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My 1965 Watts Riot, by Cuauhtémoc Marín (nom de plume)

30 May

Cuauhtémoc Marín majored in British and American Literature, receiving his bachelor’s degree in English from California State University, Northridge, and was accepted into the Northridge English Master’s Program, where he continued his literary studies with an emphasis in linguistics, creative writing, and poetry. Marín continues to write and publish and has lived in North Los Angeles continually since his move from South Central L.A.

On August 11, 1965, I drove my regular route home, coming from my garment district, sweatshop job at 11th and San Pedro on the edge of downtown L.A.

As I steered my way south down San Pedro Street toward 54th, I could see bus after bus of LAPD officers when I looked west at the end of each block. Our routes were paralleling each other, but I could only see their southward-moving vehicles at the end of each block. It was an ominous peek-a-boo vision of the disaster to come. The LAPD were coming from police headquarters at Parker Center and traveling down Los Angeles Street. I got to the next corner and the dark blue buses had changed to black and whites. Car after black and white police car all caravaned from north to south like me. At the next corner, I looked west again and a parade of LAPD motorcycle officers was also streaming south. My car radio was broken so I had no idea what was going on, but I knew it was something big and ugly.

103rd Street. 1965. Watts Riot.

I got to 54th street, hung a right and headed west for home. The stream of various police vehicles continued in a north to south direction, and sometimes I had to stop and wait for them to pass. When I got to 54th and Hoover, I hit a red light. I was in what we called the Ghetto, a large area of Los Angeles that filled out the L.A. Basin and was populated by mostly working-class Blacks, poor Blacks, and a small population of middle-class Blacks with a spattering of various other ethnic groups. I lived there with my wife and three-month-old baby.

I noticed a white driver alone in the car ahead of me. Whites working in downtown L.A. couldn’t get home without traveling through a minority neighborhood. If they traveled west it was a Black neighborhood–east, Mexican.

The white driver couldn’t go anywhere because he was pinned between the car in front of him and my car in the rear. We were waiting for the red light to turn green at a location that was 99% black. I knew the area quite well, had friends in that area, and as far as I knew, no whites lived there.

Suddenly a group of young black men came running from out of nowhere like a pack on a hunt. They ran straight for the white guy’s car and pulled him out, dragging him to the ground, kicking and beating him. I didn’t know what was going on, but I thought whatever it was, it was big and violent and it was spreading. I swung my car out and crossed into oncoming traffic, hit the gas as I passed the young men beating this poor guy, then swerved back to my side of the street as I pushed the door-lock button.

I continued up 54th till I got to Crenshaw Boulevard, made a left, then headed south again until I got to my apartment near 11th Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard. Once inside, I turned on the TV and there was no need searching for the news; every channel was covering the riots in Watts about five miles southeast of me.

The riots seemed a safe distance away; police were headed there en masse. I didn’t feel threatened; it was too far away to worry. The police would snuff this out—-so many were arriving at the small, declared riot zone of Watts. You could see it on TV, see the cops arriving, swarms of people in the streets, buildings burning.

My wife and I decided to hang out with some friends that evening, and we got in our car with our three-month-old daughter and headed over to Venice Boulevard near Western. That put us about eight to ten miles away from Watts. We felt safer there.

We met up with our friends in an apartment above a storefront on Venice Boulevard. There were five couples. We all had babies less than six months old. I was 19, my wife 17. No one was older than that. Everyone was Black except two of us. We were all children of the Ghetto. That was our commonality, our bond, that and being poor with low paying shit-jobs and being teen parents. We had all spent our lives in the ghetto, held in by an invisible wall of racism that kept us in our place. The Ghetto enculturated us, and although one of the young men that night was Japanese and I Mexican, we were all black culturally, forged by the Ghetto that bound us and united by that unbreakable chain of childhood friendship that exists beyond color and language.

The Ghetto was not a quaint concept or expression. Minorities could only live in certain parts of the L.A. Basin. My wife and I tried to rent outside of the Ghetto many times and were always told, “We don’t rent to colored people,” or sometimes they might say Negro. Sometimes they said worse. I had discovered the curious white phenomenon: that I was Mexican when alone and Black when I was with my wife.

Our ghetto was surrounded by white sundowner cities, Inglewood, Glendale, Burbank, Huntington Park and all the others. We understood what sundowner city meant: make sure your black ass is not in our city after nightfall. That included my ass, too. The ghetto itself was like a huge police state where white police harassed us at will, beat us, kicked down our doors. Fuck warrants, although they used them when they had them-—the police in the Ghetto acted pretty much above the law. As a young man, I was stopped and searched about three times a week for driving while not white. The Ghetto was a police state, brutal, but it was all we knew and somehow we had learned to navigate that jungle as best we could and also love it for its richness of community, family, and friendships.

