“Chicanos are Mexican Americans who aren’t kidding!”
I love that Dan Guerrero came up with this shorthand definition of Chicano; it succinctly captures both a personal reflection and a communal experience. Dan is an accomplished playwright and producer whose impactful work, Gaytino, has helped raise awareness and driven advocacy around the experiences and rights of the Latino lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Notably—to help contextualize his activism—Dan is the son of the legendary Chicano musician and folklorist Lalo Guerrero, who also greatly influenced the Chicano movement.
As a veteran of the Chicano movement, I often have to go back to Square One when talking about it, especially with younger generations. Unfortunately, the community manifestations and impacts of the movement are not widely recognized or appreciated. One finds few details about it in most history texts, and only a handful of documentaries have been produced, including Chicano! A History of the Mexican American Movement. As for museums, there have been a precious few exhibitions on the subject, which is why I was thrilled to see History Colorado, a Smithsonian affiliate, recently open El Movimiento: The Chicano Movement in Colorado at its flagship venue in Denver.
The El Movimiento exhibition, with some 85 objects, photographs, videos and audio segments, weaves a story that takes visitors from the implications of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brought an end to the Mexican-American War, converting Colorado to U.S. territory in 1848, to the 1960 and 1970 struggles to end racial discrimination, secure rights, improve education, and gain political and social power. Colorado was an epicenter of the Chicano movement. El Movimiento captures the movement’s efforts from those led by the Crusade for Justice and its seminal Youth Congress in 1969 to farmworker actions in the San Luis Valley to high-school walkouts in Denver to a strike at the Kitayama Flowers farm in Brighton to the Coors boycott and the emergence of Chicano artists and community murals. The exhibition also highlights Los Seis de Boulder (The Boulder Six), six prominent Chicano leaders who were killed in consecutive car bombings in May 1974. The case was never satisfactorily resolved. There are some in the community who believe the activists were targeted by the FBI’s CONTELPRO program, which sought to infiltrate and destabilize Latino activist organizations, including the Crusade for Justice. All told, El Movimiento is a concise, well-crafted survey of a critical period in Colorado’s history.
With El Movimiento, History Colorado shifts the paradigm of a historical society, a reference framework that usually embraces the “official story,” often excluding the histories of “the other.” In initiating the El Movimiento project, History Colorado begins the process of centering the margin by including Colorado Chicanos and their histories. History Colorado admitted it knew what it didn’t know and what it didn’t have. Principal organizers Deborah Espinosa and JJ Rutherford did a really smart thing—they assembled a group of Chicano community advisors to help ensure that events highlighted in the exhibition were properly detailed, contextualized and nuanced. As History Colorado had very little material culture with which to work, the exhibition team relied on the community advisors and others to loan documents, buttons, picket signs, clothing, photographs, film and video, audio recordings, and other materials vital to museum storytelling. Other museums would do well to replicate this community-based curatorial approach, especially when they are entering unchartered history waters. History Colorado did another smart thing—it collaborated with Denver’s Museo de Las Américas, whose Chicano exhibition features the work of four prominent Denver-based artists that captures the spirit of the struggle.
I was honored that History Colorado asked me to speak at El Movimiento’s opening in February, attended by hundreds of community members, including many families and children. It was a very moving experience to see this community and its history validated and celebrated. Museum officials tell me that attendance and response has been steady and encouraging, developments enhanced by a robust series of correlative public and educational programs. The exhibition closes at the end of October 2015, but History Colorado indicates that more on the Latino community is forthcoming.
El Movimiento was a risky proposition for History Colorado, because the content is, well, political, unflinching and disquieting. They say that the truth will set you free. My sense is that El Movimiento has helped free this important community institution to tell fully contextualized, accurate stories that matter to its entire, diverse constituency. There are many more stories to tell, especially about the disenfranchised whose contributions have been foundational to community building. Colorado has much to look forward to.