The Brown Berets first began as an informal group of Chicano high school students from Los Angeles, meeting to discuss the diverse issues that impacted Mexican Americans. None of its founding members could have anticipated the resulting country-wide impact that their group would have: an impact that is still in practice even today.
In the early years, the group was originally called the Young Citizens for Community Action. At this stage, they worked to support Dr. Julian Nava’s campaign for school board member in Los Angeles. Dr. Nava would go on to serve as the first Mexican-American on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, serving three consecutive terms before being appointed U.S. Ambassador to Mexico by President Jimmy Carter.****** Even from the beginning, The Brown Berets knew how to pick the good ones!
The group made their first name change in 1967 to the Young Chicanos for Community Action (YCCA).******* Through their new headquarters at La Piranha Coffee House, the group set into motion the Chicano Moratorium of the 1970s. The Chicano Moratoriums are now known as the historic marches of East Los Angeles which pushed Latinx civil rights discussions into the forefront of the national conversation from December 1969 to January 1971.********
The organization changed its name for a final time to the Brown Berets, after the brown berets that members wore to signify their dedication to the cause of unity and resistance. By 1969, the Brown Berets had become a national organization, with chapters established in many cities across the U.S., including Dallas, St. Paul, and Detroit.***
The Brown Berets in Los Angeles worked to counter police brutality against Mexican-Americans. This conflict was exacerbated in August of 1970, as a result of the escalation of an anti-war demonstration organized by the Chicano Moratorium Committee, which resulted in the death of Rubén Salazar, a Mexican-American journalist for the Los Angeles Times.************
Other Brown Beret chapters focused on social justice issues that demanded equality for Mexican-Americans in employment, housing, and education.**** They also advocated for bilingual education opportunities and pressured government officials for voting rights and second amendment invocation in the face of racially provoked assaults. Nationally, the Brown Berets organized marches, anti-war protests, and even student walk-outs. Thousands of Mexican-Americans from all areas of the U.S. uniting to tell the country, “Oye! Listen to us!”
The most notable of these demonstrations are referred to as the East Los Angeles Blowouts of 1968. Over the course of two-weeks, at least 10,000 students from East L.A. and the surrounding area walked out of their classrooms in protest against the corrupt school system that did not support them. This issue included teachers who were openly racist, outdated and worn-out textbooks, and an increasingly high dropout rate. The students presented the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) with a list of demands, and attended school board meetings to ensure that political promises were kept.** While these walkouts may have not completely solved all school related issues for Mexican -Americans permanently, it is important to remember them as a moment in time when Latinos’ voices were heard. When young people could stand up against oppression and demand what was rightfully theirs.
The Brown Berets gained significant media attention in the summer of 1972 when the Brown Berets’ “prime minister” and one of the first founding members, David Sanchez, organized an invasion of the Catalina Islands off the coast of California near Los Angeles. They argued that, while the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had ceded the land now known as California to the U.S., it did not extend to islands offshore.
“By this plan, we wish to bring you the true plight of the Chicano, and the problems of people of Mexican descent living in the United States,” Sanchez wrote.**********
Throughout their time in action, the Brown Berets maintained a high visibility in the media while also promoting a paramilitary stance. This made them a large target for racially motivated attacks and victims of intrusions and harassment by L.A. police and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation.***** The L.A. police department went so far as to send undercover officers to infiltrate the Brown Berets. These infiltrators acted as spies and violent provocateurs, all for the purpose of arresting the leadership and disrupting the organization on a whole.*********** Additionally, the top-down military structure of the Brown Berets did not allow for the development of new leadership, or for the incorporation of Latina leaders, who in fact, did a lot of the internal organizational work without credit or acknowledgement.
The Brown Berets’ toxic structure ultimately led to its disbandment in 1972. By then, their “prime minister” Sanchez had driven the organization to petty publicity stunts and they had all lost touch from the meaningful change they had instigated and sustained for so long.
The current group that calls themselves the Brown Berets are not organized, and completely male dominated. They have not been involved in any major movements for social justice and change. It is clear that any Chicano organization hoping to fight injustice in the U.S. today, must not only be clear in their convictions, but also extend to include Chicanos of all ages and genders. Valuing and promoting the leadership of women is especially important as well.
Thereare several contemporary organizations, under different names, such as Mijente* and Movimiento Cosecha********* which continue to embody the spirit of la causa today. Of course, the iconic look of the brown beret also continues to be a symbol of resistance and change in the Latinx community, it reflects our history and our fight for justice. And though these modern organizations may not center around the fashion choices of a brown beret, they continue to spread the message of the original Brown Berets from all those years ago in a little classroom in East L.A.
* “A Digital and Grassroots Hub for the Latinx Community.” Mijente, mijente.net/.
**Arellano, Gustavo. “Op-Ed: Parkland Student Activists Should Study the East L.A. Blowouts That Launched a Movement in California.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 28 Feb. 2018, www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-arellano-blowouts-20180228-story.html.
***“Brown Beret Chapters 1969-1972.” Brown Berets Chapters Map - Mapping American Social Movements, depts.washington.edu/moves/brown_beret_map.shtml.
****“Chicano Movements: A Geographic History.” Chicano Movement Geography - Mapping American Social Movements, depts.washington.edu/moves/Chicano_geography.shtml.
*****Diaz, Angel. “Finding Aid for the Ernesto Chavez Collection of Chicano Movement FBI Records 1968-2011.” Online Archive of California, 2016.
******“Julian Nava Collection.” Oviatt Library, library.csun.edu/SCA/Peek-in-the-Stacks/julian-nava.
******“Los Angeles Conservancy.” Brown Beret Headquarters | Los Angeles Conservancy, www.laconservancy.org/locations/brown-beret-headquarters.
********“Los Angeles Conservancy.” Chicano Moratorium | Los Angeles Conservancy, www.laconservancy.org/issues/chicano-moratorium.
*********“Movimiento Cosecha.” Facebook, 2020, www.facebook.com/movimientocosecha/.
**********“Nearly Half a Century Ago, Chicano Activists Occupied Catalina Island. Locals Feared a Mexican 'Invasion'.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 16 Aug. 2020, www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-08-16/chicano-brown-berets-catalina-island-occupation.
***********“The Brown Berets: Young Chicano Revolutionaries.” Brown Berets, 2005, inside.sfuhs.org/dept/history/US_History_reader/Chapter14/brownberets.htm.
************Trinidad, Elson. “August 1970 - Chicano Moratorium Protests in East L.A.; Journalist Rubén Salazar Killed.” KCET, 28 Aug. 2018, www.kcet.org/kcet-50th-anniversary/august-1970-chicano-moratorium-protests-in-east-la-journalist-ruben-salazar.