In the 1960s, a radicalized Mexican-American movement began pushing for a new identification. The Chicano Movement, aka El Movimiento, advocated social and political empowerment through a chicanismo or cultural nationalism.

As the activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales declared in a 1967 poem, “La raza! / Méjicano! / Español! / Latino! / Chicano! / Or whatever I call myself, / I look the same.”

Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales
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Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales speaking outside a police building to members of his organization, the Crusade for Justice, 1969.

Leading up to the 1960s, Mexican-Americans had endured decades of discrimination in the U.S. West and Southwest. After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo put an end to the Mexican-American War in 1848, Mexicans who chose to remain on territory ceded to the United States were promised citizenship and “the right to their property, language and culture.”

But in most cases, Mexicans in America—those who later immigrated and those who lived in regions where the U.S. border shifted over—found themselves living as second-class citizens. Land grants promised after the Mexican-American War were denied by the U.S. government, impoverishing many land-grant descendants in the area.

Not White, But ‘Chicano’

Throughout the early 20th century, many Mexican-Americans attempted to assimilate and even filed legal cases to push for their community to be recognized as a class of white Americans, so they could gain civil rights. But by the late 1960s, those in the Chicano Movement abandoned efforts to blend in and actively embraced their full heritage.

By adopting “Chicano” or “Xicano,” activists took on a name that had long been a racial slur—and wore it with pride. And instead of only recognizing their Spanish or European background, Chicanos now also celebrated their Indigenous and African roots.

Leaders in the movement pushed for change in multiple parts of American society, from labor rights to education reform to land reclamation. As University of Minnesota Chicano & Latino Studies professor Jimmy C. Patino Jr. says, the Chicano Movement became known as “a movement of movements.” “There were lots of different issues,” he says, “and the farmworker issue probably was the beginning.”

Chávez Leads Fight for Farmworkers’ Rights

Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, United Farm Workers
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UFW co-founders Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, 1968.

César Chávez and Dolores Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became United Farm Workers (UFW) in California to fight for improved social and economic conditions. Chavez, who was born into a Mexican-American migrant farmworker family, had experienced the grueling conditions of the farmworker first-hand. 

In September 1965, Chávez lent his voice to a strike for grape workers, organized by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), a predominantly Filipino labor organization. With the help of Chávez’s advocacy and Huerta’s tough negotiating skills, as well as the persistent hard work of Filipino-American organizer, Larry Itliong, the union won several victories for workers when growers signed contracts with the union.

“We are men and women who have suffered and endured much and not only because of our abject poverty but because we have been kept poor,” Chávez wrote in his 1969 “Letter from Delano.” “The color of our skins, the languages of our cultural and native origins, the lack of formal education, the exclusion from the democratic process, the numbers of our slain in recent wars—all these burdens generation after generation have sought to demoralize us, we are not agricultural implements or rented slaves, we are men.”

Tijerina and the Push for Land Reclamation

Next to labor, the land itself held important economic and spiritual significance among Chicanos, according to Patino. And civil rights activist Reies López Tijerina led the push to reclaim land confiscated by anglo settlers in violation of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Tijerina, who grew up in Texas working in the fields as young as age 4, founded La Alianza Federal de Mercedes (the Federal Land Grant Alliance) in 1953 and became known as “King Tiger” and “the Malcolm X of the Chicano Movement.” His group held protests and even staged an armed raid on a small town in New Mexico, trying to reconquer properties for the Chicano community.

Reies Lopez Tijerina
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Reies Lopez Tijerina, circa 1968.

While efforts to repatriate land got caught up in the courts, Patino says, “it had this big effect in terms of mobilizing young people to understand the ways the U.S. took land from Mexico—and from Mexican landowners in particular—and how this kind of empire-building was how Mexicans became part of the U.S.”

Student Movement Embraces ‘Aztlán’

Meanwhile, a parallel effort, led by poet and activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, organized Mexican-American students across the country. In a March 1969 gathering, some 1,500 attended the National Youth and Liberation Conference in Denver, Colorado. At the conference, the students looked to their indigenous ancestors of the Aztec Empire and identified a land called “Aztlán.” 

In Aztec folklore, Aztlán was believed to have extended across northern Mexico and possibly farther north into what is now the U.S. southwest. The students embraced the concept of Aztlán as a spiritual homeland and drafted El Plan Espiritual De Aztlán as their manifesto for mass mobilization and organization.

Aztlan, Chicano movement
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The Aztec 'Codex Azcatitlan,' written between the mid-16th and 17th centuries, detailing the history of the Mexica from their migration from Aztlán to the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Christianization.

Ultimately, the Chicano Movement won many reforms: The creation of bilingual and bicultural programs in the southwest, improved conditions for migrant workers, the hiring of Chicano teachers, and more Mexican-Americans serving as elected officials.

“A key term in Chicano Movement activism was self-determination,” says Patino, “the idea that Chicanos were a nation within a nation that had the right to self-determine their own future and really their own decisions in their own neighborhood, in their own barrios.”