Soldados de la Raza in David Sánchez’s Expedition Through Aztlán

Expedition Through Aztlán

Expedition Through Aztlán

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 – Resistance Through Knowledge, one book at time.

cultural sovereignty

Despite a recent surge in academic studies focused on the Chicano Movement (see bottom of post), there are very few that solely focus on the Brown Berets and the few that do specifically center on the formation, ideology, structure, activities, conflicts, and dissolution of the East Los Angeles Brown Berets (1966-1972).

As a national organization, the Brown Berets had chapters throughout the United States, yet these Brown Beret regional histories have not been documented or archived. Many of these Brown Beret chapters outside of East Los Angeles continued to organize their local communities long after the Brown Beret National Organization was “officially” disbanded by co-founder and prime minister David Sánchez on November 1, 1972.

Rona Fields’ Ph.D. dissertation, The Brown Berets: A Participant Observation Study of Social Action in the Schools of Los Angeles (1970) was the first to document the early history of the Brown Berets for academia.

Fields writes: “The consequent frustration would apparently provide only two alternatives for the Chicano youth – acquiescence to the established order, which would include acceptance of assimilation, or violence, either revolutionary style or delinquency. The Brown Berets are trying to develop a third alternative. This third alternative is embodied in the East Los Angeles Free Clinic. This alternative is to create new institutions which are devised to be flexible, to be continually responsive to the community and which grow out of and for the needs of the community as the community sees them.”

Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar wrote about the Brown Berets for the Los Angeles Times in an article entitled, Brown Berets Hail ‘La Raza’ and Scorn the Establishment (June 16, 1969). A close examination of Salazar’s newspaper writings reveal the primary intention was to bridge the gap between the elite who were calling for an all-out political and legal assault on the Chicano “militants” and those few sympathetic readers who might have enough influence to sway the city’s political and civic leaders to commit to some form of decisive action and engage the Movement’s demands within the framework of the American polity.

The Brown Berets have been misrepresented, misinterpreted, red-baited, and slandered in academia, the mainstream press, and Euroamerican society. David Sánchez says that police infiltrators played a leading role in discrediting the Brown Berets in the eyes of the community. FBI files indicate that the Brown Berets had been under surveillance since at least 1966 when they were known as the Young Citizens for Community Action (YCCA).

The above photo shows the Brown Berets in the center unknowingly flanked on the extreme left and right by suspected law-enforcement intelligence infiltrators.

The above photo shows the Brown Berets in the center unknowingly flanked on the extreme left and right by suspected law-enforcement intelligence infiltrators.

According to Irene Sánchez, David’s sister, whom I interviewed in the late 1990s, the severe infiltration caused many problems at home that were eased by the mother’s strong influence on the family. Divisions in the family were not severe, but the father felt that David’s activities should be directed at home. The father felt that the family should come first before others. This familial conflict became apparent in September of 1971 when their house was firebombed.

Dr. Armando Morales wrote that the “Brown Berets exposed and touched a deep underlying guilt and fear primarily among Anglo-Americans.” He added that “often the public fear was transformed by law enforcement into an angry retaliation against the Brown Berets which itself resembled vigilantism in that occasionally, as will be seen, law enforcement officials literally took the law into their own hands.”

I have previously written about my experiences with the Brown Berets as well as documenting some of the group’s history on this blog as a way of capturing the spirit of resistance for an era that seems to have been largely forgotten and erased.

As I ready myself to begin the Ph.D. program in Chicana/o Studies at the University of Arizona in the Fall, it is my intention to focus on the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s with special emphasis on the Brown Berets.

For all intents and purposes, when David Sánchez disbanded the Brown Berets in November of 1972, the Chicana/o community had already begun the process of shifting gears from the militancy of street-style politics towards ballot-box electoral politics. That ideological shift was noticeable in East Los Angeles with La Raza Unida’s (LRUP) emphasis in attempting to strike a chord with voters as a mechanism for social change, especially the LRUP chapter in City Terrace.

David Sánchez’s Expedition Through Aztlán (1978), written six years after he disbanded the Brown Beret chapters within his reach, documents the last two years of the Brown Berets beginning with La Marcha de la Reconquista, continuing with La Caravana de la Reconquista and ending with the Invasion of Isla Santa Catalina.

As a first-person account of the Brown Berets political journey throughout Aztlán and beyond, this is an important history that chronicles the social conditions that Chicanas/os experienced in the early 1970s. Many of the social, economic and political challenges that the Brown Berets discovered as they went from barrio to barrio are still lingering with us today, such as police brutality, lack of employment for our people, and the high educational push-out rate of our youth.

