Chicano groups are embracing undocumented immigrants. It wasn’t always this way.
Gustavo Arellano, 07/31/2019
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New alliances are forming in the face of racism and an unprecedented political moment.
There’s a party going on outside Servicios de la Raza, a social services nonprofit in Denver less than a mile away from Mile High Stadium. Police block off a street to better accommodate the fiesta’s occasion: a Thanksgiving giveaway for the city’s poor.
Four hundred or so families stream in for bags and boxes filled with food and clothes. Representatives from health provider Kaiser Permanente offer free flu shots and blood pressure tests; a DJ spins some hip-hop but mostly plays reggaetón and conjunto norteño, the polka-style music of northern Mexico. A large, colorful mural of the Aztec calendar high on the side of Servicio’s two-story building looms over the scene, along with the organization’s name in English: Services of the People.
Executive Director Rudy Gonzales works the crowd. Sharp in a black suit, loafers and sunglasses, he tosses out jokes and words of encouragement in English, Spanish and enthusiastic Spanglish. “¡Buenos días, señora!” he tells a weathered, middle-aged Latina before shouting, “Hey man, what’s up?” to a friend. African-American and white families join in the festivities, but the majority of the crowd is Latino — mostly immigrants, according to Gonzales.
More than a few are probably undocumented, but Gonzales doesn’t care.
“We serve anyone who comes to our door,” he says, as cheerful volunteers grab boxes of donations from inside a garage stacked to the roof. “We don’t ask for documentation. We don’t ask for papers. No human being is illegal.”
Servicios, which was started in 1972, has joined many similar, decades-old nonprofits across the West in a historical pivot to welcome new immigrants. For years, many of these groups, created at the height of the 1960s civil rights movement to help Chicanos — American citizens of Mexican descent whose families have deep roots in the United States — ignored and sometimes even actively opposed more recent immigrants from Latin America. Now they’ve begun to reach out, partly in fulfillment of their overall mission to help out those in need but also out of a desire for self-preservation. In an era when immigrant-rights groups and their concerns now dominate the progressive Latino agenda, it’s hard to remain relevant without the new outreach.
Interviews with the heads of four Chicano nonprofits — Servicios, Utah Coalition of La Raza, the Phoenix-based Chicanos por la Causa and the SouthWest Organizing Project in Albuquerque — reveal another, deeper-rooted factor, however. They say escalating anti-immigrant sentiment across the Southwest over the past three decades, from state legislatures to the White House, endangers the social justice gains Mexican-Americans have made.
“Me walking down the street with an undocumented friend, a gringo isn’t going to be able to tell the difference between us,” Gonzales says indignantly. “They don’t distinguish. We’re just Mexicans.”
To fight back is not just the right thing to do: It’s necessary. And to try and bridge the long-standing divide between Chicanos and Mexican immigrants — related groups but with different histories and needs — is now more important than ever.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in this country six generations and your grandpa served in World War II,” says UCLR president Richard Jaramillo. “You’re still brown in this country. You’re still an ‘other.’ ”
GONZALES’ OFFICE COULD be out of a Hollywood screenplay for the executive of a busy, idealistic nonprofit. Trophies and stacks of documents form mountains around the edge of his desk; awards and Chicano art cover the walls. A couple of pictures feature Gonzales’ father — Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, a former featherweight boxer who went on to become one of the founding fathers of the Chicano movement through his group, Crusade for Justice. He brought an urban perspective to el movimiento, rallying people against police brutality and other inner-city issues. Corky also wrote an epic poem, “Yo Soy Joaquín/I am Joaquín,” which is still read in Chicano studies classes for its lyrical depiction of the internal identity struggles of people who claim both Mexican and American heritage.
His son has led Servicios for a decade now. It originally emphasized mental health services for Chicanos in Denver but has since expanded to offer voter education, HIV screenings and counseling for gang prevention, job re-entry and substance abuse, and run youth academies across Colorado. But state law prohibits Servicios from using government grants to help undocumented immigrants, and that infuriates Gonzales. “It’s inhumane.”
