BlowOuts: Latinismo and Chicanismo in Late 1960s Chicago

BlowOuts: Latinismo and Chicanismo in Late 1960s Chicago

Pilsen in the 1890s.

In 1968, a number of significant walkouts took place at Harrison High School located in the South Lawndale community of Chicago. Although the majority of students who were actively involved in the ‘blow-outs’ were African American[1], a noteworthy number of students who participated in the walkouts were Mexicano/Chicana/o/Mexican-origin.[2] For the most part, high school activism in the Midwest has not been the subject of scholarly research. Moreover, the Chicano Movement in Chicago is a history that, at present, remains largely un-recorded. Yet, during the late 1960s, urban public schools represented a major site of contestation where battles over schooling, curricula, and ideologies were rampant across the country.[3] For Mexican Americans in public schools, the continuity and discontinuity of conflict in education (e.g., segregation, deculturalization, reproduction of underachievement) and contestation (e.g., boycotts, protests, walkouts, litigation) have been recurring themes in their quest for educational equality in the U.S.[4]

This essay argues that from 1968–1974, Mexican-origin students in Chicago expressed both a Latinismo[5] and a Chicanismo[6] as they organized high school walkouts and made demands for urban school reform. In 1968, Mexican American students conveyed a Latinismo at Harrison High by strategically avoiding cultural nationalist labels in the naming of their student organization despite being the majority of the Latina/o student body. The formation of a united Latina/o front under the banner OLAS (Organization of Latin American Students) is a testament of a distinctive pan-Latina/o political identity, which created a coalition of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Colombian students at Harrison.

Accordingly, in 1969, a unique form of Chicanismo emerged in Chicago that was sparked by the National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in Denver. Mexican American students, teachers, and community activists adapted particular aspects of the Chicano Movement such as cultural pride, the teatro (theatre), and self-determination to form a politics of opposition for public school reform and greater social services during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Despite the notion of ‘Chicano’ never quite popularizing the public imagination of most Mexican Americans in Chicago, some Mexicano students and activists situated the Chicano Movement within their own localized struggles during the height of the civil rights era.

During the late 1960s, Chicana/o high school students protested and organized walkouts throughout the Southwest in parts such as Crystal City, Houston, San Antonio, and Edcouch-Elsa, Texas.[7] The walkouts in East Los Angeles have been most heavily documented.[8] In 1968, with the assistance of teachers, community professionals, and clergy, student militants demonstrated, engaged in walkouts, and drafted demands at Garfield, Roosevelt, and Lincoln high schools. The central student demands called for bilingual education, more Mexican teachers, more counselors, better library facilities, and the establishment of a parent’s council.[9] In short, educational historians have documented the Mexican American struggle for equal schools throughout the Southwest quite well. But there still remains a void in the literature with respect to Mexican Americans in the Midwest during the civil rights era and more specifically, the Chicano Movement in Chicago.

To be sure, the Chicano Movement that emerged in the Southwest was not monolithic. The movement, for example, never developed a national centralized leadership but was instead characterized be regional agendas, competing ideologies, and protest mobilization strategies.[10] For instance, although farm worker union activist Cesar Chávez is often referred to as a leading Chicano Movement leader[11], his role within the movement may be more accurately symbolized as a ‘catalyst’ or ‘moral compass’ for Chicano political agendas.[12] Moreover, Reyes López Tijerina formed the Alliance of Land Grants in New Mexico whose sole purpose was to recover stolen lands for Mexicans. Hence, some scholars argue that both Chávez and Tijerina represent charismatic leaders who focused on rural problems, never advocated Chicano nationalism yet helped to inspire the urban Chicano student movement.[13] On the other hand, José Angel Gutiérrez, a former member of the Political Association of Spanish Speaking Organziations (PASSO), and founder of the student Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO), formed La Raza Unida Party (the United People) in south Texas, which focused entirely on electoral efforts, while Rodolfo ‘Corky’ Gonzalez organized the broad-based civil rights organization Crusade for Justice in Denver, Colorado.

Nevertheless, throughout the nation and world, the tumultuous 1960s were marked by student protests and mass demonstrations. In this case, what politics of protest transpired in Chicago for Mexican-origin students in high school settings during the late 1960s? How was Chicanismo manifested in Chicago during the height of the Chicano Movement?

The scope of this essay is divided into three segments. First, it briefly traces the early development of the Mexican American community in Chicago highlighting the distinctive Latino demographic that eventually stimulated student mobilizations between Mexican-origin and other significant Latino groups, namely Puerto Ricans. The second part maps out some of the major community-based organizations, leaders, and the particular Chicanismo that developed in Chicago in response to pressing local conditions and social issues affecting the Mexican community. The third part chronicles the walkouts and protests that transpired at Harrison and Froebel high schools and accentuates the particular Latinismo and Chicanismo that took form in Chicago during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Lastly, the essay draws attention to the theme of contestation as a continuous community activist response over the unequal schooling of Mexican American youth in Pilsen/Little Village at the turn of the twenty-first century.


Brief Historical Background of Mexicanos in Chicago

A combination of push and pull factors account for the significant migration and recruitment of Mexican labor to Chicago. During the period from 1900 to 1930, the demand for unskilled cheap labor prompted American companies to recruit Mexican immigrants to Midwest states such as Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota. The phenomenon was, in part, sparked by World War I, which left major labor shortages in the U.S. However, the Mexican Revolution of 1910 also created social and economic instability that compelled many Mexicans to leave their homeland in search of better economic opportunities in el norte. It was the railroad and sugar beet industries that eventually established the early Mexican communities in the Midwest.[14] Nineteen Sixteen marks the significant entry of Mexican railroad workers to Chicago.[15] The other areas of labor concentration for Mexicans in Chicago were the steel and meatpacking industries where they served as strike breakers and paid the lowest wages of all ethnic groups in the city.[16]

Initially, Mexican Americans in Chicago settled in three major communities: Jane Adam’s Hull House (the Near West Side), South Chicago (near the steel mills), and the Back of the Yards (near the meatpacking industries).[17] Although Mexicans who came to Chicago represented a mix of working and middle-class laborers (e.g., some were semi-skilled merchants, farmers, landowners), their ethno-racial experiences were marked with complexity and ambiguity within the city’s racial order.[18]

World War II instigated a new cycle of Mexican migration to Chicago. Thousands joined the armed forces and migrants were contracted to meet labor shortages in railroads and agriculture. In 1942, the U.S. and Mexico officially signed the Emergency Farm Labor ‘Bracero’ Program that technically lasted until 1964.[19] Between 1943 and 1945, 15,000 Mexicans were brought to the city of Chicago to work temporarily in the railroads. Most braceros returned to Mexico after their contract ended, however, a considerable number decided to stay in Chicago colonias (notably, the Near West Side/Hull-House, 18th St./Pilsen, Back of the Yards, as undocumented workers where they secured employment in railroads, steel, and meatpacking industries.[20]

Between 1940 and 1950, the Mexican community in Chicago grew from 16,000 to 24,000. While most of the growth can be attributed to Mexican immigrants, migrant tejanos (Mexicans from Texas who spoke only Spanish) began to arrive in large numbers as well.[21] During the 1940s and 50s, the first generation of Mexicanos had given birth to a second-generation, who unlike their parents, spoke English, served in the armed forces, and became more Americanized.[22] A very small segment of second-generation Mexicans eventually came to form part of a new professional class (e.g., teachers, lawyers, dentists, successful entrepreneurs).

By 1960, a quite heterogeneous Mexican population in the city reached 55,600.[23] Between 1960 and 1970, some 9,000 of the 16,000 who had lived in the Near West Side (Hull-House area) were displaced by urban renewal, the construction of the Eisenhower Expressway, and the expansion of the University of Illinois Chicago Circle Campus.[24] As a result, most Mexicans settled in the lower West Side (Pilsen) in increasingly large numbers, which practically transformed the previously Czech enclave to a predominately Mexican settlement. By 1972, Mexicans made up 70 percent of the population in east end Pilsen and had expanded further west to the South Lawndale community that was renamed La Villita or Little Village.[25] South Lawndale consisted of the greatest community concentration of Mexicans in Chicago.[26] Mexican-origin residents made up 82.9 percent of the overall 12,842 ‘Spanish-speaking’ population while Puerto Ricans represented the second largest adding up to a total of 1,806 in Little Village.[27]


Pilsen in the 1950s.

Latin Americanism in Chicago

Although the majority of Latinos in Chicago are Mexican and Puerto Rican, a particular ‘Latin Americanism’ can be traced as far back as the 1930’s.[28] In 1970, the Spanish-speaking population in Chicago was 247,343.[29] With respect to the citywide distribution of Spanish-speaking people, Mexicans were concentrated in the community areas of the Lower West Side (Pilsen) and South Lawndale (Little Village) with populations of 24,463 and 20,044 respectively. Despite having a long history in Chicago dating back to the 1920’s, Puerto Ricans began arriving in significant numbers after World War II and the passage of Operation Bootstrap.[30] By 1970, 78,963 Puerto Ricans lived in the city where they were heavily concentrated in the West Town (Division Street) community numbering 48,900.[31] Although other Latinos such as Cubans and Colombians were scattered throughout the city, clearly, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans comprised the majority of Chicago’s Spanish-speaking category for the 1970 census. The relative unique Latino demographics in Chicago are imperative for discerning the political mobilization that developed among Mexican and Puerto Rican community organizers in Chicago during the 1970s.[32] At Harrison High School located in the Little Village community, a situational Latinismo emerged in 1968 when students responded to the inequitable and unequal treatment they were experiencing with a politics of protest. What distinguished this particular student activism from others was the emergence of a pan-Latino front. Although the majority of the Latino student body was Mexican-origin, student mobilizations took shape with other groups such as Puerto Ricans and Colombians in the struggle for educational justice.


Key Chicano Organizations and Leaders in Pilsen

Mexicans in Chicago have a long history of responding to their particular conditions by developing, for example, voluntary social organizations and associations;[33] however, it was not until the 1960s and 70s that Mexican American community organizations were established in Chicago that would develop a new politics of protest. New organizations were created that would challenge discrimination in housing, employment, health, and education. One such organization was Pilsen Neighbors Community Council (PNCC), a Saul Alinsky-style[34] social service organization that was originally formed by European ethnics in 1954, but had assumed a Mexican-origin leadership by the late 1960s.[35]

Other community-based organizations in Pilsen assumed a Chicano nationalist posture that stressed self-determination and community autonomy, closely reflecting the ideology of the burgeoning Chicano movement of the Southwest. One such organization was El Centro de la Causa which provided educational services such as tutoring, classes in English and Spanish, and college recruitment. This organization also housed other organizations such as the Brotherhood Against Slavery and Addiction (BASTA) and the Chicano Mental Health Training Program (CMHTP).[36] The CMHTP developed a Chicano-centric curriculum in psychology that allowed students to receive college credit through Malcolm X College, one of the community college branches in Chicago.[37] In addition, students also completed internships in local community social service agencies and were placed in mental health service positions.

Another organization that represented a Chicano nationalist orientation was Casa Aztlán. The ideological tenets of Chicanismo became evident in Chicago in 1970 when Chicano activists took over Pilsen’s Howell Settlement House and changed it from a Protestant-supported social service mission aimed at Czech immigrants, to Casa Aztlán, a non-sectarian Chicano operated center that housed a health clinic run by the Brown Berets.[38] The Mexican American Council on Education (MACE) and the college student Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS), in turn, supported both of these organizations.


