Austin Brown Berets – Insights, Reflections and Discussion
April 9, 2013 § 1 Comment
As Austin moves forward with the implementation of the 10-One election system, Imagine Austin (master development roadmap) and Hispanic Quality of Life Initiative, Gilberto C. Rivera & Susana Almanza (longtime Eastside activists) shared their experiences about the Brown Berets, their work and the chapter’s expression in the Mexican American civil rights movement. The grassroots, youth organization existed in Austin roughly from 1973-1983 and at one time, included 20 members.
With a 40 year perspective, Gilbert and Susana contend that the current community struggles are essentially the same ones as tackled during the 1970’s.
The discussion took place at MonkeyWrench Books as part of their series, “Alternative Histories” which seeks to shed light on groups and individuals seldom mentioned from the conventional historical account of Austin and its transformation. A HUGE thanks to Eliot Tretter, Bob Libal and MonkeyWrench Books for their help & hospitality to make this project possible.
Here is a quick sound montage featuring a few comments from Gilberto and Susana:
Here is the longer version of the recorded presentation.
Gilbert – Part 1
This segment includes:
- Description of the formation of the Austin Brown Beret chapter which was a response to the reports of police brutality in the barrio.
- Gilbert’s vivid account how he was beaten by the Austin Police Department (in Jan. 1973) while leaving a MAYO (Mexican American Youth Organization) fundraising event. MAYO was seeking to start a local chapter of the Raza Unida Party. Gilbert was charged with: starting a riot, destroying public property and police assault.
- After his release, Gilbert & community supporters protested at the City Council Chamber about the abusive police response and called for the removal of Austin Police Chief Robert Miles.
- Father Joe Znotas (from Sta. Julia Catholic Church) met with Gilbert and the community about the reports of police misconduct and resulted in the creation of ‘Defend the People of the Barrio’. Gilbert learned to regard Fr.Joe as a liberation theologian. (Under Fr.Joe’s leadership, the East Austin parish was at the forefront of issues such as the historic Economy Furniture strike).
- Gilbert contends that the Brown Beret formation was due to a ‘call’ from the community & out of their own direct experiences of police violence which followed a persistent pattern in Austin & nearby communities.
- Brown Beret chapters functioned independently in Texas and Southwest. Still, the various chapters did network with each other and form a ‘state-wide’ movement when necessary.
- Gilbert describes various incidents of police harassment. Ultimately, (in 1974) he left Austin for fear of the threats on his life.
- The Austin Brown Beret chapter worked with a coalition of other grassroots organizations addressing student, youth, labor & civil rights issues.
- Gilbert recounts the tragic story of Santos Rodriguez, a 12 year old boy, killed while in the custody of a Dallas police officer.
Susana – Part 1
- The Austin Brown Beret chapter started to examine more concerns beyond police misconduct. They organized around ‘land-grab’ disputes (now referred to as ‘gentrification’ problems) near Rainy Street, the barrio and Chicano Park.
- The Brown Berets formulated the ‘Brown Beret Manifesto’ which sought short & long term goals on community matters like:
- Police Oppression
- Prison Reform
- Communication (news/media channels)
- Susana reiterates how the Austin Brown Beret chapter supported other communities as in their support of the Dallas chapter during the Santos Rodriguez (police shooting) incident.
- Susana affirms that the Austin Brown Beret chapter was a grassroots organization seeking to protect youth and rights of citizens. Leadership sought to create positive changes in people’s lives and on institutional policies.
- The issues that the Brown Berets worked on during the 70’s and early 80’s continue in East Austin and around the nation.
- Susana maintains that fixing long-standing, societal problems can happen, especially through coalition building. She points to the recent voter approval of the historic plan to elect City Council Members from 10 geographic single-member districts (with the Mayor elected from the City at large).
- After the Brown Berets, Susana continued her community organizing with PODER on ‘environmental justice’ concerns…another movement to correct injustices in society.
Gilbert – Part 2
- In 1974, the Austin Brown Beret chapter created the Centro Chicano which served as a headquarter center in the barrio. The Centro Chicano was under the leadership of Zeke Uballe.
- The Centro Chicano initiated various youth programs and conducted activities such as providing meals, academic tutoring, leadership training and Chicano teatro /art projects.
- The Austin Brown Beret chapter advocated to change the name of Johnston High School (in East Austin) to Emiliano Zapata High School which would serve as a historical figure more culturally relevant to Chicano/Mexican American students.
- Gilbert tells the story how the Austin Brown Beret chapter organized a meeting with the Austin Police Department at the Centro Chicano.
- The Austin Brown Beret chapter was part of wider movement in the U.S. looking to solve problems in education, the economy and civil rights.
- Gilbert concludes the story of his trial. All charges against him were dismissed. He was able to negotiate a settlement with the City to drop charges against 11 defendants.
- The Austin Brown Beret chapter dissolved circa 1983. Still, their legacy continued with the work of individual members (via PODER, CAMILA – Chicanos Against Military Intervention in Latin America) and with the formation of groups like CARNALES Inc.(now known as Youth Advocacy), East Austin Economic Development Corporation (addressing affordable housing).
- Gilbert asserts that the ‘war for survival’ in East Austin continues as seen in the stark problems with ‘Imagine Austin’ (the development master plan) and how the City is handling the Rainey Street Historic District/Neighborhood. Gilbert insists that current economic & growth plans continue the displacement of many longtime, East Austin residents.
Susana – Part 2
- Brown Berets work drew in youth with teatro Chicano projects.
- The Austin Brown Beret mission and principles focused on ‘familia’, family uplift, youth leadership, brother/sisterhood, barrio preservation, direct outreach with the community & advocating human connection with others and the nature.
Gilbert’s last comments
A FEW ONLINE REFERENCE ITEMS:
* short audio clip – Zeke Uballe discussing the Centro Chicano in August 1977 (from Onda Latina -Chicano Advocates: A User’s Guide To The Centro Chicano In Austin)
* short audio clip – “Asesinato de un niño en Dallas, Tejas” corrido, which told the story of 11 year old Santos Rodriguez, who was killed by a police officer while in police custody (from Onda Latina — Corridos: The Oral History Of The Chicano Community)
* short audio clip- Linda Fregoso discusses the efforts of the Mexican American Research Center to build Chicano self-determination through economic development with the Center’s director,Jose Uriegas.
Jose Uriegas’ economic analysis is as relevant today as in the 1980’s. The problems are more dire as he explains in a recent Austin Business Journal article titled “Seeking Parity: Mexican American Entrepreneurs Face Obstacles”.