On Slow Writing
Some thirty years ago, when I was searching for a dissertation topic, I carried out an ethnographic study of a Brown Beret chapter that formed during the Chicano movement of the late sixties and early seventies. For seven months in 1974–1975, I hung out with a group of thirteen young men as they learned about the Berets and the Chicano movement. I was interested in understanding how they acquired political consciousness and how such consciousness transformed behavior. If I could somehow capture the essence of becoming political, I reasoned at the time, then perhaps that essence could be reproduced and disseminated. And what better material could I have to search for that political essence than the working- and lower-class street youths who were marching and protesting and calling themselves Brown Berets?
As an engaged activist, I felt that I understood most components of the broad-based civil rights movement that I was part of—farmworkers, working-class barrio residents, college students, young professionals—except for these "batos locos" (crazy guys) who identified themselves as Brown Berets. Sometimes also called "pachucos," these young males were generally considered to be delinquents or gang members. Their evident politicization looked like a promising subject for my dissertation.
Thus, when the time came to choose a dissertation topic, I decided to focus on the Chicano movement and, in particular, on the street youths who had organized themselves into Brown Beret chapters. To this end, I carried out an ethnographic study but then struggled to write it up. The experience was so charged, and the theoretical contexts so inadequate to capture and portray this experience, that I shelved the project. The study never became a dissertation. I was unable to finish it.
Thirty-something years later I returned to the material. The passage of time had provided a sense of distance and anonymity, elements that now permitted the space for a frank description and assessment. The earlier constraints no longer held: this project was not a dissertation or a study written to gain tenure, so I was basically free to shape the book as I pleased. Although there have been recent sightings of Brown Berets, the Chicano movement of which they were part no longer exists, thus eliminating the complications of movement politics and associated police surveillance problems. Just as importantly, the development of a significant literature in ethnic history and sociology in the last two decades has established the background necessary for this kind of specialized ethnography. My previous work, in particular, has described the context for the following narrative. This book, in other words, is not for beginners.
On another intellectual front, recent developments in interpretive social science have provided an opening for my material. Thirty years ago the inability to write up an ethnography as an objective study, aimed at testing certain sociological tenets about politicization, would have been seen as a sign of a failed project. Today, in the aftermath of a postmodernist critique of ethnography, this very difficulty and inability seems to constitute a sign of honesty and understanding of the ethnographic experience. The postmodernist critique provides an opening for my material—that is, for writing an ethnographic interpretation laced with autobiographical and literary references. Indeed, an undercurrent of the following narrative deals with the experience of writing, or not writing, the book. Describing this experience will help the reader understand the ambiguities and tensions of ethnographic representation that partly froze my writing. In short, the writing blocks have become part of the narrative.
In dealing with these blocks, I have leaned on those anthropologists and investigative journalists who have passed through similar experiences. I found both solace and inspiration, for example, in the predicament that social critic James Agee faced in writing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Originally commissioned to write a documentary on southern tenant farmers for Fortune Magazine, Agee discovered that he lacked the detachment, condescension, and self-confidence necessary to produce a typical "Life and Circumstances" article. He was troubled by the question "Why we make this book, and set it at large, and by what right, and for what purpose, and to what good end, or none." He lacked the quality that anthropologist Clifford Geertz called "ethical ambiguity."
Within the discipline of anthropology, such self-consciousness and uneasiness about the sharp inequality in the encounter between observer and observed created a crisis of mission beginning in the seventies. In a telling statement, anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano noted that however much the ethnographer "wishes to separate his ethnography from the ethnographic confrontation, the writing of ethnography is a continuation of the confrontation." "Indeed," he added, "at one level the writing of ethnography is an attempt to put a full-stop to the ethnographic confrontation." To this insightful statement, I would add that not writing the ethnography—or in my case writing it in ambivalent fits and starts over thirty years—is another way of putting a full stop to the ethnographic confrontation.
It is best to discuss the writing blocks now and be rid of them.
The Harder They Come
In retrospect, I can see that I had set myself up for disappointment. Looking for the key to political consciousness was a naïve undertaking, but it was symptomatic of the heady political idealism sweeping the country in the late sixties and early seventies. The convergence of an antiwar movement, a civil rights movement, and a farmworkers' campaign on college campuses filled many of us with visions of an egalitarian and just society. We drew inspiration as well from the Cuban and Algerian revolutions and other Third World liberation struggles. Domestically and internationally, the old social order of privilege and status was being challenged. How could we advance this challenge? Ideology to me seemed to hold the key. If we could harness the power of ideas, then all types of social change were possible.
