Artistic expression has remained central to exploring and defining the Chicano identity since the beginnings of the Chicano Movement of the late 1960s. In many ways, being Chicano is about standing up for social equality, resisting discrimination, honoring one's Latino/a and indigenous heritage, and resisting negative portrayals of Mexican-American culture. In this episode, we explore what it means to be Chicano, and the work of the Asco art collective of the 1970s.
Documentary about the Asco art collective.
“I played Jesus Christ carrying the cross. Gronk was Pontius Pilate.
I dressed up like a zombie-like alter boy wearing an animal skull on my head... We paraded down Whittier Boulevard to the recruiting station. And we collected people as we walked. People just started to follow us. Before we knew it, we arrived at the marine recruiting station, leaned up the cross, dumped all of our costumes, which created a blockade. So, for that particular say there would be no more Chicanos joining the marines and going off to Vietnam.”
This act of artistic defiance and protest towards the American government’s war in Vietnam was among the first of many by Asco, in the early 70s, the group’s public artistic performances exemplified how many young Chicanos were finding new and relatively rebellious ways to resist oppression and systemic racism during this period. And, that word Chicano – became a new term for young Mexican Americans to express pride in a shared cultural, ethnic and community identity and not without some political nuance.
OK, well this Nuevas Voces, a podcast by Artes de Mexico en Utah. This is episode 18. And in this episode, we’re talking about what it means to be Chicano or Chicana and what the Chicano Movement did for Mexican American art. This, no doubt could be a much longer conversation than we have time for, so we’re going to keep it focused on the Utah perspective with a few voices from our local Utah Chicano community. I’ll let them introduce themselves.
La Marcha por la Justicia, Belvedere Park, Jan. 31, 1971; Credit: Courtesy of the photographer and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center © Luis C. Garza.
Gloria: OK, I’m Gloria Gonzalez Cook. I grew up in SLC, went West High, on the Westside, and then I went to the University of Utah. My family came to Utah in the 1940s, just after WWII started. I studied anthropology, my focus was Mesoamerica. I was at the U in the 1970s when much of the Chicano movement was starting, and there was a lot more activity at the U, a lot more Hispanic people than I’d ever met before. So that was really new for me.
Fanny: My name is Fanny Guadalupe Blauer from Mexico City. I’ve been in this country for 22 years. But I spent my childhood in Mexico.
Xris: My name is Xris Macias, I was born in California but raised in Utah. I actually identify as Utahno. I am either a first or second generation son of immigrants. I grew up in Kearns. I went to the University of Utah for my bachelor's degree and doing my master’s degree currently as well. I work for Trios program, a college access program for high school students. I am a member of the Salt Lake City Chapter of the Brown Berets. I also serve on the board for the Chicano/Chicana scholarship fund. So I work directly with this community.
Luis: Hello, my name is Luis Lopez. I am originally from Santa Ana California. I was brought here at the age of 17. That contributed a lot of my experience and self-identification as a Chicano. I also work with Xris with the Trio program at the U with Xris. We’re in the same Master's program as well.
Jorge Rodriguez: I’m the Program Director for Artes De Mexico en Utah. I’m also the host for the Spanish radio show for Park City's KPCW, Cada Domingo.
Ross: Oh, and then there’s me. I’m Ross Chambless, as you may know already. I’m a white guy who grew up in Salt Lake City. I was invited to produce this podcast about Mexican art and history for Nuevas Voces. And even though these are subjects I haven’t, until recently, known anything about, and I don’t speak Spanish, and I’ve only been across the border to Mexico a couple of times, this was a chance for me along with you to learn. To get beyond the misconceptions, the stereotypes, and the versions of history we seldom get to hear. Anyway, we’ll talk more about some of the art, but first I wanted to know, what exactly does Chicano mean. How does a person define him or herself as Chicano or Chicana?
Gloria: Well, as someone who first heard the term in the ‘70s, it was somebody not born outside the U.S. Because that was important. I'm also the daughter of an immigrant and immigrant grandparents. It was somebody born here, but a way to try to unite Hispanics. At first, they wanted it to apply to everyone, whether you were Puerto Rican or Cuban… who had grown up here, lived here and we all went through similar struggles. It was to be different from Hispanic, or Mexican American, or Spanish or whatever.
A poem: Chicanismo by Manuel Gonzalez. (This video is from POETRY MATTERS, an educational project created by New Mexico CultureNet (www.nmcn.org) in partnership with Santa Fe Community College to benefit and inspire learners and teachers.)