Although not a traditional biolgraphical account, Expedition Through Aztlán does give us insight into the experiences of the Brown Berets as they connected with Chicanas/os throughout the Southwest and Midwest. It includes an amazing collection of over eighty-five photographs that show the Brown Berets marching, protesting and dedicating historical monuments in the various communities they were welcomed. Unfortunately many of these historical monuments have since been removed and destroyed.

Expedition Through Aztlán is divided into eleven sections with a foreword, introduction, and appendix:

– Thousands of Chicanos Marching
– La Marcha de la Reconquista
– Sunny California
– Arizona
– New Mexico: The Land of Enchantment?
– The Midwest
– Colorado
– California Revisited
– Texas: Land of Cortina
– The Invasion of Santa Catalina Island
– ¿Fin?

David Sánchez

With Mayor Yorty (circa 1967)

Expedition Through Aztlán begins with a very brief overview of David Sánchez’s political roots as President of the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council in Los Angeles. According to Sánchez, he was “very acceptable to the establishment” and was the “good boy” within city government (1). But, as Sánchez relates, reality slapped him in the face when he was elected president, and as he describes it, 150 members of the Young Americans for Freedom came to remove him from office, but Moctezuma Esparza advised him of the legal procedures that ensured his position.

In his role as President of the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council, Sánchez battled with representatives of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) regarding their excessive abuse of the Chicana/o community. Discouraged and impatient with the lack of change, Sánchez left his position and began organizing at the community level with the YCCA. With the help of a few people, initial monies were obtained to open a coffee house named La Piranya in East Los Angeles.

La Piranya

La Piranya

As the YCCA matured in its political orientation, the group substituted “Citizens” with “Chicanos” to reflect a more radicalized and militant expression. This new political attitude was seen in action in late 1967 when the Young Chicanos for Community Action planned a series of demonstrations against the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station and the Hollenbeck Division of the LAPD. This was the first time young Chicanas/os had ever demonstrated against the police agencies who had, and continue to have, a historical record of brutalizing the Chicana/o community.

Although the Brown Beret headquarters had been firebombed once on Christmas Eve in 1968, it was not until September 1971 that political opposition finally hit home when David’s mother’s house was firebombed (6). Both firebombing incidents remain a mystery to this day, but it has always been suspected that it was the work of law-enforcement agencies and/or agent provocateurs.

As the front of the house went up in flames, Arlene, David’s and Irene’s younger sister, was sleeping on the couch near the window. In a miraculous effort, the mother managed to pull her out just before the flames reached her. In recounting this event, Irene told me that “my mother did not blame David, we thought that this could not come from any of the movement people, but possibly the police.” In fact, Irene stated that “her mother wanted David to do what was best for the people. It was the mother who really maintained the house during these troubled times.”

It is at this point that Expedition Through Aztlán switches gears and focuses on the Brown Berets’ La Marcha de la Reconquista, which began on May 5, 1971. As David describes it, he was not favorably looked upon by the police in East Los Angeles, and was being jailed every five months or so (15). David also believed that La Marcha de la Reconquista would be his opportunity to avoid police harrassment. He would come to find out this was not to be the case.

Organized by the Brown Berets and remnants of the Chicano Moratorium Committee, La Marcha de la Reconquista was a political march and rally to demonstrate the grievances of the Chicana/o community. The march would cover approximately 1,000 miles in three months from Calexico to Sacramento.

The march began in Calexico. It went through several Chicana/o barrios, such as El Centro, Brawley, Calipatria, Niland, the Salton Sea, Mecca, Coachella, Indio, Indian Wells, Palm Springs, San Jacinto, Redlands, Casa Blanca, Los Angeles, Bakersfield, McFarland, Fresno, Mendota, Merced, and Stockton.

The march ended with five days of organized protest in Sacramento. The key issues were farmworker’s rights, better education for Chicanas/os, the over-reaction of the state capitol riot police, welfare rights, and prison reform.

The Brown Berets realized that much more needed to be learned about the social conditions of the barrio. The Brown Berets also understood that there were many Chicana/o barrios who had still not heard the message of Chicanismo. This is where the second part of Expedition Through Aztlán begins with La Caravana de la Reconquista.

1971 - La Caravana de la Reconquista arrives in San Antonio, Texas to confront the Issues.

1971 – La Caravana de la Reconquista arrives in San Antonio, Texas to confront the Issues.

On August 21, 1971, the Brown Berets began La Caravana de la Reconquista (an Expedition through Aztlán and the Midwest). About 35 Brown Berets visited over 80 barrios in Occupied Aztlán.

