Latino Social Movements

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Latino Social Movements









Latinos in the United States have been involved with numerous social movements over the past 150 years. Despite legislation that granted them full legal, political, and social rights, Latinos (mostly Mexicans during this particular time period) became “second-class” citizens after the U.S.-Mexico War ended in 1848. They faced widespread discrimination in housing, education, and employment, which severely limited their opportunities for social mobility. These harsh conditions (which came close to those that African Americans encountered in the South after the Civil War) sparked the establishment of various labor, immigrant rights, feminist, and political organizations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was founded in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1929 (Kaplowitz 2005). LULAC might be best understood as the Chicano/Latino version of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an interracial organization that African-American scholar, writer, and activist W.E.B. Du Bois helped form in 1905 (Jonas 2004). The NAACP challenged segregation through legal means, largely eschewing civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action. It also did not critique nor call for the abolition of capitalism, nor did it openly question U.S. foreign policy before and after World War II, though some black scholars and activists claimed these policies were racist and imperialist (Von Eschen 1997). The NAACP also included many middle-class individuals who favored segregation’s demise but rejected calls for more radical social change.

These positions generally mirrored LULAC’s political orientation. LULAC actively resisted segregation through the courts, playing a key role in the landmark 1946 Mendez v. Westminster School District decision that ruled that California’s segregated public school system was unconstitutional. NAACP lead counsel Thurgood Marshall later cited Mendez as a precedent when and he and his fellow colleagues argued the Brown v. Board of Education case before the United States Supreme Court in 1954 (Johnson 2005; Robbie 2002). The Mendez case thus helped reshape the entire nation.


Mexicans were called “greasers,” “cholos,” “bloodthirsty savages,” and other demeaning epithets for decades after the U.S.-Mexico War. Vigilante groups regularly hunted down Mexicans and lynched them without any legal proceedings. The legal system was largely based on “gringo justice,” and the implicit assumption was that Mexican Americans constituted a separate, inferior “race” that did not deserve equal treatment under the law. The United States used this same ideology during the U.S.-Mexico War, claiming it was their “Manifest Destiny” to take territory controlled by “uncivilized people” (Horsman 1981).

LULAC believed that Mexicans-Americans were neither inferior nor uncivilized. They flatly stated that they were American citizens and should receive equal, fair, and just treatment. To achieve that goal, LULAC’s leaders pushed for incremental social change through legal reforms, but it distanced itself from more militant positions. LULAC implicitly assumed that Mexican Americans would become assimilated and accepted over time by becoming more Americanized. English, therefore, became LULAC’s official language. LULAC also called for stricter immigration controls and, unlike the Spanish-Speaking People’s Congress, a much more radical Mexican-American organization that maintained close ties with the Communist Party in the late 1930s, it did not play an active role in organizing the labor unions that included mostly Mexican-American workers. LULAC also did not challenge political repression (e.g., McCarthyism), and it supported an anti-immigrant program called Operation Wetback in the mid-1950s. The organization also largely excluded women from leadership positions, even though some, such as Alice Dickerson Montemayor, fought for greater inclusion (Orozco 1997).

Most Chicano scholars and activists in the 1960s criticized LULAC for taking these fairly conservative positions, asserting that the organization was too tepid and

mainstream. Some even called LULAC members “vendidos,” or “sell-outs.” This assessment was probably too harsh, however, because LULAC helped dismantle school segregation and racially based jury discrimination, though it did very little to transform the harsh lives of working-class Mexican Americans who faced sweatshop conditions in factories and fields all over the United States.


