By Matthew Sommer
Inspired by activists like Che Guevara and Malcolm X and modeled after the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets are giving power back to the people.
The Watsonville chapter of the Brown Berets is now the lone faction of what was once a national organization and movement that rallied around issues of Chicano (Mexican-American) rights.
Today’s Brown Berets helped to found Migrawatch, a project that warns the Watsonville community about immigration raids, and are working on a bike repair clinic to provide volunteer services to anyone who wants a bike. Their objective is to promote the safety and advancement of the Chicano community. 	“The Brown Berets is an organization that brings together and promotes the community,” said Jay Palmer, a local activist who works with the Brown Berets.
The Brown Berets develop projects that are angled at empowering the Chicano community.
Evelyn Sanchez, a Brown Beret member, said that the Brown Berets is a grassroots organization. Sanchez described a grassroots organization as one that forms in order to solve the neglected issues of society.
“We are trying to speak for everyone who is not being heard by their oppressive government,” Sanchez said. “[The Brown Berets want] to give the community what is naturally theirs.”
Members of the Brown Berets helped to form Migrawatch, a human rights organization shaped to empower the community, in response to the Immigrant Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids of September 2006.
ICE, a Branch of the Department of Homeland Security, arrests and deports people in violation of immigration laws. In the September raids, over a hundred people were arrested in Santa Cruz, Watsonville, and Hollister.
Migrawatch is a community-backed volunteer operation that aims to stop these raids. One way the program prevents raids is by providing a hotline for people to report suspicion of possible ICE raids.
When Migrawatch receives a tip, members send a warning via text message to members with cell phones subscribed to their system. Migrawatch then investigates the area and acts as a witness to the raid.
Lili Tapia, a Brown Beret and Migrawatch member, explained that most of the time the text messages are false alarms. However, Migrawatch sends a group to investigate each time.
In order to further protect community members, Migrawatch publishes a wallet-sized guide in Spanish outlining what to do if the ICE comes to your door. On the front of the guide is a drawing of a woman holding up a paper, her rights, to an officer with “ICE” written on his back. The guide, entitled Immigrant Rights Watch, includes instructions to not open your door, to not sign any papers, and “no conteste,” to reserve your right to not speak.
Migrawatch hopes to protect the human rights of immigrants. Jennifer Laskin, a Brown Beret member, shares concern with Migrawatch over effects the raids have when they tear families apart.
“The ripple effect [on a family] is horrendous,” Laskin said. “The raids are a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
The Bike Shack is another project, inspired by the Brown Berets and the Bike Church, which is focused on providing a service for the Watsonville community. While Migrawatch is focused on protecting the human rights of immigrants, the Bike Shack is a project that targets the everyday challenges Chicanos face.
Transportation, said Laskin, is a big issue.
The Bike Shack in Watsonville fixes bikes for low prices or for free in order to benefit the immigrant and general community.
“There are a lot of farm workers who get to work on bikes,” Tapia said.
The bike shack, since its establishment in early April, runs on Friday from 3-7 p.m. out of a pick-up truck at the Brown Beret headquarters in Watsonville. Emilyn Green, a membership and outreach clerk at the Bike Church in Santa Cruz, said that the Brown Berets and the Bike Church believe the project has room for growth.
“The idea is that [The Bike Shack] would have its own space and be an established project,” Green said.
The Bike Shack is built on the concept of the Bike Church in Santa Cruz, which runs on donations, expecting people to only pay what they can easily pay. Rather than fix the bikes themselves, volunteers will provide the tools and knowledge for everyone who wants to fix their own bikes. The customer is therefore paying a minimal amount for labor.
Green said that the Bike Church has wanted to work on a project like the Bike Shack for years. Repairing a bike, she said, is too expensive at a regular repair shop.
“It costs about 50â€“100 dollars to get your bike fixed [normally],” Green said. “We want people to pay what they can.”
According to Green, the project will make bikes free to kids and campesinos, the field workers.
“Anyone who can pay should pay,” Green said.
However, Laskin says that the project will provide for those who can’t pay as well.
“Anyone in the community can have a bike,” Laskin said.
The Bike Church is currently teaching Brown Berets and other volunteers how to fix bikes so that one day the community can run the project itself.
“The idea is to have people in the community run the project,” Green said.
Sanchez described the Bike Shack as an adaptation to the times. Since illegal immigrants cannot obtain United States driver’s licenses, the Bike Shack will allow them a legal form of transportation.
The Brown Berets were originally formed in the early 1960s as a Chicano movement modeled after the Black Panther Party. The group took actions in favor of quality education.
In 1968, the Brown Berets planned the East L.A. Walkouts, where thousands of Los Angeles students protested education standards. The walkouts, considered the largest school walkouts in the history of California, soon after spread across the United States and made the Brown Berets a national organization.
In 1972, several Brown Berets occupied Santa Catalina Island, off the California coast, and claimed it for Mexico. Shortly after this move, the original L.A. Brown Berets chapter dissolved because of speculated CIA involvement.
The Watsonville Brown Berets chapter formed in 1994 as a revival of the national Brown Beret movement of the 1960s. It was in light of a tragedy linked to gang violence, which claimed the lives of George Cortez, 16, and his sister Jessica Cortez, 9, that the Watsonville chapter formed to counter gang violence and address issues within Chicano communities.
The Brown Berets provide alternative activities for youth including Youth Brigade, a group for high school students held at the Brown Beret Headquarters and Girlz Space, a group for high school girls who talk about issues affecting young women, held at the YMCA.
“If the youth is in trouble we promote them by having an alternative,” said Tapia, who is involved with Youth Brigade and Girlz Space.
The Brown Berets hold meetings, open to the community, every Thursday night in Watsonville.
“We are very inclusive,” said Jennifer Laskin, a Brown Beret member. “The Brown Berets is about diversity.”
Inspired by Malcolm X, the Brown Beret meeting utilizes the concept of “Each one teach one.” The idea is that each member is an equal in the organization, and thus each person is encouraged to teach something or bring up a new topic. The Thursday meetings also include an education session, which is usually led by a guest speaker.
As a Brown Beret member named Lupe asserted, “I’ve learned more in the Brown Berets than I’ve learned in school.”