Luis: For me, the term Chicano really varies depending on whom you ask. For me it was more a recognition of my indigenity. Although I can’t pinpoint it, I know it’s in me. I will use Latino for solidarity. Chicano was different. It spoke more to me. I would define it as an American of Mexican descent with a non-anglo view of myself.
Xris: Like Luis said, it can vary from person to person, from community to community. The reason why I chose to identify as Chicano is because It speaks to my own experience. I grew up in this country, within this borders, understanding that I'm bilingual, speaking two languages; understanding that sometimes I felt like in certain spaces I would fit in with a certain identity, and in other spaces, I did not. Chicano to me also means existing in that third space. Some see it negatively, not from here nor there, although my family does come from Mexico. I do know some of the connections to my own indigenous background. From Jalisco, Mexico, there the Cuisillos nation. To me, it embraces that notion that we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us. Because we are on this side, I say I’m Utahno, because I’m from here but it doesn’t encapsulate everything I am.
Fanny: For me, it’s very different. I grew up in Mexico, came here at age 22. I grew up hearing that word in a very negative connotation. There were two aspects. The Chicanos are the hard workers in the U.S. But you don’t want to be a Chicano because they don’t really have a national identity. Claiming to be Mexican, but not really because they live in the U.S. and they don’t speak good Spanish. When I moved to the U.S. 22 years ago, people would ask me, I didn’t know what it was. Now it’s different because I know the Chicano culture, and I tell people now in Mexico they don’t know. But in Mexico City, they would say someone without identity.
Jorge: I’ve lived mostly in the U.S., but I lived a few years in Mexico for a few years, but I identify with everybody’s definition. Growing up Chicano was a bad word. People called me that to make themselves superior. It would be either my Mexican side of the family or acquaintances, and it would be a jab with that. But as I grew up, I use it now and learned more about my culture, as a way to take back that side of my culture. I am from here and I am from there. I am from both places and I do hold that third place. This is who I am.
Ross: As you can see there are different ways to understand the meaning of the term Chicano. So, where does the idea of being Chicano originate? This is from a PBS documentary about the Chicano Movement.
From "Chicano! PBS Documentary Fighting For Political Power”:
“It became clear that without political power, Mexican Americans would remain second class citizens… ‘We’re poor man, and nobody wants to do nothing about it. You’re still kissing the Democratic Party, thinking they’re going to save you and they ain't going to do it… In a small south Texas town a new political party took shape that threatened to change the political landscape of America. … ‘These are Chicano people here. You’ve never met us, we’re not in the dictionary. It’s a new ball game. You’re going to have to relearn all your stereotypes and myths and recreate new ones, tough ones, great ones and I suggest you learn fast. As the nation watched, Chicanos took on the most challenging quest of the Mexican American civil rights movement.”
The Chicano Civil Rights Movement was an extension of the Mexican-American civil rights movement of the 1960s. In many ways, it could be compared to the Black Power Movement that extended from the African American Civil Rights Movement from the same period. The Chicano Movement was broad, in the sense that it involved efforts to give farm workers more rights and to resist the disparity of Chicano young men being sent into the Vietnam War to die. It was to enhance educational opportunities and voting rights to Mexican Americans and to combat negative stereotypes of Hispanics in mass media. In the late 1960s and early 70s, the movement was simmering in parts of the U.S. like Texas and California where many Mexican Americans lived. But for Mexican Americans in Utah? Well, maybe not as much. Here’s Gloria.
Gloria: Things didn’t happen here the way they did nationally. We didn’t have big demonstrations about the war, things like that. But as people came in, Chicanos from California and elsewhere, they brought their experience. Cesar Chavez in California and the farm workers union, all of that had a lot of effect on all of us, and the Teatro Campesino which traveled around the U.S. That’s how it grew, and people began identifying themselves. I find it interesting about the indigenous side of things, I always knew I was mestizo, part Indian, and I was proud of that. But a lot of people here who were also part of that and were from Colorado or New Mexico, they called themselves Spanish Americans. They didn’t identify as indigenous, but they were part of that because they grew up here, were living here. It doesn't matter if their ancestors were from across the border because they didn't cross the border, the border crossed them. They still had that American experience of being people who were exploited, and people not seen as full citizens. Their experience was similar enough. So, Chicano was supposed to be a uniting name for everyone.
