We are not afraid…
Those who would oppress us have grossly misjudged us. We are not afraid of them … As young people tend to be, we are idealistic: We have no doubt that we will prevail. Salomón R. Baldenegro, 1968
Young people are on the move! They are mobilizing and fighting for civil rights … for voting rights … for immigrant rights … for educational rights … for reproductive and privacy rights … for gun reform laws and policies … for a clean environment …
Recent events bring to mind things I’ve written or talked about in the past, some of which I cite herein.
A few contemporary examples of youth activism [there are too many to discuss in a single blog]:
* The Tennessee Legislature’s Republican majority expelled Democratic Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson (both are 27 years old). because they stood with children and their parents, teachers, clergy, and others who were petitioning the legislature to address the issue of gun violence in the wake of a recent Nashville mass shooting, in which three nine-year-old children were slaughtered. People throughout Tennessee rallied in support of Jones and Pearson, and voter registrations soared, especially among young Tennesseans.
* The Montana Legislature’s Republican majority expelled Democratic Representative Zoey Zephyr – who is transgender – from the floor of the state legislature and forbade her from speaking after she spoke against proposed anti-transgender legislation. Young people mobilized to protest Zephyr’s expulsion. As in Tennessee, voter registrations soared, especially among young Montanans.
* Afro-Latino Maxwell Alejandro Frost, at 25 years old, is the youngest member of Congress and the first member of Generation Z to be elected to Congress. The Columbine school massacre, the Orlando nightclub shooting, and the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School motivated him to become involved in politics. A survivor of gun violence, Frost travels extensively, urging young people to register to vote and organize around gun reform and other issues important to youth.
* David Hogg, a survivor of the Stoneman Douglas high schools shooting, and his sister Lauren and Stoneman survivors Alfonso Calderón, Sarah Chadwick, X González, and Cameron Kasky travel throughout the country, organizing youth voter registration drives and mobilizing young people around the issue of gun reform.
* Greta Thunberg, a 20-year-old Swedish climate youth activist, has inspired millions of young people throughout Europe and the U.S. to get involved in politics, particularly focusing on climate issues. She was a main speaker at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in March 2019, and was the youngest person ever to be named Time magazine’s Person of the Year.
The Chicano Generation…
I wrote the opening quote in 1968, in the context of the Chicano Movement, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona. I quit college shortly thereafter to become a full-time organizer for the Centro Chicano, which we had established in Barrio Hollywood, in Tucson’s Westside.
We – the Chicano Generation – grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s. Although we were U.S.-born, American society viewed us as foreigners. We were beaten at school for speaking Spanish. Teachers arbitrarily changed our names. In high school, we were tracked into vocational and out of college prep courses. Often, we were told that “Mexicans” weren’t smart enough to even attend high school.
We fought back. We used our Mexican names. We named our organizations in Spanish. We wrote and published bilingual poetry, plays, stories, and songs. We organized our barrios. We marched. We picketed. We confronted policy makers. We stood up for workers and organized unions.
We were blacklisted. We were labeled radicals, militants, Communists, malcontents, hippies, druggies, etc. We were indicted and arrested.
But, as I note above, we were not afraid – we persisted, and we prevailed. A partial list of accomplishments: People of Mexican descent are today routinely elected to office, at all levels. There are teachers, counselors, and administrators of Mexican heritage in our school systems as well as in universities and colleges. Our college and university enrollments are today counted in multiples of thousands rather than tens. Instead of rejecting Spanish-speaking folks, employers seek out bilingual applicants.
Most of us were in our 20s when we fought for the above. Important as the above achievements are, the Chicano movement’s greatest achievement was that it instilled a deep sense of pride in our community, especially our youth.
Young people: the vanguard of social and political change.
That young people have been – and are – in the vanguard of social and political change should not surprise us. MIT professor Sasha Costanza-Chock notes that:
“Young people are often key actors in powerful social movements that transform the course of human history. Indeed, youth have been deeply important to every progressive social movement, including the United States Civil Rights movement, the transnational LGBTQ movement, successive waves of feminism, environmentalism and environmental justice, the labor, antiwar, and immigrant rights movements, and more.” (Source 1)
Some more examples of youth being in the vanguard of social and political change:
* Hundreds of thousands of young people mobilized to oppose and end the Vietnam War. Over 58,000 Americans died in that war, and over 300,000 were wounded. Many others suffered delayed harm from the effects of chemicals such as Agent Orange. Ending the war saved many lives.
