By Vicko Alvarez
The Chicanx community has a history that it deserves to be proud of and leaders whose actions deserve to be honored. From the courage our farm workers showed beating back exploitative working conditions to the tenacity of our students who have consistently confronted the academic white establishment, it is no mystery that we are a community of fighters. When we proclaim a need to revive the Chicanx movement of the past in the present day, however, we are showing a dangerous romanticization of Chicanx laurels and a misunderstanding of la causa of today. There is a fixation with our history that has promoted an unhealthy understanding of our gente’s roots and that has in recent years led to a detrimental standstill when we are called upon to take a side in today’s struggles. We have become too comfortable listing off our victories in public education in the 70s, our victories in the fields in the 60s, and are overall too comfortable deifying our elders. As important as it is to honor those who came before us, it is also important that we openly discuss the leaders who promoted raza empowerment while simultaneously erasing the struggles of Chicanx womyn and our lgbtq familia. As important as it is that we know the victories of our gente, it is important to also acknowledge that our Chicanx labor leaders preached class unity while excluding large communities of undocumented laborers. In order to have a more comprehensive understanding of our movement and our community, we must respect our history by celebrating as well as critiquing it. Without an intentional effort to reflect on Chicanx victories as well as mistakes, we remain ignorant of our true history and set ourselves up to repeat it.
The public conversation on Chicanx icon Dolores Huerta resurfaces every election cycle and in high profile immigration debates. She has successfully used her reputation as a social justice heroin to position herself as a public voice for the Democratic Party while also taking part in grassroots actions. Many have already criticized her loyalty to the Democrats stating that she has strayed from the ideals of her past activism, but then fall silent wondering what to make of her legacy in the present. A detailed look into the organization she founded together with Cesar Chavez, the United Farmworkers (UFW), however reveals that her activist career was always based on compromising social justice ideals and patronizing our gente. Although originally modeled as a worker union funded by worker dues money, throughout its existence the UFW accepted millions of dollars in donations from private grants as well as the Democratic Party. With money came strings and UFW leaders who were more than willing to express public loyalty to the Democratic Party even as the Chicanx community was building the independent party, La Raza Unida. Her political decisions were ones rooted in opportunism and not the needs of the working – class Chicanx community.
These political actions were accompanied by insulting treatment of their own worker community that no doubt was influenced by the electoral climate of the time. The UFW’s history includes the outright exclusion of undocumented workers who would come to be used by growers as strike-breakers during major worker organizing. While it is customary to shame a strike breaker, it more times than not feeds already existing prejudices and is overall detrimental to worker solidarity. Women and especially women of color in the labor movement have never received their due. While Huerta was allying herself to a liberal white feminist movement, women of color workers, although the backbone of UFW’s organizing, remained largely unrecognized. When they are recognized today, they are often treated as exceptional and not acknowledged as the driving force that they are.
Although Huerta and Chavez became brown Chicanx leaders in a largely white labor movement, they conceded to the limitations that the Democratic Party and white labor continues to impose on worker of color organizing, namely prioritizing the interest and image of “respectable” workers, i.e. not undocumented workers and not women of color (or at least not too many). Taking this history into consideration, exactly which Huerta legacy is it that we are still trying to honor? How surprised should we really be about her endorsement of a Democrat who has called for the deportation of immigrant children and befriends corporate elites for personal gains? Huerta, Chavez, nor the UFW are wholly representative of the entire Chicanx community today but their example as historical icons must be used to encourage a deeper conversation into the Chicanx legacies and struggles many of us have held on a pedestal.
MEChA Self Reflection
Elder Chicanx movement leaders would not have had a movement to call their own if it were not for a younger group of activists to compliment their actions. Within the Chicanx community, El Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlan (MEChA), has historically been the go-to youth organization for radical education and activism. The original founders of MEChA were crucial to instituting a radical ideology of self-determination for young Chicanxs as well as an unapologetic separation from the white establishment. Students associated with MEChA were instrumental in fights for just public education in high schools where they were being prohibited from speaking English (among other unfair treatment) and would later be victorious in establishing Chicanx Studies as an educational field at universities across the country. Similar to the UFW, however, MEChA faced challenges from being a male-dominated space and being an organization torn between staying true to Chicanx ideology and fostering a movement home for an increasingly diverse Latinx diaspora.
