Revolutionary Barrio Organizing Confronts Cops, Electoral Politics, Racism
By Ernesto Aguilar
For the last 30 years, an intense counterinsurgency war has been waged against the Chicano/Latino community. From repressive anti-immigrant and English Only legislation in the West to cop murders of Anthony Baez and other Latinos in the East, authorities have used language differences, racism, perceived weakness and brute force to drive down Latino youth, community organizers and activists. But today, Chicano/Latino youth are forgoing their parents’ faith in the system for a new brand of revolutionary barrio organizing.
Since the ’90s, there has been a strong push by the media to keep Chicanos/Latinos firmly in caricature. Youth are implied to be nothing more than illiterate gangbanging dropouts. Adults are portrayed as the laborers, maids and gardeners. Their presence, while unwelcome by the likes of the press, is hinted to be a necessary evil of capitalism — of people forced by need to work for little wage in deplorable conditions. Meanwhile, reporters hype up a ‘Latin explosion’ every six years or so, as people round up Mexicano youth right outside their windows. It’s on the streets where a real ‘Latin explosion’ is building.
The promises years ago of equality and acceptance through integration have proven to be mockeries of justice to many Latino youth. Today, in Texas, California, Colorado and other states, they face harassment, photographing and detainment for “looking like gang members.” Even more laws attempt to strip them of their culture, public use of Spanish, and free expression. But the attacks have led to resistance. It’s the kind of fightback that doesn’t revolve around writing Congresspeople, but around street organizing, knowing your rights and asserting them by any means necessary.
History of Struggle
Books like Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America correctly pointed out the history of struggle waged by particularly Mexicanos in the United States. While the media chooses to treat La Raza (roughly translated, Mexicano and Latino people) as a fad or submissive minority, our roots are actually indigenous. Many who trace their origins back through Mexico and Central America are descended from tribes of people who were colonized by Christopher Columbus, enslaved and slaughtered off in the quest for land.
The centuries of oppression developed in many a deep affection for a culture that was, at its core, indigenous. Subsequent movements in recent generations have harkened for a union of Aztlán, the mythical place of origin of the Aztec peoples. In the Aztecs’ native Nahuatl language, which is still spoken in some areas, Aztlán was believed to have been an island (“place of herons”). The civil rights movement adopted Aztlán as the name for that portion of Mexico taken over by the United States after the Mexican-American War of 1846, on the belief that this greater area represents the point of parting of the Aztec migrations. There is some truth to this in the sense that the groups that would subsequently become the various Nahuatl-speaking peoples of central Mexico passed through this region in a prehistoric epoch, as attested to by the existence of linguistically related groups of people distributed throughout the U.S. Pacific, the U.S. southwest and northern Mexican regions. Known as the Uto-Aztecan-Tanoan group, they included such peoples as the Paiute, Shoshone, Hopi, Pima, Yaqui, Tepehuan, Rarámuri (Tarahumara), Kiowas and Mayas.
The war in which Mexicano land was seized is infamous. Texas became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase; but was ceded to Spain in 1819 during the negotiations for Florida. Two years later, Mexico, including Texas, won its independence from Spain, and the United States made two unsuccessful attempts to purchase Texas from Mexico. American immigrants from the United States finally settled in Texas, leading to its secession by those immigrants and annexation by the United States. The Mexican-American War broke out in May 1846, and ended with a notorious treaty (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo) by which the United States gained not only Texas but also New Mexico and Upper California. The seizure still stings, and rings truth to activist anti-migra (Border Patrol) chant: “We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us!”
In the last 30 years, Chicano/Latino organizing has grown in militancy. In 1969, the Crusade For Justice, led by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez, organized the historic “National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference.” It was this historic conference that produced one of the liberation movement’s key documents, El Plan de Aztlán, and articulated a revolutionary vision within the movement.
The National Chicano Moratorium was called by Raza in East Los Angeles in 1970 in response to the disproportionate numbers of Latino and Black soldiers sent to die on frontlines in Vietnam and since Chicanos had been the highest number of casualties in the war proportionate to their number in the population. The barrio activists who organized the Moratorium were not the quiet variety of civic leader many had become accustomed to, but were those radicalized by the turbulent era and down to demand the U.S. end the war. The resulting police riot at that demonstration resulted in the assassination of prominent Mexicano journalist Rubuen Salazar, among others.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Salazar covered how Chicanos were treated and deprived of their rights. Bear in mind that, in 1963, when Salazar started, the Times had had one other Latino on staff in its history. Salazar wasn’t an activist in terms of participation in protests, but his passion was clear. “Chicanos resent Anglo pronouncements that Chicanos are ‘culturally deprived’ or the fact that they speak Spanish is a ‘problem,'” he wrote in one column. “Chicanos will tell you that their culture predates that of the Pilgrims and that Spanish was spoken in America and so the ‘problem’ is not theirs but the Anglos’ who don’t speak Spanish.” When police asked him to “tone down” his writings, Salazar refused. During the march, Salazar was drinking beer in a restaurant with two other Mexican officials when police warned people to leave the restaurant. When they refused, the cops fired tear gas canisters into the place, causing a shell to hit Salazar in the head. He died of a brain hemorrhage.
