The presence of indigenous spiritualities within the Chicano/a Movement

What is known as the Chicano/a Civil Rights Movement or simply the Chicano/ a Movement was triggered by the March 1968 walkout of over 10,000 students from predominantly Latino high schools in East Los Angeles. However, in its entirety, the Chicano/a Movement “represented a broad series of interrelated multi-organizational and multi-field activities and movements that sought to secure basic equity for Mexican-Americans in various aspects of life” (Gomez-Quinones and Vasquez 2014). This movement contained multiple ideological strands; some of which called for political autonomy and self-determination, while others demanded greater integration into the dominant body politic.

The emergence of the Chicano/a Movement must primarily be understood as a response to the unwillingness of the US courts and state governments to enforce the religious, voting, and property rights that had been granted to Mexican-Americans and native peoples by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The Treaty was foundational to the formal recognition of Mexican-American civil rights, yet in practice these rights were extended erratically. Mexican-Americans had long-contested restrictions imposed on their property and voting rights with particularly acute citizenship and electoral challenges taking place in the second half of the nineteenth century (Gomez-Quinones and Vasquez 2014, 28—29).

According to Rosalio Munoz, a leader in the Chicano/a Movement, it emerged among the Chicano/a baby boomer generation who were more middle class and reform-minded than earlier generations had been.7 Rosalio Munoz was a participant in an early Chicano/a youth leadership-training program funded by a wealthy Jewish philanthropist. This experience enabled Munoz and other emerging Chicano/a leaders to develop their own networks that laid the groundwork for their civic activism. In their book entitled Making Az tian, Juan Gomez-Quinones and Irene Vasquez also claim that the Chicano/a Movement emerged from among students and young adults who challenged the leadership of older generations within the Mexican-American community who they perceived as too accommodationist.

The inferior quality of public schools in predominantly Latino neighborhoods, the lack of voting rights and political representation, and the disproportionate number of Latinos who were dying in Vietnam were among the Movement’s immediate triggers. Earlier generations of Mexican-American parents had already been critical of the inferior public education available to their children. They objected to the use of biased teaching materials that inculcated notions of White superiority while demeaning Mexican-Americans’ cultural values. Eventually, the use of terms such as Chicano and Chicana became a means of redefining one’s identity in opposition to the derogatory labels that were used by Whites.

Much like the discriminatory educational practices experienced by African-Americans, Chicano/a students were consistently counseled into vocational classes rather than the more rigorous college prep classes, often failed to graduate, and in many schools were forbidden to speak Spanish. By the mid-1960s, these grievances led to large-scale student walkouts across the southwest, which marked a dramatic leap in their consciousness and led to new organizational forms that Rosalio Munoz says, “set the standard for massive, peaceful, successful urban advocacy by Chicanas and Chicanos.”

By the late 1960s, the demands for high school reforms were extended to calls for greater access to higher education, and a key focal point of students’ demands became the establishment of Chicano/a Studies programs at major public universities across the southwest. Students demanded classes in Mexican-American history, bilingual and bicultural education, the hiring of Mexican-American teachers and counselors and Mexican-American community input. Chicano/a activism eventually resulted in the creation of numerous Chicano/a Studies programs at public universities throughout the region. The Chicano/a students also collaborated with other contemporary social movements, including the Black Power Movement, the UFW’s struggle, and Reies López Tijerina’s fight to regain lands in the southwest that had been stolen from the descendants of the original Spanish settlers.

As Chicano/a students and others advocated for equality in every realm of their lives, they also grappled with articulating their visions of a more just future. More militant students questioned whether integration into the existing economic and political order was actually their goal. They began to trace their historic roots to both the pre- and post-annexation of the northern regions of Mexico. Although they recognized that reintegrating into Mexico was impossible, they sought to embrace their indigenous roots. As a result, some began to rearticulate their activism as a national liberation movement engaged in an anti-colonial struggle against the United States, similar to movements that were simultaneously occurring in Asia and Africa. According to longtime Chicano activist Bill Gallegos, more militant students came to see their goal as the creation of a sovereign nation, to be called Atzlan, within the southwestern regions of the United States that had once belonged to Mexico.8

The articulation of a form of Chicano/a anti-colonial nationalism reached its pinnacle with the adoption of El Plan Espiritual de Atzlan, ratified at a Chicano/a student conference in 1968. Feminist scholar Alicia Schmidt Camacho (2008) is critical of the declaration because in attempting to enact the rebirth of the “mestizo nation” it subsumed all other forms of difference, including gender, as being subservient to the singular goal of La Causa (Camacho 2008, 169). Unfortunately, the assertion of male supremacy that was incorporated into the declarations eventually contributed to undermining the Chicano/a Movement’s full liberative potential.

Bill Gallego notes that as many students reconceptualized their own national identities, Chicano/a movement activists either adopted existing or created new indigenous spiritualities as a means of recovering their lost cultural and religious identities.9 The Lady of Guadalupe emerged as an important icon since many students had previously supported the UFW. Chicano/a activists also began to experiment with new spiritualities, even creating new rituals to mark important occasions such as the birth of a child. They sought to honor Mother Earth by burning sage and becoming dancers. To them, says Gallego, Aztlân was envisioned as both a place as well as a new way of living. As the Chicano/a Movement declined, quite a few of its activists became even more deeply immersed in indigenous religions and traditions.

The Chicano/a Movement set out to create new subjectivities from among the marginalized mestizo peoples of the southwest. Rather than seeking integration into White American culture, Chicano/a activists sought to redefine their identities in ways that preserved their distinctly Chicano/a indigenous traditions, while still remaining active participants in present-day processes of social change. The creation of new spiritualities and rituals was one element of the Movement’s efforts to define itself and its place in the broader body politic rather than allowing others to do so. By borrowing elements of older indigenous spiritualities and repositioning them in a new space called Aztlân, the Chicano/a activists were connecting these spiritualities to a subversive politics that sought to reshape political power in the American southwest.

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