The Brown Berets visited the Chicana/o barrios of California (Blythe, San Diego, San José, La Posada, & Los Angeles), Arizona (Phoenix, Guadalupe, Glendale, Chinle, Superior, Ajo, Eloy, Tucson, & Douglas), New Mexico (Silver City, Las Cruces, Mesilla, Tortugas, Albuquerque, Santa Fé, Las Vegas, Mora, Taos, Española, Mesquite, & Anthony), Oklahoma, Illinois (Chicago), Wisconsin (Milwaukee), Michigan (Detroit), Colorado (Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver, & Trinidad), and Texas (El Paso, Laredo, Brownsville, Santa María, McAllen, Houston, & San Antonio.

The third part of Expedition Through Aztlán is a documentation of a very little known event outisde of Chicana/o Studies, that is the Catalina Island Invasion. Ernesto Chávez in “¡Mi Raza Primero!” (My People First!) Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978 (2002) describes the Catalina Island Invasion as an extension of David Sánchez’s “attention-grabbing exploits.”

Unfortunately, Chávez doesn’t add anything significant to what occurred in those twenty-four days on the occupation of the island, let alone why the Brown Berets decided to undertake such an action in the first place. His “attention-grabbing exploits” description minimizes the root of our displacement: our loss of land.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

The only Chicana/o Studies scholar who has bothered to make a historical and cultural connection to the Brown Beret Catalina Island Invasion is Richard Griswold del Castillo in The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict.

Del Castillo treats the invasion from the framework of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the violations of the United States government to said treaty. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo did not include any of the nine channel islands off the coast of California, and hence, were still Mexican territory.

The Catalina Island chapter is the most intense and detailed reading in Expedition Through Aztlán. According to Sánchez, the island had been under direct observation for nearly two years. It was discovered that there were 1,300 people living there in the Winter and 4,000 people who lived there in the Summer with nearly 400 Chicanas/os on the island, who were primarily servile workers (175).

With only $50 in their pocket, Sánchez had estimated that it would take at least $700-$900 for twenty-six Brown Berets to initiate the invasion. This was 1972. This was the Chicano Movement. This was self-determination.

Project Tecolote had begun. Using a small plane and a boat, twenty-six Brown Berets headed to Catalina Island. Twenty-five men and one muXer were part of the initial group that descended on the island.

At about 9:30am on August 30, 1972, a large 9×7 Mexican flag was raised and Campo Tecolote was declared a free and sovereign land for all Chicanas/os-Mexicanas/os.

David Sánchez read a prepared statement that read in part:

The occupation plan is also to protest the bad living conditions for people of Mexican descent who are living in the United States.

Project Tecolote (1972)

At Catalina Island in 1972

Many Chicanas/os sent their support to the group, however, the San Pedro chapter of the Brown Berets refused to respond. The Brown Beret organization had been severely infiltrated by this point and a power struggle ensued.

On September 23, 1972, forty deputies from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB Riot Squad) moved in to remove and arrest, if necessary, the Brown Berets from the camp. The occupation was over after twenty-four days.

All the Brown Beret members were removed from the camp and sent back to the mainland, except for two: Jeronimo Blanco and his wife María Blanco who were left behind.

The complete story of the Brown Berets and their dedication to the Chicano Movement remains to be told. Expedition Through Aztlán builds on David Sánchez’s earlier writings, such as Chicano Power Explained! (1970).

At this point, Expedition Through Aztlán is a very difficult book to obtain. If you can get a copy, it is a highly recommended read especially the final section ¿Fin? where David Sánchez describes some of the challenges the Brown Berets encountered in their travels throughout Aztlán.

Most importantly, writing in 1978, he makes some timely observations that almost make it seem like he’s writing in 2015. In essence, the problems Chicanas/os encountered in the 1970s are more pressing today than they were in 2015. Nothing has changed socially, economically or politically for the Chicana/o.

One drawback to Expedition Through Aztlán is that it is not a complete historical account of the Brown Berets, nor an autobiographical sketch of David Sánchez, and neither is it inclusive of other members histories, especially the role of Chicanas. Its a short history of the last two years of the group from the perspective of the David Sánchez. Still, though, its a must-read for any student, academic and/or community organizer interested in Chicano social movements. It is up to us to fill in the gaps of Expedition Through Aztlán.

Please note that there are hundreds of unpublished manuscripts, thesis, dissertations, letters, novels, poems, prose, short stories, photographs, articles, posters, murals, underground press, songs, films, and other archived materials on the Chicano Movement available at university special collections and research centers as well as in community and personal libraries throughout the United States whose stories are waiting to be (re)read and (re)told by a new generation of Chicana/o scholars.

