Who Remembers the Invasion of Catalina?

Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

The summer of 1972 saw the waning of what Chicano activists refer to as el movimiento. But don’t look for anyone to note the 25th anniversary this year, because, in the words of the poet, it ended with a whimper.

“The movement” was a period that began in the late 1960s when urban Latinos, inspired by Cesar Chavez’s unionizing drive among farm workers, tried to create a civil rights movement akin to that long waged by African Americans. From San Antonio’s West Side to East Los Angeles, el movimiento had its moments but could not last as a pale imitation of the black civil rights struggle. The history of Mexican Americans and other Latinos in this country is too different from the African American experience.

But I’m less concerned with revisiting those distinctions than with recalling the two simultaneous events in September 1972 that marked both a high point and a nadir of el movimiento--the La Raza Unida Party convention and the “invasion” of Santa Catalina Island by the Brown Berets. A backward glance illustrates how difficult it is to tell, at the time, which news events will really matter in the long run.

I chose to cover La Raza Unida’s convention instead of the Catalina incident, although colleagues at this newspaper questioned my news judgment. Some still may. But in the long run, we were all wrong.


I’d reported on La Raza Unida’s electoral takeover of some mostly Mexican American towns in south Texas in 1970, so it seemed logical to be at the El Paso convention where the Chicano party was threatening to nominate its own presidential candidate, undermining an already uphill struggle by Democratic Sen. George McGovern to unseat Richard M. Nixon.

It later turned out (as a sidelight of the Watergate investigation) that the Nixon campaign secretly funneled money to some La Raza Unida activists. But even if La Raza Unida had not been dragged into national politics, it was newsworthy to cover one of the few occasions that Chicano icons like Raza Unida founder Jose Angel Gutierrez, Colorado activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez and New Mexico’s fiery Reies Lopez Tijerina came together to plan a common strategy.

They didn’t get very far, of course. In the end, La Raza Unida did not nominate anyone for president and wound up a local party in Texas, with a few sympathizers elsewhere in the Southwest. But the Brown Berets’ “invasion” of Catalina faded from memory even faster.

That bit of political theater was carried out by a few stragglers of what had once been one of the most visible Chicano groups of the movimiento era. Modeled after the Black Panthers, the Brown Berets dressed in military-style tunics and the head gear from which they took their name. But despite their militant stance, the group never amounted to much more than a self-styled Chicano security force.


Still, in the aftermath of the 1970 East Los Angeles riots, they became an obvious target for infiltration and intimidation by police and the FBI, which helped hasten their demise. When The Times’ city desk telephoned me in El Paso to tell me about the Catalina incident, it was the first I’d heard of the Brown Berets for a couple of years.

Leaders of the “invasion” claimed that under provisions of the 1848 treaty ending the Mexican-American War, California’s coastal islands were still Mexican property. So they sailed to Catalina on tourist boats, put up a Mexican flag and claimed the island on behalf of all Chicanos. Their bravado got no support in Los Angeles, much less in Mexico City. I told my colleagues not to panic, and suggested they send another reporter to Catalina rather than bringing me back from Texas.

Thus my colleague Dial Torgerson was there a couple of days later when sheriff’s deputies marched into the small encampment the Brown Berets had set up near the town of Avalon, cited some for trespassing and took everyone back to the mainland.

The Catalina story wound up on Page 1. My stories from Texas were published on Page 3. While the La Raza story was more important, I can’t fault my colleagues’ news judgment. The “invasion” was one of those only-in-L.A. stories that deserve coverage.


In retrospect, I missed part of a bigger story in Texas. For even as La Raza Unida was getting ink from me, the New York Times and other national publications, other Texas Chicanos were quietly doing the dull behind-the-scenes work needed to make political progress for Latinos.

They included Willie Velasquez, who founded the Southwest Voter Registration Project by signing up thousands of voters all over Texas; Ernesto Cortes, who helped organize the barrios of San Antonio into a potent political force; and Henry Cisneros, a young college professor who would become San Antonio’s mayor, then a Cabinet member in the Clinton administration and now heads Univision, the Spanish language television network. I would meet and write about them later; but only after all the sound and fury of La Raza Unida and the Brown Berets had faded.