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Have Mexican American moderates been overlooked in Latino civil rights history?

In his book "In the Midst of Radicalism," a scholar and former "wild and radical" activist examines the role of those who "weren't out demonstrating with us."
Image: "In the Midst of Radicalism," examines the role of moderate Mexican American activists.
"In the Midst of Radicalism," examines the role of moderate Mexican American activists.Yoichi Okamoto / University of Oklahoma Press

As a young man, Guadalupe San Miguel Jr. was enmeshed in the activism of the Chicano Movement of the late 1960s and '70s. He marched for civil rights and attended rallies against the Vietnam War. Along with other students, he occupied buildings on the campus of his university. He let his hair grow past his shoulders, wore platform sandals and favored striped bell-bottom pants à la Mick Jagger.

“I was wild and radical then,” San Miguel said. “I believed that anyone part of the system was part of the problem.” He once protested at a Latino veterans’ event, convinced that it promoted militarism.

Now a grandfather and professor of history at the University of Houston, San Miguel, 72, is out with a new book that offers a different perspective on the activism of that era.

Image: Guadalupe San Miguel Jr.
Guadalupe San Miguel Jr. is the author of "In the Midst of Radicalism."Courtesy Guadalupe San Miguel Jr.

With “In the Midst of Radicalism,” San Miguel looks at the role that moderate Latinos played in the Mexican American civil rights movement. Although this group has not received the same attention as their more radical counterparts, San Miguel argues that their work was equally valuable — and still resonates in Latino politics today.

There were key differences between radical and moderate activists, San Miguel explains in his book. The moderates had faith in the federal government, trusted institutions and rejected the politics of protest. “They weren’t out demonstrating with us,” he said, “but they were fighting battles in the courts, in the schools, and in the educational system. They believed in the existing social structure, but not the status quo.”

“Some radicals and moderates worked at or with the same organizations,” San Miguel said. “They may have had some of the same goals, yet they were just pursuing them with different tactics.” 

The Mexican American civil rights movement took off in the late 1960s, a time when César Chávez became a household name and groups like MALDEF (the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) were founded.

However, Mexican Americans had been fighting for equal rights since at least the 1920s. In 1931, Latino parents in Lemon Grove, California, banded together and helped win the first school desegregation case in U.S. history.  The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC, founded in 1929) successfully sued to integrate another California school district, in the 1946 Mendez case.

Vilma Martinez served as MALDEF president and general counsel from 1973 to 1982. “I didn’t feel the tension between the so-called radical activists and what I was doing,” she said. “We were all trying to do what we could do to advance the issues. I understood their approach, they understood mine. Frankly, I was busy, trying to learn how one heads a national civil rights organization.”

“The focus is on the more dramatic figures in history,” Martinez added, “but that doesn’t mean there weren’t other equally important people.” She cited the Latino attorneys who worked on Hernandez v. Texas, a 1954 case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. It found that excluding Mexican Americans from juries violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Ideological fault lines — and cooperation

By the 1960s, San Miguel notes in his book, the Mexican American civil rights movement had developed to the point that schisms emerged along ideological lines.

The more radical activists tended to believe that helping poor and working-class people should be their primary focus, while the moderates tended to favor helping the middle class in the belief that their success would benefit everyone.

“It was a question of focus,” said Ignacio Garcia, professor of history at Brigham Young University. “We fought over what was right for our community, and then we fought for our community.”

Garcia said that there was a healthy amount of discussion and cooperation between radicals and moderates. “Sometimes the strategy was, we’ll march, and you negotiate.”

There are reasons why the radical Chicano activists have tended to get more attention over the years, Garcia added.

“Many of us, from the (Chicano) movement, went into academia, so we wrote and taught about our experiences.” The moderate activists, in his view, generally went into business, law or the government. “Now, as we have matured as historians, we are more inclusive of our history.”

Garcia believes that many contemporary Latino leaders represent a hybrid of two different wings of the larger struggle for Mexican American civil rights. “The tumult of the 1960s paved the way for people like Julián Castro, Sen. Alex Padilla, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.”

San Miguel theorizes that former Mexican American moderate activists now fall along varied lines on the political spectrum.

“Some are surely still committed to liberalism. I think others are likely independent-minded and may swing between the Republican and Democratic parties," San Miguel told NBC News. "Many went into business, or are from military families, and these might make some GOP policies attractive to them.”

Although then-President Donald Trump made inroads with some Latino voters in Texas and Florida in 2020, a January Gallup poll found that Latinos identify with the Democratic Party by almost 30 percentage points.

“The Mexican American moderates today might be against illegal immigration, but for pragmatic reasons,” San Miguel said, “and not because they identified with any of Trump’s rhetoric.”

San Miguel also sees parallels between the Mexican American activism of the 1960s and that of more recent history. Many Latinos support the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to defund the police, he pointed out, even as polling shows 46 percent of Latinos want more police funding.

Acknowledging those 'who worked behind the scenes'

According to San Miguel, such tensions between radicals and moderates are very much a part of political movements. “But when historians write about the past, they tend to focus on the radical wings, the most visible actors.”

“As scholars, we need a more comprehensive analysis of our history, acknowledging the role of those who worked behind the scenes and within existing frameworks,” he said. “If this can create more discussion around the nuances in our communities, it will create more understanding of our communities.”

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