online book
Xavier Timoteo Martinez
Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



Mexican War
World War II
current topic Chicano Movement

Historic Sites
Selected References


A History of Mexican Americans in California:

This negative side of the post-World War II Mexican American experience provided background and impetus for the Chicano movement

Rising from the turbulent 1960s and drawing on the century-long foundation of Mexican American experience, the Chicano movement has be come a dynamic force for societal change. The movement is not a monolith, but is rather an amalgam of individuals and organizations who share a sense of pride in Mexicanidad, a dedication to enhancement of Chicano culture, mutual identification, a desire to improve the Chicano socio-economic position, and a commitment to making constructive changes in U.S. society.

A major focus of contemporary Chicanos has been politics. Political goals have included increasing the number of Chicano candidates, convincing non-Chicano candidates to commit themselves to the needs of the Mexican American community, conducting broad-scale voter registration and community organization drives, working for appointment of more Chicanos in government, and supporting passage of constructive legislation. Some Chicanos have chosen to work through the two major political parties or through theoretically nonpartisan organizations, such as the Mexican-American Political Association. Others have channeled their political efforts through El Partido de la Raza Unida (PRU, United People's Party), which was founded in south Texas by Jose Angel Gutierrez. While Chicanos have not demonstrated political influence commensurate with their growing numbers, the increase in Chicano elected and appointed officials reflects growing Chicano political presence.

Chicanos have given considerable contemporary attention to economic change. Goals and strategies have varied — upgrading occupations, creating more private businesses (Brown Capitalism), and forming cooperative community development enterprises are examples. The most visible and publicly dramatic aspect of the Chicano economic struggle has been the United Farm Workers' movement led by Cesar Chavez.

Cesar Chavez family home
Cesar Chavez family home in Delano, Kern County

Education has long been a primary target of Mexican American reformers. Well before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school desegregation in the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, California Chicanos had challenged educational discrimination. In 1946, Mendez v. Westminister School District resulted in banning separate Chicano schools in California. Yet the U.S. Civil Rights Commission pointed out that in the late 1960s, one-quarter of Chicanos in California attended schools with more than 50 percent Chicanos.

The Chicano movement has striven for a variety of educational goals, including reduction of school drop-out rates, improvement of educational attainment, development of bilingual-bicultural programs, expansion of higher education fellowships and support services, creation of courses and programs in Chicano studies, and an increase in the number of Chicano teachers and administrators. The traditional campaign for desegregation and the newer drive for bilingual-bicultural education, of course, involve objectives that are not always easy to reconcile. In a seeming turnabout after years of struggling for desegregation, some contemporary Mexican American educational leaders recently have taken strong stands against cross-town busing in such communities as Los Angeles, fearing that dispersion of Chicano students will prevent them from participating in hard-won bilingual educational programs.

At times, Chicanos have adopted the traditional tactic of working quietly through existing channels, or attempted to elect Chicano or pro-Chicano school board members. At other times, out of frustration, they have turned to walkouts, sit-ins, and direct confrontations with school boards and administrations. Students have provided much of the effort toward educational reform through such organizations as the United Mexican-American Students (UMAS) and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA, Chicano Student Movement of the Southwest). The Chicano movement has also spurred establishment of Chicano alternative schools and institutions of higher education, such as Universidad de la Tierra in Goshen, Universidad de Campesinos Libres in Fresno, and Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University in Davis, Yolo County, the first Chicano/American Indian university.

Among other institutions affected by the Chicano movement has been the Catholic Church. Although many individual Catholic priests have historically made non-religious contributions to Mexican Americans, the Church as an institution tended to avoid involvement in Chicano societal issues. During the Repatriation Program, for example, the Church generally remained silent, and did little on behalf of affected Mexicans. Although some Catholic priests and Protestant clergymen have taken their place alongside Cesar Chavez and his followers, priests serving in strike areas have often withheld support for the strikers so as not to alienate growers. The Chicano movement generated such organizations as Catolicos por la Raza (Catholics for the Chicano People), which challenged the Church for pouring its money into opulent structures while neglecting too invest in social services to improve conditions for the Chicano poor. Some critics addressed the Church's failure to recruit and promote Chicano priests.

