Radicalism, Reform, and the Terrain of a New Chicanx Political History

Solicited by the OAH Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Latino/a; Politics


Projecting forward from the 1970s, this panel examines the legacies of Chicanx grassroots political organizing as movement participants joined mainstream political parties, created local advocacy organizations, and joined with African Americans and Asian Americans to seek change via the electoral process. With a focus on gender and intersectionality, the authors show how the radicalism of the movement continued on and in some cases contributed to more reformist efforts during the height of the Reagan era. In doing, the panel shatters various siloes built around Chicanx political activity in the “post-movement” era by arguing that there is no “post-“ but rather a living, albeit new, extension of the movement that empowered women to demand their place in the Democratic Party and facilitated interracial coalition building in the 1980s. 

Papers Presented

The Makings of Representative Justice: Chicanas and the Democratic Party

Chicanas in politics have expanded the parameters for understanding American political history. Chicanas were at the forefront for galvanizing a political movement for representative justice. The ways Chicanas forged a path for representative justice in civic organizations and government highlight how they politically coalesced with other women to disrupt sexist and racist structures. As this paper will discuss, Chicanas involved in electoral politics and political organizations set the precedence for understanding the realignment of the Democratic party since the 1970s. The stories of Texas Chicanas running for public office, their work in the Women’s Political Caucus, and their engagement in civic organizations grabbed local, state, and national attention. Although some Chicanas lost campaigns and other won elections, the awareness that these women created, and the public conversations about Chicanas in politics mattered and had lasting ramifications. Their story serves as a reminder that a blinkered focus on the meaning of “Chicano politics” limits our understanding of race and gender, and attempts at coalition building for Chicana representation in government.

Presented By
Tiffany Jasmin Gonzalez, Texas A&M University

Chicana Militant Dignity Politics: Building Coalitions and Political Solidarity in the Los Angeles Welfare Rights Movement

Social movements have often been historicized as siloed by rigid boundaries of ethnic or racial identity, class, gender, and sexuality. The history of Alicia Escalante and the East Los Angeles Welfare Rights Organization provides an opportunity for a paradigmatic shift to the nexus of these movements and their interracial and interorganizational dynamics. Building on the integral research of scholars who have centered Mexicanas, Mexican American women, and Chicanas as workers, cultural producers, political organizers, activists, and intellectuals, my work calls attention to the dignity work and militant dignity politics of poor Chicanas in Los Angeles. My presentation will briefly focus on Escalante’s political biography of gender and leadership that traces the dignity work that she and many others undertook to advocate for the human dignity of poor women locally and nationally. This dignity work centered the basic human needs of poor people and took many forms including direct action tactics such as demonstrations, pickets, marches, vigils, and disrupting the day to day business of welfare offices and county administrators, among other state officials. Dignity work also included the difficult task of building and sustaining political coalitions across racial, gender, and class lines. Doing this dignity work and more necessitated the practice of a militant dignity politics. Escalante’s dignity politics were militant because of the constant threat and attack on the livelihood of welfare recipients that she and countless other poor mothers and families faced at the hands of the welfare system, federal and state policy, and the need to fight against ideological and institutional injustices. The militant dignity politics practiced by Escalante included, as well, being a staunch advocate of the human dignity of poor people, building bridges across difference, and forging political solidarity with the multiple movements that advocated for the recognition of the human dignity of those on the margins of society.

Presented By
Rosie C. Bermudez, University of California Los Angeles

Chicana/o Communists and Jesse Jackson’s Presidential Campaigns and the Rainbow Coalition, 1983–1988

This paper examines the role of Chicana/o communists in Rev. Jesse Jackson’s two bids for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. It looks at how one organization known as the League of Revolutionary Struggle, which formed in 1978, organized around Jackson’s organization known as the Rainbow Coalition. A primarily Chicana/o group known as the August 29th Movement (1974–1978) merged with I Wor Kuen (IWK) and the Revolutionary Communist League (RCL) to create the new multiracial communist party often known as the League, or Liga in Chicana/o movement circles. The League participated in a variety of struggles related to Chicana/os, but they were also involved with Asian Americans who made up IWK and African Americans who made up the RCL. One of the benefits of having a multiracial organization was that they organized in a host of different communities nationwide from 1978–1990, when the organization existed. They participated in things such as labor and college campus struggles. However, Jackson’s political campaigns are a site for examination because they brought together different avenues of the League’s activism. This paper will explore how a communist organization that followed a Leninist idea of a vanguard party still sought to participate in electoral politics. I ask why it was that they felt Jackson’s campaign was the one to support in two different political cycles? Through oral histories and primary sources, I will show how Chicano and Chicana communists held positions of power in Jackson’s campaign. I will also reveal how the League was able to bring Jackson to many of the struggles they were leading, such as the Watsonville Cannery Strike in the 1980s, the fight to keep General Motors in Van Nuys open, and for a movement for equal educational rights in California that brought together students of color from colleges and universities at all levels. Jackson attended these three key movement events and benefitted from the League writing his speeches while the League also gained legitimacy in democratic circles for the way they were able to push Jackson’s position on labor. Thus, I seek to examine how Chicana/o communists played a role in electoral politics in the 1980s by weaving togther how they created a united front approach that connected labor, student struggles, and electoral politics.

Presented By
Eddie Bonilla, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Session Participants

Chair: Jerry B. Gonzalez, University of Texas at San Antonio

Presenter: Rosie C. Bermudez, University of California Los Angeles

Presenter: Eddie Bonilla, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Presenter: Tiffany Jasmin Gonzalez, Texas A&M University

Commentator: Lorena Oropeza, University of California, Davis