“Why Are We Not Marching Like in the 70s?” in Ernesto Chávez’s “¡Mi Raza Primero”: Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978

¡Mi Raza Primero!

¡Mi Raza Primero!

Through the wonders of social media, namely Twitter, I have been sharing and recommending hundreds of Chicana/o books and film titles amongst my “followers” for the last four years in order to promote Chicana/o literacy, encourage students to major or minor in Chicana/o Studies, to dispel the myth that Chicanas/os are not creating scholarly and literary works by and for Chicanas/os, and lastly to facilitate an expansive list of works for people to search out these titles in their local bookstores and libraries for personal reading enjoyment or academic research purposes.

Knowledge is our weapon. Knowledge is power. Specifically, knowledge is Chicano Power.

Chicano Power, then, demands that we work towards dismantling racist and sexist institutional structures that negate our human rights as Indigenous peoples. Knowing our history, also, forces us to challenge false assumptions about Chicanas/os that are falsely spread in academic circles and in social media spaces.

We have been omitted from the historical record, and when we do appear we are depicted as passive, docile, and only participating in the social landscape as a result of outside assistance. We are never allowed to exist as original inhabitants. Nearly every time the Chicana/o-Mexicana/o experience is discussed, especially on social media, it is done thru a racist filter that usually describes some outside ethnic/racial group discovering or influencing us, thus revoking our autonomy, sovereignty, and agency as a people.

And so what I wanted to do for this particular blog space was to highlight several Chicana/o books and film titles that our people might find of interest and meaningful as they search for their own knowledge and self-determination. These reviews and those of other contributors are written from a Chicana/o-Mexicana/o frame of reference.

If you are interested in sharing a written review of your favorite Chicana/o book, film, art exhibit, etc. please feel free to contact via email at clshc@me.com – Resistance Through Knowledge, one book at time.

cultural sovereignty

Youth, Identity, Power

Youth, Identity, Power

First published in 1989, the now-classic, Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement by Carlos Muñoz was the first full-length assessment to document the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Despite some limitations, Muñoz’s treatment of the Chicano Movement resonated within the discipline of Chicana/o Studies, with many of the movement’s former participants, as well as the younger generation, by reminding the Chicana/o community of a time when CHANGE was actually possible not because of some government handout or their compassionate beneficence towards our people, rather CHANGE occurred because of the militancy exhibited by the Chicana/o community to pressure the system.

No doubt, Youth, Identity, Power was a considerably biased first-person account in what seemed to be Muñoz’s almost heroic participation in the Chicano Movement. Moreover, there was a glaring omission in incorporating the experiences and participation of Chicanas, including a negligence in not interviewing former movement activists en masse, while also excluding several movement organizations from his work.

Nevertheless, Youth, Identity, Power highlighted the unmistakable contributions and the power behind the Chicano Movement in ensuring equality for Chicanas/os within American society. Youth, Identity, Power also revealed the positive attributes of cultural nationalism in the struggle for Chicana/o self-determination.

In essence, it was Chicano cultural nationalism that not only opened but in actuality kept the doors of the Ivory Tower and Corporate America open to our people. In retrospect, as the Chicana/o community diverged from the militancy, the post-1970s saw America begin shutting its doors, which partly answers Ernesto Chávez’s question “why are we not marching like in the 70s?”

Essentially, some of our people got satisfied with the crumbs they received and stopped fighting! Meanwhile, those of us who came after the Movement were never taught our history and when we “discovered” it, found ourselves asking the same question Chávez proposed.

Fast forward, then, to 2002 when “¡Mi Raza Primero” (My People First!): Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978 by Ernesto Chávez was published. Chávez explores the Chicano Movement through four organizations that cultivated a militant and nationalist perspective with a political rhetoric that opposed American hegemony.

In particular, Chávez analyzes the Brown Berets, the Chicano Moratorium Committee, La Raza Unida Party and the Centro Acción Social Autónomo (CASA) to focus on how these groups imagined community and Chicano nationalism during their formative years of existence.

In this study, Chávez sought to assess the goals, achievements, and failures of the various political groups that emerged out of the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles (3). In doing so, however, Chávez critiques the Movement for its supposed “ideologically bankrupt cultural nationalism” (120).

Despite his claims that he “personally witnessed” the Chicano Movement, truth be told Chávez is part of the generation who came of age at the end of the Chicano Movement, and is a beneficiary of the movement’s successes. Chávez claims that his study is a middle-ground between two opposing groups who have studied the Chicano Movement: “the scholar-participants and those who have no personal connection or understanding of the insurgency” (4).

In all honesty, I am not sure if this middle ground or “in-between” status that Chávez speaks of is convincing enough to make him more objective in his overall assessment of the Chicano Movement.

Chávez’s use of questionable colonizing language to describe the Chicano Movement may be considered substantially ahistorical, given that he sets out to demonstrate that the Chicano Movement failed because of a “bankrupt” cultural nationalism that, he argues, was conspicuously narrow-minded, homophobic and sexist towards Chicanas.

Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun

Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun

Yet as Jorge Mariscal has argued in Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons from the Chicano Movement, 1965-1975 (2005), the Chicano Movement declined because of the institutionalized repressive mechanisms at the disposal of the State and the changes taking place in the climate of the post 1970s.

This is not to negate that the Chicano Movement did not exhibit homophobic and sexist tendencies, as Maylei Blackwell, for instance, has aptly demonstrated that it did, in ¡Chicana Power!: Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement (2011), but to discredit the Movement with oversimplified analysis does not further our understanding of the complexities of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Interestingly enough, most accounts of the Chicano Movement never fail to compare it side by side to the Black Civil Rights and Black Power Movement. Generally, these compare and contrast accounts suggest that Chicanas/os are unable to develop and contribute to the larger social justice struggles without outside influences.

