I was raised in Eastern Washington’s Yakima Valley, a fertile, rich, and beautiful farming region known to Chicanos as the Little Mississippi of the Northwest because of the local racism against Chicanos.
My family were campesinos — migrant farmworkers — who settled in Sunnyside, the heart of the region. Most people there are Chicano.
My mother worked in the fields to support her five kids. I had to work in the fields before and after school every day, plus weekends from sunup to sundown, to help the family.
I remember the poverty: the farm labor camps where we lived had no electricity or running water, and our community outhouse was in the center of the camp.
At school, our culture and language were denied us. We were not allowed to learn Chicano history. Our teachers favored the white students and fanned their racism against us. I’ll never forget white kids laughing at me for bringing tortilias con papas for lunch and for wearing secondhand clothes and shoes.
Our teachers weren’t there to educate, but to funnel all Chicanos into relatively unskilled jobs. They told me to forget about college and to seek jobs where I could use my hands, which I was “used to.”
By the time I graduated from high school, only a handful of Chicanos were left. The rest had been forced to drop out and go to work, were expelled, or had been so discouraged by racism that they quit.
As I walked down the aisle to get my diploma, I felt so proud of myself and mi mamá, who had pushed me to finish school. Only two out of the seven children in my family graduated from high school. And I was the only one to finish college.
La raza unida. In September 1969, I moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington under the Equal Opportunity Program which allowed minority and poor students to make up college-prep deficiencies, and provided federal loans and scholarships.
It was a very good year in which to begin my higher education. The Chicano movement had erupted with a vengeance in the wake of the Black civil rights struggles and amid the protests against the Vietnam war.
Campus was hot with political activity. I was very quickly transformed from a “Mexican American” into a Chicana political activist, like so many others.
It was Chicanos against the world!
We needed everything! We demanded everything! And we had a right to everything!
Our number one enemy was the gringo, just like back home. Our allies were ourselves. Our tactics were militant: demonstrate, rally, take the building! We demanded Chicano studies, Chicano classes, radical professors, more financial aid, no sellouts. We went off campus, took to the streets, organized contingents in the antiwar demos.
We wanted it all. And I loved every minute of it!
Race is primary? The time was right for winning some demands. But fights soon broke out among the different peoples of color over who was going to get a bigger share of the pie. It took us awhile to realize we weren’t each other’s enemies. The gringo was. So we formed alliances with one another.
Still, we Chicanos always held that the Chicano struggle was foremost. Race was the primary issue. And Chicano culture, regardless of class or political differences, was the basis of our unity and strength. Our slogan was Chicano Power! For many, this was a self-affirming expression of pride, long overdue after centuries of degradation.
For others, however, Chicano Power led to cultural separatism and the belief that one’s own people were superior to all others. These were the cultural nationalists, and they became dominant in the Chicano movement.
I was no separatist, but I believed that only Chicanos could fight Chicano oppression and that being Chicano was all that mattered in the struggle. I also felt that unity among all people of color would be forthcoming in any showdown with the gringos.
Three significant developments changed my perspective.
I saw that the sexism of the macho leaders of MEChA, the leading Chicano student organization, was rapidly pushing women out of the movement. And it soon became clear that the “race is primary” viewpoint made it impossible to address sexism.
Secondly, I saw that elevating one’s own culture above all others led to friction between people of color and lessened our joint effectiveness against the powers-that-be.
Finally, I learned how quickly class and political divisions take precedence over race or ethnic unity. A Black UW administrator fired the director of the Chicano division of Minority Affairs because of the latter’s involvement in the movement!
Race and culture politics were getting us nowhere fast. But I had no alternative.
¡Hola, revolución! Looking back, I was lucky that I had to work my way through college. Otherwise, I might never have become involved in a campus labor struggle that changed my life.
This fight was in opposition to a sexist and racist job reclassification system that would have lowered pay scales for entry-level jobs, and clerical, service, and other low-paid positions, the bulk of which were filled by women and people of color.
I wound up helping to organize United Workers Union-Independent, which fought for the most oppressed workers at the university.
Seattle Radical Women members were in the leadership of this union. And in working with them, I learned for the first time to trust white workers on the basis of political agreement.
Something else happened: I found new strength and commitment to struggle through the support and political leadership of these socialist women. And my own deeply suppressed feminism emerged.
This was something really new! I was learning how to fight simultaneously against my oppression as a Chicana, a woman, a worker, and a mother. I felt for the first time that I was fighting for all of what I am and who I am.
This was socialist feminism. And it was for me!
It wasn’t long, however, before I was told to stay away from Radical Women by the Chicana culturalists and the sexist Chicano men. Then my husband gave me a further ultimatum: “Be my full time wife. I don’t want a political wife.”
My decision was clear. Adiós mi esposo, good morning independence! I joined Radical Women. And soon I joined the FSP, the only revolutionary feminist party on earth.
It had to be.
Adiós to Aztlan. My subsequent work in the Chicano community often brought me in conflict with those same cultural nationalists who had tried to drive me out of the movement. They were still in the leadership and still shouting out anti-gringo separatism as the solution to our oppression.
Our own nation — Aztlan — was their war cry. But how this nation would be achieved, where it would be located, and how its current inhabitants would be removed, they never said.
I couldn’t buy it. The U.S. government had forced segregation on us for hundreds of years. Why voluntarily go along with that program? Why remove ourselves as a challenge to the segregation, exploitation, discrimination, and genocide of U.S. rule? What could this self-imposed segregation into a new capitalist country possibly gain us?
This is not to say that my culture is not important to me — it is. But my culture is far more than just a slogan for macho self-aggrandizement. I will not use it to hide myself from struggle and to yearn for an unreachable — and undesirable! — Aztlan.
We Chicanas and Chicanos are the victims of racism, treated like foreigners and relegated to second and third-class citizenship. Yet the USA is our land. We are Americans.
My people have been here for 400 years. We were once Mexicanos, part of Mexico, but almost 150 years have passed since our land was ripped away from Mexico by the gringos. And our culture has grown away from Mexico, taking much from the Indian, the Black, and the Anglo. Indeed, we call ourselves Chicano in acknowledgement of our Indian blood. We are who we are today in relation to all the other cultures we lived beside and comingled with through the years.
Our culture is uniquely our own. But culture is not enough to form a nation. We do not have our own economy, and ownership of the economy is basic to nationhood. Also, our territory is shared with many other peoples. These factors make a separate nation impossible.
We are workers, part of the U.S. proletariat. Our labor built the American Southwest. Driven off our land and herded into barrios, we worked in the mines, on railroads and on ranches, and in factories. Our blood and sweat have been incorporated into the muscle and bone of the U.S. economy.
We are workers who keep this country running. This country is ours. We earned it. And we are not about to leave it. Our job is to transform it.
¡Viva la revolución Americana! It is as workers, fighting together with our sisters and brothers of all colors against the bosses, that we Chicanos proudly take our place as leaders in the American revolution.
Who knows better than we, the super-oppressed, how to fight and defeat our real enemy, the U.S. capitalist class — those sexists, racists, exploiters, dividers, and oppressors of people of color, women, children, gays, and every worker?
We are warriors in a class conflagration. We have fought with other American workers for survival and dignity as workers against bosses and cops and the government. We Chicanos organized and led countless unions; we imparted to U.S. unionism the fiery idealism and socialist theory of the Mexican Revolution.
I take my stand in the American revolution as a socialist and a feminist fighting for a place in the sun and a better life for Chicanos and for all of us.
¡Viva el socialismo y la libertad!