Through the ’70s, Chicano/Latino organizing ran the gamut of perspectives — from Ramsey Muñiz running for governor of Texas under the La Raza Unida Party banner to the direct action-oriented Brown Berets, which took their inspiration from the Black Panthers and Young Lords.
The Brown Berets trace their origins to an East Los Angeles group called the Young Citizens for Community Action, which was founded in 1967. Sponsored by an inter-faith church group, the YCCA became known for its members wearing brown berets (berets were typical of many radical groups of the period) and came to be called the Brown Berets. By 1968, the group officially took that name. The Brown Berets’ patch, which depicts two rifles and a cross, and its slogan, La Causa (borrowed from the United Farm Workers) became visible in barrios throughout California. Initially, the Berets focused on addressing problems facing youth using a peaceful-mainstream approach, but, by 1968, adopted the militant politics of Chicano liberation.
By 1970, the Brown Berets had developed a 13-point program” and concentrated its organizing in the barrios and colonias. The Berets’ “fuck the marrano” (pig) politics attracted the most oppressed sectors of the Mexicano community, and the groups Soon grew into a national organization with 90 chapters and over 5,000 members, making it the largest Chicano Mexicano liberation-oriented organization that has ever existed. The Berets published a national newspaper called La Causa, which supported student walkouts throughout southern California and elsewhere. The Berets were instrumental in organizing the Chicano Moratorium march; one of the dead was a 16-year old Brown Beret named Lynn Ward.
In 1971, the Brown Berets organized a “Marcha de La Reconquista” as a way of raising awareness. In Riverside, Calif., the Berets shot down a police helicopter. Hundreds of demonstrations were organized, from California to Texas by the Brown Berets, many leading to clashes with local cops, resulting in deaths and injuries of many of its members.
In San Diego, the Brown Berets took over a social service center and turned it into the “Chicano Clinic” and assisted in the takeover and founding of the Centro Cultural de La Raza. Publishing a paper for that community called El Barrio, police brutality aimed La Raza was exposed and the Berets called for people to defend themselves by any means necessary.
As they became more successful and feared by authorities, the Brown Berets were targets of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). By 1972, many chapters had been infiltrated by the various police agencies. This infiltration led to the arrests of many members as well as sparking divisions between members and chapters. Some of the membership fell prey to the manipulation created by police infiltrators or informants. In what is still a controversial part of history, co-founder and 24-year-old “prime minister” David Sánchez resigned from and, without consulting the central committee or its general membership, dissolved the Brown Berets:
Barrios Under Siege
Many barrios today are struggling with battles the Berets were formed to confront — battles from outside and within. Police brutality is still a specter. Gang culture, some a carryover from ties in Mexico, divides many communities. Poverty and purposeful isolation by leaders in many cities exacerbates many ills. And, sadly, politicians, including former activists, intent on oppressing the community as well as developers intent on gentrifying the areas, besiege many barrios. In many barrios, there’s a sense of betrayal by ‘community leaders’ figuratively sleeping with the enemy and of ideals they learn aren’t applied to them.
Nationalism is still strong in the barrio. Years of lies and a history of colonialism have demonstrated to many Raza that trusting each other first is often the best, if often faulty, policy. However, that loyalty is tempered with a sharp eye to deeds. Plenty of vendidos have sold the community’s trust for better political position or favor from the dominant power structure, and barrio organizers are, more often, calling to the carpet the people and politicians for their actions against the community. To the white left, this brand of accountability strikes at the core of contradictions with revolutionary nationalism. For the community, however, the contradiction is between words and action; people who come from the barrio and fail its people are owed suspicion. Such is the evolution of experience.
Just as critical to the transformation is the understanding that the political system itself targets the community specifically.