¡Chicana Power!

¡Chicana Power!

One attribute, however, that is always missing in these comparative narratives is the Black Civil Rights and Black Power Movement’s own struggles with homophobia and sexism. Somehow Chicano cultural nationalism is equivalent to homophobia and sexism, yet all other social movements found in Chicano Movement analysis are suprisingly unencumbered by it or not worth mentioning as a comparison.

In “¡Mi Raza Primero” (My People First!): Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978, Ernesto Chávez divides his study into five sections, with an introduction and an afterword:

– Introduction: “Those Times of Revolution”
– “A Moveable Object Meeting an Irresistable Force”: Los Angeles’s Ethnic Mexican Community in the 1950s and Early 1960s
– “Birth of a New Symbol”: The Brown Berets
– “Chale No, We Won’t Go!”: The Chicano Moratorium Committee
– “The Voice of the Chicano People”: La Raza Unida Party
– “Un Pueblo Sin Fronteras”: The Centro de Acción Social Autónomo (CASA)
– Afterword: “Why Are We Not Marching Like in the ’70s?”

Chávez argues that a study of Los Angeles’ ethnic political movements during the Civil Rights Movement is imperative for it provides a glimpse into not only local protests but the insurgency that emerged in other communities that share similarities to the Los Angeles Mexican community.

Chávez follows a typical and outdated chronological narrative, which argues that the roots of the Chicano Movement are to be found in the post-World War II period beginning with organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the American GI Forum, the Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples (El Congreso), the Asociación Nacional Mexico-Americana (ANMA), the Mexican American Movement (MAM), and the Community Service Organization (CSO).

For the most part, these Mexican American accommodationist organizations were formed with the intention of integrating Mexican Americans to the larger American society through litigation, voter registration drives, and union organizing.

Chávez begins his study in the 1950s, because he views Mexicans as beginning to form a sense of community, as if one did not exist before, which then confronted their lack of political representation, police brutality, and the urban displacement of people from their communities. Chávez, however, does not connect how these Mexican American accommodationist organizations contributed or influenced the political development of the Chicano Movement organizations he analyses.

The politics of ANMA seem to be a logical connection to the emerging Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, especially because ANMA emerged as the radical voice of Mexican American politics during the early 1950s.

ANMA identified class struggle as essential to achieving political change. ANMA traced racism to the White ruling class, but not to the White working class. As such, ANMA came to be identified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a red-front group (18). The FBI infiltrated ANMA and carried out extensive surveillance of the group. In 1952, the FBI identified ANMA as a security threat under the Internal Security Act of 1950 (18). ANMA did appeal its designation to the U.S. Attorney General who listed the group as a subversive organization in 1954. ANMA was never able to effectively challenge this designation of being “un-American.”

Despite uncovering the emergence of a Chicano radical politics that deviated from the Mexican American Generation, Chávez dedicates only a few pages to ANMA, meanwhile expending unnecessary time on the CSO and MAPA without adding much to what already has been previously said about those two groups. It was a missed opportunity, to say the least, not to have focused on ANMA’s political connection to the Chicano Movement.

As previously stated, Chávez claims that he is the middle ground between the “scholar-participants” and those not having any personal connection to the movement. He essentially insinuates that he will be an “objective” voice because he will bridge both camps. Yet his analysis of the Chicano Movement, especially that of the Brown Berets is lacking and almost tinged with resentment as if he has a vendetta not only against the Brown Berets, but more specifically against David Sánchez, the co-founder and former prime minister of the group by making unsubtantiated accusations, such as that Sánchez killed a fellow Brown Beret member. Chávez footnotes this claim from a box he found in special collections at Stanford University (134).

Chávez, moreover, asserts that the demise of the Brown Berets was caused by Sánchez’s “narrow vision of a male-dominated Chicano community” (57). Yet, Chávez only spends a page or two “examining” the role of police infiltration, surveillance and State repression in what most of is know is the direct cause not only for the destruction of the Brown Berets but of the entire Chicano Movement.

Chávez erroneously claims that the Brown Berets were involved in “attention-grabbing exploits” because they dared to “invade” Santa Catalina Island in 1972. Furthermore, he contends that the Brown Beret “Ten Point Program” was reformist, not revolutiunary” even going so far as to ludicrously maintain that they were grounded in the U.S. Constitution (49).

Chávez’s even contradicts his own interpretations when, in one instance, he states that the Brown Berets “first-gained wide notoriety” for their role in the East Los Angeles High School Blowouts in March 1968, yet in another instance, he claims that wide notoriety didn’t occur until April 1969, nearly a year later, as a result of the Biltmore incident (47,51).

It is clear that Chávez’s interpretation of the Brown Berets is mostly filled with innuendo, and interpretations that are questionable while oversimplifying the decline of the movement to satisfy his weak argument of a “bankrupt” nationalism.

“¡Mi Raza Primero” (My People First!): Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978 by Ernesto Chávez assesses the Los Angeles Chicano Movement. This study, however, falls short in its oversimplified analysis of Chicano cultural nationalism and the Chicano Movement. It is highly doubtful that his framework would lend itself to exploring other regional Chicano Movement organizations. Although I encourage everyone to add this book to their Chicana/o Studies collection, I caution readers to critique even works found in Chicana/o Studies.

— by D.Cid

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