Chicano Movement

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Between 1966 and 1977, members of the Mexican-American community engaged in a period of widespread political activism akin to other civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. The resulting challenges and concurrent mentalities became the Chicano movement, or as it is now known in recognition of the equally important participation of Chicanas, the Chicana/o movement. During this period large-scale political organizing occurred among the Mexican-American community with a hitherto unprecedented urban energy. For those involved in the Chicana/o movement, the experience was characterized by a remarkable intensity at the personal and local collective levels. This rise in political engagement was the consequence of an interaction between a specific cultural context and contending, contentious social efforts, civic events, and ideological beliefs. It challenged the ineffectiveness of liberalism and the increasing economic and human cost of an armed interventionist foreign policy in the third world and this, combined with urban youth dissidence and ethnic protests, encouraged growing social and political militancy among Mexican-Americans.

A series of changes and continuities took place across Mexamerica in regard to the position and status of Mexican-Americans. Even though Mexicans slowly entered the skilled labor market, larger numbers remained poor due to discrimination and exploitation, and their social and educational possibilities were inhibited by social controls and economic immobility. At the same time, a very modest, educated, and political middle class burgeoned. During the 1950s and 1960s, the number of Mexican-Americans elected to office slowly increased, but electoral underrepresentation remained the rule. In comparison with the preceding periods, the number of Mexican-American union participants slightly increased in industries accessible to unions. However, far more people were barred from, rather than included in, these unions. Basic workers and farm laborers remained the most visibly excluded.

While explicit anti-Mexican discrimination receded in some areas of employment and housing, overall discrimination continued. Mexicans held the least desirable and worst-paying jobs in the economy and lagged behind the income and schooling levels of both Anglos and blacks. Despite this, the Mexican community grew numerically, including both citizens and immigrants, and this was reflected in the increase of Mexican high school and college graduates. Growth continued into the following decades. Women's participative access to heretofore enclosed social and economic sectors was particularly noticeable, yet some exclusion persisted. The number of Mexican female college graduates increased relative to years past, as did female business ownership. Still, most Mexican women did not attend college and continued to figure prominently in the minimum-wage labor sectors. They were variously oppressed by diverse institutions including the state, their neighborhoods, and their family circles. Immigrant single mothers were most vulnerable to forms of brutality and violence, which included forced sterilizations. These multiple oppressions continued to limit the opportunities for Mexican women, as well as Mexican men and children, over generations.

Selecting chronological dates is always an arguable procedure, but there are two events that, because of their public resonance, could be used to chart the rise and decline of the national Chicana/o movement. The 1966 farmworkers' march to Sacramento, California, is often acknowledged as a visible sign of rising, proactive Mexican-American public sentiment. This could be considered the beginning of notable political ferment. Ten years or so later, the 1977 San Antonio, Texas, Immigrant Rights Conference, which was prefaced by growing anti-Mexican outlooks, signaled an acknowledged decline of Chicano militant effectiveness since the attempt at coordinated pro-immigrant rights failed on this occasion. This was soon followed by the antiaffirmative action backlash stimulated by the Supreme Court's "reverse discrimination" decision in Bakke v. Regents of the University of California (1978).

The view of some Chicana/o activists from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s was that civic matters compelled a reevaluation of earlier ideological tenets (a trend emphasizing gradualism known as Mexican-Americanism), and required the development of a new "in your face" style of politics. There was much insistence upon democratic rights, and high-volume addresses were full of heightened cultural and ethnic references. These trends were effectively legitimated by relatively wide mobilizations. Advocacy reform practices previously local became increasingly regional and tentatively national. In short, the Chicana/o movement flourished as an ethnic revivalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s and was anchored in new, specifically charged politics. It involved thousands and spread from Galveston to Chicago, from Seattle to Brownsville.


