The Fall of the Tortilla Curtain

A Review of Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun
by George Mariscal

Author Biography

George Mariscal, a second-generation Mexican-American, received his PhD from University of California, Irvine. He was drafted into military service in 1968 and served in Vietnam in 1969. Since then, he has written a few highly praised books about Latino/a heritage and the position of Mexican immigrants in America. He is currently the director of the Chicano/a-Latino/a arts and humanities program at the University of California, San Diego.

Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun, by George Mariscal, offers readers an in-depth analysis of the Chicano Movement that silently seized America during the 1960s, a decade of changing attitudes and societal reform. Mariscal shows the reader how ‘El Movimiento’ has been described in the past and how today’s readers can understand it from a contemporary perspective in order to apply their knowledge to current outgrowths of the movement. Mariscal hopes to remind readers about the oft-forgotten accomplishments of Chicano communities in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The author hopes that the movement will be seen holistically, from an international perspective which relates the Latinos’ struggle with that of other races at the time; he insists that the sixties should be seen less as an era of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” or “alternative lifestyles or even the African American struggle for civil rights,” and more as an era of dramatic changes in Mexican communities in America.1 His approach is unconventional; Mariscal immediately offers a caveat that the “book will disappoint those readers interested in a chronological history of the Chicano Movement” – instead, he takes a subtle approach by introducing the reader to specific concepts and people in order to offer a deeper understanding of the movement.2

In an attempt to give his readers a general idea about the topic at hand and its implications, Mariscal commences the book with a thorough explanation of the Chicano Movement and its impact. He boldly suggests that the Chicano community of America wasn’t a threatening or dominant force; most Mexicans in the United States had assumed a low profile by the 1960s, and the few radicals were resented by the many. Thus, Mariscal implies that the Chicano Movement was driven primarily by a few radicals, while chicanos in general always wanted to be a hidden minority “classified as Caucasian” or “Latin American” instead of Mexican.3 Offering his interpretations, Mariscal uses the first chapter to show the prevalent conditions in the minds of the people and the political and social environment in the nation as a whole in order to set the stage for the movement and the Chicanos’ reaction to liberalism. One major point that Mariscal establishes is that the leaders of ‘El Movimiento’ were never united or homogeneous. Each person had a different vision of the movement and its goals; while some groups openly advocated violence, like the Chicano Liberation Front who declared, “we advocate urban guerilla warfare” and that “for every Chicano attacked [they would] cause thousands of dollars of property damage,” others were entirely peaceful.4 Mariscal, by offering such glimpses into the hearts of the Mexican population, shows that the Chicano Movement was not merely a group fighting together against American society to procure rights; it was a complicated, complex movement which people rarely understand genuinely.

Mariscal goes on to explain how ‘El Movimiento’ relates to other events from the past and from other parts of the world. He believes that looking at the Movement from an internationalist point of view “does not negate the significance of the nationalist impulse."5 Mariscal also relates how many Mexicans didn’t want Latino culture to be corrupted by Americanization; ‘El Movimiento’ offered hope for the restoration of Mexican heritage. According to the author, this restoration of heritage was necessary because the Mexican populations in America had no identity; they were either treated as inferiors or completely assimilated as Americans. Thus, the Movement was a milestone and a sign of Mexican progress. Another topic discussed at this point is pan-Latinism, which was essentially a failure, because different groups associated with brown power originated from lands with varying cultures and languages, dooming them to be unable to communicate with each other. On this same vein of the Latino’s troubles, Mariscal notes how the Chicanos disliked receiving help from white people, who they saw as having “‘charitable’ and ‘superior’ attitudes."6 He also mentions, however, that some Mexican Americans were glad to become assimilated into American society and even expressed their gratitude by joining the armed forces.