Ross: This is from the 2014 biographical film about Cesar Chavez, starring Michael Pena. It was actually Filipino-Americans who initiated the first farmworker strike in 1965, in Delano, California. By cooperating and uniting, the Filipinos, Chicanos, and others formed the powerful United Farm Workers organization. They led the boycott that resulted in a collective bargaining agreement guaranteeing field workers the right to unionize.
History.com documentary: Cesar Chavez: American Civil Rights Activist
Luis: One thing to add, as we bring up Chicano civil rights movement, we always bring up Ceasar Chavez. It’s crucial to bring up Dolores Huerta as well, right. We cannot forget the women who were part of the movement too.
Ester Hernández, Sun Raid Raisins, 1982
Ross: Another group that emerged from the Chicano Movement in the late 1960s was the Brown Berets. It’s a group that you still hear about today. Xris Macias has had some involvement with them.
Xris: So, the Brown Berets are a response to many things already mentioned. So, Chicano was a unifying term, even though it had this negative connotation. Just like being indigenous used to be negative because you didn’t fit that Eurocentric view. It came as a response to the word Hispanic. Hispanic was a term actually created by the American government, to try to encompass everyone from that end… everyone who looks a certain way, from the southwest, not white would become Hispanic. But as Gloria said, Chicano became the response from the people themselves, if you put us all together, we’ll reclaim ourselves, our own cultures, and be in your face about it. A lot of schools were being educated on what it means to be a certain identity, what it means to be Chicano/Chicana, and what it means to exist in this country at that time. A few individuals would receive that education, meaning that access to those institutions of higher education. So, the Brown Berets came from a model of Puerto Rican descent. In Puerto Rico, they started wearing berets like the military and said we are the “young lords” fighting for the independence of our people, the indigenous nations, and our own statehood if you will. It’s another story about whether they want to be a part of the U.S.
A brief video on the Brown Berets, their origin, and their involvement in the Chicano Movement of the 1960s.
Xris: The Young Lords also inspired the Black Panthers at the time. The Black Panthers were kind of that militant arm, saying we’re no longer going to depend on government or education, we’ll do it ourselves. They started creating their own networks, they started feeding their own people, started creating communities. And at the same time, they were pushing the limits of what the black community was supposed to be doing at the time. And because of their success, the Brown Berets said we’ll do the same for the Chicano Movement. It wasn’t that one group was copying the other. It was that all of these sentiments were coming together because we’re all suffering from systematic poverty, lack of access to education, and systems oppressing our communities. So, the Brown Berets came to be known as this para-militant or militant group, because they were pushing the boundaries within the law or education. They also gave our community a uniform. In the civil rights movement, you put on a brown beret, khaki shorts, khaki pants, and boots. When we go out like that we call it getting “suited and booted.” Because we know… today when you have white supremacist groups like the KKK dress alike, this is the response to that.
Ross: Xris helps us to get a uniquely current perspective of what it means to be a Brown Beret. Gloria can offer a perspective from an older generation.
Gloria: I think Xris was right on with what he said. I just want to add, from my generation, we were the children of WWII vets. I had two uncles serve in WWII, one in the army, one in the navy. They came home, fought for this county, and expected all the doors to be open to the other vets. But they found the doors weren’t that open. That’s what happened to my generation. They saw their dads were heroes, but they came back and still were the stupid Mexicans. They still were these men that couldn’t achieve what everyone else could. There was resentment there. So, you have these younger kids, who said they did everything they were supposed to, and nothing had changed. So, when we talk about history, and why would people feel this way, why would this happen… Hispanics have been involved in every war, even the Civil War. And yet here we are. I’ve heard people refer to the Mexicans as the new immigrants. I say, what are you talking about? We’ve been here for 300 years.
"You Bet Your Life" - Ramiro G. Gonzales
Ross: The negative or goofy portrayals of Latinos in the media was also a catalyst for the Chicano Movement in the late 60s.
Gloria: You had the images on TV, at least here in Salt Lake, only had 3 stations, had a program with actor Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez. He was basically a clown. A servant, this little guy. He would get in trouble. And then you had the Cisco Kid, and his sidekick Pancho. Pancho was played by Leo Carrillo, a Californian, from an old family. He was a very well educated, a sophisticated man, but playing the stupid sidekick, speaking broken English. And then you had the Frito Bandito, Frito Lay’s commercial with a little guy, a revolutionary, he was the commercial. Those were the images we had of Mexicans. And then here in Utah, it was an insult to be a Mexican. If you were Spanish it was OK. And I would have this happen into adulthood, people would ask me, are you Spanish? I would say no, I’m of Mexican descent. They’d say oh, I thought so but didn’t want to insult you. This was the image, Mexicans were the dirty Mexicans across the railroad tracks. Spanish was the better people. The images portrayed commercially, and this intuitional idea of who Mexicans were.
