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A View from New Mexico

Recollections of the Movimiento Left

Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez worked in New Mexico from 1968–1976 and edited a movement newspaper. An antiracist, social justice activist for forty years, Martínez has published many articles and six books on liberation struggles in Las Americas including 500 Years of Chicano History. A cofounder and currently director of the Institute for MultiRacial Justice in San Francisco, she lectures widely in the United States and is an adjunct professor at California State University, Hayward.

If ever there has been a chapter of the U.S. left with deep cultural roots in every sense, it is the movimiento of New Mexico.

The roots include social relations, economic traditions, political forms, artistic expression, and language—everything that defines peoplehood. They are Native American, Spanish, and Mexican mestizo (mixed) and they go back centuries. Migrant workers of the last 150 years have played a crucial part, but “immigrant” does not describe the totality of those roots.

Unlike any other area except southern Colorado, the movimiento in Nuevo Mexico evolved within the framework of a long, popular struggle against U.S. colonization and for land—that is to say, nothing less than the means of production. Its origins lie in the colonization of First Nation peoples like the Pueblos and the Dine (Navajo) in what became Nuevo (later New) Mexico and their long resistance to occupying forces. In 1680, some of the Indians joined with Mexican workers in Santa Fe and drove out the Spanish for twelve years.

The land struggle that came much later, waged by Spanish-speaking mestizo people and sometimes armed as well as underground, could be called nationalist. But if we do so, we should not equate it with the nationalism of many other U.S. movement groups. It was not primarily cultural, not exclusionary of other peoples, not “mi Raza primero” (my people first). And whether or not we call that land struggle consciously left, it directly or indirectly encouraged militant leftism including Marxism during the movimiento years.

New Mexico had remained a territory for over fifty years after the war on Mexico. It did not become a state until 1912, when its Spanish-speaking, Catholic majority had given way to an Anglo majority that made white easterners much less nervous. Before and after that date, Mexicans carried out underground actions against Anglo landowners, mainly in rural areas of the north. Cutting Anglo fences and burning barns were common forms of protest against the continuing land robbery.

After arriving in 1968, I soon learned to respect names like Las Gorras Blancas (White Caps) a longstanding underground resistance group, and La Mano Negra (Black Hand), reputed to be headed by a woman at that time. Resistance nourished by historical cultural or religious tradition was also strong. Examples could be found in the Penitentes (a semisecret religious organization), dances and plays performed on certain holidays reenacting key moments in the area’s colonial history, the curanderos who cured with herbs not usually known to outsiders, along with other expressions of a long isolated, necessarily self-sufficent society—from building with adobe bricks, to cultivating a unique variety of chilies for cooking. A spirit of collectivity and interdependence ran strong in all this.

Politically, northern New Mexico presented an almost classic example of European colonialism. Anglos stood at the top holding economic and political power while “Hispanos” formed a control or buffer class that included teachers, judges, police, and other local officials, leaving the majority of Mexicans at the bottom. That colonial reality defined the anti-imperialist project and its class conradictions.

The Alianza Federal de Mercedes emerged in the 1960’s to initiate a new, militant stage in the land struggle, making national news with its 1967 armed takeover of the courthouse in the mountain village of Tierra Amarilla to protest state repression. Alianzistas, led by Reies Lopez Tijerina, organized to win back communally held land that had been distributed to their ancestors in grants by Spain (which had seized it from indigenous peoples). Their Spanish colonial ancestry, which preceded Mexico’s rule, made them probably the only group in the United States today who can call themselves “Hispanic,” or Hispano, with some accuracy.

In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Alianzistas sympathized with the struggles of other peoples of color, like African Americans (the Alianza welcomed visiting SNCC leaders twice), Puerto Ricans, and Palestinians. Of all the possible alliances with Native Americans at home, the Alianza is best known for supporting the long Taos Pueblo struggle to get back their sacred Blue Lake lands.

The worldview of Alianza’s constituency—impoverished, dispossessed small landowners—could be very conservative. They were not radical in the sense of consciously seeking to restructure the entire society as opposed to achieving justice in one area, recovery of land ownership that the United States had promised to respect under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. At the same time, their goal could hardly be met without that restructuring, any more than the U.S. government was likely to “give it back to the Indians.” For some Alianzistas and supporters, who saw that their poverty could not be ended without systemic change, their worldview could certainly be called revolutionary nationalism.

