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Chicano culture is not gang culture, ACLU of Idaho claims. Here’s what experts say.


Chicano culture is not gang culture, ACLU of Idaho claims. Here’s what experts say.

Sep 18, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Mia Maldonado
Chicano culture is not gang culture, ACLU of Idaho claims. Here’s what experts say.
In January 2022, a Caldwell student was asked to remove her "Brown Pride" hoodie that she purchased from Jefitos Hats, a family-owned business in Caldwell. Administrators said the phrase is associated with gangs, but Sonny Ligas, the owner of the store, said merchandise with the words “brown pride” refers to resistance and resilience in the Chicano community. (Mia Maldonado / Idaho Capital Sun)

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Latinos are Idaho’s largest minority group, making up nearly 14% of the state population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And a large share of that population includes the Chicano community. 

Unlike the term Latino, Chicano is a specific term many people with Mexican descent born in the U.S. use to describe their identity. The term has roots in the Mexican-American civil rights movement.

Although Chicanos have been present in Idaho since before statehood, Latino students who use Chicano-style apparel today are at risk of disciplinary actions should school administrators deem their clothing “gang-related,” which is a challenge that one civil rights group hopes to change. 

In August, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of Latino students alleging that the Nampa School District’s gang-prevention policies contribute to discriminatory dress code violations and discipline. 

ACLU of Idaho complaint alleges Nampa schools have ‘discriminatory’ dress code policies

People with Mexican descent make up the largest share of Idaho’s Latino population. According to the latest data from the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, 71% of Idaho Latinos were born in the U.S., and 85% of Idaho Latinos are Mexican or of Mexican descent.

But according to Eulalia Gallegos Buitron, a postdoctoral fellow in Chicano history at the University of Idaho, discrimination and racism against Chicanos in Idaho is not new, she said, adding that “It’s getting the attention it deserves.” 

“Mexicans, Chicanos, immigrants and refugees have always been a part of the state’s history,” Gallegos Buitron said. “Mexican people in particular, and people of Mexican heritage have really shaped the state, even before it was called Idaho.”

Tracing back Idaho’s Latino roots

Most early Idaho Latinos came to the Gem State in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when people from Mexico were exempt from U.S. Congressional restrictions that blocked immigration from Asia and Europe, the Idaho Statesman previously reported. In the early 1900s, Mexican workers became an important group to fill Idaho labor needs for people in the mining, agriculture and railroad industries.  

And during World War II, the Bracero program brought Mexican citizens to Idaho to fill labor needs in the agricultural sector. Years later, many of those workers would choose to stay in rural Idaho and continue to work, the Idaho State Journal reported. 

Many Latino families in Idaho can also trace their roots to Texas. Tejano culture, a blend of people of Mexican descent from Texas, is widely celebrated across the Treasure Valley. For example, the Tejano Music Festival is being held in Caldwell on Oct. 1 to honor the people who migrated to Idaho from Texas and other states to work in the agriculture industry and brought Tejano music and dancing. 

Chicano clothing is not synonymous with gangs, ACLU of Idaho says

Catholic rosaries, Dickies pants or clothing with the phrase “Brown Pride,” are popular among the Chicano community in Idaho. 

But at least two school districts in Idaho have gang-prevention policies that have prevented Latino students from wearing those items policies that inspired the ACLU of Idaho to file the complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice last month. 

Other items that resemble Chicano culture include bandanas, high white socks, plaid shirts, among others, according to the ACLU complaint.

A culture that moves across borders: Idaho experts talk Chicano community

To some, the term “Chicano” represents resistance to oppression and discrimination.

Gallegos Buitron’s research focuses on Latino families and the student experience in rural Idaho. In an interview, she told the Idaho Capital Sun that the term is a way people claim historical roots to Mexico while also developing their identity abroad. 

“It denotes a history and specific connection to the Chicano civil rights movement and how that movement was a form of resistance to assimilation and oppression,” she said.

The Chicano Movement of the 1960s occurred when Mexican-Americans fought against discrimination and advocated for more bilingual and bicultural programs in the southwest. 

