The Chicano Movement: More Nostalgia Than a Reality

<i> David E. Hayes-Bautista and Gregory Rodriguez, associate editors at Pacific News Service, are, respectively, executive director and senior fellow at the Alta California Research Center</i>

If the Chicano Movement is not already dead, it has certainly lost enough blood to be rendered unconscious. Recent news reports have paid homage to a pioneering Mexican American journalist, Ruben Salazar, and the political resistance movement that reached its peak on the day he was killed 25 years ago. Inevitable comparisons between then and now were made, but the juxtapositions are not the least bit instructive. We California Latinos are an entirely different people today.

The Chicano Movement was a generational response to the cultural, social and political alienation many Latinos felt in the 1960s and early ‘70s. Young Mexican Americans, newly self-anointed as Chicanos , then a politically charged term defining their position against “Anglo society,” flocked to the picket lines in support of their communities and became connected--emotionally, intellectually and spiritually--to a world that had never been theirs. Their largely Mexican-born grandparents and U.S.-born parents, who had survived the mass deportations of Latinos in the early ‘30s, had been understandably reluctant to teach them Spanish or publicly express any element of their ethnicity. Periodic waves of anti-Mexican sentiment and the indiscriminate sweeps that netted tens of thousand of Latinos--one-third of whom are now thought to have been U.S. citizens--put Latinness in dormancy.

This generation of Mexican Americans born in the postwar years had been expected to be thoroughly assimilated. Instead, they got caught up in the proliferation of American identities in the ‘60s--and wanted one of their own. Suddenly, they began learning the history they had never been taught and the language withheld from them. They reaffirmed, if not recreated, an identity their parents had purposely uncultivated. Strengthened by this newfound cultural identity, the Chicano Movement sought political and social change.


The social ferment spawned thousands of activist organizations throughout the Southwest. Clinics, social-service agencies, store-front legal offices, training programs, theater groups and newspapers were set up to improve the lot of the Mexican American. As with other ‘60s social movements, the activism went hand-in-hand with a progressive ideology and a new symbolic universe. Chicano activists sought to bring their people together as one single proletarian voice resisting what they considered their greatest enemy--white oppression.

The Chicano generation came of age when Latinos were a small, isolated, beleaguered minority. In 1970, we made up only one-seventh of the state’s population. Twenty-five years ago, eight in 10 were U.S.-born. Ties to Mexico were relatively few and weak. In addition to feeling alienated from the mother land, young Latinos didn’t feel fully entitled in America. They felt caught between two worlds, neither of which they fully belonged to. They reacted to this marginalization with bristling, righteous and indignant anger.

The perceived need to stick together and evince a united front in the face of opposition engendered a defensive orthodoxy. Ethnic and political identities became almost indistinguishable. A “real Chicano” was expected to think, believe and behave in ways preordained by the Movement. Strays were stripped of their ethnic credentials. Even as it promoted positive community involvement and ethnic pride, Chicanismo’s ideological inflexibility predetermined its eventual obsolescence. As time passed, fewer and fewer of even the most strident Chicano activists could continue to adhere to the constricting demands of Chicanismo.

A few days before last month’s 25th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium and Salazar’s slaying, California Plaza in Downtown Los Angeles presented a play by Alfredo Ramos about a group of middle-aged Chicanos mourning the loss of a friend as well as their own youthful idealism and passion. Ramos, a 30-year-old East L.A. playwright, was only 5 when he watched moratorium protesters clash with sheriff’s deputies from his porch across the street from what is now Ruben Salazar Park. The characters in his play, “The Last Angry Brown Hat,” were young activists 25 years ago, but have since traded their picket signs and slogans for careers, wives, mortgages and, in one case, addictions. They speak nostalgically of the days when they and others were true Chicanos.

As the Chicano generation aged, mellowed and had their own children, the Latino population at large grew by a whopping 400%. Once overwhelmingly of Mexican origin, Latinos diversified when turmoil in Central America pushed hundreds of thousands of refugees into California during the ‘80s. A massive wave of immigration from Mexico turned Latinos, for the first time since the 1920s, into a largely foreign-born group. Today, two-thirds of adult Latinos in Los Angeles County are immigrants. More than 85% of all Latinos in the county were born or arrived after 1970. The term Chicano gradually lost its edge; it became a synonym for Mexican American. A term referring to all Americans of Latin American ancestry-- Latino --came into vogue.

Raw numbers and a newborn cultural confidence allowed Latinos to move beyond resistance as the sole basis of identity. Latino culture re-emerged as a potent, vibrant force in the United States.

On college campuses, where Chicanismo has always enjoyed its greatest support, students moved away from the simple oppositional stance of old. For example, 25 years ago at USC, MEChA, a militant Chicano-generation group, was the only Latino organization on campus. Today, Latino students are organizing around their interests, majors and goals. There are groups of Latino engineering students, future lawyers, nurses and writers. The Latino Business Assn. is the largest Latino organization on campus. “At one time, MEChA was the entire picture,” recalls Raul Vargas, director of the Mexican-American Alumni Assn. at USC. “Now they’re just part of a larger picture.” Chicanismo is a phase that some Latino undergraduates still go through.

The newest Latino Americans are not really sure what the Movimiento was all about. Commentators who decried the embarrassingly low turnout at last month’s anniversary march, which was labeled as the beginning of a new era in the Chicano Movement, failed to realize that most of today’s Latinos don’t share the history of the Chicano generation. Consuelo Fuerte, a 30-year-old street vendor who immigrated from Guadalajara, Mexico, 12 years ago, showed up at the march to sell soft drinks. “The truth is, I couldn’t tell you what they’re talking about,” she says. “I heard on the news that someone got killed many years ago. But, really, I don’t know.”

Ramos, the East L.A. playwright, did attend the moratorium anniversary. He is turned off by 1960s political rhetoric--as are many young Latinos who didn’t show up. Anniversary organizers avow that the ultimate goal of their reborn “movement” is to annex Aztlan, the Aztecs’ mythical homeland in the U.S. Southwest, to a “transformed Mexico,” an idea that most Latinos would scoff at. Ramos claims he and his peers have gone beyond reckless bravado and are part of a “new breed” of young Latinos. They’re too confident to be defensive. They care about social issues, yet are not driven by anger. They will fight their battles in their own ways. “We’re new and improved,” says Ramos with a laugh.

Anger and alienation were necessary ingredients for the continued success of Chicanismo. But as a character in “The Last Brown Hat” concedes, “You can’t stay angry forever.” The death throes of the Chicano Movement signal a new consciousness among Latinos. As politically and economically marginal as many of us are today, we are more defined by hope than anger. And at more than one-third of California’s population, we are now more concerned with renewing a society in decline than in preserving a minority movement.*