That night the sun had gone down, and we sat around the apartment on the floor, the young women holding their babies, some breastfeeding, some bottle-feeding. My wife was holding our daughter. We were watching the riots live on TV. Normally at this hour we would watch the Vietnam War. The networks televised it live nightly. It was the first live-televised U.S. war. We watched U.S. soldiers shoot and be shot on TV every night—live. We’d watch the dead and wounded being carried away. What we saw and what the government told us were in conflict. We saw the truth of this war through television, and that prompted the great anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s. The television didn’t lie; the government, it was clear, did.

Armed National Guardsmen march toward smoke on the horizon during the street fires of the Watts riots, Los Angeles, California, August 1965. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Tonight, however, the riots were being broadcast live, not the Vietnam War. We were all glued to the TV. It was hard to believe the riots had spread so far and so fast. It was no longer just in Watts; the whole L.A. Basin was in riot. People were burning buildings. Police were shooting bullets and tear gas at the crowds. In some places, as the TV news cameras captured the riot from above by helicopter, we had aerial views of police and rioters in hand-to-hand combat. By now it wasn’t just LAPD; the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the surrounding incorporated cities had all sent their police battalions to join the LAPD in fighting the rioters. It was complete chaos. Rioters were throwing Molotov cocktails; some carried rifles and handguns. Entire streets were burning.

Then it started. The looting. The helicopter cameras showed people breaking store windows, carrying furniture and TV sets down the street, as rioters fought police on adjacent streets. We could see this as the helicopters panned from above and smoke plumed over the city. We watched as the helicopter cameras caught two men carrying a new couch out of a furniture store around the corner and into what must have been their house, then run around the corner back to the store for more. They were looting stores we all knew, but the largest store that went down to looters and arsonists was ironically named White Front. It may be hard to imagine this today, but whites owned almost all of the major businesses in the Ghetto, and White Front was no exception. For the Ghetto, it was the Home Depot of its time and everyone—-everyone in the ghetto shopped there at some time in their lives. I had and so had everyone in that apartment on Venice Boulevard that night.

We were watching the looters go through the windows of White Front and come out with guns, tools, clothes; then the fire started and White Front was burning.

Eddie, the Japanese boy sitting next to me, said, “Man, I gotta get me some of that shit.”

Despite all of us being American citizens, in those days, minorities were not referred to as Americans, and we understood the purpose of that exclusion. So this young American was considered Japanese and I Mexican, and the others colored, Negro, or black—never American. It didn’t matter how many centuries we had been in this nation.

One of the other young men hollered at Eddie. Man, they shoot people. It’s dangerous. What are you thinking, my brother?”

The riot had spread so fast. By now we were getting TV feed of the street below the apartment we were in. We were watching the people on the sidewalk in front of the apartment on TV. They broke the storefront glass. Looking out the window from our elevated second-floor apartment, we could see people running across the sidewalks and streets, and we could see the orange glow of fires burning against the night sky in every direction.

The young Japanese father, Eddie, stood up and said, “I’m gonna get me some of this free stuff before it’s too late, man.”

His wife—-all of us—-we said don’t go, but he was up on his feet, headed toward the door despite his wife, holding their baby girl, pleading for him to stay. The door closed behind him and then he was gone.

The rest of us stayed and watched the riots, waiting for them to stop, but they never did. About 4:00 a.m. the riots seemed to take a lull, and my wife and I went to our car and drove cautiously home through the mostly deserted smoke-scented streets. Eddie hadn’t returned yet, but the police were making massive arrests of just about everyone on the streets, so we knew he must have gotten arrested.

The next morning my wife got the call. Eddie never came home. They found his body not too far from his apartment. A security officer shot him dead as he tried to loot a local store. They shoot looters—-and sometimes they kill them.

The riot had continued nonstop for three days when the National Guard arrived on a late Friday evening. The National Guard had responded by order of the governor and martial law was declared. They set up checkpoints and barricades and kept anyone from leaving the Ghetto for the next ten days or so. No one could be on the streets before 5:00 a.m. or after 8:00 p.m. or they would be arrested or shot. However, even during those allotted hours, you had to have a reason to be out.

The National Guard came in tanks, armored vehicles, military trucks carrying combat troops, and jeeps with machine guns. They set up armed barricades in the streets at the Ghetto boundaries. Young National Guardsmen with automatic weapons patrolled the Ghetto in military vehicles. Machine guns on tripods ornamented the checkpoints at the established boundaries to keep us in what the media and police referred to as the “riot zone.” The whole Ghetto came to a standstill; the whole Ghetto was the riot zone. The National Guard eventually had 22,000 ground troops in and around the 50-square-mile Ghetto. With the addition of the various police departments, the total of troops amounted to about 30,000. People said soldiers standing ten feet apart surrounded the Ghetto along the perimeter.

