African Americans was not the only group working toward equality and justice. Spanish-speaking Americans wanted many of the same things—good jobs, decent housing and education for their children. The civil rights legislation of the 1960’s benefited Spanish-speaking people (Chicanos, Mexican American or Hispanic Americans) as well as other minority groups. Many understood that this was a beginning, but much work had to be done before they would overcome discrimination and poverty in the American society.
The Chicanos have a history of resistance to oppression. It began long before the 1960’s. The Puerto Ricans, the Cubans, the Mexicans—all fought for freedom and justice. For years after the United States annexed a huge part of their territory in the 1840’s, Chicanos, following the leadership of men like Juan Cortina, carried on guerrilla warfare against those who occupied their land. They became “bandidos.” Juan Flores, Joaquin Murieta and Vasquez fought the tyranny of the American Anglos. They were treated as criminals and protected by the poor Chicanos who wished they could do the same.
A more organized form of resistance came into being when Chicano workers began to form labor unions. As early as 1883, Mexican Americans were striking in the Texas Panhandle. La Alianza Hispanoamericana organized workers in the copper mines and on the railroads in the late nineteenth century. There were strikes of the sugar beet field workers of Colorado, of the streetcar line workers of Los Angeles and the cigar makers in Florida in 1903. Their militant resistance was spurred on by the revolutionary movements in Cuba and Mexico.
Since World War II, Spanish-speaking people have turned to politics as a way of bringing about change. On some issues, such as housing and the use of Spanish in schools, various groups have worked together. But for the most part, different groups organized around certain goals.
A number of groups were organized to fight unfair treatment. For example, when a Texas funeral home refused to bury a Mexican soldier of World War II, veterans organized the G.I. Forum. This group was determined to end discrimination. Members believed that the voting booth was where their struggle should begin. They organized voter-registration drives in communities throughout the Southwest.
Other groups also worked to elect candidates who would help Spanish-speaking people. In 1949, Mexican Americans in Los Angeles formed the Community Service Organization (CSO) to elect a Mexican American to the city council. After victory, the CSO went on to challenge discrimination in housing, employment, schools and courts of law.
Cesar Chavez was an early leader of the CSO and a worker for civil rights. He became a strong leader in a nonviolent movement to raise the standard of living for farm workers, most of whom were Mexican Americans. Chavez helped organize the National Farm Worker’s Association in 1962. Its members joined a strike begun by Filipinos of the Agricultural Workers’ Organizing Committee (AWOC). These two groups joined the AFL-CIO as the United Farm Workers’ Organizing Committee (UFWOC). The UFWOC organized strikes and boycotts against large companies that grew grapes and lettuce.
It was “La Huelga,” the militant struggle for farm workers in California led by Cesar Chavez in 1965 that awakened the whole nation to the oppression of Chicanos. Chavez was a master of modern communications. He was able to bring together Anglo and college students with uneducated farm workers. He helped to break down the wall between middle-class Mexican Americans and poor Chicanos.
La Huelga became more than a struggle for better working conditions and higher salaries. It was a movement of the poor for ending racism and inequality. It was the first successful national boycott in the history of American labor. Even so, after five years of bitter striking, the success of the workers led by Chavez must be considered minimal. The migrant workers remain the worst housed, the worst paid and the most exploited labor force in the United States. The victory helped call attention to the problems of Mexican Americans.
Mexican Americans formed other groups to fight for different needs. The Alianza, founded by Reies Lopez Tijerina in New Mexico, works to regain families’ deeds to lands lost to the federal government through treaties such as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Rodolfo Gonzales formed the Crusade for Justice in Colorado mainly to gain civil rights. La Raza Unida of Texas set up a new political party under the leadership of Jose Angel Gutierrez. These groups have grown and spread to other areas. They have used different ways at different times to reach their goals. Sometimes they have used force. At most other times, they have followed the nonviolent example of Chavez.
Today, Chicanos still do not always agree on ways to bring about change. Some believe marches are not a good means of bringing change. But many now openly speak out and demand rights as citizens.