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Coming to Terms With Mexican America : CHICANO POLITICS Reality and Promise, 1940-1990<i> By Juan Gomez-Quinonez (University of New Mexico Press: $29.95, cloth; $15.95, paper; 253 pp.) </i>

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In surveying 50 years of political activity in the Chicano . . . or Mexican . . . or Mexican-American community--this difficulty in labeling mirrors the society’s complexity--Juan Gomez-Quinonez unfolds a story of bigotry endured and aspirations thwarted. Despite such heady moments as the National Chicano Moratorium of 1970 and the success of the United Fruit Workers’ grape boycott the same year, frustration is the enduring theme of this study.

To the dominant society, a Mexican may be a Mexican may be a Mexican but, from within, Mexican America is diverse and contentious: “a complex social island in the midst of the United States,” writes Gomez-Quinonez, a professor of history at UCLA and a one-time political activist, in this landmark study. Mexican America also is the fastest-growing ethnic community in the United States.

The reality of a shared border and shared history have produced a binational culture that is churning but private, even mysterious, to outsiders. There are Americans of Mexican descent of all colors; there are those whose great-great-great-grandparents were born here and those who arrived this morning; there are Chicanos striving to overturn the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and others who simply want their fair chance at the American dream.

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Two passages, neither ostensibly political, nonetheless clarify the scope of Gomez-Quinonez’s task in this chronological survey of Chicano political experience over the last 50 years. On the opening page, the author notes, “The terms Mexican(o), Mexican descent, Mexican American, Hispano and Chicano are used in an interchangeable way and also in distinct ways.” It is difficult to clearly define this varied, often fragmented community.

Gomez-Quinonez concludes his study with these lines: “What remains to be done is to recognize and deal with the heterogeneity within the Mexican community . . . Mexicans must come to terms with the political process and social reality, and then deal with them as they are.” Illusions of homogeneity and idealized solutions must be rejected.

While only a minority within the Chicano community has been politically active, that group has been busy indeed. In this book’s pages, an astonishing list of a acronyms and abbreviations for political organizations flip by like fanned cards: PAPA, CIAA, CSO, LULAC, MAPA, PASSO, LRUP, MAYO; among many others, various schemes--El Plan de Delano, Plan de la Raza Unida, Plan de Santa Barbara, etc--are developed; gifted leaders emerge--Dennis Chavez, Henry B. Gonzalez, Edward Roybal et al--during the half-century surveyed by Gomez-Quinonez. Finally, though, “Minimum objectives have been pursued and minimum objects have been achieved.”

Why? “One reason is the lack of a center for a broadly distributed community. . . . There are no unifying overarching institutions. . . . There is no core set of beliefs or aims. . . .” Most of all, though, asserts the author, “the dominant society . . . determines what and who is politically legitimate vis-a-vis Mexicans and within the Mexican community”

Places and people may differ--northern New Mexico, with its small villages and long history of Mexican political involvement is radically different from the heated fields of south Texas or the crowded barrios of Los Angeles--but all have suffered from misperceptions held by the dominant society, Gomez-Quinonez tells us, as well as from being taken for granted by the Democratic Party.

Except for that recurrent theme of thwarted Chicano aspirations, the actual story that Gomez-Quinonez tells is too intricate and detailed to adequately summarize. High points begin with his coverage of World War II when “perhaps 400,000 Mexican Americans served in the armed forces. Not one was charged with desertion or treason, and they suffered casualties above proportion of their numbers.”

Sharing that great effort with other kinds of Americans “led to a new optimism in the Mexican communities of the United States regarding the postwar period.” What returning soldiers actually found was “rampant discrimination” that prompted the formation in 1948 of one of the most effective of early Chicano political groups, the GI Forum, whose national organizer was Molly Galvan, one of the first Chicanas to achieve political prominence.

“The Forum utilized United States patriotic symbols and rhetoric,” explains the UCLA historian, “and therefore occupied a secure position in its attempt to defend Mexican civil rights, representing a constituency with undeniable claims and demonstrable supportive needs.”

During the 1960s and ‘70s, the emergence of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers was easily the most visible event in Mexican America, and its political implications are examined in this text. Less well known, however, were organizations such as CASA-HGT (Centro de Accion Social Autonoma-Hermandad General de Trabajadores), “the most salient progressive organization functioning in the Mexican community” during the ‘70s. In many ways CASA-HGT pointed toward the future, since it stressed “the development of national and class consciousness among activists” and recognized that “the possibility for radical social change in the United States is linked to an international process. . . .”

The ‘80s were characterized by a paradoxical conservatism. Earlier radicalism in the Chicano community had “forced certain concessions from the Anglo mainstream . . . (and) created a setting from which a viable middle class emerged within the community.” While the Reagan years also were a time of significant economic setbacks, “the community remains tempered by a uniquely Mexican concern for cultural continuity and political affirmation, while it is ambivalent as to how pluralistic the allegedly diverse system is.”

Unfortunately, this important book is neither compellingly organized nor crisply written. It is structured like a doctoral dissertation, opening with a turgid chapter on methodology and theory. The author is at his best in Chapter 5, where he examines contemporary perspective.

Nevertheless, “Chicano Politics” merits a reader’s perseverance because it offers vital perspectives. If Gomez-Quinonez occasionally sounds like a frustrated radical in his scorn for the situation of Chicanos (“Mexicans in the United States do not have a state structure of their own”) or the American system (“it advocates order because, simply put, order best serves so-called society”), he finally emerges as a pragmatist.

Of idealized Chicano nationalism, he writes, “A rejection of the dominant society and a romanticized search for Mexican ties and bonds was an explainable process.” Moreover, despite the heady demonstrations of the 1960s and ‘70s, he points out that “Neither white radical nor liberal groups have as yet served Mexicans well.” And, with immigration and linked economies looming large, Gomez-Quinonez nonetheless points out “the limits of real understanding” between citizens of Mexico and Chicanos.

This historian seems to have learned from hard experience the limits of idealism, and his thorough knowledge of the past makes his advice about the future compelling. With a growing population and cultural presence, commensurate political power for Mexican-Americans can be achieved, he suggests, only through “the continuing development of both single-membership advocacy and confrontational groups.”

Moreover, on a national as well as regional level, “Crucial to this development is the need for generalized national political consciousness, agreed-upon priorities, and principled leadership.”


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