The catalysts for the Chicano movement were the farmworker strikes in California and Texas in 1965–1966. The Mexican American youth had been primed for mobilization by the black civil rights movement, then a decade old. The farmworker strikes incited Mexican American college students to organize various efforts for ethnic-racial equality, and these quickly evolved into a cultural nationalist political movement. The movement spread beyond college campuses to the impoverished segregated neighborhoods as activists mobilized barrio youths in various campaigns against "gringo oppression." For their motivating lessons, movement participants drew on Mexican and Mexican American history and culture. The Mexican Revolution emerged as a major source of inspiration. Others emphasized an indigenous past and renamed the American Southwest "Aztlán," after the ancient northern homeland of the Aztecs. The despised lower-class identity of being Chicano and Chicana was embraced and invested with new meaning as poetry and literature, political theater, art, and music gave expression to a cultural-political renaissance.
Some young activists, influenced by the Cuban Revolution and the revolutionary image of Che Guevara, began wearing berets long before any official organization existed. The name "Brown Beret" was supposedly coined by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in the late sixties in reference to members of the Young Chicanos for Community Action (YCCA), many of whom sported berets. In a satirical swipe, the YCCA adopted the tag and the LAPD slogan "to serve, observe, and protect" as the organization's official name and motto (modified by some chapters to read "to serve, educate, and protect"). Its members dressed and organized themselves in paramilitary fashion to suggest a militant posture. The Berets first acquired notoriety and national publicity with the Los Angeles high school blowouts of 1968.
The idea of the Berets as a community police force quickly spread across the country wherever substantial numbers of Mexican American youths lived, reflecting considerable frustration over segregated living conditions and life chances. By the early seventies Beret chapters were involved in various local projects and manifested different levels of development. In general they all provided security at community events and protests and monitored police conduct in the barrios. The more developed chapters sponsored breakfast programs as well as after-school youth programs and published newspapers. The most advanced also ran community centers and health clinics.
This activism among barrio youth generally unfolded against a backdrop of gang conflict and neighborhood divisions. Wherever these Beret groups emerged, almost invariably one of their first goals was to end the warfare prevalent in their barrios. Chicano nationalism signified the transcendence of neighborhood identities to an overarching ethnic-racial identity. Accepting the ideas of "la raza unida" (the united people) and "carnalismo" (brotherhood)—what I mean by politicization—broke through the provincial identities of neighborhood cliques and exposed individuals to a larger world and larger sphere of action. The batos and "rucas" (girls) learned that power could be used for securing justice and righting the wrongs of the community. Understanding the change in behavior and perspective from a "street lifestyle" to the lifestyle of a Chicano or Chicana militant was what interested me.
The case of the Chicago Berets illustrates the potential and problems associated with their emergence. According to "Duque," the prime minister of the Westside (Chicago) Berets, in 1972 the Berets occupied an old settlement center (the Hull House) in the Pilsen neighborhood and converted it into a barrio center. Thus was born Casa Aztlán and eventually the Benito Juárez Free Health Clinic. Duque, with his impressive knowledge about the health politics of Cook County, made clear that the Chicago Berets were very involved in maintaining and defending the free clinic at Casa Aztlán. The Beret newspaper Mi Sangre carried accounts of what the clinic meant personally to individual Berets. One Chicana, Dolores Espinosa, wrote that not many years before she had been a "lady lord" who used to "go wild in our neighborhood streets. NOTHING CONSTRUCTIVE." Then she came across the Brown Berets. "ALL of a sudden, my life experimented a 360 degree change and my life course found a goal. Somehow, I saw the light for the first time." Espinosa was working as a volunteer at the Benito Juárez Free Health Clinic. Another Chicago Beret explained that they were militant but nonviolent and that their "militancy came from wanting to open up the eyes of the people to see how the establishment kept us down" (December 1971).
