Revisiting the Chicano Movement

This is a concise essay, in response to a final exam question, “Was (the Chicano Movement) a ‘revolution,’ or was it more in line with the reformist activism pursued by the so-called Mexican American generation of the 1930–50s?” But as I worked on the reply and watched people rise up and take to the streets, it seemed important to share so that people can remember their history and the long road to justice and equality.

Disclaimer: This is by no means the entire story, to understand completely takes hundreds of hours of study, this is not posted to initiate academic or political debate, it’s here to read, so that you can further your research and explore America’s complete history which includes the Chicano, Native Americans, Africans, and Asians. If you are curious and need more clarification, please leave your questions below.

In order to understand the Chicano Movement it’s important to understand the history of Mexicans in America. America was founded by Euro-Americans who supported legal slavery. They had expansionist goals and motivated by “Manifest Destiny” and their divine right to expand sovereignty across the North American continent. At this time, racism was the unifier of Euro-Americans because it gave them advantage in retaining economic control and political power. Slavery had been illegal under Mexican Law, but Euro-Americans brought slaves into Texas.

The filibuster and occupation of Texas led to the Texas Revolution in 1835 and ultimately the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Since then, Mexicans were forced to merge into Euro-American culture and subjected to a loss of citizen’s rights, land titles and religion, where many lost a degree of dignity. (Acuña, p51) Examining the long duree, this essay will discuss the significant historic moments of Mexicans in America and their relationship with Euro-Americans from the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) to the Civil Rights Movement (1960s). The Chicano movement is not event dominated, the reformist activism of the Mexican American Revolution pursued during the 30–50’s, and their long tradition of activism allowed Mexican Americans to seize the moment and create the Chicano “Revolution” which emerged as a mini-system within a larger Civil Rights Movement.

In pre Civil War America, the color of one’s skin and caucasian appearance played a significant factor in all relationships. Mexicans who were dark had few options and suffered discrimination and exploitation. In spite of the Treaty of Guadalupe giving then the right to live in Texas, and classifying them as “white”, Mexicans were forbidden from entering the country, associating with blacks, and accused of inciting slaves. Texas businessmen didn’t hire Mexicans as labor because they argued that it gave black Africans “a false notion of freedom”. Additionally, American merchants started to lynch Mexicans because they were enraged by their ability to transport cheaper goods more quickly. Euro — Americans used violence as a way to gain social control and the lynching of Mexicans and African Americans became common place from 1848–1928. (Acuña p 67).

Lynching of Mexicans in Texas

In the 1870s, after the Civil War, the United States (US) entered the Gilded Age and began its rapid industrialization. The railroad was a growing industry and facilitated the migration West, while in the Northeast, factories and urban centers grew. European immigration increased as well as a labor surplus, which triggered limitations on immigration and the passage of Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). The act reduced the number of Chinese and Japanese immigrants coming into the US. By the 1900’s, as America continued to industrialize, numerous land companies and irrigation projects increased the demand for agricultural workers. California had been impacted the most from the Chinese Exclusion Act because of their dependence on indigenous and Chinese workers increasing the demand for Mexican labor. At this time, Mexicans were frequently pitted against African Americans to drive down the African Americans wages, though neither group was paid the same as Euro -Americans.

When the Mexican immigrant population increased to 10% of all immigrants in the US, it triggered a racist nativism and xenophobia towards Mexicans. American nativists saw Mexicans as aliens regardless of where they were born, and racism worsened with attempts to exclude Mexicans from citizenship, in spite of conditions set forth in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which made all Mexicans white with the legal right to immigrate. As the discrimination increased, Mexicans grew politically active, and began organizing. They promoted self-help /mutual aid societies and in 1911, the Partido Liberal Mexicano (MLP) was formed with the intent to improve justice, guarantees of the rights of citizens and freedom of the press.

