Chicano/Latino Activism in Seattle, 1960s-1970s

  • By Oscar Rosales Castaneda
  • Posted 11/24/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8013
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, many in Seattle's Chicano/Latino community felt an acute isolation. The then small community would see a transformation as a result of the Chicano Movement emerging throughout the United States. Locally,the movement gave rise to institutions such as El Centro de La Raza, which helped build a Chicano community where none had existed before. Alliances with other communities of color were essential to the movement's success. The broad alliance for civil rights that emerged allowed for further progress within the Chicano community at a time when the local population was miniscule compared to the urban Chicano communities of the Southwest. This collaboration across racial lines was a unique development in the Northwest, and is an integral part of the legacy of civil rights activism in the region.The development of the Chicano community also resulted from work done on both the eastern and western sides of the state, with activism in the Yakima Valley providing an impetus for activism in the Puget Sound region as people, especially students, migrated to Western Washington.

The Brown Berets

Throughout the period, activism on campuses was accompanied by activism in the community. The Brown Berets emerged as a key organization linking students to communities and to young people not enrolled in college. Brown Beret chapters formed in both Yakima and at the University of Washington in Seattle, and by 1970 had attracted more than 200 members. Originally founded in California, the Brown Berets gave a new and tougher look to the movement in the late 1960s.

What would become the Brown Berets originated when six young Chicanos formed the core of the Young Citizens for Community Action (YCCA) in May 1966 in Los Angeles, California. Far from radical, the group participated in the Community Service Organization (CSO), where they met with political leaders who, according to historian Ernesto Chavez, "schooled them in the ways of practical politics and community organizing and who also introduced them to the now famed Cesar Chavez.” With financial help from Father John B. Luce, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Lincoln Heights, the group opened La Piranya, a coffeehouse that doubled as an office and meeting place where prominent civil rights speakers spoke to increasing numbers of Chicano youth.

This activity attracted police who began harassing young people at the coffeehouse. YCCA responded by organizing protest demonstrations at nearby sheriff stations. Young leaders such as David Sanchez viewed harassment at the coffeehouse as symptomatic of the larger problem of police abuse in the Chicano community and advocated a more militant stance. In January 1968, the YCCA adopted a new image and uniform, becoming the Brown Berets. As Chavez writes, “Law enforcement abuses had transformed them from moderate reformers into visually distinctive and combative crusaders on behalf of justice for Chicanos” (Chavez). By 1969, La Causa, the Berets' newspaper, reported that the Brown Berets had approximately 28 chapters throughout the West Coast and Midwest. Two of these chapters were in the state of Washington.

Chicano Activism at UW

The UW Brown Berets most likely originated in Granger, Washington. The group was then transplanted to Seattle as students from the Yakima Valley were recruited to the University of Washington in the late sixties and early seventies. According to former student activist Pedro Acevez, it was Carlos Trevino, Trevino's brother, and Luis Gamboa, who first "came up with this Brown Beret thing.”

The organization consisted mostly of motivated, militant university students and youth from Seattle’s Chicano community. Rogelio Riojas recalls that the Seattle chapter was a “group of men and women that wanted to work at the community level.” Much like the groups in Southern California, the UW Brown Berets donned their distinctive headgear and military fatigues as a symbolic statement that they were willing to fight for their communities, bringing attention to the war at home in the barrios, and working against racial discrimination, poverty, and police brutality. The Brown Berets uncompromising stance on these issues attracted Chicano youth to the organization.

Referring to instances when the Brown Berets acted in defense of students being harassed or intimidated by others, Pedro Acevez recalls, “I perceived them as a positive. [Sometimes] the muscle of the brown berets came in handy.” On the other hand, older members of the community were more reluctant to support the confrontational tactics of the Brown Berets, reflecting the generational differences in the Chicano community.