“As our population grows we can see how we are being attacked in a very organized way. Money is being taken away from community-based social services (health, counseling, child care, etc.) and put into law enforcement (police, prisons, anti-gang police unit programs). We are robbed of decent education, jobs are being taken away, and the mass media continues to paint a criminal image of Raza as we’re labeled ‘gang’ members, dope dealers, and ‘illegal aliens’, etc.,” note Barrio Warriors organizers. “We are made to look like we’re the cause of those social problems Chicanos are really the victims of. If we drop out of school, fall into the suicide of drogas (drugs), become a prison statistic, or join in the madness of barrio violence, the blame is put on us and not on the system that must at all costs, continue to keep us uneducated, unskilled, poor and disunited.”
The barrio issues being faced aren’t much different from the issues all poor people face. Indubitably, what barrio activists are demanding isn’t a great deal different from many populists, or even what the Black Panthers stood for: decent jobs, healthcare and housing, an end to police violence and an end to targeting the barrio. Why isn’t the revolutionary left reaching out to this segment? And why isn’t this community reaching out to them? Many reasons.
Among some barrio activists, there’s a sense that Latinos have a history, politics and value system the white left won’t or can’t understand. White leftists, like the Revolutionary Communist Party, who attempt to co-opt barrio organizations with Anglo leadership, have stung others. For example, the League of Revolutionary Struggle, a white left-led “revolutionary” group, became heavily involved with the Raza youth formation Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán (MEChA) in California during the 1980s. The LRS, whose operatives landed key positions in influential MEChA chapters, ended up redirecting most MEChA activism into the Democratic Party and supporting “progressive” candidates instead of its original calling of uniting students with their barrios. Similarly, barrio activists have found their marches, meetings and actions overrun by groups looking for recruitment opportunities instead of barrio liberation. The Maoist International Movement was taken to task for their paper hawking at a Chicano Moratorium commemorative march, and later exposed its true colors.
“While we agree with your organization that the liberation of Aztlán is necessary… we do not agree that single-national organizing should be treated as a cardinal question, certainly not above how that’s racist,” the group notes in the letter, published in MIM Notes 108 (“Letter to Union Del Barrio”). “MIM thinks that the formation of a Maoist Internationalist Party (MIP) of Aztlán would be an excellent development. If you wish to form one on your own, MIM will support it and will allow our own Raza members self-determination as to whether to stay with MIM or whether to join the new MIP.”
Increasingly, such patronizing attitudes have raised the question of Chicano/Latino autonomy. A clear analysis relates that white-led multinational formations, whether they are conscious of it or not, are serving colonialism when trying to divide barrio organizations and creating, in Marxist slang, “poles” in the community to put their perspectives above barrio groups. A great deal of it is window-dressing — using radical images like Subcomandante Marcos or the Brown Berets, for instance, but not supporting their vision, or talking a good game about police harassment in the barrio, but seeking to gain leadership roles in groups representative of the Chicano/Latino community. It’s no wonder mistrust is so high.
Nevertheless, community activism takes many forms. Various methods are being explored to cultivate a sense of responsibility and community upliftment that depends not on politicians, but the community itself. Circulo de Hombres (“Circle of Men”) is a California program that targets males in teen pregnancy prevention and reducing fatherlessness, Using what organizers call the three P’s (patience, presence and persistence), men became instrumental in program planning and creating opportunities for other men to come together with their families. Barrio organizers are also utilizing community resources, from parks to churches to weekend gatherings, to talk about pride, self-reliance and fighting a system that continues to use repression against Raza youth.
“The Police Are An Occupying Army”
On the West Coast, Unión del Barrio has been key in organizing Raza youth, and sees organizing youth into the struggle as a priority. As the Spanish saying goes “Si la juventud vive…la lucha sigue” (roughly, with the youth, the struggle continues), barrio activists see youth as the activists who carry on in the future.
A series of barrio unity conferences, put together by La Union from 1982 to 1986, each brought together over 20 different barrios from throughout San Diego County and organizers throughout Aztlán (southwestern U.S.). Numerous activists have come together in the past to join in the conferences, including the Brown Berets de
Aztlán (a rebirth of the Beret legacy), La Raza Unida Party, Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, National Chicano Moratorium Committee, Tucson Xicano Coalition (Arizona), and others. Solidarity speakers from Black and American Indian liberation movements, such as the African People’s Socialist Party and American Indian Movement, have also been involved with past events.
These barrio unity conferences have since evolved into National Raza Youth Liberation Conferences. What makes the events so important is that many of the youth activists tackle their own conditions from experience and political consciousness. Topics such as barrio violence, education, culture, organizing, police brutality, prisons, building our movement, and many other issues have been discussed at past events.
