24. Chicanos and the Southwest

The Southwestern sector of USAmerica has a unique character in many ways. First and most apparent, the territory was once the northern half of Mexico, stolen or ‘ceded’ due to an unjust war of conquest, the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), and the 1845 annexation of Texas along with it. Just glancing at a map and reading all the Spanish (or Native American) names for the states and major cities should induce a pause for reflection.

While downplayed in the teaching of American history, the cause of the conquest was clear enough for those who bothered to look it up. President James K. Polk provocatively ordered U.S. troops into Mexico to spill blood and get a declaration of war from Congress. The reason? The U.S. wanted the Southwest as territory for the expansion of slavery. A large antiwar movement led by Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and John Quincy Adams opposed it with the same explanation.  

War of Conquest: The Mexican Cession

The war was bloody and relatively quick. All totaled over two years, U.S. casualties numbered about 15,000 and 25,000 for Mexico. Despite brave resistance and a few victories, Mexican armies were overwhelmed by a U.S. army with far richer resources on land and sea. But the U.S. army also faced internal discontent among its troops once the initial flush of jingoism passed. Some Irish-American soldiers rebelled and joined the other side, such as Saint Patrick’s Battalion or Batallón de San Patricio. It also included other Americans, including some Native peoples and fugitive African slaves, among its numbers. At the war’s end, captured San Patricios were charged with treason, and some 50 were hung. But many of them managed to remain in  Mexico and were honored throughout that country with monuments, plaques, and national days of commemoration still celebrated today.

 The entire area conquered in the Mexican War was first called the ‘Mexican Cession.’ But it soon had California and Texas taken away from it since they had become states early on. Texas was absorbed before the war in 1845, and California soon after in 1850, mainly due to the Gold Rush. Nevada was next in 1864, primarily due to the discovery of silver. In 1854, the ‘Gadsden Purchase’ added land near the Mexican border at the bottom of the New Mexico and Arizona territories. This was mainly because of U. S. plans to build a transcontinental railroad along a southern route.

So what we now refer to as ‘the Southwest’ comprises New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and the western areas of Colorado and Texas, along with Los Angeles, San Diego, and related parts of southern California. Among some left and nationalist political groups, it’s called Aztlan, El Norte, or the Chicano nation.

The Chicano nation certainly included the original 70,000 Mexicans residing there in 1850. Today, these people and their descendants assert they had not crossed the border, but ‘the border ‘crossed over us.’ However, it would be a mistake to view them all as one people or even all as speakers of Spanish as their mother tongue. They were diverse, some having arrived there recently while others had been there for millennia.

Arizona Pueblo people resisting Conquistadors

A good number were the Pueblo peoples first confronted by the Spanish Conquistadors. Their name came from the connected, multifamily adobe dwellings (built by the women) and the related irrigation systems for maize, beans, and squash fields. They comprised a dozen or so distinct tribes, speaking varieties of the Uto-Aztecan language group.

The non-Pueblo descendants of their adversaries, the Conquistadors, were two broad groupings, the Hispanos and the Mestizos. Small in numbers, the former were settlers from Spain with little intermarriage with other peoples. The latter, much larger grouping was the ‘mixed’ people of various combinations of Spanish, Mayans, and other pre-Colombian peoples of Mexico, and Africans, both free and enslaved.

Just north of the Pueblo peoples are the ruins of an older people, whom the Pueblos called the ‘Ancient Ones’ or ‘Ancient Enemies’ or the term ‘Anasazi.’ Little is known about these people apart from their stone cliff dwellings and great ‘kivas’ or underground elaborate structures of Chaco Canyon. The kivas, or subsurface rooms were both square and round, and in various sizes. The square rooms were for sleeping, and the round rooms were for gatherings. These were covered with enormous log roofs. The theory is that the valley ‘kivas’ were for spiritual purposes, while the Chaco people lived in the nearby cliff dwellings. Much of the building materials were imported from sizable distances, along eight long highways stretching outward in straight lines.

Anasazi: Cliff dwellings of the ‘Ancient Ones’

The construction and maintenance of the Anasazi structures in the canyon and nearby cliffs required a high degree of organized labor. One theory is that the culture peaked around 900-1100 CE and was enabled by a climate allowing plentiful agriculture and game. But sharp climate change beginning around 1200CE put considerable stress on the people, with a prolonged drought. They were reduced to raiding others for food, and in their last days, even evidence of some cannibalism. So the Anasazi died off or gradually merged into other Pueblo peoples.

