May 27, 2005

April, a Month of Tears, Deceptions, Triumph and Hope for the Brown Berets of Aztlán

By Ricardo Raúl Pozos y Garay

Racism against Mexicans here in the southwest is nothing new and undocumented Mexicans, since they are poor and defenseless, have become the target of this racism. Ever since Mexico lost the war in defense of its northern territories more than half a century ago, the racists have made it their priority to label all Mexicans as “foreigners” and “illegal immigrants” despite Mexicans’ indigenous roots. The Mexican people’s resistance to racism is nothing new either. Mexicans such as the legendary Joaquín Murrieta, since the mid-nineteenth century, have sacrificed their lives in defense of the Mexican people.

Indeed there have been many Mexican men and women that have struggled against racism throughout the centuries. In line with this tradition of struggle and resistance is the organization Brown Berets of Aztlán made up of individuals whose raison d’être is the self-determination of the Mexican people. Born out of the Chicano Movement fervor, some four decades ago, it’s one of the few organizations of that époque still around. Its paramilitary structure and radical precepts have always attracted the most militant Chicanos most especially the barrio street youth known as “cholos.”


Today’s notorious “cholo” is the modern-day “pachuco” whose origins can be traced to the twentieth century thirties and forties when the consensus among Mexican Americans was to resort to assimilation in order to better their socioeconomic lot.

Brown Berets march in protest to racism in Douglas, Arizona.

Nonetheless, young Mexican Americans viewed this proposal with much scepticism and many outright rejected it completely. They were inspired by the notorious eighteenth century “bandidos” like Joaquin Murrieta and Tiburcio Vazquez for they defied the law and refused to become “Americans.” These youngsters wore ostentatious outfits with matching hats and shoes at a time when most Mexican Americans just sought to blend in with Anglos. That is why three decades later they became role models when Mexican Americans realized that their pro-assimilation campaign had come to naught. A new Mexican American movement was born that sought to recover culture and ancestral lands in the Southwest, “Aztlan,” and so it appropriated the moniker proper to pachucos, “Chicano.”

In the mid-sixties, the enigmatic David Sanchez began the organization “The Brown Berets” which advocated “revolutionary cultural nationalism” amongst Mexican American youth. In 1972, they made headlines as they proposed to recover Catalina Island for Mexico, alleging that Catalina Island was not included in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (the treaty that marked the end of The Mexican American War and granted annexation of half of Mexico’s territory) ergo was rightfully Mexican territory.

Armed with a copy of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a small group of Brown Berets headed by David Sanchez settled in Catalina Island and awaited the right time to summon reinforcements to seize the island. All of a sudden, Sanchez decided to abort all plans and surrendered to the authorities and was escorted off the island. Shortly thereafter he disbanded and abolished the organization. No one knows his reasons for his brusque and drastic decisions; however, not all of the 5,000 members abandoned the organization. Some chapters remained as did the San Diego chapter which chairman David Rico has kept afloat for the past three decades. Rico and the San Diego Brown Berets played a crucial role in the seizure and establishment of Chicano Park. Known as “The Brown Berets of Aztlán,” they honor the original Mexican self-determination platform set down by the first Brown Berets.


Late last March, new members joined the Brown Berets of Aztlán and a new chapter was declared marking a new chapter in the ongoing history of the organization. The new members are a heterogeneous bunch ranging from adolescents to adults, the majority of whom are males—but also some females to boot—from nearby by barrios around Barrio Logan where the organization has been based since its inception.


It was the first week of April and Rico had just begun to initiate the new members when news of the minutemen saturated the press with their anti-Mexican propaganda. “We all knew the ‘minutemen’ were headed to Arizona but not like this,” explained Rico. “When I saw them on the news—armed up to their teeth—arresting Mexican men and women, that’s when I said, ‘we have to do something.’” On Friday, April 8, at 11:00 PM, a group of Brown Berets traveled by car to Arizona with the intent of analyzing firsthand the activities of the minutemen. The rest of the Brown Berets remained in San Diego to attend a local manifestation the following day.

Eleven hours later, the Brown Berets convoy arrived in southern Arizona and settled in Naco. The “minutemen” were no more than a small band of fifty; however, the scene was littered with their vile propaganda everywhere you turned. Hundreds of billboards and signs covered buildings and lined roads: “President Fox’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Are Illegals,” “Illegal Aliens/Terrorists,” “Close the Border Now!” This type of hate propaganda inflicts much damage to the Mexican people’s psyche especially the children. What effects will the racist propaganda have on children there? Will they be traumatized by it? Will they grow to be ashamed to be Mexican? Does anyone care?


Early morning on April 14, the media was summoned to a press conference. Ildifonso Carrillo, owner of Chicano Perk Café and longtime admirer of the Brown Berets, lent his shop on short notice for the media event that day. The Brown Berets along with Enrique Morones of Border Angeles took seat in front of the cameras and microphones to make known their stance and plan regarding events in Arizona. David Rico spoke of incidents of abuse against both documented and undocumented Mexicans. “In front of the cameras the minutemen assure us they’re doing nothing illegal but as soon as the reporters are gone it’s a different story,” said Rico. “Many told us that the minutemen mistreated, insulted and even threatened them.”

At the conference’s end, the Brown Berets announced their plans to organize a caravan headed to Naco, Arizona on April 28. The Brown Berets hoped to organize a massive protest in southern Arizona the last weekend of April thinking that the minutemen would figure that if they continued with their “minuteman project” they would set off a wave of protests by the Mexican community.


On the night of the 26th, the Brown Berets met at Chicano Perk Café to announce their departure the following day and were heartbroken once more to learn that despite the thousands of flyers distributed and staged press conferences, no one would join them.

A total of fifteen people—all of them Brown Berets—took part in the hailed “Caravan for the Defense of Aztlán.” Fortunately many people offered both their moral and monetary support. A collection at the café rounded up enough money to at least cover expensive fueling costs. Artist and Aztec dancer, Carmen “Kahlo” Linares, besides contributing monetarily, also extended her prayers and blessings. The Brown Berets Watsonville, California chapter also chipped in and offered much encouragement as well.


The Brown Berets left San Diego bound for Arizona at 7:00 PM on Thursday, April 28th as promised and arrived at Douglas, Arizona the following day at 8:00 AM after driving the whole night. After setting up camp on the outskirts of Douglas, Brown Berets Jose Maria Leyva and Ignacio Parra headed south across the border to Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico to learn the latest news.

There they learned that the minutemen had abandoned ship and aborted their “project” the previous week thanks to the ingenious efforts of the redaction staff of the local newspaper “La Razón de Agua Prieta,” which staged a boycott of Douglas City business on the weekend of the 16th. The boycott was so successful that business registered losses in the thousands. Deeply concerned, Douglas mayor Ray Borane informed Arizona governor Janet Napolitano and the Minutemen were compelled to abandon the county. Nonetheless, the Brown Berets took the opportunity to join local protests against racism and paraded around the streets of Douglas and Tombstone, Arizona with Mexican flags much to the chagrin of local racists.

On the first of May, the Brown Berets returned to San Diego visibly exhausted yet full of hope. The most important lesson learned was that the old Mexican saying “el pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (the people united will never be divided), holds true.

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