Friday, November 25, 2011

"Chicanismo": The Rise of the Latino Civil Rights Movement

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe middle class Mexican American civil rights groups like LULAC and the more radical campaigns waged by Chicanos and by Latino farm workers in the 1960s and the 1970s.

The African American civil rights movement profoundly inspired Latinos after World War II. Other factors moving the community towards great militancy included “an increased awareness and expanded horizons of many Mexican-American veterans of World War II and the Korean conflict . . . rising educational levels among Mexican Americans (especially after World War II); increased awareness of the civil-rights movement of the late sixties . . . [and the] emergence of nationally significant Chicano leaders in community organizations and governmental positions . . .”

Latinos represented one of the fastest-growing populations in the United States after the war, with approximately 6 million people of Mexican descent living in the Southwestern United States from California to Texas. A large cluster of Cuban immigrants had settled in Florida and the major urban centers in the Northeast now included a large number of residents of Puerto Rican descent. Many Mexicans had settled in the United States as a result of the bracero, or agricultural guest worker program between Mexico and the United States, from 1942 to 1964. After World War II, Latinos of all ethnicities became increasingly aware that their larger numbers could translate into greater political power.

Mexican Americans had primarily voted for the Democratic Party, but by the late 1950s many had concluded that Democrats took them for granted. To address these frustrations, activists like Bert Corona and Edward Quevedo formed the Mexican American Political Organization (MAPA) in California in 1959, the group recruited Mexican American candidates for public office. During the 1960s, Viva Kennedy clubs formed all over the Southwest as the largely Catholic Mexican American population rallied behind their co-religionist. After Kennedy’s election, older Latino civil rights organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and Viva Kennedy joined together, following a 1961 meeting in Victoria, Texas to form the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (or PASO), which would shake the political world with local elections in the small town of Crystal City, Texas.

Crystal City was an agricultural community where Mexican Americans made up 80 percent of the population. Many lived in poverty and attended poorly funded schools. The city council was all-Anglo in 1963. Juan Cornejo, a member of the local Teamsters Union at the Del Monte cannery in Crystal City (a politically powerful local business), and a PASO organizer, launched a successful campaign to get Mexican Americans to pay the poll tax and register to vote. As a result of the drive, Mexican Americans constituted almost 70 percent of voters. Cornejo then helped boost the city council candidacies of five Mexican American candidates, who came to be known as los cinco. The candidates included a grocery store clerk, a truck driver, and the owner of a camera store. The Anglo power structure cracked down on this attempt by Mexican Americans to take over the city council and the Del Monte plant fired numerous workers for wearing campaign buttons supporting los cinco. After intervention from the Teamsters Union, the workers were rehired.

The city government reduced the number of polling places within Mexican American neighborhoods from three to one. Some workers continued to be physically threatened and then the Del Monte plant ordered overtime production during the election to keep their Mexican American workers from voting. “The Mexicans are trying to take over our town,” complained an Anglo worker at a local gas station. Nevertheless, the Mexican American slate won the election and held all seats on the new Crystal City Council. The PASO faction would lose control of the city government by 1965, nevertheless Anglos would never again hold a monopoly on power in Crystal City. Events in Crystal City politically energized Latinos across the United States, and especially in Texas.


Among Latino leaders, César Chávez enjoyed a unique ability to appeal to “center Mexican American organizations, along with the left,” as the historian Rodolfo Acuña wrote. In so doing, he became the “only Mexican American leader to be so recognized [as a national Latino spokesman] by the mainstream civil rights and antiwar movements.” Chávez first achieved notice when Filipino workers in the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) on September 8, 1965 organized a strike against grape growers in the Delano region of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Earlier that year, the U.S. Labor Department had ordered that braceros (guest workers from Mexico) working in the Coachella Valley receive pay of $1.40 an hour ($10.40 an hour in today’s dollars.) The grape pickers were receiving 30 cents, or $2.15 an hour less in today’s dollars. Filipino and Mexican workers walked off the job, demanding the same pay as the braceros.

Chávez became a champion of the grape pickers’ cause. Born in Yuma, Arizona, in 1927, Chávez was the child of a union activist and a member of the United Farm Labor Union. He recalled being abused by teachers who punished students who spoke Spanish. One teacher made him wear a sign that said, “I am a clown. I speak Spanish.” He was deeply influenced by Pope Leo XIII’s papal 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum in which the Catholic leader urged church members to support workers’ rights and fight for social justice. Chávez also studied the career of India’s non-violent independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. In 1962, Chávez moved to Delano to work as a union organizer, focusing on recruiting Mexican field hands. By 1964, the National Farm Workers Association, the grape pickers’ union, had a membership of 1,700.

