Chicana Power: Female Leaders in el Movimiento and the Search for Identity

The Chicano/a movement—el Movimiento—emerged in the late 1960s alongside other civil rights movements, such as Black Power and the American Indian Movement. Although these movements represented different racial and cultural groups in the United States, they shared the overarching goals of the empowerment of, and civil rights for, underrepresented and oppressed peoples.

Maybe you’ve heard about noted Chicano leaders like Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales and César Chávez—and rightfully so. They were critical to the development of el Movimiento. Lesser known are the Chicana women who helped to make that movement possible.

In light of that underrepresentation, I interviewed Deborah Espinosa and Lisa Flores to hear firsthand about their experiences in el Movimiento in Colorado. More recently, Deborah was the longtime director of History Colorado’s El Pueblo History Museum and Lisa was elected to the Denver Public Schools’ Board of Education in 2015.

What Does It Mean to Be a Chicana?

Deborah Espinosa and Lisa Flores both got involved with the Chicano/a movement, but their experiences differed greatly. As a young woman during the heyday of el Movimiento, Deborah’s understanding of the Chicana identity grew alongside the growth of Chicanismo—the ideology behind the movement. Initially confused about her racial and cultural identity as a woman of Mexican descent living in the United States, Deborah found answers in the emerging Chicano/a movement:

Deborah Espinosa

Deborah Espinosa

I graduated in 1969, but I didn’t have an education regarding our history. But I did have a gut feeling. I didn’t see myself as being totally “Spanish.” But I didn’t know how to answer that question either. Once I began to learn the history as a result of the Chicano movement, once people started fighting to get our history told in the books, in the schools, in the universities, I began to understand the mixed emotions and confusion I felt. I was finally able to articulate the mixed feelings that we had in terms of who we are. Not so much just the culture, but who we are. When we were able to give clarity to that, that was empowering. Absolutely empowering.

Born in 1970, Lisa Flores was raised by an avid supporter of el Movimiento. As a girl in the 1970s, she experienced the movement through her mother, Carmela:

I don’t know when she had her cultural awakening. She was always undoubtedly Mexicana/Chicana. Spanish was her first language, English was her language of learning. Born in 1950, my mother was a teenager in the ’60s. She was 18 in 1968 and she was right in the middle of the Chicano movement. I was born in 1970; she was 20 when she had me. She was very politically aware and active. Always.

Whereas Deborah and Carmela came of age during el Movimiento, Lisa was part of a new generation that didn’t grow to adulthood until the movement had subsided. In this sense, Lisa and Deborah’s experiences offer a look into the lasting effects of el Movimiento over the course of two generations.

As Deborah pointed out, she was unsure of her cultural and racial identity prior to the movement. Lisa, on the other hand, was raised to be fully aware of her Chicana identity:

One of my earliest memories was my mom teaching me to raise my fist and say “Chicana power!” There were a few things that were just basic truths. She told me that I could grow up and be anything I wanted, as long as I went to college first and she made sure that I was very clear about my cultural identity. I thought all people were raised to know their past, their people, and themselves. Growing up, it seemed odd to meet people who had less certainty about that.

Clearly, the activism of Chicanas and Chicanos in the 1960s and ’70s had a lasting impression on subsequent generations of Mexican Americans. Lisa’s foundational understanding of her Chicana identity epitomizes that fact.

Do Chicanas Get Enough Recognition?

History Colorado’s exhibit El Movimiento: The Chicano Movement in Colorado explores the growth of the Chicano movement both in Colorado and throughout the rest of the United States. It highlights many important leaders like “Corky” Gonzales and César Chávez, as well as some lesser-known female leaders such as Guadalupe Briseño. But, the exhibit garnered criticism about the lack of attention given to Chicana involvement in the movement. In light of that fact, I asked Deborah and Lisa about the gender divide in the movement.

Deborah spoke about the role of women in el Movimiento, as well as the movement’s relationship to the nationwide women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s:

As far as Chicanas, we were present and vocal, but we still weren’t in leadership positions. In fact, we kind of shunned the women’s movement. That was a white movement. We could understand the basics of it—the abortion issue, equal pay, etc.—but it stopped at the cultural line.

As Deborah understood it, Chicanas generally excluded themselves from the feminist movement. In the context of el Movimiento, women were extremely active, yet they didn’t immediately ascend to positions of leadership. Over time, however, this changed:

But we have come a long way. When I see women running for office, young women taking on the enormous challenges that they have, including saving the planet, I think women have always been underappreciated leaders. Are you born a leader or are you made a leader? Women certainly become leaders because they have families, they are put in charge of feeding the kids, their education, the budget, the institutions in their lives. The woman who stays at home has to recognize her power.

As a result of the culture gap of the women’s movement, Deborah viewed the advancement of Chicanas as a separate dynamic. Lisa’s mother, on the other hand, seemed to be engaged in both movements, as well as the gay liberation movement, simultaneously:

Lisa Flores and her mother Carmela

Lisa Flores and her mother Carmela

Carmela became a lesbian when I was 7. For my mother, it was a political decision. I think she would say the same. She was tired of traditional gender roles and the conventional way men and women relate to one another. She wanted a different path. She became pretty active in California with lesbian/feminist rights movement. I remember that there were lots of meetings, phone calls, and always flyers in the car. She organized the first Women Take Back the Night march in San Diego, which was kind of cool. I didn’t realize at the time that she was such an activist. She was my mom, being true to herself and her values. She was involved in countless issues over the years. Colorado’s Amendment 2 was key among them.