“We don’t get that as much here,” he says from behind his desk, while employees bring checks to sign or reports to review. “This is the land of Corky Gonzales. He’d tell us, ‘They’re your brothers and sisters. They’re not aliens.’ And people remember that.” Instead, he relies on private donors and foundation money to assist that population. Fortunately, the work has drawn almost no complaints from the Denver community.
Before the late 1960s, however, that position was outside mainstream Mexican-American thought. Almost from the end of the 1848 Mexican-American War, many Mexicans who remained in the U.S. tried to align themselves with Anglos in order to survive. They married their daughters to white settlers, and minted new identities — as Tejanos, Californios, Hispanos — that emphasized the European side of their ancestry at the expense of their Indigenous side.
Many of these American citizens of Mexican descent joined whites in stereotyping the hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants who arrived after the Mexican Revolution as “greasers” or “cholos.”
The intra-ethnic antagonism confounded outside observers. “The attitude of the Mexicans who are American citizens toward the immigrant is a curious one,” wrote Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio in his 1931 study Mexican Immigration to the United States, one of the first academic treatises on the subject. “They speak slightingly of the immigrants … and say that the immigrants should stay in Mexico.”
That schism endured for decades, especially among groups created to fight Anglo discrimination and segregation against Mexican-Americans.
The League of United Latin American Citizens explicitly barred non-citizens from joining when it was founded in 1927. The American GI Forum, formed by Mexican-American World War II veterans to combat hate against members on the home front, published a pamphlet in 1953 titled “What Price Wetbacks?” that claimed undocumented Mexicans were “the fundamental problem facing the Spanish-speaking population of the Southwest.”
A few Latino leaders, most notably labor organizers Bert Corona and Luisa Moreno, tried to soften this stance, but to no avail. Even the legendary Cesar Chavez notoriously lambasted migrant workers almost from the start of his career, regarding them as perpetual threats to his unionizing efforts. His United Farm Workers spearheaded an “Illegals Campaign” that asked UFW members to report undocumented immigrants to immigration authorities. Chavez’s cousin oversaw so-called “wet lines” in Arizona that monitored the U.S.-Mexico border — a Chicano predecessor to the far-right Minuteman Project militia of the mid-2000s.
When other UFW members urged Chavez to tone down his anti-immigrant tactics, he refused to listen.
“You (Chicano liberals) get these hang-ups,” he told Dolores Huerta in 1974, as recounted in Miriam Pawel’s book, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography. “They’re wets, you know. They’re wets, and let’s go after them.”
By then, though, attitudes had begun to change. In the late 1960s, young activists began embracing the concept of Aztlán — the idea that the American Southwest was the historical homeland of the Aztecs, and hence that all people of Mexican descent were part of the same family, regardless of where the current border lay. This new generation —many of them children of the very “wetbacks” derided by the Mexican-American old guard — felt that the assimilation strategy of the civil rights movement during the 1950s had done little to improve their lives. They forged a new label — “Chicano” — to root them both in the U.S. and Mexico.
This pro-immigrant outlook arguably had its debut at the First National Chicano Liberation Youth Conference in Denver, a March 1969 convention hosted by the Crusade for Justice. Gonzales — whose father was born in Chihuahua — teamed up with the poet Alberto Baltazar Urista, or Alurista, to write El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, a manifesto for Chicano liberation that included the line “We do not recognize capricious frontiers on the bronze continent.”
Rudy Gonzales has fully embraced his father’s message.
“When you look at it, undocumented people are bearing the brunt of the extreme racism occurring in this country,” he said. “We look to uplift the most marginalized. I hate calling them immigrants. We’re migrants. They’re walking back to a historical homeland, and we’re here to help.”