I had passed through a National Guard checkpoint after they arrived and knew that a post had been set up near the Thrifty’s Store on Crenshaw and 54th Street, not too far away from my apartment. Because of that post, Thrifty’s was now open for business. The food supply at my house had dwindled to almost nothing. Grocery stores had been some of the first stores to be looted, and Thrifty’s was my only chance to get my infant daughter her prescribed Mull Soy baby formula. I decided I would try to drive there. I walked outside to my car, trying to ignore or pretend not to notice the few Black residents walking around with guns in their hands. Once in my car, I drove through the mostly deserted neighborhood and parked across the street from Thrifty’s. As I got to the corner, I stood and stared across that very wide street called 54th. Directly in front of the store, I saw a blond, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked boy sitting on his butt in a green National Guard uniform behind a machine gun mounted on a tripod. From across that great divide of space, I looked into his eyes and he looked into mine. His finger was on the trigger. Time stopped for a moment while I made my mental calculations. Although different circumstances governed my reason for being outside during the riot, I remembered Eddie, who only four days ago had been alive. With thoughts of Eddie in my head and my opened hands at my side, I turned calmly and deliberately till my back faced this young National Guardsman, then slowly walked away praying silently to myself.

When the Watts Riots were over, Eddie and 33 other people were dead, and one baby girl, half-Japanese and half-black, didn’t have a father.

          Cuauhtémoc Marín continued to live in the Ghetto for seven more years after the riot. The rise of Black gangs in the early 1970s and the increasing violence and crime forced Marín and his wife out of the ghetto after their lives were threatened.They moved to East Hollywood. Marín came to view education as a way of improving his life and subsequently enrolled in college. During his college years, he continued to work full time to support his family.
          The major literary influences of his writing have been William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Kurt Vonnegut,Jack Kerouac, Patricia Highsmith, Walker Percy, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and Thomas Pynchon.
Marín remains indebted to his poetry professor Dr. Benjamin Saltman for his three years of patience and guidance in teaching Marín the craft of poetry while in graduate school.
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Mas Un Mitote, Part 2 of 2, by Miguel Roura

8 May

MIGUEL ROURA is a writer/Actor/Producer/Activist and a retired LAUSD English Miguel's JC HeadshotLanguage instructor from Boyle Heights.  Since his earliest days during the Chicano movement as a community organizer and educator to his current involvement with CASA 0101 Theatre, Miguel’s life-work has been to contribute to the betterment of his community.  He’s performed shows such as:  Naked Stage Nights, Awkward, Remember La Causa?, Frida Kahlo Ten Minute Festival (No Me Queda Otra), La Bestia Band Theatre Project, Shakespeare Sonnets Night, and the Fall 2014 production of Julius Caesar. The following is the last part of his blog post. He tells me that Mitote means “indigenous dance of Mexico” but also that he is playing with the similarity to Mito (myth).

PART 2

In Culiacan we had two hours to stretch our legs. The bus driver told us not to wander too far from the station; anyone not on the bus by midnight would be left behind to find other means of transportation.

My clothes clung to my body, wrinkled and wet with perspiration. The heat from the asphalt and cement singed my sandals. Four of us, including Mangas, wandered down the boulevard and found a place that served ice-cold beers and had outdoor tables. My compadre Humberto told me before I left LA: They grow some of the best marijuana on the outskirt farms of Culiacan. Eyeing a row of taxi cabs across the street from the bar, I spotted a young guy about my age, looking bored, leaning against his vehicle, smoking. I sauntered over and introduced myself, told him I was a tourist looking to score some “mota.”  The cabbie, with the cigarette dangling from his lips, right eye squinting, inspected me head to toe: long hair, beaded necklace, paisley shirt, bell-bottom jeans, and three-ply huaraches.

“Quizas (Maybe),” he responded nonchalantly.

Cuanto (How much)?” I asked. The fare would be twenty dollars, he said, but the price of the weed, la yerba, I would need to negotiate with the farmer. I ran back and told the guys, asked if anyone wanted to chip in, but they all passed, warned me it wasn’t a good idea to go into a strange city.

“lf I score, are you going to want to smoke some?”

“Hell, yes!”

I handed the driver the twenty and he smiled. His name was Nico and he was saving to go to the United States; Hollywood was the place he wanted to visit—he was a movie fan. I sat in the back seat as Nico maneuvered around traffic. We rode silently beyond the city lights and out into the dark. Flickering like altar candles, distant fires illuminated the obscure surroundings. Somewhere down the highway Nico turned the cab onto a rutted road and it bounced and waded through tall grass and cornfields. After a long rough ride through back roads that only he could distinguish, Nico stopped the car, got out, and left without a word.