Between the 1930s and 1950s, two organizations—the Spanish-Speaking People’s Congress (also known as El Congreso) and the Asociacion Nacional Mexico-Americana (National Association of Mexican-Americans [ANMA])— focused on organizing and supporting union campaigns that primarily involved Mexican Americans. Luisa Moreno and Josefina Fierro de Bright were El Congreso’s two most notable activists. Moreno, a native-born Guatemalan, focused her efforts on organizing agricultural workers in California and Texas, while Fierro de Bright concentrated on fighting racial discrimination in Los Angeles (Ruiz 2004). Moreno helped organize, for instance, the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee (SLDC) to fight for the release of eleven Mexican Americans and one Euro American who had been falsely prosecuted for the murder of José Diaz in August 1942. The SLDC was a multiracial coalition that received financial support mostly from labor unions affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a progressive labor federation that emerged in the 1930s (Barajas 2006).

CIO-affiliated unions spearheaded numerous campaigns involving Mexican Americans in the Midwest and Southwest in the middle and late 1930s. The United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), for example, targeted workers in pecan-shelling plants in San Antonio, Texas. Emma Tenayuca, a young Mexican-American woman, led this campaign, organizing a strike that included 10,000 workers in 1938. Tenayuca and her Euro-American husband, Homer Brooks (who both were Communist Party members), wrote a crucial pamphlet during that two-week strike called “The Mexican Question in the Southwest.” They claimed that Mexican Americans were not an “oppressed national minority” within the United States, and that they should, therefore, form alliances with working-class people of all racial backgrounds to create a “united front against fascism” (Vargas 2005).

These various elements indicate that the historical period that preceded the Chicano movement was ideologically and politically diverse. Moderate groups such as LULAC and the American GI Forum, which was created in the late 1940s to protest the interment of the World War II veteran Felix Longoria in a segregated cemetery in Texas, resisted racial discrimination, but they generally overlooked issues such as economic and class exploitation (Carroll 2003). The International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers opposed this trend, however. “Mine-Mill” (as many called it) was one of eleven Left-leaning unions that the CIO purged in the late 1940s (the federation became increasingly conservative as the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, erstwhile allies during World War II, heated up). Despite being ousted from the CIO, Mine-Mill remained active, organizing a miners” strike in Bayard, New Mexico, that was immortalized in the classic blacklisted 1954 film Salt of the Earth. The National Association of Mexican Americans (ANMA) supported the strike and the making of the film, but McCarthyism and the ensuing “Red Scare” dramatically weakened Mine-Mill and ANMA (Lorence 1999). Political repression effectively drove Salt of the Earth underground over the next two decades and virtually wiped out the Mexican-American Left, leaving more politically mainstream organizations such as LULAC and the American GI Forum intact.


LULAC and the American GI Forum were the most influential Mexican-American civil rights organizations in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but their prominence soon faded. The Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), Viva Kennedy clubs, the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (PASSO), the National Farm Worker Association (NFWA), and Alianza Federal de las Mercedes were all established between 1959 and 1963. George Mariscal, the director of the Chicano/Latino/Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego, contends that these groups marked the emergence of a new “more militant ethnicity-based politics throughout the Southwest” (Marsical 2005, p. 7). The United Farm Workers (UFW) probably symbolized this trend more than any other organization.

Back-breaking conditions, very low pay, no bathrooms or drinking water, and an overall lack of respect and dignity for workers, among other factors, sparked the union’s formation in 1965 (Ferriss and Sandoval 1997). Filipino and Mexican farm workers, harvesting table grapes, launched the UFW’s first strike—the infamous huelga and eventual boycott that lasted five years and resulted in contracts that guaranteed better wages and working conditions. Larry Itilong, Phillip Vera Cruz, Dolores Huerta, Jessie de la Cruz, Gilbert Padilla, Eliseo Medina, Marshall Ganz, and César Chávez were some of the union’s key leaders (Scharlin and Villanueva 1997). Chávez was a former farm worker himself, and he was an organizer with the Community Service Organization (CSO) for ten years. He left the CSO in 1962 and helped establish the NFWA, the UFW’s predecessor.

