"A New Breed of Militants": Educational Films After the Chicano Moratorium

This paper was written for the Cinema and Media Seminar course FTV:211A Media, History, and the Archive and examines the ways in which educational films about the Chicano experience in America were radically altered after the tragic incidents of the Chicano Moratorium in 1970. This essay emerged from my interests in race-focused educational films from the civil rights era, and how these works pedagogically addressed racial tensions and anxieties about racially marginalized communities by encouraging and promoting the values of hard work, discipline and self-improvement.

 

In the opening chapter of Learning With the Lights Off: Educational Film in the Unites States Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron and Dan Streible note that examining educational films from the past provides a “…dense, rich, and largely neglected history, one that tells us a great deal about two institutions—education and cinema—that helped define the contours of the last and present centuries.”[1] The rampant racism, police brutality, labor abuses and educational inequality endured by Mexican-Americans in the twentieth century fueled the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Revisiting this era through two educational films made in 1971—Mexican-Americans: Viva La Raza and Chicano—sheds new light on how the image of “Chicano” was pedagogically presented to audiences across the U.S. at the height of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. Furthermore, examining these two films also reveal the ways in which they addressed emerging concerns about the radicalized behavior associated with Chicano Militants. For the purpose of this paper, “Educational film” will be used as an umbrella term to refer to films that “…teach, inform, instruct, or persuade viewers in a variety of ways and contexts.”[2]

 

The defining moment of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement occurred On August 29, 1970. The Chicano Moratorium, as it became known, brought together 20,000 Chicanos from various communities across America to the streets of East Los Angeles to protest the Vietnam War. This monumental event was the culmination of a series of earlier marches organized by the National Chicano Moratorium Committee in response to the high casualty rate among Chicano youth fighting in Vietnam. The protestors marched for hours and eventually convened in Laguna Park where a cultural program was staged. While musical groups played corridos and children performed Mexican folk dances, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department entered the park in a highly militarized fashion in response to a minor incident a block away. They soon declared an unlawful assembly in the park and began firing multiple rounds of tear gas canisters into the crowd and willfully clubbed fleeing protestors. The protest soon escalated into a full-blown riot that tragically ended with three deaths, two hundred arrests, and over $1 million dollars worth of property damage.[3] Among those killed was Los Angeles Times columnist Rubén Salazar who in his final years had become a prominent voice for the Chicano community.[4] The mass rioting and death of Salazar at the Moratorium placed the Los Angeles Sherriff’s department under major scrutiny and drew national attention to the Chicano Civil Rights Movement.

 

With the death of Salazar and the subsequent riots that erupted throughout East Los Angeles in following weeks, the movement entered the social imagination of America through televised media. Before the Moratorium, the Chicano student walkouts of 1968 had drawn national attention to the community, but much of the coverage was focused solely on the event itself and not on the movement as a whole.[5] Consequently, educational films about Chicanos created after the Moratorium by both Chicano filmmakers and other institutions begin to reflect the increasing national urgency regarding Chicano militancy and rioting of the time.

 

Before the eruptions of violence in the streets of East Los Angeles and the student walkouts of 1968, there was only a sparse segment of public programming that addressed Chicanos and their social issues. But this all changed in 1968 when the Ford Foundation funded the development of minority programming at public television stations such as Los Angeles’ KCET. In addition to developing pilot programs for the Chicano community, this funding also created various Black public affairs series such as Soul! and Black Journal. The Ford Foundation minority issues programming grant allowed KCET to produce sixty-five episodes of a Mexican-American soap opera entitled Cancion de la Raza. This television series was set in the barrios of East Los Angeles and was the first television program to specifically address the various social issues in the Chicano community such as labor abuse and educational inequality.[6] The show was viewed by 15% of all Mexican-American households in Los Angeles and was perceived as relevant and credible by its audience.[7] Therefore Cancion de la Raza was able to fill a very real need for an honest and accurate portrayal of the Los Angeles Chicano community. At the time, only KMEX (part of the monopolistic Televisa) and KXLA were the only on-air television stations that broadcasted in Spanish to the Los Angeles area, but the overwhelming majority of shows that aired on these stations were telenovelas (Spanish soap operas) imported from Mexico or news programs that excluded local coverage of the Los Angeles area.[8]

 

            After Cancion de la Raza, KCET produced ¡Ahora! a Mexican-American community talk show hosted by Ed Moreno, Jesus Treviño and Esther Hansen. The program premiered on the evening of September 1, 1969 and featured members of the Mexican American Education Commission, the League of Mexican American Women, an interview with barrio artist Daniel Ramirez Aguilar, and a musical performance by the children of the Park Vista Headstart Project.[9] The creation of ¡Ahora! signaled a new era in the world of Chicano public programing by directly addressing the ongoing political and social issues within the community. This program also marked first time Chicanos were on air, producing, directing and hosting their own shows.[10]