But the mobilization had not been without problems. Not all eyes were being opened. The established gangs saw the emergence of Berets as a new gang, and this created conflict. Duque noted that the cliques and gangs picked out enemies and that some had identified the Berets as enemies. The same point was made by a Dallas Beret, who said when he lived in Chicago as head of the Latin Counts he would talk about how he was going to nail (pañar) one of those guys with the "funny caps." The experience of the Chicago Berets was typical of the Beret chapters in the southwestern cities. Often the Berets as a group acquired all the personal enemies of new recruits. Personal ideological change did not necessarily mean a change in perception by an individual's friends and enemies.
Although the Chicano movement drew inspiration from various sources, international as well as national, and used culturally distinctive symbols, it was clearly informed by the black civil rights movement, especially in its "black power" phase. While Che Guevara may have inspired the wearing of the brown beret, the Black Panthers were an evident influence on the Berets' posture as a paramilitary organization. Although the ideologies of the Berets and Panthers were different, the similarities in their organizing approach were apparent.
The Black Panther strategy called for the organization of the lumpen proletariat or, as Elaine Brown put it, "the gang members and the gangsters, the pimps and the prostitutes, the drug users and dealers, the common thieves and murderers." In this they departed from Karl Marx, who had described the lumpen as the wretched of the earth who had no relevancy in a socialist revolution. Based on their reading of Frantz Fanon's anticolonial writings, the Panthers believed that members of the black lumpen, unlike Marx's working class, had absolutely no stake in industrial America and thus were the most motivated sector to lead a revolution. The urban riots had already demonstrated their rage and their readiness. The Black Panther Party intended to create politicized soldiers from that mass of energy.
In the early seventies the Brown Berets had not yet developed an elaborate ideology beyond cultural nationalism and community service. But like the Panthers, they drew upon the young male and female lumpen of the barrios, known as "pachucos" and "pachucas" or "batos locos" (crazy guys) and "rucas locas" (crazy gals), for their membership. Many young adults and teenagers were attracted to the Berets by their uniforms, various martial performances at rallies and protests, and their aggressive flaunting of Anglo (white) authority. The militancy they espoused was seemingly natural, formed in a barrio world of gang conflict and street life.
I was curious to explore the individual and group dynamics of the Brown Berets and the manner in which political consciousness was acquired. The politicization of these youths and adults fascinated me. I believed that their political "awakening" signified a change in identity and purpose in life. I wanted to understand such a conversion experience. Using my family and movement connections, I secured an invitation to observe and participate in such a group in San Antonio, Texas. I saw this as an unparalleled opportunity to observe the experience of politicization firsthand.
The invitation was to accompany the Brown Beret leadership on a visit to Cuba. In late October 1973 the Cuban government had extended an invitation to the Brown Berets and their friends to visit the island. They had accepted. Ten to fifteen chapter leaders were expected to go, and I had been invited to accompany them. Given the cultural nationalist orientation of the group, I considered this to be a potential critical development. Observing the interaction of the Beret leaders with one another and their reaction to Cuban socialism promised to be politically engaging.
The entire situation reminded me of the Jamaican movie The Harder They Come, featuring singer Jimmy Cliff, which played for a record-setting eighty weeks at a Harvard Square theater in the early 1970s. After seeing it for the first time, I understood why it had become such a classic. It reflected the sentiment of resistance then sweeping university campuses. The soundtrack, which included hits such as "Many Rivers to Cross" and "Sitting Here in Limbo," was also a favorite for those writing dissertations, as I remember.
This Jamaican movie follows the life of a country boy (Jimmy Cliff), a recent arrival to Kingston, as he tries to make a name for himself in an alien and oppressive world run by corrupt police, politicians, and businessmen. When Cliff is unable to make it as a singer, he plunges into the drug world and again finds himself challenging established monopolists. He ends up running from both cops and drug dealers. His only chance of escape is a fishing trawler on the way to Cuba. In a dramatic conclusion, Cliff swims out to meet the trawler but does not make it. He washes up onshore and dies shortly thereafter in a gun battle. Although he dies as a bandit, the implication is clear: his consciousness would have been radically different had he been able to board the trawler bound for Cuba.
In some part, my involvement with the Berets was inspired by an interest in testing such a conclusion. But the Berets never visited the island. The trip was postponed indefinitely. Trip organizer George Velásquez said that the Berets were demanding to take their cuetes (handguns) on the trip but gave no other reason for the cancellation. The trip was never rescheduled. What impact might it have had? Later I learned that a high-level Soviet delegation, led by Leonid Brezhnev, had paid a state visit during the time when we would have been on the island. Security concerns had undoubtedly been the reason for the cancellation.