ROBERT “ARCHIE” ARCHULETA distinctly remembers his first encounter with la migra — immigration enforcement. His godparents, Mexican nationals, were repatriated during the 1930s when he was a child; a time when the Hoover administration forced over a million Mexicans, some of them American citizens, to return to their home country, putting them on trains or otherwise deporting them.
(Editor’s note: Since the reporting and initial publication of this article, Robert “Archie” Archuleta has passed away. On January 25, 2019, Utah's House and Senate Democratic caucuses announced the news. He was 88 years old.)
His own family — whose roots in the American Southwest go back to the 16th century — soon fled Grand Junction, Colorado, for Pocatello, Idaho. He eventually moved to Utah during the 1950s to become an elementary school teacher. In the late 1960s, he co-founded of one of the first Mexican-American civil rights groups in the state, the Spanish-Speaking Organization for Community, Integrity, and Opportunity (SOCIO).
“We were fighting for Chicano rights during the movement, but there was always this tinge of immigration,” says Archuleta, who’s now 88 but still active in the community. “Utah was always a crossroad for Mexicanos going to the mines or farms here, or up to Washington or even Wyoming. We enjoyed the same language and music and culture.”
Archuleta and other citizens hired lawyers and successfully sued the federal government so local law enforcement agencies could no longer be deputized to act as migra. He says that Chicanos in the state first truly aligned their cause with that of undocumented immigrants in 1986, when the Immigration and Nationalization Service deputized the Utah Highway Patrol, Tooele County sheriffs and local police to conduct raids in Wendover, a small city on the state border with Nevada. “They stacked children and women and men in a jail cell,” he says with disgust. “On television, there were images of truckloads of migrants stopped by state patrol. People were just running in all directions and being hunted.”
“They’ve always denigrated us,” he says, speaking of his Anglo fellow citizens. “In elementary school, I fought nearly every day. Seeing Mexicanos treated like that brought back memories for many of us.”
But even as Latino immigrants streamed into the West, politicians began to crack down on them. In 2010, Arizona lawmakers passed SB 1070, which sought to push out undocumented immigrants from the state by making it a felony for anyone to not have their identification on them at all times. Other states passed similar measures — including Utah. Multiple immigrants’ rights groups sprang up in Utah after the Wendover raids, as the state’s Latino population exploded. U.S. Census figures show that Utah had just about 60,000 Latinos in 1980; by 2000, the total stood at about 200,000. (The population was estimated to have passed 400,000 in 2015.)
“Ten years ago, we were largely working with Chicanos,” says Utah Coalition of La Raza (UCLR) president Jaramillo, who was mentored by Archuleta. But “copycat laws” convinced UCLR to align itself with immigrants more than before. And the harsh words and anti-immigrant actions of President Donald Trump, Jaramillo maintains, were the final wake-up call Utah Chicanos needed.
“For years, we’ve struggled in the Chicano movement to advance and reach some type of equality,” he says. “We’ve failed to reach that Promised Land. And then you have this moment — this guy stands up there and says this hateful stuff, and becomes the embodiment of ‘Here’s why we haven’t made progress.’ ”
Under Jaramillo, UCLR started know-your-rights workshops and joined with other groups to offer undocumented people legal, medical and even housing assistance. He argues that this is in line with the historical Chicano movement, despite some pushback from older UCLR members.
“I can already hear in my mind one man, in his gruff voice: ‘This organization wasn’t for immigrants, it was for Chicanos,’ ” he says. “I know that sentiment is out there, but I think we’ve done a good job bridging that gap between the immigrant community and Chicano community. The hate isn’t just for one of us; it’s for all of us.”
BRIDGING THE DIVIDE between Chicanos and Mexican immigrants has proved particularly vexing for the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) in Albuquerque.
Here in the West, New Mexico’s Mexican-American population has historically been the most adamant about keeping Mexican nationals at arm’s length. To this day, many Hispanos in the Land of Enchantment insist they’re descended from pureblooded Spaniards, or even conversos (Jews who hid their religion during the Spanish Inquisition) — anything but Mexicans. Residents even created a slur for them: surumatos.