La Raza Unida Party in Chicago

As part of an effort to provide direction to Mexican American leaders and activists, the Midwest Council of La Raza was formed in 1970 at a conference hosted by the Institute for Urban Studies at the University of Notre Dame. In 1972, a political education conference called Mi Raza Primero was held in Michigan to consider new political approaches in addressing the needs of the Latina/o communities of the Midwest. Bert Corona and José Angel Guitiérrez were keynote speakers who raised issues regarding the plight of undocumented workers. As a result of this conference, two approaches emerged which centered on either working within the confines of the Democratic Party or supporting a third alternative: La Raza Unida Party.[39] Rather than become a political party, the Chicago chapter of La Raza Unida became an advocacy group that focused their attention on the plight of undocumented immigrants.[40] In 1974, Rudy Lozano[41] participated in the formation of Centro de Acción Social Autónomo (CASA) which became an advocacy branch of La Raza Unida Party in Chicago.[42]

The Chicano Movement that emerged in Chicago in the epoch of militant protest politics had no simple unity but was instead quite heterogeneous. The identities and ideological proclivities constructed by various Mexican-origin groups were indeed complex and fragmented. Various ideological, philosophical, and strategic differences existed among progressive organizations in Chicago attempting to forge change and meet the unique needs of the Mexican American communities in Pilsen and Little Village.[43]


OLAS and the Chicano Student Movement

The Chicano Movement may be best described as a complex diverse collection of localized struggles undertaken by disparate Mexican American communities,[44] however, the Chicano Student Movement was the backbone of the movimiento.[45] In Texas, the most effective student organization was the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) that brought together barrio youth and students to foster social change and challenge Anglo cultural hegemony.[46] In southern California, the United Mexican American Students (UMAS) and the Mexican Student Confederation (MASC) became key student organizations. In Indiana, an (UMAS) chapter was organized at the University of Notre Dame.[47] After the Chicano Youth Conference and the Santa Barbara Conference in 1969, Movimiento Estundiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) chapters were formed throughout California’s colleges and universities. In Chicago, however, the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS) at Loop (Harold Washington) College became a significant source of youth and student mobilization.[48] The student group OLAS was formed at Loop College in 1968. The college chapter of OLAS was comprised primarily of Mexican and Puerto Rican students who sponsored cultural awareness activities on campus and pressured the administration for the recruitment of Latino faculty and staff. The college chapter of OLAS also provided support and assistance in coordinating high school walkouts in High Schools such as Harrison High in 1969. Carlos Heredia, one of the key leaders, explained, “we would go down there to Harrison High and meet with students when they walked out and provide them support in terms of building an effective strategy with the Harrison administration.”[49]


Origins of a Chicana Leader at Harrison High

Ms. Dolores Guerrero was the only Chicana faculty member at Harrison High in 1968 and she became the most significant leader, supporter, and advocate of the Latino student walkouts. Dolores Guerrero is no ordinary woman. Guerrero came from humble beginnings. She was born in Corpus Christi and traveled back and forth to Mexico as a young woman picking cotton in Corpus, Santa Barbara, and San Jose, before finally arriving in Chicago at the age of eighteen. The year was 1959 and Guerrero learned English at Crane High evening school and the YMCA Alternative high school. Upon graduating, she attended Roosevelt University in 1961 and graduated with a BA degree in mathematics and Spanish in 1964 while earning an MA in 1965. She then taught English as a Second Language at Washington Irving Elementary School for three years. Guerrero then decided to shift from elementary school to high school to receive better pay. That is when she applied for the English as a Second Language position, which was formally listed as “Counseling Spanish Resource Teacher” at Harrison High in 1968.

According to Guerrero, bilingual education did not formally exist in Chicago Public Schools until after the Lau v. Nichols (1974) case in San Francisco, “It was because of the Chinese in San Francisco that the bilingual education law was passed.” In 1968, “Harrison did not have a bilingual education program by any means, it had TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) only, not bilingual education,” she added. “That’s why I was labeled as a resource teacher because I taught English as a Second Language. I counseled students in Spanish and gave subject matter in Spanish.”[50] Guerrero left Harrison High in 1972 and eventually became Bilingual Coordinator for a national program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Dolores Guerrero became a pivotal advocate, not only encouraging Harrison High Latino students to dramatize their demands and assisting them in drafting their “Latin American Manifesto”, but also in organizing parents, especially the mothers of students. “You see, most demonstrations were student led and happened only with students,” Guerrero recalled. “I would meet with parents and tell them, ‘you cannot be just working. You have to get involved with the education of your kids.’ “I spoke mostly with mothers because their husbands were working in factories and they had to get up and be at work at five in the morning. “So parents were not really involved in the walkouts; it was just the students and I.”[51] One of Dolores’ pertinent points here is that, with the exception of her support, the walkouts were entirely student led. Guerrero emerged as the only Chicana faculty leader at Harrison High during the manifestations of Mexican-origin walkouts in 1968.


Background of Harrison High in Little Village

In the late 1960s Harrison High had roughly 3,000 students. The Little Village Community Council believed that both Farragut and Harrison High were overcrowded and thus pressed the Chicago Board of Education to provide a new high school in the South Lawndale (Little Village) community.[52] According to a School Board report obtained by the Chicago Tribune, nearly 15,000 students were enrolled in Marshall, Farragut, Harrison, and Austin High Schools yet these schools were built to serve only 10,000 students.[53] In an effort to deal with over-crowdedness in the South Lawndale community, the Board of Education responded by building mobile classrooms at Farragut High. The construction of trailer classrooms dubbed “Willis Wagons” to manage over-crowdedness was part of the legacy Superintendent Benjamin Willis (1953-1966) left. The trailers represented one way of effectively enforcing neighborhood segregation.[54]

Another pressing issue at Harrison High was the unusually high dropout rate for Latino students as well as ill-equipped building facilities. According to the 1968 “Student Racial Survey,” the racial composition at Harrison High was comprised of 55.2 percent or 1749 Black students, 36.8 percent or 1168 Caucasian students, and 242 or 7.6 percent Puerto Rican students.[55] However, the “Latin American Manifesto” points out that Latino students made up 35 or 40 percent of the student population.[56] A couple of noteworthy points may be discerned from these numbers. First, the official racial headcount indicates that Mexican-origin and other ‘Latino’ students, aside from Puerto Ricans, at Harrison were classified as Caucasian or “White” by the Board of Education.[57] Second, the majority of “Latino” students at Harrison High were predominantly Mexican-origin as evidenced by the census data in the South Lawndale community. After Pilsen, South Lawndale had the second highest concentration of Mexicans in the city.

