Chicano struggle for liberation provides lessons for all

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Viva la Raza: A History of Chicano Identity and Resistance by Yolanda Alaniz and

Megan Cornish, Red Letter Press (2008), 368 pages. ISBN 0-932323-28-6.

Yolanda Alaniz and Megan Cornish have produced a comprehensive critique of Chicano

oppression and resistance. While the focus of the authors’ attention may not be of central

interest to many Australian readers, there are valuable insights into both the nature of

racism and effective resistance that are applicable anywhere.


Viva La Raza: A History of Chicano
Identity and Resistance by Yolanda Alaniz and

Megan Cornish, Red Letter Press (2008),
368 pages. ISBN 0-932323-28-6.

Source of oppression. The authors clarify the use of terminology. Chicana/o — a term

increasingly used in the 1970s by U.S.-born natives whose heritage was predominantly

Native American and Mexican. Mexicana/o is used to describe immigrants of Mexican

heritage. The “a/o” was added to the male gendered word to combat gender inequity in

the language. The authors note that “la raza,” meaning the race, may also be used as a

synonym for the Chicana/o people.

The opening section of the book focuses on understanding the nature of Chicana/o

oppression. Discussion centres on what is often referred to as “the national question.”

The concept of the Chicana/o people as an oppressed nation (a nation within the borders

of the U.S.) was the accepted explanation for the lack of equality by many, including

some within the Chicana/o community. The authors set out to test this assumption. They

explain the criteria we need to evaluate when considering if a group of people can be

considered to be a nation — a common language, culture, territory and economic life,

and a stable historically evolved community. While meeting some of the criteria for

nationhood — possession of a common language and culture — on balance, the authors

consider that the Chicana/o do not constitute a nation but are a super-exploited race who

consider themselves U.S. nationals.

The theoretical section of the book can be used to help understand racial or national

oppression anywhere. As someone born in New Zealand, it was interesting to reflect on

the criteria essential to claim nationhood in relation to the Indigenous population of New

Zealand. On the basis of the Marxist criteria for nationhood used by Alaniz and Cornish,

it is clear that in New Zealand, Maori are an oppressed nation within a nation — and they

certainly were a nation prior to being occupied and colonised by the British.

Results of racism. Discovering that Chicana/os do not comprise a nation does nothing

to deny the systemic and institutional racism that constitutes the daily experience for

Chicana/os. The statistics the authors provide are as shocking as they are expected —

household incomes 40% below those of non-Hispanic whites while 22.8% of people with

a Mexican origin were poor compared to 7.8% of non-Hispanic whites. The 2000 census

revealed 83% of whites graduated from high school compared to 50% of students of

Mexican origin.

While the U.S. economy relies on the cheap labour that the Chicana/os provide, the low-
paid and insecure work in the service industries and agriculture make daily life on the

margins constantly difficult.

I spent a number of years in Northern California and witnessed the seasonal persecution

that Chicana/o and immigrant agricultural workers faced. Once crops had been harvested,

farms were raided and “undocumented” labourers were expelled from the country,

commonly without the pay owing to them. Such operations were not possible without

the cooperation of local authorities, and immigration raids drove down the wages and

conditions of both U.S.-born and immigrant workers from Chicana/o and Mexicana/o

backgrounds.

I had the privilege of attending a conference organised to unite local Chicana/o

communities (“barrios unidos”), where efforts were made to form a single body to

demand access to health and educational services, an end to police harassment and access

to better paid employment. One of the barriers that Chicana/os faced, as repeatedly

described by delegates at the conference, was institutional racism that condemned whole

neighbourhoods to a cycle of poverty and despair. This is illustrated by the comments of

one attendee who reflected, “You can’t buy a Cuban cigar in this country, but they can

land shipping containers of cocaine on the wharfs and most of it will find its way to poor

neighbourhoods. You got to wonder how that is allowed to happen…”

We’re not going to take it! Viva la Raza documents the long and proud history of

Chicana/o resistance to oppression and racism — among women and in the workplace,

against war, student struggles, among farm workers, the formation and splitting of

Chicana/o political organisations, the victories and retreats. The emphasis on resistance

is Viva la Raza’s strength. I particularly appreciated the focus on battles over many

decades to organise farm workers for better wages and conditions in the face of violence,

growers’ intransigence and anti-worker legislation.

Alaniz and Cornish also put a spotlight on episodes of U.S. history that may be relatively

unknown in Australia, such as the monumental struggle of Chicana/o farm labourers

to organise themselves into a powerful grassroots union — the United Farm Workers

(UFW). By the 1960s their struggle spread right across the country. A poll taken in 1975

found that 12% of the population had stopped buying grapes in support of the UFW

claims, and 45% of the U.S. population supported the UFW! Eventually the UFW was

defeated by conservative forces within the union movement, in concert with employers

and government. The authors note, though, that “the tremendous victories, audacious

courage and sheer persistence of Chicana/o…signal a people in motion that won’t be

deterred. They have the potential to revitalise all of labor, especially when they are in

solidarity with militant immigrant workers.”

Viva la Raza also documents the story of Chicana women struggling not just for equality

from employers and government service providers but also for equity with Chicano men

within the movements for wider justice. The retelling of those stories is sensitive and

vividly illustrates the need for a self-reflective movement, with the capacity to be open

to criticism and suggestions on how best to build inclusive, democratic and sustainable

movements for justice and equity.

Viva la Raza provides an insight into a slice of U.S. history that is too frequently

overlooked, and will reward Australian readers simply because of the dearth of material

available on Chicana/o history and community. I found the theory useful and enjoyed

the history and stories of resistance. If the book has a fault, it is a tendency to dwell on

debates within the Left that, while sure to be of interest to some, may deter the wider

readership this valuable book deserves.

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