The Chicano movement has also generated a Chicano cultural renaissance and has contributed to a broader Hispanic cultural renaissance in the United States. Art, music, literature, theater, and other forms of expression have flourished. Spanish-language and bilingual media, including television and radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and motion pictures, have expanded in number and impact.

Particularly in the twentieth century, Chicanos have worked in such fields of art as painting, drawing, sculpture, and lithography, and in recent years, have developed a full-scale Chicano art movement. Possibly the two most distinctive vehicles of contemporary Chicano art are muralism and graffiti.

Muralism harks back to the tradition of the great Mexican muralists of the post-Revolution era. Mural themes run from dramatizations of the Mexican Revolution to depictions of the Chicano experience too abstract expressionism. Things form of visual expression is a true people's art, oriented toward the many of the community rather than the few in the art gallery. It can be seen on outside walls of stores, schools, churches, hospitals, and government buildings, in public parks, and even on freeway support pillars, often blended imaginatively with architectural elements. Some barrio gangs have become involved in mural painting, at times using murals as boundary lines between their respective turfs.

The pop-art companion to mural art as an omnipresent symbol of barrio expression is Chicano graffiti. Unlike crude or clever sayings and rhymes written on public walls, Chicano graffiti consists of purposefully conceived sets of symbols or symbolic words, notable in their careful, angular lettering. Barrio gangs generally have developed their own special symbols — placas — too denote their territory or their presence on the turf of other groups. Some Chicano muralists have integrated graffiti into their work, at times incorporating existing graffiti by painting around the symbols.

Pan American Unity Mural
Pan American Unity Mural by Diego Rivera, San Francisco College,
San Francisco County

Along with the contemporary movement in the visual arts among Chicanos has come a literary movement. Novels, poetry, short stories, essays, and plays have flowed from the pens of contemporary Chicano writers. Two special characteristics are common too many of these writings. First, they often emphasize Mexican American culture and experience, especially the themes of Anglo prejudice, discrimination, and exploitation. Second, they are often bilingual — usually written primarily in English with a smattering of Spanish words and phrases, though some works, particularly poetry, are entirely in Spanish.

One distinctive aspect of current Chicano expression is the teatro (theater). Most famous is El Teatro Campesino (Farm Workers' Theater), founded in 1965 by Luis Valdez as a component of Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers' movement, but now an independent organization. The teatro also emphasizes themes of Anglo discrimination, Chicano resistance, and Mexican heritage. Productions blend English and Spanish, and often include music. Some presentations are a series of relatively brief actos, although the teatro also offers full-length plays. Using an epic theater style in which actors interact directly with the audience and demythologize theater, El Teatro Campesino has attained broad popularity, and has inspired creation of other teatros in barrios and universities throughout the country.

The Chicano teatro movement has included both ephemeral groups (some university teatros disappeared after graduation of their founders and early leaders) and some that have managed to survive despite constant financial pressures. A recent artistic trend has been away from the teatro popular toward a more professional theater, and greater use of English (partially owing to increased professional training, the growth of U.S.-born Chicano audiences, and the attempt to attract non- Chicano audiences). In 1978, Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez premiered, and enjoyed a long run in Los Angeles. The following year, it became the first Chicano play to appear on Broadway.

California has also been the scene of a boom in Chicano publications as a whole, including newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. Chicano newspapers have existed in California since the 1850s. However, most have had limited circulation and even more limited longevity, primarily for two reasons. First, the Chicano population remained relatively small until the early twentieth century, and the reading public was rendered even smaller by limited literacy. Second, such papers were plagued by undercapitalization and limited local advertising. That they achieved even a limited success, particularly during the nineteenth century, is a tribute to the determination of Chicano journalists. This determination paid off in the twentieth century when some Chicano newspapers, such as La Opinion (1926- ) of Los Angeles, became permanent. The impetus of the Chicano movement in the 1960s and 1970s brought a rapid expansion of the Chicano press, but the problems of undercapitalization and of educating large institutional advertisers to the potential of the Mexican American market remain.

Possibly the newest surge of Chicano expression has come in the field of motion pictures. Chicano filmmakers have expanded from documentaries to feature films, and are sometimes helped by Mexico City studios. Los Angeles, quite naturally, has been the most active movie-making area, with several independent Chicano production companies located there.

Chicano Park/Logan Heights
Chicano Park/Logan Heights, San Diego County

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