Chicano Power: The Emergence of Mexican America

An excerpt from Chicano Power:

Cesar Chavez breaks his 25-day fast by accepting bread from Senator Robert Kennedy Delano, California.

IT WAS MIDSUMMER 1972, two weeks after he had turned down a place on his party’s presidential ticket, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, in that flat Boston twang so reminiscent of the voices of the other Kennedys, was recalling the past for a people whose own history on the continent predated that of his New England constituents. But it was the recent past that Kennedy recalled, a past marred by the deaths of two brothers who had symbolized a hope and a promise for the people whose cause Kennedy himself was now taking up. He was encouraging his hearers to make an active commitment to their own betterment, to confront the country’s political parties, even his own, and make them respond.

“Robert Kennedy shared that view,” Kennedy said. “He walked the streets of the barrio in East Los Angeles, he broke the fast with Cesar Chavez in Delano, and he committed himself to alter the conditions of poverty and discrimination in this country. For he believed, as I do, that this nation can never be completely free nor completely whole until we know that no child cries from hunger in the Rio Grande Valley, until we know that no mother in East Los Angeles fears illness be 
cause she cannot afford a doctor, until we know that no man suffers because the law refuses to recognize his humanity. It is not for the Chicano alone that we must seek these goals. It is not for the disadvantaged alone that we seek these goals. It is for America’s future.”

Kennedy was addressing the national convention of the American G.I. Forum, one of the countless Mexican-American organizations organized in the twentieth century to fight the discrimination and injustice inflicted on Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. Unlike the crying child from the Rio Grande Valley and the poor mother in East Los Angeles, the Mexican Americans whom Kennedy was addressing at Washington’s plush Statler Hilton Hotel were white-collar Mexican-American businessmen and professionals. They represented the small fraction of Mexican-Americans who had rid themselves of the poverty that had plagued them or their ancestors in years past. Socially and politically, however, the Mexican Americans who had gathered at the Statler Hilton remained disenfrachised, even if they were no longer poor. At best, many were tokens in the business and professional worlds. But they were token representatives still highly concerned about the plight of their people.

Four years earlier, Mexican-Americans in California had rushed to Robert F. Kennedy’s support in his quest for the Democratic party presidential nomination, and the outpouring of Mexican-American votes helped him win the California primary that for a few moments made the nomination seem secure. In 1960, Mexican-Americans throughout the Southwest were actively and emotionally involved in John F. Kennedy’s campaign, organizing Viva Kennedy Clubs that ultimately provided the balance of power in Texas and swung the state’s large block of electoral votes to Kennedy, nudging the Democratic ticket just over the number of electoral votes needed to win.

6x9_3aYet a dozen years after John Kennedy’s presidential campaign, living conditions for most of the country’s Mexican Americans had not improved significantly. And since an atmosphere of hope existed even as late as 1968, it was easy to blame the slow progress of the past four years on the Nixon administration, as Democrats already were quick to do in a presidential election year. Ted Kennedy’s basic speech for much of 1971 and 1972 had been what reporters traveling with him dubbed the “forgotten promises” speech. In it he enumerated five promises he said Richard Nixon had failed to meet—to end the war and inflation, to cut both welfare and crime, and to reconcile the divisions in the country. But for the Mexican American audience, Kennedy charged the Nixon administration with a different set of “forgotten promises”: the failure to convene a White House conference on the Mexican-American, the proposed cuts in funding for bilingual education, the failure to increase the percentage of Spanish-speaking federal employes, and the covert opposition to the aspirations of migrant workers and Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Union. In a rousing but little publicized speech, Kennedy said:

“As a nation, we have marveled at the bounty of our farms but overlooked the men and women who toil in the dust and dirt to harvest that bounty. As a nation, we have been silent partners in the denial of the constitutional right to an equal education for millions of Spanish-speaking school children. As a nation, we have forgotten that if the Chicanos are angry and alienated, it is we, the majority, who have made them strangers in their own land. But no one has to tell this convention that millions of Chicanos live in inadequate housing. No one has to tell this convention that millions receive inferior schooling. No one has to tell this convention that millions endure too often the weight of the law instead of its protection. . . . The callous lack of concern for the disadvantaged by this administration is shown in its strategy of dismembering the Office of Economic Opportunity, in its veto of child-care services for the poor, and its decision to turn back to the Treasury as surplus $699 million that Congress appropriated to feed hungry Americans.

“The challenge is before you. It is a challenge to force the political leadership of this nation to keep its promise to La Raza, to keep its promise to America. It is a challenge to force the system to close the gap between promise and performance. And the only way to do that is to become more active politically today than ever before, and to force the political leaders of both parties to respond.”

