Saturday, March 24, 2018

El Movimiento; a brief look by Antonio SolisGomez and Photographs by Oscar Castillo

No one knows why everyone started calling it "El Movimiento". But what else could we have called it for indeed there was a movement. It was as if, for a couple of centuries before, Chicanos had lain dormant and in repose. Now they were beginning to stir. They began to openly protest the plight of Chicano students being shuttled into industrial arts programs regardless of their individual aptitudes or talents and to openly protest the usual practices of police harassing barrio citizens for little reason. They began to protest inadequate medical facilities for Chicanos where inferior doctors practiced, and the criminal justice regulations that punished Chicanos with indeterminate sentences. They protested the higher-than average representation of Chicanos in the army fighting the Vietnam War, of under-enrollment in colleges and universities and of being overly represented in the lowest paid types of work.

Of course, it is not true that Chicanos were inactive during the preceding eras. There had been many instances when they had fought against injustices, particularly around employment practices but also against school segregation, police brutality, and hate-induced violence such as the Zoot Suit Riots.

L to R Art Torres, (?? ), Jane Fonda, Richard Alatorre, Edward Roybal

 Upon returning home to the United States, many Chicano soldiers who served during World War II became actively involved in community issues. One organization that should be mentioned is the GI Forum, which was very strong in the Southwest among Latino veterans from World War II. In East Los Angeles, the Community Services Organization (CSO) helped Chicanos become agents for social change. One such change person was Cesar Chavez and the CSO helped organize the campaign that led to the election of Edward Roybal first to the Los Angeles city Council and then to the US House of Representatives; Roybal was the first Latino from California since the late 1800s.
But the difference that began taking place in the later half of the 1960s was the grand scope of participation and the coming together in unity of diverse factions of the barrios that had begun to see that the problems and challenges they were facing were not unique to their particular faction but were widespread and affecting all of them exactly because they were Chicanos living in barrios. This perception created a difference and the unity that began to build was the result of parents, students, ex-cons, clergy, welfare mothers, Korean War veterans, Vietnam veterans, gang bangers, college educated professionals, World War II Veterans, all attended open community meetings and participated in conversations to explore their collective concerns as people living and working in barrios. Those meetings were by no means totally amicable or lacking in open dissent and even where there was some agreement on the larger issues such as educational reform, opposition to the Vietnam War and better health facilities, there was little consensus on strategies to achieve results.
         In the 1960s the majority of Chicanos were living in East Los Angeles proper, an unincorporated area, in barrios within Los Angeles, namely Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno, Florence, Glassel Park, Montebello and in outlying areas such as El Monte, the San Fernando Valley, La Puente and Norwalk. Most Chicanos were citizens of this country, fully acculturated, fluent in English and with no desire to be anything but United States citizens.
         However, culturally, Chicanos straddled two worlds. In this respect, they were no different than other immigrant groups whose identity was a mixture of old and new world. The one difference that had become more apparent in the preceding decade was that there continued to be a strong influx of immigrants to the United States from Mexico and Central America, many of whom lived in large enclaves where the Spanish language was predominant.

