History of the Chicano Movement

Education reform and farm workers' rights were among the goals

On The Way To The UFW Convention
Under the banner of the United Farm Workers (UFW), labor activists Gilbert Padilla (with mustache in short-sleeved shirt), Cesar Chavez (1927 - 1993) (who holds a little girl's hand) and Richard Chavez (right, clapping) are escorted by a crowd into the UFW convention.

Cathy Murphy / Getty Images

The Chicano Movement emerged during the civil rights era with three goals: restoration of land, rights for farm workers and education reforms. Prior to the 1960s, however, Latinos lacked influence in the national political arena.

That changed when the Mexican American Political Association worked to elect John F. Kennedy president in 1960, establishing Latinos as a significant voting bloc.

After Kennedy was sworn into office, he showed his gratitude toward the Latino community by not only appointing Hispanics to posts in his administration but also by considering the concerns of the Hispanic community. As a viable political entity, Latinos, particularly Mexican Americans, began demanding that reforms be made in labor, education and other sectors to meet their needs.

A Movement With Historic Ties

When did the Hispanic community’s quest for justice begin? Their activism actually predates the 1960s. In the 1940s and ’50s, for example, Hispanics won two major legal victories. The first — Mendez v. Westminster Supreme Court — was a 1947 case that prohibited segregating Latino schoolchildren from white children. It proved to be an important predecessor to Brown v. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court determined that a “separate but equal” policy in schools violated the Constitution.

In 1954, the same year Brown appeared before the Supreme Court, Hispanics achieved another legal feat in Hernandez v. Texas. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal protection to all racial groups, not just blacks and whites.

In the 1960s and '70s, Hispanics not only pressed for equal rights, they began to question the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This 1848 agreement ended the Mexican-American War and resulted in America acquiring territory from Mexico that currently comprises the Southwestern U.S. During the civil rights era, Chicano radicals began to demand that the land is given to Mexican Americans, as they believed it constituted their ancestral homeland, also known as Aztlán.

In 1966, Reies López Tijerina led a three-day march from Albuquerque, N.M., to the state capital of Santa Fe, where he gave the governor a petition calling for the investigation of Mexican land grants. He argued that the U.S.’s annexing of Mexican land in the 1800s was illegal.

Activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, known for the poem “Yo Soy Joaquín,” or “I Am Joaquín,” also backed a separate Mexican American state. The epic poem about Chicano history and identity includes the following lines: “The Treaty of Hidalgo has been broken and is but another treacherous promise. / My land is lost and stolen. / My culture has been raped.”

Farm Workers Make Headlines

Arguably the most well-known fight Mexican Americans waged during the 1960s was that to secure unionization for farm workers. To sway grape growers to recognize United Farm Workers — the Delano, Calif., union launched by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta — a national boycott of grapes began in 1965. Grape pickers went on strike, and Chavez went on a 25-day hunger strike in 1968.

Cesar Chavez and Robert Kennedy Break Bread
3/10/1968 - Delano, CA- Senator Robert Kennedy (L) breaks bread with Union Leader Cesar Chavez as Chavez ended a 23-day fast in support of non-violence in the strike against grape growers. Bettmann / Getty Images

At the height of their fight, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy visited the farm workers to show his support. It took until 1970 for the farm workers to triumph. That year, grape growers signed agreements acknowledging UFW as a union.

Philosophy of a Movement

Students played a central role in the Chicano fight for justice. Notable student groups include the United Mexican American Students and the Mexican American Youth Association. Members of such groups staged walkouts from schools in Denver and Los Angeles in 1968 to protest Eurocentric curriculums, high dropout rates among Chicano students, a ban on speaking Spanish and related issues.

By the next decade, both the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unlawful to keep students who couldn’t speak English from getting an education. Later, Congress passed the Equal Opportunity Act of 1974, which resulted in the implementation of more bilingual education programs in public schools.

Not only did Chicano activism in 1968 lead to educational reforms, it also saw the birth of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which formed with the goal of protecting the civil rights of Hispanics. It was the first organization dedicated to such a cause.

The following year, hundreds of Chicano activists gathered for the First National Chicano Conference in Denver. The name of the conference is significant as it marks the term “Chicano's” replacement of "Mexican." At the conference, activists developed a manifesto of sorts called “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán,” or “The Spiritual Plan of Aztlán.”

It states, “We…conclude that social, economic, cultural, and political independence is the only road to total liberation from oppression, exploitation, and racism. Our struggle then must be for the control of our barrios, campos, pueblos, lands, our economy, our culture, and our political life.”

The idea of a unified Chicano people also played out when political party La Raza Unida, or the United Race, formed to bring issues of importance to Hispanics to the forefront of national politics.

Brown Berets at Anti-War Rally
Two female Brown Berets, a Chicano activist group, stand together in matching uniforms. David Fenton / Getty Images

Other activist groups of note include the Brown Berets and the Young Lords, which was made up of Puerto Ricans in Chicago and New York. Both groups mirrored the Black Panthers in militancy.

Looking Forward

Now the largest racial minority in the U.S., there’s no denying the influence that Latinos have as a voting bloc. While Hispanics have more political power than they did during the 1960s, they also have new challenges. Immigration and education reforms are of key importance to the community. Due to the urgency of such issues, this generation of Chicanos will likely produce some notable activists of its own.