The Corner

Cesar Chavez vs. La Raza

When I wrote a few months ago about the origins of “la raza” as a racial-surpremacist concept (developed in the ’20s and ’30s on the idea of the biological superiority of mestizos), Janet Murguia, head of the National Council of La Raza, pointed and sputtered over at the Huffington Post.

Well, while reading a memoir/history of the immigration-reform movement by retired historian Otis Graham (who’s on my board), I find out that even Cesar Chavez rejected the “la raza” idea as inherently racist. Graham quoted a 1969 New Yorker profile by Peter Matthiessen:

“I hear more and more Mexicans talking about la raza—to build up their pride, you know,” Chavez told me. “Some people don’t look at it as racism, but when you say ’la raza,’ you are saying an anti-gringo thing, and it won’t stop there. Today it’s anti-gringo, tomorrow it will be anti-Negro, and the day after it will be anti-Filipino, anti-Puerto Rican. And then it will be anti-poor-Mexican, and anti-darker-skinned Mexican. … La raza is a very dangerous concept. I speak very strongly against it among the chicanos.”

And in Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution, his 1970 biography, Matthiessen talked to Chavez deputy Leroy Chatfield:

“That’s one of the reasons he is so upset about la raza. The same Mexicans that ten years ago were talking about themselves as Spaniards are coming on real strong these days as Mexicans. Everyone should be proud of what they are, of course, but race is only skin-deep. It’s phony and it comes out of frustration; the la raza people are not secure. They look upon Cesar as their ‘dumb Mexican’ leader; he’s become their saint. But he doesn’t want any part of it. He said to me just the other day, ‘Can’t they understand that that’s just the way Hitler started?’ A few months ago the Ford Foundation funded a la raza group and Cesar really told them off. The foundation liked the outfit’s sense of pride or something, and Cesar tried to explain to them what the origin of the word was, that it’s related to Hitler’s concept.”

In 1968, the Ford Foundation started the Southwest Council of La Raza, presumably the “outfit” Chatfield was referring to, which five years later changed its name to the National Council of La Raza.

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