         If there was a catalyst for the release of the pent-up feelings of resentment among Chicanos, it was the inception of the central valley Farm Workers strike, "La Huelga", led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and the subsequent grape boycott in September of 1965. This massive nationwide call to action was a consciousness-raising event that allowed many of us to quickly identify with the struggle of campesinos to obtain safe working conditions and decent pay. It didn’t matter that "La Huelga" was taking place in the San Joaquin Valley and the town of Delano, far removed from the urban center of Los Angeles where I and my "Con Safos" friends lived. What did matter was that they were Chicanos hoping to improve their lot and facing tremendous obstacles in the form of rich growers supported by the elected officials at all levels, from the local sheriff to the state senators and representatives. This common thread also brought in Chicanos from other urban centers such as Denver, Chicago, Albuquerque, El Paso, San Antonio, Phoenix, Tucson and a host of other smaller towns throughout the Southwest and Midwest.
         Some Chicanos had gained experiences with the Civil Rights Movement of African Americans and had gone to demonstrations and picketed on their behalf. And some of us had been to protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee, but the Chicano "Movimiento" was different because its targets were impinging directly on our immediate lives and we jumped in with no holds barred.
And be very clear that never was a person that was the leader of the Movimiento, despite what some might say. It was a true collective of various factions and although there was no one person or group that one could say was the prime mover in East Los Angeles, there did exist a variety of individuals and organizations that provided leadership. One such early voice was the newspaper 
"La Raza" founded by Eleazar Risco in 1967 with the help of Father John Luce, an Episcopalian minister assigned to the Church of the Epiphany and Ruth Robinson Risco’s friend. "La Raza" took on the task of rallying support for a variety of Chicano issues and helping raise the awareness of barrio residents. Some of their articles were biased and vitriolic but they also contained elements of the truth of what barrio life was all about. Prior to his arrival in East Los Angeles, Eleazar Risco had worked with the farm worker newspaper "El Malcriado" so there was a strong connection between what was taking place in Chavez’ and Huerta's Delano and San Joaquin Valley and in East Los Angeles.
         Father Luce, a member of the Luce Family from New York, and his Church of the Epiphany were fully in support of the Chicano "Movimiento" and held many fund-raising events in other Episcopalian Churches in the greater Los Angeles area to provide financial assistance to "La Raza" newspaper and other groups promoting Chicano causes such as a Ballet Folklorico and bilingual preschool education.
         For a time, "Con Safos" also benefited when we were offered space in a large house that the church owned and had converted into offices. Our tenancy ended when the FBI raided the house and absconded with the entire contents of a forthcoming issue of the magazine. The fact that the feds were surreptitiously gathering and compiling evidence and infiltrating meetings was not well known at the time but eventually became apparent as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's dirty tricks and "political policing" were revealed. One of those FBI plants was in the Chicano Studies classroom at East Los Angeles City College of Arturo Flores our "Con Safos" editor.


