One of the foremost scholars in Chicana/o studies offers a compelling, authoritative history of the Chicano movement in San Antonio—a movement that provided models for organizing that broke barriers to political participation and power for Latinos across the United States.
Series: Jack and Doris Smothers Endowment in Texas History, Life, and Culture, Number Twenty-Six
In the mid-1960s, San Antonio, Texas, was a segregated city governed by an entrenched Anglo social and business elite. The Mexican American barrios of the west and south sides were characterized by substandard housing and experienced seasonal flooding. Gang warfare broke out regularly. Then the striking farmworkers of South Texas marched through the city and set off a social movement that transformed the barrios and ultimately brought down the old Anglo oligarchy. In Quixote's Soldiers, David Montejano uses a wealth of previously untapped sources, including the congressional papers of Henry B. Gonzalez, to present an intriguing and highly readable account of this turbulent period.
Montejano divides the narrative into three parts. In the first part, he recounts how college student activists and politicized social workers mobilized barrio youth and mounted an aggressive challenge to both Anglo and Mexican American political elites. In the second part, Montejano looks at the dynamic evolution of the Chicano movement and the emergence of clear gender and class distinctions as women and ex-gang youth struggled to gain recognition as serious political actors. In the final part, Montejano analyzes the failures and successes of movement politics. He describes the work of second-generation movement organizations that made possible a new and more representative political order, symbolized by the election of Mayor Henry Cisneros in 1981.
NACCS Book Award
T.R. Fehrenbach Book Award
Texas Historical Commission
- Part One: The Conflict Within
- 1. The Leaking Caste System
- 2. Barrios at War
- 3. Organizing Unity
- 4. A Congressman Reacts
- 5. Kill the Gringos!
- 6. The Berets Rise Up
- Part Two: Marching Together Separately
- 7. Women Creating Space
- 8. Batos Claiming Legitimacy
- 9. Fragmenting Elements
- Part Three: After the Fury
- 10. Several Wrong Turns
- 11. A Transformation
- Appendix: On Intepreting the Chicano Movement
This is a local history with national pretensions. The geographical scope of the narrative is largely limited to San Antonio, Texas, and to nearby areas. Change the names of people and neighborhoods, however, and we see a similar storyline of social and political change playing out in the late sixties and early seventies in Albuquerque, Denver, Los Angeles, and other southwestern cities. A reference to the South is not unseemly: in the sixties, San Antonio was considered a "moderate" city, similar in race relations and segregationist practices to Little Rock, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and other urban areas of the southern fringe—with the exception that its restive "minority" community consisted of Mexican Americans. The best comparative case is arguably Atlanta, a similarly sized city with a similarly complex race-class order, and one that experienced similar political convulsions during the sixties and seventies. Indeed, change the accents and skin color of the political actors, and the following history becomes one of the many movement narratives of social change that shook nearly all the major urban areas of the country during that time. In the South and Southwest, these movements basically took down the last legal-political vestiges of Jim Crow segregation. This local history was part of that national political transformation.
Except for those who lived in the Southwest, Mexican Americans were a somewhat invisible "minority" in the sixties. Unlike the national presence of African Americans, Mexican Americans at that time had a smaller population and were regionally concentrated in the southwestern margins of the country. Not surprisingly, then, the post-World War II history of protest against segregation and discrimination waged by the "second race" is not generally known. That history has remained somewhat isolated from the main civil rights narrative.
The Chicano movement of the mid-sixties was fueled by essentially the same provocations that had fueled the Black civil rights movement since the early fifties: segregation, poverty, and racism. Most Mexican Americans lived in poor urban neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, police brutality and urban renewal added to the anxieties of barrio residents. In Denver, police brutality and lack of political representation loomed as key community issues. What worried those in San Antonio were the annual floods and the biennial gang wars, along with police brutality. Throughout the region, most Mexican American youths attended ill-equipped schools and faced limited vocational career paths. Not surprisingly, then, the winds of change generated by the Black civil rights movement, then already a decade old, found favorable ground among barrio youths and helped ignite a parallel race-ethnic movement.
The specific spark was set off by the California and Texas farmworker strikes of 1965-1966. These strikes—known as "la causa," or "the cause"—struck a resonant chord among urban Mexican American college students, most of whom were only a generation removed from the fields. They joined the support committees, acquired experience, and elaborated ideas about equality and justice. In a short time, these politicized students left the farmworker cause and created new organizations focused on other issues facing Mexican American communities. They recruited others and broadened the message of "la causa" beyond its farmworker meaning to refer to a general race-ethnic struggle for civil rights.
