Roots of Chicano Power

Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991

Alan Wald

Youth, Identity, Power:
The Chicano Movement
By Carlos Muñoz, Jr.
New York Verso, 1989, $17.95 paperback.

CARLOS MUÑOZ’S BOLD and compelling study of the Chicano radical movement is a striking intervention into U.S. political culture in at least three areas. First and foremost, Youth, Identity, Power clarifies the complex interaction between the older Mexican-American struggle for equal rights and the student upsurge of the 1960s.

With careful documentation and theoretical acumen, Muñoz demonstrates how that cross-fertilization advanced the Chicano left to a program of national rights and a unique form of “self-determination” that remain indispensable parts of the socialist agenda.

Second, Muñoz provides an enormously helpful institutional history and collective biography of the Chicano radical movement in all its phases from the 1930s to the 1980s. While the scope of this effort is so broad that he probably treats a number of organizations and individuals in ways that will not satisfy all his critics, the skill with which he “maps” the political terrain and periodizes pivotal moments provides a sound foundation for further research and analysis.

Finally, Muñoz offers a cogent survey of the history of efforts in the Southwest and on the West Coast to establish community-based Chicano Studies Programs in universities—and critically examines their principles. A chief consideration here is the search for an appropriate paradigm, one usually based on some version of the “internal colonialism” model of Chicanos as an invaded and conquered non-European nationality.

A related preoccupation is the ongoing ordeal of Chicano activist-intellectuals who seek to realize the historic mandate of El Plan de Santa Barbara, a stirring 1969 manifesto of political commitment reprinted as the appendix to this book.

Themes for the Left

Muñoz’s study is incisively structured in a way that allows maximum accessibility to novices who need to gain a preliminary familiarity with the political struggle of this specific and complex population—a population that still remains part of the “hidden history” of the United States.

At the same time, the work is informed by a sophisticated political perspective, enabling Muñoz to dialectically develop a series of potent themes with which the U.S. left as a whole must come to terms if we are going to make any headway in the development of effective anti-racist and revolutionary socialist movements in the 1990s. One of these is the “politics of identity.”

Mexican-American radicals, from their earliest awareness of “difference” and racist discrimination, sought to forge an image of themselves and their history to explain their position in U.S. society and to suggest a way out. The forms of this expression varied not only according to historical contexts, but also according to the political and religious structures of thought available to the activists.

Muñoz’s book is exciting for the manner in which it encourages us to put aside our own preconceptions about this subject and to follow the ways in which activists in the movement themselves have theorized the issue. In the 1930s, for example, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) sought to “Protestantize” and “Americanize” European immigrants, and then Mexican-Americans, through the sponsorship of youth organizations. In a telling episode, the young Mexican-American leaders of the YMCA-initiated boys’ clubs and annual Mexican Youth Conference independently began to use YMCA institutions to affirm a unique identity.

In the pages of The Mexican Voice, UCLA student Felix Gutierrez (known by the pen name Manuel De La Raza) rejected his identification as “Spanish” or “Spanish-American,” affirming instead a pride in Mexican ancestry within the U. S. context. By 1942, the YMCA-promoted leaders opted for organizational independence, forming the Mexican Amen-can Movement, Inc.

Muñoz refers to these and later activists in the 1950s as “The Mexican-American Generation.” Although Gutierrez and others were propelled by the logic of their “different” status (a status due not only to racism but to a unique and complex cultural heritage and history) toward autonomous organization, they were ideologically wedded to the myth of assimilation.

Most were also pro-capitalist and anti-socialist as a result of the widespread delusion that the gains of the New Deal and the post-WWII G.I. Bill would eventually equalize the economic status of Mexican-Americans with Euro-Americans. However, this perspective collapsed at the same time that the Southern civil rights movement emerged, setting the stage for a newer and higher expression of identity politics.

Pathways of Chicano Power

Muñoz uses an impressive method that shuttles among historical summary, biographical portraits, extensive quotation from documentary sources, cultural critique and theoretical generalization. This approach proves especially effective in demonstrating the inspiring role played by the rise of the African-American struggle in the 1960s, without reducing the “Chicano Power” movement to a mere imitation.

