Reflections of a Chicano Brown Beret

this is the first in a series of posts on the Brown Berets…

After graduating from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, to my surprise I was accepted as an English Literature major at a couple of local universities. I wasn’t a great student but I had enough potential that I was not placed in remedial courses.

Educational Opportunity Program

Educational Opportunity Program

I also had decent enough grades that with the added help of the Educational Opportunities Program (EOP) I was able to get into the university system.

At the time of my university acceptance, I had no idea that EOP had been founded at Cal State LA by Chicana/o students from the United Mexican American Students (UMAS) during the Chicano Movement. UMAS was the pre-cursor to Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán (MEChA).

UMAS

UMAS

Through constant pressure and some research, UMAS had discovered the so-called “two-percent rule.” This meant that two percent of entering students to the Cal State University system were allowed to enter the university without meeting all, or even any, of the university requirements.

The “two-percent rule” did not mean that Chicana/o students were not qualified to apply, be accepted, compete, perform or receive a quality university education. It did mean, however, that the Chicana/o community began to question the unequal educational system, the access of Chicana/o students to the university, and the usage of university funds, among other issues.

UMAS found that the “two-percent rule” was not being used to provide access to historically disadvantaged communities. Instead, it was used as a loophole for athletic departments to recruit athletes for their sports programs.

Student protest against the misuse of the “two-percent rule” eventually forced CSULA to revise its admissions policies.

As such, the doors to higher education were slightly opened to Chicana/o students and other oppressed communities.

Suddenly, Chicana/o students were walking proudly in academia after a century of exclusion.

Lost to our land, education is our stand

Lost to our land, education is our stand

In 2013, some forty-five years after the courageous efforts by UMAS and others to open the doors of the university to our community, many of our current Chicana/o students, unfortunately, lack the historical framework to understand that at one time the doors to the university were closed to our community.

Thus, today many Chicana/o students are under the false impression that the university and college system has always been a welcoming space and they sincerely believe that through individual effort alone they have “made it.”

Many of the gains of the Chicano Movement have now been lost and the few gains that remain are in the process of being revoked due to “budget cutbacks.” This is the result of student apathy and the lack of historical understanding of Chicanas/os in higher education. Has the Chicana/o student lost the will to fight?

As a high school student, it never dawned on me that I was part of a public educational system that was unequal, inferior, segregated, and racist.

I never managed to attend the university system right out of high school. I never did receive adequate academic counseling to make an informed choice about my future.

Instead, I decided to go to East Los Angeles College (ELAC) because it is where most of my friends were planning to go to. At the time, though, I never understood that my friends and I were part of the same educational system that had not prepared us sufficiently well to succeed in life.

As a student at ELAC, I wasn’t into Chicano Studies nor Chicano culture. Heck, I didn’t even know I was a Chicano.

Even though I graduated from Roosevelt HS, one of the schools involved in the 1968 East Los Angeles Blowouts, no educator ever took the time to teach me about my history. Not even at ELAC did I get any information or “knowledge” about the Chicana/o experience.

This is a tragic crime that gets repeated every single day in the public school and university/college system. We don’t get taught our true history. Heck, our history gets erased, hidden, so it doesn’t exist.

We are told we don’t exist. And if we somehow manage to find ourselves, we exist on the margins of society. We receive false, confusing information about our identity.

We are told we are “Latino” and we are told we are “Hispanic” but we are never told we are Chicano. Why?

So it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the Chicana/o community continues to face a chronic push-out rate between 35%-60% in Los Angeles. The numbers are representative of the overall condition of Chicanas/os in education throughout the United States.

It should be obvious by now that Chicano political representation has not equaled to Chicano Power!

Of course, the current political frameworks continue to contradict the goals of the Chicano Movement, which partially explain why our community still suffers the effects of colonialism.

So how did I begin to figure all of this out? Great question!

Brown Berets Ministers circa 1968

Brown Berets Ministers circa 1968

One day during a break in classes at ELAC, one of my friends, whom we used to call “Mexican Joe” because he was proud of his Mexican heritage and roots started telling me about the Brown Berets and the Chicano Movement. He had taken a Chicana/o Studies class.