The anticommunist influence of McCarthyism could be found among a few Alianzistas, who equated the word with dictatorship. However, Tijerina himself did not take virulent anticommunist positions. His conservatism in other areas was notable, for example, having an almost entirely male Alianza leadership and expressing male supremacist attitudes. (On the unofficial level, many Alianza women were respected for their wisdom, strength, and leadership in ways similar to what I had found in rural Mississippi in 1964.)

The overall attitude in northern New Mexico toward socialism or communism was not negative. One or two Alianza supporters whom I met had even tried to get to Cuba and join the revolutionary forces there in the late 1950s. A sprinkling of old left members could be found like Vicente Vigil, who became a columnist for the newspaper El Grito del Norte (Cry of the North). Organizers in the land grant and other movements received frequent support from a small but sturdy number of Anglo socialists and Communist Party(CP) members or sympathizers in New Mexico.

We can also recall the 1951 Silver City strike against Empire Zinc, inspired by proletarian goals with help from committed CP organizers, and made into the movie Salt of the Earth. Years later some of the strike leaders did support work for the Chilean resistance after the 1973 coup, which reflected an ongoing radical tradition.

El Grito del Norte, a newspaper I cofounded with movement attorney Beverly Axelrod, began in 1968 as a vehicle to support the Alianza. It soon expanded to cover the Chicano movement in urban areas, workers’ struggles, and Latino political prisoners, along with a broad spectrum that ranged from the black liberation movement to Mexican student protest to radical whites. At the same time El Grito encouraged nationalist consciousness and cultural self-respect among Chicanos as sources of strength in sparking a movement, especially among youth.

The paper never abandoned its focus on the land struggle in New Mexico, and linked it with contemporary land struggles in Hawaii, Japan, and third world countries, thus internationalizing it. This combination of what could be called liberatory or revolutionary nationalism with internationalism made El Grito very unusual among the dozens of more nationalist Chicano movement newspapers that covered the Southwest and inspired activists.

El Grito’s favorable coverage of Vietnam, Cuba, and China left no doubt that it was pro-socialist. It sent reporters to all those countries. We also sent a reporter and photographer, along with a carload of supporters, to Wounded Knee during the long, armed American Indian Movement occupation in 1973. All this did not seem to limit the paper’s popularity, at least not in the north. Probably we were helped by the fact that the 1967 Tierra Amarilla courthouse raiders were our friends and one, Jose Madril, an editor with El Grito. Nobody messed with those guys!

We did encounter some harassment from the police in Española, where our office was located, for example when they detained Antonio Cordova who had photographed them tear-gassing people at a demonstration.

With a predominantly female set of regular columnists, writers, artists, photographers, and production workers like Jane Lougee, Tessa Martinez, Adelita Medina, Kathy Montague, Sandra Solis, Rini Templeton, Valentina Valdes, and Enriqueta Vasquez, together with myself as managing editor, the paper made its feminism clear. This continued a cultural tradition in which numerous Mexican women journalists played a major role during national struggles like the 1910 revolution.

El Grito also sought to encourage and train young Chicanas in putting out a paper. One of the main successes here was a series on Vietnam written by grassroots organizer Valentina Valdes, who had to read a book on Vietnam the first time with a dictionary—and then read it again—for background. Another example: Adelita Medina and Sandra Solís started the publication Tierra Y Libertad, in Las Vegas, New Mexico, after having been trained at El Grito.

In Albuquerque, the Black Berets also followed an internationalist approach. They adopted principles and a program sometimes modeled on the Black Panthers, for example, its breakfast program, that made it less strictly nationalist than Brown Beret groups in Texas and California. The Black Berets also founded the Bobby Garcia Memorial Clinic, committed to the idea that health is a human right, not a privilege. Their main leader, Richard Moore, and others went to Cuba on the Venceremos Brigade. The Berets and El Grito were partners, sharing news, analysis and sometimes members like reporter Antonio Cordova, who along with Beret Rito Canales, was assassinated by police in 1972.

In the early 1970’s, El Grito began looking for a new strategy and tactics, both for the newspaper and the movimiento in general. To do this, we ceased publication of the paper in 1973, and some of us moved to Albuquerque. With other local activists we launched the Chicano Communications Center (CCC) as a multimedia, educational barrio project. Soon after, the CCC established a formal alliance called CLARO (Chicano League Against Racism and Oppression) together with the Bobby Garcia Memorial Clinic and the Cañoncito Wood Cooperative based in a land grant area just outside the city. CLARO had a central committee for decision-making; it set up a study program on Marxism and contemporary socialism, attended by CLARO people.