The Brown Berets initiated or participated in a number of programs targeted at the specific needs of the local community. According to Jesus Lemos, “In the winter of 1970, the Seattle chapter organized a 'Food for Peace' drive to gather food, clothing and money in order to make and distribute Christmas baskets to the Chicanos in the Yakima Valley who were in the most need” (Lemos). The UW chapter also engaged in other activities such as the creation of a legal defense fund for Chicano activists and active involvement in support of United Farm Worker Union activities such as the grape boycott. As Riojas recalls, “We were raising money for UFW, going to Olympia, and helping [in the] community.” The Brown Berets financed most activity through collection drives and by requesting funds from sympathetic staff and faculty at the University.

Emergence of Las Chicanas

Another key group that emerged in the early 1970s was a women’s organization called Las Chicanas, which focused on women’s issues within the Chicano/Latino Community. Composed primarily of students and staff at the University of Washington, the organization was born in 1970 out of the need to address issues pertinent to women who struggled both against sexism and racism.

Out of its concern for racism, the group walked out of the Coalition of University Organizations for Women’s Rights in 1971 to address the issue of race, which was a secondary concern for the mainstream women’s movement. They later joined the Campus Third World Women’s Coalition. However, they eventually decided to meet separately and support other ethnic women’s groups when needed. As noted in UW MEChA’s Newsletter, La Chispa, in 1972, Las Chicanas communicated, “In [deciding to break away from the first coalition in 1971], we are not an extension of Women’s Liberation. We work in our own way and strive to work by the side of our men in struggle.”

This philosophy, which attempted to address the issue of varying levels of oppression (i.e., sexism, racism, classism), was also key in organizing with other groups. This was especially true as many members were also active in MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/Chicano de Aztlan, founded at UW in 1968) as well as in the UW Brown Berets.

As time progressed, the Seattle Brown Berets served more in the capacity of a subgroup under UW MEChA. For the remainder of the group’s “official” existence, it was the wing of the Chicano student movement most closely rooted in the community. In Seattle, the Brown Berets acted as the "muscle" during many of the demonstrations that MEChA undertook on the UW campus and, much like the Black Panthers, raised a red flag in conservative sectors of the white community. Along with Las Chicanas, the Brown Berets were also an integral part of the contingent that occupied the old Beacon Hill elementary school in October 1972 and demanded the creation of El Centro de La Raza.

Occupation of the Old Beacon Hill School

The site of what is now El Centro de La Raza lay abandoned by the Seattle school district for some time before October 12, 1972, when it was occupied by activists determined to turn it into a community service center for Latinos and others. At the time, many of the services provided for Seattle’s Chicano/Latino community were scattered throughout the city. This decentralization made it difficult for many who sought services to obtain them.

The economic crunch of the early seventies saw many programs sent to the chopping block, as was the case with one English as a Second Language program in the south end of Seattle that had a social justice component. The takeover of the Beacon Hill school was a response to the cancellation of the ESL program for the Chicano community at South Seattle Community College. Students and community members affected by the sudden closing of the program were instrumental in planning the takeover. Juan Jose Bocanegra remembers, “We brought in Chicanos from the University of Washington. Everyone just popped out of the cars and started walking toward the door. The press started showing at around 9:00.”

The effort was orchestrated with three main contingents that allowed for occupation while keeping lines of communication open to the community and the city. “We would have a team that would bring food and support, another group dealing with the cops, and another to deal with the city," recalls Bocanegra. The takeover lasted into 1973 as negotiations took place with the Seattle City Council and the Seattle school district, all while demonstrators occupied the old Beacon Hill school and made do without water or electricity throughout the duration of the standoff. Ricardo Martinez, one of the UW students involved in the takeover, recalls his experience: “I remember the first few nights we were there. It was cold! It was really cold, there was no heat, there was no power. ...The eventual takeover lasted months. ... We would come and go, and spell each other.”

