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Chicano Movement in Westside St. Paul

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Brown Berets marching with flags

Brown Berets marching in Mexican Celebration Parade, St. Paul, 1972. They carry the American flag; the “La Causa” flag of the Chicano movement; and a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

When migrant workers from Mexico began to look for homes in Minnesota in the mid-twentieth century, many joined a growing enclave in Westside St. Paul. In spite of challenges, they sought opportunities to create a strong community and build a brighter future. They saw the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s as a means to that end.

During the 1960s, as the nation was experiencing a civil rights movement for African Americans, Mexican Americans were inspired to bring change to their own communities. They created the term Chicano to show a sense of pride, express resistance, and strengthen cultural identity. It was first used in Southern California and Texas, where Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers were uniting figures. Their political and social work came to be known as the Chicano Movement, or El Movimiento.

Mexican and Mexican American migration to the Midwest dates to the 1920s and 1930s, when laborers moved to the north to work on sugar beet farms. Over time, they set down roots in Minnesota communities—particularly St. Paul’s Lower West Side (the West Side Flats), which offered jobs in meatpacking and the railroad industry. Towards the end of the 1930s, so many Mexicans tried to settle near their families that there was a housing shortage in the neighborhood.

Much of the housing on the Lower West Side was eventually considered uninhabitable due to the area’s high risk of flooding. A flood in 1952 caused 2,641 residents to evacuate, and a second flood in 1957 emphasized a need for a long-term solution. The neighborhood had already become a target for urban renewal, and the St. Paul Port Authority had announced in 1956 that the Riverview Industrial District project would demolish the community. Families were reluctant to leave their homes, stores, schools, and churches, even though they were promised jobs in Riverview. The city completed the project in 1964 at a cost of $9 million for the construction and $4 million for relocation costs, but the jobs didn’t come in the quantity promised.

As a result of losing a section of their neighborhood, Mexicans and Mexican Americans took inspiration from the Chicano cultural movement happening throughout the United States. Some groups, including the US government and southwestern Chicanos, disparaged the Midwesterners. The latter called them “culturally deprived” and claimed that they “didn’t know what it meant to be Chicano.” The comments, however, did not derail Chicanos in Minnesota, and they continued to seek connections and advice.

Sister Mary Giovanni Gourhan, a Westside St. Paul native active in Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, resolved to help her community specifically through education. In 1966, she came up with the idea of the Guadalupe Area Plan, also known as GAP. GAP was designed to fill the opportunity gap between Latino people and other groups through alternative education classes. The program admitted fourteen to nineteen-year-old students on probation or parole as well as those having difficulty in school.

GAP’s general school courses integrated Mexican history, culture, and tradition, creating an immersive experience for students intended to inspire pride in their work. They also built foundational skills for students to seek employment to provide for their families. By 1967, Gourham’s dream had become a reality, and GAP was a mainstay in the community. (In 2019, GAP continues to assist at-risk students via the St. Paul school system.)

In 1967, the Brown Berets, a pro-Chicano militant group, formed on the East Side of Los Angeles. Their objectives were to address police harassment, improve education, and increase political representation. A chapter was created in St. Paul in 1969. St. Paul’s Brown Berets served their community by raising funds for families in need, providing legal aid, and assisting the Guadalupe Area Plan by transporting craft goods.

There was also a push for Chicano history to be taught at the university level. In 1969, the University of California Santa Barbara’s Chicano Coordinating Council on Higher Education crafted a “Plan de Santa Bárbara”—a call to action to increase Latino recruitment, admission, representation, and programming in higher education. The Latin Liberation Front (LLF), a student group at the University of Minnesota, formed in 1970. On October 26, 1971, LLF students led by Ramona Rosales took over Morrill Hall and demanded that a Chicano Studies Department be created. The College of Liberal Arts agreed, and the first Chicano studies classes were held in the fall of 1972.

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De La O, Gilbert. Interview with the author, November 15, 2018. Burrito Mercado, St. Paul.

Gibeau, Jane. “Not Funded; Classes Still Planned Sr. Giovanni Won’t Give Up.” Catholic Bulletin, January 7, 1966, 23.

Lewis Dorothy. “Battling Nun: Wins Poverty Fund but Still Needs Equipment.” St. Paul Dispatch, May 13, 1966, 23-24.

McClure, Jane. “A Story of Change, Pride, Perseverance: The Mexican-Americans and Their Roots in St. Paul’s Past.” Ramsey County History 27, no. 23 (Fall 1992): 4–12.

Roethke, Leigh. Latino Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009.

Valdés, Dionicio Nodín. Barrios Norteños: St. Paul and Midwestern Mexican Communities in the Twentieth Century. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

Related Images

Brown Berets marching with flags
Brown Berets marching with flags
Children playing softball at the playground of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
Children playing softball at the playground of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
Aerial view of the West Side of St. Paul during flooding
Aerial view of the West Side of St. Paul during flooding
Brown Berets marching in Mexican Celebration Parade
Brown Berets marching in Mexican Celebration Parade
Meeting of the Minnesota Chicano Federation
Meeting of the Minnesota Chicano Federation
Guadalupe Area Project booth at Neighborhood House career expo
Guadalupe Area Project booth at Neighborhood House career expo

Turning Point

In 1954, construction of Riverview Industrial Park displaces Latino families on the West Side of St. Paul. In response, the community begins to come together to demand better education, housing, and job opportunities.

Chronology

1920s

Mexican migrant workers come to Minnesota to work on sugar beet farms.

1930s

Migrant workers looking for permanent homes cause a housing shortage. They begin to form an enclave on St. Paul’s West Side.

1942

The Mexican Farm Agreement of 1942, also known as the Bracero program, creates a temporary-worker program between the Mexico and United States that alleviates the labor shortage created by World War II.

1947

The federal legal case of Mendez v. Westminster Supreme Court determines that schools cannot not segregate Latino children from white children in classrooms, a major achievement for the Chicano movement.

1952

Flooding causes the evacuation of 2,741 residents from Westside St. Paul.

1954

An industrial park is completed in Westside St. Paul at a total cost of $13 million.

1954

The US Supreme Court’s decision in Hernandez v. Texas extends Fourteenth Amendment rights related to citizenship and equal protection of laws to people of all races.

1957

A second severe flood forces many Latino families to move to new housing built near the industrial park.

1964

The Braceros Program ends.

1965

The five-year-long Delano Grape Strike begins, and Minnesotans join the national boycott.

1966

Sister Mary Giovanni Gourhan proposes the Guadalupe Area Plan, designed to address the opportunity gap for Mexican residents through alternative education centered on their heritage.

1966

Sister Mary Giovanni Gourhan’s Guadalupe Alternative Plan is implemented.

1967

A Minnesota chapter of the Brown Berets forms in St. Paul.

1969

On February 19, Cesar Chavez begins a twenty-five-day hunger strike in order to bring national attention to the mistreatment of agricultural workers.

1972

The Minnesota Brown Berets disband.