By World War 1 ( 1914 to 1918), there were significant labor shortage and the US relaxed its immigration controls. The rise of the Bolsheviks in 1917, increased Euro-American xenophobia and the wave of European immigration slowed. Mexican workers began to fill a larger number of jobs in the Midwest and were often used as “scabs” or strikebreakers which then created resentment among other Black and Anglo workers. As part of the war effort, Mexicans and African Americans were drafted into the army serving as troops. Mexicans finally began to feel more American as they assimilated in the US and felt more entitled to constitutional guarantees as citizens.

After World War I, an economic slowdown occurred, and nativists made all foreigners scapegoats. By 1920, the US Mexican work force was split between agriculture (45%), manufacturing (26%), and transportation ( 19%) with 51% living in the cities.

Mexican Deportation

Mexicans were subjected to deportation and repatriation programs. Deportation was forced and repatriation was a voluntary relocation to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and other states within the US. Additionally, the racist nativism generalized all social and economic classes of Mexicans which allowed for segregation. As the country went through the period of Americanization, Euro-Americans established English only schools. These schools served to segregate Mexican children claiming that they were “dirty, shiftless, lazy, irresponsible, unambitious, thriftless, fatalistic, selfish, promiscuous, prone to drinking, violence, and criminal behavior.” These racial stereotypes placed Mexican students into vocational programs, claiming that they were intellectually weaker as students. (Acuña, p186)

Segregated Mexican School in California

The economic liberalization, and philosophy of laissez faire triggered a reduction in government regulation and antitrust enforcement which led to economic crash. In America, between 1929 and 1932 more than 13 million workers had lost their job and once again, immigrants became the scapegoat. Because of lack of adequate education and racial stereotypes, Mexicans were the most vulnerable during the Great Depression. Mexicans worked in the most menial jobs, which resulted in many searching for seasonal farm work.

Meanwhile, the Mexican Americans who returned from the war, became new leaders within their community and in the 1930’s the League of United Latin American Citizens ( LULAC) was created. The LULAC continued efforts towards economic, political, social and racial equality for all Mexicans.

The completion of the railroad, facilitated the relocation of Mexicans to the West Coast. Though Mexicans migrated to cities, agriculture remained the primary employer. In California, factory farms were the predominant employer resembling the “hacienda” forced labor systems where contractors delivered Mexicans to work for the grower. California had countless operations that maximized its profit by hiring labor at the lowest possible rate. All farm workers experienced extremely low wages, and worked under extreme conditions. If Mexicans complained of low wages and harsh conditions they were deported and replaced with new labor. As a result of low wages and poor working conditions, Mexican workers made efforts to unionize. Though small Mexican labor unions existed, in California attempts to organize were strongly opposed by agribusiness owners and any strike attempts lead to the arrests of the union activists. Additionally, the factory farms system made it difficult to unionize because the grower hired a contractor (middleman) who paid workers after subtracting their fees.

By the Second World War, (1939 to 1945) once again many Mexican Americans served as soldiers in the war. This time, they were subjected to a new form of racism, being excluded from the war narrative — along with African Americans. Only Anglo-Americans suffered from the death of family members or displayed extraordinary efforts as soldiers. In 1941, the African American and Mexican American activists organizations pressured President Roosevelt to establish greater equality for workers resulting in the Fair Employment Practices Commission. The Fair Employment Practices Commission would trigger the dawn of the country’s move toward a Civil Rights Agenda.

The need for equality for all became the popular position of the time and as a result, in 1946, Mexican Americans made forward progress with Mendez v. Westminster School District and Delgado v. Bastrop Independent School ruled that segregation of Mexican children was unconstitutional and that they had the right to equal protection of rights.

As the US entered the Cold War, Mexican and Japanese Americans became the new scapegoat of choice for racist nativism, in spite of the fact that most all Mexican Americans were citizens.

McCarthyism created new forms of segregation in many parts of the country, which included Mexican Americans as well as African Americans. Also, as part of the Cold War politics, many industrialists blamed unions for work stoppages which triggered the passing of the Taft-Hartley Act. The act gave states permission to pass right-to -work laws and maintain greater control over workers at a time when Mexican Americans had made forward progress in industrial unions.