Until the opening of Benito Juárez High School in 1977, Harrison High was set apart by two campuses. Froebel High School was a branch of Harrison where approximately 450 freshmen[58] attended before transferring to the main campus of Harrison in their sophomore year.[59] Froebel was located about four miles away from South Lawndale (Little Village) in the Pilsen community that was predominantly Mexican-origin by the late 1960s.


Making Waves: The Rumblings Begin

In September 1968, 18 year-old Salvador Obregon walked into academic counselor Mr. Robert Hansen’s office at Harrison High. Mr. Hansen asked Salvador, “Sal what are you gonna do when you graduate?” “Well, I was thinking of going to college,” said Salvador. “But Sal, you’re Hispanic. Hispanics don’t go to college. Hispanics learn a vocation.”[60] Salvador stood there in shock. He believed that his grades were good and had aspirations of earning a college degree and working in a profession. Salvador did not know how to respond. “I became angry and I left that office confused because I was unsure of what my next move would be,”[61] he recalled. Salvador’s story points to the persistent attitude towards Mexican students as culturally deficient that was prevalent at the time.[62] The story also provides a glimpse into the circumstances that eventually led to Latino student walkouts at Harrison High.

Salvador Obregon, a first-generation Mexican student would later become the official spokesperson of the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS) at Harrison High. Sometime during early October 1968, members of the OLAS student organization drafted a list of demands for presentation to the Harrison High administration. On October 10, 1968, over 300 Latino students (predominantly Mexican-origin) staged a walkout at Harrison High.[63] The Chicago Tribune reported that, “Black students said they were afraid they would not win earlier demands and that Latin American students said they sympathized with the Blacks and wanted Latino-American school officials.”[64] Another source noted that pupils at Harrison High quit classes for three days to protest the lack of courses taught in African American and Latin American history.[65] According to the New York Times, “school disorders” at Harrison started in the lunchroom on October 7, 1968 when approximately 300 Black and Latino students refused to attend classes in the afternoon periods and decided instead to stage a demonstration at the Board of Education downtown.[66]

On October 14, 1968, Salvador Obregon read a list of grievances and demands on behalf of OLAS at a school assembly.[67] The document, “Latin American Manifesto of Harrison High School” demanded bilingual counselors, teachers, and staff to reflect the unique needs of Mexican-origin students for high quality bilingual education programs. Student grievances reflected a new political consciousness of racial and cultural pride, evidenced by calls for Latin American history and recognition of a soccer team.[68] Harrison High previously only had football, basketball, and track as major organized sports, which were well represented by African American students.[69]


Brown-Black Relations at Harrison High

An intriguing aspect of the walkouts that transpired at Harrison High in 1968 was the ambiguous unity of Black and Latino students. As educational historian Danns notes, “One of the important dynamics of Harrison was the unity of Black and Latino students.”[70] The Black student organization called the New Breed also presented the Harrison administration with a “Black Manifesto” that included a list of fourteen demands calling for, among other items, the inclusion of African American history courses, more Black teachers, more homework for students, repairs for the school building and the establishment of “language laboratories” that would develop each Harrison student to “their highest potential.”[71] While it is not clear what exactly was meant by “language laboratories,” this demand strongly suggests a keen awareness and advocacy of linguistic issues involving Latino students at Harrison. It is also important to note that both Black and Latino students presented their respective demands to the Harrison administration on the same day at a school assembly that reflects a united front for school reform. However, the alliance between Latino and Black students at Harrison was not without it’s tensions and contradictions. As Salvador recalled: “even though Sharon Matthews and Victor Adams[72] had a meeting with us with the intent of unifying the two organizations, when the discussion came around about unifying the New Breed and OLAS, I was very adamant about saying that it would become a negative reflection in one of the organizations because it would tell the opposition that neither organization could organize on their own…unifying these student organizations would have caused internal conflicts like: ‘who’s in charge?’ Blacks?, Latinos?”[73] One may best describe the relations between Latino and Black students at Harrison as “neither friends nor enemies”[74] and what is also suggestive is that Latino students were greatly inspired by the Black student activism on campus.[75] The political awakening of Black students helped Latino students recognize that it was important to seize the time and demand educational improvements.[76]


OLAS and Latinismo at Harrison

Despite that Harrison High had a student body that was comprised of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and some Colombian students, the vast majority of ‘Latino’ students were of Mexican-origin and a number of students were first-generation from Mexico where soccer represents the most national sport. Salvador Obregon recalled, “The majority of active members of OLAS were Mexican or Chicano. In that era, there were very few who were second-generation Mexicanos. The students who were in the organization, their parents had migrated from Mexico here to Chicago . . . There was a mix of students some Puerto Rican, some Colombian with the majority being Mexican.”[77]

In 1968, the Harrison High chapter of OLAS demonstrated a Latinismo that became apparent when student leaders considered the official title of the student organization. “We did not want to individualize it. Again, the thought was, we’re doing this not just for the Mexicanos or Chicanos, we’re doing this as a Latino organization . . . it has to be a united front, all Latinos, and that’s how we came up with OLAS”[78], recalled Obregon. “When we had impromptu meetings, I remember emphasizing to the other students that we could not use identifiers like Mexicanos, Colombianos, Puerto Riqueños because it just would question our validity and what we were doing.”[79] This pan-Latino label of “Latin American” indicated a particular student strategy to mobilize all Latino students at Harrison regardless of the predominance of Mexicano students.