Rather suddenly, Mariscal moves from discussion of ideology and history to discussion of the Movement’s leaders. He starts with Che Guevara, whom he credits for being the first to create widespread acceptance of the ideology of Fidel Castro. The author uses the issue of Guevara as an example to show that the Movement in America was merely an attempt to link struggles for justice world wide. Mariscal asserts that for many Chicanos, the Cuban revolution and the rise of Che’s popularity signaled the beginning of Latino assertion; it was a sign of “self-determination and collective agency,” a sign that “the Cuban people are on their legs” with pride and power.7 Thus, as more and more Latinos became aware of Latinos asserting themselves, Che became a hero, and almost a God. Mariscal comments that, in comparing Che with Cesar Chavez, most Chicanos saw them as entirely different entities despite their similarities. Che was always seen as a hero, while Chavez was a leader. Mariscal also expresses his view that in the modern world, discussion of Che and the Movement has been made difficult. However, even today, wherever people are being exploited or oppressed, the name of Che can be heard like a recurring symbol. For example, Che is significant in today’s anti-Globalization movement and in parts of the world preparing for self-determination. Mariscal gradually moves on from Che to Cesar Chavez, another iconic leader of the Brown Power movement. Chavez, according to Mariscal, faced a daunting task – he had to balance the people’s need for radical heroes with a need for sensible and peaceful tactics. Chavez represented an idea which he called “militant non-violence”; he believed in having a “commitment to social change” without using aggression.8 Chavez was a great believer in peaceful activists like Mahatma Gandhi, and thus sought to win his battles by changing his opponents’ minds. Mariscal believes that part of the key to Chavez’s rise to popularity was his association to Robert Kennedy before he died. As Chavez began to become more and more famous, he became a symbol for the poor, like Che Guevara.

Mariscal concludes with a few of chapters about Mexican Americans asserting their identities. Mariscal’s major point in this section is that the Chicano Movement wasn’t “a simple imitation of Negro protest” but rather a unique attempt by Mexican Americans to express their freedom and their heritage.9 The author believes that the Black Power movement was significant, because it was a catalyst for other civil rights movements such as the Chicano/Brown Power Movement. Sometimes, such as in October 1967, black and brown minority groups came together to share their motives; the groups signed a treaty on October 22 in order to guarantee each other mutual loyalty and respect.10 Mariscal also uses this section to chronicle the exploits of Reies Tijerina, an important figure in the movement who – according to the author – has been largely under-appreciated. Before moving on, Mariscal does mention that there were a few racial clashes between African Americans and Mexican Americans. The last part of the book is mainly about how minority students at the University of California, San Diego, worked together in the 1960s to create new opportunities.

George Mariscal’s thesis in Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun is that the Brown Power Movement was a success in many ways because of the way it changed the lives of Mexican Americans. He refuses to accept the viewpoint of many historians who consider the Movement a failure; Mariscal believes that this implies a lack of understanding about what the movement stood for. Another assumption by Mariscal is that every national or racial event has international and interracial aspects; the Chicano Movement, for example, contained “large numbers of Chicano/a militants” who forged “alliances with Puerto Rican and Black groups and [expressed] solidarity with anticolonial movements in the developing world.”11 Mariscal also insists that the events that occurred at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) in the 1960s were extremely important because of their repercussions and the path they paved for the future of education for immigrant minorities. Many of these assumptions and conclusions are connected to the author’s point of view; as a Latino and the director of a Latino arts and humanities program at the University of California, Mariscal tends to glorify, at least to a certain extent, the details of the Chicano Movement. Additionally, he probably wouldn’t have stressed the magnitude of events at UCSD if he had not been teaching there while creating this book. Thus, although the book is well planned and contains much vital information, Mariscal’s enthusiasm for his race and his position at UCSD have impacted his writing.

During the writing of Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun, there were many issues about Mexican immigrants being described in the media which probably influenced the book as well. With Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California, patrolling the state’s southern border with Mexico became a major concern at the forefront of political issues. This was at least partially tied with the high level of security and the paranoia associated with terrorism after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Because he wrote the book after the terrorist attacks, and indeed after years of post-Cold War “conservative triumphalism,” Mariscal was faced with the task of convincing people who are focused on “[discrediting] progressive movements of the 1960s” that the Chicano Movement was important.12 Mariscal also mentions how brave one must be in order to mention the name of Che and discuss the Chicano Movement in today’s world after years of Clintonism and Reaganism, both of which Mariscal views as conservative. These trying times have probably made Mariscal’s book slightly more conservative as well, because – although he doesn’t admit it – making controversial statements could have resulted in bad press for Mariscal in an age of antipathy toward the movements of the 1960s.

Mariscal’s book is, overall, a useful tool for opening avenues of thought which may have otherwise been ignored. His numerous theses and ideas about the events in the Chicano Movement give depth and understanding to any historian or historical reader interested in learning about the movement. Another positive trait about Mariscal is that his work is usually very original; refusing to conform to the ideas set forth by those who came before him, Mariscal develops his own ideas, which are usually very unique while offering plausible explanations for what happened in the past. The author makes reading the book easier by ending each chapter with a short summary of what has been said and a paragraph describing what will be his focus in the next chapter. This assists the reader looking for specific information or the historian desiring to know Mariscal’s thesis about a controversial issue. Another useful quality of Mariscal is that he includes some general but insightful statements in his otherwise didactic prose; this helps the uninformed reader from being totally disoriented by the barrage of complicated concepts and the jargon of a historian. For example, at the conclusion of the section about Che, Mariscal simply states that the “figures of Guevara and Chavez maintained an uneasy coexistence."13 A generic ending like this one allows, and even forces, the reader to think about the implications of what has been said, while avoiding much complexity in wording or concept.

