Chicano Movement's Denver Roots Run Deep Many cite Denver as the birthplace of the American Chicano movement. Its leaders today are largely the children of the "Crusaders for Justice" who launched a nationwide civil rights movement in the 60s and 70s.

Chicano Movement's Denver Roots Run Deep

Chicano Movement's Denver Roots Run Deep

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Many cite Denver as the birthplace of the American Chicano movement. Its leaders today are largely the children of the "Crusaders for Justice" who launched a nationwide civil rights movement in the 60s and 70s.


Lisa Martinez, professor of sociology, University of Denver
Antonio Esquibel, emeritus professor of Spanish, Metropolitan State College of Denver

NEAL CONAN, host: Right now we're broadcasting from the studios at Colorado Public Radio. In the 1960s and '70s, Denver saw boycotts, strikes, even riots - part of the American Chicano movement. Leaders like Corky Gonzales and the Crusade for Justice pushed cultural identity. By some accounts, that movement is over, a victim of its own success. Now a new generation takes up new causes - political organization and immigration.

We want to hear from Latinos in our audience. How did the movement start where you live? How has it changed? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Antonio Esquibel joins us on the phone from his home in Denver. He's an emeritus professor of Spanish at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. ANTONIO ESQUIBEL: Neal, welcome to Denver. As I would've said during the Chicano Movement, welcome to Aztlan.

CONAN: Aztlan. Aztlan is the mythical Latino - Chicano homeland.

ESQUIBEL: Exactly. During the Chicano movement, we referred to the entire Southwest as Aztlan.

CONAN: And that would have been the part of - those would have been the parts of the United States that it acquired from Mexico after the Mexican-American War.

ESQUIBEL: Exactly. The five Southwest states, which were part of Mexico, Chicanos in the '60s referred to that part of the United States as Aztlan.

CONAN: It's interesting...

ESQUIBEL: It really has some historical - really has some historical basis to it if we can get into it a little bit later, though.

CONAN: All right. I'm just interested in the use of the word. Chicano is not a word you hear that much anymore.

ESQUIBEL: No, Chicano is a word that - you know, people who came together back in the '60s, called themselves Chicanos because, to them, that meant that we were - had this idea of conquest and had a idea of - that there was a history of racism in this country. And it also was to battle that issue of the denied identity that we had. Also, you know, we were typed as being inferior during those days, although some people still think that. But Chicanos used that term to fight all of those issues that were prevalent during the '60s and '70s.

CONAN: And you said that in - to some degree, at least - that movement is over. It succeeded.

ESQUIBEL: Sure. I think so. I think - you know, a good friend of mine, a colleague, Corky Gonzales, who we can talk about in a minute here in Denver, back in 1979, he said that the movement was dead, OK? And that was partly because it had been successful in a lot of areas. One of them is the political arena. You know, before that time, Chicanos didn't run for politics. Matter of fact, our former mayor here in Denver, Federico Pena, claimed that the Chicano movement opened the door for politicians like him to step through because there were some politicians, Chicanos, who did run for political offices during the Chicano movement.

But, today, you don't hear the term Chicano anymore. We've had some successes in politics. We've had some successes in education even though we have a long way to go. We've had some successes in the art, you know, in movies and in the artists, but we still have a long way to go.

And I think part of it is that the term Chicano is looked as a - looked upon as a very militant term. And it was. You know, a lot of Chicanos were militant in the '60s. But, no, you don't hear much more about it today. Mostly, you hear Hispanic, Latino because those are more encompassing terms that include all of the Latin American and Spanish-speaking groups in this country.

CONAN: Because Chicano was generally referred to as Mexicans.

ESQUIBEL: Yeah. You know, Chicanos were - when we refer to ourselves as Chicanos, we're really talking about Mexican-Americans. That means people who are born in this country but of Mexican descent. And as one of the authors indicated during the '60s, Ruben Salazar, who was actually a writer for the Los Angeles Times, in one of his articles, he tried to define this term Chicano. And he basically defined it as being a Mexican-American - in other words, American born in this country of Mexican parents - Mexican-American who didn't think he was an Anglo.

CONAN: Joining us here in the studios of Colorado Public Radio is Lisa Martinez, associate professor of sociology at the University of Denver. Nice of you to come in.

LISA MARTINEZ: Thank you for having me on.

CONAN: And is Chicano a word that you use?

It actually wasn't. I grew up in West Texas, and Chicano was associated with being a very derogatory term. And it partly could have been the timing. It could have been the locale. This was after the movement in the 1970s. But I think what's changed the most is that there's been an increasing push among Latino origin groups to sort of move away from these all-encompassing terms because one of the things that we know about the Latino origin population in the U.S. is that it is quite heterogeneous.


