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The Chicano Movement: More Nostalgia Than a Reality

September 17, 1995|David E. Hayes-Bautista and Gregory Rodriguez | David E. Hayes-Bautista and Gregory Rodriguez, associate editors at Pacific News Service, are, respectively, executive director and senior fellow at the Alta California Research Center

As the Chicano generation aged, mellowed and had their own children, the Latino population at large grew by a whopping 400%. Once overwhelmingly of Mexican origin, Latinos diversified when turmoil in Central America pushed hundreds of thousands of refugees into California during the '80s. A massive wave of immigration from Mexico turned Latinos, for the first time since the 1920s, into a largely foreign-born group. Today, two-thirds of adult Latinos in Los Angeles County are immigrants. More than 85% of all Latinos in the county were born or arrived after 1970. The term Chicano gradually lost its edge; it became a synonym for Mexican American. A term referring to all Americans of Latin American ancestry-- Latino --came into vogue.

Raw numbers and a newborn cultural confidence allowed Latinos to move beyond resistance as the sole basis of identity. Latino culture re-emerged as a potent, vibrant force in the United States.

On college campuses, where Chicanismo has always enjoyed its greatest support, students moved away from the simple oppositional stance of old. For example, 25 years ago at USC, MEChA, a militant Chicano-generation group, was the only Latino organization on campus. Today, Latino students are organizing around their interests, majors and goals. There are groups of Latino engineering students, future lawyers, nurses and writers. The Latino Business Assn. is the largest Latino organization on campus. "At one time, MEChA was the entire picture," recalls Raul Vargas, director of the Mexican-American Alumni Assn. at USC. "Now they're just part of a larger picture." Chicanismo is a phase that some Latino undergraduates still go through.

The newest Latino Americans are not really sure what the Movimiento was all about. Commentators who decried the embarrassingly low turnout at last month's anniversary march, which was labeled as the beginning of a new era in the Chicano Movement, failed to realize that most of today's Latinos don't share the history of the Chicano generation. Consuelo Fuerte, a 30-year-old street vendor who immigrated from Guadalajara, Mexico, 12 years ago, showed up at the march to sell soft drinks. "The truth is, I couldn't tell you what they're talking about," she says. "I heard on the news that someone got killed many years ago. But, really, I don't know."

Ramos, the East L.A. playwright, did attend the moratorium anniversary. He is turned off by 1960s political rhetoric--as are many young Latinos who didn't show up. Anniversary organizers avow that the ultimate goal of their reborn "movement" is to annex Aztlan, the Aztecs' mythical homeland in the U.S. Southwest, to a "transformed Mexico," an idea that most Latinos would scoff at. Ramos claims he and his peers have gone beyond reckless bravado and are part of a "new breed" of young Latinos. They're too confident to be defensive. They care about social issues, yet are not driven by anger. They will fight their battles in their own ways. "We're new and improved," says Ramos with a laugh.

Anger and alienation were necessary ingredients for the continued success of Chicanismo. But as a character in "The Last Brown Hat" concedes, "You can't stay angry forever." The death throes of the Chicano Movement signal a new consciousness among Latinos. As politically and economically marginal as many of us are today, we are more defined by hope than anger. And at more than one-third of California's population, we are now more concerned with renewing a society in decline than in preserving a minority movement.*

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