Dozens of people braved the 100-degree weather last Sunday in Roosevelt Park to remember the Chicano-led rebellion against police brutality and racism that was sparked there on June 13, 1971. The rebellion is a key, but often overlooked moment in New Mexico’s Chicano history. Fifty years later and in the context of the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising, the rebellion serves as a reminder of the long record of police violence, resistance, and collaboration by Black and people of color in the state. Chicano community elders Richard Moore and Joaquin Lujan, formerly part of the Chicano rights organization the Black Berets, recounted how the rebellion started. Lujan explained that besides police repression, the rebellion was triggered by widespread racism against the Chicano community.
“There was a lot more frustration that came out during that time. It wasn’t just the youth, it was nuestra gente that we hadn’t really had a chance at an explosion and to come out and to say you know what? The racism, losing our water rights, losing our land, putting our people in jail. All of that came to a head,” said Lujan.
Moore explained that June 13 is his birthday, and in 1971 the Black Berets were getting ready for a party. They had contacted Black Beret chapters throughout the state to come to Albuquerque to celebrate. But the mood quickly changed from celebratory to rebellious when they started getting calls about police presence in Roosevelt Park, where Chicano families had gathered for picnics.
“We came down and it was already going crazy. There were families, all nuestra gente were over here, the police were starting to move away from here and they all gathered up the hill. They seemed to be getting ready. You could see the guns and the rifles and all of that. They just started opening fire at us at the park,” said Moore. “Like today they were not willing to have a conversation, they didn’t want to talk about what our issues were, why people were feeling why they were. No, let’s open fire and deal with it that way.”
Moore said people frightened of the police called the Black Berets to Roosevelt Park that day because the organization was active in fighting police brutality and organizing community tribunals against police repression.
“We were doing community patrol, we were monitoring the police, there were no cell phones, we almost had to do it by pigeon,” explained Moore. “But we had massive communication with our community and based upon that the community would inform us that there was a disruption taking place and then we would go into that area and say for the police to move out and that the Black Beret community patrol would take care of the situation.”
The uprising was quelled after the National Guard was called in, although Lujan points out that the Black Berets received calls from Chicano and Black national guardsmen who said they refused their deployments to Albuquerque out of solidarity with the rebellion. Today, the Black Berets are not active, but many of the issues of police violence, loss of land and water rights, and worker exploitation remain.
Mercedes Avila, an educator and community organizer in Albuquerque, says remembering these events reminds people of how important New Mexico’s position is in past and ongoing Chicano movements.
“When we think about the Chicano movement I think that oftentimes it’s conflated as having taken place specifically in California and we co-opted this idea, but as we see here today, it’s roots are so strong in New Mexico and New Mexico had an integral role in the Chicano movement. I think it’s important that our community be educated,” said Avila.
New Mexico State Representative Patricia Roybal Caballero who was an activist then and now, says in the 70’s cities around the country had federal funding to provide summer jobs to Chicano, Black, and Indigenous youth, jobs that these communities needed to help occupy and train young people from marginalized communities. She says cities instead hired white kids for summer youth jobs, leaving other young people idle. This contributed to the uprising, and she says not much has changed today she told the crowd.
“Our youth were profiled and targeted as lazy, as having nothing to do better than to take drugs and drink alcohol and hang out. And that’s where again our institutions refused to take up their responsibility that every person has an equal right and opportunity to experience freedom, liberty, and equal access to what this country has to offer,” said Roybal Caballero. “That’s what they failed to do and they continue to fail to do that today.”
Nancy Montaño, an organizer in the Chicano community now and during the 1971 uprising, urged people to engage with those around them, and not only with people already part of the activist movement.
“Being a community organizer, being in the movement it’s really easy to talk to those of you who have come to Jesus already alright?” Montaño said. “But it’s harder to talk to people who have not been educated and understand their own history and know where they come from. So I challenge all of you young people, go into your homes, speak with your siblings, speak with your parents. I just find that’s very important.”
Organizers with Bernalillo County La Raza Unida say they are hoping to hold another teach-in about the rebellion and Chicano history in the fall.