Much has been written about César Chávez and the UFW. Chávez was not a fiery or charismatic speaker, but he was a deeply spiritual person who moved people through his humble demeanor and savvy organizing skills. He understood quite well how culture and memory could facilitate social movements. Chávez therefore suggested that the UFW be established on September 16, Mexican Independence Day (Ferriss and Sandoval 1997). That strategic decision tied together, in a rather subtle manner, Mexico’s struggle for independence from colonial rule and the farm workers” struggle for independence from exploitative working conditions. Chávez also personally helped create the UFW’s trademark redand-black eagle flag. He purposefully chose the eagle because it closely resembled the indigenous pyramids outside Mexico City, while the colors were chosen because most Mexican-based unions used them while they were on strike. Red and black also symbolize revolution and anarchy, respectively.

Despite these connotations, the UFW was not a radical organization. The union struggled for better wages and working conditions through strikes, boycotts, marches, fasts, and improvisational (‘guerrilla’) theater, particularly through El Teatro Campesino (the Farm Workers” Theater). The UFW consistently displayed banners depicting the Virgen de Guadalupe during their demonstrations, including the 250-mile pilgrimage from Delano to Sacramento held in 1966. The El Teatro Campesino leader, Luis Valdez, famously stated that the images showed the public that the union’s members were “followers of the Virgin Mary, not Karl Marx” (Ferriss and Sandoval 1997). The UFW also formed close alliances with liberal Democrats such as Robert F. Kennedy.

The UFW was thus militant, but it was also a fairly reformist, organization. The Crusade for Justice, Alianza Federal de las Mercedes, La Raza Unida Party, Movimiento Estudantíl Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), and the Brown Berets, in contrast, were seen as more radical than the UFW. They gained that reputation because they rejected the label “Mexican American” as being too closely associated with “conservative” groups such as LULAC and the American GI Forum. “Chicano” was the collective identity that these new organizations preferred. Most older and middle-aged Mexican Americans shunned the label “Chicano,” however, because they associated it with backwardness, inferiority, and indignity. But younger Chicanas and Chicanos transformed those meanings into something that connoted cultural pride, militancy, and political engagement (Munoz 1989). In the same way that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists took the epithet “queer” and turned into a positive, politicized, and self-affirming identity, Chicanas and Chicanos transformed “Chicano.’

These new groups were also seen as more radical because they claimed that Chicanos were a people or nation that had a shared history, culture, and language. They asserted that Chicanos had been historically oppressed for decades, if not centuries, and that they had bravely resisted and struggled for their liberation. The Crusade for Justice leader Rodolfo (‘Corky’) Gonzales excavated that “genealogy of resistance” in his epic, masculine-oriented poem Yo Soy Joaquín (I Am Joaquín). Joaquín and El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán (The Spiritual Plan of Aztlán) implicitly claimed that Chicanos were “brown-eyed children of the sun” who would obtain their freedom once they “reclaimed Aztlán” (Mariscal 2005). Aztlán was the mythical homeland of the Aztecs who migrated from the U.S. Southwest to Mexico City in 1325. The United States, of course, captured the Southwest from Mexico in the 1840s during the U.S.-Mexico War.

In 1967, taking the story of Aztlán literally, a group of Chicanos (or Hispanos, as they are sometimes called) associated with Reies López Tijerina’s New Mexico– based Alianza Federal de las Mercedes (or La Alianza for short) walked into a courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, with guns to claim lands granted under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. For the Denver-based Crusade for Justice, “reclaiming Aztlán” meant controlling local school boards, community-based organizations, police review panels, city councils, businesses, and so on. For still others, “reclaiming Aztlán” became associated with resisting police brutality, tracking students into non-college prep courses, high drop-out (or “push-out’) rates, and Eurocentric history. Ten thousand Chicano high school students from East Los Angeles were focused mostly on the latter three issues when they walked out of their classes in March 1968, chanting “blow-out” and “Chicano power” (Bernal 1997; Haney-López 2003).

Those demonstrations took place alongside growing dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War. Chicanos, like African-Americans and working-class whites, were disproportionately drafted at high rates into the armed services and suffered high casualty rates (Oropeza 2005). To protest these conditions, and partially to express solidarity with the Vietnamese people and their struggle for national liberation, activists organized the Chicano Anti-War Moratorium in East Los Angeles on August 29, 1970. This peaceful march included 25,000 people. It ended tragically, however, when the Los Angeles Police Department shot and killed three people, including the Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar, who worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and had criticized the Vietnam War (García 1994).

