“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
— Elie Wiesel
Desperate people have desperate ways. Many groups of color were organized during the 1960s and 70s. The Black Panthers, AIM (American Indian Movement), and the Brown Berets (Chicanos) were the three largest.
Their common cause had to do with Civil Rights and poverty.
After years of police brutality against poor Chicanos, the Brown Berets organized in East Los Angeles, Calif. on Dec. 3, 1967. They held their first demonstration in opposition to the brutality in January 1968. On May 5, 1971, the Brown Berets marched 1,000 miles from Calexico to Sacramento in “La Marcha de la Reconquista” to protest statewide against racial and institutionalized discrimination, police brutality, and the high number of Chicano casualties in Vietnam.
By Aug. 29, 1971, they embarked on a nationwide expedition known as, “La Caravana de la Reconquista” (The Caravan of Re-Conquest). Their goal was to organize “La Raza” (The Race) on a national scale to secure rights and self-determination for La Raza.
By December of the same year, they found themselves in Santa Fe. Their mission was to serve, observe, and protect. Third in command at this time was 19-year-old Jeronimo Blanco. They marched several times throughout Santa Fe without ever obtaining any permits, even after being warned several times by the authorities.
On Christmas Eve, most were arrested during a march. When Jeronimo went to the jail to check on the status of his troops, he was also incarcerated for possession of the decorative sword displayed on his side.
The District Attorney of San Miguel County at the time was none other than “Tiny” Martinez. Tiny was also the chairman of the board for West Las Vegas Schools. Tiny traveled to Santa Fe with all his political influence and had all the Brown Berets released into his custody.
Tiny made the decision of hosting the Brown Berets at West High School (during Christmas break) without any approval or even discussion from the other school board members (Tiny never had to ask permission from anyone).
Tiny and the Brown Berets received national attention when the American flag at West High School was replaced by the Mexican flag. When Tiny was told of all the pressure from the media and government officials concerning the flag, he simply replied, “Leave it up another day.”
The Brown Berets eventually were housed by community members throughout Las Vegas, such as the home of Jose C de Baca and the Montezuma Castle. They eventually moved on to continue on La Caravana de la Reconquista.
I will cover Tiny Martinez and his legacy at a later time. As for the Brown Berets, they organized chapters throughout the states of California, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and as far away as Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, and Indiana; becoming a national organization.
Brown Berets were eventually infiltrated by “agent provocateurs” such as the FBI, LAPD, CWP, ATF, and other “law enforcement” agencies and organizations. By Nov. 1, 1972, the Brown Berets were disbanded by the then-prime minister, David Sanchez, in order to circumvent any violence promoted by those infiltrators mentioned above.
By January 1993, the Brown Berets were re-activated under the old charter as a national organization. Third in command in 1971, Jeronimo Blanco, was unanimously voted in as the new National Commander.
Chief of Staff, Juanito Burns de Taos, organized New Mexico, Colorado, California, and Oregon. Many of the members of the Brown Berets from 1971 return to Las Vegas from time to time reminiscing their time here. You may have seen them walking around the plaza in Old Town. Jeronimo Blanco was kind enough to bring me photos of the Brown Berets at West and another of them marching toward the Plaza on Bridge Street. Their mission today still remains the same — to serve, observe, and protect.
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The first two panels of our mural project have been placed on the retaining wall across from the Spic & Span. Since we erected these panels, I’ve had numerous calls by “Norteños” with great people’s stories, comments, and ideas. Thank you!
Rock Ulibarri is a local resident and educator. He may be reached at 505-440-9776.