El Barrio Free Clinic | Los Angeles Conservancy
Photo courtesy of GPA Consulting, Inc

El Barrio Free Clinic

El Barrio Free Clinic was a successful social welfare initiative implemented by the Brown Berets, a leading organization during the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. The clinic operated from May 1968 to December 1970 and is one of the Brown Berets’ most important accomplishments.

The free clinic opened its doors on Whittier Boulevard on May 30, 1969, standing in one of many low-rise commercial buildings in the area. The clinic responded to pressing issues facing the Mexican American and Chicanx community in East Los Angeles, especially the lack of access to affordable healthcare.

It was operated by an all-volunteer staff headed by Gloria Arellanes, a prominent female leader among the Brown Berets. Unfortunately, internal conflict among Beret members over the direction of the larger organization led to the clinic’s closure in December 1970.

The building served, in part, as a headquarters for Brown Berets, as well a location for Chicano Moratorium Committee meetings. The Clinic also reveals the important contributions of Chicana women to the overall social justice movement in East Los Angeles.

Though Mexican and Mexican American communities had faced discrimination for decades, the issues came to a head in the 1960s with the birth of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, particularly in established barrios like East Los Angeles. Having been confined to certain neighborhoods lacking in basic services, activist began to organize in response to the rampant inequality they observed in multiple sectors of community life.

Several factors contributed to the civil resistance that followed, and various organizations formed to correct these inequalities.

An anti-Vietnam War movement among community members gained traction as part of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement due to disproportionate death tolls of Mexican American and Chicano soldiers. Racial tensions peaked as Chicanx high-school student mounted protests against local law enforcement and the public school system, indicating a deep rift between government agencies and the community.

The Brown Berets founded El Barrio Free Clinic in the heart of East Los Angeles in the context of this larger social justice movement. Limited financial resources and lack of primary care doctors in the community left residents with few healthcare options. Further underscoring the need for a clinic was the high infant mortality rates that characterized many Mexican American neighborhoods.

Brown Beret member Gloria Arellanes was chosen to head the clinic. She and her team emphasized family planning and basic health education, in contrary to other free clinic models. Though larger foundations provided financial support, the clinic remained true to its grassroots origins.

Despite its short time in operation, the clinic ultimately proved to be a successful example of community-based healthcare.

Conflict between the male and female leaders of the Brown Berets led to a split in the organization in February 1970, leaving the clinic’s future in question. The female members resigned from the Brown Berets and formed their own organization, Las Adelitas. This set the clinic’s dissolution in motion, and the doors officially closed in December 1970.

Las Adelitas opened another clinic in March 1971, La Clínica del Barrio, and many of the same volunteers remained involved. La Clínica del Barrio was located a short distance away on Atlantic Boulevard. AltaMed Medical Group, which now has an expansive presence in Southern California, was an outgrowth of La Clínica and, subsequently, El Barrio Free Clinic.

The lasting effects of El Barrio Free Clinic are profound not only for the local Mexican American and Chicanx community, but for Los Angeles as a whole.

The clinic demonstrates the burgeoning self-determination of female activists in the face of oppressive systems even among social justice groups. Conflict arose, in particular, from the assigned roles of male and female members.

Female Brown Berets, though running the clinic effectively, were relegated to secretarial positions by their male counterparts. As a result, the success of the clinic represents the rise of female community leaders in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement despite facing sexism within their own activist groups. 

El Barrio Free Clinic also illustrated the ways in which the Brown Berets’ mission expanded beyond acts of protest to include social reform in the underserved community of East Los Angeles.

Having set new standards of community-based healthcare in East Los Angeles, El Barrio Free Clinic is a significant touchstone in the movement for self-determination among eastside Chicanxs and serves as a reminder of the ways in which the local community elevated itself from a marginalized position.

Photo by Laura Dominguez/L.A. Conservancy

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