Salazar’s death, combined with the Black Power, antiwar, and student movements in the United States and the national liberation, anti-imperialist struggles outside the United States, radicalized the Chicano movement. Some activists started questioning cultural nationalism, the movimiento’s prevailing ideology, for focusing too heavily on race while virtually ignoring class. Those who held this viewpoint turned towards Marxism and suggested that there was no fundamental difference between Mexican Americans and Mexicans. They therefore rejected the “Chicano” label and maintained that Mexican Americans and Mexicans were all “Mexicans” who faced a common foe— capitalism (Pulido 2005).

This was the ideological perspective behind Centro de Acción Social Autónomo (The Center of Autonomous Social Action, or CASA). CASA’s key slogans were “el pueblo unido, jamas será vencido” (the people united, will never be divided) and “sin fronteras” (without borders). CASA activists focused on labor-organizing campaigns that mostly included undocumented workers in Southern California, and they opposed anti-immigrant legislation. CASA was also heavily involved with cases involving police brutality and the forced sterilization of Mexican women (E. Chávez 2002; M. Chávez 2000). Bert Corona, a former labor organizer with the CIO in the 1930s, a socialist, and a member of the SLDC, was one of CASA’s founding members (García 1994).

CASA and the August Twenty-Ninth Movement (ATM—a small, Maoist-inspired organization that claimed Mexican-Americans were “Chicanos” and that they constituted a “nation” struggling against capitalism and colonialism) represented the Chicano Left. These organizations gained many committed followers, but they clashed ideologically and never really expanded their activities very far outside the greater Los Angeles area. Both groups eventually disbanded—CASA in 1978 and ATM in 1982.

Most scholars maintain that the movimiento ended around 1975, the same year that the Vietnam War ended. They also primarily focus on the so-called four horsemen—César Chávez, Reies López Tijerina, Corky Gonzalez, and José Angel Gutiérrez—and the organizations that they led—UFW, Alianza Federal, Crusade for Justice, and La Raza Unida Party, respectively. These scholars also largely view the Chicano movement through a binary ideological lens; that is, as being either liberal or nationalist. These assumptions have been challenged, however.

The Chicano movement lasted until the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it included both socialist organizations (CASA and ATM) and religious ones (Católicos por la Raza, Priests Associated for Religious, Educational, and Social Rights [PADRES], and Las Hermanas). Research done since the early 1990s (e.g., E. Chávez 2002; Mariscal 2005; Medina 2004; R. Martínez 2005) demonstrates that the Chicano movement was actually a “movement of movements” (to borrow language from the contemporary global justice movement) that included many different actors, ideologies, organizations, and regional or spatial locations. These studies should be praised for making these contributions, but with one exception, they overlook gender and sexuality.


Much has been said about the sexism and heterosexism that were embedded within the movements that made up the larger Chicano movement. Drawing upon pioneering Chicana scholars, writers, and activists such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherrie Moraga, Anna Nieto-Gómez, Chela Sandoval, Emma Perez, Carla Trujillo, and many other U.S. “Third World women,” Maylei Blackwell persuasively contends in Geographies of Difference (2000) the movement’s dominant ideology, cultural nationalism, privileged heterosexual masculine subjects, and heroes. When Chicanas were represented, they were portrayed either as traditional mothers, holding together overly romanticized notions of la familia (the family), or as brave soldaderas (soldiers) fighting during the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s. These images existed alongside ones depicting Chicanas as helpless Aztec goddesses being carried by strong Aztec gods. These patriarchal representations were extremely problematic because they circumscribed Chicana agency, but even more troubling were the numerous texts that never even mentioned Chicanas. Blackwell calls this process the “mechanics of erasure.”