Another important early voice was that of Moe Aguirre, whose organization, League of United Chicanos Heroin Addicts (LUCHA) represented the concerns of both the imprisoned and ex-cons trying to leave their former lifestyles behind by obtaining legitimate employment and returning to their families. Those in LUCHA had a tremendous core identity and often moved as one, comprising a formidable voice in community meetings. Moe, who led them, was a big muscular man with a crooked nose and a scarred face that could easily alarm those that didn’t know him. He had been imprisoned for a good part of his life and was self educated and colorfully charismatic. He was also a staunch anti-Communist, having grown up during the patriotic era of World War II, which pitted him squarely against the leftist element of "El Movimiento" that coalesced around Bert Corona, a long-time left-leaning activist whose organizations were Centro Accion Social Autonoma (CASA) and the offshoot Casa Carnalismo (Brotherhood), a group that few outside the barrio knew existed. We in "Con Safos" knew because that group, along with the Brown Berets, wanted to take editorial control of "Con Safos", believing that our publication was too important not to be employed in furthering their agenda. Naturally, we resisted and thwarted their planned acquisition. Another group opposed to Moe was C.O.P.A. (Chicanos Organizados Pintos de Aztlan) also an ex-con organization.
         In the field of education, concerns were promoted by college organizations such as United Mexican American Students (UMAS), La Vida Nueva at East Los Angeles College and Movimiento Estudientil Chicano de Aztlan ( M.E.C.H.A.) The most organized parent group was the Educational Issues Coordinating Committee (EICC) led by the Reverend Vahac Mardirosian, a Baptist, born in Syria, raised in Mexico and educated in the United States. He was married to a Chicana, had a home in the barrio of El Sereno, and was a neighbor of our editor Arturo Flores. The EICC became the voice for educational change and embraced and led the defense of the thirteen individuals involved in the school blowouts (walkouts) of 1968. 
At the center of the student walkouts was a teacher at Lincoln High School named Sal Castro, who was temporarily incarcerated but was released when thousands of barrio residents organized a vigil at the jail. Defending the Thirteen was the Chicano lawyer Oscar Acosta aka "The Brown Buffalo" who was a frequent visitor to the "Con Safos" workshop and who asked us to publish the first few chapters of his novel Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. Oscar also defended the individuals from the group Catolicos por la Raza who were arrested for protesting the construction of St Basil’s, a multimillion-dollar church in West Los Angeles. A flamboyant character, Oscar later became  known as a friend of the journalist and author Hunter Thompson and as the author of two well-known books The Brown Buffalo and also The Revolt of the Cucaracha People. He disappeared in Mexico in 1974.
         Coverage of the issues and problems faced by Chicanos by the established media outlets was minimal. Lacking media coverage, Chicanos developed their own voice. In East Los Angeles we a had a pro-feminist publication, first published in 1970, "Regeneracion" founded by Francisca Flores, a radical lesbian who often berated "Con Safos" for its decidedly macho slant and lack of females on staff.  “Regeneracion" was named after the publication of the Mexican anarchists, the Flores Magon brothers; it was was more of a magazine than a newspaper and it contained well developed articles. Francisca was also instrumental in forming the Commission Femenil Mexicana Nacional, that in the 1970’s established two bilingual daycare centers in barrios.
Oscar Zeta Acosta on left (related to Catolicos Por La Raza)
KMEX a Los Angeles Spanish language television station, first appearing in 1964, began programming in earnest for Chicano audiences in 1968, with the launching of "Cancion de la Raza". A total of sixty-five episodes appeared covering conditions and issues of importance to barrio residents. Two "Con Safos" members, John Figueroa and Arturo Flores, were hired as writers for the program. The following year, 1969, "Ahora!" a magazine format program was launched and   175 episodes were developed. Jesus Trevino, the Chicano filmmaker, cut his teeth there.
         Beyond East Los Angeles other publications were developed. The best known was from Espanola, New Mexico--"El Grito Del Norte" co-founded by Elizabeth Betita Martinez and Beverly Axelrod and was first published in 1968. We thus learned of issues facing New Mexicans and in particular about Reies Tijerina and his Alianza Federal de Mercedes that was fighting for federal land that they claimed rightfully belonged to descendants of land grant families. They temporally took possession of the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse, an action that impressed Chicanos everywhere because it was daring and unprecedented.
         Another important and more scholarly and academic publication than "Con Safos" was "El Grito: A Journal of Mexican-American Thought" first published in 1967 by Octavio Romano’s Quito Sol Publications, that went on to also publish in 1972 the famous novel by Rodolfo Amaya, Bless Me Ultima.
         "Con Safos", first published in June 1968 was non-academic and not connected to any university or college. It worked entirely on its own dime and retained a rare independence of spirit. With its "cuentos", poetry and art, along with its social-political commentary, it was intended to appeal to people in the barrios---even those not known as readers. While it was sometimes viewed as irrelevant to those in the Movement, it has come to occupy a place as a landmark event as the first ever Los Angeles Mexican-American literary magazine.
         Two conferences that encompassed a larger vision than that of East Los Angeles took place in 1969. The First National Chicano Youth Liberation was convened by Corky Gonzales, an activist from Denver who had gained prominence with his epic poem "I am Joaquin", that described much of the Chicano experience. The conference resulted in the development of "El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan" a nationalistic proclamation for self determination.
         The second was a conference held in Santa Barbara, California to develop a plan for the establishment of Chicano Studies programs throughout the California University system. Out of that conference came "El Plan de Santa Barbara".
Hand in hand with the understanding of their social situation, Chicanos began to openly affirm who they were, where they had come from and how they lived. Their history, their heroes, their arts, their food, their gardens, their past times, were praised and esteemed and held up for all to see. Folklorico dance groups began appearing, showcasing the costumes, dances, and music from indigenous Mexico. 
         Everywhere a public space was available, a mural emerged depicting images and scenes which reflected this newly found pride and with the hope that others might awaken and become part of "El Movimiento". The murals were collective and community-based with the entire community holding ownership. Although influenced by the Mexican muralists, Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros, rather than paint their murals on government-sponsored buildings as they had, Chicano muralists worked in public spaces--for example, in Estrada Courts and Ramona Gardens Public Housing Projects. Graffiti, seen by many as vandalism, came to be viewed as an important expression of a subculture that rebelled against authority. Along with the murals, individual artists began to paint, not only depicting the aforementioned cultural symbols but evolving an original point of view and style. Gilbert Sanchez Lujan (Magu), "Con Safos' " Art Editor became a major figure in the Chicano art movement and in 1973 was a founder of "Los Four" a group of artists. One mural painted by "Los Four" (Magu, Beto de la Rocha, Frank Romero and Carlos Almarez) was stored at UCLA for years until Castulo de la Rocha, Executive Director of Alta Med "liberated" it; i.e. he bought it from UCLA in 2012 for an undisclosed amount.