Central to the movement phenomena, ad hoc organizations that focused on specific local crises or sector needs sprang up across the Southwest and Midwest. These groups centered on issues such as education reforms, service inequities, undesired urban changes, biases in war on poverty programs, drug impact, welfare rights, child care and ex-felon needs. Title II of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which stipulates participation by the "client" (that is, the poor), encouraged local group mobilization either through a positive outreach facilitating participation or as a consequence of negative reactions to the perceived malfunctioning or exclusivity of certain programs. Self-help organizations advocating individual determination developed in many localities and placed stress on individual rights and access to services, particularly for women and children. Many urban Mexican-Americans increasingly came to participate in public civic activities that involved direct interaction with officials and program personnel. The youth and women stepped forward as the primary participants in these efforts. Although Chicana/o politics in the early 1960s remained overwhelmingly liberal and reformist in content, more radical currents insisted on civic equities and plural participation within areas often controlled by electoral or patronage cliques. However, the dynamic leadership initiators often voiced a distrust of known older electoral políticos. By the late 1960s, certain currents encompassed procommunity autonomy and pluralist tendencies vis-à-vis constituted civic arrangements that were perceived as exclusionary and manipulated. Importantly, movement spokespersons established relations with groups, organizations, educational institutions, and political leaders not only across the Mexican border but also in other countries.

Cultural Context

At times, Chicana/o political energy flowed from cultural circumstances. On other occasions, political conditions encouraged cultural happenings. Culture, history, and arts resonated in every discourse. Community affairs became increasingly varied and complex, reflecting nearly all hues of the social spectrum from center to left. To oppose the movement, its cultural rhetoric, professed priorities, or stressed styles could be interpreted as a confession of rightist sympathies. To be sure, older organizations and electoral politics continued as the new politics emerged. The origins of this energized cultural ideological activity lie in the demographic and material circumstances of the early 1960s as well as in subjective conditions. Certainly, contrasting opinions on politics and historyof complacency versus insurgencycontributed to ideological growth. Mexicans were increasingly recognized by the media as the nation's second-largest minority, but their protest movement was not defined in the way that those of white and black dissidents were, and the media did not actively shape their leadership and rhetoric. The widespread social and economic conditions of laboring people heightened the political consciousness of Chicana/o activists. The movement drew inspirational and ideological reinforcements from a variety of sources, including those common to other social movements. But it also uniquely derived many of its beliefs from the historical heritage of Mexican-Americans themselves and in particular the ideological legacy of Mexico and Latin America. Significantly, Chicana/o activists also explored and deployed nativist Mesoamerican heritages, and this was particularly evident in the arts. After politicized arts hammered on doors, commercially expressive cultural activities eventually flowed to the public domain.

Sharing the upheaval that grew out of changes in the ideological climate and material conditions of the early 1960s, individuals of Mexican descent engaged in a variegated burst of activity loosely identified as the "Chicano movement." Among the seminal organizing and strategic forces were student organizations, defense groups, and artists' coalitions; the United Farm Workers Union; the Alianza Federal de Mercedes, or land rights movement; the Crusade for Justice, a political rights organization; and eventually, La Raza Unida Party. These were followed by church associations and women's and immigrants' rights organizations. Most of these forces were comprised of working-class people, and women often provided the membership base. The movement had a range of concurrent fronts, which were noticeably secured in local bases where individuals chose priorities and the levels of their participation. Whatever the particular goals and methods of the political activism, the underlying motivation was always a general dissatisfaction over the Mexican's political, economic, and social status in an Anglo-dominated society. Focus was increasingly placed on questions of exploitation, repression, exclusion, alienation, ethnicity, identity, class, gender, and chauvinism. History was privileged, perhaps more than in other social movements. Understanding the dynamics of the Mexican-American experience became a paramount motif, a voiced ideological necessity in the struggle to assess the present and envision a future for Mexican-Americans. These particular issues were sharply expressed in the arts; poets and muralists served as ideologues.


Although Chicanismo often seemed a loosely expressed concept, in specific situations it could translate as a radical political and affirmative ethnic populism. The issue of identity linked to political demands jumped to the forefront. The term Chicano itself, used among the youth in particular regions, denoted the person and the group. Chicanismo referred to a set of beliefs and, more importantly, to a political practice. Its emphasis on dignity, self-worth, pride, uniqueness, and a feeling of cultural rebirth made the term attractive to many people of Mexican origin, as well as some of Latin American descent, in a way that cut across class, gender, regional, and generational lines. Negative past experiences regarding the denial of cultural heritage increased the appeal of Chicanismo, which emphasized Mexican cultural consciousness and social and linguistic tradition as well as economic and occupational opportunities. The Chicana/o movement became a challenge to the assumptions, politics, and principles of the established systems within and outside the community. However, even though it marked a progressive step in the struggle for identity by denying the grosser aspects of deculturalization, the designation also became a subterfuge for avoiding a critique of identity and Mexican "singularity." The widespread appeal of Chicanismo without explicit ideological class content shows, in large part, how often heterogeneous political elements could identify with the "Chicano movement." In practice, people expressed Chicanismo in a variety of ways.