Mexicanas, Mexican-American women, and Chicanas have been, until quite recently, literally erased from most Chicano movement–oriented texts. Despite being virtually forced into cooking, typing, and even making love, numerous studies have showed that Chicanas were deeply involved with the UFW, Brown Berets, the East Los Angeles high school blow-outs, CASA, La Raza Unida, MEChA, and the Crusade for Justice (Bernal 1997; M. Chávez 2000; Espinoza 2001). This participation was often divided: Either Chicanas submerged gender-based concerns and worked alongside Chicanos in order to “reclaim Aztlán,” or they claimed that racism and sexism should be challenged simultaneously. The women who fell into the first category were called “loyalists,” while those who fell into the latter group were called “vendidas,” or “sell-outs” (Ruiz 1998). These Chicana activists often faced tremendous harassment from some of their male counterparts.

The Chicana student leader Anna Nieto-Gómez, for example, was the “democratically elected” MEChA president in 1969-1970, but some male activists opposed her, holding clandestine meetings and hanging women activists in effigy. Dionne Espinoza’s research documents the mass resignation of every single Chicana member of the East Los Angeles chapter of the Brown Berets because of its sexist practices. Marisela Chávez similarly found that most men within CASA retained public leadership roles, while women did behind-the-scenes tasks such as fundraising and writing newspaper articles. During the April 1969 El Plan de Santa Barbara conference, Yolanda García helped type the actual plan (a blueprint for creating Chicano Studies programs and incorporating Chicanas/os into institutions of higher education), but the text never mentioned her name.

These incidents, and many more just like them, demonstrate that various organizations or movements within the larger movimiento marginalized women. Despite these activities, Chicana activists did not back down. On the contrary, some established new organizations that challenged race, class, and gender inequality. Anna Nieto-Gómez and her female colleagues at California State University, Long Beach, for instance, formed a Chicana feminist group called Hijas de Cuahutémoc (and created a newspaper with the same name) in 1971. Hijas (the newspaper) became Encuentro Femenil two years later. Other Chicana organizations founded in the late 1960s and early 1970s include the Chicana Welfare Rights Organization, La Adelitas de Aztlán, and Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional (Blackwell 2000). Chicanas were also critical in community papers such as El Grito del Norte and Regeneración and feminist journals like La Comadre, Hembra, Imagenes de la Chicana, and La Cosecha (Blackwell 2000).

These organizations and publications laid the foundation for extensive writings published by Chicanas (straight and queer) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the most notable one being Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s classic co-edited anthology, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color (1981). The publication of This Bridge, combined with the establishment of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social (MALCS, Women Active in Research and Social Change) in 1983 and community-based groups such as the Mothers of East Los Angeles (who successfully blocked the construction of a prison and a toxic incinerator plant) in 1984, provides evidence against the widely accepted assumption that the Chicano movement declined in 1975. Seen from a masculine viewpoint, this analysis may seem valid, but seen from various feminist and queer standpoints the movement did not end in the mid-1970s.

On the contrary, while many scholars bemoan the movement’s demise in the mid-1970s, feminist and queer writers and activists emphasize that it “took off” at that time. Horacio Roque Ramírez’s research on the San Francisco-based Gay Latino Alliance (GALA) illustrates this point quite clearly. GALA was established in 1975, the very year the movement was supposedly falling apart. Luis ApontePáres and Jorge Merced, in “Páginas Omitídas: The Gay and Lesbian Presence” (1998), and Horacio Roque Ramírez, in “That’s My Place!” (2003), note that groups such as Third World Gay Liberation, El Comité de Orgullo Homosexual Latino-Americano, Comunidad de Orgullo Gay, and Greater Liberated Chicanos also emerged before and around the same time period as GALA. In the 1980s, Latinas Lesbianas Unidas, Ellas, and the National Latina and Latino Lesbian and Gay Organization (LLEGO) were created (Chávez-Leyva 2000).


