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Chicano Movement

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The Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s provides a window into the construction of race in the United States. Never a unified entity, the Chicano insurgency was instead a series of events and actions waged by organizations that used cultural nationalism and Marxist-Leninist ideas to press their demands. Among these organizations were the Brown Berets, the National Chicano Moratorium Committee, the Crusade for Justice, the Movimiento Estudiantíl Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), La Raza Unida Party (LRUP), and the Centro de Acción Social Autónomo (Autonomous Center for Social Action, commonly known as CASA). The all used the common anti-American political language of Chicanismo, which gave them the semblance of a mutual identity and experience. Another notion that the groups shared was the idea that Chicanos were an internal colony of the United States.

Perhaps the most celebrated of the Chicano movement organizations was the Brown Berets, a paramilitary group similar in outlook and style to the Black Panthers. The group was founded in 1966 under the leadership of David Sánchez, a high school student in Los Angeles. The Berets espoused a militant outlook, if not substantively at least symbolically, and they soon captured the imagination of Chicano youth throughout Los Angeles and the Southwest. For the next six years the Berets would be present at, and take an active role in, demonstrations and protests in the Los Angeles area, including the 1968 high school “blowouts,” in which Chicano students walked out of school to protest unequal conditions. Their struggle also incorporated the protests against the Vietnam War and police brutality staged by the Chicano Moratorium Committee from 1969 through 1971. These actions proved short-lived, but they ensured that the Brown Berets would become a sensation in the ethnic Mexican community. Before their demise in 1973, they established the East Los Angeles Free Clinic, which still exists. Ultimately, the Brown Berets were more concerned with symbolic gestures to bring to light Chicanos’ unequal living and working conditions. Nevertheless they inspired the ethnic Mexican community to fight for empowerment and strive to change the status quo.

The fight for empowerment and the quest to change the status quo were also undertaken by the Crusade for Justice, a Denver-based organization founded by a former boxer turned community activist, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, in 1965. Unlike the Berets, the Crusade for Justice believed in substantive change, and they imagined a community that would be guided by a strong adherence to Mexican culture, which would manifest itself through the building of institutions. To that end, the Crusade operated a school named Tlatelolco: La Plaza de las Tres Culturas. At its height, Tlatelolco had 200 preschool to college-age students. The Crusade also ran a curio shop, a bookstore, and a social center.

Like the Brown Berets, the Crusade protested police brutality and was concerned with young ethnic Mexicans, as was evident when it sponsored the 1969 National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference, which is notable for issuing El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán (The Spiritual Plan of Aztlán), which called for Chicano separatism in the face of white oppression. This became the blueprint for Chicano student activism in the years to come. The plan also called for the establishment of a nationwide Mexican-American student movement based in high schools and college campuses, which would be spearheaded by local chapters of the Movimiento Estudiantíl Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA). In addition, the conference issued calls for a Mexican-American anti–Vietnam War effort and pressed for a Chicano political party to lead electoral efforts.

The plan’s anti–Vietnam War call was taken up by the National Chicano Moratorium Committee. Founded in September 1969 by Los Angeles-based activists Ramses Noriega and Rosalio Muñoz, the organization’s impetus came from the disclosure of the disproportionate numbers of Mexican American youths dying in Southeast Asia (a three to one ratio, compared to whites). In order to bring greater awareness to this issue, and to the squalid living conditions and unequal educational opportunities that both pushed Chicano young men to enlist and guaranteed that they would be drafted into the military, the Moratorium Committee staged five demonstrations against the war in the Los Angeles area. The largest took place on August 29, 1970, and attraced 20,000 protesters. This march and rally ended in violence initiated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and resulted in three deaths, most notably that of that journalist Ruben Salazar. The tragic events of that day changed the direction of the organization, and from then on the Chicano Moratorium Committee focused primarily on combating police brutality, with the war protest being put on the back burner. This resulted in the loss of wider support and eventually led to the organization’s demise in August 1971.

As opposed to the marches and demonstrations staged by the Chicano Moratorium Committee, La Raza Unida Party (LRUP) founded in 1969 by Crystal City, Texas, residents José Angel Gutiérrez and Luz Gutiérrez, among others, sought to empower Chicanos by using the ballot box. Of all the Chicano movement organizations, history of the LRUP sheds light on the fractured nature of the ethnic Mexican community in the United States. Never a national organization, but rather a series of local chapters that had the common goal of voting Chicanos into office, the LRUP sprang up throughout the Southwest, most prominently in Texas, Colorado, and California. However, because each state had different statutes governing ballot qualifications, and thus for attaining official party status, the LRUP was never able to succeed in establishing a strong voter base. The party’s 1972 national convention in El Paso, Texas, symbolized the organization’s potential to unify its various cells, but ultimately led to its undoing as one contingent supported Colorado’s Corky Gonzales for chairman, while another delegation backed José Angel Gutiérrez, who was from Texas. In the end, Gutiérrez emerged as the leader, causing the LRUP to splinter into factions, and thus it was never able to forge a nationwide entity.

In contrast to La Raza Unida Party, which ultimately believed in the American system, the Centro de Acción Social Autónomo (CASA) merged nationalism with a Marxist-Leninist philosophy. It was founded in 1969 by Bert Corona and Soledad Alatorre as a mutual aid organization that offered services to Mexican immigrant workers. In 1975, CASA merged with the Committee to Free Los Tres, which fought for the release of three young men accused of selling drugs in a Los Angeles barrio. The Committee to Free Los Tres was composed primarily of college students and young professionals, and they transformed CASA into a Communist “pre-party” organization that would be guided not only by Marxism-Leninism, but also by Mexican proto-nationalist ideas. Given this lodestar, CASA rejected the label “Chicano” and instead insisted that there was no difference between ethnic Mexicans in the United States and those in Mexico.

According to CASA, capitalism had made ethnic Mexicans into workers, regardless of nationality, and organizers should therefore disregard the international boundary between the two countries. This notion of “sin fronteras” (without borders) would become CASA’s guiding principle. To that end, over the course of its three-year existence as a pre-party organization, CASA worked with other groups to defeat the anti-immigrant Rodino Bill. It also joined in the struggle to influence the U.S. Supreme Court to maintain affirmative action, which it ultimately did in the 1978 Bakke case. Yet CASA was never able to bring greater numbers into its fold. Eventually, internal fighting broke out over how best to make an impact in the ethnic Mexican community, and over the inherent contradictions of merging nationalist and internationalist ideas, and the group disbanded.

The Chicano movement was never a unified entity, but during its short-lived existence it sought to empower Mexican Americans in a more militant and sensational manner than had been done before. Ultimately, it was a moment of political experimentation that imagined community in a myriad of ways, and in the process brought to the forefront the dynamic and multifaceted nature of the ethnic Mexican community in the United States. Thus, understanding the Chicano movement allows for greater insight into the construction of race and racism in America.


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