The “Chicano Generation” that its roots among students whose first political awakening tended to be the Viva [John F.] Kennedy Clubs, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the 1963 March on Washington and the Cuban Revolution. Yet, it was probably the 1963 takeover of the city government of Crystal City, Texas that led to the creation of one of the most dynamic—and telling—features of the Chicano movement of the 1960s. This was the creation of La Raza Unida Party, an independent electoral apparatus to which Muñoz devotes one of his most exciting chapters.

The party was inaugurated shortly after the Crystal City victory by a radical former student at SL Mary’s University in San Antonio named Jose Angel Gutierrez. Shortly afterwards, a Democratic Party activist named Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, one of a few members of the Mexican-American Generation to make the switch to the Chicano Generation, resigned from the Democrats to form a militant civil rights organization in Colorado, called the Crusade for Justice.

Two years later, in June 1967, the New Mexico activist Reies Lopez Tijerina led an armed action to regain lands that had been illegally removed from the communal status to which they had been consigned in the treaty following the U.S. conquest of Northern Mexico. Within a short time, new political organizations sprang upon campuses throughout the Southwest called the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO), United Mexican American Students (UMAS), and Mexican American Student Federation (MASC).

Along with support for Gonzales and Tijerina, these student groups promoted the United Farm Workers campaign led by Cesar Chavez. The campus-based movements also promoted the cultural writings of playwright Luis Valdez, who emphasized the nonwhite and proletarian elements of Chicano identity. At this time El Grito, the first Chicano scholarly journal, was launched as a forum for “Mexican American self-definition.”

From Blow Outs to Santa Barbara

These developments were central among the factors comprising the background to the March 1968 “Blow Out” of East Los Angeles High School students—an act of protest for which the author of this book was charged with “conspiracy” to disrupt the city of Los Angeles and its schools. If continuing protests had not resulted in acquittal, Muñoz and the twelve others who were charged would have faced a possible sixty-six years each in prison.

Instead, the case of the “L.A. Thirteen” inspired actions such as the first Chicano college student uprising, at San Jose State College. In November of that year, Chicano students for the first time united in the broader “Third World Liberation Front” to wage a six-month strike at San Francisco State College for demands that included a Department of La Raza Studies.

From 1968 on, the Chicano struggle proliferated in the high schools, colleges, and barrios across the West Coast and Southwest, retaining distinctive features yet also playing a catalytic role along with the other components of the national and international youth radicalization.

Among the most notable efforts to coordinate and consolidate this movement was a week-long National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference called by the Crusade for Justice in March 1969. More than a thousand participants announced support for El Plan Espiritualde Aztln—the Spiritual Plan of Aztln (Aztln is Aztec for a legendary northern homeland that came to be identified with the area of Mexico stolen by the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century).

This famous program, penned by the poet Alurista, expressed a revolutionary nationalist ideology that rejected the dominant culture of the United States and called for a cross-class alliance of all Chicanos to win control of Mexican-American communities. However, among the unique features of this nationalism was that its culture was decidedly anti-bourgeois, derived instead from the streets (including the gang values of “brotherhood”).

Moreover, the economic program was one of promoting people’s cooperatives to replace capitalist institutions in a head-on struggle against the two-party system. Among the most influential resolutions of the Denver conference were those calling for community control of public schools and radical anti-assimilationist Chicano Studies departments in the universities.

A similar concern inspired Chicano students, faculty and staff in the California state university system to call a conference at Santa Barbara that tried to implement El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan and that folded all existing student organizations into a new one called the Chicano Student Movement of Aztln (MEChA). This name valorized the key terms “Aztln” and “Chicano,” affirming a unique identity intransigently opposed to the assimilationist philosophy of “uplifting” those of Mexican ancestry.

Vietnam and Beyond

MEChA, along with the Brown Berets, a paramilitary community defense organization, helped to spearhead the first Chicano demonstration against the Vietnam war. In August 1970, over 20,000 people poured into a park in East Los Angeles. As a result of the ensuing police riot, three Mexican-Americans were killed and thousands of demonstrators retaliated by destroying businesses and cars on a main thoroughfare.

