The New Urban Politics: Chicanos and the War on Poverty
This chapter explores the genesis of the Chicano Movement through a consideration of community activism and the development of organizations focused on community control during the War on Poverty era in several important urban barrios and rural colonias . 1 As the various Chicano Movements of the 1960s developed locally in cities and barrios, the infl uence of anti-colonial rhetoric and cultural nationalism led many young people to seek community control of their neighborhoods and institutions. The War on Poverty included several programs funded by outside governmental bodies and administered or founded by religious groups such as the Catholic Church. Rather than allowing these organizations to provide experience for appointed bureaucrats and Anglo volunteers from other communities, however, Chicano activists sought to remake the institutions of the barrio as training centers for local activists, young people, and barrio residents, often with the help of supportive Anglos and religious leaders. In very real ways, the demand for community control fi t within accepted frameworks of mainstream Americanism, as Chicanos sought to use the resources of the state, business, and the barrio itself to repair and heal the social trauma caused by a long history of neglect and discrimination. From Denver to Milwaukee, and Los Angeles to Crystal City, Chicano activists demanded control of their communities, often refashioning them as homelands or mini versions of Aztlán. 2
Both radical and reformist, a variety of organizations took shape to press for change in Mexican American neighborhoods, many of them challenging the relationship of their community to the state as they demanded a stakeholder position in determining how resources were allocated across a variety of areas of concern, including schools, job training, gang prevention, and well-being programs. Some organizations focused on securing formal Offi ce of Economic Opportunity (OEO) federal and state funding for community services, whereas others saw community engagement, self-help, and ethnic pride as their central mission. OEO or ‘War on Poverty’ funds were sometimes directed to organizations run by city-or state-wide groups; in these cases, Chicanos often pressured successfully
for the appointment of Mexican American staff, employees, and directors of the programs. Some groups, such as the Crusade for Justice based in Denver, Colorado, grew out of the War on Poverty but quickly rejected its acculturationist bent. The Crusade for Justice and its charismatic leader, Rodolfo ‘Corky’ Gonzales, came to defi ne a new ‘Chicano’ identity, as Gonzales embraced a new form of cultural nationalism and the rhetoric of irredentism (independence for the US Southwest as Aztlán), based on the frameworks of the Black Power Movement and anti-colonialism. Some, such as Reies López Tijerina, led armed community efforts to take land back from the government and those they accused of land grant chicanery in New Mexico. 3 Thus, barrios and colonias in the US Southwest became the ‘homeland’ for Chicanos seeking self-determination. Others, in Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Antonio, took different approaches to the problems of the urban environment, yet to different degrees also embraced a Chicano identity and a cultural nationalist worldview. La Raza Unida Party (RUP) in challenging the one-party system in South Texas also embraced cultural nationalism and community control, as it likewise sought to benefi t from federal funds in attempting to remake society for residents of Crystal City, Texas, and other South Texas colonias . Briefl y shining as a national third party, the RUP embodied, as did the Crusade for Justice, the potentials and limits of cultural nationalism. Throughout this era, Mexican Americans remade themselves as Chicanos, and even if they failed to adopt the Chicano appellation, they incorporated elements of cultural nationalism into their repertoire. 4
The War on Poverty had a great impact on the Chicano Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The OEO provided the framework for solutions and responses to urban problems for Mexican Americans and other minority groups. The OEO grew from efforts to end poverty at the state and federal level and targeted the social problems that appeared to lock people in poverty. In an effort to end poverty in cities and rural areas alike, the United States committed itself to bring all Americans into the mainstream by funding programs to help the poor help themselves. For its primary architect President Lyndon Johnson, the War on Poverty was an extension of the New Deal. A large package of progressive measures was passed after the assassination of President John Kennedy, and Johnson pushed for revolutionary reforms in the areas of voting rights, education, immigration, and poverty. The Cold War effort to convince underdeveloped nations to align with the United States and the recent death of President Kennedy created a unique opportunity for Johnson, a talented politician with signifi cant experience as a former Senate Majority Leader, to pass legislation quickly in 1964 and 1965. The Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), which created the OEO, was part of this reform package, and with it many African Americans, rural whites, and Mexican Americans saw real opportunities for community betterment and upward mobility. 5
Mexican American community activists and other concerned citizens greeted the creation of the OEO with guarded optimism as they looked for creative
ways to remedy the worst problems faced by poor people in the United States. From Los Angeles to New York and points in -between, political machines, social reformers, community activists, and everyday people developed plans for the creation of Community Action Agencies (CAA) to help inner-city residents, Appalachian villagers, and migrant farm workers enter the mainstream through programs that sought to provide education and training and allow for personal and societal transformation. The OEO was nothing short of a revolutionary reform model, but its aims were not an overthrow of the status quo, but rather an expansion of opportunity within the framework of American capitalism. Upward mobility within cities, small towns, and mountain hamlets and prosperity for the less privileged was the goal rather than social revolution. In fact, many argued that the OEO would help reduce the number of urban rebellions and assuage discontent in the barrios and ghettos of the United States. By trying to bring about even these moderate changes, however, the OEO was often deemed radical by urban machine and rural politicians nationwide. The War on Poverty was itself a challenge to the established class structure of American society, politics, and economics, and CAAs often attracted young minorities and committed leftist youth to the mission of social reform. Chicanos responded to the call and engaged the OEO by participating in, managing, and agitating for community control of the War on Poverty organizations serving their neighborhoods. Often the War on Poverty led to confl ict between African Americans and Chicanos, but it also led to coalitions and cooperation. Some Mexican Americans would strike out on their own path without aid from the OEO, as others sought ways to balance a commitment to the Chicano Movement with accepting support from government funded programs for uplift. 6
This chapter explores the main activist developments of the Chicano Movement’s protest phase with an eye to understanding the complex origins of the movement, as well as the many parallels across social movements. When considering the Chicano Movement through the web of support structures such as the War on Poverty, as well as the institutions that sought to undermine it such as the police and FBI, one sees that the state response was varied and complex and that the movement itself, while militant and radical, also focused on the specifi c demands of participatory democracy, ethnic pride, and an ever more expansive view of economic and educational opportunity. The revolutionary aspect was embodied in the many examples of upwardly mobile and often acculturated youth rejecting the proscribed model of mobility without ethnic identity in favor of an Americanism that allowed them the liberty to defi ne and shape a new identity as Chicanos and call attention to the many injustices of the past, as well as the ongoing discrimination against and persecution of their people by the police, educational system, and the broader society. Chicano nationalism was in this view, for all but the committed irredentists, a radical refashioning of Americanism.