The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 2003, Volume 49, Number 1
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Matthew F. Bokovoy, Book Review Editor

“¡Mi Raza Primero!”: Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978.

By Ernesto Chávez. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. b&w photos. notes. index. xvii + 166. $18.95 Paper.

Reviewed by Richard Griswold del Castillo, Professor, Chicana and Chicano Studies Department, San Diego State University

For a very few, the Chicano movement is thought of in terms of stereotypes, a Brown Beret with a clenched fist or a noisy protest march. For most, however, the Chicano movement is invisible because it is hardly mentioned in books about the 1960s. Nevertheless, there is a growing historiography about this period of activism. Chicano activists themselves have written about the movement based on their personal recollections: Reyes Tijerina, José Angel Gutierrez, and Ernesto Vigil for example. Other scholars who came of age in the 1960s have written about the movement as involved insiders: Carlos Muñoz, Ignacio García, Armando Navarro, and Mario García among others. This book by Ernesto Chávez is one of the first interpretations of the Chicano movement by the next generation–those who were not directly part of the radical politics in this period.

Chávez begins his study of the Chicano movement in Los Angeles with a lengthy analysis of the Mexican American political activities in the 1950s. He considers the leaders of the Community Service Organization, the Mexican American Political Association and other reform oriented groups as pioneers in defending the rights of Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans. They laid the foundations of later more radical protests in the 1960s.

Subsequent chapters discuss the most important of radical organizations that influenced the Chicano movement in Los Angeles: the Brown Berets, the Chicano Moratorium Committee, La Raza Unida Party, and the Centro de Acción Social Autónomo (CASA). In each case, Chávez presents a clear study of the politics surrounding each group, examining their ideological conflicts and radical ideas, their contributions to defining the Chicano movement, and the reasons for their decline. Chávez is not sentimental about pointing out the gender bias and internal strife that pervaded many of these organizations. Neither does he ignore the evidence of considerable police harassment and infiltration that helped weaken them.

In this book readers will understand the divisions within the Chicano movement: Chicano nationalists led by the Brown Berets advocated a reclaiming of Aztlán (the occupied territories gained by the U.S. in the war of 1848); Chicano politicians wanted a third party to take back the community and challenge the Democrat party; radicals inspired by Marxist-Leninist thought mixed with ideas of Chicano nationalism wanted to forge international alliances to end capitalism.

Chávez believes the Chicano leaders in Los Angeles failed to recognize the diversity of their communities and that the Chicano movement in Los Angeles did not achieve its goals because it relied on a “bankrupt” nationalist ideology. The main value of the Chicano movement, he argues, is that it is a learning tool—on what not to do. The promise for the future lies with alliances forged across ethnic lines as well as a more fluid concept of identity and community.

This is a political history, one that omits any mention of the Los Angeles-based cultural and artistic movements that created an explosion of new art, music, and literature. This part of the Chicano movement was much more successful in changing American society. It is an aspect that still awaits historical attention.

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