Muñoz’s book continues the story of the Chicano movement from this high point through the twenty years until the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign of 1988. In his effort to account for the considerable decline of Chicano radicalism in these decades, Muñoz convincingly treats the phenomenon as distinct and yet within the problematic of the decline of the 1960s movement as a whole.

Here as elsewhere in the left-wing movement, earlier leaders defaulted; police repression took its toll; internal ideological disagreements assisted dissolution; student activism, although briefly rekindled over issues such as U.S. intervention in Central America, failed to regain its earlier strength; the ascendancy of Reagan boosted more traditional establishment organizations and middle-class Chicano mayors; and even Luis Valdez, following his success as the Hollywood director of “La Bamba,” attenuated his cultural militancy.

MEChA has continued to be among the few important reservoirs of the earlier Chicano radicalism, along with the National Association for Chicano Studies (NACS), in which a cadre of 1960s activists continue to promote left-oriented scholarship. Among the most exciting developments has been the emergence of Chicana feminists, some of whom initiated the journal The Third Woman.

Still, there is disturbing evidence that among Chicanos in academe, as else-whereon the left, the decline of the mass social protest movements of the 1960s has caused a kind of “degeneration” on the part of some of the radical scholars who got their jobs mainly because of the space created by those mass social movements and the vision promoted by those movements. In this regard, it is certainly worth emphasizing that Muñoz‘s book demonstrates in practice precisely the kind of scholarship envisioned by the still-inspiring Plan de Santa Barbara.

Youth, Identity, Power, which was completed on the twentieth anniversary of the Los Angeles “Blow Outs” and the author’s own indictment for “conspiracy,” is a book that emanates many of the strengths that flow from scholarship bonded to social purpose. Muñoz knows that there are important stakes in the story he tells for the larger community; this sense of purpose fuels his drive for accuracy, refusal to romanticize, and impressive interdisciplinary approach.

Moreover, it is clearly no accident that, among all the autobiographical portraits in the book, the haunting one to which Muñoz most frequently turns is that of the late Ernesto Galarza. Galarza, born in 1905, was a student radical who became a skilled intellectual and author of books such as Merchants of Labor (1964). His devotion to the Chicano working-class and community, fueled by a militant anti-capitalism and pro-unionism, kept him apart from academe altogether.

In Muñoz’s affinity for the model represented by Galarza, we can already see the seeds of yet another remarkable book-length contribution to Chicano history. But such contributions are equally important for the politics and culture of the entire U.S. left, if we are to understand our authentic sources of power and inspiration.

Coming Together

In this regard, I want to comment on just a few of the issues that this book and a subsequent article by Muñoz (“Mexican Americans and the Socialist Crisis,” Crossroads, Oct 1990, 2-6) pose for those of us committed to transforming our brutal, racist capitalist society into a system democratically self-managed by the producers with an internationalist culture.

• First and foremost, the socialist movement has no future until its theoretical and practical relation to the Chicano movement is elevated qualitatively above the status of publishing an occasional article in its press or episodically including Chicanos as a subcategory in discussions of racism or the labor movement. The most obvious pattern that needs to be broken is the subsumption of all struggles of people of color into groups of “others” that are dwarfed by the African-American movement.

It is true that, as in the case of Asian Americans and Native American Indians, the visibility of the Chicano population is greater in the Southwest and on the West Coast than in the Mid-West or on the East Coast, where many socialist groups produce their publications and have their national offices. Nevertheless, blind provincialism in regard to the centrality and urgency of the Chicano movement will ultimately be as disempowering as would be a blind U.S. nationalism that occluded from view the centrality of the South African or Latin American struggles for the fate of world socialism.

Out of self-interest, in terms of understanding the dynamics of our own social formation (and the richness of its diverse history and culture), the left must expand, enrich and complicate its ways of thinking in regard to all people of color.

• Send, socialist movements must recognize the dangers of “tokenism” in regard to the Chicano and other populations of people of color. Female and male activists from these movements must be aggressively welcomed to play central and decision-nuking roles on leading bodies of socialist groups and in their publications. This means, on the one hand, making technical skills and support available to such activists, but, on the other hand, recognizing that an initiate in the socialist movement from such a community may be more knowledgeable and insightful about these and other struggles than many long-time socialist functionaries and “theoreticians.”

