‘Chicano Communists and the Struggle for Social Justice’: A welcome new book
Ralph Cuarón, wearing cap to the right, as a background actor in the 1954 film, "Salt of the Earth." | From the book

Communist support for African-American equality and Black liberation is now well documented and largely undisputed. Gerald Horne’s biographies of Paul Robeson, William L. Patterson, and Ferdinand Smith; Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression; Sara Rzeszutek’s James and Esther Cooper Jackson: Love and Courage in the Black Freedom Movement; and Eric S. Gellman’s Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights are just a few notable examples.

Less well documented, though, is the Communist Party USA’s work among and with Latinx and Mexican Americans. Enrique M. Buelna’s new Chicano Communists and the Struggle for Social Justice is a welcome addition to a growing body of what is now overwhelming evidence placing Communists at the center of the struggle for equality and against racism in the United States.

Buelna situates Latinx and Mexican American Communists as part of the fabric of our country—in all of its rich diversity—a small, but influential subsection of political activists committed to equality, workers’ rights, peace, and socialism. He notes, “This story of Chicano Communists is a quintessential American one and absolutely relevant to our understanding of who we are as a nation.” Chicano communists were part of the broader Mexican-American Left and “the CP represented a vehicle—albeit an imperfect one—for achieving community-wide goals” in the Mexican-American community.

Though not a traditional biography, Buelna’s study focuses on the life of the well-known Mexican-American CPUSA leader Ralph Cuarón.

Cuarón, a member of the National Maritime Union—in which Communists, like Ferdinand Smith, played a decisive leadership role—began his political life as a merchant marine studying Marxism. Like many Communists, it was during this time, the late 1930s and early 1940s, that Cuarón immersed himself in radical organizing against the rise of fascism abroad.

He worked closely with the Communist-organized Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, which relocated partisans fleeing the brutal dictatorship of Francisco Franco after the defeat of the Spanish Loyalists in Spain. Cuarón recalled rescuing a Portuguese Communist from the port of Le Havre, France. “As a union steward, Cuarón not only became an important conduit for information between union leadership and rank-and-file workers, but he managed to gain some freedom and control over his daily activities,” Buelna notes. “In this capacity, he played a key role in getting the stowaway boarded under cover of darkness, dressing him in a sailor’s uniform, and providing him with false documentations to complete his trip.” Once in New York, Cuarón’s Portuguese comrade was resettled by the Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee.

Within a short period, “Cuarón had traveled the world, participated in labor organizing, and engaged in militant CP actions. He recalled, with great relish, the day he walked straight to the local bookstore of the Communist Party in San Pedro [California] and joined the organization. He was now, officially, a ‘soldier of the working class.’”

By the late 1940s, as the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union shifted into the post-war domestic Red Scare—and as the NMU’s leadership colluded in the witch-hunt to oust Communists from its membership and leadership—Cuarón began working at an East Los Angeles furniture company, where he “immersed [himself] in the politics of the UFWA [United Furniture Workers of America] Local 576.” He was soon introduced to other UFWA party activists and recalled, “I just thought they were great. I [had] finally found the Movement.”

Cuarón wasn’t naive or uncritical of the CPUSA, though. “The Mexican-American community, Cuarón believed, required urgent organization and defense; therefore, he was often impatient with party pronouncements of Mexican-American self-determination at a future date [italics in original]. In other words,” Buelna continued, “Cuarón cringed at the notion that Mexican-American liberation would have to wait behind that of African Americans, whom many in the party believed took priority over all other minority groups.” This was a nuanced tension within the CPUSA that deserves more exploration.

Cuarón, who quickly emerged as a CPUSA leader, soon joined the party’s Mexican American Commission and the Los Angeles chapter of the Civil Rights Congress. By 1948, he was appointed as an organizer for the UFWA Local 576.

According to Buelna, Cuarón’s outspoken advocacy for immediate action on the Mexican American question, as well as his challenging of Local 576’s leadership in the mid-1950s did not endear him to party leaders then on the defensive and taking a more cautious stand. The Red Scare, McCarthyism, and Taft-Hartley, among other repressive measures, forced a decade-long civil liberties retreat. Mexican-American Communists, like Cuarón, also suffered from this assault.

This is just a brief snapshot of Cuarón’s amazing life. Buelna provides a rich tapestry of detail in Chicano Communists, which a short review can only touch on.

As Buelna concludes, “Those Mexican Americans who joined the Communist Party did so, some would say, out of sheer necessity. The grueling poverty of the Great Depression, miserable living conditions, discrimination, segregation, deportations, and empty stomachs led many to question the status quo…. Mexican Americans were not victims; these were folks who jumped into the political milieu of the times to take charge of their lives. They joined the CP because it provided them with a language—the ideological framework—to understand their oppression.”

Chicano Communists is a long-awaited contribution to the history of Mexican-American radicalism, the CPUSA, and the struggle for equality, workers’ rights, peace, and socialism. It is highly recommended.

Chicano Communists and the Struggle for Social Justice
By Enrique M. Buelna
University of Arizona Press, 2019
277 pages


CONTRIBUTOR

Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the president of the St. Louis Workers' Education Society (WES), a 501c3 non-profit organization chartered by the St. Louis Central Labor Council as a Workers Center. His articles have been published in the St. Louis Labor Tribune, Alternet, Shelterforce, Political Affairs, and Z-Magazine, among other publications. He is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA," and is available to speak at your community center, union hall or campus.

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