Chicano movement

2011-09-07 04:21:14

The Event: Movement in which Mexican Americans defined and took pride in their own identity, asserted their civil rights, and worked toward self-determination by improving their financial, social, and political circumstances

Also known as: El Movimiento

Date: 1960’s and 1970’s

Location: Northwestern, southwestern, and parts of the midwestern United States

Significance: Similar to other movements of this period promoting civil rights, the Chicano movement made society aware of the injustices suffered by Mexican Americans in the United States and spurred social change.

The Chicano movement, also known by Chicanos as El Movimiento, was a cultural and political movement that raised awareness of the history of Mexicans and/or Chicanos in North America. The origin of the term “Chicano” is not known, and its definition varies, yet it has been proudly reclaimed by Americans of Mexican ancestry to emphasize their descent from colonial projects. The movement has been analyzed in three parts: the struggle for restoration of land grants, the appeal for Mexican American farmworkers’ rights, and the demand for equal access to empowerment via education and politics.

Restoration of Land Grants

During the 1960’s, a group of Mexican Americans attempted to reclaim federal land in the United States. This group basied their actions on theTreaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which was signed by the United States and Mexico in 1848 to end the Mexican War of 1846-1848. The treaty ceded Mexican lands to the United States and ensured that landowning Mexicans would keep their preexisting property rights in the lands transferred. The United States failed to honor this latter part of the agreement, as it did not recognize Mexicans’ original land grants that were given under Spanish and Mexican law. Many Mexicans thus lost their lands.

Leaders of the Chicano movement argued that many Mexican Americans were not immigrants and that the Mexican people legitimately owned parts of the land ceded to the United States. When they failed to secure these lost lands, the Chicanos of the 1960’s and 1970’s reclaimed Aztlán, the ancestral homeland of an indigenous group from Mexico, the Nahua. Media representations of the Chicano movement are characterized by attention to the integration of various indigenous cultural elements into the movement’s struggle.

Farmworkers’ Rights

The Chicano movement also protested the exploitation of Mexican American migrant farmworkers, who traveled throughout the United States following the crop seasons for wages that kept their families well below the poverty level. Because migrant families were unable to stay in one town for much time, workers’ children were limited to two to three years of education before they too would begin to pick produce for growers. Both adults and children were exposed to poisonous pesticides and the harsh sun for long periods of time, among other detrimental conditions.

To put an end to these conditions, Mexican American migrant farmworkers organized. Cofounded in 1962 by Dolores Huerta and César Chávez, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which later evolved into the United Farm Workers (UFW), initiated strikes and boycotted various fruits and vegetables in support of farmworkers’ rights. The union workers further protested the growers’ employment of undocumented Mexican immigrants as strikebreakers, as it undermined their own efforts toward fair treatment and wages as employees. Though the union had failed in its early attempts to bring about reform, it was strengthened in 1964 when the U.S. government terminated the bracero program, which had allowed the importation of temporary labor from Mexico. This termination resulted in a reduced workforce for growers and enabled the union to effect changes, as the growers became desperate for U.S. farmworkers. In the early twenty-first century, the UFW continues to fight for the rights of both documented and undocumented farmworkers.


The origin of the term“Chicano” is unclear; however, some experts believe that the word originated from an improper pronunciation or slang version of “Mexicano.” Consequently, the user was viewed by middle-class Mexicans or Mexican Americans as uneducated, poor, and probably “Indian,” a pejorative appellation from those of Mexican origin who rejected their indigenous roots. In the Chicano critique of Anglo society, the rejection of Anglo racial and ethnocentric designations also included the repudiation of those in Mexicano communities who accepted anti-Native American and capitalist belief systems. To call the self Chicano is to affirmthat which is denounced by Anglo-created racial constructs and ethnocentric depictions. To be Chicano is to affirm and proclaim historic, indigenous origins and to understand that Chicano culture has Spanish- Indian roots in a land invaded and conquered by the European Americans.

Education and Politics

During the Chicano movement, Chicanos became conscious of the injustices in the educational system. Cognizant of the fact that only 25 percent of Chicanos graduated from high school, students were awakened to the need for reformwithin what they perceived to be a discriminatory system. Poor quality of education and unequal access to learning resources channeled Chicano students into cheap labor positions like those of their parents. Chicano youths were also being conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War and were dying at a higher rate than others in the military. Nevertheless, their contributions to the United States were not being acknowledged. Governmental systems, Chicanos argued, were keeping generations of Chicanos impoverished and powerless.

Aware of their oppression, these youths became an energetic source of cultural pride, activism, and radicalism. They organized into a conglomerate of various student organizations collectively named the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA). They walked out of high schools and universities, demanding educational reform, including the integration of Mexican American history courses into the curriculum and the hiring of Mexican American teachers and counselors. Other youths formed militant groups such as the Brown Berets.

In order to effect social change, Chicanos saw the need to enter into politics and galvanize the Mexican American community. Growing disenchanted with the Democratic and Republican parties, they saw the need for a third political party that would refuse to compromise with these traditional groups. Chicanos organized the Raza Unida Party (RUP) to bring Mexican Americans’ values and needs under one political banner. Though the RUP eventually failed in its initial efforts, it nonetheless paved the way for Chicanos to enter the political arena.

Sara A. Ramírez

Further Reading

  • Acuña, Rodolfo F. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. 6th ed. New York: Pearson Education, 2006. Surveys the history of Chicanos from the Mesoamerican era to the present day and examines the complex intersections of race, gender, and class in Chicano identity. 
  • Cockcroft, Eva Sperling, and Holly Barnet-Sánchez, eds. Signs from the Heart: California Chicano Murals. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993. Includes four essays analyzing the educational, historical, and artistic significance of the mural genre inspired by Chicano culture. 
  • García, Alma M., ed. Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings. New York: Routledge, 1997. Recovers the writings of a generation of Chicano feminists who collectively struggled against gender conflicts within the Chicano movement. 
  • Maciel, David R., Isidro D. Ortiz, and María Herrera-Sobek. Chicano Renaissance: Contemporary Cultural Trends. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000. Examines the broad range of artistic cultural forms inspired by the Chicano movement, including art, literature, music, television, radio, and cinema. Focuses on the decades following the Chicano movement. 
  • Muñoz, Carlos. Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement. New York: Verso, 1989. Written by a leader of the Chicano movement, this book explores the origins and development of Chicano political protest contextualized within the history of Mexicans and their descendants in the United States. 
  • Rosales, Francisco Arturo. Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1996. Companion to a documentary of the same name, this text highlights pivotal moments, key issues, and important figures of the Chicano movement and includes historical photographs. 

See also: Bilingual Education Act of 1968; Bracero program; California; Civil Rights movement; Latinos and immigrants; Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Mexican immigrants; NewMexico;Texas; United FarmWorkers.