Mural at Ramona Gardens (Hazard Grande) painted by Artists from Mechicano Art Center

Arising with "El Movimiento" in East Los Angeles, Chicano Art provided a public forum for counter narratives. Often a portrait of life in the barrio, it helped establish specific Mexican-American themes and symbolism--such as low-rider cars--of the struggle for social justice.
What has been described, heretofore, were the events, people and creative expressions that helped to shape our worldview both on a personal and collective level. To a great extent "El Movimiento" also known as "La Causa", was polite and orderly but that was to change when the Moratorium on the Vietnam War took place August 29 of 1970. This was a mass gathering of 30,000 people from all walks of life and from various parts of the Southwest protesting the high percentage of Chicanos going to Vietnam and the disproportionate number of casualties that were resulting. We in "Con Safos" wholeheartedly believed in stopping the Vietnam War and therefore chose to participate in the march and to capitalize on the opportunity to sell magazines at the conclusion of the march at Laguna Park in East L.A.

 The route of the march was lined with thousands of people and thousands more were marching to the music from bands and street musicians, occasionally punctuated by the shouting of "Chicano Power" or other slogans such “Hell no, we won’t go.” A festive and celebratory atmosphere prevailed both during the march and at Laguna Park where we set up a table to sell our magazines and to serve our friends and customers from the gallons of San Antonio wine that we had taken with us. I was accompanied by my two children, Arturo Flores brought two of his and George Meneses had two of his as well.
         All was well for almost an hour when suddenly we heard shouting and saw people running away from one part of the park and coming towards us. Behind those running we could see small clouds of smoke that, we soon learned from others, was tear gas being released by the Los Angeles Sheriffs. Pandemonium spread and the safety of the young children in our midst was uppermost in our mind, fearing that the runaway crowd would trample them. Sergio Hernandez was given the task of driving the kids to safety while the rest of us gathered the boxes of magazines that we had brought, the table and the six gallons of wine. Arturo’s house was designated as the rendezvous point. We were soon there, debriefing and getting angrier than when we had left the park when we learned of the killing of the "Los Angeles Times" journalist Reuben Salazar, at the Silver Dollar Saloon in downtown Los Angeles. He had penned a few articles critical of the Los Angeles Sheriffs and other articles supporting issues that gave support to "El Movimiento".
 During the next few weeks of that year, plans were developed for a massive turnout to the annual East Los Angeles "16th of September" parade to affirm our Chicano ancestry and protest the actions of the Los Angeles Sheriffs at the Moratorium and in particular, the slaying of Reuben Salazar. Many of the participants in the parade were angry and were taunting the sheriffs that lined the entire parade route, shouting antagonistic refrains at them. Once the crowd arrived at Belvedere Park, speeches by the leaders of the parade seemed to add fuel to the prevailing mood and the sheriffs once again moved in just before the sun set. However this time the crowd fought back, throwing rocks and pieces of pavement at the intruders.
The Moratorium and the "16th of September" parade was seen by many as the conclusion of "El Movimiento", especially once the Vietnam War ended. No one declared so officially but it seemed as if everyone understood that it had ended and they packed their bags and left. Perhaps a new phase had begun but it was to be different, not quite so heady and exciting, not likely to create the drama in educational halls and the halls of justice and certainly unlikely to call forth thousands to the streets.
In this new phase there continued to be isolated incidents that would ignite protest such as those at East Los Angeles College where Arturo was teaching Chicano Studies and where he was caught between the administration's efforts to silence him and the efforts of a leftist /anarchist group to co-opt his classroom. Arturo was fired, students protested and were jailed. Arturo was re-instated and then the Chicano Studies building was fire bombed and Arturo was fired one final time.
There were other more positive happenings such as federal support for bilingual education, national awareness of the vital role played by farm workers, larger numbers of Chicanos enrolling in college and graduating and growing community support for Chicano art, music and dance. Many of these immediate manifestations would grow in importance in the years to follow.

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