By Enrique Rivero
During the 1864 presidential election, Mexican community organizations in California joined together to urge Latino voters across the state to cast ballots for Abraham Lincoln.
And while the size and power of California’s Latino electorate then was nowhere near what it is today both Democratic frontrunners acknowledged the key role Latinos played in last Tuesday’s presidential primary the Civil War-era get-out-the-vote push was indicative of the growing social and political influence California’s Juntas Patrióticas Mejicanas, the first statewide network of Latino service organizations.
The development and achievements of the junta movement are traced in a new study by the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, published in the current issue of the journal California History.
“They were probably the first community organizations of a statewide nature in California that were multi-function,” said David Hayes-Bautista, director of the center and a professor of general internal medicine and health services research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “They were fundraisers and civil rights groups; they provided social and health insurance. You can say it’s really the first regional statewide network of Latino community organizations.”
The junta network had its origin in the early 1860s, when the American Civil War was raging to the east and, to the south, French emperor Napoleon III was trying to topple Mexican President Benito Juarez, hoping to replace him with Austrian Duke Maximilian as king and, among other things, reintroduce slavery to Mexico.
At first, Latinos in California could do little to stop these threats to freedom and democracy. But things began to change on May 5, 1862, when outgunned Mexican troops beat back the French at the Battle of Puebla. That unexpected victory galvanized the state’s Latinos into forming the first statewide network of the until-then independent and uncoordinated Juntas Patrióticas Mejicanas, which later came to provide a wide range of civil and economic services to the state’s Latino communities.
There were at the time 122 juntas in California, ranging from Yreka in the north to Santa Ana in the south. Chapters were also established in locations as diverse as Half Moon Bay, Los Angeles, Marysville, Sacramento, Stockton, Sonora, Hornitos and San Jose. There were also six in neighboring Nevada and one in The Dalles, Oregon.
As these groups were open to all, not just Latinos, they included a rainbow spectrum that included Californios-Latinos born in California while it was still part of the Mexican Republic; Gold Rush immigrant Latinos from Mexico and Central and South America; Germans; and Italians. Each chapter had its own bylaws and selected its own officers.
Initially formed to raise funds in support of President Juarez’s wartime efforts, the groups’ services quickly expanded to cover other areas, including:
· Raising funds for unemployment benefits and medical insurance.
· Forming cooperative food stores and establishing revolving credit funds.
· Raising money to hire defense attorneys for indigent Latinos.
· Engaging in political activism (including supporting Lincoln in 1864).
· Creating the Cinco de Mayo commemoration of the Battle of Puebla.
The juntas continued functioning even after the wars in America and Mexico ended, focusing on domestic affairs and providing a place for the development of Latino leadership into the early years of the 20th century.
Though other groups had emerged in California in the years following statehood the French, for instance, had their own civic organizations these were more akin to fraternal organizations such as the Elks, Hayes-Bautista said.
“But I would say the juntas were the first that had a distinctly civil rights or political dimension,” he said. “They were very, very modern-looking.”
The UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture has since 1992 been a resource for cutting-edge research, education and public information about Latinos, their health and their role in California.