October 25, 2006

The Brown Berets of Watsonville, California

by Gloria Muñoz Ramírez

In a City of Immigrant Farmworkers, a New Youth Movement Draws Inspiration from the Zapatistas and the Radical Organizing of the 60s

They take up the legacy of Chicano agrarian leader César Chávez, of Malcolm X, of Martin Luther King, of the Zapatistas and, of course, of sixties movements like the Black Panthers and the Brown Berets. From this last group they retake its name, its berets and its fighting spirit.

The new Brown Berets are a group of autonomous youths, most of them students, dressed head to toe “in the color of the earth.” They are based in Watsonville, California, an agricultural region inhabited and, above all, worked by tens of thousands of people of Mexican, African American and Filipino origin.

Ramiro Medrano relates: “We began to organize in 1994. There was a lot of social mobilization in the United States in that year, because social assistance was being taken away from undocumented people with Proposition 187. That was also the year of the Zapatista uprising and we as Mexicans in the United States, as Chicanos, well, it made a big impact on us. The Chicano has an identity problem. We feel Mexican, but we are not recognized as such in Mexico, and neither are we gringos. After 1994, we were proud to say, together with the Zapatistas, we are Mexicans, indigenous people, and we are proud of it.”

In Watsonville, 80 percent of the population is Mexican or of Mexican origin. The majority are field workers, indigenous people who confront racism daily through organization and strength of character. They are the workforce of the U.S. city that has the greatest exports of strawberries, lettuce, broccoli and raspberries, as well as other products harvested by the exodus on this side of the Rio Grande.

“In 1994, the gang violence here left a young girl and her brother dead of gunshot wounds. This caused us to say ya basta – enough already! – to the violence generated by racism in the schools and in the fields. Young people with no options search for an identity, a sense of belonging, and that is how the gangs are formed. We didn’t want that in our neighborhoods anymore,” Ramiro continues.

And that is how the Brown Berets began. First with a great march for peace and unity that went through all the battle-torn neighborhoods. Later, once organized as a group, they had more long-term goals: get the youths out of the gangs; have representation in the schools and on their administration to avoid racism in the selection of students; organize against immigration raids and their agents’ actions in the barrio; hold workshops and events to strengthen identity through education, and many more, including the organization of a “Justice Network” in order to communicate by telephone the actions of la migra. Through this network they organize rapid concentrations of people to stop attacks by immigration agents, which they record and distribute. “It’s about not just standing by.”

Published in Spanish in Gloria Muños Ríos’ column “Los de abajo” (“The Underdogs”) of October 21.


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