The History of SACNAS

By Ciriaco Q. Gonzales, Dr. JV Martinez, Dr. Richard Tapia and Dr. William Yslas Velez

The Early Days (1845 – 1970’s)

There is a lot of history that precedes what is now referred to as the Chicano Movement in the United States, and what would eventually lead to the creation of SACNAS as we know it.

Much of it began back in 1845 with the Mexican-American War, which resulted in extreme violence, annexation of most of the southwest that was once Mexico, and rampant discrimination. There was already a pattern of taking the land away from the Native Americans known as the American-Indian Wars. As a result of these wars, much of the land grants that Spain had ceded to the settlers in New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and California, were negated by the new government and many people lost their land. The Apache were driven from their homes in New Mexico and Arizona, and the Navajo (Dine) were moved to what amounted to a concentration camp in New Mexico, later put to be put in Indian Reservations. This was known as manifest destiny at the time. Resentment festered for a long time, although not as cruel as the institution of slavery that our African American brothers suffered.

In 1894 the Alianza Hispano-Americana was established in Tucson, Arizona as a mutual aid benefit society for Mexicans in Arizona, specifically advocating for education and civil rights. It was first formed as lodges similar to the Masons, and serveed the Mexican American population due to the mistreatment and discrimination by the Americano (also known as Gringos, Anglos and several other names depending on the locale).

For many years there was an identity crisis for Mexican Americans in the southwestern United States. The Gringo culture was alien and we were called Mexicans, greasers and other derogatory names. When it was convenient we were referred to as Spanish, Spanish-Americans, Hispanos, Latinos, and Mexican Americans. We even used these titles to avoid being referred to as Mexican, even if our families came from Mexico. These designations were all applied to us by the Gringos/Americanos. The term “Chicano”, although not accepted by everyone, was one that we designated for ourselves and not one given to us by the dominant Americano/Gringo culture.

Throughout the 1930’s and 40’s Mexican Americans continued to be treated badly and were even sent back to Mexico by the train load. There was a wave of discrimination and abuse that would result in a pushback by some segments of the Chicano Community.

In the 1950‘s, 60’s and 70’s, the minority populations of the United States began their trek to equality. Following the American Civil Rights Movement in 1954 and later the Black Power movement in 1965, the Chicano Civil Rights Movement (or El Movimiento) gained it’s traction in the 1960s.

During this time, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Russel Means and Dennis Banks, Corky Gonzales and Reyes Tijerina were jailed for protesting the treatment of African Americans, Chicanos, and Native Americans. The Civil Rights Movements produced the Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta Grape Boycotts in 1966, Dennis Banks and Russell Means started the American Indian Movement (AIM), Corky Gonzales wrote his epic Poem I Am Joaquin, Reyes Tijerina raided the court house in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico and Ernesto Galarza established La RAZA PARTY in Crystal City, Texas.

Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta would eventually establish the United Farm Workers of America and that fomented “La Causa” and the Chicano Movement Nationwide. Cesar Chavez had studied the philosophies of Gandhi and Saint Francis of Assisi, developing a philosophy of nonviolence similar to Martin Luther King. Both Chavez and King espoused deep religious philosophies that transcended the political views of the time.

Toward the end of the 1960s, students had also begun playing a central role in the Chicano and Indian movements by their walkouts of schools in Denver and Los Angeles to protest curricula, high dropout rates, bans on speaking Spanish or displaying their culture and other related issues.

There were numerous others involved in the efforts aside from these well-known leaders. They were the vanguard of what became the National Civil Rights Movement. They led numerous marches in peaceful protest to all the discrimination that was insidious toward all the minority communities. All these events and activism led to the changes that would open up opportunities for all of us for years to come.

Creating SACNAS (1973 to present)

In 1973 Dr. Alonzo Atencio invited the few Chicano and Native American Scientists he knew of, to Albuquerque. He wanted to organize a group that would address the paucity of Chicano and Native Americans in academia and government agencies. We needed to get our “Caca” together as Dr. Ricardo Griego bluntly put it. It was time to set up the mechanism to develop our future leaders to be at the table where decisions are made, and for students to be trained in the sciences.

Dr. Atencio obtained funds to sponsor the meeting from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with help from Dr. Geraldine Woods and Dr. Robert Gibbs of the NIH Division of Research Resources.