In spite of this, I was still interested in the Berets as a possible dissertation topic. In the summer of 1974 I began to hang out on a daily basis with thirteen members of a Brown Beret chapter in San Antonio's Southside. The founding chapter from the Westside, the group I had hoped to spend time with, had disbanded a few months before my arrival. The Southside Berets had regrouped with four veteran members and nine new recruits. They offered the opportunity of observing a Beret chapter in the making. Through them I became acquainted with Berets across Texas. I met the leaders of six other chapters—from North Dallas, West Dallas, Waco, Austin, Hondo, and McAllen—and carried out what sociologists call "participant-observation" as well as structured interviews. I also interviewed the Beret veterans of the original Westside chapter. In short, I acquired a good sense of the diversity of the Texas Brown Beret chapters, whose ideology ranged from sophisticated class analysis to rudimentary ethnic nationalism. All chapters, however, saw themselves as a community police force or as soldiers in defense of the people. They considered themselves the vanguard or leading edge of the Chicano movement.
Publicizing such an image was the main reason the Southside Berets had invited me to hang out with them. They expected me to write a portrayal of heroic soldados (soldiers) defending the community and expected that their names and true identities would be part of that portrayal.
The "political edge" I was interested in was different. It was plain at the outset that I wanted to understand how and why these batos locos from the much-disparaged underclass had become political. I wanted to see if they had experienced a political conversion—something akin to a transformative religious conversion—that signified a sharp change in personal behavior. Initially I was drawn to Eric Hobsbawm's notion of "primitive rebels" or "social bandits" as prepolitical phenomena lacking only a philosophy through which to couch their rebellion. The story of Jimmy Cliff again loomed large. My preliminary dissertation notes made it embarrassingly clear that I was interested in understanding "the transition from the 'false consciousness' of gang delinquency to the developing 'true consciousness' of the Brown Berets." Basically I was looking for a magical key to politicization of lower-class Chicano men. This was the political edge I was interested in. Why did these guys join a political organization, and what did it signify to them?
My crude formulation ran smack into social reality. I was unprepared for the inadequacy of key sociological concepts when observing actual living people. Within a month of being "out in the field," I began to sense how naïve my formulation had been. What became clear almost from the beginning was that being political was really no big deal: these guys were just like everyone else in the way they learned to be political—through learning, sharing information, and interacting with like-minded individuals. In this respect, the dense organizational network we call the Chicano movement provided a critical environment for the emergence of the Brown Berets. Within this network, they learned to discuss politics, participated in local actions, and acquired a civic reputation. The young men began to learn how the larger society beyond their barrio was constructed. They acquired a political literacy. Without the support of the movement network, the Berets floundered and finally disappeared.
The key to understanding the politicization of street youths was realizing that no rigid or necessary contradiction existed between "being political" and "being loco." A bato could accommodate the behavior expected of the first while still practicing or maintaining the lifestyle of the second. Although a few Berets seem to have experienced a transformative conversion, for the great majority becoming political did not signify a major change of personality or of personal habits. Nor did it necessarily imply a disengagement from an underground economy, where everyday hustling might include petty theft and petty drug dealing. They did not have to speak "in tongues," however, to experience a break with the past.
Thus, aside from difficulties with the conceptual language and framework of the sociological literature, a good part of the problem of not being able to write the dissertation had to do with the fact that my original story line about the nature of politicization had vanished. The story would not be about dramatic events or about messianic conversions. Nor would it be the romantic portrayal that the batos wanted. In short, this story had no climax, no discovery of a secret key to mobilizing and transforming the lower classes—except the negative discovery that discipline is essential and that obtaining information and planning are vital steps in carrying out political action. Nonetheless, there remained an interesting story about my experience in attempting to understand this group and its social world.
The problem lay in writing it up.
On Being Embedded
The paralysis I sensed also came from a feeling that I was airing dirty laundry. The Chicano movement can be credited with bringing down the remnants of segregation in the Southwest, a major achievement. But the struggle was not romantic or pretty. This is particularly true if the lens is focused on the intimate details of underclass men as they came to understand politics. I wanted to write a candid appraisal that noted both the good and the bad. Soon I realized that the bad would have been sufficient to embarrass a still-active group and perhaps even the Chicano movement. This brought the self-doubts about my project into sharp relief.