You have persons of Puerto Rican descent. You have Cubans. You have Central Americans, South Americans and - to the extent that Chicano tends to be associated with Mexican-Americans, I think that's one of the reasons why it's not used as widely anymore.

And do you agree with Antonio Esquibel that maybe some of those early issues have been settled, more or less, and there are other more pressing issues that need work on today?

Absolutely. I mean, I think one of the great achievements of the Chicano movement in the '60s and '70s is that it cultivated a generation of activists and political leaders, many of whom were able to move into political office. These were also the individuals who eventually went on to institutions of higher education. They were the ones who formed Chicano study centers and universities, you know, across the Southwest. So they were quite pivotal in establishing themselves in more prominent positions.

MARTINEZ: But I absolutely agree with Antonio that there's still a ways to go. If we look at the issues that were of concern then, I think we would agree that those are still pressing concerns to this day in terms of education, economic stability, health care, jobs.

CONAN: Those don't strike me as strictly Latino issues.

Oh, of course not. That's true. But one issue that is perhaps more often associated as being a Latino issue would be the issue of immigration, and I think that's what's more prevalent today than was the case back then.

And, Antonio Esquibel, it's interesting, immigration - certainly, there are Mexican-Americans who were born here and lived here for many generations. There are also a lot of others who come across the border.

You know, some of us can trace our history here in this country far back over three or 400 hundred years. You know, my forefathers came in one of the movements up in to New Mexico in 1712. But, you know, some of the issues that we faced then, they're in - even in the early years, the early Chicano movement, many of the undocumented students and their parents are facing today. You know, the issue of discrimination is still a big issue.

ESQUIBEL: You know, here, where I live at - I live in southwest Denver - when I moved into this neighborhood 30 years ago, we were the only Mexican-Americans on the block. All the rest were Germans and mostly middle class. Now, there's no Spanish-speaking people on this block. They're all Mexicanos. Matter of fact, I was a professor of Spanish at Metro for several years. I speak more Spanish today here in my community than I spoke when I was a professor.

CONAN: And I think you misspoke a moment ago to say that there's no English-speaking people on your block.

No, there isn't, OK? All my neighbors speak Spanish. I go to the bank, there's a Spanish-speaking clerk. I go to the grocery store, there's a Spanish-speaking clerk. I go to the gas station, a Spanish-speaking person. So I can speak Spanish all day long because most of the people in this part of Denver - now, this isn't true for all of Denver. This is southwest Denver, where most of the Mexicanos live. And as I say, some of the issues that they're facing today are the same ones that we faced in the early years during the Chicano movement (unintelligible)...

Is there a disconnect, do you think, between the newer immigrants and the people like yourself who've been here for many, many, many years?

ESQUIBEL: Is there what?

CONAN: A disconnect.

Oh, yeah. I think there is because a lot of the people who are - have been here a long time, discriminate against the Mexicanos of Mexico, OK? Matter of fact, I was talking to a neighbor of mine a while back and he says that the persons that the Mexicano most fear is the Hispanic, the Chicanos, the people who have been here for long because those he said we don't even fear - we don't fear the Anglos as much as we fear the Chicano or the Hispanic that's been there for several generations, he says, because the Hispanic who's been here for a long time, he'll turn us in to the police. OK? Anglos won't do that. They'll just discriminate against us, OK?


CONAN: Get it coming and going. I wanted to turn to you, Lisa Martinez. You talked about the diversity, there's no doubt about that, in the Latino community. But diversity indicates it's also a difficult community to organize. You have people who feel very differently about a lot of different things even, as we just heard, amongst people all originally from Mexico.

Absolutely. And one of the things I found in a study I did in 2006 looked at the organizations involved in the immigrant rights movement. And what I found most fascinating was that while there were many organizations and individuals that were on the same page with regard to the need to bring about comprehensive immigration reform, immigrant rights and so forth, there were a lot - there was a lot of variation in terms of how that should actually be accomplished, which one of the things that we know from literature and social movements area is that, you know, having differences of opinion in terms of strategies and tactics can be a good thing in the sense that it provides a wellspring of opportunities to explore different avenues.

MARTINEZ: But what I found in 2006, it actually was generating and have been generated by a series of risks among the organizations themselves in that there wasn't a lot of agreement about how to go about pushing for immigration reform.

CONAN: We're talking with Lisa - oh, go ahead, I'm sorry, Antonio Esquibel.

ESQUIBEL: Yeah. I just want to mention, Neal, you know, during the '60s, there were four leaders of the Chicano movement: Cesar Chavez from California, Corky Gonzales here from Denver, Reies Lopez Tijerina from New Mexico, Jose Angel Gutierrez from Texas. Of course, Cesar Chavez worked with the Dolores Huerta to form the United Farm Workers union. But all four of those leaders were second-generation Americans. All of their parents were born in Mexico. So in the future, I really believe that the people who are going to be the leaders of the Mexican movement, the undocumented movement, are going to be the second generation, because that first generation is just trying to survive.

