August 29, 1970 is an important day in Mexican American history. For Chicanos, it is as important to the struggle for peace and justice as August 28, 1963 when Dr Mr. Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a Dream Speech” at a massive demonstration in Washington DC. It was the day of the National Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War when 30,000 grassroots Chicanos from hundreds of barrios and colonias in the Southwest and beyond marched through the heart of East Los Angeles with the slogan “our front line is not in Vietnam, but in the struggle for social justice at home.”
The march and rally in themselves would make it a historic day since never before had Mexican Americans come together in such numbers for a political cause. Tragically, however, this was overshadowed by a brutal unprovoked attack on the thousands of peaceful demonstrators culminating in the killing of the leading Latino journalist, Ruben Salazar, miles away and hours later by a Sheriff’s deputy acting outside of policy, and who, to the outrage and disbelief of the community, was soon exonerated of any wrongdoing.
This was the same year of the fatal attacks on white students at Kent State University and African American Students at Jackson State University, and during the Cointel Program of military, federal, state and local covert actions against peace and civil rights movements. It was during the time of a presidential administration that brought us Watergate and the Pentagon papers.
The repression had its chilling effects as did continued and escalating use of agent provocateurs against the movement. Nevertheless, the real story, which Ruben Salazar was silenced from continuing to cover, was the coming of age of the Chicano movement. The mobilizations of the Movimiento, la causa in the anti war demonstrations, school walkouts, alternative politics, boycotts, modern murals, and more put Chicano/Latino grass root movements on the national stage.
Mexican American, Puerto Rican and other Latino leaders who came of age in the Depression/World War II had become actors in national politics on issues like ending the Bracero/contract labor immigration program and bilingual education as well as in the labor movement. The Chicano and Boriqua movimientos of the Boomer generation moved forward in drawing in the grass roots, La Raza, the people. Some of the older generation took off their ties, rolled up their sleeves, and walked the walk like Corky Gonzalez of the Crusade for Justice in Denver and Bert Corona of the Mexican American Political Association in California.
The Chicano Moratoriums stand out because there were dozens of them from 1969-1971 in barrios throughout the Southwest in addition to the 30,000 who demonstrated on August 29, 1970. Many of them drew thousands in places like Houston Texas, Sacramento, Oxnard, Coachella, San Francisco, Fresno, and Oakland California. The mobilizing was person-to-person, family-to-family, block-to-block, and field-to-field. Everyone had relatives, neighbors and friends who had died or been injured in the Vietnam War where Latino casualties were twice the national proportion.
Changing their role in the greater society meant changes in the barrios as well. Activists had to brave opposition from pastors, principals, veterans of World War II, Korea, and some veterans from Vietnam. The activists answered in word and deed that it took great courage to struggle for social justice. Women were the most active, the goddesses of peace were Chicanas like Irene Tovar, Gloria Arellanes, Polly Baca, Chole Alatorre, Dorinda Moreno, Grace and Hilda Reyes, Dolores Huerta, Gloria Molina along with public (and private), draft resistors like Ernesto Vigil, Sal Baldenegro, Manuel Gomez, Sigisfredo Aviles and myself, were very effective mobilizers. In the end, the activist men and women won the day.
In opposing a major national policy like the war, the activists committed themselves to prioritizing social justice nationally to the benefit of educational, health care, immigration reform, environmental and cultural causes. Just about every Latino leader today over 50 was involved and began developing their abilities and networks for change in the Movimiento, in the moratoriums.
This legacy, along with the need to expose and oppose repressive practices then and now, is being reviewed in a special way this 40th anniversary year of the August 29, 1970 National Chicano Moratorium. For several months now, exhibits and discussions meant to teach a new generation about the historic struggle and sacrifices made by their forbearers, have drawn packed audiences of old and young wanting to share the history, the legacy not told in high school history books.
Thanks to the hard work of volunteers on the “40th Anniversary Commemoration Committee of the Chicano Moratoriums” and other such groups of commemoration event organizers to bring the legacy to today’s youth and society in general, a new generation of leaders may be inspired to activism, and the older generation of our elected officials and activists have been reminded that the struggle for equality and justice is far from over.
Rosalío Muñoz was chair of the August 29, 1970 Chicano Moratorium, and is currently co-chair of the 40th Anniversary Committee of the Chicano Moratoriums.
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