Some Chicano scholars say the beginning of the Chicano activist movement was the defense of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in 1521, which pitted the indigenous Mexican population against Spanish invaders. Others define it as the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, when Mexico lost half of its territory to the United States and Mexican residents became, as one scholar put it, “strangers in their own land.”
Little scholarly disagreement exists, however, as to the time frame of the emergence of the modern Chicano movement — it can be directly pegged to the mid-1960s, a time coinciding with the last great thrust of the Black civil rights movement.
In essence, the Chicano movement embodied an across-the-board push for civil and human rights that placed an emphasis on increased entry, presence and relevance in the racially barricaded and cloistered bastions of American higher education. This led to colleges and universities becoming targets of protest — and a resultant opening of doors and minds that led to the creation of Chicano studies.
Ada Sosa-Riddell, director of the Chicana/Latina Center at the University of California-Davis, says that Chicano studies represents one of the long-lasting legacies of the Chicano movement. However, with the advent of the anti-affirmative action mood of the country, she says, danger is in the air.
“But you can’t destroy Chicano studies. You would have to burn the literature,” says Sosa-Riddell.
In fact, many scholars maintain that the anti-immigrant, anti-affirmative action stance of politicians nationwide has been responsible for a resurgence of Chicano activism on campus.
Purposefully Pursued Agenda
During the 1960s, the Chicano movement was actually comprised of several components: boycotts to improve the lives of farm workers; demonstrations to end Jim Crow-style segregation and police repression; demands for land-grant equity; protests to improve educational opportunities; and organizing for political representation and self-determination.
In time, other areas of concern were added, such as: gender equality, access to higher education and immigrant rights. A cultural rebirth was proclaimed, triggered by a rediscovery and appreciation of mestizo/indigenous roots and a positive self-definition.
This cumulative activist agenda became popularly known as the Brown Power movement. An important psychological component of this major Chicano effort of self-assertion and determination was often misunderstood, or not known by, the general population. It was known as “building Aztlan” — or nationhood.
To many Chicanos, Aztlan — which is derived from the name of the Aztec homeland, Azlan — represents the U.S. Southwest and what they believed was the ancestral homeland stolen from Mexico during the Mexican-American War. Although there were those in the movement who literally interpreted this notion as reclamation of this “lost land” by fighting for an independent, sovereign nation (even from Mexico), all involved in the movement interpreted “building Aztlan” as a spiritual building — or bonding — of a people on common ground.
The 1960s and ’70s were an exciting time, says Lea Ybarra, associate provost for academic affairs at California State University-Fresno. “We felt we could make a difference.”
Ybarra enrolled at CSU-Fresno (then known as Fresno State University) in the mid-1960s when there were only a handful of Chicano and Chicana students. Today, there are more than 4,000.
Luis Arroyo, professor and chair of Chicano and Latino studies at California State University-Long Beach, says that the Chicano movement was unified when it was simply a movement for dignity and self-respect.
But, he contends, once an attempt was made to give the movement an ideology, “We began to develop competing definitions as to what the movement was.”
To this day, those competing definitions continue to shape how scholars define what the movement was or wasn’t, when it started, when and if it ended and what it should be.
What differentiates the Chicano movement from earlier Mexican civil rights struggles is its national character, its mass nature and its strong student base at colleges and universities.
Prior to World War II, Mexican Americans were virtually invisible on college campuses. It was not until the 1960s — as a result of educational opportunity programs — that Chicanos streamed onto campuses in unprecedented numbers.
Their prior absence was generally due to discrimination in the educational system. The exception, particularly in the 19th century, were the children of landed elites.
As such, there was no intellectual tradition in the Mexican-American community in higher education similar to that which exists in the African-American community. The reason, says Carlos Munoz, Chicano studies professor at the University of California-Berkeley, is that because after the Mexican-American War, whites did not feel a responsibility to educate Mexican Americans. Thus, there was never a push to create Mexican-American colleges, similar to the Black colleges, says the author of “Youth, Identity and Power,” a book that chronicles the Chicano movement.
