The Chicano Movement emerged during the Civil Rights era with three goals: restoral of land, rights for farm workers and education reforms. Prior to the 1960s, however, Latinos lacked influence in the national political arena. That changed when the Mexican American Political Association worked to elect John F. Kennedy, president in 1960, establishing Latinos as a significant voting bloc.
After Kennedy was sworn into office, he showed his gratitude toward the Latino community by not only appointing Hispanics to posts in his administration but also by considering the concerns of the Hispanic community.
As a viable political entity, Latinos, particularly Mexican Americans, began demanding that reforms be made in labor, education and other sectors to meet their needs.
A Movement with Historic Ties
Hispanic activism actually predates the 1960s. In the 1940s and ’50s, for example, Hispanics won two major legal victories.
The first—Mendez v. Westminster Supreme Court—was a 1947 case that prohibited segregating Latino schoolchildren from white children. It proved to be an important predecessor to Brown v. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court determined that a “separate but equal” policy in schools violated the Constitution. In 1954, the same year Brown appeared before the Supreme Court, Hispanics achieved another legal feat in Hernandez v. Texas. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal protection to all racial groups, not just blacks and whites.
In the 1960s and '70s, Hispanics not only pressed for equal rights, they began to question the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
This 1848 agreement ended the Mexican-American war and resulted in America acquiring territory from Mexico that currently comprises the Southwestern U. S. During the Civil Rights Era, Chicano radicals began to demand that the land be given to Mexican Americans, as they believed it constituted their ancestral homeland, also known as Aztlán.
In 1966, Reies López Tijerina led a three-day march from Albuquerque, N.M., to the state capital of Santa Fe, where he gave the governor a petition calling for the investigation of Mexican land grants. He argued the U.S.’s annexing of Mexican land in the 1800s was illegal.
Activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, known for the poem “Yo Soy Joaquín,” or “I Am Joaquín,” also backed a separate Mexican-American state. The epic poem about Chicano history and identity includes the following lines: “The Treaty of Hidalgo has been broken and is but another treacherous promise. / My land is lost and stolen. / My culture has been raped.”
Farm Workers Make Headlines
Arguably the most well-known fight Mexican Americans waged during the 1960s was that to secure unionization for farm workers. To sway grape growers to recognize United Farm Workers--the Delano, Calif., union launched by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta--a national boycott on grapes began in 1965. Grape pickers went on strike, and Chavez went on a 25-day hunger strike in 1968. At the height of their fight, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy visited the farm workers to show his support. It took until 1970 for the farm workers to triumph. That year, grape growers signed agreements acknowledging UFW as a union.
Philosophy of a Movement
Students played a central role in the Chicano fight for justice. Notable student groups include United Mexican American Students and Mexican American Youth Association. Members of such groups staged walkouts from schools in Denver and Los Angeles in 1968 to protest Eurocentric curriculums, high dropout rates among Chicano students, a ban on speaking Spanish and related issues. By the next decade, both the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unlawful to keep students who couldn’t speak English from getting an education. Later, Congress passed the Equal Opportunity Act of 1974, which resulted in the implementation of more bilingual education programs in public schools.
Not only did Chicano activism in 1968 lead to educational reforms, it also saw the birth of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which formed with the goal of protecting the civil rights of Hispanics. It was the first organization dedicated to such a cause.
The following year, hundreds of Chicano activists gathered for the First National Chicano Conference in Denver. The name of the conference is significant as it marks the term “Chicano's” replacement of "Mexican." At the conference, activists developed a manifesto of sorts called “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán,” or “The Spiritual Plan of Aztlán.”
It states, “We…conclude that social, economic, cultural, and political independence is the only road to total liberation from oppression, exploitation, and racism. Our struggle then must be for the control of our barrios, campos, pueblos, lands, our economy, our culture, and our political life.”
The idea of a unified Chicano people also played out when political party La Raza Unida, or the United Race, formed to bring issues of importance to Hispanics to the forefront of national politics. Other activist groups of note include the Brown Berets and the Young Lords, which was made up of Puerto Ricans in Chicago and New York.
The Chicano/a Movement made an important impact on Washington state. Hispanic Americans had migrated through the Pacific Northwest since before statehood. Following an influx of “bracero” farm workers in Eastern Washington during World War II, their numbers grew steadily and had become significant in Washington State by the 1960s. The movement in Washington emerged in two locales: in the Yakima Valley, which was home to most of the state's Latinos, and in Seattle and especially the University of Washington, where Chicano students launched many new initiatives. Reflecting the split geography, the movement linked together campaigns to organize and support farmworkers with projects that served urban communities and educational agendas. Key organizations included the United Mexican American Students (UMAS), the Brown Berets, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA), United Farmworker Cooperative, El Teatro del Piojo, El Centro de la Raza, the Concilio for Spanish Speaking, SEAMAR Community Health Centers, and radio station KDNA.