Pilsen in the 1970s.

Student Activism and Chicanismo at Harrison

One of the most significant impacts of the Chicano movement in the Southwest that was to inspire the Mexicano student and barrio activism in Chicago was the 1969 national Chicano Youth Liberation Conference held in Denver, Colorado. Here, the Latinismo of Mexicano students at Harrison was coupled with tenets of the broader Chicano Movement such as the teatro. Chicano theatre became an important avenue in the development of identity and militancy.[80] One former student at Harrison recalled, “So, we got to Denver and that was the first time we heard ‘Corky’ Gonzalez speak. Man, Corky was a really good speaker; he spoke from the heart . . . So, the conference opened my eyes to the political aspect of the term Chicano. If you didn’t go to the conference, you didn’t really understand what ‘Chicano’ stood for.”[81] Another Harrison OLAS member recalled, “See in 1969, a lot of us from Chicago went to the Chicano Youth Conference in Denver, Colorado . . . So, when that happened and we came back, we came back all radicalized and politicized about this concept, ‘Chicano’ and this whole manifesto and we became part of this whole bigger national movement.”[82]

The teatro (theatre) groups that were formed by OLAS at Loop College and later utilized by students at Harrison were inspired by Luis Valdez’ Teatro Campesino[83] at the National Chicano Youth Conference. These theatre groups were particularly active in providing cultural and political messages in their acts. One former OLAS member at Harrison recalled that in 1971 a play was produced by members of a student theatre group inspired by the National Chicano Youth Conference, “The last year I was at Harrison, ‘American Dream’, a skit that was created by Rodolfo ‘Corky’ Gonzalez, was put on by us at school . . . At the time, it was considered too radical, you know”[84] Hector Gamboa became one of he more prominent students at Harrison to strategize and organize political consciousness raising activities like the political theatre. Gamboa recalled, “We actually organized a performance at Harrison for the Pan-American assembly . . . So, we did this play called, ‘American Dream’ which was all about identity, Chicano identity. We’re not hippies, we’re not White, we’re not Black, we are Chicanos . . . That was like turning teatro as a weapon for social justice.”[85] The core OLAS members also utilized the school space of the Bilingual Center overseen by Dolores Guerrero to plan, strategize, and organize political consciousness raising activities, like the theatre, to challenge the dominant cultural hegemony at Harrison High.

Some Chicano scholars maintain that a significant aspect of Chicanismo is the presupposition of a world-view that denotes brotherhood or carnalismo.[86] Historian David Montejano argues that the Chicano Movement was characterized, not by a search for identity, but by various ‘identity shifts’ with different locations: class, gender, nationalism, and an affirmation of identity. “Chicano identity only became a potent influence once it was revamped with ideas of brotherhood and unity.”[87] One form of Chicanismo that took shape in Chicago was such an interpretation of the term ‘Chicano’ as “brotherhood.” One former student who was actively involved in the Harrison High walkouts recalled, “See, it was a matter of uniting folks. In Chicago, you had newly arrived Mexicanos, the brazers[88], who didn’t speak English, you had Mexicanos who spoke English, but fell into gangs, and then you had Mexicans who were more politically conscious who identified with the anti-War movement . . . so ‘Chicano’ was a way of uniting all of us . . . it brought us together politically.”[89]

Other students at Harrison interpreted the notion of Chicanismo as a political term imbued with aspects of cultural pride and a particular political consciousness: “You see, back then, to be ‘Chicano’ meant that you recognized your Mexican history. So, to become a Chicano, you said you were asserting that you were Mexican, that you were part of the United States, and that you can also deal in this new culture . . . We identified that way. Even though I’m Mexicano, I see the term as a political stand. It’s a political consciousness.”[90] Another student who was an active participant of the Harrison High walkouts recalled, “It was more of a political label for us which was part of a larger movement . . . If you didn’t go to the conference, you didn’t really understand what ‘Chicano’ stood for. It inspired me to know my history and go to college.”[91]

Historian Guadalupe San Miguel Jr. noted that the National Youth Liberation Conference in Denver provided the youths who attended an ideology of “cultural nationalism” along with a plan for obtaining “Chicano Liberation” in the barrios.[92] In Chicago, further evidence of the burgeoning Chicanismo in 1970 was the transformation of Pilsen’s Howell Settlement House to Casa Atzlán. According to one source, “Casa Aztlán changed its name from Howell House as a result of the National Chicano Youth Conference in Denver.” “After the Denver conference, the basic idea was to break away from the White dominated structures that have controlled our communities for years”[93], he added. Another Harrison OLAS member recalled, “That’s why Casa Aztlán came about. It came about because of the Chicano movement in Chicago . . . We said, ‘we want to change the name’ because it was called Howell House before . . . We want to reclaim it as our center, for our community and purposes.”[94] In the end, Political scientist Armando Navarro contends that the Chicano Movement generally became characterized by “militant protest politics” displayed with marches, sit-ins, walkouts, picketing, and rallies, which were largely inspired by a “cultural renaissance of Chicanismo.”[95] Indeed, unlike middle-class leaders who relied on conventional reform strategies, working-class Mexican-origin students at Harrison focused their efforts on changing their school at the local level with protest politics and school boycotts.

