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A Special Supplement: The Chicanos

For a while, in spite of the example of Watts, the conflicts were on the inside. Then the Delano grape strike revealed a “Spanish-surnamed” organizer who was openly defying all the lords of California’s agribusiness. And from the ancient New Mexico land grant suits, Reies Lopez Tijerina emerged loudly challenging the very powers of state. Thus inspired, fifty “Spanish-surnamed” notables staged a walkout at an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission Conference in Albuquerque in March, 1966. By 1967, while Chavez’s grape boycott and Tijerina’s courthouse raid were catching most “Spanish-surnamed” notice nationally, gangs in the East LA barrios were outfitting as Brown Berets, and students in universities throughout the Southwest were forming aggressive associations. At Berkeley young “Spanish-surnamed” professors were preparing to publish El Grito, the first “journal of contemporary Mexican-American thought.” After the Black Power Conference on the East Coast that July, the thought in many “Mexican American” circles was, why not a Brown Power Conference on the West Coast?

That October the new federal Inter-Agency Committee on Mexican-American Affairs held hearings in El Paso to control the agitation. (Chavez refused his invitation; Tijerina never received one.) But the show was stolen by the “Mexican American” guests who lambasted the federal government and staged a rival Raza Unida Conference in El Paso’s slummiest barrio, where the banners read, “Mañana is here!” They shied away from Brown Power, but they did “affirm the magnificence of La Raza, the greatness of our heritage, our history, our language, our traditions, our contributions to humanity, and our culture.”

The response from back East was conciliatory—the Bilingual Education Act and healthy Ford Foundation grants to a Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and a Southwest Council of La Raza (“for the development of the barrio through the organization and encouragement of local cooperative community groups”). But by spring, 1968, the spirit of protest was even upon the kids. In March, 15,000 in East LA staged “blowouts” from their high schools, demanding transfers of racist teachers, revised curricula (“to show Mexican contributions to our country”), no punishments for speaking Spanish, unlocked toilets, unfenced campuses, and so on. While riots and rebellions exploded around the world that spring and summer, “blowouts” hit the San Antonio and Denver barrio schools too.

Five years after it began, vibrant now with the nation’s terrific tensions, the movement produced its professionals at a Youth Liberation Conference in Denver. The host for the 1,500 delegates assembled there on Palm Sunday, 1969, was Rodolfo Gonzales, already locally famous as “Corky.” A native of the city’s barrio, ex-slaughter-house-worker, ex-NBA-listed feather-weight, ex-bailbondsman, ex-coordinator of Viva Kennedy clubs, ex-general agent for Summit Fidelity and Surety in Colorado, and ex-chairman of the board of Denver’s War on Poverty, now at forty the father of eight, a poet, a playwright, director of the Crusade for Justice (a lively barrio services center), and probably the most blatantly macho public figure in America, redolent of mod Elvis Presleyism and raving about emasculation, Corky managed the conference like a fiesta.

During its proceedings he pulled three strokes of genius. The first was to establish a name for the new militants, Chicanos. Its original meaning forgotten, the name cut the clumsiness of “Spanish-speaking,” “Spanish-surnamed,” and “Mexican Americans” (hyphenated or not) to announce a distinct people, once suppressed but now reclaiming their integrity. Corky’s second stroke was to establish a militant lingo, barrio slang, pochismos. A swinging syntax of Southwestern American English and Northern Mexican Spanish, pocho talk suddenly became the Chicano language.

Third was Corky’s divulging that the Southwest was Aztlán, the mythical fatherland of the mythical Aztecs, who, he said, had erected the great civilization of ancient Mexico, of which, he said, Chicanos were descendants. Lifted from the sappiest pages of romantic historiography (Mexican and American), garbling recent scholarship, this exegesis allowed an image of the Southwest as la raza’s by right of lineage. With a people, a language, and a homeland, the delegates proclaimed their Plan Espiritual de Aztlán—“the call of our blood is our power, our responsibility, and our inevitable destiny…. We are a nation…. Por La Raza todo, Fuera de La Raza nada.”

Implied then and elaborated later were all the old contradictions of nationalism. Devotion to la raza is not racism, for la raza is only one kind of mankind, except that it has good traits galore and the other kinds have none. (In one Chicano’s translation the Plan de Aztlán concludes, “To hell with the nothing race. All power for our people.”) And within la raza the rule is one for all and all for one, except that the carnales (brothers) who want to liberate la raza cannot control the Malinches and vendidos (sellouts) and Tíos Tacos (Uncle Toms); and macho as the carnales are, they can no longer intimidate the Chicanas blowing out of the bedroom and the kitchen.

At the call of the blood, the goal of liberation itself has shifted between “cultural and economic independence” and an independent state. And strategy has wavered between “defense of the community” and “armed revolutionary struggle.”