The Chicano Civil Rights Movement – Library of Congress
The African American Civil Rights Movement was intened by many of its leaders to include all Americans of color struggling for equality, regardless of their origins. In response to the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, among others, Hispanic Americans of various backgrounds began organizing their own struggle for civil equality and fairness. In Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York, Puerto Ricans held marches to protest unequal treatment. Among Mexican Americans in the Southwest, this struggle came to be known as the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. While each of these groups had similar goals, some of the particular issues they faced were different. Puerto Ricans could only be regarded as Americans, at least officially, while Mexican Americans faced suspicion that they were not, regardless how many generations of their families had lived in the United States. Many Puerto Ricans had moved to the cities, and faced problems of urban slums, while this was true for only part of the Mexican American population, many of whom were rural farmers and migrant workers. Many of the issues of Hispanic American rights are as familiar to us today as they were in the 1960s.
The Chicano Moratorium, formally known as the National Chicano Moratorium Committee, was a movement of Chicano anti-war activists that built a broad-based coalition of Mexican-American groups to organize opposition to the Vietnam War. Led by activists from local colleges and members of the "Brown Berets", a group with roots in the high school student movement that staged walkouts in 1968, the coalition peaked with an August 29, 1970 march in East Los Angeles that drew 30,000 demonstrators.
Zoot Suit Riots
The Zoot Suit Riots were a series of racial attacks in 1943 during World War II that broke out in Los Angeles, California, during a period when many Mexican migrants arrived for the defense effort and newly assigned servicemen flooded the city. United States sailors and Marines attacked Mexican youths, recognizable by the zoot suits they favored, as being unpatriotic. American military personnel and Mexicans were the main parties in the riots; servicemen attacked some African American and Filipino/Filipino American youths as well, who also took up the zoot suits. The Zoot Suit Riots were related to fears and hostilities aroused by the coverage of the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, following the killing of a young Latino man in a barrio near Los Angeles. The riot appeared to trigger similar attacks that year against Latinos in Chicago, San Diego, Oakland, Evansville, Philadelphia, and New York City.
Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial
In early August 1942 a fight broke out at a birthday celebration in rural Los Angeles County. In the aftermath, twenty-two-year-old José Díaz, a guest at the party, was found mortally wounded near a reservoir popularly known as “the sleepy lagoon.” In response to his death, and to ongoing public fear that the wartime law enforcement agencies were inadequately staffed, the governor’s office urged Los Angeles law enforcement agencies to crack down on juvenile delinquency. The police and sheriff’s office coordinated a massive dragnet, arresting hundreds of young people, and eventually charged twenty-two young men with Díaz’s murder. The trial People v. Zammora, dubbed the “Sleepy Lagoon murder trial” by the press, was held from October 1942 to January 1943. The prosecution based part of its case on the “distinctive appearance” of the accused, arguing that their love of jazz fashion was evidence of their social deviancy. Despite the lack of evidence or eyewitnesses, seventeen of the accused were given sentences that ranged from life in prison to a year in the county jail. Five were found innocent. A diverse group of community activists were convinced that the trial was improperly conducted and drew on Hollywood celebrities such as Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, and Anthony Quinn to raise money for a retrial. All the charges against the defendants were dropped two years later on appeal. The death of José Díaz remains officially unsolved
Very soon after the conclusion of People v. Zammora, community activists began circulating tracts to argue that powerful interests in Los Angeles conspired to convict the young men. Written by a Hollywood screenwriter, Endore 1944 was the first to argue that the jurors had been manipulated by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who used his Los Angeles newspapers to fuel “anti-Mexican hysteria”—a deep-seated hatred of Mexicans for their racial, cultural, and linguistic differences—and to affect the outcome of the trial. Greenfield 1943 echoes Endore’s assertion, although the author’s real purpose was to highlight what she saw as racial prejudice in the case. McWilliams 1949 expands on Endore’s charge, accusing the Los Angeles mayor’s office and military authorities of conspiring with Hearst to promote attacks on Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans. Luis Valdez’s Broadway musical and 1981 movie Zoot Suit, inspired by Endore’s tract, renewed popular interest in the trial, although scholarly works such as Acuña 2011, Mazón 1984, and Escobar 1999 include the trial as part of larger discussions of the social climate of wartime Los Angeles. These works utilize a variant of Endore’s thesis to explain the outcome of the trial, that anti-Mexican hysteria motivated the jurors to find the accused guilty of Díaz’s death. Two book-length studies have taken a comprehensive look at what happened in the Los Angeles courtroom, and, in so doing, break with that thesis. Pagán 2003 explores the flawed nature of the criminal investigation into Díaz’s death and shows how the personalities involved in the trial, from the judge to the attorneys, and the jury, both clashed and cooperated in a way that contributed to the trial’s outcome. Weitz 2010 brings the perspective of a former professor of history and practicing attorney and sheds new light on the significance of the trial, the legal context of the court’s ruling in the case, and the courtroom dynamics to legal history.