Aside from the family, the Catholic Church has been one of the most important institutions in the Chicana/o community. The Catholic Church serves the religious and spiritual needs of the community.
According to the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life, 70 percent of “Latinos” are Catholic, translating into 29 million Catholic “Latinos” in the United States.
Historically, the presence of the Catholic Church in Indigenous communities has been one of conflict, resistance, negotiation, and even submission.
The arrival of the Spaniards into the Valley of México in 1519 radically transformed the social fabric of Mexica society through the introduction of diseases, genocidal acts of violence, the threat of constant coercion, and other forms of social control through the institutionalization of cultural hegemonic networks, such as the educational, legal, and political system.
Spanish colonial authority in México originated from the enforcement of policies and laws enacted by both the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church in the immediate post-conquest period.
The conquest and colonization of indigenous communities turned the Mexica world upside down. Mexica communities resisted through rebellious acts that were violently put down by Spanish authorities.
The forced introduction of Spanish institutions onto Mexica society and culture altered the environment, the landscape, and daily life in what would become Colonial México. This destructive legacy is one that Mexicans endure up to the present moment.
Catholicism in the Mexican/Chicano community, for better or worse, has given rise to iconic events and figures such as Juan Diego, el Padre Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, el Padre José María Morelos, el Padre Miguel Augustin Pro, the Cristero Movement, Fray Angélico Chávez, and many more.
It wasn’t until the rise of the Chicano Movement, however, that Chicanas/os began to vigorously question the leadership and hierarchy of the Catholic Church through the formation of Católicos Por La Raza and Priests Associated for Religious, Education, and Social Rights (PADRES), among other Chicana/o social justice Catholic groups.
Despite its short existence, Católicos Por La Raza emerged as one of the most important organizations that appeared during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
“In the first place we must understand, as most of us do already, that the goal is social change. This is the foundation, the absolute if you will, upon which our many levels of choices and dilemmas must be resolved…” (Richard V. Cruz, “For Members of Abogados De Aztlan”, 1972)
Ricardo Cruz is best remembered for his role and leadership as co-chairman and spokesperson for Católicos Por La Raza (CPLR), a Chicano Movement organization that formed in November 1969. CPLR questioned the role of the Catholic Church in meeting the social, economic, and spiritual needs of the Chicana/o community.
The CPLR viewed the Catholic Church as simply using the people and their faith to get their money, while promising heaven and paradise yet doing nothing to address the problems of the Chicana/o community. The CPLR, moreover, believed that the Catholic Church was a business whose sole purpose was to invest not donate. The Catholic Church, the CPLR argued, maintained a business model of safe investments, and poor Chicanas/os were not safe investments.
Despite is radical rhetoric and militant actions, the CPLR was not anti-Catholic, and as such believed that the Catholic Church belonged to the people.
Ricardo Cruz was born on July 1, 1943. Ricardo lived in the Highland Park area of Northeast Los Angeles. He attended Our Divine Savior Catholic Elementary School and graduated from Cathedral High School in 1961.
Ricardo briefly attended St. Mary’s College in Northern California returning home about a year and half later to enroll at L.A. City College. He eventually went on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in philosophy from California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA). Ricardo was accepted to the Loyola University School of Law, where he helped formed the Chicano Law Students Association with Miguel García.
Ricardo was married to Rosa Martínez, an active member of the CPLR. As an active member of CPLR and the Chicano Movement, Rosa’s interests led her to collaborate with Ricardo on many Chicano Movement activities. Rosa was influenced by socialist ideologies, which are evident in her involvement with the Comisión Sin Fronteras and CASA/Hermandad General de Trabajadores.
Rosa was on the staff of El Foro del Pueblo and Sin Fronteras and contributed her views to each through published articles. Sin Fronteras was the political and theoretical organ of the Comisión Sin Fronteras and had a key role in publicizing the ideology of the organization, which was dedicated to the struggle of liberation on behalf of the Mexican people in the United States.
As will be noted later, there is more work to be done on the role of Chicanas in not only the CPLR, but in the Chicano Movement as a whole.
