Thursday, November 7, 2013

A History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement

My English classes are currently writing essays and reading articles about local history.  One excellent teaching tool I've discovered is a 1996 PBS series called "Chicano!: A History of The Mexican American Civil Rights Movement."  It's a four-part documentary that chronicles this much-overlooked aspect of American history, much of which occurred in the Southwest, some very close to home, in Southern California.  Every episode of "Chicano!" is available to watch on youtube, and they are definitely worth the watch.  Here they are, in the order in which they aired on PBS in 1996, with descriptions taken from the Journal for Multimedia History:


Part 1, "Quest for a Homeland," examines the beginnings of the movement by profiling Reies Lopez Tijerina and the land grant movement in New Mexico in 1966 and 1967. It shows how Tijerina's fight to convince the federal government to honor the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) galvanized Mexicans and Mexican Americans across the Southwest. It then moves on to discuss Rodolfo (Corky) Gonzales and his founding of the Crusade for Justice in Denver in 1966. Focusing on the importance of his poem I am Joaquin, it highlights how Gonzales reached out to Chicano youth. This segment is useful for its discussion of the roots of Chicano nationalism through its affirmation of cultural identity grounded in Aztec myths such as that of Aztlan, the mythical Chicano homeland.



Part 2, "The Struggle in the Fields," examines the importance of Cesar Chavez and his efforts to organize farm workers in the central valley of California. It delineates the various components of Chávez's strategy for farm worker self determination—strikes, boycotts, pilgrimages, fasts—and emphasizes his commitment to nonviolence and the importance of faith and prayer in achieving his goal.



Part 3, "Taking Back the Schools," covers the Los Angeles high school blow outs of 1968 thoroughly and with passion. Part 3 is also likely to be the most interesting to students because they can witness young people their own age forcefully agitating for change.  It is also striking because the catalysts for the walk outs—high drop out rate, crumbling schools, lack of Mexican American teachers—still resonate today. This segment is visually interesting as well because the filmmakers made a conscious effort to interview actual participants (which they do in all the segments). Here they actually go back and forth between a photo or video of a participant from the 1960s to that same person being interviewed today, and it is insightful to see how that individual changed in the intervening thirty years. For example, at one point the video discusses how the students were trying to garner outside support for their cause in order to legitimate it in the eyes of the school board. Robert Kennedy agrees to meet with student leaders and offer his support (he was running for president at the time and was in California to meet with César Chávez), and we see a picture of Kennedy surrounded by student leaders. The camera then focuses on a young Harry Gamboa—one of the walk-out leaders—standing next to Kennedy and the video then fades away to a current day interview with him.



Part 4, "Fighting for Political Power," discusses the creation of La Raza Unida Party as a third party force for political power and the importance of political rights. It culminates in the 1972 election and the Raza Unida convention, and the fragmentation of the party at the height of its membership and recognition.



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