In the decades after World War II, Hispanic Americans in California grew in numbers and political strength. The reality of their severe economic circumstances flew in the face of the popular celebration of California's Spanish past that flourished in the early 20th century. Even as Californians romanticized their state's 19th-century Mexican heritage, most turned a blind eye to the problems faced by Mexican Californians in the present.
In 1966, community organizers César Chávez and Dolores Huerta helped found the United Farm Workers (UFW), a labor union aimed at organizing migrant farm workers — mostly Mexican, but many Filipinos — who had endured decades of perilous working conditions, low pay, and no job security. (The painting Campesino, by Daniel Desiga, powerfully illustrates a farmworker thinning plants with el cortito, a short hoe. This backbreaking work was later outlawed by the UFW.)
The UFW flag was designed by Ricardo Favela and printed by Louie "The Foot" Gonzalez. It features a Mayan-inspired American eagle and the slogan Huelga, Spanish for strike. The UFW's most famous action was the Delano Grape Strike — a boycott of grape growers in the Delano area that lasted five years, and was later extended to include lettuce, Gallo wine (as shown in the photograph of a march against the winemaker), and the Safeway grocery chain (UFW complaints are outlined in a poster by Victor Ochoa). Eventually, the grassroots organization of impoverished farmworker families received support from the United Auto Workers, AFL-CIO, Attorney US Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and California Governor Jerry Brown. By 1975, a Louis Harris poll found that 17 million Americans were boycotting grapes. The UFW went on to enjoy other successes, and is still rerpresenting farmworkers today.
César Chávez died in 1993. In 1994, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded him the Medal of Freedom, American's highest civilian honor. Dolores Huerta, still politically active, was a driving force in the Chicano Civil Rights movement.
Although the UFW made huge gains, migrant farmworkers still worked under harsh conditions. The series of photographs taken in the 1980s shows workers gathering at a hiring hall, melon pickers being transported through fields in a truck bed, and a lettuce harvester in the hot sun. As illustrated by the photograph of the family harvesting walnuts in Gilroy, children accompanying their parents in the fields.
The labor activism of Chávez and Huerta comprised one arm of the La Raza movement (la raza is Spanish for the race, or the people). It endeavored to expose and overturn the discrimination in employment, housing, and education that Hispanic Americans faced in California.
The La Raza movement included muralists, poets, entrepreneurs, politicians, and labor organizers within its ranks, and descendants of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other parts of Latin America in addition to Mexico. One poster that came out of this movement proclaims "Independence for Puerto Rico." The poster of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara has the words "Hasta la victoria siempre" ("Keep fighting until victory"), a phrase used by Guevara in the last letter he wrote to Fidel Castro, and a goal of La Raza. Guevara became a cultural icon and symbol for non-Cuban Hispanic Americans (his face is also seen on the picket sign carried in the Chicano Moratorium march, below).
Chicano activists of the 1960s were concerned with reclaiming their pre-Columbian, Native American, and Mexican cultural identities. The Chicano Civil Rights Movement led to an increased understanding of Chicano identity in a historical, binational, and bicultural context. The Chicano Moratorium staged a walkout of high school students in 1968, and a demonstration in East Los Angeles in 1970 that drew 30,000 marchers. One photograph shows protestors holding signs that read, “Our fight is in the barrio, not Vietnam.”
The Chicano art movement began in the 1960s in support of the UFW labor struggle, and for Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino (Farmworkers' Theater). Rudy Cuellar's poster is a lively example (the letters RCAF on the shirt pocket stand for "Royal Chicano Air Force"). Many of the other prints in this topic were produced by Self Help Graphics, an East Los Angeles gallery and community art center dedicated to exploring the culture and community of the Chicano movement in California. Later Chicano artworks (such as Ester Hernandez's biting 1982 Sun Mad Raisins) were often directly inspired by the political and cultural developments among "working class" (low-wage earning) Mexican Americans in California.
Wall murals, like the Sherman Youth mural in San Diego, became a popular artform. The muralists often used volunteers from the community, such the Woodrow Wilson Junior High School students shown in the photograph. The mural tradition has remained strong, as evidenced by La Revolucion Continua (1996), and by Raza Unida (200-2002), painted on a concrete freeway underpass in Chicano Park, San Diego.
The 2000 census produced an informative snapshot of California today. The state is more multicultural than ever before, and 32 percent of the population is Hispanic American. These numbers have created both a rise in Hispanic American political power, and a growing awareness of issues that affect the Hispanic American community.
Recently, the historic struggle over illegal immigration and border control between the United States and Mexico has grown more contentious, and border crossings have grown more dangerous. The portion of the Border Crossing Memorial shown here asks, "¿Cuantos mas?" How many more? Between the two words is a series of wooden panels painted with red numbers, resembling a counter. The last panel has two numbers, as if in transition.
Ongoing controversies over illegal immigration and bilingual education have mobilized California's Hispanic population, even as they exposed internal class and cultural divisions. Despite a tradition of activism, Hispanic Californians had trouble winning public office throughout the 20th century. But the recent elections of Cruz Bustamante (Lieutenant Governor), Antonio Villaraigosa (Los Angeles mayor), Rocky Delgadillo (Los Angeles City Attorney), and Fabian Nuñez (Assembly Speaker) suggest the arrival of a powerful 21st-century political presence
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Hispanic Americans: Politics and Community, 1970s-present curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2005, Regents of the University of California.