In the late 1940s until the late 1960’s the Civil Rights Movement emerged, as well as the Chicano Movement. For the Chicano, a new cultural identity was born, the word Chicano’s derived from the Nahuatl word for Mexico. The ideology behind the Chicano movement was “Chicanismo” personify an ancient metaphor “that man is never close to his true self as when he is close to his community”. The Chicano Movement was triggered by the Cuban Revolution and the election of President John F. Kennedy. These two events were important because Kennedy was the first to recognize and value the Mexican existence and contributions to the development of the US. The Cuban Revolution and the leadership of Fidel Castro was also important because the community watched to see if he would eliminate corruption and capitalism on the island. The Chicano movement involved multiple actions and strategies, which included activists literature, as well as artists and scholars who aimed to create a Chicano consciousness. As well as significant events such as the United Farm Workers movement, El Teatro Campesino, creation of El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, (1969) and El Plan de Santa Barbara.

During this time, Mexican Americans organized around their interests, uniting their culture and focused on equality for the group. They worked to overthrow the system which facilitated housing discrimination, subjected individuals to police brutality, provided sub standard educational, heath and transportation services and supported the continued exploitation of migrant agricultural families and workers.

Dolores Huerta

In the 1960s, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta worked to protect the rights of the most vulnerable and end the exploitation of migrant agricultural workers and families. They created the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) and organized the “huelga” (strikes).

Chávez used nonviolent protests and also sought to initiate a worldwide economic boycott of California table grapes. Chávez also incorporated music and theater to teach, inspire and bring people together as they continued their strike. As a result, El Teatro Campesino was created in 1965 by Luis Valdez and facilitated the use of music, performances and people to work together within the Chicano community.

El Teatro Campesino

The Chicano movement and the Civil Rights Movement continued to gain momentum as the Americans grew tired of the involvement in Vietnam, and activists all over the world began to protest. Eventually, the Teatro would separate from the union and take on other social issues of the time such as the Vietnam war.

Grape Strike with Cesar Chavez, Delano CA

This new Chicano instilled a sense of pride and love for Mexican culture and heritage, which led to a new confidence and self-worth that empowered people to take action. Chicanos began to enter universities, join anti war efforts and examined their intellectual and political grounds; they sought to achieve equality without losing their cultural identity. Chicanos rejected Americanization, which was considered assimilation and created El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, (1969) and El Plan de Santa Barbara. El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, (1969) represented a commitment to Chicano cultural nationalism as well as pride in their heritage and culture uniting all the diverse groups within the community. It also created a sense of cultural nationalism which serves as the common denominator between all, and should be prioritized over religion, politics, social status, economics and boundaries. El Plan de Santa Barbara was a manifesto that established the framework and aims for the Chicano Studies Program to continue to educate future generations. Chicano’s also reserve the right to self-determination of the community as the endorsement of social and political action. Many supported the idea that through individual achievement, the entire group could elevate and increase educated Chicano’s in positions of power, which would solve many issues they faced resulting in a Chicano Studies academic program.

In conclusion, before there was a “revolution”, there were people who worked to be a functioning member of an Anglo-American society. Mexican Americans had a long history of activism which dated back to the conquests. Mexicans in America faced economic hardships and inequality since the ratification of the Treaty of Hidalgo, this would continue for more than a century. From the early 19th century, Mexican activists created the Partido Liberal Mexicano (MLP) in 1911 and the League of United Latin American Citizens ( LULAC), these Mexican American activists set in place the groundwork for future reformist actions. The Chicano “revolution” emerged from a set of circumstances, and was a product of the reformist activism of the Mexican American Revolution pursued during the 30–50’s. In the 1960’s, these activists were able to seize the moment, led by African Americans who sought to overthrow the social order of the time in favor of a new one, and create their own road to self determination by way of the Chicano “revolution” within a larger Civil Rights Movement.


Acuňa, R. (1981). Occupied America: A History of Chicanos.

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Humanist. Life long learner. Educator. Political Economy. Rural Poverty. Environmental activist. Photographer.

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