Raza Youth Rise Up: Student Mobilizations in the 1990s

Published by the Oppressed Nationalities Commission of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

It has been approximately ten years since the most recent phase of Raza mobilization began here in California. The student walkouts that rocked many northern California high schools in 1993-2000 were the direct result of ongoing discriminatory policies within California’s education system, as well as county and state policies (not to mention those of governor Pete “pito” Wilson) which were taking funding from education and placing it into the building of a police/prison state. The student upsurges, which took place in high schools in eight major Bay Area cities, helped to politicize many working class youth of color for the very first time, and were the beginning of an offensive against an unjust system.

However, the momentum would not last and the system would strike back. Over the next several years, the hopes for the beginnings of a new movement were crushed by an onslaught of right-wing attacks that would result in not only isolating Raza organizers, but also in further isolating and stigmatizing the entire Raza community. The reasons for this right wing counter-offensive are many, not the least of which is the same old racism. Nevertheless, community organizations and activists such as ourselves who were antagonistic to applying any defined theory to the struggle, must take some blame. Instead of looking at this new offensive in a historical or even class perspective, we were content to act sporadically and independently with the end goal of overthrowing this system and restoring this land to a sovereign indigenous nation(s) — but with no thought-out strategy on how to do so. This would ultimately lead to our demise.

Education is a Right!

In the 1990s, education in California was under attack. This attack, although focused on the entire educational system, was most devastating for communities of color, largely due to the already under-funded state of urban schools that the majority of students of color attend. However, Raza bore the brunt of these attacks. Not only did Raza share in the same extremely crowded, under-funded, and deteriorating urban schools as other youth of color, but Raza students — because of language differences and the lack of representation in curriculum as well as in teachers — were often isolated and pushed into classes that tended to their “special” needs. These classes had the effect of holding Raza students back one or two years in school and often taught them nothing except for the fact that they were different and not allowed in “regular” classes.

Raza youth therefore became disillusioned and frustrated with school and looked for other ways to build their own communities, often in the form of gangs. This was fertile ground for organizers offering new ways at building communities as well as getting back at the institutions that had forced these youth out. The result would be several mass walkouts over a ten-year span, largely conducted by middle and high school students.

ImageThe walkouts were organized on campuses by a variety of groups such as MEChAs (branches of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, a student network founded in the 1960s), independent Raza organizations and Black and Asian student unions. They were coordinated on a larger scale and maintained throughout the decade by a “Xicana-focused” student group called Ollin (Ollin’s roots lay in a project named Fund Our Youth which became Student Empowerment Project, or StEP, then Voices of Struggle, then Ollin and later Tojil.) Ollin was a Chicana/o student-based organization that promoted education as a right for all young people, and emphasized that the focus of education should be taken off Europe and Anglo-America. The walkouts helped propel Ollin to the forefront of the Chicana/o student mobilizations and allowed them to begin building bases on high school campuses. For most of the 1990s, Ollin would be the major active radical Chicana/o student/community organization, and in fact one of the most active radical organization in any California community of color at the time.

When perhaps the largest walkout started in 1998, there was a feeling of excitement and rebellion floating around. Young folks poured out of schools chanting, holding banners, and running into the streets. School administrators ran around shouting on their walkie-talkies, trying to find out what was going on. Some were wise to exactly what was happening and gated up the entire school, locking students inside, confining student protests to hallways and plazas. Approximately 2,000 students from all over the Bay Area, from major cities like Oakland and San Francisco to small cities such as San Leandro and even Castro Valley, marched through the streets to fight against the continuing attacks on bilingual education as well as the increased funding for local police stations, jails, and juvenile halls. Students felt like this was the time to strike back.

Largely due to intense education, outreach, and base building by Ollin, students were willing to challenge not only their local authoritative institutions — by walking out in the middle of school — but they were also willing to challenge the entire authoritative social structure. They broke down stereotypes and barriers of racism, gang violence, and youth apathy by marching united as students from various racial backgrounds, from various barrios and ghettos, and fighting for justice for themselves! It had seemed as if the student movement and the movements of people of color had risen from the ashes of the past and were set on rebuilding a strong struggle for justice, education, and national liberation. However, this hope was grossly overestimated and the future held devastating losses with which the new mobilizations could not cope.

ImageWe Got the Power! What Kind of Power? Student Power!?

What was occurring in the 1990s was a huge and successful mobilization of students on a scale not witnessed for some time. It can probably best be described as student mobilizing, guerilla warfare style. Students would walk out, causing mass confusion and anger for the administration in order to draw attention to their struggle. Then the students would go back to school for a week or maybe a month or two until, out of nowhere, they would walk out again, causing more confusion and anger. “Attack; withdraw; deliver a lightening blow; seek a lightening decision.”(1)

These tactics were successful in continuing to bring students into the mobilizations. Furthermore, the appeal of being able to get out of school even brought some otherwise uninterested students into political activity. However, just like guerilla warfare, this tactic could not achieve final victory — in this case to force the system to meet the students’ demands — because it was not tied to an overall strategy. What failed to occur was the shift from mobilization to movement building.