It was the first month of the 1972 presidential campaign, and Richard Milhous Nixon, in one of his rare personal appearances on the way to a landslide victory, had taken his reelection campaign to South Texas, touching down for three stops in the Lower Rio Gran~e Valley. In Laredo, where he inspected the government’s crackdown operation on heroin smuggling, the President was greeted by a cheering crowd of 36,000. Grandmothers in mantillas. Chicano majorettes. Farmers in denims. They packed the narrow city streets and stood six deep cheering “Hola Nixon” and “Bienvenido,” as Mr. Nixon, for the first time in thirty-two years, returned to the place where he and Mrs. Nixon spent their honeymoon.

An hour later, courtesy of the presidential helicopters, the President was in dusty Rio Grande City, where he met 1,300 high school students, almost all of them Mexican-American, paying them a visit as he had promised a year earlier. In 1971 the students from Rio Grande High School had washed cars and sold tamales to finance a trip to Washington, where they met the President in the Rose Garden at the White House. Now, in Texas, and much more relaxed than usual, Mr. Nixon told the students they had lived up to the highest tradition of the nation. The students who had gone to Washington, he said, might have sought out a foundation or a wealthy patron to finance the trip but they didn’t.

“The American tradition,” he said, “is that we help ourselves when we can…. That’s what made this country great.”

The President urged the largely Mexican-American student body to take pride in themselves and in the nation’s diversity. In an oblique reference to the traditional Democratic voting patterns of Mexican-Americans, he urged them to “let your minds become as open as they can” to all facets of the political process. “I am not going to talk about whether you become Democrats or Republicans,” he said. “The future of the country is more important than any party label….

“Be for your school, be for your team, but above all, be for your country, for America.”

Tony Castro, then a reporter with the Dallas Morning News, in the dust jacket photo for ‘Chicano Power: The Emergence of Mexican-America.’

Then, to everyone’s surprise, the President turned around and marched to the back of the stage, sat down at the piano, and gave both the students and the horde of reporters travelling with him a view of Richard Nixon that is rarely seen. Smiling, the President led the student body in singing “Happy Birthday” to U.S. Representative Eligio de la Garza, the local Democratic congressman (running unopposed in the forthcoming election), who was celebrating his forty-fifth birthday. Nixon praised de la Garza for proving that MexicanAmericans from any background can “go right to the top.”

The next day a photograph of the President at the piano appeared on the front page of almost every paper in the country, along with a news story about his campaign itinerary that made the obvious comment on his trip to South Texas: Richard Nixon was making a strong bid for the area’s Democratic Mexican-American vote.

But what none of the stories mentioned was what a careful plan the President had worked out for wooing the Mexican American vote. In the summer of 1971, the President gave his cabinet officers the word: begin naming Spanish-speaking Republicans to high positions in the administration. By election time there were no fewer than fifty Spanish-speaking civil servants, mostly Mexican-Americans, in top government positions. This was more than a new precedent; the Johnson administration had named only six Spanish-speaking officeholders and the Kennedy administration even fewer. And the White House had not failed to include a few Spanish-speaking officials among the President’s “surrogate” campaigners, who took on George McGovern and the Democrats while the President stayed behind in Washington.

But the administration’s “Chicano Strategy,” as it came to be called, did not stop with appointments. The administration took advantage of the election year to pour an estimated $47 million into projects benefitting Spanish-speaking citizens, many of them funded on a one-year-only basis. At least $11.4 million went to projects which federal officials themselves conceded would not otherwise have qualified for funding and which would not be re-funded the next year. There were documents in the President’s Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-Speaking People (the administration’s mouthpiece in dealing with the Spanish-speaking community), that directed more than $20 million to Texas and $17 million to California, these being the states with the heaviest concentration of Mexican-Americans.

In an election in which the incumbent often seemed to be opposed merely as a constitutional formality, one might ask why the President should be so concerned about the Mexican-American vote. But in mid-1971, when the administration unfolded its plan to woo the Chicanos, Mr. Nixon was anything but a cinch for reelection. That summer, beset by the Pentagon Papers, troubled by the continuing war in Southeast Asia and the failure of his economic policies, and threatened by the uproar over forced busing and a possible third-party bid by George Wallace, Nixon was neither a popular president nor a secure one. The Gallup and the Harris polls showed limited support for him, and political pundits were certain the country had entered an era of one-term presidents. By all indications, President Nixon would face another close election in 1972. And his record was winning one close race and losing another. Understandably, the election that had generated more second thoughts than any other for Mr. Nixon and his strategists was the 1960 contest. Several states could have gone the other way and given Mr. Nixon the Presidency eight years earlier. But the one state that he lost in both 1960 and 1968—the state that offered the largest group of potential Nixon converts in 1972—was Texas. In 1960, John F. Kennedy carried Texas by slightly more than 46,000 votes, but he won 85 percent of the Mexican-American vote. In 1968, Mr. Nixon, polling only 10 percent of the MexicanAmerican vote, lost Texas to Hubert H. Humphrey by fewer than 40,000 votes. GOP strategists figured that a shift as small as 5 percent in the Mexican-American votes would have carried the state’s 26 electoral votes for the Republican ticket.

