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Project Introduction

More than five decades ago, in colonias and barrios across California, Mexican-American men and women made history. They were workers and housewives, recent immigrants and returning soldiers. They toiled in the fields and on the railroads, in construction and in service jobs. For many years, they experienced racism and discrimination, and they believed they had no power to change the status quo. But through a unique experiment, they discovered otherwise.

That bold experiment was the Community Service Organization, a grassroots organizing effort that empowered a generation of Mexican-Americans and changed the course of history for their children. Through voter registration drives, citizenship classes, lawsuits and legislative campaigns, CSO enabled poor immigrants to make demands on the political system and to move into the mainstream of American society.

The CSO Project was formed to capture the stories of the pioneers whose work in the 1950s marked the beginning of the Chicano civil rights movement. Through this website and a range of other media – including archival collections, oral histories, a landmark CSO conference, and a book — the project will probe the organization’s successes and failures in order to pass its lessons on to future generations.

The alumni of CSO include famous figures, such as former U.S. Rep. Edward Roybal, the first Mexican-American elected to political office in Los Angeles, and Cesar Chavez, who learned to organize in CSO and went on to apply those lessons to building a union for farm workers. But the real story of CSO is about thousands of men and women who learned to hold house meetings, conduct voter registration drives, protest police brutality, and bring evening citizenship classes to neighborhood schools.

It is the story of Juan Govea, who worked for the Santa Fe Railway by day and labored at home each night to translate the Department of Motor Vehicles manual into Spanish, and his daughter, Jessica, whose childhood experiences as a “CSO kid” propelled her into the leadership of the United Farm Workers. It is the story of Hector Tarango, who in 1948 made history in Orange County by winning the first school desegregation case in the country.

At a time when a nascent immigrant rights movement struggles to overcome prejudice and combat the growing economic divide in the United States, building organized communities that engage in civic participation is more important than ever. The lessons and legacies of the CSO model can provide a catalyst for action today.