Inspired by the activism and spirituality of United Farm Workers leader César Chávez, the CPLR engaged the Catholic Church in a political dialogue through a series of demonstrations aimed at exposing the Catholic Church’s institutional racism, economic neglect and spiritual warfare against Chicanos in late 1969 and the early 1970s.
For CPLR, the main issues were the exclusion of Chicana/o students at Loyola Law School, a Jesuit Catholic institution, the closing of Our Lady Queen of Angels High School, a predominately Chicana/o Catholic parochial school, and the building of St. Basil’s, a $3 million dollar church in the wealthy Wilshire district.
Ricardo Cruz, Miguel García, Richard Martínez, and others were convinced that the Catholic Church needed to uphold the progressive reforms rooted in Vatican Council II (1962-1965).
Although over 50% of those connected to CPLR activities were Chicanas, such as Rosa Martínez, Alicia Escalante, Lydia López, María Acosta, Gloria Chávez, and Patricia Borjón, Chicanas were relegated to secretarial type of positions within CPLR. Rosa Martínez has stated, however, that Ricardo Cruz attempted to be inclusive of women.
As with other Chicano Movement organizations, Chicanas were instrumental in the success of the CPLR. It is obvious that more work needs to be done on the participation of Chicanas within CPLR.
The Chicano Movement gave rise to what Dr. Mario García calls the “political Catholics.” That is, religion played a substantial role in the politicization of long-standing community members who were Catholics.
The new “political Catholics” included those individuals who were already part of the existing Chicano Movement through their involvement with the United Farm Workers, as participants in the East Los Angeles High School Blowouts, and as members of La Raza newspaper, the Chicano Moratorium, and the Brown Berets.
It should be noted that while the Catholic Church largely ignored the Chicana/o community and remained silent during the Chicano Movement, other religious denominations were active in the community, such as Father John B. Luce, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Lincoln Heights, who was instrumental in mentoring, organizing, and helping to secure financial assistance for the Young Citizens for Community Action, which eventually became the Brown Berets.
The basement at the Church of the Epiphany, for instance, housed the printing presses of La Raza and was the focal point in the organizing activities of several Chicano Movement organizations.
Additionally, Reverend Vahac Mardirosian, a Baptist minister, was instrumental in mediating between protesting students and racist school administrators during the East Los Angeles Blowouts. Reverend Mardirosian would eventually be elected chairperson of the Educational Issues Coordinating Committee (EICC), which attempted to implement the student demands in the aftermath of the Blowouts, but some of the younger militants viewed him as too moderate to serve in that capacity.
It was in this climate that the CPLR broke with tradition and put the spotlight on the Catholic Church and its complicity in violating the basic tenets of Christianity for failing to live with and love the poor.
On November 29, 1969, the CPLR organized a press conference that called for the “return of the Catholic Church to the oppressed Chicano community.” The CPLR publicized the fact that the Catholic Church owned nearly one billion dollars in property and other assets, even pointing out that the stained glass windows at the new church at St. Basil’s alone cost $250,000, thus exemplifying the Church’s disconnect with the plight of the poor.
During the press conference, the CPLR called for a prayer-vigil demonstration on December 7 at St. Basil’s Catholic Church. Ricardo Cruz fearlessly declared: “Somos Católicos, somos pobres, somos Chicanos. Que viva La Raza.”
On December 4, 1969, a few days before the prayer-vigil demonstration, the CPLR issued a press release addressed to Cardinal James Francis McIntyre informing him of their intentions to demonstrate at St. Basil’s and calling attention to Cardinal McIntyre’s blatant disregard for the community for previously having told CPLR members “say what you have to say or get out.”
Cardinal McIntyre lived in one of the wealthiest areas of Los Angeles and was chauffeured in a Cadillac limousine daily to the chancery office. Cardinal McIntyre represented everything that was contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
On December 7, 1969, in their first public demonstration, almost 350 Chicanas/os showed up for the prayer-vigil demonstration at St. Basil’s accompanied by twelve Catholic priests and a handful of nuns who were in solidarity with the people. The demonstration began with a blessing of the bread and a repetition of the CPLR’s demands that the Catholic Church be returned to the Chicano community.
CPLR attempted to meet with Cardinal McIntyre but were denied such a meeting. The CPLR boldly stated: “we could only wonder what Christ would do if 350 Chicanos would want to see Him.” It was reported that Cardinal McIntyre in turn replied: “I was here before there were Mexicans. I came to Los Angeles twenty-one years ago.”
On December 18, 1969 approximately 30 members of CPLR visited Cardinal McIntyre’s office to demand a meeting. CPLR asserted that: “We’re Chicanos from various parts of L.A. and we’ve been trying to see the Cardinal for a long time to talk to him about the poverty of our people and what he and the Church are doing about it!”
The receptionist replied: “you’re from Chicago and…” Ricardo Cruz interrupted her: “you’ve never heard the word Chicano? There’s barrios full of Chicanos and all kinds of Raza surrounding this area. You know, Mexican, Mexican-American! Orale — Chicago — chingou!”
Ricardo Cruz, Rosa Martínez and a few others eventually forced themselves into the Cardinal’s office. Joe Razo, one of the Chicano 13, knocked down a priest who attempted to stop CPLR members from entering the office. Cardinal McIntyre nervously told his staff to “Call the police. Call the police.” The police were not called.
Cardinal McIntyre had no choice but to meet with CPLR, and as he listened his only reply was that he would only look into the demands presented to him.
The CPLR demands included: creation of a Commission of Mexican American Affairs within the hierarchy of the Church, whose initial task was to research the problems facing the Chicana/o community. The Commission was to obtain periodic accounting of Church assets, establish a Chicano Educational Fund, establish a housing agency, create a health fund for low-cost health insurance for Chicanas/os, create leadership training courses, establish freedom of speech for all priests and nuns without fear of retaliation from the Chancery, and allow for use of Church facilities by the Chicana/o community.
A few days later, Cardinal McIntyre continued his refusal to meet or reply to the CPLR. The CPLR decided that a large demonstration was to be organized on Christmas Eve at St. Basil’s and plans were set up to enter the Midnight Mass, which was to be televised locally in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, prayer-vigils (picketing) continued at St. Basil’s with more and more people joining.
As the numbers increased at the demonstrations, there was some reservations by some Chicanas/os about “attacking” the Church, which many believed might offend some Catholics, with some pointing out that the Church was not the enemy.
Meanwhile, Ricardo Cruz believed his phone had been tapped and many CPLR members felt that they were being followed by the Criminal Conspiracy Section of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). It should be noted that the CPLR had been infiltrated as one or more informants reported the group’s activities to the FBI. Copies of the FBI reports were sent to the Secret Service, and to military officials in Southern California.
One of the CPLR members recalls that some Anglos were trying to sell weapons to the group. The CPLR believes that they were undercover police. The CPLR knew that the police would definitely be present at the Christmas Eve demonstration. As such, CPLR secured the services of the “Brown Buffalo” Oscar Zeta Acosta, the Chicano Movement attorney who was also a candidate for Sheriff of the County of Los Angeles.
On Christmas Eve 1969, CPLR members celebrated an alternative Spanish “radical mass” with Father Blasé Bonpane, who the Catholic Church at the St. Basil 21 trial called “a traveling revolutionary priest who was kicked out of Guatemala,” using bits of tortillas for communion.
As the mass ended, the CPLR members attempted to enter the regular Midnight Mass, but they were locked out despite being told they could enter the church if they left their picket signs behind. Undercover police officers acting as “ushers” blocked their entry. Some CPLR members, including Ricardo Cruz, Joe Razo, and Oscar Acosta entered through a side door.
Miguel García made his way to the front entrance where was met by an “usher” who lifted him away. Monsignor Benjamin Hawkes, the pastor at St. Basil’s, had requested additional “ushers” because an informant within CPLR had reported the group’s activities to the church, the local police, and the FBI.
Outside the people were chanting: “Let the poor people in! Let the poor people in!” As the doors were opened, “all hell broke loose” as a fight broke out between the “ushers” and CPLR members. Although the Midnight Mass was being televised on KTLA, the viewers never saw the fighting yet those watching could hear, for almost 15 minutes, the shouting that was taking place inside the church.