At the base of my discomfort was a sense that I was betraying the political and personal trust I had been given. The Beret leaders expected a heroic telling of their exploits; why else would they invite me to hang out? Naturally I had been straightforward about my desire to write a book about them. This still created awkwardness, as the new recruits tried to understand what a non-Beret was doing with them. After several weeks, I had no real way to justify my hanging around in terms that made sense to them. Apparently it was an issue for the leadership as well. This ambiguity was dissipated, at least for the group members, when they unexpectedly made me an advisor and fitted a brown beret on me. Suddenly I found myself faced with an acute dilemma: how could I be an advisor to a group whose political development I wanted to study? How could I avoid what social scientists call an "interaction effect"—that is, how could I make sure that my presence didn't influence the outcome that I had come to observe?
I came to understand the dilemma from the Beret point of view: it was an organizational move to gain resources and skills and to exert some control over my writing. It was also a move to ensure my loyalty to the group. Only a Beret-affiliated writer could have license to accompany them on their various excursions. Many types of controls over my activities as a fellow member were possible—controls based on the Beret oath, on the rank hierarchy, and, importantly, on personal friendship. The Berets were keeping me close to them. To use a word popularized by the recent Iraq War, when journalists were assigned to military units, I was "embedded" in a Brown Beret chapter.
I dealt with the dilemma posed by my advisory role by devising working rules that would maintain a balance between participation and observation. One was not to give any orders. Another was never to set the pace for a discussion, to speak only after everyone had spoken—in other words, when my input would have little impact on the final outcome—and then only if I really felt that it was important to comment on the subject or to ask for a clarification. A third rule was not to give any instructions or advice unless requested. Because I adhered to my working guidelines, most of the guys soon accepted that I was there to write a book. They stopped asking me to make speeches. Generally I managed to remain an observer and "participated" only when asked to do so.
Once accepted, I was treated just like anyone else in the group. I was an equal, subject to being reprimanded like any other Beret for having missed a meeting or for not wearing the beret. I imagine that most viewed me as a somewhat straight guy. I didn't curse as much as the others, didn't cat-call women, didn't even litter. The guys joked that I would not make it in the woods because there were no books to read. Nonetheless, I developed some genuine friendships. I came to know their families. We visited each other's homes whenever we wished, and my house became a stopover for out-of-town Berets passing through. We became "camaradas" (friends).
The great advantage of participant observation or ethnography is that most information comes from "natural" or unstaged situations and conversations. This is also its great disadvantage, because natural situations provide an overwhelming amount of information, most of it irrelevant for the research interest at hand. Understandably, the Berets kept pointing out what was important. Occasionally they would say to me: "Now put that in your book." The Beret leaders mentioned activities that I should include, and several individual Berets shared stories of past exploits with my book in mind. Yet there was always an uncertainty about which details of Beret activity and stories I was going to describe. The seeming open-endedness of ethnography, especially in this movement setting, gave my exploration the sheen of an undercover investigation. One Beret jokingly said that I was going to write, "¿Qué hacen los Berets? Juegan con pistolas" (What do the Berets do? They play with guns).
Sorting out the important and relevant observations from a mass of unstaged and staged moments may be the most difficult and trying task of the ethnographer. Clearly this is one reason why ethnography remains the most problematic of all scientific methodologies. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz put it, the great irony of ethnography is that its authenticity rests on a peculiar species of good faith between ethnographer and informant that verges on bad faith. For some form of reciprocal pretense between anthropologist and host must exist, reflecting their situational agreement to welcome one another into their respective cultures regardless of the few realistic grounds for such participation. Thus, reasoned Geertz, a certain "moral tension" or "ethical ambiguity" between anthropologist and informants "lies at the heart of successful anthropological research."
That tension and ambiguity clearly permeates my field notes. Offering my grant writing services for Beret projects did little to temper it. Nor did it fully satisfy the curiosity of the leaders, who occasionally wondered who I really was and why I was really hanging out with them.