In this regard, it is crucial that books such as Muñoz’s be studied and discussed among socialists in order to understand the complex and unique features of Chicano history and culture.

While most Chicanos may have some common overall historical features rooted in the conquest of Mexico, it would be a mistake to ignore crucial differences according to region and occupation, not to mention variations by class, gender and culture. The imposition of simplistic class-reductive or vulgar nationalist (or anti-nationalist) schemas on this population must be avoided.

• Third, socialist groups must develop ways of supporting Chicano struggles that do not interfere with the autonomous character of such struggles. Here is where I find Muñoz’s book to be weakest in providing guidelines and models, although he may well hold the view that “answers” in this area can only come through the protracted process of self-critically examining many experiences. Nevertheless, I feel that there may be much more to be learned about the concrete experiences of socialist groups in relation to the earlier Mexican-American and later Chicano movements.

The claim that Marxist groups have been manipulative, dogmatic, opportunist, sectarian, and even “racist” may have a general kind of validity. But most often the attacks I have read are predicated on “horror stories” (which may well have occurred, but which may not be representative of a general practice) or appear in virulent critiques (sometimes vulgar and other times scholastic to the point of tedium) mainly designed to “smash” a rival perspective.

What we lack are detailed studies of policies and practices. My own research into the history of the U.S. Communist Party, and my personal experiences in a West Coast branch of the Socialist Workers Party, suggest to me that there is a great deal, positive and negative, that can be learned for the politics and organization of the left if we can find an appropriate method.

Identity and Terminology

A final, somewhat related, concern of mine has to do with two of Muñoz’s excellent discussions of various controversies. One of these is the debate over the term “Hispanic” to designate not only Chicanos but other diverse Latino populations. The other is his review of the ups and downs of the “internal colonialism model.”

Muñoz’s case for the superiority of the term “Chicano” seems convincing. Yet, the fact remains that in some regions of the country the general population as well as leading radical political groups prefer other terms—Mexicanos, Hispanos, etc. I do not see how socialists, who both respect the necessity of “politically correct” designations, and yet also respect the right of self-determination, can easily resolve this or similar issues.

As in the case of gender attitudes, we neither want to adapt to backwardness nor do we want to try to impose values and perspectives from the outside that might play a divisive role.

Similarly, the internal colonialism model has been interpreted by some people as viewing the Chicano population as an existing nation or nation-information, a political analysis that Muñoz rejects. On the other hand, opposition to the internal colonialism model has just as frequently led to an economist view of Chicanos as merely a racially-oppressed group, downplaying unique features of its history and culture that can only be expressed by “national” demands in regard to bilingualism, community control of schools, the return of communal lands.

My own view is that the explanatory power of the internal colonialism metaphor is too great to abandon merely because of the dangers of a bourgeois-nationalist misappropriation, or because of the polemical edge that ambiguities in this metaphor might give to anti-nationalist dogmatists.

Muñoz argues convincingly that there is a great deal of uniqueness and specificity in the U.S. social formation in regard to the incorporation and exploitation of diverse populations, especially non-European people of color. This suggests to me that concepts of nationalism, self-determination and internal colonialism can and should be applied—but in a creative manner, based on, and modified in light of, extensive empirical research.

In any event, the end question of whether the Chicano population will in its majority move toward some form of national autonomy or semi-autonomy, or define itself in some other manner, will ultimately be determined by the actions and consciousness of that population itself through its continuing struggle against capitalist exploitation and racism. Socialists must be alert to changing sentiments and perspectives, and must seek to support those that seem most compatible with the internationalization and democratization of the struggle.

Of course, this process would be enormously facilitated by the presence as leaders of numerous Chicano militants within the socialist left itself. We must reject, however, the notion of a small group deciding on a “line,” nationalist or anti-nationalist, and then “fighting” for the hegemony of that line to “lead” the Chicano movement. That approach is part of the elitist vanguardism that has now been discredited in the Chicano movement as well as elsewhere on the left.

July-August 1991, ATC 33