The movement created Latino leaders who would ultimately transform the social and political landscape of Southern California.
The sweeping forces unleashed by the Chicano movement are rooted in the trailblazing work of political giants, such as Edward R. Roybal. In 1947—the year that Cal State LA opened its doors—Roybal helped found the Community Service Organization (CSO), which trained a generation of social justice organizers in the Eastside neighborhoods surrounding the University and elsewhere in California.
Roybal relied on his CSO network to win a historic election in 1949, becoming the first Latino to sit on the Los Angeles City Council in the 20th century. He went on to serve for three decades as a distinguished member of the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1998, Roybal received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Cal State LA. His daughters, U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard and Lillian Roybal Rose, are Cal State LA alumnae.
Among the early CSO organizers were a pair of activists who would become iconic labor and human rights leaders: César Chávez and Dolores Huerta.
“The CSO was really, you might say, the foundation of the Chicano movement,” Huerta said during a lecture at Cal State LA held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Department of Chicana(o) and Latina(o) Studies.
She met Chávez through the CSO, where they learned about community organizing from Fred Ross, Sr., who had launched the group with Roybal. Huerta recalled a conversation with Chávez at the kitchen table of his Boyle Heights home. “We have to start a union,” she remembered him saying. “Farmworkers will never have a union unless you and I do it.”
By the early 1960s, Chávez and Huerta were beginning to organize farmworkers using the tactics they had learned a decade earlier under Ross. On the Cal State LA campus, a small but active group of Mexican American students was beginning to flex its muscle.
In April 1964, Robert Carrasco, Félix Gutiérrez, John Huerta and Leonard Torres won four top spots, including president and vice president, in the student government elections. It was a significant succession of power in a student government that had been predominantly white since forming in the 1950s.
Serving in the student government provided an understanding of how the University bureaucracy functioned, knowledge that would prove valuable as Mexican American students became more organized and as the four student leaders embarked on their careers. Gutiérrez and Carrasco earned doctorates and became professors at the University of Southern California and Northern Arizona University, respectively, and Huerta and Torres earned law degrees and became accomplished attorneys.
A generation of pioneering Latino and Latina leaders followed in Edward R. Roybal’s footsteps and served the public as elected officials. They include pioneers who attended Cal State LA and helped pave the way for others.
Richard Alatorre, former California State Assembly member and Los Angeles City Council member
Gloria Molina, former Assembly member, Los Angeles City Council member and Los Angeles County supervisor
Esteban Torres, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives
Antonio Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles, speaker of the Assembly and Los Angeles City Council member
UMAS raised awareness about equity and inclusion in higher education and was a driving force with the Black Student Union to pressure Cal State LA to admit more Black and Chicano students and create the Educational Opportunity Program to address the underrepresentation of students of color.
The group brought prominent speakers to campus, including Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales and Reies Lopez Tijerina, who were leaders in a growing Chicano movement sweeping the Southwest. UMAS also operated a community center in East Los Angeles, where volunteers tutored youth to help prepare them for college.
UMAS members played a key role in helping launch a Mexican American Studies program in 1968. It was a crowning accomplishment that would leave a lasting impact on a generation of students.
“For us, it was all about access and equity. We wanted people to go to college and graduate. We wanted them to go back to their communities and use their education to help their communities.”