For further study on the Brown Berets, see the following: Christine Marín’s Go Home, Chicanos: A Study of the Brown Berets in California and Arizona (1974); Marguerite V. Marín’s Social Protest in an Urban Barrio: A Study of the Chicano Movement, 1966-1974 (1991); Ernesto Chávez’s “¡Mi Raza Primero!” (My People First!) Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978 (2002); David Montejano’s Quixote’s Soldiers: A Local History of the Chicano Movement, 1966–1981 (2010) and Sancho’s Journal: Exploring the Political Edge with the Brown Berets (2012); Dionne Espinosa’s “Revolutionary Sisters”: Women’s Solidarity and Collective Identification among Chicana Brown Berets in East Los Angeles, 1967-1970 (2001); Jennifer Correa’s Chicano Nationalism: The Brown Berets and Legal Social Control (2006) and The Targeting of the East Los Angeles Brown Berets by a Racial Patriarchal Capitalist State: Merging Intersectionality and Social Movement Research (2011); and Milo Alvarez’s On the Shoulders of Generations: The Brown Berets of Aztlan in the Long Civil Rights Era (forthcoming).

For further study on the Chicano Movement see the following: Carlos Muñoz’s Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement (1989); Yolanda Broyles-González’s El Teatro Campesino: Theater in the Chicano Movement (1994); Armando Navarro’s Mexican American Youth Organization: Avant-Garde of the Chicano Movement in Texas (1995), The Cristal Experiment: A Chicano Struggle for Community Control (1998) and La Raza Unida Party (2000); Ignacio M. García’s Chicanismo: The Forging of a Militant Ethos among Mexican Americans (1997); Alma M. García’s Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings (1997); José Angel Gutíerrez’s The Making of a Chicano Militant: Lessons from Cristal (1999); Ernesto B. Vigil’s The Crusade for Justice: Chicano Militancy and the Government’s War on Dissent (1999); Reies López Tijerina’s They Called Me King Tiger: My Struggle for the Land and Our Rights (2000); José Salvador Treviño’s Eyewitness: A Filmmaker’s Memoir of the Chicano Movement (2001); Jorge Mariscal’s Aztlan and Viet Nam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War (1999) and Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons from the Chicano Movement, 1965-1975 (2005); Rodolfo “Corky” González’s Message to Aztlan: Selected Writings of Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales (2001); Ian F. Haney López’s Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice (2004); Lorena Oropeza’s ¡Raza Sí! ¡Guerra No!: Chicano Protest and Patriotism during the Viet Nam War Era (2005); Enriqueta Vasquez’s Enriqueta Vasquez and the Chicano Movement: Writings from El Grito del Norte (2006); Maylei Blackwell’s ¡Chicana Power!: Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement (2011); Lee Bebout’s Mythohistorical Interventions: The Chicano Movement and Its Legacies (2011); Mario T. García’s Chicano Liberation Theology: The Writings and Documents of Richard Cruz and Católicos Por La Raza (2009), Blowout!: Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice (2011), The Chicano Movement: Perspectives from the Twenty-First Century (2014) and The Chicano Generation: Testimonios of the Movement (2015); Randy J. Ontiveros’ In the Spirit of a New People: The Cultural Politics of the Chicano Movement (2013); Juan Gómez Quiñones and Irene Vásquez’s Making Aztlán: Ideology and Culture of the Chicana and Chicano Movement, 1966-1977 (2014); and Marc Simon Rodríguez’s Rethinking the Chicano Movement (2014).

— D. Cid

This entry was posted in AmeriKKKa, Aztlan, Boyle Heights, Brown Berets, California, Chicana Feminism, Chicana/o, Chicana/o Activism, Chicana/o Book Reviews, Chicana/o Books, Chicana/o Community, Chicana/o Identity, Chicana/o Ideology, Chicana/o Literature, Chicana/o Politics, Chicana/o Power, Chicana/o Studies, Chicana/o Underground, Chicana/o Youth, Chicano Movement, Community, Cultura, Decolonization, East Los Angeles, Education, History, Indigenous, Knowledge, Labor, Land, Language, Law, Los Angeles, Mexican, Movimiento, MuXer, Nepantla, Palabra, Politics, Quotes, Resistance, Sin Fronteras, Social justice, Solidarity, Unity, Xicana, Xicano. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Soldados de la Raza in David Sánchez’s Expedition Through Aztlán

  1. Pingback: The Politics of Aztlán in Ignacio M. García’s Chicanismo: The Forging of a Militant Ethos among Mexican Americans | Notes from Aztlán

  2. Marilyn (Sanchez) Lopez says:

    Our history will continue. I’m gład there are people like David Sanchez who are taking the time to write it. Back in theses early days I personally knew DAVID. Through the years we’ve lost touch. I’m proud of all his accomplicments. He’s come a long way from the teenager I knew and loved. Continue fighting for us and are rights. For too long we’ve really been forgotten and treated as second hand people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *