I now have a little granddaughter and I’m thinking that when she’s old enough she just might ask, “What did you do in the Chicano Movement, grandpa?” I should live that long. She’s one year old. I’m going to qualify for Medicare pretty darn soon. It’s been nearly 50 years since those turbulent, scary, satisfying, dynamic, inspiring, exciting, heady days of what we collectively refer to as el movimiento. Of course, that iconic movement of the late 1960s and through the 1970s had historical antecedents. And, of course, there’s been activity on behalf of Chicano/Latino empowerment in the days and years since the Chicano Movement. And the struggle, in its many forms, continues.
We supported César Chávez and his struggle to unionize farmworkers and bring dignity to them. We held strikes and walkouts on campuses, supporting improved education for working class Chicanos and Chicanas. We marched against the hideous War in Vietnam which was using our gente for cannon fodder.
Before the dynamic Chicano movimiento that was the transformative experience for us “baby boomer” Chicanos, there was solid work done for social justice by groups such as the American G.I. Forum and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). But let’s be honest, those of us in college in the late sixties and early seventies had a grudging respect for those old “Mexican Americans” for their efforts, but we regarded them as old and conformist and assimilationist and, well, old. Today a look in the mirror confirms that we of el movimiento are, in fact, old guys ourselves (and women of a certain age).
The days of the movimiento have come and gone, but as Pete Seeger and the Weavers would have said about an earlier era: “Wasn’t that a time?” Yes it was. I got to thinking about this because of a few recent developments and the approach of a milestone anniversary around the corner (the 45th anniversary of the 1970 Chicano Moratorium).
Among the developments: a brand new report from the U.S. Census Bureau that confirms that Latinos now outnumber “whites” in California. (Defining “whites” can sometimes be a bit dicey, but the Census Bureau doesn’t concern itself much with that.) The figures reveal that – ta da! – There are 14.99 million Latinos living in California, while there are 14.92 million whites living in California. More of us than them.
(I have to tell you I scratched my head more than once when I saw that figure: 1492. I don’t care where you put the decimal point – that 1492 figure had me looking around the room for Rod Serling. Or Stephen King. Christopher Columbus aka Cristobal Colón aka Cristoforo Colombo was discovered by America in 1492, as the poem you learned in kindergarten about “sailing the ocean blue in 1492” will remind you.)
And, demographers recently reported, Latinos will represent 49 per cent of California’s total population within 50 years. That scares the hell out of some. But it shouldn’t. Despite our fiery rhetoric of 50 years ago during the heat and height of the Chicano Movement, we weren’t out to destroy gringos or anyone else or anything else. Despite our flirtations with Marxism and this notion of Aztlán sovereignty, we were (collectively) not really in favor of setting up separate “place” for the Chicanada. While we railed against “assimilation” we were, in fact, assimilating. We were going to their colleges. We were going to their law schools. We were going to their medical schools. And we were working in their newsrooms and movie studios. Yes, we wanted to have to power to tell our own stories, using the best “tools” available and to work professionally “for the benefit of our community.” But we were not so much rocking the boat as trying to get into the board – on our own terms and for our own purposes. So, non-Latinos today should not be afraid that we will be the majority population. They shouldn’t be shaking in their Nikes. We won’t eat the gringos. We have sort of become them, let’s be honest.
Sure, we pridefully cling to our Mexicano/Latino culture and history: the food, the music the spirit of familia and comunidad. But let’s not kid ourselves. We are becoming them. Or, perhaps more accurately, we have created the hybrid of cultures, perspectives and language that we envisioned years ago. Let’s be honest, Chicanos never feel more “Mexican” than when they are in the United States and they never feel more “American” than when they are in the heart of Mexico. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. We are the strong synthesis that we imagined would happen some day. The day is here.
This new information from the Census Bureau and other demographers comes at a moment when Mario T. García of UC Santa Barbara has published his latest book about icons of the Chicano Movement. This book is “The Chicano Generation: Testimonios of the Movement” from University of California Press. He focuses on three key players in the Chicano Movement: Raul Ruíz, Rosalio Muñoz and Gloria Arellanes. Good choices. Their work to empower the Chicano community made significant contributions to the struggle.
García, as he has before in previous books, does a solid and admirable job of bringing the actions of those heady days of the movimiento into focus for today’s reader. Through his subjects, he chronicles the significance of events such as the Chicano Moratorium of August 29, 1970, the rise of La Raza Unida party and similar landmark events that characterized the Chicano Movement.
Wasn’t that a time?!
If you were a Chicano of college age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a rollicking time – assuming you made time to participate in what was around you. There was a genuine spirit swirling around us. It was a feeling that we could genuinely accomplish some things, politically and socially. We went to demonstrations as if they were rock concerts. And there was a broad sense of togetherness among fellow Chicanos, whether you were in college or working at factory job. (There were factories in L.A. at one time.) We felt we were in it together.
And the corollary cultural dimension to the Chicano Movement! The poets. The painters. The murals. The music. Listening to José Montoya recite the quintessential Chicano poem “El Louie.” Listening to Daniel Valdez sing “Brown-eyed Children of the Sun.” Being there at the beginning for musical groups such as Los Lobos, visual artists such as Gronk and playwrights such as the inimitable Luís Valdéz. It was wonderful to be a part of that. But it’s not just a matter of nostalgia.
As we look back at the incendio that the Chicano Movement represented, it’s worthwhile to look at what it set the stage for and what it accomplished these 50 years later. Things are better in the Latino community than they were before. But not everyone has benefited. There is so much more to do. There are more Latino lawmakers than ever before. But there is more homelessness and disenfranchisement than ever, and the public schools are monuments to dysfunction. We have more Latino public officials, lawyers, cops and even judges. But police brutality seems as prevalent as ever; the only difference is that it’s likely to be seen on the Internet because of the ubiquity of smart phone cameras. The struggle certainly continues, on various planes.
The compressed vibrancy of the Chicano Movement may be gone, but I believe the spirit it represented is alive and (reasonably) well. People are committed to not only creating better lives for themselves and their families but for the broader Latino community as well. I genuinely believe that. And that’s why things will keep moving forward – perhaps too slowly for most of us, but at least there is forward momentum.
But those of us who were distilled in that cauldron of the Chicano Movement can’t help but feeling we were part of something special in the epochs of history. Wasn’t that a time?!
Most of us came from working class neighborhoods. College and el movimiento opened our eyes to lots of new experiences and new opportunities. My experiences are representative, I suppose. Today I have Chicano friends who are politicians, lawyers, engineers, professors and assorted teachers and school administrators, writers and poets and musicians. (And auto mechanics and letter carriers, too.) I’m from the bluest of blue-collar families, a working class background. Most of my friends are as well, people who came of age in the Chicano Movement. We all have our own slightly selfish interest, but we’re still committed to an overall goal of pushing for social change and social justice. We keep making progress. Very slowly, admittedly. But the collective consciousness about the need to push remains.
Again, I’m somewhat representative of this phenomenon. Getting the most I could out of public schools in Lincoln Heights, I got an undergraduate degree in political science and then I got a master’s degree from an Ivy League graduate school. I’ve been a broadcast journalist and a college professor, but given a wrong turn here or there, I could have ended up making license plates in San Quentin. I’m grateful that didn’t happen.
The Chicano Movement had a similar positive effect on lots of working class Chicanos and we can’t help but be grateful for that. But it also comes with a sense of responsibility, too. A responsibility to lay the foundation for the next explosion of a dynamic Chicano/Latino movimiento. Maybe my little granddaughter, Tess, will lead the charge. Who knows?
Luís Torres is the author of “Doña Julia’s Children.”