In hindsight, one can ask whether Chicanismo, if seen through a militant conceptualization and in the context of its identity and ideological notions, was not simply one more effort to subsume Mexican identity and all of its implications in a dominant social context of covert anti-Mexicanism. Indeed, the term was a necessary referent for a distinct social group that could be differentiated from others in the United States by virtue of its ethnic and national roots. Other designations continued to be used, and the tension between Chicano and Mexican evolved rather than disappeared. In the initial cultural and political discourse, Chicano was clearly an abbreviated form for Mexicans north of the Rio Bravo, and Chicanismo meant a politically asserted Mexicanidad. Curiously, many middle-class people rejected the term as pejorative, while the lower classes preferred the appellation of Mexicano. Yet, to many of the young, Chicano was the term; for activists it was the litmus test for a political frame of mind. Furthermore, the Chicano denotation not only emphasized an unconventional "lifestyle" stressing Chicanismo but also stressed the more widely noted features of emphatic public cultural practices and radical personal values of the late 1960s embodied in the attitude, "Soy Chicano y qué!" ("I am Chicano and what of it!" ).


The gender issue was sharply raised by individuals, organizations, and community activists in several Chicana/o movement areas starting in the late 1960s. Particularly noticeable were matters related to women in community settings and youth and student circles and on the perceived subordination of women and gender issues within the movement itself. Nonetheless, women obviously participated in all efforts associated with the Chicano movement. Any reference to its subsumed activities objectively implied female participation even as some pointed out that traditional gender roles were enforced, meaning that women could only occasionally assume leadership roles in many movement organizations. Inspired by militant women, Chicanas integrated Mexican and Latin American feminist heritages and drew from the contemporary radical feminist programs. Increasingly, women's organizations grew out of community actions, political campaigns, union groups, campus activities, and inmate and ex-felon concerns. The late 1960s and the 1970s witnessed an increasing emphasis on full female participation in all aspects of community civic efforts as well as on the development of activities specific to women. At the same time, movement newspapers and journals increased their coverage on issues pertinent to gender issues.

Chicanas believed in Chicana solutions to Chicana problems the same way that Chicanos upheld Chicano solutions to Chicano problems. The initial impetus was for a critique of stereotypes impeding gender equality. This thrust grew organizationally, and its edge reflected the internal dynamics within movement organizations. Eventually a view of Chicanas as the victims of multiple oppressions (as women, ethnics, and workers) evolved. Female activity remained strongest in community arenas such as those of unionization and public services. The majority of Chicana activists participated in organizations that were not exclusively female, but gender issues arose in all groups and circumstances and were dealt with in one way or another. Over time Chicana/o organizations have had prominent female members. In fact, MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), a highly visible civil rights organization, has had two long-term national women leaders. Women in higher education circles had advantaged access to forums from the 1980s onward and publicized their views and priorities. Despite resistance and controversy, veteran militants did not ultimately defer the feminist concerns, and eventually a persistent strain of efforts addressed the needs and concerns of lesbian and bisexual women.


From the late 1960s through the 1970s, the tendencies of utopian indigenismo, cultural nationalism, and Saul Alinskystyle civil rights activism seemingly spread. These spoke only partially to the more structurally oriented economic critiques of the Mexican-American reality being raised. These criticisms were condensed into a modestly growing Marxist current within the Mexican-American community containing many of the various Marxist tendencies found in the United States. For some Marxism remained an intellectual fad, and a few considered it a philosophical critique of the capitalist society and capitalist "hegemonic culture" in particular. For others Marxism became a conceptual framework for examining the Mexican experience in a more specific and extensive manner, particularly as related to labor and gender. And some took it as an ideology combining analysis and guidance in political action and organizational structure. In this renovation, members of the 1960s and 1970s generations joined Marxists from the 1940s and 1950s. Despite the Chicana/o left wing's ideological commonality, this sector's social makeup was varied. Moreover, a substantial part of the Mexican Left had no specific organizational allegiance. And the part that did drew a distinction between those groups stemming from the community, such as CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), and those outside of it.