Chicanismo has left many in the movement cold, like those on the Southwest Council, who gladly call themselves Chicanos but reckon that a new alienation would ruin la raza. And it has scandalized the LULACs, GI Forumites, MAPAs, and PASOs, who now have their investments in “Mexican Americanism.” Since their first encounter with him the nationalists have repelled Chavez, who is committed far beyond Aztlán to building solidarity among farmworkers of every complexion. Lately they have even lost Tijerina, who is committed after all to the sad hispanos of the Sangre de Cristos, and is now evangelizing against nations and states everywhere.

Most galling to the professionals, who expected to take off like the blacks, has been their manifest failure to touch many white consciences. As ignorant of the East as the East has been of them, they did not understand in 1969 that the special reservoirs of white guilt the blacks could tap would never open to them—and that outside the South precious little guilt was open even to blacks. Only slowly some have learned that they can make gains only by their muscle.

Within these limits Chicano nationalism has been flourishing. Brown Berets who “hate Amerika” are now active in barrios throughout the Southwest. Chicano “cultural groups” have hatched in the penitentiaries. Several major student associations have allied into the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, or MECHA (which means “fuse,” and in rural slang “down home stuffing”). Young academics have proclaimed their Plan de Santa Barbara, the blueprint for Chicano Studies departments and programs now available in scores of Southwestern universities. Two quarterlies have appeared, Aztlán (“Chicano Journal of the Social Sciences and the Arts”) and Con Safos (“Reflections of Life in the Barrio”), as well as at least a dozen Chicano newspapers, varying from El Grito del Norte, published in Española, New Mexico, to ¡Basta Ya! in San Francisco. Repeated “blowouts” have put the fear of a Brown God in Southwestern high-school principals. There have been Chicano conferences in Albuquerque, Houston, Kansas City, and South Bend, annual rejuvenations in Denver, and last spring the first joint Chicano-Boricua (Puerto Rican) Conference, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Even politically the nationalists have been thriving. In 1970 they organized a Raza Unida Party in South Texas “as a unifying force in our struggle for self-determination,” and won control of the school board in the Zavala County seat, Crystal City, which brought on a local social revolution. They also organized a Raza Unida Party in Denver, where Corky ran for mayor, and in Oakland and Los Angeles. In 1971 the Texas party won city council elections in Crystal City and in the neighboring county seats of Carrizo Springs and Cotulla, in the heart of the Winter Gardens. Last April the National Chicano Political Conference in San Jose spurned McGovern, endorsed the California party’s drive to get on the ballot this fall, and voted to build a Raza Unida Party throughout the country. By now the Texas party is operating seriously in more than twenty of the state’s southern and central counties, where most of the population is “Spanish-surnamed,” and it has its own candidate for governor on the ballot.

Meanwhile the amateurs of the movement have been carrying on their own campaigns to boost la raza within America, to seat Chicano delegates at the Democratic Convention, elect candidates indebted to them, stop defamatory advertising, prevent job discrimination, halt freeway construction through barrios, sue state legislatures for fair reapportionments, recruit more kids into college, correct the history books, etc. Their version of the movement has off and on attracted many “Mexican Americans,” young and old, integrated and still alien, loaded, hustling, and strapped. It is where their sympathies go when they too are sure that their kind has suffered more than any other kind of people in America, when they yearn to know that they are as good as the other kinds (maybe better than the blacks), that only prejudice keeps them from getting more out of the country, and that they should not have to sacrifice their most consoling sense of themselves to get it.

It attracts them especially when the offenses against their kind are most flagrant—20,000 from throughout the Southwest were Chicanos at least for a day in August, 1970, when they marched in the East LA Moratorium against the Vietnam war, and probably fifty times 20,000 throughout the country were Chicanos for weeks after the Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies willfully destroyed the demonstration and three “Mexican American” lives.

So altogether the Chicano movement is only another ethnic movement, at its bitterest a threat not to integrate which cannot stop the integration but which can wrest some reparations for the loss of old certainties. Eventually it will win for its surviving professional and amateur chiefs their quota of revenge and power in America, and for its winter and summer members a little better deal than they would otherwise have had for the stakes in their class.

II

From the beginning this has been a curious history. Never a melting into an American pot, or an assimilation to an American archetype, or an acculturation to an American civilization, or a preservation within America of a separate culture, it has become an ethnic history—like the histories of the Old Stocks, the Early Immigrants, the New Immigrants, the Blacks, the Indians, the Orientals, the French Canadians, the Puerto Ricans, and the Cubans here, like all American histories. But it remains as different from them as they have been from each other. And after fifty years of study, its peculiar character is still obscure. The reason is fear, of Mexico and America.

In quiet dread of discovering too much pain in Mexico and too much promise in America, regular Americans have treated the “Mexicans,” the “Spanish-speaking,” the “Spanish-surnamed,” and now the “Mexican Americans” as intruders in this country, whom they could always “send back to Mexico.” And students of the treatment, almost all of the regular kind themselves, almost all anthropologists or sociologists (or behaving like them), have taken it as a reflection not on the stingy but on the denied.

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