On the street, youth activists are confronting police brutality head-on by informing youth about what they are and aren’t legally required to do when stopped by the police. In a climate where cops occupying the barrio are taking advantage of ignorance in human rights to lock up youth, this information-as-weaponry campaign has been a powerful tool. “Understand that the police are the first line of defense for the U.S. government,” says the NCMC. “The police are an occupying army in the barrio!”
Journalist Juan Orozco also questions police relations. “Historically, the police in the barrios have been of poor quality, lacking the skills to comprehend the residents of the barrio. This has resulted in tensions between police and residents,” he writes in Voz Fronteriza. “For this reason, there is a profound rejection of police presence from the people in the barrio. Providing that the barrio gets more of the same quality of police — most of whom are racist and live outside the community – tensions among police and citizens of the barrio will continue to escalate.
“There is no need for more militarization of the barrio; as it is, the barrio has too many police already,” he adds. “Helicopters circle the barrio with the impression of being in a war zone.”
Youth-led organizing has plugged in with older activists to create an effective infrastructure of involvement and activism. Youth cadres are coming together in barrio-based publishing and workshops aimed at their peers. Gatherings like Escuela Aztlán in California reach kids in their own neighborhoods and teach about culture, organizing skills, and political science. The perspectives are revolutionary and on-point, discussing history and national liberation; a need to work outside the system-endorsed political offices and taking organizing to the streets, among friends and family; and of building a larger barrio revolutionary movement.
Of course, some activist segments are mired in backward thinking. The Nation of Aztlán, for example, is notorious for its online homophobia. It’s symptomatic of the kind of machismo that believes Latinos can’t be gay. “You can’t be gay. You’re Mexican!” was the response youth Rodolfo told gay Latino magazine QV he got from his older brother when he came out. The stereotype from his brother was that being gay was a white and black phenomenon. This mindset is still strong in many barrios, but it’s changing, albeit slowly. Groups like Q.U.E.P.A.S=A (Queers Understanding Education, Power, And Solidarity Equals Advancement), which serves East Los Angeles, Pomona, Long Beach, Hollywood and Van Nuys, are serving as outlets for a community with a Latino identity, but which is part of the gay community.
Abajo Con La Torcida
Some youth get hooked up with Chicano/Latino prisoner support, recognizing that a colonized people held in the oppressor’s jails need support and encouragement. High-profile campaigns, like that waged by the Barrio Defense Committee on behalf of prisoner Jose Luis Aviña, proclaim all Raza captives to be prisoners of war held by a colonial government. Others demonstrate justice for activists can seem like retribution for past organizing.
The Chicano Mexicano Prison Project tackles the question of political prisoners in its piece “Are All Raza Who Are Locked Down Political Prisoners?” The group defines prisoners in three categories: 1.) The person who gets caught committing an illegal act for political reasons or is helping defend the rights and interests of their respective oppressed community and gets locked-up for doing so; 2.) “Unconscious Prisoners of Colonialism,” or those who commit an “illegal act” and get locked up; and 3.) “Conscious Prisoners of Colonialism,” the colonized person who commits an “illegal act,” goes to jail and while in prison gains a revolutionary consciousness.
Political prisoners, the CMPP argues are not only those charged with specifically political “crimes,” but those activists whose “non-political” charges are more than suspect. “These people, these freedom fighters, that consciously choose to take action to help their communities, to help their people, [and] if they get caught, these are Political Prisoners. In many cases they don’t even have to commit a crime,” notes the CMPP. “The system will lock them up anyway. All they have to do is raise their voices loud enough for the government to hear and they will get locked up. That is what has happened to Fred Hampton, Jr, Geronimo Pratt Ramsey Muñiz and numerous other freedom fighters.”
The cases of Raza activists Ramsey Muñiz and Alvaro Hernandez Luna are still prominent ones in the minds of many.
On December 16, 1994, Ramiro “Ramsey” Muñiz, a longtime activist, was sentenced to life without the possibility of release for the possession of 40 kilograms of cocaine in a car he was driving near the hotel where he was staying in the town of Lewisville, Tex. According to supporters of Muñiz, his attorney, and the records of the DEA agents themselves, the arrest of Ramsey Muñiz has all the markings of a frame-up.