The intensity of these efforts created a social movement that transformed the pejorative lower-class labels of "Chicano" and "Chicana" into positive identities. These new identities, based on the notions of "la raza unida" (the united people) and "carnalismo" (brotherhood and sisterhood), came to signify solidarity among activists and believers. As cultural nationalists, most activists and intellectuals drew on Mexican and Mexican American history and culture for their motivating lessons. Some established mythological connections with the Aztecs and rechristened the Southwest "Aztlán," the name of an ancient northern Aztec homeland. The Cuban Revolution, like the Mexican Revolution, also became an iconic reference for social change. Chicano art, music, drama, and literature emerged to give vivid expression to the nationalist sentiment. Within a few short years of the initial farmworker strikes, "la causa" had inspired a political and cultural renaissance among Mexican American youths of the Southwest.
Not surprisingly, these Chicano youths soon ran afoul of their conservative elders, not to mention the Anglo authorities. The more militant youths were causing trouble in high schools and on college campuses, and insulting and directly challenging the police and the political establishment. Young twenty-somethings were running for political office and, in Texas, were organizing a third political party whose gubernatorial candidate was just twenty-nine years old. These impatient youths were rejecting their parents' gradualist posture and calling for the downfall of "gringo supremacy."
The following history takes a major urban area impacted by the Chicano movement and subjects it to close examination. The narrative looks at the barrios of San Antonio and describes the generational and class conflicts that erupted, the collective identities that shifted, and the political changes that took place as a result. The case of San Antonio is especially important because it is the one major urban area where the Chicano movement can arguably claim a victory. In fact, the organizing energies generated by that singular success have had, and continue to have, regional and national repercussions.
As I detail in the following chapters, the militant challenge of the movement activists would be blunted by internal divisions within the Mexican American community, but such activism, nonetheless, greatly enhanced the organizational capacity of the working-class barrios. This kind of pressure "from below" proved to be a critical factor in the downfall of the long-standing Anglo political elite in the mid-seventies. Facing a seemingly radical movement, a reluctant elite proved receptive to Mexican American middle-class and working-class demands for political entry. By the late seventies, a new political order, more inclusive and responsive to the needs of barrio neighborhoods, had been established.
The following narrative offers a thick description of these events. But it is also guided by a series of questions about social movements. Just exactly how did the movement impact the barrios? How can one measure this impact? How did such rapid mobilization happen? And what did "becoming political" mean for barrio youths? For the gang members? For the women? Moreover, how could such pressure bring down the entrenched political establishment? A close-up examination offers some answers to these questions.
Because this history is guided by these sociological concerns, I at times refer to my text as a "narrative explanation." Several arguments and sub-arguments are embedded in the following narrative explanation. As a form of preview, let me make explicit the main points.
Organization of the Narrative
The narrative is divided into three parts that follow a rough chronological order. Part 1 deals with 1966-1971, Part 2 with 1971-1975, and Part 3 with 1974-1981.
Part 1, "The Conflict Within," describes the bitter clash that erupted within the Mexican American community over the aggressive nationalism of movement activists. Ironically, such discord surfaced as movement organizing and experimenting brought an end to the gang warfare that had periodically paralyzed the working-class barrios. A singular if little noticed achievement of the Chicano movement in San Antonio—and undoubtedly elsewhere—took place when neighborhood cliques transcended their local identities and assumed an overarching race-ethnic Chicano identity. For a few years, the message of unity and brotherhood interrupted the cycle of barrio warfare.
Part 2, "Marching Together Separately," takes a close look at the dynamic evolution of a movement and identifies an organizational "structuring" along gender and class lines. The movement message of equality and justice for the Chicano community was interpreted and honed through group-specific experiences and interests, giving rise to group-specific organizations. Using the language of the movement, women activists questioned machismo and the double standard, and began to form their own organizations. Using the language of "la causa" and "carnalismo," the politicized barrio youths, concerned about gang warfare and police harassment, created paramilitary organizations and set out to establish neighborhood peace. Women created space to press for respect and equity, while former gang members sought legitimacy for the organizational space they already had.
Part 3, "After the Fury," steps back from a focus on barrio youths to address the larger picture of political change in San Antonio. I consider the question of leadership as it appeared to the Mexican American community in the mid-seventies. I draw on a handful of biographies to illustrate the role of individual agency in the demise and transformation of the Chicano movement, and I make a distinction between "unrealized" and "realized" leadership, resting the distinction on whether or not "organizational capacity" had been created.
