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El Movimiento: A Brief History of the Chicano Movement | Race and Culture

'There's other people that have been oppressed, systematically oppressed, institutionally oppressed, and experienced racism,' said Dr. Lorena Márquez of UC Davis.

SACRAMENTO COUNTY, Calif. — The Civil Rights Movement was a struggle for racial justice and equality for Black people in the 1950s and 1960s. It was led by civil rights activists, like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and others who consistently pushed for change and challenged institutional racism against people of color. 

But another fight also emerged. Through the Chicano Movement or El Movimiento, people of Mexican descent struggled for equality and fairness.

"The Chicana-Chicano Movement really forced the U.S. to really break the narrative of the binary of black and white," said Dr. Lorena V. Márquez, Assistant Professor of Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Davis.

"There's other people that have been oppressed, systematically oppressed, institutionally oppressed, and experienced racism. The Chicano and Latino community had lived in poverty for centuries. These people were colonized and given legal rights as whites, but those rights were never exercised. They were a segregated minority in the American west. We had schools that segregated ethnic Mexicans. They were called 'Mexican Schools' under the premise that language was an issue. But many of the children who attended these schools were born and raised in the U.S. and didn't speak Spanish. There's a lot of that history that's not told." 

Civil rights leaders, like César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and others stood up for workers' rights, political representation, improved education, self-determination, and so much more.

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In 1962, Chávez and Huerta, along with labor leader Gilbert Padilla and other organizers, formed the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in California to protect farmworkers. It later became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). To this day, the UFW continues to actively champion legislative and regulatory reforms for farmworkers covering issues, such as worker protections, pesticides and immigration reform.

"The Chicana-Chicano movement emerged in 1965 when César Chávez and Dolores Huerta launched their great boycott through the United Farm Workers union," Márquez said.

"There were many goals of the movement. César Chávez and Dolores Huerta wanted to have basic rights for the farmworkers, such as bathroom breaks, lunch, an eight-hour workday, and a living wage. Also, in the 1960s, pesticides were being dropped on farmworkers as they labored. They had all sorts of medical conditions, including cancer. Cancer clusters, actually, in the Central Valley, along with children that were being born with birth defects."

On September 8, 1965, more than 800 Filipino farmworkers affiliated with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), a predominantly Filipino labor organization, struck ten grape vineyards around Delano. They demanded better wages and working conditions. Two veteran organizers, Larry Itliong and Ben Gines led the strike. It became known as the historic Delano Grape Strike and Boycott, lasting five years.

Also, in 1965, NFWA voted overwhelmingly to join the grape strike with the Filipino farmworkers, resulting in picketing ten additional vineyards, in addition to the sites already targeted by AWOC. The fight for farmworkers turned into a bigger movement for civil rights. 

On March 17, 1966, Chavez led a historic 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to raise awareness about the conditions in the fields. The march started with a small group, most of them being Mexican and Filipino farmworkers. 

But, as workers passed through the dusty highways and farming communities of the Central Valley, thousands of supporters joined the cause for justice. That includes student activists, union organizers, civil rights workers, members of the clergy, and more.

"It was really the African-American civil rights movement that was launched in the American South that set the tone for civil unrest and social justice causes," Márquez said. 

"Sacramento was the hub, the receiving place where people protested. We also had folks from the Black Panthers in Oakland who made their way to the State Capitol. So, whether you wanted to see it or not, it was in our backyard. In the African-American movement, they had the establishment of the NAACP. Chicanos and Chicanas had a similar civil rights advocacy group called LULAC. Chicanos and Chicanos were also involved in politics. They wanted representation, better housing, and health care. There was also a student movement that wanted to bring Chicana and Chicano studies to high school campuses. We also had the founding of La Familia Counseling Center that lives to the present day. These are all outcomes of the 1960s."

Outside of protests and marches, art also played a significant role in spreading powerful messages and unionizing communities. The Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF) was an artist collective established in the 1970s in Sacramento to help push for social change through prints, murals and photography. 

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Sacramento's Latino Center of Art and Culture also grew out of the movement, serving as a hub to local artists. The center was originally founded in 1972 as La Raza Bookstore.

"A group of Chicano students that were at Sacramento State noticed that there weren't enough books or information about the Mexican history or the communities in Sacramento," said Marie Acosta, Executive Director of Latino Center of Art and Culture. 

"What was our history? So, they founded a cultural center. Chicano students, who were also artists and activists, became engaged in the bookstore created a gallery. The whole site became a site for public gatherings. It was a fight for justice, and a lot of the artists came from those families, they were migrant families, they worked in the fields."

Dominick Porras, a community artist and activist, grew up during the Chicano Movement in Sacramento. He recalls his family attending marches and working with Chavez and other community leaders to fight for social change.

"My parents and their parents worked heavily in the fields of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas," said Porras. "My father was also the media person working with César Chávez. My earliest recollection of being involved in the Chicano Movement was attending huge marches with the United Farm Workers, often, marching alongside César Chávez. I was able to have the wonderful experience of being around great leaders, like Dolores Huerta, Joe Serna, Isabelle Serna, recognizing the playing a part in politics is an important part of being a Chicano in Sacramento. It's important to be involved within the community because, you know, this is your voice."

The Chicano movement resulted in improved conditions for migrant workers, the hiring of Chicano teachers, and people of color represented in politics. But people of Mexican descent are still fighting systemic racism and discrimination. Community activists, like Porras, Acosta, and others, are continuing to push for more to be done.

"We are proud of who we are," Acosta said. "We are proud of our mestizo's heritage, we are proud of our farmworkers' heritage, we are proud of the contributions our community has made to this city, to the state and to the country as Latinos. We took on the word Chicano to signify that we are an active community, we have an identity and a purpose that is clear, that we wanted to bring this understanding of our history, culture and legacy, of our contributions, to Sacramento."

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