A Growing Militancy: The Farm Workers in California and Political Activism in Texas
To grasp the long history of the Chicano Movement this chapter will explore the Mexican American civil rights organizations of the twentieth century. First, the chapter introduces several infl uential groups established by Mexican-ancestry people in the United States. In the early decades of the twentieth century, and increasingly in the post-1945 period, Mexican Americans organized to protect their civil rights and meet community needs. The chapter also briefl y explores Cold War hysteria, which limited the activist terrain for all civil rights organizations in the United States, in order to set the context for this important era. To detail the important legacy of practical activism prior to the emergence of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s, the chapter considers infl uential predecessor civil rights organizations in some detail, as well as some of the smaller groups that had an impact on the community. 1
To demonstrate this evolution in political activism, this chapter also considers two cases of 1960s militant activism to highlight the shift in political tone and praxis that eventually gave rise to the Chicano Movement. The fi rst example took place in Crystal City, Texas, where Mexican Americans organized an electoral campaign with the assistance of political and labor activists from nearby San Antonio. Rejecting the moderate politics of the recent past, this militant working-class movement, which fl owered in 1963, embraced ethnic politics and ‘Latin’ pride, as grassroots leaders spoke openly of past Anglo discrimination. This struggle for political rights served as a training ground for many youth activists who became key Chicano Movement leaders in Texas and challenged the colorblind ‘Caucasian’ political strategy (rejection of minority status and continued whiteness claims) and moderate politics of many organizations established during the Cold War. The second example emerged out of the formation of the United Farm Workers (UFW) after 1962, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta from headquarters in Delano, California. In 1965 the UFW began the largest boycott in US history, introduced the plight of Mexican American farm workers to the
nation, and trained a generation of Mexican American youth activists nationwide. The grape boycott led by these California labor organizers in many ways became the foundation upon which participants built a national infrastructure for the Chicano Movement. In these two important episodes of Mexican American social movement activity in Texas and California, movements peopled by youth activists rejected Cold War moderation in favor of militancy, direct action, and ethnic pride. 2
While the Chicano Movement often characterized itself as a radical break from the past, many of the claims were amplifi cations of long-standing civil rights claims. For much of the twentieth century, Mexican-ancestry people sought inclusion, equality, and human rights in the United States. Many of the immigrant-led organizations maintained a focus on Mexican pride, while calling for humane treatment in their new home. Likewise, Mexican American groups, though they limited their membership to US citizens, also proudly sought to maintain personal and public connections to their language and culture while demanding their rights as citizens within an increasingly hardening regime of borders and exclusionary rights for the immigrant and undocumented population. The long history of activism on the part of Mexican-ancestry people is an evolutionary tale.