In the Treasure Valley, she said contemporary symbols of Chicano culture can be found in cowgirl and cowboy attire or lowrider car shows.

Chicano culture is not gang culture, ACLU of Idaho claims. Here’s what experts say.
Jefitos Hats hosts two large-scale car shows each year highlighting Idaho lowriders, a customized car with a lowered body popular among the Chicano community. (Courtesy of Jefitos Hats)

Like, Gallegos Buitron, Lori Celaya, the co-director of Latin American Studies at the University of Idaho, also focuses on Chicano studies in her area of expertise.

Celaya said the term Chicano originates from the word “pocho,” an indigenous word used to a lack of belonging to Mexican and American cultures.

“Pocho meant just short of American culture, because of someone’s Mexican heritage but also just short of being Mexican because of the exposure to American culture,” she said.

Celaya, who identifies as Chicana and grew up in Los Angeles, said that the Nampa School District’s gang-prevention policies are becoming institutionalized racism that keep Latino students from wearing clothing that represents their culture. 

“It’s kind of like associating motorcycle gangs to white culture and saying that, ‘if you’re white and you’re dressed like that, then you are part of that gang culture,’” Celaya said. “They’re (school administrators) associating us just with one aspect of it.”

Celaya said that the gang-prevention policies are being imposed from the “outside, in,” meaning people outside of the Latino community are making rules for a community they do not represent.

“Do you think parents want their kids to be in gangs?” she said. “Latino parents are going to be the first ones to fight that like my parents did.”

Canyon County local business celebrates Chicano culture

Sonny Ligas is the owner of Jefitos Hats in Caldwell, a Chicano-apparel store that opened in 1997. Each year, his business organizes two large-scale car shows that draw out of state tourists to Idaho. 

Chicano culture is not gang culture, ACLU of Idaho claims. Here’s what experts say.
Upon entering Jefitos Hats, customers will notice racks of black and white graphic t-shirts, Dickies pants, flannels and fedoras.
(Mia Maldonado / Idaho Capital Sun)

Ligas, who was born and raised in Caldwell, said he recognizes that gangs do exist in the Treasure Valley, but that people who wear clothing from his store, including his family, are not gang members. 

In February, Ligas became the state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens — a volunteer-led national organization that focuses on empowerment and civil rights issues in the U.S. Latino community. 

Upon entering his store, customers will notice racks of black and white graphic T-shirts, Dickies pants, flannels and fedoras. 

His son regularly wears clothing from the store to class at Jefferson Middle School, Ligas said, but school administrators have accused him of being associated with gangs. 

“When Latino students are in school, they should be learning,” Ligas said. “They should be having fun — not judged, not harassed and not racially profiled.”

ACLU of Idaho federal complaint based on report

In the ACLU of Idaho’s federal complaint, it claims the school district is violating Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal funds.

The complaint came one month after the ACLU of Idaho published a report called Proud to Be Brown: Punishing Latine Culture in Idaho Schools.” The report highlights the experiences of students in Nampa and Caldwell schools who claim their clothing was wrongly perceived as “gang-related.”

During the 2019-2020 school year, the Nampa School District had the highest numbers of Latino students in Idaho enrolled in the K-12 public school system, data from the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs shows. 

The ACLU uses the term “Latine” as a non-gendered term to describe someone whose ethnicity is rooted in Latin America, similar to the term Latinx, Latino and Hispanic.

Many of the students interviewed in the report said they were interrogated about alleged gang affiliations based on their attire and style such as shaved hair lines, Dickies clothing and graphic shirts, and bandanas. 

Latino students in Idaho represent nearly 20% of all K-12 student enrollment in Idaho. In the Nampa and Caldwell school districts, that number is at between 40 to 44% of enrollment, according to the ACLU report. Latino students in those districts receive twice the number of expulsions compared to white students, according to the report. 

According to the complaint, the ACLU of Idaho is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Nampa School District to determine whether its dress code complies with the civil rights act, to take steps to remedy unlawful conduct, and monitor any resulting agreements with the school district to ensure compliance.