In another close election, the Mexican-American vote in Texas conceivably could become the balance of power. And President Nixon, constantly mindful of the minute, momentous gap between winning and losing, tried in 1972 to make certain that he had the balance of power of the Chicano vote.

It is particularly poignant that the Mexican-Americans entered the mainstream of American politics amid the hopes of the 1960s. There was a moment in the mid-1960s, when Lyndon Johnson had declared war on poverty and promised to banish it from the nation, when all the old problems on the American agenda—race and regionalism, poverty and public education, medical care and housing—seemed capable of resolution. The country was united. Blacks and whites joined hands and marched together. There were no riots, no rancor, no revolution, no dissenters. If this was not the Great Society President Johnson sought, at least it was a society offering hope and promise to the twenty-five million American poor, amid a growing affluence around them.

But by the end of the decade, the country was cleft in two, more deeply divided than at any time since the Civil War. At home, there were riots and the beginnings of a revolution in the streets. Abroad, Am~erica was embroiled in the most unpopular war in her history.

Few groups were as patient as the seven million MexicanAmericans. If they ever felt that discrimination and injustice were unbearable, they needed only to look at the plight of the blacks, particularly in the South, to see that things could be worse. And if their hopes for a better life were ever stirred, the hopes climaxed in 1960 when, with cries of “Viva Kennedy!” the Mexican-Americans had rushed to support the presidential candidacy of John F. Kennedy, whom they felt partly responsible for electing. And when President Johnson pushed through the Congress civil rights and social legislation, aimed primarily at alleviating the plight of the blacks, the Mexican-Americans patiently awaited their turn in line, figuring that what would improve the lot of the blacks undoubtedly would also help the browns.

But the War on Poverty, much like the war in Vietnam, proved to be a disaster for the Johnson administration. While the ideal of eradicating poverty may be unattainable, the War on Poverty fell so short of the presidential rhetoric that ultimately the disillusionment of its supporters augmented the strength of its opponents. Outmaneuvered for the federal dollar by the blacks, the Chicanos turned their backs on the program and orr a President whose first teaching job had been at a predominantly Mexican-American school in South Texas. Possibly if the Vietnam War had not drawn most of the nation’s attention and protest, the Johnson domestic problems would have come under the scrutiny devoted to foreign affairs—to their profit.

So, amid the prosperity of the 1960s, the promise and hope aimed at the disenfranchised stirred their aspirations only to dash them down. Now there was an uncomfortable gap between what the Chicanos wanted and what they actually got. That gap amounted to classic conditions for revolution, in an era when revolutionary movements are unlikely to succeed. If the violence of the mid-1960s taught future revolutionaries anything, it was that violent revolution cannot succeed in urbanized America, where sophisticated communications and transportation systems can deliver national guard troops quickly and efficiently to take care of any disruption. The blacks and other new revolutionaries have had to take other routes, and gradually the Chicano revolt, too, has turned to politics. Through the political process, the Chicano movement is seeking to change the social and economic structure and ultimately to alter the political system itself.

To the extent that the Chicano movement celebrates a brown culture and nourishes brown pride, it is a positive, important, undoubtedly permanent phenomenon. To the extent that Chicano nationalism represents a retreat in hatred from U.S. society, it may be only a temporary phase. The hope is that the Chicano movement, aspiring to deal with white America on more nearly equal terms, actually seeks the good things in life; and it thus makes the Chicanos indeed faithful dreamers of the American dream—but scandalously hampered in turning that dream into reality for themselves. The way American society, particularly in the Southwest, reacts in the future to the Chicanos and other minorities and their demands for equality will define for decades what kind of country America really is. How America deals with the Chicano movement, and therefore with itself, will show it to be either the nation seen by its detractors—selfish and oppressive —or else the country seen by its defenders—painfully troubled but still holding to its original moral purpose and promise. It may be the Chicano’s role not only to struggle for his rightful share of his heritage, but also to recall white America to its own sense of conscience and destiny.