Both the Anasazi and the other Pueblo peoples were under pressure from Athabaskan-speaking peoples who migrated south from Canada and eastern Alaska. By the time they reached the Southwest, around 1400 CE, they had divided into two groups, the Dené (Navajo) and the Indé (Apache). Despite conflicts with both the Pueblo peoples and the Spaniards, the Dené soon adopted some of their ways, especially the ‘three sisters’ agriculture (maize, beans, and squash) of the Pueblo, and herding goats and sheep, taken from the Spaniards. Despite many setbacks and attempts at ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the U.S., the ‘Navajo Nation’ remains the largest official Indigenous area in the U.S., occupying an autonomous area the size of West Virginia, spanning several southwestern states.

Indé (Apache) hunting buffalo

The Indé (Apache) future was far bleaker. When they moved to the Southwest, they were known as people who lived off the Buffalo and quickly saw the advantage of getting horses from the Spaniards. They became excellent horsemen in short order, adding deer and other game to their foodstuffs. They preferred living and hunting in hilly country or mountains. The women were gatherers who constructed wickiups for mobile living but also planted the ‘three sisters.’ In the Apache culture, a distinction was made between ‘raids’ and ‘war.’ Raids were limited, usually for a clear purpose—raiding cornfields or stealing horses or sheep. War was an all-out affair aimed at destroying one’s enemy. The Mexicans and other Native peoples who had their horses stolen didn’t accept this economic outlook, and were constantly ready for war with the ‘Apache.’ Wiki puts it this way:

“The Apache tribes fought the invading Spanish and Mexican peoples for centuries. The first Apache raids on Sonora appear to have taken place during the late 17th century. In 19th-century confrontations during the American-Indian wars, the U.S. Army found the Apache to be fierce warriors and skillful strategists.”

It should be noted, however, that ‘the Apache’ was often depicted in film and print unduly as ‘ruthless savages.’ There are a few examples when Cochise, one of their great warriors, is portrayed nobly, likewise with Geronimo, the last of their leaders and winner of many battles. Despite a meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt, he died a prisoner at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1909.

There are more than a dozen other Native peoples who lived and are still living in the Chicano nation. The Utes, from which Utah gets its name, are one. The Zuni are another, unique because their language is an isolate, and unconnected to others, which probably means they were ancient settlers. And all these various peoples, at one time or another, were in conflict with others, with a few, like the Hispanos, trying to play the overlord in alliance with the USAmericans. Moreover, in recent years, sizeable numbers of Mexicans have moved here legally and illegally to work in the fields and elsewhere. In due time, they and their families move to the large cities as an urban proletariat in the barrios.

Today the Trumpists and the far right have tried to portray Mexicans and Chicanos as a drain on the U.S. In fact, the US annexation of Mexico’s northern territories was a major factor in U.S. development as the dominant imperialist superpower in the world.  This annexation, motivated mainly by a desire to acquire new territories for the slave economy, enabled the US to acquire vast new lands for the settlement and rapid growth of the white population, occupying lands that were either indigenous or Mexican in California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado (which itself was a part of New Mexico until carved into a separate entity by the US).

However, not long after this land grab, the Euro-American population became the overwhelming majority in those territories and soon became states. These territories also provided US capitalism with incredible new resources — coal, oil, gas, gold, silver, copper, uranium, and a range of other precious minerals.  They also acquired some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world. as well as the capability to develop an extensive port system in California, facilitating trade with the countries of the Pacific Rim.

The US consolidated this conquest by constructing a vast network of military bases throughout the Southwest, an area still home to a majority of US military installations.  With military and political power in their hands, they unleashed a reign of terror against the conquered Indigenous and Mexican peoples, including brutal military warfare (against several Indigenous peoples).  It is estimated that thousands of Mexicans were lynched in one form or another, the highest number being in Texas. Millions of acres of land were stolen, by force or legal manipulation, even though it ownership by the conquered Mexican population had been guaranteed in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

The successive waves of Mexicans who were driven to the North by the impoverishment of their homeland by US imperialism were assimilated, generation after generation into the Chicano Nation, both its structures of oppression, but also its various resistance movements.   Many have analyzed this migration as defining the Chicano struggle as primarily an immigrant struggle.  The failure to deeply analyze US annexation and its aftermath has left a major deficit in the socialist left’s effort to create a truly comprehensive revolution strategy.

