They say those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it. I say, those who do not know their past have no future. For what are we if not the bearers of the collective memories and struggles of our ancestors?
In service of “Hispanic Heritage Month” (which I fear means little more than a few PBS specials and an enchildada dinner at the White House) I offer you a free Chicano/Latino history lesson every Wednesday for the next month.
This week, we go into the past to explore a moment in our collective history when youth radicalism seemed to be sweeping barrios from East LA to East Harlem.
Known as a Chicano nationalist organization with a militant leaning, the Brown Berets began in 1966 as a Church-fostered youth group called Young Chicanos for Community Action (YCCA). Sustained police harassment and an emerging exchange of “radical” ideologies and organizational examples reshaped them by the late 60s into the Brown Berets.
Their ten-point platform might be both easy to celebrate or deride, depending on your political sensibilities. As historians of our collective past, however, it is a significant statement of self-determination and youth idealism, shaped by a particular moment and place. We might wonder what experiences framed this utopian vision as “truth” for the young men and women involved?
Brown Berets, “Ten Point Program,” 1968. Reprinted in “Brown Berets: Serve, Observe, and Protect,” La Raza (newspaper), June 7, 1968, 13.
- Unity of all of our people, regardless of age, income, or political philosophy.
- The right to bilingual education as guaranteed under the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.
- We demand a Civilian Police Review Board, made up of people who live in our community, to screen all police officers, before they are assigned to our communities.
- We demand that the true history of the Mexican American be taught in all schools in the five Southwestern States.
- We demand that all officers in Mexican-American communities must live in the community and speak Spanish.
- We want an end to “Urban Renewal Programs” that replace our barrios with high rent homes for middle-class people.
- We demand a guaranteed annual income of $8,000 for all Mexican-American families.
- We demand that the right to vote be extended to all of our people regardless of the ability to speak the English language.
- We demand that all Mexican Americans be tried by juries consisting of only Mexican Americans.
- We demand the right to keep and bear arms to defend our communities against racist police, as guaranteed under the Second Amendments of the United States Constitution.
Like many other nationalist organizations, the Brown Berets’ history was marked by deep conflicts over sexism, as well as debates over the meaning of being “Chicano.” This is the story that flows from the above document, one best encompassed by questions like: How did this platform reflect the needs and interests of their membership and the larger community of which they were a part? How did it not? How did they go about trying to implement their vision?
If you are interested in pursuing just some of the above questions, feel free to do some further reading. A nice overview of the rise of the Berets can be found in Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice, by Ian F. Haney-López. A superb collection of feminist writings from this era, ones that often express the tension between nationalism and feminism, is Alma Garcia’s Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings.