El Movimiento: The Chicano Movement and Hispanic Identity in the United States

It’s National Hispanic Heritage Month. Visit the National Archives website for resources on related records and how we are commemorating the month. Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

Social, economic, cultural, and political change was widespread in the 1960s, fueled by evolving norms, breaking traditions, and protesting inequality at all levels of society. A host of grassroots movements and organizations formed in the U.S. during these years with varying missions: racial equality and desegregation, labor rights, gender equality, anti-war, and political inequality. 

The Hispanic community embarked on a social movement aimed at combating institutional racism, increasing cultural hegemony, and guaranteeing equal labor and political rights. The Chicano Movement sparked national conversations on the political and social autonomy of Hispanic groups everywhere in the United States. Similar to many civil rights and revolutionary movements in the 1960s, they also experienced heavy state surveillance and police brutality. They also produced nationally recognized personalities who came to symbolize the movement such as Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Rosalio Munoz.

The post–World War II years saw a significant rise in political and social activism in the Hispanic community, particularly on the West Coast. Rights for farm workers and education were the primary focus due to severe discrimination that Hispanic laborers faced daily. Hispanic children faced many of the similar prejudices as Black children with segregated schools. A pair of landmark legal cases were major boosts to the Hispanic community. 

In 1947, a pivotal federal court case, Mendez v. Westminster, struck down segregation between White and Mexican schools in California. This decision had widespread repercussions as it was cited in the famous Brown v. Board of Education case. Seven years later in 1954, in Hernandez v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Mexican American and all other nationality groups were guaranteed equal protection according to the 14th Amendment. The justices ruled unanimously in favor of Hernandez by claiming he had been discriminated against by investigating the racial segregation that existed against Mexicans. 

The Chicano Movement had several components that sought to increase Hispanic equality. Led by Cesar Chavez, one of the most famous goals was the unionization of farmworkers. In 1962, with Dolores Huerta, Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later reorganized to become the United Farm Workers labor union. Chavez, Huerta, and other civic leaders made enormous progress in collectivizing farm laborers and helping them register to vote. In 1965, Chaves and Huerta organized the Delano grape strike; the longest strike in U.S. history, lasting from September 1965 to July 1970. 

Civil rights was a hallmark of the Chicano Movement with the goal of empowering the Hispanic community to take part in civil discourse. In the early 1950s and 60s, the Community Service Organization (CSO) was created and helped to register thousands of Mexican-Americans and drive them to polling places on election days. The CSO was absolutely pivotal for the Chicano Movement as it provided civic education and organizing methods for individuals like Huerta and Chavez. 

Political participation made the Hispanic community a powerful voting bloc in national elections in the coming years as a result of the work by the CSO and its leaders. Organization among Hispanic students was also widespread among the Chicano Movement. College student groups like the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) and United Mexican American Students (UMAS) formed to combat institutional racism and discrimination at campuses. Voter registration, educational equality, and labor rights were the focus of student organizations like these. 

In early March 1968, the greatest demonstration against education inequality took place in East Los Angeles as thousands of students walked out to protest discrepancies in the district. Over 10,000 students left to protest and formed the Educational Issues Coordinating Committee (EICC). Demands to the Los Angeles Board of Education included recommendations for bilingual education and hiring of Mexican American administrators. This mass demonstration against Hispanic racism sparked a national conversation on race relations in California, but it also labeled Chicano leaders as radical and militant according to FBI internal memos by J. Edgar Hoover. 

As the 1960s progressed and the war in Vietnam intensified, broad anti-war sentiment grew in Hispanic communities. A disproportionate number of Latino draftees were sent overseas, and many were opposed to the conduct of the war. In November 1969, the Chicano Moratorium was formed with the purpose of building a broad anti-war coalition and protesting the draft. Notable activists like Rosalio Munoz publicly avoided the draft, and organizations like the Brown Berets drew inspiration from the Black Panthers in demonstrating against the war. 

Protests were held all over the American Southwest, and on August 29, 1970, the largest moratorium occurred in Los Angeles. Over 30,000 protesters led by activist Rosalio Munoz turned out to demonstrate against the Vietnam War, but it quickly became violent. Local police tried to break up the gathering, and when gunshots were fired, fights broke out, leaving four people dead and dozens more injured. Notable LA Times journalist and civil rights activist Ruben Salazar was killed during the Moratorium when a tear gas canister hit him. (See more: Class Litigation Case Files, the 1970 murder of Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar, file 144-12C-245, NAID 603432

Unbeknownst to many in the Chicano Movement, the federal government surveilled members and leaders of Hispanic groups. They were monitored for potential terrorist activities and, in some cases, acted as agent provocateurs undermining the movement’s cause. The controversial FBI program COINTELPRO heavily infiltrated Chicano groups, along with other political organizations such as Black Power, American Indian Movement, and numerous feminist and animal rights groups. Munoz was one of those who was forcibly removed by undercover agents in 1970 but later returned to run the Moratorium. 

The legacy of El Movimiento has empowered many in the Hispanic community to become civically active and take part in national conversations. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund protects civils through nonprofit legal work and the United Farm Workers Union actively engages in reforming labor rights in agriculture. Civil rights leaders and activists from years before laid the groundwork for the collective Hispanic identity today and empowered millions of Hispanic peoples to exercise their rights. 

For more information on the COINTELPRO activities, visit the Record Group 65 (Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation) under Classification 157; Extremist Matters, Civil Unrest. 

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