A simple glance at the names listed on one of MEChA’s founding documents El Plan de Santa Barbara (EPSB) from 1969, shows a host of typically male names. In due time, the original conference from which EPSB was born would eventually come to be the unbearably male dominated space that prompted a need for the first National Chicana Conference in 1971. According to conference organizers, however, Chicanas also struggled to find unity in their definition of Chicana libertad or even desire for libertad, suggesting a conflict in Chicana political and feminist ideology. Many attendees also criticized the conference for ignoring poor and working-class women, indicating an exclusion of many of our sisters at the margins of class identity.
Present day MEChA has made great strides to be inclusive of women and to have women in leadership positions but the community still faces well known challenges to gender justice internally. Amongst MEChA muxeres, there is an unspoken struggle to take the respectability politics out of our varied practices of feminism. There is still much room to discuss the preference for our Frida inspired feminism or our Jenni Rivera influenced chingona attitudes. To this day, despite the vast knowledge passed down to us by queer feminist thinkers like Gloria Anzaldua, queer students in MEChA are often at the margins of our organizing and continue to have their voices and their causes overlooked. Because many of us have been radicalized behind ivory towers, we also continue to struggle with creating methods of organizing and political education that are inclusive of our poor and working-class familias. MEChA as an organization remains active and full of potential. If the organization is to take advantage of the political climate of today and grow, however, its leaders must engage in more critical dialog about Chicanx history as well as open their eyes fully in the direction of those who have been ignored. When those at the margins of our margins come to be the majority of the leaders of the Chicanx youth movement, its political power will be unstoppable.
When El Plan de Aztlan proclaimed “por la raza todo, fuera de la raza nada” it was a call for raza unity indicative of the time. There was no question that raza came first and everything outside of raza was deprioritized or simply not important. Whether you can cite this line exactly or not, it is a well known driver of Chicanx ideology but also a dangerous remnant of our history that today has caused us to question our support for causes that on the surface do not seem to directly affect the Chicanx community. Ideologically, the Chicanx community still stands against white supremacy, exploitative capitalist systems, and continues to promote the remembrance of indigenous ancestors and the revival of their practices. In recent years, however, the Chicanx community struggled to show united support for a radical undocumented community and they have struggled to unite their own community in solidarity with a radical Black movement. It was disconcerting and suggested confusion regarding political identity, political ideology, as well as confusion regarding the Chicanx diasporic existence. Conversations regarding these decisions were not largely written about or even verbally acknowledged but anyone in these respective activists spaces knew they were happening. With the understanding that all causes initially struggle to gain mass support and that MEChA along with other Chicanx organizations presently ally themselves with both movements, it was nonetheless discouraging to know that any leader in the Chicanx community would second guess such a decision and allow months if not years to pass before expressing support. It had many Chicanx and Latinx activists questioning the political relevance of the Chicanx community today.
The aforementioned trepidation is indicative of a paramount problem, which is Chicanxs’ struggle to find unity in their understanding of Chicanx identity and the ideology that drives the Chicanx causa in the present day. Unity (or disunity) in ideology is by no means a struggle specific to the Chicanx community, but it is one that must be unabashedly addressed in our community now. With that said, if you identify as Chicanx, what does it mean to you for the Chicanx community to be liberated in 2016? Chicanx as an identity is inclusive of undocumented Chicanxs and it is inclusive of Black Chicanxs, so why the hesitation to take action por la raza? The undocumented community and the Black community also exist as allies to Chicanxs with many intersecting struggles, so how can we also more swiftly show solidarity for struggles that are found fuera de la raza? Some MEChistas maintain that a change must be made to the organization’s internal structure. MEChistas have called for a change to the structure since my days as a chapter Co-Chair in 2008, but remains mostly unchanged.
To be a conscious “people of the sun” in the 60s, 70s, or 80s is not the same as it is today and we cannot now, nor can we ever again, afford to stutter in our support for the oppressed.We must do everything possible to speak when our people say it is time to speak and move when our people say it is time to move. We must commit ourselves to a stronger process of questioning, more critical and public discussions of our history, and a radical reflection of who we are as Chicanxs today in order to discover our united political ideology, if one is to be found.