- Interview by
- Arvind Dilawar
During the first week of March in 1968, more than fifteen thousand students walked out of their high schools in Los Angeles, kicking off the largest student walkout in US history. The students, mostly Mexican Americans, were fed up with a school system that had given them de facto segregation, English-only instruction, and irrelevant curricula. The walkout, coordinated by student committees at each school, demanded more Latino faculty members, better facilities, and educational material that spoke to Mexican Americans’ diverse experience.
An East LA family named the Cuaróns were at the center of the walkout. Even before the events of March ’68, the Cuarón home had served as a meeting place for radicals. Mita Cuarón was a student at Garfield High School, so involved in organizing the walkout that the administration singled her out as a leader and school guards attacked her. Mita’s mother, Sylvia Cuarón, was one of the first parents down on the picket line to help support and protect the striking students. And her father, Ralph Cuarón, was elected as the students’ representative in subsequent negotiations with school administrators.
Neither the walkout by Mexican-American students nor the Cuarón family’s central role in the action were coincidences. Mexican Americans in the Southwestern United States had long organized in their neighborhoods and workplaces, buoyed by a strong tradition of radicalism. Both Sylvia and Ralph were longtime members of the Community Party USA (CPUSA), ideologically committed yet practical in their efforts on behalf of Mexican Americans, whether through labor unions or civil rights organizations. When Ralph was chosen to represent the student strikers, he understood what they were up against, saying: “The situation did not require soft-spoken individuals to go in front of armed policemen and agitated principals, with all of the laws on their side, who were determined to punish young people one way or another.”
Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar recently spoke with Enrique M. Buelna, author of Chicano Communists and the Struggle for Social Justice, about Mexican-American labor and community organizing in the Southwestern United States, the Communist Party’s halting support for those efforts, and the iconic struggles — often involving the Cuaróns — that nevertheless unfolded. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
In Chicano Communists, you mention that the Communist Party had some difficulty connecting with Mexican Americans in the Southwestern United States because the party failed to recognize their radical traditions, such as their organizing with the Industrial Workers of the World. What were Mexican-American workers’ relationship to socialist politics prior to the CPUSA’s arrival?
Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants already had a long history of radical organizing in defense of their communities and working lives. These communities often formed defensive organizations (self-help organizations), forged local alliances, or joined labor unions, such as the Western Federation of Miners and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In other examples, Mexican immigrants recreated mutualistas (mutual aid associations) from their home communities, formed extensions of the anarcho-syndicalist Partido Liberal Mexicano (Mexican Liberal Party), or joined local branches of the Socialist Party.
In other words, many of these immigrants brought with them extensive experience in modern labor militancy, but also agrarian radicalism that fused anarchist and socialist ideas with communal traditions.
Part of the difficulties Mexican Americans faced within the Communist Party was being relegated to a “national minority,” rather than an “oppressed nation,” like African Americans. How were these categories distinguished, and what did they signify to the party?
Some members of the CPUSA tended to mirror the same misconceptions about Mexican Americans as the broader society. Viewed largely as a transient population with no deep roots in the country, Mexican Americans were identified as new arrivals with similar historical experiences to those of German, Irish, or Italian immigrants. In other words, they had come to this country from the outside in search of a better life and better economic opportunities.
Although this assessment was not universal across the entire organization, it clouded the view of many in the CPUSA leadership, who would come to believe that blacks and Mexican Americans were inexorably different and, therefore, necessitated distinct approaches. With African Americans viewed as an “oppressed nation,” this meant that their struggle would be prioritized and that they would be key in the dismantling of American imperialism.
Can you elaborate on the difference between European immigrants and Mexican Americans in relation to the Southwestern United States?
Mexicans and Mexican Americans have had an extensive presence in the Southwest, longer than many history books and popular culture would have us believe. Since the early 1500s, indigenous peoples, mestizos, blacks, and Europeans commingled — trading, intermarrying, and warring with one another. As fraught as these relationships were, they managed to carve out new social, political, and economic spaces from which to live and coexist.
From these roots come the origins of the Mexican-American people. By the time of the US-Mexico War of 1846–48, the region was already home to more than 100,000 people who called themselves Mexicans. With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war, this population would become citizens of a new nation. So the presence of Mexican Americans in this country is complex and certainly not solely a story of immigration. This story is also one of conquest and colonization.