Student demands were not being met by administrators, however, and walkouts continued to occur at Harrison High. In late October 1968, the Daily Defender expected, “an estimated 400-500 Latin American students” to walkout “because their demands are not being met.”[96] One report noted that a general assembly was held at Harrison High on October 17, 1968 to address various dissenting students and local community leaders. According to this report, of the 500 people in attendance, 100 were mothers and the ‘Latins’ were displeased with Principal Burke whom they felt was waffling around the issues by stating that he did not have the authority to grant any demands.[97]

Ideological differences also existed among the local Mexicano community in Chicago during the late 1960s. Hence, not all members of the Mexican community, in Little Village agreed with the student boycotts at Harrison. Assuming a more conservative stance, the Mexican Chamber of Commerce, for instance, displayed strong opposition to the student walkouts. “The business folks, like Arturo Velasquez, who owned all the jukeboxes in the restaurants and was also friends with Mayor Daley, were the so-called community leaders at the time,” recalled Dolores Guerrero. “People like Paul Vega of the Mexican Chamber of Commerce, believed that we didn’t need to ask for anything. He wanted to give us money to stop the walkouts. He offered to give money for the school soccer team,”[98] she added. Obregon also recalled the lack of support by the barrio business owners. “The ideology of the Mexican business owners was: ‘these are just rebellious kids who don’t want to go to school’ . . . on 18th street, you had all these Mexican businesses, you had Mr. Velasquez, the jukebox owner of all the restaurants, and they were not happy about our walkouts.”[99] The tensions that existed between the Mexican American barrio business elite and working-class students at Harrison are indicative of both class, ideological, and generational differences that were operative among the Mexican community in Chicago.

On October 21, 1968, approximately 400-500 Latin American students walked out of Harrison High since their demands were failing to be met.[100] Following the lead of Superintendent James F. Redmond, Principal Alexander Burke adopted a “get tuff” position and warned all students participating in school boycotts that they would be suspended.[101]


School Board Responses to Student Demands

The Chicago Board of Education did not officially respond to the Latino student demands until one year later. One of the responses by the Chicago Board of Education was to transfer principal Alexander Burke and hire Sam Ozaki in 1969.[102] Mr. Ozaki was the first Asian American administrator ever to be appointed in Chicago Public Schools. Ozaki was keenly aware of the social and racial tensions that were operative at Harrison High that eventually led to his appointment. “I think that the Board reasoned that they didn’t want to appoint a White principal and they didn’t want to appoint a Black principal and they didn’t want to appoint a Latino principal. So, there is one other principal that is neither Black, White, or Brown: That’s me, a Japanese American.”[103]

One Latino student demand that was met was the appointment of a Mexican American assistant principal, Mr. Henry Romero who served as foreign language consultant to the Board of Education. With his assistance a “language aid class” was proposed in consultation with parents and community leaders.[104] The Chicago Tribune noted that tutoring and “language laboratories” were being offered and 150 students were expected to participate along with a committee of 25 members that would cover topics stressing both Latino and Anglo cultures.[105]

The other Latino student demand that was met from the Harrison administration was the recognition of soccer as an official school sport.[106] On May 22, 1969, at the request of the Latin American Alliance for Social Advancement (LASA), a community coalition of Mexican-origin persons, district nineteen superintendent Alflorence Cheatham agreed to provide more Latino faculty members and courses for Harrison High School.[107] According to LASA, the alarming fifty percent drop-out rate for Mexicano students was largely due to “language problems.”[108] Superintendent Cheatham stated that he intended to offer a bilingual program funded through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act for students at Harrison High in the Fall of 1969.[109] The Chicago Tribune noted that despite this program being proposed by the LASA, “some of the requests from the alliance mirrored those demands first presented to the Harrison administration by students last October.”[110] Despite disillusionment with the realization that just a few student demands were met by the Harrison administration, Latino students at Harrison continued to struggle for equal schools by organizing walkouts in 1969, ‘70, ‘71, and ‘72, this time, with the assistance of the Loop college chapter of the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS).

By 1971, city-wide Latino school boycotts were occurring in the city of Chicago. One report noted that the Chicano Youth Organization (CYO), a Mexican-origin organization located in South Chicago, collaborated with members of ASPIRA, a Puerto Rican organization with headquarters on the Northwest Side to coordinate various school demonstrations.[111] La Raza Unida, a coalition of thirty-three Latino organizations (mainly, Mexican-origin and Puerto Rican) decided what schools were to participate in school boycotts on May 10 and 11, 1971: Harrison High, Kelly High, Lake View High, Wells High, Tilden High, Burns High, Richards High, and Anderson High located throughout the city of Chicago.[112] Ron Maydon, a chief spokesperson for the Chicano Youth Organization was quoted as saying, “This is a people’s movement and our objective is to unify all the Latins, whether they are Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Indian.”[113] According to Shirley Cayer of the Daily Calumet, over 200 persons representing a coalition of Latino organizations were heard shouting: “Chicano Power! Puerto Rican Power! Indian Power!”[114]


Froebel High Boycotts and Chicanismo

The ideological tenets of Chicanismo that began in 1969 continued in Chicago during the 1970’s with the politics of protest at the Froebel Branch of Harrison High. Mexican American parents, students, and community activists knew that Froebel High was an overcrowded dilapidated building.[115] In addition, another concern was that Harrison High had an unusually high dropout rate and was plagued by daily street gang conflicts.[116] In 1973, the Board of Education planned to close down Froebel and transfer all students to the main Harrison campus in South Lawndale. Students, parents, and community activists organized demonstrations and walkouts in response. Initially, picketing and student boycotts began on April 4, 1972.[117] One report noted that Froebel students walked out and began to take part in marches and demonstrations in front of the school.[118] Demonstrators were seen carrying placards that demanded the replacement of faculty with bilingual teachers and a school curriculum that reflected the predominately Mexican-origin student body.[119] On March 30, 1972, Principal Burrell Maschek was interviewed by the Chicago Police Departments’ Subversive Unit. During the interview, Mr. Maschek stated that persons wearing brown berets and field jackets had entered his school and were seen interacting with students.[120] According to one report, Maschek told these people not to come into his school but was ignored by these persons calling themselves the Brown Berets.[121] On April 5, 1972, approximately 50 percent of the student body at Froebel was absent and many students were seen taking part in marches and demonstrations in front of the school.[122] One report noted that principal Maschek observed members of the Brown Berets present at every demonstration. They were easy to identify by their distinctive uniforms.[123] On April 9, 1972, fifty percent of the student body at Froebel refused to go to attend class to protest for high quality bilingual instruction.[124]