I had never heard of Chicana/o Studies before.

He started telling me about the Brown Beret Catalina Island Invasion and the “Blowouts.” He captivated me with all this talk about Chicanos wearing uniforms and taking up arms for the revolution and walking out of the schools.

I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was intrigued by this “hidden” history that I had never heard about. Still, though, I told him he was full of it, and I didn’t agree with his use of Chicano as an identity. After all I was a Mexican American. With more emphasis on American than Mexican.

I was only 18 years old. I was confused. I wasn’t sure what to make of it all.

So I decided to take a Chicana/o Studies history class in order to find out what my friend “Mexican Joe” was talking about.

Occupied America

Occupied America by Dr. Rudy Acuña

I also figured I could dialogue with him on the issue of Chicano identity.

I ended up taking two Chicana/o Studies classes the following semester. One of the classes happened to be with Dr. David Sánchez. I later discovered, through his lectures, that Dr. Sánchez had been the founder and prime minister of the Brown Berets.

One afternoon, I saw Dr. Sánchez driving into campus, and I decided to wait for him and ask him a few questions.

When I finally caught up with him, I asked him if the Brown Berets were still around? I had recently seen two Brown Beret members from Riverside speaking at Salazar Park in East Los Angeles as part of a Chicano Moratorium commemoration.

He told me if I wanted to meet the Brown Berets? I was actually scared and hesitant, but I said yes I do want to meet the Brown Berets.

I was in the process of discovering who I was. I was trying to research everything about Chicano history. Fortunately, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuña was the required textbook.

I think I read Occupied America over and over the first few months I had it. The chapter that intrigued me the most was the chapter on the Chicano Movement. Ever since then, my primary research focus in Chicana/o Studies has been the Chicano Movement.

Chicana/o students walk-out in March 1968 at Lincoln High School

Chicana/o students walk-out in March 1968 at Lincoln High School

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Everyone always hears about Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement even in high school. But I had never been taught that Chicanos were part of the movement as well. For instance, over 15,000 Chicana/o students stormed out of their schools to protest an inferior school system. I wanted to know more.

I waited for Dr. Sánchez after class and we exchanged information. One day, he invited me to go meet the Brown Berets in the Harbor area. I had never really been out of East LA so going to another neighborhood was a culture shock for me.

I didn’t even know Chicanos lived beyond East LA. I initially was afraid when we got to the Harbor area because the Chicanos being organized were all vato locos whom the Brown Berets were organizing to end the senseless barrio warfare taking place.

The vato locos were true Chicano revolutionaries and I was a sheltered kid with no sense of identity.

I learned that the Brown Berets had been organizing a gang truce in the area. I also learned that the Brown Berets had been re-organized only a few months earlier because Chicano against Chicano violence throughout Aztlán, especially Los Angeles had spun out of control. The original members of the Brown Berets wanted to respond through the notion of Chicanismo.

As for the government response, the only thing officials could offer was more repressive attacks, such as more cops, criminalization of our people, and more jail time for the Chicana/o community.

I began learning about the social conditions of the barrio. I also wanted to do something for the community. I offered to help. Although I wasn’t fluent in the language of Chicanismo, I knew that I was dedicated and committed to help in what I could.

Dr. David Sánchez took me under his tutelage, and I paid close attention to every word he said.

David Sánchez and I eventually became very good friends, and our friendship continues to this day.

One day I was invited to go to San Diego. I had never been to San Diego. I met the San Diego Brown Berets and I had a chance to visit Chicano Park for the first time. It was great to see Brown Berets from San Diego and Los Angeles come together for La Causa.

One of the members video-taped the whole afternoon, and he began interviewing everyone asking them why they were there? I heard everyone say some amazing things, but I had no idea what to say. I was temporarily given a beret to wear and although I felt odd, I also felt for the first time truly empowered and liberated.

During the interview I didn’t say much, I just said I was here to support the Chicanos from Wilmington and San Diego.

Eventually, I transferred to Cal State LA after nearly four years at ELAC. I didn’t even get an Associate of Arts degree from ELAC. The same lack of academic counseling I received in high school somehow followed me to community college.

In the meantime, I learned everything I could and I used my skills of communicating with people to help organize Boyle Heights, East LA and other areas of Los Angeles with other Brown Beret members.

Briefly, I helped start a Brown Beret Student Organization at Roosevelt High School of all places. I still have the student constitution if anyone is interested in starting a Brown Beret chapter at their high school.

Brown Beret National Organization circa 1996

Brown Beret National Organization circa 1996

I eventually was rewarded for my dedication and commitment by the national command staff of the Brown Berets. Surprisingly, I became “Chief of Staff” of the Brown Berets and was instrumental in developing some of the policies and organizing some of the events for the Brown Berets between 1992-1999.

Along the way, I moved on to other things, such as finishing my degree in Chicana/o Studies. I was also part of the Chicano Anti-War efforts in Los Angeles during Bush’s 2003 War on Iraq. The Chicano anti-war group evolved out of Boyle Heights and was led by another co-founder of the Brown Berets, and who eventually became my second most important mentor, Carlos Montes.

In a previous post, I mentioned about re-discovering my baseball card collection, which were now in boxes because of a house move. Likewise, my collection of Chicana/o newspaper articles, along with Brown Beret documents, news clippings, etc. were rediscovered as well.

I wanted to share the original mission statement of the 1992 re-commissioned Brown Berets to highlight not only my political evolution, but is my hope that whoever reads these posts might be inspired to continue the struggle for self-determination in their community.

In sharing these experiences, it helps me to begin finalizing my thesis/dissertation on the Brown Berets, which has been a work in progress since 1992.

I am a proud Chicana/o Studies major, supporter, defender and advocate. Con Orgullo!!!

English Literature was definitely not for me.

My project entitled: Soldados de la Raza: The Revolutionary Nationalism of the Brown Berets and the Chicana/o Movement Quest for Self-Determination, 1966-1972 will hopefully see its conclusion later this year.

I believe that the Brown Berets have been misrepresented and its true revolutionary history has been distorted by internal and external forces.

As long as we, as Chicanas/os, are kept from knowing our true history and identity, we will continue on the path of destruction.

One of the purposes of Notes from Aztlán is to provide a Chicanocentric or MeChicano discourse to counter both right-wing and vendido lies that destroy and confuse our community.

So what follows, then, is a brief sketch of the final day of the Brown Berets, along with a look at how the group restarted in 1992.

In November of 1972, David Sánchez, Prime Minister of the Brown Berets, called a press-conference to announce the dissolution of the group. From 1967 to 1972, the Brown Berets organized, planned, and advised all the major events of the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles and in other major cities of Aztlán.

The Brown Berets were forced to disband as a result of law-enforcement and foreign infiltration which led to the disruption of the Chicano Movement.

During the press conference, David Sánchez indicated that the Brown Berets had become the object for manipulation and infiltration by law-enforcement agencies and that rather than have the symbol of the Brown Berets tainted by “internationalist schemes,” and political petty games, he would dissolve the remaining groups within his reach.

Brown Beret women at the 2nd Chicano Moratorium on February 28, 1970 "March in the Rain"

Brown Beret women at the 2nd Chicano Moratorium on February 28, 1970 “March in the Rain”

The Brown Berets were the largest organization during the Chicano Movement with an estimated 5,000 members in over 80 chapters throughout the United States.

Originally founded in 1967, the Brown Berets evolved out the Young Citizens for Community Action through the efforts of Father John Luce’s Social Action Training Center in Lincoln Heights.

Later through a growing cultural awareness and pride, and a maturing political consciousness, the group changed its name to the Young Chicanos for Community Action.

Although individual Brown Beret units continued well into the 1980s, for all intent and purposes, the Brown Beret dissolution in 1972 effectively ended the group, and was symbolic of the end of the Chicano Movement. In essence, the political militancy and confrontational style politics came to an end as well.

The Chicano Movement evolved and a new style of political organizing with different tactics led to the formation of groups, such as Centro de Acción Social Autónomo (CASA) led by Bert Corona and Soledad “Chole” Alatorre.

