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Symposium Recalls Youth Liberation Conference 50 Years Later

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In 1969, over a thousand Chicano youth from across the U.S. gathered in Denver, CO for a Movimiento conference.

By Abel Salas and Anthony Ortega

On March 30th, the Chicano Movement Symposium Series presented its second annual installation of a program that seeks to encourage study and discussion and healthy, constructive debate on meaning and results of Chicanismo, outside of the university setting. In keeping with that goal, according to organizer Anthony Ortega, about 100 guests attended the free symposium, titled Aztlan Then And Now: 1969 Chicano Youth Liberation Conference held from 11am to 4pm at the Church of the Epiphany in Lincoln Heights.

The location was particularly well chosen in light of the fact that much of the planning and organizing in preparation for East L.A. Chicano student “Blowouts” in 1968 took place inside the very same church, more than a year before the Chicano Youth Liberation Conference was held in Denver, Colorado. Convened by the Crusade for Justice, the organization led by Rudolfo “Corky” Gonzales, the conference drew approximately 1,500 participants, as Ortega pointed out in his welcome address at the recent symposium hosted at the locally historic Episcopalian house of worship.

The church and it progressive clergy had allied themselves with the poor and oppressed among their flock throughout the world for considerably longer than a pair of local ministers in Lincoln Heights had been opening the basement doors for meetings and actions that were meant to become rallying cries  the for historic rallying point for community advocacy and political action.

By contrast, the “walkouts” mobilized upwards of 22,000 Chicano youth enrolled in high schools and at least two junior highs in protest of inadequate educational facilities, classroom overcrowding and the lack of college prep courses. It would even be safe to say that had it not been for the mass student strikes, the Chicano Movement itself might not have taken on such whirlwind momentum and urgency. For proof of this, one need look no further than the fact that Los Angeles sent more delegates to the Denver conference than other city, as Ortega mentioned in his introductory speech. 

A year after Denver, at the 1970 Chicano Moratorium,  even conservative estimates assert that there were well over 30,000 supporters there. I’ve included the full text of Ortega’s welcome remarks below because he provides an impressive array of statistical reads on the guest speakers who served as panelists at the symposium represented an impressive range of key Movimiento activists and figures with definitively national profiles, among them Jesús Treviño, activist, author and renowned film and television director and Lydia López, a life-long Chicana activist, Ralph Ramírez, a former Brown Beret Minister of Discipline and Miguel Roura, a high school educator and Chicano activist.

An equally impressive line-up of renowned speakers were able to join the panel via teleconference, among them: Nita Gonzáles, who is the daughter of Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales and current acting President of the Escuela Tlatelolco and Crusade for Justice; José “Cha-Cha” Jiménez, Founder/Chairman of the Young Lords;vLuís Angel Viniegra, a member of the Black Berets for Justice, a San José group established in 1959 and a direct precursor of groups such as the Black Panthers, the Brown Berets and the American Indian Movement; and Marco Martínez, a student who was a member of Crusade for Justice and a Black Beret. The panel was moderated by Dr. Marisol Moreno, a professor at Santa Monica College.

INTRODUCTORY REMARKS BY ANTHONY ORTEGA

Welcome everyone, I am Anthony Ortega, organizer of the Chicano Movement Symposium Series and this celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Denver Chicano Youth Liberation Conference. We are here to celebrate, remember and discuss an event important to Chicano history because it set into motion the political and social activism that continues to this day.

On March 27-31, 1969, in Denver, Colorado, 1,500 students, community organizers, artists, farm workers, educators, and activists convened at the first national Chicano youth liberation conference hosted by the Crusade for Justice.

Organizer and Chicano leader Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales brought together young Chicano activists to address the discrimination, poverty, and racism that they experienced in their barrios. This was also the first time in history that street gangs from America’s big city barrios united to discuss these issues.

To understand the significance of this Conference, we must remember the conditions of our communities in 1969. We had a drop-out rate of over fifty percent in Mexican American schools. During the Vietnam War, Latinos made up 10% of the U.S. population but they suffered 20% of the casualties of that war, twice the rate of any other ethnic group.

Our barrios were filled with gang warfare and drugs. We had high unemployment. According to the census survey, 20% of Mexican Americans lived below the poverty line and 30% lived in dilapidated housing. Chicanos suffered from discrimination on all fronts. Police brutality was a daily occurrence and there were virtually no elected officials that we could call our own. 

During the conference, there were many debates and discussions about the future of our movement. This resulted in the formation of “El Plan Espiritual De Aztlan” which called for Chicano education, liberation and political empowerment. The plan set forth general goals for the Chicano Movement and introduced the concept of Aztlan.  Written by Corky Gonzales, Lupe Saavedra and others, it also addressed the need for a third political party. This concept was launched in 1970 in Crystal City, Texas, under the banner of La Raza Unida Party.

The single largest delegation came from California with 468 participants and 162 from Los Angeles. Participants from other areas included about 200 from Texas, 63 from New York, 70 from San Francisco, 40 from San Diego, and 20 from San José.

A high school gathering was attended by 268 students, and other representatives came from Alaska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Wyoming, Kansas, Chicago, Michigan, Washington, Idaho, Utah, and New Mexico. The Puerto Rican Young Lords movement was born out of this Chicano Youth Liberation conference.

Among the conference participants were about 160 Chicanas. As a result, at the Women’s Caucus they voted that they, quote “didn’t want to be liberated,” unquote.  This caused a shock wave among many leaders and academic Chicanas on college campuses. The Women’s Caucus participants didn’t want to be identified with the white women’s struggle and instead saw themselves as a part of the Chicano struggle. They saw their own emancipation as something they had to undertake and work out within the context of the Chicano Movement.

This Conference inspired a generation of young Chicanos and Chicanas to return to their homes in the barrios and take up the struggle for equality.  Many became lawyers, political activists, educators, doctors, artists and others who would devote their lives to working for the betterment of our community.

With us are veteranos who were at the original Chicano Youth Liberation Conference and who continue to fight on behalf of our community to this day.  At an UMAS Conference in February of 1968 Corky Gonzales said, “It’s easy to be exploited and eat three meals a day,  but are you willing to fight for your rights... for your name and dignity and are you willing to die for it.?” Thank you.

To introduce these outstanding panelists, I am honored to present our distinguished Moderator, Dr. Marisol Moreno, Associate Professor of History at Santa Monica College.

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