* The Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s-1970s was spearheaded by young women who confronted every major American institution—politics, education, business, health, etc.—and demanded equality. The fruits of that movement are visible everywhere. Women have become a force to be reckoned with in politics and other areas.
* The 1960 lunch counter sit-ins by black students, the student Freedom Riders, and the work of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) were major impetuses of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963 1,000 black students marched in Birmingham, Alabama. They were blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, clubbed by police officers, and attacked by police dogs; hundreds were arrested. These images appeared on national television and galvanized support for the movement throughout the country.
Young women energize the Labor movement…
Teenaged women were a great impetus to the American Labor movement. In 1909, members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) in New York City met to discuss the sweatshop working conditions in the garment industry.
Nineteen-year-old Clara Lemlich, an ILGWU organizer, called for a general strike. Within two days, over 20,000 workers, virtually all females in their teen years, from 500 factories walked out on strike, demanding better wages and working conditions. Within a month all the factories settled and met the workers’ demands. The momentum created by these female teenagers was a great boost to the developing labor movement in the U.S. Commissions to propose labor standards were formed and laws protecting workers were passed.
Young women union organizers have also played a huge role in Mexican American history. In the 1930s-1940s, while in her early 20s, Guatemalan immigrant Luisa Moreno unionized Mexican women cannery plant workers in California, fighting for maternity leave, equal pay for women, and racial equality.
At age 18 Josefina Fierro de Bright organized boycotts of businesses in Mexican American barrios in Los Angeles that did not hire Mexican American workers. With Luisa Moreno, Fierro de Bright organized Spanish-speaking union workers in various industries in the 1930s.
Eighteen-year-old Emma Tenayuca, of San Antonio, Texas, was arrested in 1933 when she led a strike of cigar workers. In 1938 Tenanyuca led a strike of twelve thousand workers—almost all Mexican American women—of the International Pecans Shellers Union, challenging pay violations, unfair production quotas, and unsanitary working conditions. Tenayuca and hundreds of strikers were arrested and beaten by police, but they eventually prevailed.
More examples of young people at work…
The youth-led Black Lives Matter movement is confronting the political establishment throughout the country, effectuating changes in police-community relations. DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students – known as Dreamers – are rallying from coast to coast, energizing their supporters. DACA exists because in 2012, undocumented young people risked deportation by sitting in at federal offices, Republican and Democratic Party headquarters, and Obama campaign offices in several states. In response to that pressure, President Obama created DACA.
In 2011, young people, many of them Dreamers, were a major force in the historic recall of Russell Pearce, author of the racist Arizona SB 1070 (“Show me your papers”) law. Mexican American Studies students and other young people were the driving force of the movement to save Mexican American Studies after the Arizona legislature determined that MAS courses were “un-American.” A federal judge ruled that the MAS ban was racist and unconstitutional and prohibited the state from enforcing the ban.
In 2012, Young Navajo tribal activists defeated a Republican attempt to force the Navajo Nation to waive its water claims to the Little Colorado River. In 2014 the “Change the Name … Change the Mascot” movement emerged after seven young American Indian activists challenged the Washington NFL team’s trademark on the grounds that the team name is a racist term. This movement caused many schools to change their American Indian-based nicknames, and the MLB’s Cleveland Indians to stop using the “Chief Wahoo” logo, and the Washington NFL team to drop its racist team name.
In 2015 Congress allowed a foreign corporation to build a copper mine in Arizona on an ancestral Apache sacred site, Oak Flat. Led by young people, over 300 tribal members and supporters occupied Oak Flat. Under the leadership of Indigenous youth, over 4,000 people representing more than 100 tribes gathered by the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota in 2016 to protest the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), which would desecrate sacred and culturally significant sites. The protests resulted in the Obama administration’s calling a halt to the DAPL.
Indeed, young people have been, and continue to be, the vanguard of social and political change. They are energetic, smart, tech savvy – and they are not afraid. We oldsters need to support them. c/s
Copyright 2023 by Salomon Baldenegro. Chicano movement photo and Emma Tenayuca photo copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions Inc. Washington NFL logo used under “fair use” proviso of the copyright law. All other images in the public domain. To contact Sal Baldenegro write: firstname.lastname@example.org
Source 1 Sasha Costanza-Chock, “Youth and Social Movements: Key Lessons for Allies,” The Kinder & Braver World Project: Research Series, Harvard University, December 17, 2012.