In 1974, self-identification with the socialist vision reached a high point. That was the year Richard Moore went to Cuba with another Beret leader, Joaquín Lujan. Marvin García of Cañoncito went with a group to China. A major meeting took place to discuss strategy in the face of what we saw as heightening repression. Over fifty seasoned activists came from all over the state. In a dialogue about our long-range goals, someone asked what was socialism. I explained some basic points and added it was a stage on the way to communism but not the final goal, communism. At that point a Chicana cried out, “Well, in that case, we’re communists!” and everyone clapped to my and others’ amazement.

Also in 1974, another group that wanted to focus on mass organizing started and linked up with CLARO. Its name: MAO (Movement Against Oppression). Happily, this name did not mean CLARO had decided there were two equally destructive imperialisms or spend time on endless battles over that and other lines. This was largely because of New Mexico’s relative isolation from the national left mainstream, an isolation that proved both a blessing and over time a limitation. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), did exist but in very small numbers, although some members commanded personal respect. The major, crucial exception to that isolation was travel to Cuba, going back to El Grito and now the Venceremos Brigade. Richard Moore served on the Brigade’s National Committee and went to Cuba every year through the 1970s. That experience is why he could say, as he did recently, “we didn’t pull any punches about being for socialism then. We might use slightly different language with grassroots folk but the ideas were there. We were not afraid of saying so.” It didn’t hurt that Richard was a big, tough-talking guy whose politics came more from the street than books.

It also didn’t hurt that we had two beloved, world-famous Latino revolutionary heroes. Emiliano Zapata, whose portrait provided the logo for El Grito’s masthead, had raised the cries that echoed all over northern New Mexico: “Tierra y libertad” and “Tierra, Pan y Justicia!” (Land and Liberty; Land, Bread and Justice). The other was Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whose image adorned many public spaces including the waiting room of the Tierra Amarilla clinic started by movimiento activists. Those two icons symbolized the Chicano movement culture all over the Southwest.

If a certain male domination is creeping into this description of our work, then the contributions of various women must be noted. Nita Luna’s theatrical genius generated a teatro group for the CCC that rocked Albuquerque, especially with her play about the Watergate scandal. Luci Ríos, factory organizer and poet, along with Susana and Cecilia Fuentes, Susan Seymour, Ruth Contreras, and others not only got much of the CCC’s work done but were also leading sisters.

It was also in 1974 that some CLARO members, mostly from the CCC, received a series of visitors from national Marxist-Leninist formations to see about possibly affiliating with one of the groups as a way of sharpening our strategy. The only formation to attract serious interest was the August Twenty-Ninth Movement(ATM), founded in 1974 and named after the historic August 29, 1970 Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War, in Los Angeles. ATM had emerged from the Labor Committee of the La Raza Unida Party (LRUP) in Los Angeles, which was well to the left of most LRUP chapters. It had a primarily Chicano membership rather than the almost all-white leadership of most other national formations that visited, and it included local activists personally known to the CCC.

What followed was the kind of destructive experience often found on the U.S. left during these party-building years when vanguardism and sectarianism ruled the day. ATM’s politics, set forth in such publications as “Fan the Flames: A Revolutionary Position on the Chicano National Question” and its “Unity Statement,” followed the tendency of denouncing the Soviet Union as revisionist, hailing the leading role of China and Albania, and pledging to unite with all genuine (that tricky word!) Marxist-Leninists. For the Chicano movement, ATM adopted Stalin’s definition of a nation and affirmed Chicanos were a nation—not just a national minority, as other left formations believed.

That position was a major reason, I was told later, why ATM rejected the bilingual book published in 1976 by the CCC, 450 Years of Chicano History in Pictures (reprinted later as 500 Years of Chicano History). The book did not declare Chicanos to be a nation; the CCC people were not yet convinced of it. That alleged crime and others apparently compelled ATM members, who took over the CCC, to have the entire second printing of the book shredded in 1976.

