Mar 14, 2024 - World

Congressmen pursue FBI, CIA files on Latino civil rights pioneers

Historical images of Latino civil rights advocates Dolores Huerta, Hector P. Garcia and Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales

Latino civil rights advocates Dolores Huerta, Héctor P. García, and Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales. Photos: Cathy Murphy/Getty Images and Denver Post via Getty Images

Two U.S. House members want the FBI and CIA to declassify all documents related to the surveillance and harassment of Latino civil rights leaders from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Why it matters: It's widely known that the FBI's COINTELPRO and CIA's Operation CHAOS sought to disrupt the civil rights activities of Black Americans, but how those programs affected Latino activists is largely unknown.

Zoom in: U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) and Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) this week sent a letter to CIA Director William J. Burns and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray asking them to release all documents connected to the surveillance of the Latino civil rights movement.

  • "The historical record is not clear about whether FBI (or CIA) engaged in surveillance of the First Amendment protected activities of the Latino civil rights movement," the pair wrote.
  • It's also unknown if the FBI or CIA "tried to sabotage or disrupt" the Latino civil rights movement, as the FBI did with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., so newly released documents should clear the record, they said.

On Tuesday at a hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Castro asked Burns and Wray about looking into releasing the documents.

  • They promised to look into it and work with Castro.

Background: The FBI's COINTELPRO, short for Counterintelligence Program, was created in the 1950s to disrupt allegedly Communist activities.

  • However, the FBI routinely monitored the activities of King and Malcolm X, planting informants while trying to disrupt planned demonstrations against racism.
  • "We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security," FBI Domestic Intelligence Chief William Sullivan wrote after King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.
Young Lords Party Minister of Education, and later journalist, Juan Gonzalez speaks with an unidentified woman in New York City, 1969.
Young Lords Party Minister of Education, and later journalist, Juan Gonzalez speaks with an unidentified woman in New York City, 1969. Photo: Bev Grant/Getty Images

Between the lines: Historians in recent years have uncovered quite a bit about FBI surveillance of Latino leaders through open records requests, Brian Behnken, an Iowa State University history professor, tells Axios.

  • The FBI monitored the works of civil rights leader Héctor P. García, the New York-based, Puerto Rican Young Lords Party, and later the activities of the Chicano Movement.
  • The Los Angeles Times reported in 1995 that the FBI had monitored Mexican American farmworker leader Cesar Chavez for years.
  • The Dallas Morning News reported in 2013 that the FBI also was monitoring the activities of the GI Forum, a group founded by García for World War II veterans fighting discrimination.
  • Works by scholars and activists over the years have also uncovered that the FBI has monitored Chicano Movement leaders Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, Reies López Tijerina, José Angel Gutiérrez, and Dolores Huerta.

Yes, but: Having agencies release the documents could save years of waiting for public records requests and possible lawsuits to get information to the public.

  • Some Latino leaders and their families may not even know about the FBI files and wouldn't know they needed to file open records requests.

The intrigue: Castro's mother, Rosie Castro, was monitored by the FBI for her activities in the Chicano Movement, files show.

  • An FBI informant noted that Rosie Castro "was observed buying two small posters of Angela Davis for 50 cents each, which were mentioned by Rosie Castro as having been printed in Cuba," the San Antonio Express-News reports.
  • Joaquin Castro said his mother will be asking for her FBI files.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing was held Tuesday, not Wednesday.

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