Absent a large presence in higher education, Mexican-American scholars debated the issues of the day in newspapers, as opposed to lecture halls.
Arturo Madrid, the Murchison Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX, says that contrary to popular belief there is an untapped wealth of literature in Mexico about the Mexican-origin population in the United States prior to 1960. During the 1950s, the era of McCarthyism, large-scale deportations of Mexicans were both indiscriminate and selectively targeted against Mexican political, labor and community leaders — “against anyone that was suspect,” he says.
With a few exceptions, the effect was to leave in place a less combative Mexican-American intellectual leadership, says Madrid.
Felix Gutierrez, director of the Freedom Forum’s Pacific Media Center, whose parents were journalists and student-activists during the 1930s through the 1950s, says that political activism has always been a part of the Mexican-American community. “What people were talking about in the 1960s, we were living in the 1950s,” he says.
Gutierrez himself represents a link between an organization known as the “Mexican-American Movement” from the 1930s to the 1950s (and whose motto was “Progress through Education”) and the 1960s movement. He, along with Ralph Guzman, were the faculty advisors for the first United Mexican American Student organization at California State University-Los Angeles.
While Gutierrez sees the birth of the Chicano movement as a resurgence of the earlier 1930s-50s movement, he distinguishes the 1960s as “a period of turbulence.”
One of the principal parts of the country where that turbulence manifested itself was in Crystal City, TX, where, in 1963, Chicanos took over the City Council in a part of the country that had long been dominated by an agricultural elite.
The Chicano activists’ mission at that time — as documented in the book “MAYO: Avant-Garde to the Chicano Movement in Texas” by University of California-Riverside Professor Armando Navarro — “was to eliminate and replace the gringo,” says Jose Angel Gutierrez, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas-Arlington.
Struggling against Jim Crow institutions, Chicano activists also won school board elections in South Texas, but soon found out that Anglos remained embedded in power as teachers and administrators. This knowledge, says Angel Gutierrez, is what triggered the creation of La Raza Unida Party — the first and only political party for Chicanos: “We became the electoral arm of the Chicano movement.”
Black Civil Rights Ties
Elizabeth Martinez, author of “500 Years of Chicano History” and a past director of the New York chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), says that the Chicano movement had more than symbolic links with the Black civil rights movement.
Martinez notes that in 1965, as a member of SNCC, she delivered a speech at the historic farm worker’s march from Delano, CA, to Sacramento — in solidarity with the United Farm Workers union. In 1968, on behalf of SNCC, she traveled to Albuquerque to connect with the Chicano land struggle in New Mexico and to help found the newspaper, El Grito del Norte (The Cry of the North). “I went for two weeks and I stayed for eight years,” she says.
Many scholars maintain that ever since the death of farm labor leader Cesar Chavez in 1993 there has been a resurgence in the Chicano movement, particularly at colleges and universities nationwide.
This new activism peaked in 1994 when hundreds of thousands of junior and senior high and college students across the country walked out of schools and held marches and rallies in opposition to California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187. “The mass mobilization against 187 reaffirmed the need to be unified,” says Angela Acosta, a graduate student at the University of New Mexico.
“The Chicano movement shaped my life,” says Acosta. Yet, as someone who worked against 187, she believes the new movement is no longer limited to Chicanos but encompasses Latinos, immigrants and other people of color.
Genevieve Aguilar, a senior at Hanks High School in El Paso, says the Chicano movement is “definitely not dead” — that it lives in students like herself who battle against people who believe that racism no longer exists and who don’t see a need for Chicano or Latino programs.
When students ask Aguilar, who has been a member of the education-oriented National Hispanic Institute since she was in the ninth-grade, why there isn’t an institute for whites, she has a ready answer.
“There is: It’s called government.”
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