A second set of protests began June 5, 1973.[125] At stake was the issue that the Chicago Board of Education planned on closing down Froebel and transferring all students to the main Harrison High building in south Lawndale. Scott Jacobs of the Chicago Sun-Times noted that Pilsen neighborhood parents had been protesting the closing because they felt that students would be “swallowed up” in the larger Harrison building and were therefore seeking the construction of a new high school in their own community.[126] One source observed that on June 5, 1973, most students had left the building and those that remained were joined by “violent demonstrators” who hung a sign in front of the building that read: “Chicano takeover for a new high school.”[127] Juan Morales, a Chicano resident of Pilsen stated, “If we are going to maintain this community, we need a new school.”[128] A press release stated: “It’s time for a school whose curriculum will not make our children feel inferior and ashamed of their own language, culture, and brown faces.”[129] According to one report, on June 6, 1973, approximately 100 dissident students were observed marching in front of Froebel High and could be heard chanting: “Viva La Raza!” “Si Se Puede!” “Chicano Power!”[130] This report also noted that placards were being carried by students that read: “We are tired of a shitty education” “We want a Chicano High School”[131] Finally, one reporter stated that a major reason for calling for a new school was a “burgeoning consciousness of Chicanismo in the community.”[132]

Parents, students, and community activists continued to boycott and organize picket-line demonstrations at Froebel until September 1974.[133] A list of demands was presented to the Board of Education that included the construction of a new high school in Pilsen with bilingual-bicultural teachers and administrators as well as the implementation of more adequate bilingual curricula. Benito Juarez High School was finally opened in 1977 after a five-year hard fought battle with the Chicago Board of Education. Superintendent Joseph Hannon stated, “This school is more than a Board reality. It is the direct result of a community that refused to take ‘no’ for an answer.”[134]


Continuing High School Activism

High school activism emerged again in Pilsen and Little Village during the 1990s and 2000 era. In 1995, a Pilsen hunger strike was forged by concerned mothers to demand better educational services for their children attending elementary Chicago Public Schools. In 2001, a nineteen-day hunger strike was staged by fourteen community residents of La Villita (Little Village) demanding the construction of a new high school to alleviate overcrowding of their only local public high school (Farragut). In 1998, the construction of Little Village Lawndale High School had been promised by the Chicago Board of Education, but was put on hold for ostensibly monetary reasons. Almost four years later, continuous pressure from hunger strikers (a group of mostly Mexican-origin mothers), community activists, and local independent politicians, led to the opening of LVLHS campus in the Fall of 2005.[135] This most recent social movement in Chicago is a testament to the continuous theme of contestation as a major strategy in the Mexican American quest for educational equality initiated in the late 1960s and early 1970s.



This essay has shown how a unique Latino demographic in Chicago impacted by the migration and immigration of Latin American countries (notably Mexico and Puerto Rico) led to the formation of a situational Latino front in one high school. In 1968, a unique form of Latinismo emerged at Harrison High, when under the banner OLAS, a pan-Latino political label was chosen in order to mobilize Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Colombian students in their struggle over promoting and improving their public education. The list of demands included, among other things, bilingual/bicultural teachers, counselors, and administrators as well Latino history and the implementation of soccer as an official school sport. Moreover, during the early 1970s, evidence suggests that Latinismo continued in the form of alliances between Mexican-origin and Puerto Rican organizations in the form of coordinated citywide boycotts and the formation of college Latino student group organizations such as OLAS.

After the 1969 Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in Denver, the ideological tenets of Chicanismo became manifested in Chicago in the form of the teatro at Harrison High, community self-determination, and militant protest politics. The evidence suggests that in Chicago, working-class students and barrio organizers identified the Chicano Movement within their own local community battles over educational equality and the betterment of social services. This is evidenced in the early 1970s by the activism of the Brown Berets at Casa Aztlán and Froebel High, community based organizations that were Chicano-centered such as the Chicano Mental Health Clinic, and boycotts that occurred in Pilsen over the construction of a new high school that was reflective of the Mexicano cultural and linguistic heritage.

Like their counterparts in places like Los Angeles and Houston, those who identified as Chicanos made demands for self-determination, community autonomy, and protested against inferior public schooling practices. However, unlike parts of the Southwest such as California which assumed a more cultural nationalist ideology, the Chicano Movementin Chicago developed within the context of coalitions with other Latin American groups namely, Puerto Ricans.

Finally, public education for Mexican Americans in Chicago has continued to function across historically entrenched patterns of reproduction, largely characterized by underachievement exemplified by high dropout rates, overcrowded schools, limited enrollment in universities and contestation demonstrated by protests, hunger strikes, and the construction of new neighborhood schools in their struggle for educational justice.