“Colonization is alive and well among us,” says SWOP executive director George Luján with a sigh.
Everything is a bit messy in the SWOP offices on a Monday morning because “we had a lot of events over the weekend,” jokes Luján. But the atmosphere is positive as a multiracial wave of volunteers and workers stroll in a bit after 9. The group isn’t Chicano-focused, per se. It works to engage ordinary people with issues ranging from gentrification to the schools-to-prison pipeline via workshops, community forums, and lectures. It also has fostered partnerships with Native American groups, renting out storefront spaces near its headquarters in a working-class barrio of Albuquerque to a Native American comic book store and an incubator space.
Luján officially started working for SWOP in 2008, though he’s known the organization his whole life. His father, Joaquín, was a member of the Black Berets, a militant group that looked to New Mexico’s own radical history of resistance for inspiration. They claimed as spiritual ancestors the Gorras Blancas, a Hispano secret society in the late 1800s that fought Anglo encroachment on their land grants and water rights — cutting down fences, ripping up railroad ties and setting fires to barns.
That past, however, is not one that Mexican immigrants know about, let alone care for, Joaquín Luján believes.
“La gente de Mexico (the people from Mexico), they don’t come to join our struggle,” he adds, noting that his family has lived in New Mexico for hundreds of years and keeps a farm south of Albuquerque. “They come to make a better life for themselves.”
“A big thing is fear,” his son counters. “Someone who just crossed the desert isn’t going to be ready to join in the struggle.”
Founded in 1980, SWOP initially focused on environmental racism and voter registration drives while creating ties with similar movements across Latin America. But members realized they couldn’t ignore the tensions existed between Hispanos and newly arrived Mexican immigrants.
They see it especially at community workshops, where SWOP tries to present issues it feels the two groups can rally around.
“A Chicana once said, ‘We gotta stop them Mexicans from getting our welfare!’” Joaquín said with a laugh. “And then one time, an immigrant from Juarez told someone, ‘¿Que es Joaquín? ¿Que es él? Es como un gringo!’ (‘What is Joaquín? What is he? He’s like a gringo!’)” The woman evidently thought Joaquín Luján was a well-meaning but patronizing Anglo American.
While SWOP works to unite adults, it especially focuses on high school and college students, encouraging them to see beyond a citizen-or-immigrant worldview. One particularly effective tool has been 500 Años del Pueblo Chicano/500 Years of Chicano History, a book edited by legendary Chicana educator Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez, which tells the saga of Mexican-Americans in the United States through archival photos and explanatory captions. The 1990 volume explicitly connected the struggles of Chicanos to Mexican immigrants.
“ ‘Deport exploitation, not workers!’ is our cry against the U.S. war on Mexican workers,” Martinez wrote in one passage, calling the anti-immigration sentiment a “new attempt to divide us.”
SWOP has sold 33,000 copies of 500 Años, and also turned it into a video and coloring book. The volume is consistently banned by school districts for its unapologetically Chicano approach or else stolen by students who want a copy for themselves. But more than a moneymaker, it represents an opening for SWOP.
“You start with a connection first,” says George. “A shared value, then shared problems. History. Or chile. You start talking about chile — everyone can relate to that.” (One of SWOP’s logos is two red and green peppers connected at their respective tips and stem to form a heart.)
“Then you can talk about troubles,” George Luján continues. “ ‘These people are coming and taking our jobs.’ You don’t challenge it right off the bat, because that’s an argument. But you talk it out, and you make connections. You find when to push or stand back. It’s work — it’s not a lecture.”
“We’re not going to work out everything,” his father adds, “but we can march together.”
SWOP doesn’t try to take the lead on immigration issues in Albuquerque. Instead, it assumes peacekeeping during rallies and teaches other groups about their rights during protests. And SWOP has offered a lot of training as of late.
“Trump is a great organizer in the Latino community because everyone hates his ass,” George Luján cracks. “A shared enemy is great. We all get a new awakening.”