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



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

Under the leadership of Dr. Mario T. García, the Chicana/o Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) has hosted and organized a bi-annual conference entitled, Chicano Power!: The Sal Castro Memorial Conference on the Emerging Historiography of the Chicano Movement. The first conference was held in 2012, a second one was held in 2014 with an upcoming conference scheduled for 2016.

The importance of this Chicano Movement conference cannot be overstated, especially as it gives agency and voice to an emerging Chicana/o intelligentsia who possess the scholarly tools to analyze and synthesize the history and legacy of the Chicano Movement while dispelling myths about the political activism of Chicanas/os.

In recent years, the Chicano Movement (1965-1975) has received much-needed and overdue scholarly attention with the publication of several outstanding monographs that highlight the accomplishments and complexities of movement organizations and individuals. [As an aside, in a previous post on Expedition Through Aztlán by David Sánchez, I listed a few of the relevant studies currently available].

To be sure, there is much to be said about the most significant political movement ever undertaken by Chicanas/os in the United States. Yet, nearly 40 years after the “conclusion” of the Chicano Movement, Chicana/o scholars, students, and activists continue to grapple with how to study and interpret the movement. [See, for example, Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America: A History of Chicanos (1988) who writes: “Many Chicanos have incorrectly labeled the second half of the 1960s as the birth of the Chicano movement.” Also see Ernesto Chávez’s “¡Mi Raza Primero” (My People First!): Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978 (2002) who claims that the Chicano Movement failed because of a “bankrupt” cultural nationalism that, he argues, was conspicuously narrow-minded, homophobic and sexist towards Chicanas].

The polemical struggle underscores why answers that attempt to definitively define the movement remain elusive to this day. For example: what is the Chicano Movement? when did the Chicano Movement begin and end (did it)?; was the Chicano Movement located within the politics of reformism or radicalism?; was the Chicano Movement a struggle for self-determination or integration?; was the Chicano Movement centered solely on the “identity problematic” and/or the search for an historical past?; and was the Chicano Movement just another phase in the history of Chicana/o resistance? Ultimately, how does one measure the legacy of the Chicano Movement?

At the heart of these questions, and its manifold answers, lies the work of Ignacio M. García’s Chicanismo: The Forging of a Militant Ethos among Mexican Americans (1997).

Ignacio M. García argues that the Chicano Movement was not a quest for identity nor a spontaneous eruption of activity. Rather, the Chicano Movement was a radical ideological and cultural transformation of Chicanos, whose primary goal was to liberate Chicanas/os from “racism, poverty, political powerlessness, historical neglect, and internal defeatism” (133).

Written in a partial-ethnographic style, García seeks to (re)interpret the intellectual development of the political consciousness or “ethos” that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s among Chicanas/os. The “ethos” or politics of Aztlán, as García describes it, was the “body of ideas, strategies, tactics, and rationalizations that a community uses to respond to external challenges” (4). As such, the Chicano Movement was both a series of events as well as a series of phases.

Although García does not follow a chronological framework, he does divide his work into seven sections that provide historical insight into the movement:

– Introduction
– Rejecting the Liberal Agenda
– Reinterpreting the Chicano Experience
– Chicanismo: An Affirmation of Race and Class
– Strategies for Aztlán: Creating a Cultural Polity
– The Movement in Robstown
– The Ethos and its Legacy

Even though Ignacio García would contend that the Chicano Movement was not necessarily a quest for identity, he does recognize the development of a “cultural-political taxonomy” that gave meaning to, among other things, the term Chicano, as well as the activist philosophy that would come to be better known as chicanismo.

García sees the Chicano Movement as a process of four overlapping phases that nurtured an “ethos” or politics of Aztlán in the 1960s and 1970s:

1) Chicanos believed that the liberal agenda was corrupt;
2) Chicanos saw a need to reinterpret the past;
3) Chicanos affirmed a rediscovered past as an historical and cultural people; and
4) Chicanos engaged in oppositional politics.

For García, the politics of Aztlán are irreversible and although the period of Chicano cultural nationalism and militancy may have lost its edge in today’s political climate, the militant ethos continues to interject itself into the language, symbolism, and imagery of current “Hispanic” politics, which contrary to what many would argue against, has not been immune to the discourse forged by the Chicana/o Generation. As Chon Noriega acknowledges in Shot in America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema (2000) “today few Chicano scholars would accept the label of cultural nationalism, but neither would they embrace assimilation.”

The historical narrative on the Civil Rights era generally states that Chicanos were politically and economically oppressed lagging behind in every measurable and quantifiable statistical report, but were largely docile and passive in committing to social change that is, until the Black Civil Rights Movement came to inspire an entire nation. This narrative, of course, has been repeatedly debunked by many Chicana/o historians.