The LAPD appeared in full riot gear who had already been waiting behind the church to reinforce the “ushers.” The demonstrators were beaten, kicked, clubbed, and maced by the riot police. Cardinal McIntyre condemned the CPLR by equating them to the “rabble” that shouted “Crucify Him” at Jesus Christ.
Other Catholic priests equated the evening’s event as the “new barbarism,” while others called them the “militant revolutionaries.” The Los Angeles Times referred to the CPLR as the “club-swinging mob.”
The CPLR published and distributed over 100,000 copies of their newspaper, Noticia, that contradicted the “official” version of the Church. The Catholic Church, in turn, used their newspaper, the Tidings, to deny the charges of hypocrisy and neglect.
Alicia Escalante of the Chicana Welfare Rights Organization was arrested and was held by two police officers and as another police officer approached threatening to hit her with his nightstick, Escalante picked up her right foot and kicked the cop right in his “testicles” and the officer went down.
Approximately thirty people were injured, and ten people were sent to the hospital, one with a “brain concussion caused by an irate Anglo parishioner.”
Those arrested were charged with conspiracy to start a riot and assaulting police officers. For those arrested during the night of the “police riot,” the charges were dropped.
The next day, on Christmas, about 150 people returned to St. Basil’s to protest the actions from the night before.
Gloria Chávez broke from the group and entered the Christmas Mass with a golf club “swinging at the altar, scaring off the priest, and pulling the altar cloth off, spilling the items, including the chalice on the floor.” She was immediately arrested. Chávez’s actions polarized the CPLR and other supporters.
The protests continued daily, and a three day fast was begun a week later. The Catholic Church maintained that it did not ignore the Chicana/o community, after all they gave “Easter baskets and Christmas baskets” to the Chicana/o community. In early 1970, Cardinal McIntyre retired. Ricardo Cruz maintains that the “Pope fired McIntyre ass” for his unwavering right-wing views.
Archbishop Timothy Manning replaced Cardinal McIntyre and began addressing some of the concerns of the CPLR. Manning even visited Ricardo’s home. Manning authorized additional funds for the Catholic Church’s social and educational programs in East L.A.
Along with Cesar Chávez, Cruz helped direct the Catholic Church to support the grape boycott, which eventually forced the growers to sign contracts with the UFW. Manning established an inter-parochial council of clergy and laypersons in East L.A.
The Vatican approved the appointment of Chicanos as bishops in cities with large number of Chicana/o residents. Although limited in scope, there was more representation of Raza within the Church.
Although the CPLR viewed the changes as “cosmetic” and “token concessions” it was still an improvement after a historical pattern of Catholic Church neglect in Indigenous/Mexican communities.
Yet, the CPLR was continually attacked by professional middle-class Mexican Americans Catholics who characterized them as communists. The CPLR received hate letters: “Communists are Pigs, Police are Wonderful, Support Your Local Police, Register Commies.”
One month after the Christmas Eve protest, twenty-one members of CPLR were arrested. Oscar Acosta referred to them as the “St. Basil 21.” The CPLR was a political case brought on by Monsignor Hawkes and three other priests who filed a legal complaint.
Among those arrested were, former Brown Beret Minister of Communications, Fred López and his wife Lydia Lopez, who was six months pregnant at the time. Oscar Acosta who defended the “St. Basil 21” was at one point found in contempt of court and sentenced to three days in jail. Acosta was later suspended by the presiding judge because he had not paid his $35 bar dues.
As in previous Chicano Movement legal cases, it was apparent once again that the Court continued to view the Chicana/o activists negatively. At the trial, police officers perjured themselves. One police officer claimed that eight Chicanos attacked him, but that he fought them off with his elbows, while other police officers made racist comments claiming that they knew it was Mexicans that were involved because “those people were about five feet and two inches tall and weighed 140 pounds.”
The five week trial ended with a jury that deliberated for four days and came back with a verdict of not guilty for eight defendants, guilty for two, and a hung jury for one.
