Murray Polner: Review of Lorena Oropeza's Raza Si Guerra No: Chicano Protest & Patriotism During the Viet Nam War Era (University of California Press, 2005)
I first encountered Chicano Vietnam veterans at a talk I gave to Veteran Administration counselors in San Francisco in 1971. All the VA men and women had served in World War II or Korea and all, I think, supported the war in Vietnam. The younger Chicano vets in the rear of the auditorium did not, and they protested that they had been treated as non-white cannon fodder.
Why, they asked later, did they feel less than equal despite their long residence in the far and southwest? Why were Mexicans still treated so poorly even though they had fought in all of America’s 2Oth century wars? —a question always asked by American blacks as well.
I had little understanding how the war affected them until I read Charley Trujillo’s Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam (Chusma House, 1990). In it, the National Book Award novelist Victor Martinez pointed out that “Chicanos were often the easiest and most malleable resource the U.S. had for achieving its quota for combat soldiers. And to those ends, they were used generously.” In all, some 83,000 Hispanics were shipped to Viet Nam and Ruben Treviso concluded in his Vietnam Reconsidered (Harper & Row, 1984) that one-fifth of those shipped to Vietnam were killed and almost one-third wounded.
So who were the Chicanos? They were young, resentful of their second-class status and ambitious for themselves and their people. Lorena Oropeza, Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Davis, explains: “Intensely critical of U.S. society and culture, [the Chicanos] crafted a new understanding of themselves as a people of color, as colonized people, and as women and men who had struggled against oppression for centuries.” Her book outlines the struggle between activists and those opposed to the Chicano movement in the context of a pivotal and stormy era.
The value of her study is that it tells the story of a largely ignored aspect of Mexican American life. Thoroughly documented, clearly expressed, it relates in great detail how the radical antiwar Chicano movement confronted their Mexican American opponents during the Vietnam years and how, despite its apparent lack of immediate success, it ultimately helped reshape Mexican American life.
Oropeza believes the Chicanos had “clearly put themselves on the right side of a wrong war.” Meanwhile, inspired in part by the pacifist Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers movement, the nonviolent civil rights victories in the South and the largely white antiwar movement on college campuses, they tried to develop coalitions to further their ethnic and antiwar goals and their pursuit of social justice.
Some saw their struggle much like that of the Vietnamese. That seems far-fetched in that they sought to be nonviolent. On August 29,1970, they organized the largest nonviolent antiwar demonstration ever held by Mexican Americans, in East Los Angeles. It proved to be a disaster. Oropeza claims that police “instigated” the violence that occurred, which led to the death of three people. Yet some Chicanos also resorted to force, which only revealed their organizers’ “inability…to hold each participant to a pacifist pledge.” There were charges of spectator violence, police brutality and, years after, an admission by the LA police that they had planted an agent provocateur in the Chicano’s midst. All the same, Mexican American community leaders continued to level withering criticism at the Chicanos. As had so many leaders of other immigrant groups before them, Mexican American leaders traditionally hoped that future success and acceptance by the Anglo majority would be more easily achievable if public protests against the war were muted and by behaving as respectable citizens. Assimilate, act civilly and above all, don’t upset the white power structure was their message.
The collapse of the August 29th rally destroyed the effort to bring together different Mexican American groups to oppose the war. In the end, however, it helped politicize additional Mexican Americans. More significantly, as Oropeza writes, they “challenged a long-standing tripod of citizenship that had rested on whiteness, masculinity, and military service.” Yet many in the community always had serious differences with them. When American Army Captain Ernest L. Medina, accused of complicity in the My Lai massacre (he was later acquitted), visited L.A. to secure support and defense funds from his fellow Mexican Americans, his defenders praised him as an “embattled hero.” The Chicanos could only offer faint praise, saying he was “a dupe of the establishment.” Which leads Oropeza to add, quite astutely, “the Medina case also bluntly demonstrated the limits of the anti-war movement’s attempt to politicize Mexican Americans against the war.”
In an epilogue, she tells us that the original Chicanos have aged and moved on. Many became professionals, writers, labor leaders, politicians and social welfare organizers. Many still remain anti-war and are as concerned as ever with improving the lives of their people. Oropeza has told their story well.