Chicano Communists uses longtime CPUSA member, unionist, and community organizer Ralph Cuarón as a lens through which to examine the breadth of Mexican-American socialism in the Southwest. Why were you attracted to Cuarón as your focus?
Even before gathering all the details of his life’s work, there was something about this family that drew you in and held you there. Later, I would come to understand why so many saw the Cuarón household as a place of refuge and, ultimately, a place to organize.
Even in his eighties, Ralph had a memory for details that was just remarkable. Every interview revealed a whole set of new research possibilities that would prove to be a treasure trove, especially when I would confirm these in the archives and in other interviews. Ralph was unafraid of sharing his story, unlike others who were more hesitant, still appearing to fear the repression of the Cold War. He was unapologetic about his activism and, even in his advanced age, was defiant against a society that continued to perpetuate multiple injustices against Chicanos.
When I discovered that his daughter, Mita Cuarón, had been instrumental in organizing and leading the school walkouts of 1968, that changed everything. His story would turn out to be key to understanding Mexican Americans’ radical activism from the 1930s straight through to the Chicano Movement of the 1960s. Ralph’s story helped fill an important gap in Mexican-American/Chicano history.
What his story helps reveal is that Mexican Americans were significant participants in several major events in civil rights and working-class history in the United States. Of course, my attention was also raised to a whole new level when the FBI confirmed everything to a T.
A fellow CPUSA member described Cuarón having “an anarchist streak.” How was Cuarón able to circumvent party bureaucracy to address the material needs of Mexican-American workers?
I think that two factors played a significant role: one, his assertive and audacious personality, and two, the party’s willingness to be pragmatic when it needed to be. According to Dorothy Healey, a longtime activist and leader of the CPUSA, Cuarón was recognized as a leader within the organization and among Mexican-American activists.
But Cuarón certainly challenged the party, including Healey’s leadership, when he would circumvent organizational processes and procedures. From his perspective, however, he felt that the needs of the community came first, even if party stalwarts failed to see the urgency.
Cuarón played a role in the production of the 1954 film Salt of the Earth. How was the film connected to Mexican-American workers, and how did Cuarón aid the project?
After suffering from the effects of anti-communism in Hollywood, a group of blacklisted directors, producers, and writers decided to make a motion picture that would circumvent the industry and break through some of the static conventions that developed after the war. They chose to focus on a fifteen-month-long miners’ strike that broke out in Grant County, New Mexico, in 1951. The largely Mexican-American labor force demanded better, if not equal, pay with the company’s Anglo miners, as well as decent working conditions and better housing.
From the beginning, the lives of Mexican Americans, especially the lives of women, were placed front and center in the story. Many of the miners were members of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (Mine-Mill), Local 890, which had been very active in radical and progressive politics. Mine-Mill, in particular, had been instrumental in helping to organize the Mexican American National Association (ANMA) in 1949, a national civil rights organization whose orientation was unabashedly left of center.
Cuarón was a founding member of ANMA and helped lead the organization. In this capacity, he was familiar with the leadership of the striking miners and the plan to film Salt of the Earth. The blacklist offered Cuarón and many others the opportunity to take part in the production of the film as well as to work as background actors (in the case of the union president, Juan Chacón, a leading role) in the film.
Finally, how did Cuarón influence the walkouts by Mexican-American students in 1968?
The Cuarón household — the house on Princeton Street in East Los Angeles — became a site for critical consciousness and organizing among a cohort of young Chicanas and Chicanos who would help lead the school walkouts of 1968. For a few years before the student strike, Cuarón became a mentor to a number of students, either friends of his daughter, Mita, or neighborhood youth who gravitated toward the home on their own.
Though the youth came and went as they pleased, they remained captivated by the camaraderie, intellectual stimulation (Cuarón had reading circles that exposed them to radical publications), practical skills they learned (carpentry and construction), recreational trips, and their experience with organizing. That house on Princeton Street became a central hub of community action against the schools, local police, and elected officials who resented the assertiveness of these youth. They had become radicalized — conscious of their identity and confident of their power to effect change.