Despite the Black Civil Rights Movement’s influential role across the national political spectrum, García asserts that many Chicana/o movement organizations and leading figures did not necessarily view the Black Civil Rights Movement as a social movement to emulate, because of its integrationist approach, which Rodolfo “Corky” González found unacceptable. García writes that even César Chávez saw Malcolm X as someone who “understood the principles of organizing” better than did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (90-93).

The distinct political approaches undertaken by both the Black and Chicano civil rights movements are definitely something that need to be explored further for it will highlight the extent to which communities will go in order to advocate for social change. In addition, it will problematize the current Black-White paradigm on social movements in the United States.

García’s approach to reinterpreting the Chicano Movement anticipates many of the questions and assumptions made by current analysis of the 1960s and 1970s by Chicana/o scholars. García writes:

This approach also does not relegate the Movement to the political graveyard as an unfocused, passionate social catharsis that arose, played itself out, and left things worse than they were before. This is the kind of conclusion that comes from previous studies, which start praising the ideals of the Movement, then criticize its ideological foundations and bemoans its stepchild, the Hispanic Generation (16).

Because Chicanismo is not a full-length study on the Chicano Movement, rather its a synthesis of the political “ethos” that emerged out of the militancy of the Chicana/o Generation, the work sometimes falls short in exploring this “ethos” to its fullest.

For instance, although Chicanismo connects the Crystal City Revolt of 1963 and the scholarly work of Dr. Octavio Romano in providing fertile ground for the militant “ethos” that would nurture a rejection of the liberal agenda, García only devotes a few pages to exploring the political and philosophical break with the assimilationist practices of an earlier generation.

As a participant-observer during the Chicano Movement, García makes an important contribution to highlighting the power and limitations of the Chicano Movement as it played itself out in a local South Texas community, that of Robstown, where he discusses how the movement effectively agitated for political change beginning with the formation of a group known as the Movimiento Chicano de Robe (120).

The Movement in Robstown” is one of the better chapters in Chicanismo for it illustrates how Chicanas/os used the “ethos” of the Chicano Movement for political empowerment. Although the results were oftentimes mixed, there is no doubt that community empowerment for the Chicana/o people in Robstown was brought about by the militancy and urgency of the Chicano Movement.

García makes some thought-provoking points that have rarely been followed-up or addressed in more recent studies on the Chicano Movement, such as his claim that the Chicano Movement “would be the most inclusive of all social movements of the 1960s and 1970s” (14-15). García argues that in general the movement did not alienate Chicanas, but rather attempted to define the role of Chicanas within the context of cultural nationalism: “Women were not to be subservient as they had been defined earlier, but neither were they to be completely divorced from the community as some radical white feminists sought” (137).

Prior to the publication of Chicanismo in 1997, very few studies, if any, on the Chicano Movement dared to examine the role of La Chicana. Moreover, some recent works of the 1960s and 1970s tend to erroneously conclude that the Chicano Movement degenerated into a purely sexist and homophobic social movement eclipsing any “positives” that the movement contributed to the community.

One contention that García makes and that needs to be explored further is the notion that the reason why the “literature on Chicanas in the Movement is scarce is the fact that most Chicana nationalists pursued interests other than academic ones, whereas Chicana non-nationalists went into the universities and have since written most of the literature” (138).

Because García participated in the Chicano Movement as it transpired in Texas, he saw first-hand the work of María Elena Martínez, Lucy González, Viviana Santiago, Rosie Castro, and Martha Cotera, and he finds it difficult to imagine them as “manipulated women or political groupies” (139).

In retrospect, Maylei Blackwell has shown in ¡Chicana Power! Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement (2011) that there were many Chicanas who developed a critique of the sexual politics of the movement in which the “parameters of women’s status and commitment to the cause were measured by their sexual availability to movement men” (70, ¡Chicana Power!).

Without a doubt, the role of La Chicana in the Chicano Movement is still new terrain that will be uncovered by future Chicana/o scholars, and notwithstanding the divergence between García’s and Blackwell’s analysis, this is a conversation that must be had.

Ignacio M. García closes with an overview of the legacy of the movement as well as a brief analysis of the rise of “Hispanic” politics. García quotes, María Elena Martínez, one of the last chairpersons of La Raza Unida Party to dramatize the difficulties in explaining the meanings of the Chicano Movement to this day: “I never really understood what we meant by self-determination. Was it revolution, or a nation within a nation?” (141). Ultimately, this political and intellectual uncertainty is the driving force that splinters our community and makes it difficult to fully answer with clarity some of the questions proposed earlier.

Although there were slight errors, such as mistakenly identifying Regeneración as the Brown Beret newspaper (it was actually titled La Causa) and incorrectly naming the August Twenty-Ninth Movement as the August Twenty-Third Movement (106-107), overall Chicanismo: The Forging of a Militant Ethos among Mexican Americans by Ignacio M. García is a commendable work in its attempt to synthesize the intellectual history and legacy of the political and militant “ethos” of the Chicano Movement. The politics of Aztlán are still evident even in the era of the “Hispanic” Generation.

— by D.Cid

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