However, for the most part, from the 1980s until today has seen a politics of assimilation that rekindles the history of the Mexican American generation of the 1930s and 1940s.

Through the political efforts of groups, such as LULAC, NCLR, MALDEF, American GI Forum, and others, the Chicana/o community is now seen as just another “immigrant” group waiting its turn to assimilate into the melting-pot of the United States

As such, in 1990, a test organization called the Mexican American Peace Corps was developed to measure ideological and dysfunctional fallbacks, which had been keeping the community stagnant for years.

It was understood that nothing could be achieved unless the community was re-educated through Chicanismo. Despite NCLR’s “Decade of the Hispanic” propaganda, the Chicana/o community was worse off in 1992 than it was in 1968.

In August of 1992, it was agreed by former Brown Beret members to develop a plan to reorganize the group.

Brown Beret logo designed by Johnny Parsons in 1968

Original Brown Beret logo designed by Johnny Parsons in 1968

On October 10, 1992, after a twenty-year absence from the movement, Brown Beret veterans met in San Diego to recommission the Brown Berets.

The Brown Berets were reorganized in an effort to bring leadership to La Raza. Chapters throughout California were re-started. During the next few years, the Brown Berets concentrated on reducing Chicano against Chicano violence. Because of the efforts, Chicano violence decreased.

The following is the original mission statement that I wrote. 1992 was the political evolution of a young Chicano from Boyle Heights.

The primary goal of the Brown Beret Movement is to educate the general public and the Chicano community to participate in community action and awareness in order to improve the living conditions of La Raza in the United States.

The immediate goal of the Brown Beret National Organization is to reduce Barrio Violence and to create long-lasting community organization.

This organization also supports Human and Civil Rights issues and is opposed to all forms of discrimination against La Raza. This is to show that we are committed to reducing human suffering in the barrio. We are dedicated to respecting cultural pride, to utilize non-violent tactics, and to strive for community service. We also urge leadership to take a position for the poor.

Our motto is to Serve, Observe, and Unify. We are not left-wing or right-wing, we are solamente for La Raza living in the United States. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Brown Beret National Organization won honors and credit for their work during the Chicano Civil Rights Movement.

Today, we are organizing resources that will support us to continue the work. The people need to be educated so that they will participate and care about community issues before it is too late. The people need to understand that dominant society, big business, and politics have a tradition of using, abusing, soliciting and profiteering off our community until we have nothing left.

The Chicano/Mexicano community is the largest group in Aztlán. Therefore, if we are brought together through direction and community organization, then, we will be empowered to achieve freedom, progress, reform, peace and survival.

c/s

cultural sovereignty

This entry was posted in Boyle Heights, Chicana/o, Chicana/o Identity, Chicana/o Studies, Chicano Movement, Community, Cultura, East Los Angeles, History, Mexican, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Reflections of a Chicano Brown Beret

  1. anthony says:

    I want to comment on your story about the Brown Berets and their enriched history. I’m a Chicano civil rights historian and over the years the Brown Beret history has been virtually ignored or given proper accounts by Chicano academics, scholars and historians who fail to shade light about the groups accomplishments. The Brown Berets played a significant role in the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. The Poor Peoples Campaign began with one man’s (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) vision to help alleviate the social conditions of America’s poor. Several movement leaders and organizations made a major contribution in the Poor Peoples Campaign like the Crusade for Justice, WRO, SCLC, SNCC and the Brown Berets are just a few to name. Three Brown Beret ministers left East Los Angeles to participate in the Poor Peoples March: Ralph Ramirez, Carlos Montes, and Gloria Arrellanes including four other Brown Berets left Will Roger’s Station to join the march on Washington D.C. The Brown Berets provided security during the First Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in March of 1969 in Denver, Colorado – at the Crusade for Justice building. In 1969, the Brown Berets played a major role during a sit-in at the Southwest Museum were several of the demonstrators were arrested, the Berets forged a unification with the American Indian Movement. In 1968, the Brown Berets marched with the Black Panthers in Los Angeles for a fallen Panther killed by police authorities. This aspect of history is totally ignored and needs to be shared with the Chicano community.

