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Guadalupe Briseño and the Female-led Strike in Brighton, Colorado
The 1960s and ’70s were a period of widespread activism, from the African American Civil Rights movement to the antiwar movement. The Chicano movement, or El Movimiento, was born out of this nationwide desire for change, and Chicano/a activists in Colorado were at the cutting edge of the movement.
El Movimiento: A Call for Change
As a former professional boxer, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales garnered widespread support from Mexican Americans for his involvement in el Movimiento. With the help of other prominent Colorado activists, he organized high school walkouts, protests, and other demonstrations in support of a variety of issues concerning Chicano communities across the Southwest. Outside of Colorado, César Chávez was making a name for himself as the leader of the United Farm Workers of America.
While the contributions of Chávez and Gonzales were essential, the Chicano movement was not carried out by just a few prominent leaders. Students, professors, laborers, and community leaders from across the Southwest were integral parts of local and national initiatives. Together, these attempts to improve the lives of millions of Mexican Americans formed the Chicano movement.
The Rise of Guadalupe Briseño
In July of 1968, a labor strike erupted at a small floral plant in Brighton, Colorado. Employees at the Kitayama Corporation, primarily Mexican American women, had been subjected to miserable working conditions. In addition to long hours and no overtime pay, the employees were forced to work in a humid, muddy floral nursery, often leading to accidents and health complications. Witnessing these conditions, Guadalupe Briseño realized the need for action.
It did not take long for Briseño to begin organizing the women at the Kitayama plant. Once her children were old enough to begin school, Briseño immediately found employment at the floral plant. Although this was her first job, she knew employee mistreatment when she saw it. In an interview with Priscilla Falcón, Briseño recalls how on her first day she heard women “crying because of the abuse that [was] going on in that plant.” Rallying the workers, Briseño decided to lead a fight for change.
The employees began holding meetings to decide their course of action. Rather than quitting, the women believed that they could affect change not only for the Kitayama workers but also for generations of laborers to come. In this vein, they created the National Floral Workers Organization (NFWO) and began planning for a strike. Unbeknownst to her, the Kitayama strike and the NFWO would become a rallying point for Colorado’s Chicana/o movement.
Through a Veil of Tears
Obstacles to organizing the employees at the Kitayama plant became immediately apparent, and word of labor unrest quickly spread to management. The day after the NFWO’s first meeting, the employees were greeted with police officers posted throughout the plant. In the words of Briseño herself, “it was a police state.” Despite the intimidation tactics of management, the employees at Kitayama decided to press on.
The women decided on a four-step plan of action to be carried out in the following months:
First, they attempted to gain employee and community support for a union, though they were aware that the owner of the plant, Ray Kitayama, would likely reject unionization of his employees.
Next, the women organized the plans for a general strike. Creating picket signs and designating different women to various positions in the picket line, the NFWO meticulously planned out the strike.
The third step involved gaining political and legal support in the broader community. As an inexperienced labor organizer, Briseño made sure to contact lawyers in order to follow a legal path of unionization.
Finally, they established the specific demands of their strike. The women argued that certain jobs at the plant warranted higher pay. In addition, they laid out demands for health care and seniority benefits.
Despite the well thought out plan of action, the NFWO still had a long, arduous road ahead of them. After helping to lay out the four-step plan, Briseño began speaking to employees throughout the plant to encourage unionization. Ray Kitayama did not respond well to this news. After returning home from work one Saturday, Briseño heard a knock on her door. Kitayama and his assistant had showed up at her home to inform her that she was fired. This news, however, did not dissuade Briseño. Win or lose, she was not going to give up the fight.
After Briseño’s dismissal, the NFWO voted to begin the strike on July 1, 1968. During the following months, the forty-five Kitayama strikers gained local and national support. Briseño personally contacted César Chávez, who helped guide the efforts of the NFWO. Moreover, the organization received recognition as an affiliate of Chavez’s United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. The strikers also garnered recognition from local Chicano organizations, earning support from Corky Gonzales’s Crusade for Justice as well as the Chicano students at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Notwithstanding widespread support from a number of influential organizations, the Kitayama workers continued to struggle. Ray Kitayama remained steadfast in his refusal to negotiate with the striking women, and conditions on the picket lines became more grueling. For some women, months of striking had taken a financial toll on their families. Some would attend the picket line in the mornings before going to work in the beet fields, only to return to the picket line after their shifts.
The conditions at the picket line only grew worse with the coming of winter. After eight months of striking, the women decided to make a last-ditch effort of nonviolent protest, chaining themselves to the gate of the Kitayama plant. In response, Weld County police officers showed up at the plant. Under the orders of Ray Kitayama, the officers proceeded to cut the chains and spray tear gas on the striking women. “Through our veil of tears,” Briseño said in an interview with Falcón, “you could not see our broken hearts.”
After 221 days of striking, Briseño and the other women decided to call it off. Although they did not achieve every goal of theirs, the strike was relatively successful. Working conditions at the Kitayama plant did improve, Briseño said in an interview, but they did not get a union. Nevertheless, the Kitayama strike had implications that went beyond the strikers themselves.
As evidenced by statewide and nationwide support for the Kitayama strikers, Briseño’s activism struck a chord with many Chicano/a leaders. Whether or not Briseño viewed herself as part of a broader movement for Chicano/a justice at the time, it is clear that this small strike on the outskirts of Denver quickly became part of the larger narrative. Click here to listen to Briseño’s reflections on her experiences at the Kitayama plant.
The personal story of Briseño is inspirational in and of itself. A woman with no experience in organizing labor movements had successfully led an eight-month strike, collaborating with a number of influential organizations. Within the context of a predominantly male-led movement, Chicana women like Briseño certainly opened the doors for future female activists.
Today, a number of Chicana activists continue to fight for justice in a variety of ways in Denver. Candi CdeBaca, for instance, is a fifth-generation Mexican American who grew up in Globeville. As the co-founder of Project VOYCE (Voices of Youth Changing Education), she has advocated for a variety of social justice issues concerning education, gentrification, healthcare, and other issues faced by Denver’s Latino communities. She is currently running for Denver City Council, District 9.
Although many Chicano/a scholars argue that El Movimiento ended in the late 1970s, the fight for Chicano/a justice continues in the twenty-first century. Thanks in part to the activism of women like Guadalupe Briseño, Latinas continue to be at the forefront of the movement for justice.