, the Yaqui are an indigenous people known for their resistance to both Spanish and Mexican authorities.  Never conquered by Spanish forces, the Yaqui made several attempts at independence from the new Mexican state after the 1820s.  Enduring the brutality of the Mexican government throughout the 19th- and into the 20th centuries, at least 8,000 Yaquis were deported to henequen plantations in the Yucatán as enslaved workers.  Thousands more were displaced, many seeking refuge inArizona, particularly in the wake of the Mexican Revolution.

Zuni: The Zuni, also known as the Zuñi or Ashiwi, are an indigenous community that has farmed and built villages along New Mexico’s ZuniRiver Valley for at least 1,000 years.  The Zuni entered the Spanish imagination when one of their pueblos, Hawikuh, was reported to be the mythical, gold-rich city of Cíbola.  Such speculation motivated further intrusion into the region by Spanish explorers (most notably Francisco Vásquez de Coronado), missionaries, and settlers.