The Legacy of El Movimiento

Deborah believes that, in many ways, el Movimiento was successful since Chicanas and Chicanos experienced upward mobility in the decades that followed. This did not, however, mark the end of the movement; rather, it marked its transformation:

I think it’s transformed. It did wane. I think that a lot of the War on Poverty programs satisfied a lot of the demands that the movement put forth. There were programs, people got jobs in housing and health, serving their communities. That sort of appeased the need for struggle, if you will. It did launch a lot of careers. At the same time, it just stagnated. But there were some people who never gave up. Those women who say that the movement is no more don’t realize the power they have in their own profession. If you have a computer, if you have a pen in your hand, if you go to the podium, it is an opportunity to put forth the people—la gente.

Although Lisa was distinctly aware of her Chicana identity as a result of her mother’s activism in the ’70s, she too remembers how the movement waned in the following decades:

I was in high school from 1984 to 1988. We had an afterschool affinity group called Los Chicanos Unidos. The joke was that it was “los dos.” It was literally two of us. And my girlfriend—who was an adopted Korean woman—was our honorary third member.

Nevertheless, el Movimiento clearly allowed many Mexican Americans to take increasingly influential roles in American society. But, as Deborah explained to me, the Chicano/a movement was only the beginning. As long as oppression and inequality persist, Chicanas and Chicanos have to continue to fight.

In recent decades, Mexican American activism has broadened its scope to focus on issues facing Latinos throughout the United States. Immigration, especially from Latin American countries, remains at the core of Latino/a activism. Recognizing this, I asked Deborah what role she thinks immigration will play in the future of Latino/a activism:

I see it playing a make-or-break role. If we don’t address the issues, if we don’t erase the hate at the top levels of our government, then we are in danger. People have to literally bring the issues to the community. That’s where it starts: one to one. Talking, educating, standing up for civil rights. Everything that we fought for is not just eroding Chicano rights. It’s eroding American rights.

Deborah’s experience as a Chicana activist and historian in the 1960s and ’70s has continued to influence her work to this day. In fact, she’s the mother of four professional women and is active with El Movimiento Sigue (The Movement Continues), a committee of Pueblo volunteers that organizes and educates on local and national issues. The organization works to preserve culture and implement direct action when needed.

As I mentioned earlier, Carmela’s activism had a profound impact on Lisa, both as an individual and as a member of society. Lisa understood her Chicana identity from a young age. That identity also brought with it a set of values that still guide her as an elected official:

I call it “being able to say the hard thing.” I understand my values, where they come from, and am able to stand by them. I see other elected officials sometimes struggle when there are people  pulling on them from every direction. My process [is], I listen and try to make sure I have all of the information, and then come back to home base and see what values I hold in order to make the best decision. I think some other folks don’t have that solid home base, so they remain pulled in multiple directions. Whether it is election season or not, whether you are watching me or not, I am following my moral compass and doing what I think is best for students.

Federico Pena addressing UMAS students at protest

Federico Pena addressing UMAS students protesting US Grand Jury investigating Boulder Car bombing in the 1970s.

Photo by Juan Espinosa

Reflections on Generational Legacies

Throughout my discussions with Deborah and Lisa, a number of similar themes emerged. Though women were an integral part of the movement from its inception, Chicanos tended to fill the leadership positions. That’s changed in recent decades, with many Chicanas taking up the leadership roles. Deborah’s continued activism and Lisa’s position as a member of the Board of Education are only two examples.

The two interviews also brought to mind questions about generational legacies. How do our understandings of past generations influence the present and the future? Unlike her mother, Deborah didn’t see herself “as being totally Spanish.” The emergence of Chicanismo allowed her to understand her family’s complex past, clarifying any uncertainties that she’d felt about her identity. Carmela, like Deborah, also came to understand her Chicana identity during el Movimiento, eventually passing it on to her daughter Lisa.

This question of generational legacies, of course, extends well beyond el Movimiento. Personally, for example, I have no connection to the Chicano Movement but, after my interviews with Lisa and Deborah, I’ve found myself contemplating my own family’s past and its influence on my life. Like Lisa, my family members instilled in me a moral compass that continues to guide every aspect of my life. Whether you’re an activist or an elected official, it’s important that you always refer back to that compass of your own when making decisions for yourself and your community.

Previous generations have also provided many of us with the power to create change, and it’s important that we recognize that power. In Deborah’s own words, “If you have a computer, if you have a pen in your hand, if you go to the podium, it is an opportunity to put forth the people—la gente.”

We are collecting stories and photos of Chicana women at the forefront then and now. Do you or someone you love have a Chicana photograph or story to share with History Colorado? If so, please email a digital photo, a few lines detailing the story, and contact information about the person to hello at