El Centro de La Raza

The struggle for El Centro proved difficult. Although the campaign was spearheaded by the Latino community, alliances across racial and ethnic lines were instrumental in keeping up the fight with the Seattle City Council. At one point, activists occupied the City Council chambers in an effort to force city leaders to turn over the building. After much debate, the city of Seattle finally conceded and allowed the use of the property for the creation of El Centro de La Raza in 1973. As former Brown Beret Rogelio Riojas put it, “someone opened the door and we went in and never left.”

At a time when there was no distinct Chicano barrio in Seattle, the creation of a center that housed many of the services that Chicanos lacked was a necessity. El Centro became not only a community center, but also a civil-rights organization that developed progressive coalitions with activist groups rooted in other ethnic communities, especially Native Americans. According to Ricardo Martinez, “The genesis" of the Beacon Hill takeover "was that the Native Americans had taken over the Daybreak center” at Fort Lawton. These alliances continued throughout the 1970s and to the present day.

Much of the social justice work done by El Centro is outlined in its mission statement, which includes "ensuring access to services and advocating on behalf of people regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, gender, level of income, age, ability and sexual orientation.” In later years, the organization also became involved in issues of labor, including farm-worker organizing in the state of Washington and supporting work done in California by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers Union.

El Centro also worked in solidarity with international struggles, most notably in Central and South America. Roberto Maestas (1938-2010) recalls an event El Centro hosted on behalf of earthquake victims in Managua that attracted numerous Nicaraguan exiles living in Seattle, many of whom had escaped the U.S.-backed Somoza family dictatorship. This solidarity with the Central American community continued throughout the 1970s as El Centro helped maintain communication with the Sandinista government, which ultimately (in 1979) overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. In 1983 El Centro de La Raza sent a delegation and a crew from Seattle's KING-TV on a fact-finding mission to Nicaragua. The Sandinista government hosted the delegation for a week as the group talked to people in the towns affected by attacks by counter-revolutionary groups.

A Community Coming Together

The creation of El Centro de La Raza was the result of a community coming together to forge space for furthering the cause social justice for Latinos and Chicanos in Seattle. El Centro represented one of the first major attempts in the Seattle area to create community institutions to better conditions for the people. As the decade progressed, former student activists worked to create other community institutions -- such as SEAMAR Community Health Centers, Consejo Counseling Service, and the "Concilio for the Spanish-Speaking -- that focused on providing medical, educational, and other services needed in the community. When recalling the creation of the center, Ricardo Martinez remembers “how fun it was being together with a bunch of people doing something that [we] thought was the right thing to do for all the right reasons. [We] were hoping the end results would justify what [we] were doing.”


Sources: Ernesto Chavez. “Mi Raza Primero!” Nationalism, Identity and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Jesus Lemos, “A History of the Chicano Political Involvement and the Organizational Efforts of the United Farm Workers Union in the Yakima Valley, Washington,” M.A. Thesis, University of Washington, 1974; MEChA Newsletter University of Washington, 1981; La Chispa MEChA Newsletter University of Washington, 1972, Jesus Rodriguez Papers, MEChA de UW Archives; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History “Chicano activists occupy abandoned school that becomes El Centro on October 11, 1972” (by David Wilma); El Centro de La Raza website accessed November 21, 2006 (http://www.elcentrodelaraza.org/); Pedro Acevez Interview 27 January 2006 by Edgar Flores and Oscar Rosales, and Rogelio Riojas Interview 19 January 2006 by Francesca Barajas, Michael Schulze-Oechtering, and Trevor Griffey, and Juan Jose Bocanegra Interview 2 February 2006 by Chris Paredes, Cristal Barragan and Trevor Griffey, and Ricardo Martinez Interview 8 February 2006 by Oscar Rosales and Edgar Flores, and Roberto Maestas Interview 22 February 2005 by Trevor Griffey, Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, website accessed November 21, 2006 (http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/mecha_interviews.htm).

Related Topics:   Hispanics & Latinos | Society

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