Chicana feminist and queer movements and writings have occasionally sparked a negative backlash. Some scholars apparently long for the “good old days” when gender and sexuality were not substantively addressed and the movement was militant and male-centered. Maylei Blackwell criticizes this approach because while militancy is still sorely needed, women and queers can no longer be excluded.

Nor, one might add, can “other” Latinos be marginalized any longer. For many years, and in the early twenty-first century, most Chicana/o studies scholarship and activism has largely ignored Latino-based social movements such as the Young Lords Party. There are several studies on the Young Lords, which was patterned after the Black Panther Party and existed in Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Melendez 2003; Morales 1998; Torres and Velásquez 1998). The Young Lords challenged racism through programs that “served the people” (e.g., conducting tuberculosis testing, establishing a free breakfast and clothing program), and rhetorically called for gender equality, but sexism and ideological conflicts plagued the organization. The Young Lords also embraced the Puerto Rican independence movement, and the group was later infiltrated by COINTELPRO, the FBI’s notorious counterintelligence program. Puerto Rican activists also formed the Puerto Rican Student Union, the Puerto Rican National Left Movement, and the U.S. branch of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Puertorriqueño, or PSP), in the 1970s. The latter organization formed close ties with CASA, but it did not address sexuality and gender, leading some PSP members to form their own organizations within the party or leave it altogether.

Some writers have also examined the Central American solidarity movement of the 1980s. This movement emerged from the United States” support for authoritarian, right-wing governments in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Davidson 1988; Golden and McConnell 1986; Nepstad 2004; Smith 1996). Based on cold-war, anticommunist logic, the United States provided these countries with extensive military aid, despite the fact that it was used to brutally massacre, torture, and disappear hundreds of thousands of people during this time period.

Many Central Americans fled to the United States and Canada, where they sought refuge inside progressive Protestant and Catholic churches. A number of activists (mostly white, but also some Chicana/o activists such as Father Luis Olivares) were involved with this movement, which operated like a modern-day underground railroad (Davidson 1988; Golden and McConnell 1986). Whereas various groups such as El Rescate, the Committee in Solidarity with the Salvadoran People (CISPES), and the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) emerged in the 1980s, not much has been written about Central Americans who participated in the solidarity movement. Central Americans have been rather extensively examined, however, in novels such as Demetria Martínez’s Mother Tongue (1994) and films including Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983), Mi Familia (1995), and Cheech Marin’s Born in East L.A. (1987).


In the 1990s, Latina/o social movements emerged around numerous issues; the most notable ones seemingly being immigration, globalization, and gender violence. In 1994, three events took place simultaneously—the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, Operation Gatekeeper was introduced, and the Zapatista National Liberation Army came out into the open. These issues were all interrelated. NAFTA deepened the economic crisis in Mexico that started in the early 1980s, sparking significant migration throughout the decade and into the 1990s. Operation Gatekeeper was designed to curtail that migratory wave through an increase in border patrol agents and high-technology equipment. The Zapatistas challenged NAFTA because they understood how U.S. policies were driving campesinos off their lands and pushing them north as migrants looking for work.

The debate over NAFTA intersected with the “femicide” in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, in the 1990s. Over a ten-year period, about 500 women, many of whom worked in maquiladora factories making products for U.S.-based corporations, were brutally murdered. These cases have not yet been solved, and a vibrant transnational social movement involving Chicanas, Latinas, and Mexican women has been established. The Zapatistas have also attracted tremendous attention from Chicanas/os and Latinas/os, and especially white social-justice activists.

The broader movement that the Zapatistas are loosely affiliated with has gained great momentum since 2001, when activists from all over the world met in Porto Algere, Brazil, for the first World Social Forum. The Forum’s motto is “Another World Is Possible.” With war raging across Iraq and the Middle East and billions living in poverty and misery, one can only hope that this slogan will become a reality, and that, in the Zapatistas” words, a “world where many worlds fit” will finally be established.

SEE ALSO Anzaldúa, Gloria; Chávez, César Estrada; Corona, Bert; La Raza; Labor Market, Informal; Zapatista Rebellion.


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Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval