Chicano Culture in Action

Barrios Unidos’ Impact on Peace and Justice

By Joshua Patstone
October 7, 2023
Mexican Flag

It’s been almost two decades since Frank de Jesus Acosta and the legendary Harry Belafonte shared these sentiments about Barrios Unidos in the book, “The History of Barrios Unidos: Healing Community Violence.” Much has changed since then. While Barrios Unidos continues its community work, many of its movement leaders, partners, and loved ones have passed away, including Harry Belafonte.

The political and social landscape has also changed, with rising violence and social unrest at home and around the world. However, by adhering to its guiding principle of “La Cultura Cura” (Culture Cures), Barrios Unidos has persevered and made substantial progress toward its ultimate goal: social justice and equity.

“The story of the Barrios Unidos Community peace movement now spans about 30 years. It’s a tale of individual struggle and redemption by its early pioneers who found a way out of street gang warfare, addiction, and poverty gripping America’s barrios. It’s also the narrative of an evolving grassroots mobilization rooted in the Mexican American (or Chicano) civil rights and antiwar movements of the 60s and 70s. Over a quarter-century, BU’s work has expanded, engaging thousands, saving countless lives, nurturing leaders, and sowing transformative hope across the nation.”

Frank de Jesus Acosta"The History of Barrios Unidos: Healing Community Violence," 2007

To grasp Barrios Unidos, one must understand the Chicano movement. We often get bombarded with images of lowriders, tattoos, and the all-too-familiar gang and prison culture. While many of these images are undeniably part of Chicano culture, they don’t provide a comprehensive representation. Media depictions often ignore the rich history of community organizing, intellectual contributions, art, and resistance that define the movement. Chicano history should be understood as emerging from specific materials and historical circumstances, like colonization, class relations, religious and political ideologies, organization, policies, migration, and more.

The Chicano movement traces its roots back to struggle, starting from the time of violent European colonization of the Americas, through the Mexican American War, and up to the present day. It’s a culture and ideology born out of resistance against the genocide and state violence faced by Indigenous populations in the Americas. 

Chicanismo, or the identification and practice of being Chicano, involves reclaiming a culture that has been attacked, misused, and nearly wiped out due to Western colonization. Chicanismo simultaneously holds a political stance, a cultural and racial identity, and a way of life that keeps changing and evolving to fit the current historical context. It’s the fight for independence, sovereignty, and dignity in the midst of ongoing racialized violence and white supremacy.

Two men from Barrios Unidos shaking hands
A traditional dance performance at Barrios Unidos
Members of Barrios Unidos stand together in front of mural

Corky Gonzales beautifully explains chicanismo in his famous poem “I am Joaquin” when he says, “And now! I must choose between the paradox of victory of the spirit, despite physical hunger, or to exist in the grasp of American social neurosis, sterilization of the soul and a full stomach.”

Barrios Unidos is a vital aspect of the Chicano movement, carrying the responsibility of its continuation. The organization’s history is extensive, and capturing its entirety in one document is impractical. Recognized globally for advocating incarcerated individuals, nonviolence, peace among gangs, mentoring youth and leaders, and policy transformation, Barrios Unidos remains dedicated to creating peace and justice, not only in Santa Cruz but around the world.

“Barrios Unidos follows in the positive spiritual traditions of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and Malcolm X after his pilgrimage to Mecca. The story and example of Barrios Unidos inspire everyone in the movement.

Harry Belafonte

Founded by Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez, a child of Fresno’s Westside farmworker community, Barrios Unidos emerged from a commitment to make a difference. His journey, marked by personal struggles and an encounter with Cesar Chavez’s teachings, fueled the organization’s inception. The collaboration of individuals like Henry Dominguez, Walter Guzman, Otilio “OT” Quintero, Mary Lou Alejandrez, Danny Glover, and more solidified Barrios Unidos’ impact on countless lives.

Barrios Unidos’ history is profound, touching communities worldwide, facilitating peace treaties between gangs, advocating for incarcerated individuals, and mentoring individuals who have achieved historic milestones for peace and justice. Now, Barrios Unidos aims to pass its knowledge to the next generation, ensuring the actualization of peace and justice.


More About Barrios Unidos

Barrios Unidos is located at 1817 Soquel Ave, Santa Cruz CA, where they host community programs such as the Prison Project, Reentry Program, Youth Program, Music Studio, Food Pantry, Silk Screening Shop, Event Center, and Community events, Aztec Dancing, Folklorico Dancing, Auto Body Shop, Retreat Center, and more.

Barrios Unidos Website
Barrios Unidos, Serving Since 1977 - Handshake Logo