At that meeting the attendees were:
• Dr. Don Ahshapanek
• Dr. Alonzo Atencio
• Dr. Fred Young Begay
• Dr. Zenaido Camacho
• Dr. Eugene Cota-Robles
• Dr. Orlando Cuellar
• Dr. Ruben Duran
• Dr. Arthur Diaz
• Dr. Ciriaco Gonzales
• Dr. Ricardo Griego
• Dr. Vicente Llamas
• Dr. Sigfredo Maestas
• Dr. Jose Martinez
• Dr. Reynaldo Morales
• Dr. Robert Pozos
• Dr. Bill Rivera
• Dr. Richard Tapia


The founding of SACNAS, depicted in the top left of this artwork we commissioned for our 2011 conference from local indigenous artist Sol Aquino.

This group could be referred to as the founders of SACNAS. Among them were 3 chemists, 2 biochemists, 3 biologists, 3 physicists, and 2 mathematicians and 4 in other STEM areas.

“We very desperately needed the support of each other, for only we , certainly not our university colleagues, understood the challenge of dealing with the extra baggage that we as underrepresented minorities growing up in this country faced in our professional life,” described Dr. Richard Tapia. “So Chicano gave me an identity, and SACNAS gave me a Chicano family that greatly enhanced that identity. The guiding theme of SACNAS has always been to put the cause above the individual.”

At the initial meeting it was decided to form a Federation of Chicano and Native American Scientists, with a steering committee chaired by myself (Dr. Ciriaco Gonzales). A meeting was scheduled for the fall of 1972 in Denver at which the name Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) would be decided upon.

The first official Annual meeting of SACNAS was then held in Atlantic City, New Jersey on April 19, 1973 in conjunction with the meetings of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Dr. Eugene Cota-Robles was elected President and a Board of Directors was established. There were approximately 50 members at the meeting, with several making scientific presentations. It was supported with funds from NIH and other agencies.

“We bonded and we tried to guide and help each other. This bond has lasted me my entire life,” recalled Dr. Richard Tapia.

“My first encounter with SACNAS was at the 1973 meeting as a graduate student,” reflected Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff. “I felt I had found a group that understood where I came from and understood my dreams. It was truly life-changing!”

The first official board meeting was held on June 1, 1973 at Haskell Indian Junior College, Lawrence, Kansas, hosted by Dr. Don Ahshapanek, professor of biology at Haskell. Present were: Don Ahshapanek, Eugene Cota-Robles, Arthur Diaz, Ciriaco Gonzales, Alonzo Atencio and Richard Tapia. The Board decided to focus on specific goals and develop a proposal to initiate a predoctoral Graduate Fellowship Program to recruit and train Chicano and Native American students for the PhD. The draft included details for stipends and costs related to undertaking research projects, and would be finalized at the next board meeting in December 15, 1973 in Washington, DC. The meeting in DC was arranged by the Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish Speaking People, chaired by Mr. Henry Ramirez. At the meeting it was decided to officially incorporate in Washington, DC. Dr. John Chapman of Mr. Ramirez’ office assisted in the incorporation process. The documentation was managed by Dr. Arthur Diaz who was on assignment to the National Science Foundation (NSF) at the time. This incorporation did not work out and was later moved to Maryland.

In 1974 a meeting was scheduled in conjunction with the AAAS meeting in San Francisco on February 27, and a business meeting at the University of California, Santa Cruz on February 28. At this point there were two native Americans — Don Ahshapanek (Vice President) and Fred Begay — and seven Chicanos as officers and board members: Cota-Robles (President), Ruben Duran (Secretary-Treasurer) and board members Alonzo Atencio, Orlando Cuellar, Ciriaco Gonzales, Arthur Diaz and Richard Tapia.

The Third annual meeting was held in Albuquerque, New Mexico in August of 1975. At that meeting the members elected Drs. Alonzo Atencio (President), Richard Tapia (Vice President), and Miguel Rios (Secretary-Treasurer).

Most of these early founders had been involved in activism for their communities for some time and were very aware of the difficult road which lay ahead for SACNAS. Some would later be pushed into academic positions as the in-house Chicano/ American Indian, in such a way that they were unable to advance their career in the sciences. There was also a pattern of discrimination in the hiring at academic and in most private and government institutions. However this was the motivation that established the goals and philosophy of SACNAS.

Today, true to these beginnings, SACNAS continues to welcome a diverse membership of over 8,000 multicultural and multidisciplinary members, hold national annual meetings, and advocate for important issues related to the intersections between science, culture, and community. More recently, just as the founders emerged from the Chicano movements, SACNAS students took to the streets in 2017 to show their support for science (March for Science) and stood in solidarity of DACA students. This is the activism that is called for in this century. Today’s students continue to advocate for gun control, violence in the schools, and the rising interest in getting out the vote to affect change. Just as we did in the beginnings of SACNAS, we are optimistic that this will bring about another round of activism leading to change for the better.


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