Another source for my paralysis, a corollary to my embedded position within the Berets, had to do with the fundamental race-ethnic division of the segregated society I was part of. Would my work expose barrio youth and the Chicano movement to ridicule from an "Anglo" reading audience? As a translator or interpreter in the segregated setting of Texas and the Southwest, I was aware that I was only a few steps removed from the status of "native informant." For what purpose was I writing a book that would expose the intimate behavior of lower-class Latino men? Was I a voyeur? An interpreter? An informant? In what sense was I different from a Western-trained "native" anthropologist reporting on restive youth back home in the hinterlands?
Such questions stopped my writing on this project for many years. I now realize, as I reread the materials I collected some time ago, that my hesitation was not merely a reflection of an internal personal conflict. It reflected my understanding, inchoate at the time, of the special importance that appearances or representations take on in a segregated setting. In such a setting, stock stereotypes and images generally seemed to float along, unchecked by particularistic or complicated explanations. Thus the entire Mexican American community could be shamed by the public—or publicized—misbehavior of an individual or small group. In fact, as I discuss later, a few months into my field research, a senseless killing among two friends provoked a very public and acrimonious discussion about the meaning of Mexican masculinity.
The possibility of being shamed may help explain the acute sensitivity of many Hispanics to public discussion of problems in the barrios. A mixture of embarrassment and defiance moves many to keep things hidden, for it has been clear that Anglos have very different conceptions of Mexican culture. Mexican Americans have been conscious of the tenuous claim they have over the representation of their culture in the public media. The basic reflex has been to close ranks or at least not to break past them. In such a politicized setting, how does one communicate across the cultural-ethnic divide?
The Wretched of the Earth
Unfortunately the divide was evident at the universities as well.
On the Books of Sociology
It is September, 1975, my first month as an Acting Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. The position is contingent on my finishing the dissertation. I have just given a lecture to the faculty about the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and the Brown Berets, explaining that their politicization was unexpected, given the general views of lower-class lifestyles.
After the lecture, Professor Leo Lowenthal of the famous Frankfurt School, the European Marxist I had wanted to meet, stopped me in the hallway. He turned and asked, in German-accented English, "Are they illegal immigrants?" I was struck by the question. Why was this the first question? I quickly realized that Professor Lowenthal knew little about Mexican Americans and their historical presence in the Southwest. His question illuminated a canyon-like breach, a wide fault line of knowledge and perspective, that separated us. My hesitation spoke clearly.
"Is my question irrelevant?" he realizes. He aborts the discussion quickly. "You better hurry and finish if you want to stay here," he says, referring to my dissertation. He turns away. I watch as seventy years of him limp down the hallway. I want to believe that the threat is well intentioned. Yes, I better hurry, I think irreverently.
Yet the encounter left me feeling numb. It was a familiar numbing feeling. As a young professor-in-the-making I had found that I could not speak about my interest in barrio politics or social life without confronting naïve or insulting generalizations. I had to deal with the texts of other professors who were clearly not well intentioned as Lowenthal. Professor Walter Miller of Harvard, for example, had condensed the lives of lower-class youth into a few "focal concerns" of "toughness," "thrills," "getting into" and "staying out of" trouble, an ability to "outsmart" while avoiding being "outsmarted" or "taken," and so on. Professor Edward Banfield, also of Harvard, had described the lower-class individual as living from moment to moment, unable to imagine a future. In his words:
Impulse governs his behavior, either because he cannot discipline himself to sacrifice a present for a future satisfaction or because he has no sense of the future. . . . In his relations with others he is suspicious and hostile, aggressive yet dependent. He is unable to maintain a stable relationship with a mate; commonly he does not marry. He feels no attachment to community, neighbors or friends, resents all authority. . . . He is a nonparticipant: he belongs to no voluntary organizations, has no political interests, and does not vote unless paid to do so.
In a fitting conclusion to this type of analysis, Banfield suggested that lower-class infants be auctioned off to middle-class families in order to break the vicious culture of poverty.
Sociology as I knew it spoke generally of containment and control, revealing a profound sense of suspicion and fear about an underclass, which was almost always a "colored" underclass. Nor was this grim assessment confined to a nasty American right wing. On the left were European intellectuals who maintained the disreputable view that Marx had of the "lumpen," that their history could only be one of political tragedy. Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé had shown that the urban and rural masses could rise on a crest of near-suicidal insurrectionary zeal but fall as quickly because of their narrow view of the enemy and their short list of goals. No less an author than Antonio Gramsci, the great theorist of political culture, noted that "hatred is a poor organizer, and the lessons of hunger rarely expand a man's horizons." Gramsci saw such hatred as merely the "first glimmer" of class consciousness, "the basic, negative, polemical attitude."
