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Viva el 'Chicano!'

Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

They Walked the Line: Cesar Chavez and fellow grape boycotters march in Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s.

A documentary tracks the Chicano-rights movement

By Nicky Baxter

The struggles of American-born Africans, Native Americans and Latinos in the 1960s mark what was perhaps this country's first authentic movement for inclusive democracy. Although these rebellions' objectives were only partially realized, their revolt against social and political inequities altered the political and social landscape of North America.

No less than the African Liberation Movement--the vital spark that triggered things--the Chicano struggle captured the nation's imagination. Chicano! The History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement, a new four-part PBS series, is television's first in-depth effort to tell the story from the inside, chronicling the ascent of American-born Mexican political power from 1965 to 1975.

The first segment, "Quest for a Homeland," investigates the birth of Chicano nationalism. Inspired by the mythology of the Aztec nation, the notion of recovering Aztlan was, as artist and interviewee Amalia Mesa-Bains asserts, "about a state of being and a place," echoing declarations made by indigenous Americans and U.S.-born Africans concerning their own heaven on earth. This idea eventually took hold, forming the spiritual and philosophical core of the nascent Chicano bid for self-determination.

"Quest" skillfully contrasts the state's refusal to consider a national homeland within United States borders for the brown nation with its insistence that Chicanos risk their lives to "save" Vietnam for so-called democracy. The clash culminated in an antiwar protest rally convened in Los Angeles, where police allegedly murdered journalist/activist Reuben Salazar.

This first episode effectively frames the political context for ensuing episodes. "The Struggle in the Fields," which unfolds through a series of film clips, still photos and contemporary interviews, follows the farmworkers' fight, not just for economic rights but also for educational opportunities and housing.

Much attention is paid to Cesar Chavez, the field marshal of the movement, but the lives of ordinary campesinos are not ignored. Nor are the artists whose works put the lie to the notion of art without social context. As this segment makes plain, Luis Valdez's El Teatro Campesino played a key role in the transmission of ideas concerning workers' rights.

The hard-fought and bloody battle to form the United Farm Workers Union spread beyond the grape fields, its contagious energy infecting urban-dwelling Chicanos to challenge the separate and unequal educational systems across the nation and access to the corridors of political power, issues scrutinized in "Taking Back the Schools" and "Fighting for Political Power," respectively.

Chicano! goes a long way toward correcting the misconception that history is made by great men alone; women are seen as pivotal figures in this historic push for human rights. Activists such as Delores Huerta, Victoria Castro and Marta Cotera--and others whose names never made it into the media, but whose contributions were immeasurable--are given their just due throughout this powerfully effective slice of history.

Quest for a Homeland airs April 13 at 6pm; The Struggle in the Fields airs April 20 at 6pm; Taking Back the Schools and Fighting for Political Power air May 11 at 5pm; all on KTEH (Ch. 54).

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From the April 11-17, 1996 issue of Metro

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