Brown Beret Headquarters
Update: In October 2020, the Brown Beret Headquarters was Determined Eligible by the National Park Service for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. It was not officially listed on the National Register due to owner opposition. The building is listed on the California Register and is eligible for local designation.
Founded in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, the Brown Berets were an influential community-based social justice organization that played a leading role in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Brown Berets were originally formed as the Young Citizens for Community Action in 1966 and were active in Los Angeles’ Eastside neighborhoods. The name was changed to Young Chicanos for Community Action in 1967. Members wore brown berets as a symbol of unity and resistance, which inspired the organization’s third name.
The Brown Berets took on a range of social and political issues that plagued the Mexican American and Chicanx barrios of the Eastside in various sectors of life, including educational inequality, healthcare access, police brutality, and wartime casualties. They were active predominantly in the unincorporated area of East Los Angeles, though they also had a strong presence in Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights.
In addition to their successful marches and rallies one of the Brown Berets' most important accomplishments was the establishment of El Barrio Free Clinic on Whittier Boulevard in 1969.
At the height of their activities in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the organization relocated their headquarters several times as their presence became known to government official and L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, who thought them too radical. For example, the Berets suspected a firebombing of one of their many headquarter locations was conducted by local officers. Their meeting spaces continued to be targets of raids as their activism expanded throughout the community.
The modest building at 2639-41 E. Fourth Street was one of the organization's most significant headquarters, as it served as the Berets' primary meeting location during the planning of the 1970s Chicano Moratorium. The building stands directly across from Theodore Roosevelt High School on Mott Street. The proximity of Beret Headquarters to the high school underscored youth participation in the Chicano Movement.
Built in 1923, the building retains its original design and floorplan as a mixed-use vernacular building, though it has been altered over time. The Brown Beret Headquarters occupied ground floor storefront space for an indefinite period of time after 1968, as the organization faced continuous threats from law enforcement.
The Brown Berets are a Chicanx community organization that advocated for equal opportunity for individuals of Mexican descent in East Los Angeles. While the group still exists today, they were most active in the 1960s and ‘70s and eventually established chapters through the southwest and in cities with large Chicanx communities.
The Berets emphasized equal treatment from government agencies, including school boards, draft boards, health and welfare programs, and law enforcement agencies. Their actions are often described as militant and, in a time of burgeoning social protest in the United States, even revolutionary. Their shift in tactics can be attributed in many ways to the victimization of Chicanx communities at the hands of law enforcement.
The Berets' membership boasted both male and female members, including students, making it a diverse organization in its time. At their headquarters on East 4th Street, they organized various protest marches to make their presence more visible to civic and business leaders and to empower residents of the East Los Angeles barrio, a historically neglected area. Their self-published magazine La Causa achieved a significant following.
Among the Brown Beret’s most pressing campaigns were the organization’s protests of the deployment of Mexican American soldiers during the Vietnam War and unequal access to quality education and healthcare.
Youth participation was crucial to the success of the Brown Berets. Local high school students organized some of the earliest protests in East Los Angeles of the Chicano Movement, in a series of coordinated walkouts in 1966. As the war in Vietnam escalated, young Chicano men like Rosalio Muñoz, burned their draft cards in solidarity with the Berets.
Student members eventually assumed leadership roles that moved away from violent protest and toward an education organization. With connections throughout the southwest, student members pushed to recognize the Chicanx identity on a national level. A lasting impact of their efforts can be observed in intuitions of higher education hosting a curriculum in Chicanx Studies.
Women also played a key role in the organization. Female member oversaw a catalytic social welfare program that grew into a free clinic on Whittier Boulevard in 1969. The Berets’ mission here was to overcome limited access to healthcare and health education. East Los Angeles in particular experienced high mortality rates among women and children relative to the rest of the country. This community service agency was managed by Gloria Arellanes.
In addition, Brown Berets were widely recognized throughout the Southwest for their participation in anti-war demonstration, including the December 1969 march (Los Cinco Puntos to Obregon Park) and the 1970s Chicano Moratorium March (Belvedere Park to Laguna/Salazar Park).
The Brown Beret’s Headquarters represents the history of Mexican American and Chicanx activism in East Los Angeles, particularly among local youth.
At the height of the Chicano Civil Rights movement, the Brown Berets focused on improving the circumstances of eastside Mexican American communities, among the largest of the nation. Like other contemporary movements, the Chicano Movement garnered a strong sense of nationalism among people of Mexican descent throughout the country, and East Los Angeles remains an epicenter to this day.
The Brown Berets demonstrated this commitment though health and welfare initiatives in addition to militant action, and their legacy remain potent in the community today.