Wednesday, January 28, 2009
The Chicano Movement reached its peak in the 1960s, demanding educational, suffrage, work, and land reform, but had roots that dated back to the Mexican-American War in 1868. This was when Mexicans suddenly became Mexican-Americans, or Chicanos, and were confronted, almost overnight, by a strong imposing culture that demanded assimilation, and demeaned them as a people. The movement was remarkable in that in covered so many different aspects of Chicano life, and brought about some real civil rights successes.
The Chicano Movement began to take off after Mexican-American soldiers in World War II were not treated as their white counter-parts were, and in fact at times were not even treated with the honor and dignity befitting a soldier. These same attitudes would later be repeated during the Vietnam War, another time when minorities would have unusually high death rates, and yet little respect back home. The Felix Longoria affair sparked an outrage in the community when Private Longoria, a young soldier who had been killed in the war, was denied funeral services in his hometown, Three Rivers, Texas. The American G.I. Forum, a civil rights grouped founded by Mexican-American veterans, took up his cause and eventually Private Longoria was granted the honor of burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Though this was certainly a victory, it was only a glimpse at the long uphill battle that lay in store for Chicano activists.
Around the same time another civil rights issue was confronted head on in the Mexican American community, that of equal education. Before 1947, children of Mexican decent were segregated from white children in California, Texas and New Mexico. Frustrated with the poor quality of their children’s education, a group of five Mexican-American fathers joined together to challenge segregation in Los Angeles court. The League of United Latino American Citizens (LULAC) soon took up their cause and eventually the case of Mendez v. Westminster reached the L.A. District Court. Here, the judge ruled in favor of the families, finding that segregating Mexican-Americans was unlawful. Schools in California were integrated, and surrounding states soon followed suit. This case was not only a victory for the Chicano Movement, but was later used as a precedent in the Brown v. Board of Education case that put an end to all school segregation.
Though segregation was over, the students of the 1960s were still not satisfied that their education was equal. East Los Angeles was a predominantly Mexican-American part of town, and the students at its schools were therefore mostly Mexican-American. These schools from a poorer area of town did not receive as much funding as their West Los Angeles counterpart. This created unequal conditions, and to protest, a series of student walkouts were planned. The walkouts were not limited to LA however. Several walkouts were organized across the state to protest unequal conditions. The walkouts of 1968 called an overwhelming amount of media attention to the school district’s shortcomings, and sparked change and reform in the educational system.
Not all movements were as successful as educational reform however. The quest to regain ancestral lands, for example, was a laborious, fruitless struggle. The organization behind this goal was called La Alianza, and was led by Reies López Tijerina. Tijerina’s main goal was to restore New Mexican land grants back to the descendents of the original Mexican and Spanish owners. Though belittled by the media, La Alianza began to take off, with membership enrollment in the 2000s in just a few years. La Alianza appealed directly to the New Mexican government to take action, and when it did not, La Alianza moved into action itself. Its members took a section of Carson National Forest, part of which had been part of a New Mexican land grant, as their own, and claimed it to be the "Republic of San Joaquín del Río de Chama. The activists were soon arrested, but most made bail. After a demonstration to protest the previous arrests, many members were arrested again, but Tijerina evaded arrest, and instead planned a courthouse raid to release his fellow Alianza members, for which he was subsequently arrested and imprisoned for. One of the clauses of his release was that he was to not hold any leadership position in La Alianza, and because of this, the movement generally lost its momentum and was forgotten by the public.
Before his incarceration however, Tijerina did help plan the Poor People’s March on Washington, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., who was leading the entire project before his assassination, and other black civil rights leaders including Coretta Scott King and Ralph Albernathy. Tijerina led the Hispanic contingency from New Mexico, and along with Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, another Chicano movement organizer who led Hispanics from Colorado, and Alicia Escalante with Hispanics from L.A. They met up with Puerto Ricans from New York City, and with the blacks being led by King and Albernathy to march together, and to protest together, and to, at least briefly, unite the African-American Civil Rights movement and the Chicano Civil Rights movement. They marched on Washington in the Poor People’s march to protest the inequalities suffered by all people.
One of the Chicano leaders, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, was very influential in other ways to the Chicano movement. Gonzales’ primary message was that the Mexican-American culture was a valid one. It was a culture to be proud of, not to make excuses for. Instead of trying to assimilate, and being ashamed of their heritage Gonzales encouraged Chicanos instead to embrace where they came from, and to explore their identity. Nothing epitomized this message more than Gonzales’ epic poem I Am Joaquín. His poem sparked hope in the movement as he describes the Chicanos’ struggle at being neither Indian nor European, nor Mexican, nor American, but rather being a combination of all these entities, a combination that made them inherently different. Following Gonzales’ poem, a slew of other artists began to publish their works. Poems, books, paintings, drawings, art took on an important role in the movement as Chicanos moved to celebrate themselves as a new people; a people proud of who they were.