Appendix A

“Latin American Manifesto of Harrison High School”

We the Latin American students of Harrison High School feel that the administration of our school has not been sensitive to our needs nor willing to make the necessary changes which are badly needed. We feel that the needs of the students are creating an atmosphere in the school where little learning is possible. The administration must bear much of the responsibility for the present situation. The administration must provide for the needs of the Latin American students. We comprise 35 to 40% of the student population, yet we are receiving an inferior education that will undoubtedly cripple our chances for future success. The administration had not and is not sympathetic toward our problems. The fact that many of us do not speak or understand English well is a source of frustration. Our frustration is even greater when we realize that the administration refused to establish programs to meet this need. Instead, the administration ignores us. The administration has not begun to understand the importance of having people of our own cultural background as teachers, counselors, and administrators in the school. We need these people with whom we can identify and emulate. It is our feeling that the Board of Education system tries to make us inferior by its failure to institute Latin American History courses and other social studies that portray our significant contributions. WE THEREFORE SUBMIT OUR FOLLOWING DEMANDS:

  1. We demand qualified bilingual Latin American counselors to be assigned by November 1, 1968. (We demand counselors not disciplinarians).
  2. We demand two required years of Latin American culture and history, and taught by qualified bilingual Latin American teachers. We further demand that books will be used which have an open point of view of history that will contribute to the dignity and respect of Latin American people.
  3. We demand that special TESL classes be instituted for the non-English speaking students and that these classes become an integral part of the school curriculum.
  4. We demand that special programs be developed by local universities to meet the special needs of Spanish-speaking students’ problems.
  5. We demand a Spanish-American assistant principal.
  6. We demand two bilingual persons be assigned as teacher aides and two bilingual school community representatives
  7. We demand that monthly Spanish meetings of the PTA be conducted by a community authorized Spanish-speaking person.
  8. We demand that the administration recognizes the soccer team and provide a qualified instructor and necessary equipment for the team’s participation n city-wide competition.
  9. We demand that this Organization of Latin American Students of Harrison be recognized by the school administration as an official mediator and bargaining agent for Latin American students and their problems.


Better teachers: Higher Standards

  1. Competent teachers preferably bilingual
  2. Courses in history geared to instill pride in our cultural heritage
  3. Bilingual counselors, community representatives and teacher aids
  4. Initiate program recruitment with pay incentive
  5. No reprisals[136]


[1] Dionne Danns, Something Better for Our Children, Black Organizing in Chicago Public Schools, 1963-1971. (New York: Routledge, 2003).

[2] Mexicano/Mexican American/Mexican-origin will be used interchangeably throughout this paper to refer to Mexicans living in the U.S. It must be noted that the term ‘Chicano’ is understood here as having an explicit political connotation. Although many contemporary scholars often use the term interchangeably with Mexican Americans, movimiento participants in Chicago defined the term with the specific ideological significance of the Chicano movement operative in late 1960s. In other words, unlike the politics of middle-class Mexican American activists of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, whose primary goals were to assimilate into mainstream American life, Chicano activists called for the creation of new institutions forged through self-determination. See Carlos Muñoz, Jr., Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement. (New York: Verso, 1989),7. It must also be noted that in Chicago, Latina/o groups identify themselves by national origin and not the hyphenated phenomenon. In Chicago, very few Mexicans raised in the U.S. identify themselves as ‘Chicanos’ or ‘Mexican-Americans.’ For the most part, the pervasive category of self-identification is simply ‘Mexican.’ See Nicholas De Genova and Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas, Latino Crossings: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the Politics of Race and Citizenship. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2003); Maria De Los Angeles Torres, “In Search of Meaningful Voice and Place: The IPO and Latino Community Empowerment in Chicago” in Gilberto Cardenas, ed., La Causa: Civil Rights, Social Justice and the Struggle for Equality in the Midwest. (Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2004, 100.

[3] See for example, Clarence J. Karier, The Individual, Society, and Education: A History of American Educational Ideas. 2nd Edition. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 326-362; Joel Spring, The American School: 1642-2000. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 388-418; James W. Fraser, The School in the United States. A Documentary History. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 293-318.

[4] Ruben Donato, The Other Struggle for Equal Schools: Mexican Americans during the Civil Rights Era. (Albany: State University Press, 1997); Guadalupe San Miguel Jr., and Richard R. Valencia, “From the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to Hopwood: The Educational Plight and Struggle of Mexican Americans in the Southwest,” Harvard Educational Review 68 (Fall 1998): 353-412; Victoria-Maria MacDonald, “Hispanic, Latino, Chicano, or “Other”?: Deconstructing the Relationship between Historians and Hispanic-American Educational History,” History of Education Quarterly 41 (Fall 2001): 365-413; Guadalupe San Miguel Jr., Brown, Not White: School Integration and the Chicano Movement in Houston. (Houston: Texas A&M University Press, 2001); San Miguel Jr., and Ruben Donato, “Latino Education in the Twentieth Century America: A Brief History” in The Handbook of Latinos and Education: Theory, Research, and Practice. eds. Enrique G. Murillo, Jr., Sofia Villenas, Ruth Trinidad Galván, Juan Sánchez Muñoz, Corinne Martínez, Margarita Machado-Casas.(New York: Routledge, 2010); Mario T. Garcia and Sal Castro, Blowout!: Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011). 

[5] Sociologist Felix M. Padilla argues that Latinismo is a specific ‘situational’ political solidarity that developed in the early 1970s in Chicago when Mexicans and Puerto Ricans felt they shared a common experience of inequality (specifically, poverty and racial discrimination in the job market). According to Padilla, the strategic deployment of Latinismo by both groups transcended cultural national affiliations that allowed them to mobilize politically and advance their mutual interests. See Felix M. Padilla, Latino Ethnic Consciousness: The Case of Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans in Chicago. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985). In a more recent treatise, De Gevova and Ramos-Zayas provide ethnographic evidence which suggests significant divisions between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Chicago. For De Genova and Ramos-Zayas, the politics of U.S. citizenship status and immigration laws have constructed significant differences between the two groups creating critical ‘fault lines.’ See Nicholas De Genova and Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas, Latino Crossings: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the Politics of Race and Citizenship. (New York: Routledge, 2003). Hence, a careful historicism is imperative in order to better comprehend the contradictory and ambiguous alliances between these two significant Latina/o groups in C