Despite formidable opposition from authorities and many "wrong turns" in the area of leadership, the Chicano movement can lay claim to a worthy legacy: a virtual overhaul of the Mexican American organizational field and of San Antonio's political system. These changes were brought about by movement-influenced organizations, or by what I call "second-generation" movement organizations. These played a critical part in securing the election of Henry Cisneros as mayor in 1981. As the first mayor of Mexican descent since Juan Seguín of the Texas Republic days, Cisneros symbolized a new inclusive political order. An equally visible break occurred with the increasingly prominent presence of Mexican American women in the political arena, signaling a significant change in gender roles. The training of much of this leadership had come from the second-generation movement organizations.
One commentator has suggested that San Antonio is too unique a case to serve as a template for other towns and cities in the Southwest. It would be more accurate to say, in the words of movement activist Juan Maldonado of the Rio Grande Valley, that "San Antonio sets the pace. As San Antonio goes, so goes the rest of South Texas." By the 1980s, these second-generation movement organizations, having consolidated their San Antonio base, had begun exporting their organizing models throughout the Southwest and Midwest. Over time, related projects began springing up in urban centers across the country, from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast. Even today, some thirty years after the movimiento, a notable share of the political organizing in Latino communities in the United States can trace a lineage to the Chicano organizations and activists of San Antonio in the seventies. The transformation of San Antonio, in short, had wide-ranging, long-term consequences for Latino politics in the United States.
Being a Native
As a San Antonio native, my narrative explanation has a certain autobiographical quality to it. Hardly anyone living in a San Antonio barrio in the 1950s and 1960s could ignore the gang youths known as "pachucos." I grew up in a West Side subdivision built in the early 1950s, in the Edgewood School District, one of the poorest in the state and later made famous for its successful challenge of the state's educational financing schema. My neighborhood was a poor, working-class neighborhood surrounded by poorer neighborhoods on three sides. The Menchaca Courts, a public housing project, was only a few blocks away. As adolescents, my brother and sister and I had a few run-ins, consisting of rock throwing and verbal insults, with the young pachucos of Menchaca Courts. This kind of conflict reinforced parental admonitions to stay away from pachucos, and it reinforced our sense of caution whenever we walked by "los courts." On the fourth side of the neighborhood, across a wide thoroughfare, was the beginning of the middle-class Anglo North Side. The name of the avenue was Culebra, meaning "snake," a seemingly appropriate name for the line of separation between Anglo and Mexican at the time. I recall sensing as much tension when crossing Culebra and walking through the Anglo neighborhood as when walking by Menchaca Courts.
My working-class neighborhood was not like the very poor communities of the "sal si puedes" (get out if you can) sort, like the Menchaca Courts seemed to be, but it had poverty, and many families struggled to make ends meet. The contrast was evident in the vastly different paths into adulthood that the adolescents from my barrio followed. Some made it into the middle class, others maintained the working-class status of their parents, and still others slid into greater poverty. Tony, our local grocer and owner of Tony's Family Market, kept a mental inventory of the life trajectories of the neighborhood kids. "You and Diana did fine," he once told me. "Your neighbors didn't turn out so well—drugs and murder. Willie and George [Velásquez] on Laurel [Street] did fine, but Fulano down the block died of an overdose. His sister, on the other hand, went to business college." In that sense the neighborhood was a crossroads—a hit-or-miss, up-or-down, out-or-further-in sort of place.
In a curious way, then, my working-class neighborhood afforded views of great economic contrast: a checkered pattern within the neighborhood, obvious poverty close by on three sides, and across the wide asphalt boundary of Culebra Avenue, what seemed like affluence at the time. In my previous work, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, I addressed the racial boundary represented by Culebra Avenue. In this work, I turn my gaze back toward the barrios.
This account is based on newspaper articles; biographies; organizational papers; congressional documents and papers; reports from police, the FBI, and social work agencies; and interviews with key participants-–ample material, in short, for reconstructing and interpreting the events of the period with some confidence. I carried out much of the research in the mid-seventies with the intention of using the material for a dissertation. For a number of reasons, I was unable to complete the project at that time. Since then, several primary and secondary sources have become available to provide a solid foundation for this narrative of social change.11 The passage of time, and the perspective and documentation that time has provided, makes the writing of this history possible now.
This local history provides a microscopic look at the civil rights movement and the social change it engendered. It provides a sustained look at the agency and consciousness of "those from below." By focusing on young barrio men and women, I describe groups not usually considered in discussions of social movements. Generally the lower classes are presumed to live silently, misleading political observers into thinking that they have no distinctive agency. But then, in times of turmoil, they surface, surprising everyone with their voice and perspective. This is a narrative explanation about such a moment.