  2. conrado acevedo says:

    Lo que me interesa mas es nuestra relaciones con nuestros hermanos indigenas, sus culturas, sus tradiciones, sus ceremonias y nuestras raices indigenas. Esta es la base mas legitima que puedamos tener..

  3. MAU says:

    This was a great article. Yet, it was Ralph Ramirez, Parsons, and David Sanchez who put the patch together while at a Dinner at the home of Lupe Saavedra near USC.

  4. lysandra monreal says:

    I think I have been part of the cause for along time now would like a better education
    of it before I go to prison…

  5. Juán " Freddie Freak" Trujillo says:

    Ive been a member of UMAS/MECHA since the beging of UMAS in Boulder Co. back in the spring in 1968. Love the work that you Sisters / Brothers are doing in the Chican@ Barrios, keep it up!!!!! Love to all! Juán’Freddie Freak’ Truilo

  6. A great article. It relates a lot about Chicano/a history and the Movimiento that we should remember in order to help inspire us for further struggle and enlightenment.
    ++++
    VIDEO: Message to La Raza Cosmicá ~via @Peta_de_Aztlan:
    http://youtu.be/LwaOfHiMCSg ~via Peter S. López ~Published June 26, 2013

    • louis morales says:

      alright alright ,brother ,reach out to me ,were the new generation of brown berets brown and proud ,lmr2017@yandex.com

  7. ernesto esparza says:

    More power to you all my brown brothers!

  8. Ana Chavez says:

    Great article. Back in 1974, I was the president of Mecha for our community college. When the Brown Berets marched across the US, I had the Brown Berets sitting in my mom’s home talking with my dad about discrimination, while my mom and some of her church friends put together an enchilada dinner at a hall to feed them. I was so proud. I am Mexican American, born in Sonora. I love my people and it’s culture and traditions. I feel for all those living in Mexico under such terrible conditions of drugs, corruption and death. I feel for all those living here that have been made to feel like second class citizens in a land that was once their ancestors. I believe in bi-lingual education which has been taken away. I believe in teaching our children our heritage in our schools. I abhor the treatment given to Mexicans in this State of Arizona by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Gov. Brewer. But most of all, I want to see Mexican-American leaders rise up in this country and make a difference for his or her people.

  9. Marina says:

    That is actually my mother in that picture with the ladies. Where did this picture come from and can you please help me find a copy of it? I have several pictures from that day I found in a book I came across. There are picture from that day that both of my parents are in together. I am unsure of the photographer. Any information my family could appreciate.

  10. paul garcia says:

    Thanks for posting that 1996 picture of Barrio Peace march through Fresno, Califas. The soldados in that picture were from Fresno, Sanger and Madera units. Nice read, glad to be Brown Beret servant to the community

  11. I just wanted to take the opportunity to introduce my blog: Chicanismos.com. Among my various rantings on different subjects, I have a good amount of information (with pictures and newspaper articles) on the Texas Brown Berets from the late 1970’s to late 1980’s. I was the Prime Minister of the North Texas Brown Berets, located in Dallas, Texas. I hope you are interested, and willing to mention the blog to others. Muchas Gracias!

  12. Chuy says:

    This historical retrospective is all fine and dandy, but our so-called home base of ‘East Los Angeles’ will be completely gentrified with young, Anglo hipsters in the next few years. And it’s happening fast and furious. First it was Echo Park, and now it’s both Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights. Yep. And the hipsters are here to stay. Actually, the current nationwide trend of gentrifying poorer, ethnic neighborhoods is all based on United Nations Agenda 21 philosophy – which states that it is no longer ecologically sustainable to live in faraway suburbs and therefore all urban neighborhoods which are close to city centers will be retaken and rebuilt to populate the upper middle-class urban workforce.

    Bye, bye East Los Angeles.

  13. Babs tovar says:

    I was the brown beret mascot when I was 7 years old this is a photo and a poem david and My Dad wrote

  14. louis morales says:

    to all the brothers and sisters ,reach out to us ,my email is lmr2017@yandex.co ,were the new generation ,puro chicano ,and proud

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