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A new chapter of the Brown Berets, a non-violent predominantly Latino youth activist organization, has been formed in Santa Cruz. Started by members of the Watsonville Brown Berets and Santa Cruz residents, the new chapter will be autonomous, dealing with issues unique to Santa Cruz.

The Watsonville Brown Berets began in 1994 in response to the increasing gang violence and specifically the gang related murder of 9-year-old Jessica Cortez and her 16-year-old brother, Jorge Cortez. Seeking to counter the growing violence, a small group of high school and college students formed the Brown Berets, adopting the name of a former Chicano revolutionary group of the 1960s.

Thomas Alejo (right) and Rob Elrich honor deceased movement leader Rodolfo Gonzales during April 21 Brown Beret meeting. Bob Fitch
“We started the Brown Berets in Watsonville because it was necessary,? said Tomas Alejo, an active member of the Watsonville Brown Beret's since 1994. “The issues that were happening in the '60s were still happening in 1994; there was still police harassment in our community, there was still mass poverty and our schools were in deplorable condition?

According to online sources, the original Brown Berets, founded in Los Angeles in 1967, created many social programs, such as free health clinics, published a newspaper called La Causa and fought against racism, police brutality a.d. in later years, the Vietnam war. They were one of the most powerful and militant organizations in the Chicano liberation movement, but were disbanded in 1972 due to police infiltration.

The Brown Berets today have adopted many ideas from the original organization but are also strongly influenced by the non-violent teachings of Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as local issues and institutions. They welcome youth any gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation to help create change in their communities. They also seek to educate youth about their history and culture in the hopes of empowering them with self-identity and pride.

“The greatest achievement of the Brown Berets is seeing young people come out of these meetings with a greater understanding of society and their history and culture,? said Alejo.

But the main focus of the Brown Berets is to empower youth to create change in their community. At the meeting last Thursday Brown Beret members spoke of dedication to their communities.

Magge Rodriquez has been tagging along with her sister to Brown Beret meetings since fifth grade and is now, at 15, co-chair of the Watsonville chapter. She expressed her frustration with the world she lives in; “This world is so messed up, they say you have a voice but they don't hear it,? she said.

But her frustration only empowers her more. She has been involved in protests with Brown Berets since fifth grade and has aspirations to work in politics so that she may better help create change in the world.

Nahum Rivera, a history major at Cabrillo College and original member of MECHA, has also found empowerment in the Brown Berets. “We can make changes that are so monumental and historic� I am making history. I am doing what a child in some high school somewhere in mid-town USA will be reading about 20, 30, 40 years from now,? said Rivera passionately.

In the past 10 years the Brown Berets of Watsonville have been involved in such local issues as the redistricting of local schools, reduction of police brutality and local elections. Most recently they have been involved in counter recruitment efforts at Watsonville High as well as UCSC and the petitioning for two new Watsonville schools to be named after Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

The Watsonville Brown Berets have also created a program called “Liberation School? that offers free tutoring and mentoring for students of all ages. Located at the Watsonville Brown Beret's office, it is a place where youth can come for help with anything from homework to filling out financial aid forms. It is also a place where the curious can find a lending library full of progressive books and videos about social struggle and radical history.

The Liberation School is one of the many things the new Santa Cruz chapter also wishes to create. “We really want to be not only an active force in our community but also a resource for our community,? said Sandino Gomez, member of the Brown Berets since 2000 and Youth Empowerment Coordinator at the Resource Center for Non-Violence in Santa Cruz.

The Watsonville Brown Berets have greatly affected the Santa Cruz community through their involvement at UCSC and Cabrillo. Mario Wyon, a new member of the Brown Berets and Cabrillo Student Senator feels that the Brown Berets ideals have greatly effected how he approaches life.

“One of the things that I'm doing as a senator is trying to bring the philosophies of the Brown Berets and the philosophies of revolutionary activities to the student senate and keep them thinking in fresh ways in order to really support the students,? said Wyon.

With the creation of the Santa Cruz chapter the Brown Berets hope to continue inspiring change and activism in our community.

Wyon quoted Indian author Arundhati Roy about change “Another world is possible.? He added, “on a quite day, if you listen really closely, you can almost hear it being created, and I would just like to encourage everyone to try to listen for that new world being made and to try to make it themselves.?

The Watsonville Brown Berets will be holding it's 5th annual “Youth and Power? event May 27 at the Watsonville Vets Hall. The newly formed Santa Cruz chapter is renting office space at the Resource Center for Non-Violence and holding meetings there every Wednesday from 7–9 p.m. The Watsonville holds meetings on Thursday from 7–9 p.m. For more information, contact Sandino Gomez for the Santa Cruz chapter at 423-1626 ext. 103, and for the Watsonville chapter e-mail brownberets (at) msn.com or call 722-1775.
 


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