Chicano Movement Essay

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Understanding the Chicano movement requires an understanding of the past. Often heard among Mexican Americans is the saying, “We did not cross the border; the border crossed us.” This refers to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war between the United States and Mexico and ceded much of the Southwest to the U.S. government for a payment of $15 million. The treaty guaranteed the rights of Mexican settlers in the area, granting them U.S. citizenship after 1 year and recognizing their property rights. However, the Senate would not ratify the treaty without revisions. It eliminated articles that recognized prior land grants and reworded articles specifying a timeline for citizenship. The result was the eviction of Mexicans from their lands, their disenfranchisement from the political process, and the institutionalization of more than a century of discrimination.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mutual aid societies and other associations in Mexican American communities advocated for the rights of community members and provided social solidarity. In 1911, the First Mexicanist Congress attempted to unify the groups under a national organization. The assembly resolved to promote educational equality and civil rights for Mexican Americans, themes that would reemerge in the Chicano civil rights movement of the mid-1960s.

Between the 1930s and the 1950s, numerous local, regional, and national organizations were socially and politically active in promoting the rights of Mexican Americans. A few key organizations included the Community Service Organizations (CSO), the G. I. Forum, and the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC). In California, community service organizations were successful in sponsoring Mexican American candidates in bids for local and state offices. The G. I. Forum, limited to Mexican American war veterans, was involved in politics and anti-segregation class action suits. Founded in 1929, LULAC fought against discrimination in education, law, and employment. LULAC was involved in several landmark civil rights cases including Mendez v. Westminster of 1947, which legally ended the segregation of Mexican American children in California schools. LULAC was also involved in Hernandez v. Texas of 1954, which affirmed the 14th Amendment rights of Mexican Americans to due process and equal protection under the law.

El Movlmlento: The Chicano Civil Rights Movement

The 1960s Chicano movement criticized these earlier organizations as largely urban, middle class, and assimilationist, who neglected laborers, students, and recent migrants. Like other ethnic social movements of the time, the Chicano movement embraced the culture and identity of Mexico. Leaders of the movement initiated many legal and political maneuvers, union strikes, marches, and student protests.

Cesar Estrada Chavez (1927-93) joined the CSO in California as a community organizer in 1952. He rose to the position of regional director by 1958. Chavez resigned from the CSO in 1962 when they voted not to support the Agricultural Workers Association led by a former CSO founding member, Dolores Huerta. Together, Chavez and Huerta formed the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America. Chavez became famous in the late 1960s with a series of work stoppages, marches, boycotts, and hunger strikes centered on the working conditions and low pay for grape pickers and other farmworkers. Chavez and the United Farm Workers launched a 5-year strike against grape growers (1965-70), successfully convincing 17 million people to boycott nonunion California grapes. In the 1980s he led protests against the use of dangerous pesticides in grape farming. Chavez became a symbol of the movement and was supported by other unions, clergy, student activists, and politicians such as Senator Robert F. Kennedy. He died in 1993, and in the years since, he has been honored by the naming of many streets, schools, and community centers, as well as with murals and a commemorative stamp.

After Pentecostal minister Reies Lopez Tijerina (1926- ) failed in his attempt to create a utopian religious cooperative in Arizona, he moved to New Mexico and established the Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Land Grant Alliance) in 1963, with the goal of regaining legal ownership of land lost since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. After failing to petition the courts to hear its case, Tijerina and Alianza members claimed a part of the Carson National Forest previously held by members in a land grant. They detained two forest rangers and declared the land an autonomous state but surrendered 5 days later. While out on bond, Tijerina and 150 Alianza members stormed the county courthouse to free imprisoned members of their group. In the raid they shot two officials and took two hostages. The largest manhunt in New Mexican history ended a week later when Tijerina surrendered. Achieving his goal of drawing attention to the land-grant cause, he represented himself at trial and won an acquittal in the courthouse raid but was later sentenced to 2 years for charges related to the occupation of the Carson National Forest. While confined, he became a symbol of the Chicano movement. Released in 1971, Reies Tijerina continued to press for recognition of Chicano land rights; he has resided in Mexico since 1994.

Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales (1929-2005) was a leader of the urban youth movement. First known as a professional boxer in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he became active in the Democratic Party as a district captain and coordinator of a Viva Kennedy club in 1960. By 1966, he left the Democrats and founded La Crusada Para la Justicia (the Crusade for Justice), an organization that supported Chicano civil rights, education, and cultural awareness. He authored Yo Soy Joaquin (I Am Joaquin), one of the most defining writings to come out of the Chicano movement. The poem voiced the conflicted nature of Chicano identity and inspired the nationalist tone of the movement. Gonzales also organized the First National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in 1969 in which El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan (Spiritual Plan of Aztlan) was adopted. The goals of this manifesto were to promote Chicano nationalism and a separatist Chicano political party. In 1970, Gonzales helped to organize the Colorado La Raza Unida Party, and in 1972 he attempted to create a national Raza Unida Party. However, Gonzales left the party in 1974 after it had become factionalized into those wanting it to promote Chicano political candidates and those who wanted radical social reform. Gonzales continued to work on behalf of Chicano rights issues until his death in 2005.


The civil rights movements of the 1960s established legal and political rights of minority ethnic groups in the United States. The Chicano movement also had the effect of broadening the class structure of existing Mexican American social and political organizations to recognize migrants, laborers, and urban youth. It also brought about a reversal of the assimilationist goals of previous decades and an acute awareness of Chicano identity and nationalism. Several of the institutions of that period are still active today, including numerous Chicano and Mexican American Studies programs at major universities that began as a result of those earlier student protests. Vestiges of the movement were also evident in the marches and rallies of the National Day of Action for Immigrant Rights on April 10, 2006.


  1. Chavez, Ernesto. 2002. “Mi Raza Primero!” (My People First!): Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  2. Gonzales, Manuel G. 2000. Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  3. Rosales, Francisco Arturo. 1997. Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Houston, TX: Arte Publico.

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