Movement building involves the creation of organizations which, through education, outreach, and action engage a larger community in struggle and, by having a clear analysis, ultimately seek and succeed (on at least a local level) in altering the structure of power between those who have and those who have not. Some aspects of this structure did exist within the student mobilizations. However there was a failure on the part of the organizers to tie them to a greater theory, analysis, or even strategy. In fact, there was a general anti-theoretical sentiment that existed within the student-based organizations.

Linking the struggle up with any greater theory was seen as a waste of time. At almost any event one would hear young folks exclaim that the time for talking and theories was over and what was needed was action, reminiscent of the Black Panther Party’s contempt for “armchair revolutionaries”. The theory that did have the most influence upon the mobilizations was that of Indigenismo, which probably best fits under Revolutionary Nationalism, demanding self-determination for Chicanas/os and reclaiming Aztlán.

The analysis was very simple, in fact too simple. It was that Raza students and youth were suffering from a racist and ageist system in which the state was forcing Raza youth into the prison industrial complex. In order to change this system, the youth needed to rise up and take back what belonged to them. The students were in many ways seen as the vanguard, leading the rest of the community, and building consciousness amongst the people.

Organizations realized that, of the few groups that had lasted from the 1960s, a good number were student-based — such as MEChA. Because student-based groups have a constant and concentrated supply of members, the time and skill level needed to do outreach are low. Soon many groups developed patterns of outreach to students, which worked so easily that many were hesitant to try outreaching to anyone else. This did develop many students into trained organizers who would contribute to their community groups up until today, yet it did not train them to be able to go out amongst the masses and bring non-students into organizing. In fact it aided the creation of a small pool of participants within the larger movement. Organizations ended up competing for the same constituency and soon the same organizers and students attended the same events such as rallies, speak-outs, and teach-ins over and over again. We often ended up preaching to the choir.

The strategy for change was equally confusing. Very few student groups promoted electoral work as a means for change. This was primarily because the majority of students were too young to vote but also because many student groups and their leaders, who in many cases were older and able to vote, had become disillusioned and viewed voting as supporting a corrupt institution. This is not a wrong view and in fact is supported by the authors of this document. However, then the question then became, what should the strategy be? If an organization is promoting change through action and rejects electoral work, which is a valid decision, then it must build mass organizations that can fight for power and do not need to rely on government or foundation assistance. What was needed was a strategic and concentrated effort to bring in the greater Raza community.

Image¿Y La Comunidad?

In an attempt to begin building such mass organizations, Raza student groups as well as other student/community groups of color developed a pattern of coalition building in order to plan joint events such as rallies, demonstrations, marches, and walkouts. Coalition building helped Raza youth and youth in general feel that they were not alone in the struggle. Still, because these coalitions and the organizations which participated in them never developed into mass organizations — that is, they never built a strong base amongst non-students — they could not get any closer to solving the student/community needs. There were some attempts to bring the larger Raza community into the struggle, such as Ollin and the Xicana Moratorium Committee holding the annual Xicana Moratorium Day, with a march through the Mission District and a rally at Dolores Park. However, it must be admitted that the majority of outreach was done with other organizers and organizations or students, and not enough was done at worksites, among day laborers, or just people in the barrio.

The failure of most Raza organizations, and most other “community” organizations, to bring the masses into their work contributed to a level of elitism and sectarianism. Organizers began seeing themselves as above regular people; a feeling of “us” being politically advanced and regular folks being backwards or ignorant spread like wildfire. Any new person who did not fit into our category of an activist was looked down on, or talked shit to or about, and basically shunned from any attempt at organizing with our groups. We only wanted people who were “down,” although what was seen as “down” was always changing. This also led to groups viewing their own group as better and other groups as not down enough. There were certain cases where organizations stopped working together because of issues such as sexist, racist, and classist leaders within various groups. On the other hand, many times these splits occurred due to very minute differences in political beliefs, strategies, and constituencies.

Whichever the case, it is clear that very few groups were accountable to the people they they had attempted to represent and instead were content to spend much time fighting against each other. We could have been out in the community bringing our parents and family members into our struggle. We could have been doing solidarity work for working people and fighting against anti-Raza currents that the Right was organizing. We could have helped to mobilize our entire comunidad and broadened our struggle. Yet we still had internal struggles of our own to resolve.

