50 years later, Chicano Catholic activists recall their midnight Mass clash with police

Católicos por La Raza members demonstrate in Los Angeles, circa 1970. Photo courtesy of UCLA CSRC

LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Fifty years later, Richard Martínez still remembers the yelling and screaming. 

He and a group of supporters of Católicos por La Raza, a lay Catholic group, were trying to get into the midnight Mass at St. Basil Catholic Church in Los Angeles, where then-Cardinal James Francis McIntyre was presiding. They wanted to confront McIntyre about what they said was the Catholic Church’s neglect of the poor and the lack of Mexican American representation within the institution. 


Off-duty deputy sheriffs, acting as ushers, tried to keep them out. As Martínez and others tried to force their way in, the crowd outside St. Basil kept chanting: “Let the poor people in! Let the poor people in!”

Eventually, according to Los Angeles Times archives, more than 20 people were arrested for their part in the melee.

[Don’t miss the latest news from the church and the world. Sign up for our daily newsletter.]

"The church needed to be part of our life," said Martínez, 76.

Martínez and other members of the now disbanded Católicos por La Raza gathered on Saturday (Jan. 11) at the Church of the Epiphany, an Episcopal church, to commemorate the famed demonstration. Organizers said the reunion was important as the group's former members get older.

“We’re seeing each other only in funerals," said Armando Vazquez-Ramos, who was 20 at the time of the demonstration.

Católicos por La Raza was formed in 1969 by Mexican Americans who criticized the church for what they said was a lack of involvement with the farmworker movement led by Cesar Chavez and the church's lack of support for the Chicano student walkout movement in Los Angeles. That Christmas Eve, before the clash with police, between 200 and 350 people gathered outside St. Basil for an alternative "people's Mass," wrote professor Mario T. García in his book "Chicano Liberation Theology."

[Want to discuss politics with other America readers? Join our Facebook discussion group, moderated by America’s writers and editors.]

The coalition, which disbanded not long after the Christmas Eve protest, was part of the larger Chicana and Chicano civil rights movement that advocated for voting and political rights, educational advancement and gender equality.

Activists said they often saw Presbyterian, Baptist and Episcopalian leaders in the front lines of social justice movements at the time. They wondered, “Where are the Catholics?”

“Mexican-Americans have been most faithful to Catholicism and its traditions,” read a Católicos news release addressed to McIntyre.

Católicos por La Raza leader Richard Cruz detailed the group's objectives at a news conference at the Los Angeles Press Club, García wrote in his book.

“We have committed ourselves to one goal — the return of the Catholic Church to the oppressed Chicano community,” Cruz announced, saying the group wanted the Catholic Church “to become as radical as Christ.”

The activism of Católicos por La Raza and the Christmas Eve demonstration are not widely known, said Felipe Hinojosa, a professor at Texas A&M University who focuses on Mexican American studies and religion. The intersection of religion and politics is an area that has been sorely understudied in Mexican American history, Hinojosa said.

“This was the first moment where you had a very bold and brash and unafraid movement of young people that were going to take on the church,” Hinojosa said. “Nothing like this had happened, at least not in the United States.”

Hinojosa said the church was just another institution “that people within the Chicano movement went after to try to reform."

The group tried to meet with McIntyre but he refused, according to García's book. Members picketed the cardinal’s residence at St. Basil and held a prayer vigil on Thanksgiving, García detailed. Eventually, on Dec. 18, between 15 and 30 members of the group forced their way into McIntyre’s office.

McIntyre was livid, according to García's account. But he listened and said he’d look into their demands.

When Católicos didn’t hear from him, they proceeded with the Christmas Eve protests. 

A dozen people were eventually found guilty, with some serving two to four months in jail for disrupting a religious service, García wrote. But they believe their actions led to changes in the archdiocese. 

McIntyre announced his retirement in early 1970. Archbishop Timothy Manning took the helm and soon after met with Católicos por La Raza, according to García's book. Manning cleared additional funds for the church’s social and educational services in East LA, García wrote. The archbishop also created an interparochial council of clergy for the East LA parishes to function as an advisory group to him. A year later, the Rev. Juan Arzube, who was originally from Ecuador, was appointed auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles. 