Unfortunately, Mariscal’s work has negative qualities as well. Because he primarily wants to discuss the ideological and theoretical aspects of the Movement, Mariscal doesn’t talk at length about what other historical writers focus on; his discussion doesn’t involve, for instance, any chronology of the actual events that happened. However, he warns the reader about this in the introduction, saying that instead of “seeking access to ‘what really happened,’” he intents to “[chart] the ideological systems” which might have brought about the Movement’s tenets and leaders.14 In this way, the book, at times, seems too general to be a true historical work; it seems more like a collection of the author’s beliefs about a certain period of time. Additionally, Mariscal often makes lofty statements to discredit other historians, but provides little evidence that his view is superior. For example, he states that to think that the Chicano movement was a failure would be a great misinterpretation, and then provides no strong and compelling evidence as to why. Finally, Mariscal’s overuse of Spanish quotations and poems confuse the issue for English-speaking readers. Although the Spanish could be useful in providing primary source documents or in giving his writings a touch of the true Mexican attitudes at the time, Mariscal uses it too liberally in some chapters. This forces the reader to stop in order to find the English translation of the poem (usually at the end) and then resume reading the book itself. Although this isn’t a major complaint, it’s one of the few things preventing this book from being a masterpiece.

According to Mariscal, the Chicano movement was a major turning point in American history because it changed the way Mexican Americans live. For the first time, Mariscal points out, Latinos were proud of their heritage and didn’t try to pass as Caucasians. They began to feel that “nationalism is important” and that they had to be “proud of [their] nation, [their] history and [their] culture."15 This shift in attitudes, Mariscal suggests, is extremely significant because of its impact on Mexican Americans since the days of the Movement. The movement eradicated the idea that Latinos were inferior to whites, saying instead that Latinos have an amazing heritage and culture that shouldn’t be lost while they are assimilated into American society. It is mainly because of the Chicano Movement and its leaders in the 1960s that today, Mexican culture and heritage can be seen throughout America, especially in the Southwest.

Analysis of Mariscal’s explanations and the reasons behind his statements supports his view. The Brown Power Movement marked an amazing change in American cultural and social history; just watching how Mexican Americans’ attitudes about their culture changed before and after the Movement offers a deep understanding of what Mariscal means when he emphasizes the magnitude of the Movement. The chicano quotations, which are from before and after the rise in popularity of the Movement, show how powerful the Movement was; while people originally felt that they wanted to be the “best, purest, and most perfect type of true and loyal [citizens]” and that they desired to blend in with Caucasian society, the rise of Che and Cesar, coupled with the beginning of Latin assertion of identity elsewhere in the world, prompted Mexican Americans to start being proud of their heritage.16 This era, then, spurred the creation of today’s America—a nation in which Latino culture is widely accepted and often glorified in popular culture, due to Mexican influences in music as well as the rise of Latino celebrities in the media. Thus, the Movement was vastly important in that it allowed an entire population to find a home in a foreign land.

George Mariscal’s Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun is an interesting and refreshing look at a widely forgotten movement in recent history. Mariscal cleverly accomplishes his goal of making people aware of the Movement and its implications so that they may “understand the contemporary political projects that have employed the concept of the Movement” as part of their strategies.17 In summation, the Chicano Movement of the 1960s was a tumultuous initiative which left a deep impact on the country as a whole.

review by Aditya Mandaleeka

  1. Mariscal, George Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons from the Chicano Movement, 1965-1975 Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 2005, 2.
  2. Mariscal, George 22.
  3. Mariscal, George 25.
  4. Mariscal, George 35.
  5. Mariscal, George 54.
  6. Mariscal, George 78.
  7. Mariscal, George 114.
  8. Mariscal, George 146.
  9. Mariscal, George 175.
  10. Mariscal, George 193.
  11. Mariscal, George 172.
  12. Mariscal, George 135.
  13. Mariscal, George 139
  14. Mariscal, George 23.
  15. Mariscal, George 75.
  16. Mariscal, George 25.
  17. Mariscal, George 24.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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