 

Although the Ford Foundation opened the door to public television for the Chicano community and subsequently integrated a generation of Chicano producers into the media, the grants from the foundation still functioned as a means to reinforce the dominant ideology of the state and “…to quell an environment of rising community tensions - lessons learned from the aftermath of the 1965 Watts Riots - this time, stemming from the quality of education that Mexican-American students were receiving at local public schools.”[11] Interestingly enough, the plan to “quell” the community through public broadcasting backfired as these funds directly attributed to the creation of Chicano filmmakers who began to use these resources at the station to document and expose the unjust treatment of Chicanos at the hands of the Anglo-establishment, consequently agitating the community and igniting the movement.

 

The success of Chicano community based public programming on KCET began to serve as a model on how minority programming should be conducted throughout other cities in the U.S. and on February 1970 the National Chicano Media Council was formed in order to expand the Chicano media reform movement. Ruben Salazar served as the Council’s chairman and during the founding conference in New York City (just months before the events of Laguna Park) spoke on behalf of more than 20 Chicano writers and TV newscasters about the gathering storm in the barrios of East Los Angeles:

 

We as you—almost beg you—to help us inform this nation about the tragic plight of 8 million invisible Chicanos whose lives often parallel those of black people. There is much bitterness in our Mexican-American community, gentlemen, an ever-increasing bitterness against school systems that psychologically mutilate the Chicano child, against certain police who habitually harass our brown brothers, against local and federal governments that apparently respond only to violence. Consequently, there are some Chicanos who have finally concluded that we must have a Watts-type riot to catch your attention—to fore the establishment to pay heed. We prayerfully hope this won’t happen…We hope that reason will finally prevail, that you leaders of the national media will help us to push for the kinds of governmental reforms and changes in public attitudes that will help better the lot of the much-ignored Chicano. In all candor gentlemen, I can’t say I’m entirely hopeful. It may be too late to forestall the violence of long-festering frustration, but I think we should try.[12]

 

Ultimately Salazar’s troubling warning about the impending explosion within the Chicano community became a self-fulfilling prophecy just a few months later with the eruption of violence at the Chicano Moratorium. In regards to the rioting in East Los Angeles, Chon Noriega notes:  “Chicano activists saw violence as a necessary tactic within their overall strategy before the state, but it was one that required them to threaten their imminent loss of control over their own community if the state did not act on their behalf.”[13] The state of course did not act on their behalf and although the community suffered many deaths and arrests at the Moratorium, they successfully attracted the attention of the entire nation. “Riots are caused by frustration that evolves from a feeling that no one, not even the government, cares about the problems of the barrio…it takes concentrated coverage and in-depth reporting to provide the of relief that is necessary to prevent this kind of violence.”[14] So although Chicanos were successful in establishing public programming that addressed the issues within their own community, they failed in bringing national attention to these issues.

 

The mass rioting in East Los Angeles, as well as the Death of Ruben Salazar at the hands of a L.A. County Sheriff ‘s officer resulted in nation-wide media coverage on the movement, but depicted Chicanos as savages and further upheld the violence of the Anglo-state.[15] Filmmakers Moctesuma Esparza and David Garcia set forth to create a film that would portray the Moratorium from the community’s point of view. They used both their own footage and footage provided by KCET reporters to create Requiem-29, a film that directly countered the police influenced media coverage of the Moratorium.[16]

 

Moreover, various other individuals and organizations in 1971 began to produce educational films in an attempt to address national anxieties and confusions about the Chicano Civil Rights Movement.  Two educational films made in 1971 illustrate these types films in that their specific pedagogical discourse is an attempt to define “Chicano” and contextualize the movement within the state. Both Mexican-Americans: Viva la Raza and Chicano assume a privileged view by positioning the audience with the narrator, thus establishing a specific difference between the viewers and the films represented “other.” Unlike other non-theatrical films of the same year like Requiem-29 (1971) and Moratorium: the Aftermath (1971) that dealt exclusively with the events of the moratorium through the point of view of Chicano filmmakers, these films were not Chicano productions and were not intended for a Chicano audience.