Same old machismo

Machismo or patriarchy was a problem that would also lead to the end of the momentum of the 1990s and was a familiar battle that had been fought by mujeres in the movements of the 60s and 70s. It is relevant for this analysis because, at the end of these mobilizations, many hermanas left organizing — mostly because they were burnt out and overworked due to patriarchal divisions of labor. Although most organizations during this time period (and to this day) claim to oppose patriarchy and support the advancement of our sisters, the reality was the complete opposite. Feminism for many men in Raza organizations meant letting the sisters do all the work.

At most organizational meetings one would find the mujeres planning, facilitating, taking notes, heading up tasks, and getting the work done. The men, on the other hand, would be criticizing and complaining about the work of the sisters.(2) Several hermanas who were, and still are, strong leaders in the movement, testify to many organizational meetings that were completely comprised of sisters.

When this issue was addressed and struggled around, there were short moments of relative equality in work and responsibilities, often lasting only a couple of months. Organizations had paid lip service to radical Chicana feminists — having the hermanos serve hermanas or allowing hermanas to eat first at organizational events and honoring them with speeches and ceremonia — all the while manifesting the oppression towards them in other ways. This led to many hermanas burning out very quickly, which in turn left many organizations dependent upon fewer and fewer activists who were willing to take up responsibilities. Soon many organizations went through months of inactivity, or disbanded, or simply faded away. The mujeres represented the driving force of many organizations, but like their sisters before them they were driven out by sexist attitudes.

This leaves some very serious concerns for the movement. First, it needs to be mentioned that these events did not occur because there was a lack of representation of brothers. Rather, the same old machismo that has plagued social movements for centuries was allowed to continue and replicate itself within these new organizations. As is usual in most indigenous cultures, la mujer was responsible for carrying on traditions and supporting the defeated spirit of the male warrior. In doing so, la mujer gives up her power as a warrior in order to maintain the culture and traditions.

This macho role assignment manifests itself in many ways such as domestic violence in the home, the eroticisation of women of color, single mothers raising families, women being sole providers for families, as well as the forcing of mujeres into care or motherwork. This was exactly what was going on when the women were required to do all of the work for the organizations and the men were allowed to take credit as warriors. There was a lack of study and intense struggle with all of the hermanos. If we are to build a strong movement, we need to ensure that we represent justicia for all of our gente — most importantly las hermanas — and not simply pay lip service.

Keeping It Positive

The purpose of this paper is not to bash the student mobilizations of the 1990s. In fact, there were many positive outcomes of that era. First, many of us would not be organizing today if it were not for this initial contact. Secondly, the mobilizations gave us hope. It reminded youth, and Raza youth in particular, that we could fight back. It showed society, and White society in particular, that their so-called “sleeping giant” was not so asleep after all, but was awake enough to step up and struggle. It reopened the eyes of our veteranas and veteranos of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s to believe in the movement again and, especially, to believe in our youth. Finally, it created some great organizations that continue to fight against attacks on youth and Raza today. All this being said, any real analysis of this historical moment must take into consideration the real shortcoming and challenges a well as the positive aspects.

Looking back, we have to ask where was the larger community? Where was our commitment to conducting outreach to the entire community, to building power with all the people, to truly serving La Raza? We failed in building true mass organizations or even community organizations of Raza. We failed to bring our abuelas/os, m/padres, y tias/os into our organizing. We put all of our focus on students and student needs and seemed to forget that the majority of our gente are workers and many are single mothers, or caught in some form of substance abuse. We were so wrapped up in the idea of organizing and the logistical aspects of activism that we forgot to stop and ask the people what we should be doing. We lacked a defined theory as well as a real strategy, two key aspects of any real movement. If we had confronted these very real problems in our practice and theory, we could have been more effective in struggles such as those against Propositions 209, 227 and the very dangerous Proposition 21. We became full-time organizers and, in some very important ways, stopped being members of our communities.


(1) Mao Tse-Tung, Guerilla Warfare, 1961.

(2) This is a generalization and did not take place in every organization. It is however, based on the authors’ experiences with multiple organizations and coalitions as well as testimonies of mujeres from other organizations.

Marisol Padilla and Juan R. Taizán are long-time activists and organizers born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. During the student mobilizations they were major leaders on their high school campuses and in the community. Marisol Padilla currently works to end violence and oppression against battered women. Juan Taizán is a member of Freedom Road and is a labor organizer.

Please comment!

FRSO hopes that you have found this article of use or at least of interest. We welcome responses, short or long. Your comments can help build a much needed discussion of the state of La Raza and the Chicana/o movement today.

Did you take part in the blowouts — what do you want to add? Are you involved in the Chicana/o movement or do you have roots there — what do you think about the state of that movement today?

What lessons can we draw from the high school blowouts for other struggles and movements of the present day?


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