A second trial was later begun consisting of about twelve Chicanos, but their charges ranged from disrupting a religious service, to assault and battery of police officers, and inciting a riot.
Eventually, some were given minor fines, while others served anywhere from two to four months in jail for disrupting the Mass.
The CPLR helped organize the massive Chicano Moratorium march on August 29, 1970. At the end of the largest Chicano demonstration in the United States, three Chicanos were killed by the police: Ruben Salazar, Angel Diaz, and Lyn Ward.
For all intents and purposes, at the end of the Chicano Moratorium, the CPLR ceased to exist as members either went “underground” or joined other causes within the Chicano Movement.
Ricardo spiritual and activist journey, however, continued, as he was an active member of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), as well as an organizer for La Raza Unida Party.
In 1971, Ricardo Cruz passed the California State Bar exam but his efforts to practice law were sabotaged by the State Bar’s refusal to certify him. The State Bar claimed that Ricardo was unfit to practice law because of his “moral turpitude” in disrupting a religious service in 1969. With the support from the American Civil Liberties Union, Archbishop Manning, Cruz was eventually admitted to the Bar.
Ricardo helped organize the “Abogados de Aztlán.” The Abogados de Aztlán was a coalition of Chicana/o attorneys based in Los Angeles dedicated to addressing legal discrimination against Chicanas/os.
In 1974, Ricardo opened his first law practice in East Los Angeles. One of Ricardo’s first high profile legal battles was against the County of Los Angeles.
In the early 1970s, the L.A.County-USC Medical Center forcibly sterilized many unsuspecting Chicanas and undocumented Mexican women who had not consented to the procedure.
Although he was not a litigant in the case, Cruz was involved in organizing supporters for the case, which ultimately argued that L.A. County-USC medical policies were unconstitutional and discriminatory against Mexican/Chicana women.
In 1982, Ricardo fought and won the dismissal of charges against a young Chicano named Gordon Castillo Hall, a teenager who was falsely convicted for the murder of a Duarte postal worker who was shot in 1978.
After Castillo Hall’s conviction, Cruz won his release from prison three years later. Ricardo argued that Castillo Hall had inadequate legal representation and had received an unfair trial. Several witnesses claimed to know who the actual murderer was but were never called to testify.
The legacy of Católicos Por La Raza and Ricardo Cruz is important today, especially with the recent naming of Pope Francis as leader of the Catholic Church. The Chicana/o community must continue to challenge the Catholic Church to remain rooted in the tradition and scriptural teachings of Jesus Christ.
For Católicos Por La Raza, the message was clear: “God is Beside You on the Picketline!”
Although Pope Francis has made some bold declarations recently, including denouncing the “globalization of indifference” towards migrants, calling their suffering “a painful thorn in my heart,” it is evident that it is the activism of the Chicana/o community that will return the Catholic Church to the people not the other way around.
Ricardo Cruz died of lung cancer at the L.A.County-USC Medical Center on July 21, 1993.
As Ricardo Cruz would poetically state, “Justice belongs to the people!”
– part of an ongoing series of essays on the Chicano Movement, the Brown Berets, and Chicano Studies as part of my thesis/dissertation.
Joe Razo, a Chicano Movement participant, sets the record straight on the incident at the Cardinal’s office. Joe Razo responds: “One statement attributes me as pushing a priest down who was trying to shut the door to the McIntyre office. The same mistake was made by Mike Garcia at the Mexican American Bar Convention which convened about 300 plus lawyers and judges. Fortunately or unfortunately, I can not take that credit as I was attending a law class and was not a part of that demonstration. The individual involved was Bob Montoya, another Loyola Law Student. I am just pointing this out for accuracy purposes.”
– Católicos: Resistance and Affirmation in Chicano Catholic History by Mario T. García
– Chicano Liberation Theology: The Writings and Documents of Richard Cruz and Católicos por la Raza by Mario T. García
– Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice by Ian F. Haney López
– Somos Chicanos: strangers in our own land by David F. Gómez
– Occupied America: The Chicano’s Struggle Toward Liberation by Rodolfo F. Acuña
– Chicano!: The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement by F. Arturo Rosales
– La Raza Newspaper