Are pickets, marches, etc., effective?
Were the demonstrations, pickets, marches, etc., of the Chicano Movement effective? During an interview (by a college student for a term paper) I was asked that question recently. I’m a veteran of the dynamic and highly productive Chicano Movement, and like many of you, I’m sure, over the years I have walked hundreds of miles on picket lines and on marches. This blog elaborates on my response to the student’s question. I’ve written on this topic before, as have others much more eloquent than myself. But the topic remains relevant, and what I and others have said before bears repeating.
The Chicano Movement of the 1960s-1970s was an organic, grass-roots movement that moved mountains. We accomplished things we were told were impossible, and we did it on a shoestring. We had no funding, except for small donations of money, equipment (e.g., typewriters), and supplies (typing ribbons and paper, etc.) from supporters. What we did have, however, was an abundance of idealism, a lot of heart and energy, a ton of pride in ourselves and our community, and a heaping dose of anger at how our community was treated by various institutions and people-schools, government, elected officials, employers, etc. By today’s standards, our communications mechanisms were primitive: landline telephones, leaflets produced on hand-cranked mimeograph machines, tabloid newspapers, and the old tried-and-true word of mouth. But we also communicated with our bodies by means of pickets, rallies, marches, and the like.
Pickets humanize issues, expand your world…
Justice. Equality. Discrimination. Racism. Ethnic pride. Bilingualism. These, among others, are the issues the Chicano Movement dealt with. They are all very important, but they are also very abstract. Pickets and marches put real people behind these abstract concepts.
On a general level, pickets and marches bring issues like the foregoing to the public’s attention. For example, in the early 1970s there was a store in Tucson that had a three-tier pay scale-one for white employees (the highest), one for Mexican American employees (the second highest) and one for African American employees (the lowest). The store also brought in outside white supervisors rather than promote longtime, qualified Mexican American and African American employees. But only the people who worked there knew all this, something the store management counted on.
When we, the Centro Chicano (where I was an organizer), found out about the situation, we set up regular informational picket lines every Friday evening, a heavy shopping period. Once customers learned about the three-tier pay scale and the promotion policy and practice, they would bring the matter up with the store management. And many people who weren’t customers but who took one of our informational leaflets called the store and raised the issue with the store management. All of this activity attracted media attention, and within a few weeks, the store had instituted a single and equitable pay scale and a non-race/ethnic-based promotion policy. This would not have happened had we not set up the informational picket lines. Variations of this scenario played out in communities throughout the Southwest and elsewhere.
The same is true when your neighbors, your friends, your work colleagues, etc., see you on a picket line or in a march addressing an issue. When the UFW was boycotting grapes and lettuce in the early 1970s, we set up Boycott Lettuce/Grapes! picket lines at our neighborhood supermarkets that sold scab grapes and lettuce. When our friends and neighbors and other conocidos saw us on the picket line and found out why we were picketing, they would turn around and not shop at the store, and some even joined our picket line. To these friends and neighbors, we gave credibility to the issue. This was going on all over the country. The cumulative effect of all this activity was key to the lettuce and grape growers signing union contracts with the UFW.
A side benefit of taking part in marches and pickets is that you often expand your world. You meet people from different barrios-neighborhoods, different ideologies and areas of interest, etc., people whom you may not have met or interacted with in the normal course of events. These encounters have forged many lifelong friendships.
Does anyone really like to picket?
To be clear: my intent is not to glorify or romanticize picketing and marching. Frankly, I don’t know anyone who actually likes to picket. In places like Tucson, where the summer temperatures can go up to 110 degrees, picketing and marching can be very trying. And the same is true in places where it gets really cold. And any time you picket, you run the risk of people hurling insults at you, throwing rocks and other objects at you, and, sometimes, of being arrested.
So, why do I walk picket lines and will continue to walk them?
Because, among many other things, I like it that barrio streets that weren’t before are now paved and have sidewalks. That people of Mexican descent are hired for all kinds of jobs in the private and public sectors and that instead of rejecting Spanish-speakers, employers seek out bilingual applicants. That people of Mexican descent can be and are elected to office, and are professors, teachers, principals, counselors, and administrators in our public schools and colleges and universities. That today we count our college and university enrollments in multiples of thousands rather than tens.
That our children are not beaten for speaking Spanish. That workers who didn’t before now have union contracts that protect them. That people of Mexican descent and other people of color can live wherever they want to. That children of Mexican and other non-white descent are not systematically made to feel inferior or ashamed of their heritage.
The Chicano Generation achieved these things and others directly-or we created the atmosphere in which they could occur. But our generation’s greatest contribution was that we instilled a deep and irrevocable sense of pride in our community, especially in our youth. We took on the Mexican haters head-on. We did this by old-fashioned organizing, the centerpiece of which is talking to people straightforwardly and respectfully. Some of the most powerful weapons in our organizing arsenal were the pickets, the marches, the rallies. Indeed, the picket sign is an excellent symbol of those movements and struggles that have brought us progress.
And pickets and such are still working…
To be sure, social media plays an important role in modern life. But social media postings are seen only by those who use social media. They are not visible to the general public in the way that pickets and marches are. Even in this day of social media, pickets and marches are effective.
For example: Just last week here in Tucson, a high-school student of Mexican descent, who was days away from graduating, was stopped for a traffic violation. Suspecting the student was undocumented, the sheriff’s deputy called the Border Patrol, who arrested and detained the student. About 100 students walked out of school to protest the arrest of their fellow student, and they marched to the Sheriff station, where they picketed and rallied. This attracted media attention, which generated an onslaught of support among the public for the arrested student. As a result, the teen was released from custody.
And a few years ago, when Arizona determined that teaching Mexican American history was illegal, a local school district banned all books that had anything to do with Mexicans and even banned Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” from being read in Mexican American Studies classes because it deals with issues of morality, fairness, and oppression, topics that were deemed to be “illegal” in Mexican American Studies classes. People rallied around the students and their parents who were fighting the book ban. We packed school board meetings, we wrote letters to the editor, we rallied, and we marched, and we picketed, which kept the issue in the public eye and generated much media attention. As a result of all this activism, the book ban was lifted.
So, to answer the student’s question-were the Chicano Movement-era pickets and marches effective? The answer is a resounding YES! And they are still being effective. Next time you see a Chicano Movement-type of picket line, or hear of one, join it-history will be walking right alongside you. c/s
Copyright 2019 by Salomon Baldenegro. You can write Sal at: firstname.lastname@example.org<mailto:email@example.com All photos copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions and used with permission.