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Looking back at steps forward

By Daily Bruin Staff

April 2, 1996 9:00 pm

Tuesday, April 2, 1996

Tonight’s screening of the documentary "Chicano!" at Ackerman
Grand Ballroom details four segments of the Mexican American Civil
Rights Movement. Through the series, filmmaker Jose Luis Ruiz hopes
to bring back the oft forgotten memory of the struggle that changed
the lives of millions.Documentarian Jose Luis Ruiz’s motivation to
bring the series "Chicano!" to a national audience is best summed
up by a recent survey he came across. The question it posed to a
cross section of Latino college students was: "Of all the various
ethnic nomenclature (i.e, Hispanic, Latino, etc.) which do you use
and personally prefer?"

"The most disdained by far was the word "Chicano," says Ruiz.
"To me, that’s such a betrayal of a generation that fought so hard
to provide them with the right to go to college, to vote, to get a
job once they get out of college. It really hurt me."

The new documentary series "Chicano!: History of the Mexican
American Civil Rights Movement" will be screened tonight in the
Ackerman Grand Ballroom with a panel discussion to follow. The
series will air later this month on PBS (April 12 and 19).

This landmark four-part series follows in the footsteps of Henry
Hampton’s celebrated "Eyes On The Prize" documentary series and
tells the story of the tumultuous road to equality embarked upon by
Mexican Americans in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ruiz offers a practical answer when queried as to how he became
involved in producing a historical documentary. "The first thing
you have to do is grow old, then your youth becomes historical,"
says Ruiz.

As a young man, he attended East Los Angeles College and later
UCLA, where he took part in the historic Third World Cinema program
(in which students of Native American, Asian, African and Latin
descent studied and made films using non-Western film styles).

Though making a documentary is typically a rigorous experience,
Ruiz saw this documentary as a labor of love and an important look
back to the turbulent times in which he came of age. His
involvement with the project began three decades ago with his
involvement in the movement itself.

Making a documentary on such a seldom shown facet of recent
history presented some unique challenges to Ruiz and company. "The
hardest thing to begin with was educating the funders, that one:
this history actually happened; two: that it was of national
interest; three: reminding them that this wasn’t something foreign,
that we were talking about American history."

Ruiz has been a director-producer in film and television since
the early 1970s. Documentary filmmaking proved to be the perfect
outlet for both Ruiz’s social consciousness and creative impulses.
His commitment to both drives is evidenced by the numerous awards
he has garnered over the years and the long list of organizations
he has either helped found or run; including the Mexican-American
Solidarity Foundation Alumni, the National Association of Latino
Arts and Culture (NALAC) and the National Latino Communications
Center in which he serves as executive director. The nonprofit
National Latino Communications Center has made a mission of
creating and developing programs like "Chicano!" that are
Latino-themed and suitable for broadcast on public television.

The four-part program centers around the struggles over the
Mexican-American struggle for land rights, labor rights,
educational reform and political empowerment.

The first installment, "Quest for a Homeland," features the
fight to reclaim land in New Mexico as guaranteed in the 1848
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; also shown is the 1969 Denver Youth
Conference in which a young activist named Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales
became a leader for the movement, a position of prominence he would
hold for years to come.

The first episode concludes with an account of the 1970 Chicano
Moratorium March against the Vietnam War in East L.A., the tragic
riot that ensued and the death of journalist Ruben Salazar.

The rise to prominence of the late César Chavez, the
five-year battle to unionize California farmworkers, and the effect
this victory had on the movement as a whole are the subjects of the
program’s second hour, "The Struggle in the Fields."

The dramatic 1968 walk-out staged by Chicano high-school
students in East Los Angeles to protest sub-standard educational
conditions and the legal fallout that followed make up "Taking Back
the Schools," the series’ third episode.

"Chicano!" concludes with "Fighting for Political Power," a
profile on La Raza Unida (The United People), an alternative
political party formed to combat the systematic disenfranchisement
of Chicanos in Texas and the rest of the Southwest. The party was
short lived, but it marked a new era in Chicano involvement in
politics and sent a loud and clear message to the powers that
be.

Narrated by Henry Cisneros, the series mixes still photos and
news footage of the incidents with recent interviews with some of
the veterans of the struggle. One interviewee is film producer and
UCLA alumnus Moctesuma Esparza, who will be present along with Ruiz
and others at the panel discussion at tonight’s screening.

For Ruiz, the impetus to make the series came out of a need to
keep the memory of the struggle alive and educate younger
generations about an important part of American history.

"This period laid the foundation for a lot of what we have
today. Most people don’t know how MALDEF (Mexican American Legal
Defense and Education Fund) came about; or where NCLR (National
Council of La Raza) came from; or where the Southwest Voter
Registration Drive came out of. They all came out of that
movement," says Ruiz.

"People really don’t understand the struggle people of color
have had to go through to first gain their basic human rights, and
then to institutionalize them so they can’t be taken away from you
tomorrow."

By Brandon Wilson

Daily Bruin Contributor

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