ATM in New Mexico also severely undermined the struggle of the Cañoncito land grant group, and a labor struggle. Soon after the ATM takeover, the CCC dissolved. Later, members of ATM in northern California expressed concern privately that New Mexico’s ATM included one or more government infiltrators. Many activists in New Mexico believe to this day that such infiltration explains the destruction of 500 Years of Chicano History. That appears to be true.

At the same time, as anyone one who participated in the New Communist Movement of the 1970’s knows, the cause might have been garden-variety vanguardism, or a power play to eliminate the influence of certain CCC leaders. The CCC itself was not free of vanguardist tendencies, as shown by its Maoist-style “campaign against liberalism” or its attempt to fulfill cadre-type demands that at one point included meeting to discuss whether, given the needs of the revolution, one member could get pregnant (as she wished). Our dogmatic imposition of cadre demands ran against the barrio culture and longtime styles of organizing.

In short, ATM’s actions were destructive yet not incomprehensible for the times. In this way, New Mexico’s leftism shared qualities with leftism elsewhere. Those qualities, it must be added, included unlimited commitment to La Causa, great personal self-sacrifice, and a spirit of willingness to die if the revolution needed that.

Today, the left tradition can be seen in New Mexico, for example, in the battle against environmental racism where the enemy is so clearly capitalism. The SouthWest Organizing Project of Albuquerque (SWOP) and the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ), with headquarters in that city, confront capitalism and imperialism constantly. Richard Moore of the Black Berets was cofounder of SWOP and coordinates SNEEJ. In the homeland of the atomic bomb and crucial military bases, New Mexican radicals also confront militarism firsthand on many levels including environmental racism. Chicanos/as and other Latinos in New Mexico, as elsewhere, have a long way to go to develop a strategy and tactics for social transformation. Learning from the past is our first crucial step, and calls for much more analysis than this brief essay.

A reason to be hopeful for Chicano left politics across the Southwest is that the fear of being labeled communist has diminished, especially among urban youth, even though people may not be consciously socialist or even anticapitalist. One example comes to mind. In 1970, I visited North Vietnam as the first Chicana/o organizer to do so. On returning, I tried to talk other antiwar Chicano activists into going, as I had been invited to do by the Vietnamese. With one exception, they were too worried about the effect of such a trip on their grassroots community organizing. They couldn’t afford to be labeled red.

I do not think that would happen today. More and more Chicanos, especially youth, are recognizing that the revolution, of which many speak so passionately, has to be won through anti-imperialist struggle, not with an exclusively or primarily nationalist agenda. Also, Latinos who have come here from Central America, and other arenas of long struggles against U.S.-supported repression, understand imperialism only too well. They are less fearful of the communist label (setting aside the policies of particular, often sectarian groups).

There are also Chicanos/as committed to moving beyond the “Chicanismo” of the movimiento years, which was often culturally nationalist, sexist, lacking in any class analysis, and defined by its worship of Corky Gonzales, José Angel Gutiérrez, César Chávez, and Reies López Tijerina. “Beyond Chicanismo,” a project based on community college campuses in Denver, is setting a bold example with their demand for Chicano Studies to be focused differently. If their politics are not overtly Marxist or socialist, they are radical and internationalist.

Another trend that has grown strong today is indigenismo, embraced by those who identify with the cultures and struggles of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Its adherents emphasize indigenous expressions of spirituality and respect for all living creatures. At best, they uphold indigenous concepts of communal interdependence and collectivity rather than private property, commodification, and individualism. Philosophically, this puts indigenismo a short distance from communism.

The idea that Marxism is a white philosophy—which somehow prevailed through the years of adoration for Cuba and Che, China and Mao, Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh, and Guinea-Bissau and Cabral, to mention only a few folks of color who found Marxist theory relevant—is not dead. In insisting on an ideology that incorporates a critique of racism, sexism, and heterosexism, as it should, some Latinos reject Marxism because it “ignored” those other isms. Or, perhaps more often, because of “all those crazies”—sectarian left formations that claim to speak in its name.

Radical Chicano youth today may not embrace the centrality of class or use what they call “old” words like socialism to define the new society. But they still want to go to Cuba, and they do go. They are far less sexist than their predecessors. Their anger is more profound than that of youth forty years ago, their grasp of the fundamental politics of the United States does not take as long to develop. Their rage comes more quickly; it goes from hip to hop.

Let’s just call this a period of transition.

2002, Volume 54, Issue 03 (July-August)
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