El Tecolote: social and political conditions during its inception--1970

Historical Essay

By Francisco FloresLanda and Pilar Mejia

“Viva la Causa!” could be heard from almost every block of the Mission District at the time El Tecolote was founded in August 1970. It was a time of great social and political effervescence throughout the Chicano/Latino movimiento. During 1968 to 1970 , the residents of the Mission District were organizing on a broad front of issues – access to social services, welfare and tenant right, educational access, job and professional opportunities, health care and legal rights (especially against police brutality).

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This period also gave birth to a cultural renacimiento and the struggle for our right to our language. The community participated in electoral political action and called for “revolutionary” social change. This author remembers a time when youth would show up to a picket line or a film showing when casually informed of the event on the street.

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El Tecolote: A History of a Raza Newspaper

Video by Ralph Maradiaga, via Internet Archive

Today, it is common to attribute the beginning of Mission District activism to the May 1, 1969, Los Siete de la Raza police brutality case, but, even though the Los Siete case was a catalyst that brought a visible presence to the nascent activism, the Mission and the movimiento were already seething with activity.

By 1968, the Civil Rights movement and the Summer Freedom rides, the Black Panther Party, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the counter-culture youth and student movement, and the feminist movement were in full swing. Who can forget the UC Berkeley free Speech Movement? Chicano actions included Reies Lopez Tijerina’s raid on the courthouse in New Mexico, Corky Gonzalez’s Crusade for Justice in Denver, Colorado, and Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers’ (UFW) organizing drive and grape boycott

All of these movements had direct influence on Mission District activists. Many in the Mission were sympathizers of these movements and had participated directly in them.

On the international front, principal figures included Viet Nam’s Ho Chi Minh who founded the National Liberation Front, Che Guevara whose heroic life ended in Bolivia in 1967, Fidel Castro who continues to lead the revolution in Cuba, and China’s Mao Tse Tung whose little Red Books influenced political thought throughout the world. Especially important in the Mission District was the Sandinistas of Nicaragua who had become heroes to many in this county.

Within this context, our community faced poor government services, high dropout rates, and police brutality. Mission residents responded with a massive social movement. But this movement included various social-political currents. Some clung to a “nationalist” perspective while others pursued “revolutionary” work. A large segment opted to “work within the system,” but there was often spontaneous unified militant political activism that responded to the oppressive conditions in the Mission District between 1968 and 1970.

The “nationalist” groups forming in the Mission included the Brown Berets, and even though the UFW was a labor group, their struggle became a symbol of La Causa and of a nationalist identity for many Chicano/Mexicanos and Latinos. Latino America Unida was another nationalist group formed by youth and young adults who gathered at la Veinte (Mission Street at 20th St.). The “revolutionary” current of Mission District activism expressed itself predominantly in the Committee to Defend Los Siete de la Raza. Many of the founding members of the committee had been members of the Third World Liberation Front during the SF State student strike of 1969 and had made a commitment to go back to the community.

The “revolutionary” current was often antagonistic to activists who opted to work within the system, calling them Tio Tacos (Latino Uncle Toms). Instead, they built alliances with Chinatown’s Red Guards (later I Wor Kun), the Black Panther Party, the International Hotel struggle, white radical groups like the Revolutionary Union, and independent workers caucuses in many labor unions and workplaces. This current also saw itself in alliance with revolutionary national liberation fronts in countries struggling against US imperialism. The Committee ran the Los Siete defense campaign and operated many serve the people programs like the Centro de Salud Para la Gente, La Raza Legal Defense, the Breakfast Program, La Casa de La Raza (a pinto halfway house, a pinto is a man who has been in prison), and published the newspaper Basta Ya! (Enough!)

Many Mission activists opted to “work within the system.” They felt that this was a more effective way to advance the community struggle for basic rights. Some of these activists had also come from the San Francisco State College strike and were dedicated to “give back to the community.” These activists often worked in social service agencies and older Mexican-American political groups.

The War on Poverty’s Economic Opportunity Commission funded many social welfare agencies. In 1970 these agencies were Horizons Unlimited, Youth for Service, Mission Rebels, Mission Language and Vocational School, Arriba Juntos, and Mission Coalition Organization among others. Mexican–American Political groups that worked within the system included theme Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), the League of United Latin American citizens (LULAC) founded in 1929, and the American GI Forum, a group formed by Mexican-American World War II veterans.

During this time, a polemic raged regarding the best strategy for el movimiento to follow. Was it best to work within the system or advocate for revolutionary change? Both sides attacked each other ideologically but in many instances united and worked on common issues. One of the spontaneous organizations that grew from the conditions Latinos faced was the Centro Social Obrero, a group of Mexicanos in the Laborer’s Union Local 261. Because of the discrimination the Mexicano workers faced in the union, they organized to get equal access to the jobs in the local. This group later received one million dollars to operate the Mission Language and Vocational School.

Another important spontaneous struggle was the race riot that turned into a political struggle at Mission High School in 1969. Although it started as a fight between Latino and African American students, activists helped the students see their common struggles. The students joined forces and presented united demands to the administration for ethnic studies and improve conditions.

Cultural groups in the Mission during this time included Teatro de la Misión, The Alvarado Art Project, and the Galeria de la Raza. There were also many poet and musician activists. The cultural front was very important in the development of activism in the Mission. On one hand, it was a vehicle for young and old to get involved, furthermore, it gave voice to and disseminated the progressive ideas of la causa, el movimiento, and la revolución.

Within this milieu, El Tecolote responded to a need in the community for non-partisan journalistic movimiento newspaper. El Tecolote filled a void in the information needs of a politicized community. Before El Tecolote, the United Neighborhood Organization had published La Misión which folded. At that time, El Tecolote founder and editor Juan Gonzales was a student at SFSU who, in the spring 1969, did a five part series on the Mission. After La Misión folded, Juan Gonzales realized the need for a bilingual Chicano/La Raza community newspaper and founded El Tecolote. The only other community newspaper was a commercial Spanish language enterprise, La America, which was primarily reprints. The commercial radio and television information available (not political and definitely not partisan of el movimiento) were radio station KOFY and television station Channel 14. These venues were not linked to the political and social needs of the Mission district.

We do not pretend to have provided a complete history of the Misión at the time of the founding of El Tecolote due to limited space we have given only a brief “snapshot” of the context in which El Tecolote was founded.

Francisco FloresLanda was working on a teaching credential at SF State and is a history major. He is staff writer and translator for El Tecolote.

Pilar Mejia was the bilingual parent coordinator for San Francisco Unified School District. She was a staff photographer and writer for El Tecolote. She is now retired.