The person that the DEA agents were originally in pursuit of and had earlier made a drug deal with, an individual named Donacio Medina, was set free and no charges were filed against him. Juan Gonzalez, an acquaintance of Muñiz, rented the car, in which the cocaine was found. Medina asked Muñiz to drive the car from one location to another while Gonzalez followed in another car. The DEA further claimed Muñiz used a false name when checking into his hotel, so as to hide his identity, when instead, had actually used his own name, as shown on the hotel records. Attorneys also claimed Muñiz was making suspicious phone calls from the lobby. However, his attorney Dick DeGuerin retrieved all phone records and all calls were confirmed as legitimate business calls (Muñiz, a former lawyer, was doing paralegal work for a law firm), and it was the DEA who refused to provide any information on the so-called “suspicious phone calls”. The DEA claimed that hotel employees alerted them to Muñiz’s suspicious activities. When interviewed, all employees told DeGuerin there was nothing suspicious about his behavior and that they had not contacted any authorities.
Muñiz, a popular former high school and Baylor College football star and lawyer, twice ran for governor of Texas under LRUP, once in 1972 and again in 1974. As a candidate, Muñiz called for, among other things, free education for all; breaking up monopolies; fair distribution of wealth; implementation of equal minority representation in the judicial system; abolishment of capital punishment, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, removal of trade embargoes and economic sanctions against Cuba, and the abolition of the racist Texas Rangers police force. “The Mexican American and the black communities… don’t vote because in the past they didn’t have a real choice,” Muñiz was quoted saying during his 1972 run. “Our connection with the Democratic Party has been nothing more than a cheap marriage… they have lied to us and betrayed us…Now we are divorcing ourselves from the Democratic Party” (United We Win, The Rise and Fall of La Raza Unida Party by Ignacio García).
La Raza Unida Party won several local elections and challenged the two party system, exposing the Democratic Party as being one of the two political parties representing the same ruling class. LRUP was particularly effective in South Texas, where Raza are in the majority, and forced the establishment elsewhere to address some barrio needs of and in raising the political consciousness of literally hundreds of thousands of Mexicanos.
Also, a longtime activist, Alvaro Hernádez Luna was sentenced in Odessa, Tex. on June 9, 1997 to 50 years for a police confrontation he had in the small Texas town of Alpine. A sheriff went to arrest Hernandez at his home on July 18, 1996 on a charge of aggravated robbery, which would later be dismissed. When the unarmed Hernandez questioned the sheriff’s abuse of power, the officer reportedly drew his weapon. Before he could raise it and shoot, however, Hernandez disarmed him. At his arraignment, Hernandez condemned the illegal occupation of the Southwest, the false charges, and asserted his people’s inalienable right to self-defense and to self-determination of oppressed nations. He invoked international law and demanded to be treated as a prisoner of war under Geneva Convention principles and other human rights accords.
Hernandez was the national coordinator of groups like National Movement of La Raza and the Ricardo Aldape Guerra Defense Committee, which led the struggle to free Mexican national Aldape Guerra from Texas’ death row after being framed by Houston police for allegedly killing a cop. From a previous case, Alvaro’s struggle was adopted on Dec. 9, 1990 at Hunter College in New York City by the Special International Tribunal on violations of human rights of political prisoners and prisoners of war held in U.S. prisons and jails. He was a non-governmental organization (NGO) delegate in 1993 before the 49th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. Before the U.N. General Assembly, he condemned the U.S. government’s dismal human rights record and its human rights violations of U.S. political prisoners.
Both men remain in prison.
Where is the Latino liberation movement headed? Mainstream studies of Latino politics have tended to reflect a primarily male view of political participation and political leadership. As such, the understanding of Latino political leadership continues viewing leadership as derived from official positions in elected or appointed office and in formal organizations. However, trends in Latino communities indicate that concept is expanding to include community-based, not solely position-derived, forms of leadership. In fact, much barrio empowerment leans to a great extent on the involvement of Latina women and alliances among the Latin Diaspora (e.g., Puerto Ricans, Mexicanos, Cubans, Central and South Americans, Dominicans).
Groups like Comité de Mujeres Patricia Marin and others understand the role that women play in the struggle, and more men than ever are being active in confronting and talking about sexism and the need to develop women as activists and organizers in their barrios.
Gentrification is sure to be an issue in many barrios, as developers seek new places to give young, rich white folks a place to enjoy a taste of “Latin flavor,” without the Latinos. In San Diego, for instance, barrio activists have consistently turned back efforts by the city and land barons to take areas of Barrio Logan, including the historic Chicano Park, for development. In other barrios, this has been a losing proposition. Houston’s Navigation Street barrios near downtown took many hits as the city sought to build Enron Field, a new baseball complex, and another downtown stadium initiative, this time for basketball, may already be in the works.
Gentrification and similar topics touch on a common theme. Central to the struggle is the collective ability to control the social, political and economic future of the community. Whether it’s criminal justice, land or the future of youth, self-determination, autonomy and justice remain key to needs of barrios across the United States.