Screenshot from "Viva La Raza" (1971)
Screenshot from "Viva La Raza" (1971)

Screenshots from Viva La Raza (1971)

 

The McGraw-Hill produced film Mexican-Americans: Viva La Raza (1971) premiered on CBS on October 21, 1971. The premiere of this film marks one of the first times in which a film devoted to the political and social issues of the Chicano community was nationally broadcast on primetime television. Viva La Raza is narrated by CBS news correspondent Hughes Rudd who in the opening segment defines Chicanos as being “… a new breed of militants full of pride in their people and out to catch the conscious of America.” The film goes on to discuss the political and social issues of Chicanos in the United States, with a particular emphasis on the Los Angeles Chicano community through various interviews. It is made clear from the beginning that the focus of the film is not on Mexican-American traditions and customs, like so many other educational film from before, but on militant Chicanos and the movement as a whole. The film is fixated on the image of the Chicano protestor and the word “militant.” In doing this, Viva la Raza attempts to manage racial interactions and perceptions by providing an intriguing glimpse into the radical world of Chicano militants.

 

The film also incorporates a small segment of raw footage from the Chicano moratorium that reveals scenes of rampant police brutality. The distorted sound that accompanies the footage further enhances the disturbing affect of these images. By showing this footage, Viva La Raza visually addresses the systematic injustices within the Chicano community and implies the culpability of White-America.

 

Released the same year as Viva la Raza, Chicano (1971) was specifically intended for classroom use an an “open –ended” film that explores oppression and discrimination within the Chicano community through various interviews. The film presents two oppositional stances on the Chicano movement, one by the “Anglo-sized” William J. Orozco and the other by Frank Aldrett, a member of the National Task Force La Raza. This film also attempts to define the term “Chicano,” and in doing so does not does not situate Chicanos within the militant or radical sphere (the word “militant” is only used once throughout the film). Just as the very politically charged back and forth between Orozco and Aldrett begins to escalate the film abruptly shifts its focus to interviews of Chicano educators and students, effectively undermining this tension. Only a small portion of peaceful protest footage is used in the film and it never displays Chicanos and Police within the same frame. The second half of the film becomes preoccupied with Mexican iconography and turns into a sort of cultural history of Mexicans in America. Chicano ultimately concludes with a series of interviews of Chicanos in higher education institutions. Remarks between the students such as “sophisticated” and “better opportunities” posits a solution to the “crisis” of the time and suggests that a position in higher education in can remedy the anger felt by Chicano youth. Ultimately the film functions as a race-focused educational film whose pedagogical address is aimed at promoting the values of hard work, discipline and self-improvement.[17]

Screenshots from Chicano (1971)

 

Mexican-Americans: Viva La Raza and Chicano are important because they were part of the first body of educational films that focused directly on the racial tensions surrounding the Chicano community.  Although both films were a direct response to the turmoil that erupted within the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, they posit different “solutions” to the unrest while still addressing the increasing national urgency regarding Chicano militancy and rioting of the early ‘70s. Ultimately, examining these films provides a crucial understanding in the ways they functioned to (mis)represent the history of the Chicano experience.

 

 

Works Cited:

 

[1] Learning With the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States, edited by Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible, 66. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

 

[2] Ibid,. 9.

 

[3] Acuña, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. 7th ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. 345-350.

 

[4] Salazar, Rubén. "Introduction: Covering the Chicano Movement, 1969-1970." In Border Correspondent Selected Writings, 1955-1970, edited by Mario T. Garcia, 28. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

 

[5] Muñoz, Carlos, Jr. "The Rise of the Chicano Student Movement." In Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement, 104. London: Verso, 1989.

 

[6] Treviño, Jesús Salvador, Eyewitness: A Filmmaker's Memoir of the Chicano Movement (Houston, TX: Arte Publico, 2001), 116.

 

[7] Singhal, Arvind, and Everett M. Rogers. Entertainment-Education A Communication Strategy for Social Change. Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1999. 174-175.

 

[8] Treviño, Jesús Salvador, Eyewitness: A Filmmaker's Memoir of the Chicano Movement (Houston, TX: Arte Publico, 2001), 120.

 

[9] "September 1969 - Mexican American Community Series '¡Ahora!' Airs." KCET. Accessed December 1, 2014. http://www.kcet.org/about/50/timeline/1960s/september-1969---mexican-american-community-series-ahora-airs.html.

 

[10] Ibid,.

 

[11] Ibid,.

 

[12] Lopez, Enrique Hank. "Ruben Salazar Death Silences a Leading Voice of Reason." Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File), Sep 06, 1970, http://search.proquest.com/docview/156607363?accountid=14512 (accessed December 2, 2014).

 

[13] Noriega, Chon A. "Grasping at the Public Airwaves." In Shot in America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema, 95. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

 

[14] Ibid,. 95.

 

[15] Ibid,. 111.

 

[16] Ibid,. 107.

 

[17] Orgeron, Marsha. ""A Decent and Orderly Society": Race Relations in Riot-Era Educational Films, 1966-1970." In Learning With the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States, edited by Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible, 425-426. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

©Michael Pazmino 2017