A few texts suggested that angry lower classes have political agency—Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth was a doctrinal text for university activists—but generally, regardless of which way one looked, literature of all political persuasions saw lower-class culture, and particularly male culture, as violent-prone, pleasure-seeking, and authoritarian: to be eradicated, according to one side; to be dismissed, according to the other. Enter, then, the Panthers, Lords, and Berets, marching into the face of such "right" and "left" views. Segments of the U.S. racial underclass already organized in adult cliques and gangs had become politicized in varying degrees. Now here was something worth looking at and comprehending.
That had been the substance of my dissertation presentation. As I saw Professor Lowenthal slowly walk away, I sensed a profound and frustrating distance. At its base, the distance reflected a divide of race and class, but it also pointed to a lack of shared knowledge and even of a common vocabulary. I had no text—no sociology, no history—that I could give to him or to my other colleagues so that they could begin to comprehend the basic context and language of my ethnography. How could I bridge the chasm or even begin looking for a way to cross? I muttered, "Yeah, I'll hurry."
I didn't hurry, obviously. Or to put it another way, thirty or so years ago I decided to work on developing the missing historical and sociological context. At that time it was no exaggeration to say that Mexicans generally made only cameo appearances in history textbooks as bandits, criminals, or immigrants. The absence of a serious treatment had allowed a popular amnesia about the Southwest and its long Mexican presence to set in. Some commentators even questioned whether Mexicans had experienced racial discrimination and were deserving of civil rights protections. The focus on immigration, which dominated the sociological and political imagination in regard to Mexican Americans, further distorted the complex history and the politics of the Southwest. Lowenthal's view of Mexican Americans, I later realized, had been informed by attorney general William Saxbe's much publicized comment that he intended to deport a million illegal aliens and "then find those who have burrowed more deeply into our society." Clearly, before I could talk about lower-class Mexican American men and distinct subsets of barrio society, I had to talk about the entire community and its American history. I had to point out the contradiction in "remembering the Alamo" and portraying Mexicans simply as immigrants. I had to establish the long Mexican presence.
Laying the Groundwork
Thus my first book, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986, was a sweeping outline of the changing relations between the two peoples over the century and a half after the "fall of the Alamo." Essentially the "narrative explanation" described the evolution of a conflictual relationship born in war and annexation and nurtured for most of the twentieth century by segregationist policies to one that by the end of the century was based on the politics of accommodation and negotiation. Reclaiming and explaining the long history of Anglo-Mexican relations was a critical first step.
Twenty-something years later I applied another layer of context to the canvass. My second book, Quixote's Soldiers: A Local History of the Chicano Movement, 1966–1981, zeroed in on the frenetic fifteen-year period when a social movement "from below" challenged and began to brush away the last vestiges of the segregated social-political order in San Antonio and South Texas. Unlike the telescopic scale of The Wretched of the Earth, where market forces and class structures had taken center stage, the ground-level focus in Quixote's Soldiers dealt with organizational formation, leadership, and specific political projects and campaigns. Of particular relevance to the present work, I noted that a remarkable but generally overlooked achievement of the Chicano movement had been the calming of barrio gang warfare for a decade.
Having laid out the historical and sociological contexts in detail, I have returned to the ethnography that in a sense inspired them. I can now describe what I learned from the everyday experience of hanging out with the Berets. With these journal notes and reflections, I bring closure to a line of inquiry that I began some thirty years ago.
This book, then, can be considered the last installment of a trilogy about a particular Mexican American experience. Thematically, the trilogy has been an inquiry into the nature of economic development, social change, social movements, and race-ethnic relations. In historical terms, the first book ranged over 150 years, the second focused on 15 years, and this, the last, basically chronicles 7 months. So these works might be characterized in terms of different temporal scales—a longue durée, an intermediate or meso durée, and now a "micro history" or account of everyday life. Sociologically, the trilogy can be read as traversing different scales of analysis, from historical to societal to individual. Making those connections—linking "private troubles" with a greater structural reality—is what C. Wright Mills called an exercise of the "sociological imagination." Readers should keep that greater reality in mind as they follow the micro-history of private troubles that I am about to narrate.