Hinojosa said the Catholic Church already had a long history of labor organizing, but it involved certain radical priests or nuns working within the strictures of the church.

After 1969 and 1970, Hinojosa said, “You have the hierarchy start to say, ‘This is good. Let’s move in this direction.’

“That was a huge shift,” he said.

Católicos por La Raza disbanded after anti-Vietnam War protests, organized by a group called the Chicano Moratorium Committee Against the Vietnam War, escalated to violent confrontations with police. Three people were killed, including journalist Ruben Salazar.

Lydia Lopez, on Saturday, vividly remembered those series of events.

She reminisced with dozens of others while they looked over old photos of their group holding signs that read “The church will be made relevant” and “Chicanos are also God’s children.”

For Lopez, it was hard to be critical of the Roman Catholic Church because she herself was not Catholic. Her husband was, but she was an Episcopalian.

Lopez was active in the Chicano movement, and she accompanied her husband on the night of the demonstration at St. Basil.

“I was proud of that moment even though I’m self-conscious about it because it wasn’t my pew,” said Lopez, 77.

To Lopez, the Church of the Epiphany, where the reunion was held, is a meaningful place. It was the LA base for Chavez, the civil rights activist, and his farmworker movement and where activists planned the Chicano Moratorium to protest the Vietnam War draft. She said she was at a picket line when UCLA professor Juan Gómez-Quiñones invited her to a party at the church. She went and remembered seeing the church embellished with papel picado as mariachis were playing. 

“I wept because I needed a place as a Chicana and I needed a place as a Christian to call home,” she said.

Martínez, who is now retired, and other former members of Católicos por La Raza say they hope that Latino churches and young people can continue some of the Christmas Eve protest, especially at a time when Hispanic Americans have emerged as a key voting demographic.  

Martínez went on to work as a professional community organizer. He worked as a director for the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and finished his professional career as an outreach manager with the county of Los Angeles.

“I would hope that the energy, the dynamism that the Chicano movement had could be reflected in the generations that are taking on the issues of today,” Martínez said.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

We don’t have comments turned on everywhere anymore. We have recently relaunched the commenting experience at America and are aiming for a more focused commenting experience with better moderation by opening comments on a select number of articles each day.

But we still want your feedback. You can join the conversation about this article with us in social media on Twitter or Facebook, or in one of our Facebook discussion groups for various topics.

Or send us feedback on this article with one of the options below:

We welcome and read all letters to the editor but, due to the volume received, cannot guarantee a response.

In order to be considered for publication, letters should be brief (around 200 words or less) and include the author’s name and geographic location. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

We open comments only on select articles so that we can provide a focused and well-moderated discussion on interesting topics. If you think this article provides the opportunity for such a discussion, please let us know what you'd like to talk about, or what interesting question you think readers might want to respond to.

If we decide to open comments on this article, we will email you to let you know.

If you have a message for the author, we will do our best to pass it along. Note that if the article is from a wire service such as Catholic News Service, Religion News Service, or the Associated Press, we will not have direct contact information for the author. We cannot guarantee a response from any author.

We welcome any information that will help us improve the factual accuracy of this piece. Thank you.

Please consult our Contact Us page for other options to reach us.

When you click submit, this article page will reload. You should see a message at the top of the reloaded page confirming that your feedback has been received.


The latest from america

‘No political party is perfect. I keep saying that no matter who’s in the White House come Nov. 3, Jesus Christ is still on the throne.’
Stephen G. AdubatoSeptember 23, 2020
God being God includes God not being who we are. How can someone who is not us not surprise us?
Terrance KleinSeptember 23, 2020
Bishop Barron on talking to atheists, young people and the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Ashley McKinlessSeptember 23, 2020
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden vows to “codify Roe v. Wade,” and his running mate, Kamala Harris, has sponsored legislation that would override state laws and require the coverage of elective abortions by all federal health programs.
Voting for a pro-life president is not only about Supreme Court nominations, writes Richard M. Doerflinger. State laws restricting abortion, conscience protections and the ban on federal funding of abortion are also at stake.
Richard M. DoerflingerSeptember 23, 2020