The Cisco Kid and Pancho.
Jorge: I’m a little in between the generations. You see this in cartoons. Speedy Gonzalez. Bugs Bunny dressed up as a caricature with a big sombrero, the rebozo or the poncho. These depictions, this was what it was to be a Mexican. People would also ask me if I was Spanish and it took me a lot of time to figure it out. But even the stereotypical Mexican laying down asking for money. I remember the movie I loved as a kid, they dress up as mariachis, and he gets knocked out and he’s on the floor, and they put money into his hat. And my dad said they’re always throwing shade at us. That’s a depiction of a quote-unquote Mexican. And as a kid, I used to watch superheroes. But they had these horrible stereotypes of ethnic people. As an adult, I look back at this thinking how terrible. As a kid, you don’t have something to look up to and it permeates into the whole culture.
The ASCO Interviews documentary.
Ross: By the early 70s, Chicano activist artists like the ASCO art collective found new and unique and controversial ways to express themselves. The members of ASCO came up with what they called the “Walking Mural. This is ASCO members Willie Herron and Patssi Valdez talking about one particular project they put on after the East L.A. Christmas parade was canceled after the 1970 Chicano Moratorium riots.
From the doc: The ASCO Art Collective:
Willie Herron: “Muralism was being approached in a very traditional way. We thought we would take it a step further. And with that idea, decided to have myself wear the mural and walk down the street so it could be a moving work of art."
Patssi Valdez: "And we did shock people. The police followed us. We had to have body guards. I think it was a great success."
Asco were formed in the early 1970s by four Chicano artists - Harry Gamboa Jr, Gronk, Willie F. Herrón III and Patssi Valdez. They emerged from the Chicano civil rights movement of the late 60s and early 70s, which fought labour exploitation, the Vietnam draft, police brutality, and other forms of discrimination and deprivation.
Ross: Traditional murals reflecting the Chicano communities were also increasingly popping up in Mexican American neighborhoods around that time. Here’s Chris Macias again.
Xris: On a foundational level, I think people were seeing these murals in the communities more because we didn’t see ourselves anywhere else. But it’s still relevant today where we don’t see Chicanos in the media, or if they are represented, they are disproportionally in a negative view. So, this was one way to show myself publicly, I’m going to paint myself as I think I am, as I see myself, or in an extravagant fashion so I can get that attention I don’t get anywhere else. So, this was both a form of showing our presence and a form of communication. When you travel through a neighborhood like East L.A., you could see who is in the community, and talk to each other via other people’s murals and art. So just on that level, it would be a visual representation, a visual statement.
Ross: In 1971, in an East Los Angeles neighborhood, a group of young Mexican American artists hatched a plan for a unique artistic act.
“We decided to create an anti-Vietnam War statement by recreating the stations of the cross.”
This is from a documentary about the Asco art collective
ASCO mural in East L.A.
Ross: Luis Lopez says that still today in an East L.A. neighborhood, one of ASCO’s most notable murals can be found on a wall. You can see a photo of it on our website.
Luis: There's a couple of common themes when we see Chicano art as a whole, but especially in the 70s, just as there were many responses to what was happening in the country, art was also the same way, it was putting the Chicano struggle, the pain, raw and in your face. Even with this ASCO mural, you see faces screaming, the militarization of police in these images. It was a front page to the community. It’s on a wall people walk and drive by. You see it and get a reaction. That was the intent.
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Thanks to our commentators Fanny Blauer, Gloria Gonzalez Cook, Chris Macias, Luis Lopez, and Jorge Rodriguez. Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to KPCW in Park City for the studio space; The music you heard in this episode comes from Willie Bobo, Ritchie Valens, Los Lobos, Latin Playboys, Malo, Chicano Batman, Daniel Valdez, Santo and Johnny, Gustavo Santaolalla, Calexico, Antonio Pinto, and Los Angelinos.
Engage with Us:
Please share your own thoughts with us. Did you experience the Chicano Movement in the late 60s or early 70s? What do you think the lasting impact of it has been? What about the Brown Berets, then and now? Do you think the organization has continued to be effective in looking out for Latino/a or Chicano/Chicana interests? Also, what notable Chicano murals have you seen or want to share? What messages or ideas do those murals say about the larger community?