ESQUIBEL: And the second generation, they're going to wake up someday and say, hey, what? How come we don't learn - how come we don't know Spanish anymore, which what happened in the '60s? How come we're discriminated against? We're citizens of this country. I believe it's going to be that second generation that's really going to move this whole issue of the Mexican immigrant in this country.

CONAN: Antonio Esquibel, emeritus professor of Spanish at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Also with us, Lisa Martinez, associate professor of sociology at the University of Denver. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we're talking about how this community changed and how the movement changed in Denver, Colorado. We want to hear how that's changed where you live: 800-989-8255, email: And let's see if we can go to Ronnie(ph) . And Ronnie is with us from Houston. Oh, we're pushing the wrong button on the wrong computer. That's why it's not working. There you go. Ronnie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

RONNIE: Yes, sir. I grew up in San Diego for all my life. I'm in Houston now. But long story short, I mean, you know, when people think the word, Chicano, they think all of cholo, gangster, gang member, whatever, you know? But I wanted to comment on that. I mean, nowadays, you know, talking about the second generation, I don't have a Ph.D. or nothing, but where I grew up, I had to sleep on the floor in the mid-'80s and, you know, because of gang-infested area that I lived in, I came out of all of that. I joined the United States Navy. I wore the uniform. And, you know, Chicano now it has a different meaning for me now because a lot of people are realizing that, you know, things are different.

And basically, I just wanted to call in and say that I've experienced racism wearing the Navy uniform, trying to cross the border just because I looked Hispanic. And I'm a Chicano, I served this country and I did not decide to re-enlist after that experience. But I also wanted to comment that, you know, when people think Chicano, they think gangsters. They think cholo. And that's it.

CONAN: Well, I just wanted to follow up just one question. You decided not to re-enlist based on the experience of being discriminated against while you were in uniform.


CONAN: What happened?

RONNIE: I was asked if I was a United States citizen being in a United States Navy uniform. Yes, sir. And that's why I decided to not re-enlist. And I came from the ghetto. I came from where you had to sleep on the floor just to make it through the night, you know? And I decided to make a better life for me, and I did. But I just wanted to let everyone know that that's what I experienced. And there's still a lot of racism in this country. And I think that people need to quit categorizing themselves as Chicanos, as African-Americans, and we all need to look as ourselves as Americans, period.

CONAN: Ronnie, thanks very much for the call. And we're sorry you had that experience.

RONNIE: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Antonio Esquibel, I wonder what you've made of Ronnie's last remark that we need to stop...

ESQUIBEL: Well, you know, I've been around for almost 70 years now. And here in Colorado, I believe right now we're in the period where I've seen the most anti-Mexican feeling in the whole history of this of the last 70 years today. I mean, because when we grew up, just like Ronnie did. We were discriminated against. We were down in Colorado Springs. We went to a restaurant, and they said no Mexicans or dogs allowed. OK, that was during the '50s. We started in segregated schools back in the '40s, the late '40s. But - and we suffered through lot of discrimination because my father and mother were farm workers. But I've not experienced the anti-Mexican sentiment as strong as I - that - as I experienced of the last few years in - probably the last 10 years here in Denver.

CONAN: I wonder, Lisa Martinez, you're obviously a lot younger than Antonio Esquibel, but would you agree that this is at a peak?

MARTINEZ: I think it certainly has reached the peak with the immigration debate. And I think we saw the beginning of much of that in 2006. One of the things that was interesting from my standpoint in terms of the research I was doing on the movement was that as the marches progressed, there was more coverage, more media attention was being paid to the issue, public opinion polls began to shift, as we might expect. And one of the things that was coming out of this was the fact that it wasn't just about immigrant rights, it became an issue about Latinos and increasingly became an issue about Mexicans.

So sort of over the course of the several months that the marches were taking place across the country, who was being represented or targeted, if you will, in the media was increasingly individuals of Mexican descent. And I think it's safe to say that the poll data indicates that when people talk about immigration, they're mostly talking about persons of Mexican descent. So I would agree with Antonio to that point.

CONAN: Well, Lisa Martinez - very quickly, Antonio.

ESQUIBEL: The problem is that the general population can't distinguish if we're Mexican, Chicanos or Hispanic. We're just all Mexicans to them.

CONAN: Antonio Esquibel, thanks...

ESQUIBEL: I mean...

CONAN: We've got to, Antonio. I'm sorry.


CONAN: We're running out of time. Antonio Esquibel, emeritus professor of Spanish at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Lisa Martinez, thank you for your time today...

MARTINEZ: My pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: well. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Centennial, Colorado.

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