Problems and Achievements

As the events of the 1960s and 1970s unfolded, a presently unmeasurable element impacted political development, organization, and leadership. Police surveillance presumably occurred throughout the Southwest among Chicana/o efforts. Targets were determined, strategies devised, and tactics conducted to weaken militancy and political organizations of all types. This covert procedure was concurrent with the more visible and understood overt activities of incitements, arrests, and beatings. Police provocation to commit violent acts and, more frequently, display counterproductive behavior, was a fact. This of course led to dissension within or between groups, as well as among individuals. Police control remained constant throughout the 1970s, perhaps negatively affecting achievements.

By stressing self-determination, pride, and even aggression, the spokespersons of the Chicana/o movement achieved reasonable successes during the 1960s and 1970s: they made the larger social majority acknowledge the discrepancy between the democratic stance professed by the state and the reality in the barrios. Moreover, leaders undertook the strong actions needed to enable the more moderate elements to enter governmental, academic, and labor institutions. Significantly, several movement thrusts continued: unionization, Chicano studies, civil rights litigation, and immigrant rights are some examples.

Clear limitations stand out when reviewing the accomplishments of the movement. Token reforms, limited representation, and personal mobility were often achieved. But Chicano self-determination, though espoused, was not accomplished. The problems confronting the movement were several: the lack of a coherent, broad, radical program for a convinced constituency; a lack of adequate material resources; and a lack of structured disciplined organizations with stable leadership mechanisms.


The Chicana/o movement reflected a broad and deep range of activities, most of which proved seminal to the debates, issues, and forms of later years. By the late 1970s, activists and goals diffused, and priorities and means were transformed. The intensity of the movement's momentum diminished somewhat, and activism too often became a consciously delimited activity for individuals. Mexican-American political players were no longer easily identifiable as stemming from two or three sectors within the community, nor did they share the same ethnic fervor or radical perspective as the militant Chicanas/os who had first created the context and opportunity for empowerment. Rather, spokespersons and leaders, women and men, became a complex amalgam of backgrounds, interests, ways, and goals. A growing number of professional politicians surfaced from a variety of Mexican communities, each of them espousing the concerns of a unique political constituency, and were increasingly acknowledged or tolerated as public "leadership." Many young Mexicans had explored the forbearance of the establishment and, in every way accessible, pursued what the system offered and accepted pragmatic ways of achieving reformist results. Almost bereft of resources, activists transmuted their energy into assets for their community. In that turnabout, young Chicanas/os motivated a large percentage of their community leaders to exhibit a stronger public image. In effect, they demanded that society at large receive a new message about what it meant to be of Mexican descent. They also generated support for educational, political, and economic advancements.

Public officials began addressing issues of concern to Mexican-Americans in a more considerate manner. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Chicana/o movement forced certain concessions from the Anglo institutional mainstream, and some of these concessionsvoting and representational rights, partial bilingual education, meagerly funded Chicano studies programs and unenthusiastic affirmative-action employment practicescreated a setting from which a viable Mexican middle class could expand to local prominence. The 1960s and 1970s activists also laid the groundwork for a series of economic advancements, so that by the 1980s a Mexican middle class had indeed effectively consolidated within the community. The short-term occupational gains of the 1970s were perhaps magnified by the economic setbacks of the 1980s and the consequences of 1990s globalism. Mexican-Americans suffered the effects of drastic federal policy changes lessening government support for affirmative action and civil rights affirmations. But as with other U.S. constituencies, some Mexican-American analysts in the late 1980s totaled the score card. The score was short but the game was still on.

In retrospect, the late twentieth century looms as a time of cultural revitalization within the community. This was evident in the energies directed toward education, unions, the arts, the media, and religious institutions, as well as in a period of increased efforts at social integration. In a whip of that cultural whirlwind, the Chicana/o community remains tempered by a uniquely Mexican-American concern for both cultural continuity and political affirmation while testing how pluralistic the allegedly diverse system is. In the 1990s, dominant social elites put forth two overarching responses: promulgate the belief that civil rights gains had consolidated, and propagandize the notion that Mexican aliens subverted the society by their presence. In this context, the master narrative of the Chicana/o movement is still being elaborated.

See also Bilingualism and Multilingualism ; Ethnohistory, U.S. ; Feminism: Chicana Feminisms ; Indigenismo ; Political Protest, U.S.


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Juan Gómez-Quiñones

Irene Vasquez Morris

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