The charismatic Chávez won support across the country from Anglo Protestant civil rights activists. As a result of pressure from the growing number of Latino members in groups like the United Auto Workers, and the significant support of liberal Catholic priests, the grape strike became a national cause. The NFWA started a grape boycott that hurt growers, grocers and wine manufacturers. The boycott eventually persuaded some of the biggest grape growers and wine manufacturers like Gallo, Christian Brothers, and Paul Masson to sign multi-year contracts with higher pay with the grape pickers.

Other growers continued to resist. The United States government undermined the union and, by 1969, bought more than 4 million pounds of boycotted grapes, some sent to troops in Vietnam. Nevertheless, the boycott spread to Canada and Europe and by 1970, the strike in its fifth year, major growers in the San Joaquin and the Coachella Valley signed contracts with the NFWA. By the spring of 1971, in spite of violence instigated by growers (including a beating that left union lawyer Jerry Cohen unconscious), the major lettuce growers recognized the United Farm Workers Union and offered contracts with higher wages.


By the late 1960s, Black Nationalism became a model for younger Latinos who had tired of the more modest goals of assimilation and desegregation sought by groups like LULAC. Younger activists began to adopt the term "Chicano" to refer to their community. Chicano “had historically been a pejorative term applied to lower-class Mexicans,” Acuña wrote. “Working class people themselves, however, had always used it playfully to refer to each other.” Linking themselves to the poor, Chicanos rejected the materialism of their elders and declared their solidarity with African Americans, Cubans, the Viet Cong and others they saw as victims of Gringo (Anglo) imperialism and capitalism.

Most of these Chicano students came from the lower middle and middle classes, and they found radical politics for three major reasons: their own experiences with Anglo racism; the inspiring example of black civil rights protestors and outspoken leaders like Malcolm X; and finally the heroic struggles of the mostly Latino United Farm Workers union.

Chicanos also rejected the approach taken by older Mexican American political groups like LULAC and the GI Forum. In spite of all LULAC and AGIF's efforts to win Anglo tolerance, Mexican American children still attended poorly funded and segregated schools where most teachers were Anglo and could speak only English. The emphasis of LULAC on Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants learning English and becoming flag-waving patriots had not won Anglo respect for Mexican American culture. Chicanos now insisted on "the retention of Mexican cultural traditions — language, ceremonies, songs, family" and proudly declared their "racial and cultural distinctiveness."

One Chicano activist, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez (a former boxer and Democratic Party activist) established in 1966 the Crusade for Justice in Denver, which battled for reform of the local courts and police department, economic justice, and the inclusion of Chicanos in school lessons. “The Crusade became highly nationalistic; at one point Gonzalez considered appealing to the United Nations for a plebiscite in the Southwest to determine whether the people – la raza – might desire independence from the United States,” historian Bruce J. Schulman said. Gonzalez took advantage of a Denver teachers’ strike and got volunteers from the Crusade to teach not only core courses like math and biology, but also classes on Spanish and Mexican culture and Chicano history.

This embrace of cultural difference, which came to be known as Chicanismo, found following among young Houston, Texas, Latinos in the mid-1960s. When the Anglo-run Houston school board attempted to dodge sending white children to desegregated schools by designating Mexican American children as white and grouping them with African Americans, Chicano youths resisted. Chicanos launched a two-and-a-half-week strike involving 3,500 students who refused to attend Houston schools in August and September 1970. Chicanos set up "huelga" or strike schools, so Mexican American children could continue their lessons and learn more about their culture and history.

As a result of the strikes, more bilingual Mexican American teachers were hired by the Houston district, the curriculum was rewritten so students would be exposed to positive portrayals of Mexican Americans and physical improvements were made at some minority-majority schools. The Houston school board, however, never recognized Chicanos or Mexican Americans as a separate racial category, and brown and black children continued to bear the burden of desegregation. Houston Chicanos, however, deeply influenced the future shape of Mexican American politics across Texas and the country for the next four decades. Similar student walkouts occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s in California, Colorado, New Mexico and in major cities across the country.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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