This concluding installment of the trilogy introduces the anthropological method of ethnography to my previous historical and sociological analyses. In contrast to the sociological imagination that calls for thinking beyond immediate circumstances and daily routines, we can speak of an "ethnographic imagination" that requires immersion in these circumstances and routines in order to understand the "inner reality" of agency or social action. Such an ethnographic imagination seeks to understand how people negotiate structural reality in light of their aspirations and perspectives. I aim to apply such an imagination to my account of how and why a group of lower-class men organized and presented themselves as the leading edge of a political movement.
As my recollection of my hallway chat with Professor Lowenthal suggests, my observations and note taking did not cease once I left the so-called field. My journal notes also cover the experience of interpreting and writing this book in various intellectual environments. I describe the evolution of my thinking according to the "loci of enunciation," to use Walter Mignolo's felicitous phrase. As the title of this book (and of the previous one) makes obvious, my search for an interpretive framework or metaphor led me away from sociology to literature. Describing the places where I haltingly "enunciated" this work will help explain this particular literary turn. By happy coincidence, as I note in a later chapter, such a turn allowed for a form of reconciliation—figuratively speaking, of course—with Professor Lowenthal. I finally answer Lowenthal's question about the Berets with language that I believe he would have understood and appreciated.
The Social World of Los Batos
If my interest in the politicization of batos locos had left me with somewhat anticlimactic and prosaic conclusions about the importance of discipline, this was more than offset by the unexpected cultural shock I experienced in hanging out with the batos. My experience was an immersion in the lower-class male world of the pachucos or batos locos, now become Brown Berets. This world was so distinct that once-familiar physical surroundings appeared strange and different. As a San Antonio native, I had traveled down the streets and through the impoverished neighborhoods of the Southside for years. Now I was learning about one of the resident "social worlds." This was a stark world of guns and knives, drugs and alcohol, tough talk and tough looks, but it was also a world of brotherhood, honor, compassion, and a deep desire for justice. The mixture of these elements imparted a surrealistic and bittersweet quality to my experience, with many moments of frustration, anger, excitement, and feelings of solidarity. Luisa, the Westside Beret who had introduced me to the group, told me that I didn't know what I was getting into.
The particular chapter I was hanging out with, I later learned, was seen as the most "loco" of the seven Beret chapters in the state. The new recruits to this chapter-in-formation, a diverse group of unemployed or semiemployed batos, were still being introduced to Beret discipline and practice. To make matters worse, by the mid-seventies the Chicano movement had splintered and slowed considerably. Increasingly there was less need for Beret security, less interaction with an organizational network, and less reinforcement from a supportive community. Thus, for the period I was with them, the Southside chapter did not have regular or frequent opportunities to put on a "public face." Some members never really pulled away from the routine of street life. The result was a group whose actions were at times lauded as heroic and at times subjected to ridicule.
The following narrative of my sojourn with the Southside Berets sheds some light on what happened when los batos ventured onto the public arena. These notes also make clear the importance of an organizational network, the ideological diversity among the Beret chapters, the difficulties of organizing, and the necessity for discipline. What should stand out from the talk and interaction were the efforts of lower-class men to maintain a movement and to engage in politics. Given the stock characterizations of this lower-class male subculture, this seemed nothing short of miraculous.
The following journal account also makes clear the paralyzing tensions unleashed by my participant-observation. The notes reveal the vetting and negotiation that took place between the Berets and myself. They reveal the Berets' doubts and suspicion about my intentions as well as my own self-doubts about what I was doing.
A final word about the following account: as previously mentioned, one problem with participant-observation stems from the vast, unfiltered information collected by the ethnographer. Immersion in the field means experiencing a flood of observations, as the observer learns and absorbs many things simultaneously. In this sense, relating the process of discovery through field notes and interviews can produce an overwhelming and boring read. Much discovery, in fact, comes in jerky roller-coaster fashion rather than as the calibrated results of a smooth linear ride. Thus, for the sake of presentation, some selection, editing, and even reordering of the observations must take place. I have made such clustering (where it has taken place) transparent.
While my narrative follows a general chronology, my observations are organized into thematic chapters that attempt to preserve the experience of discovery. To emphasize the "field experience," I set off excerpts from my actual field notes as extracts.