The annexation not only contributed to the development of US capitalism as a superpower. It also established Mexico as a dependent nation of the Global South, with a neo-colonial relationship with Los Estados Unidos.   It also meant that the conquered Mexican population in the US could not evolve as a part of the Mexican Nation.  And racism and national oppression prevented equal assimilation with the Euro-American majority population.   The result was a new national entity — an oppressed Chicano Nation whose various streams of struggle were aimed towards securing their right to self-determination (land, political governance, and control of their economy).  As many in the Chicano Movement say, our struggle is for much more than a green card.

Artwork: Roots of the Pachuco

The first new wave of immigrants came with the buildup to WW2, where Mexicans were needed to work the fields and other jobs left vacant by American workers entering the armed forces. By the 1940s, a subculture in border towns like El Paso emerged among the barrio youth, the ‘Pachuco.’ The men wore loose-fitting ‘draped’ clothing, with the pant legs ‘pegged’ in near the ankles, the ‘Zoot Suit’ Combined with Jazz, marijuana, and a turbulent nightlife, Pachuco culture emerged as a form of resistance to Anglo white dominance. The culture spread across the Southwest and emerged especially strong in Los Angeles.

World War Two saw rationing among many consumer items—rubber tires, .gasoline and clothing, to name a few. Since the typical ‘Zoot Suit’ used more than an allowed share of cloth, white Anglo soldiers used the suits’ display as an excuse to attack the Mexican youth in a series of ‘Zoot Suit Riots. ’ The attacks were met with defiance, and the term ‘Chicano’ emerged among the barrio youth as a term of solidarity and self-affirmation.

The issues reach far beyond Zoot Suit culture. The US conquest — whose goal was to integrate the new territories into the fabric of established US capitalism — created all of the major institutions, traditions, and policies of Chicano oppression: land theft, housing and educational segregation, language and cultural suppression, super-exploitation of labor (the “Mexican rate”), minimal or no political representation, voter suppression. These structural changes combined with the creation of a horrid range of racist stereotypes to character Mexicanos (“dirty Mexican,” “greaser,” “spic,” “beaner,” “lazy,” etc.).  The latter form of oppression intended to dehumanize the Chicano population among a white population already infected with an ideology of racism and white supremacy towards Blacks and Indigenous peoples.

Demographics of the Chicano Nation

Today this population numbers nearly 40 million people, a young population, overwhelmingly working class, and a fast-growing part of the US electorate, a vital political arena for confronting and defeating the New Confederacy and creating the conditions for advancing the movement towards socialism.

By the 1960s, with the rise of Black Power among African Americans and youth resistance to the Vietnam War generally, Chicano youth took the lead in organizing school walkouts and the huge Chicano Moratorium in 1970. In the agricultural areas, ‘La Causa’ was led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. The movement took the form of the La Raza Unida party in Texas, running candidates in local elections. In Denver, a young Chicano boxer, poet, and revolutionary, Corky Gonzalez, launched the Crusade for Justice, with soon developed into a party, the Congreso de Aztlán, which raised the banner of self-determination. Gonzalez helped concentrate diverse views across the Southwest in a manifesto, Plan Espiritual de Aztlán. Some wanted political power in their areas of concentration. In contrast, still others envisioned a ‘Reconquista,’ or reconquest of the Southwest, either as a return to Mexico or the emergence of a new nation of Aztlán or El Norte, which would include the northern border area of Mexico. Youth in many other cities formed the Brown Berets, borrowing a militant program and style from the Black Panther Party, but also allowing their own revolutionary national content to flower.

Over the decades, this resistance has assumed a wide range of creative forms of struggle — strikes, sabotage, military struggle (Juan Cortina), litigation, mass actions, cultural resistance, unionization movements. This included the development of hundreds of mass organizations, and Spanish-language and bilingual presses that ultimately included more than 100 publications. Sectors of the US left, like the CPUSA, eventually recognized the centrality of the slave economy to US political, social, and economic development, as well as a recognition of the national rights of the African American people.  Unfortunately, this awakening still faces problems extending to perceptions of the Chicano people and their struggle, either ignoring that liberation struggle nearly completely or reducing it to a matter of immigrant rights and immigrant workers. Our task of revolutionary education remains urgent to enhance a revolutionary practice throughout the Chicano nation and their ‘Sunbelt’ allies.

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