As I sat alone waiting, the cow and pig shit mixed with the stench of my apprehension. It wasn’t the fear of being busted. This was the land of Don Juan, the same desert where the Yaqui shaman instructed Carlos Castaneda in his spiritual way of life. I began to imagine the wraiths and specters that have haunted this land and its people for thousands of years. I’d met Carlos when he came to speak at a MECHA meeting shortly after publishing his first book. Afterwards, a few of us invited him to smoke a joint with us in the parking lot, but he deferred. He explained that Don Juan introduced him to peyote and other psychotropic plants to help him achieve awareness to an alternate state which his very strict Western training prevented him from experiencing. Marijuana was a devil’s weed, he said, that clouds and confuses the thinking. In order to achieve awareness, he needed a clear vision that would help him cross over the spiritual dimension where he encountered his nagual, his spiritual guide. Afterwards we laughed and thought him a square suit-and-tie man.

Suddenly a fog rolled in and enveloped the car. My thoughts dissipated in the mist and made me feel lost. I waited for Nico to return. The night noises grew, augmenting with my breath and heartbeat. Tittering to myself, I suppressed the prayer I knew could save me, but I didn’t want to sell out my recently acquired agnosticism.

I’ve read that between heartbeats, a person can dream his entire life. I thought about mine. I came to Mexico to penetrate her mysteries, to uncover her secrets, to saturate myself in her splendor. Growing up in Tijuana, I barely fondled them. I wanted to be deep inside, experiencing unsounded sensations. Here I sat, along the back roads of my mind, alone. My thoughts wandered. Now a panic ran through me. Raw fear pounded through my imagination.

In the midst of this reverie, two heads popped through the back windows of the cab. Nico smiled, smoke dangling around his face. He nodded to the other side, The stern face of a farmer stared at me.

“This is Eusebio and this is his farm,” Nico said in the spitfire Spanish of Sinaloa.

The man’s thick swarthy fingers clutched a big brown shopping bag which he handed to me. Opening it, I saw half of it filled with thick green buds that wafted the distinctive smell of freshly harvested marijuana.

“That will be another twenty dollars, Güero.”

The big ranchero fixed his eyes, waiting for my response. I dug in my pocket for my wallet, pulled out the bill, and extended it out to Eusebio. He smiled with pride as he withdrew and disappeared into the dew.

“Nice doing business with you, gringo.“

By the time I got back to the depot, it was well past midnight. Mangas stood on the first step of the bus entrance staring down at the two drivers, who were angrily shouting Mexican insults at him. Each bus had two conductors who took turns driving. Mangas knew only one phrase of this language, and the men’s demeanors didn’t faze him. He’d faced Army sergeants and the Viet Cong.

“Where you been, ese? These vatos are getting ready to leave your ass. I think he said he’s gonna call the jura on me. That better be some good shit you got there.”

It was. Right after I took my seat, I handed Mangas my July issue of Playboy; he opened it to the centerfold, and I dropped a wad of weed on it. Mangas expertly removed the rich round buds from the stems which he collected on his into a neat pile. Soon, perfectly round marijuana cigarettes emerged. I fired up the first and we started passing out the product of years of experience.

“Pinches gavachos grjfos!” scowled the older bus driver as he glanced back at the scene developing behind them. “Estan armando un mitote.”

The mood livened throughout the bus. We did start creating a ruckus. Someone pulled out his boom-box and the steely sounds of Santana started; then the percussion section chimed in, and soon it became the backbeat in our travels. The conversation grew loud. We no longer spoke in pairs or groups, but like we did at our MECHA meetings, with passion and conviction. The Vietnam War preoccupied us all. Even though we got deferments for being in school, the draft lottery loomed ominously in our lives. The only one not worried about it was Mangas. He had survived a year in “the bush.” But now he faced jail time for the Walkouts.

“Me vale madre (I don’t give a damn)!” was his favorite phrase. He didn’t give a shit.

At that moment none of us gave a damn either. We were high on the infinite possibilities for ourselves and for La Causa, committed to changing the world, eradicating injustice and inequality. It was our time.

The bus driver had refilled the ice-chest with beer. They must have felt the contact-high effects of the smoke, because they started talking and laughing with gusto and passing out the cold cans of Tecate.

We bragged how we would become the Generation of Chingones (bad asses) that would turn it all around, revolutionize the system. We’d become the architects and engineers of a new society, the teacher and administrators who would implement the theories of Paulo Freire. The lawyers and judges who would
argue before the Supreme Court defending the constitutional rights of Reies Lopez Tijerina, Cesar Chavez, and Corky Gonzales. We boasted and openly claimed what those before us dared not proclaim: a big piece of the American pie. The world was our oyster, and we were starved.

Daylight broke and we passed through one of the many small towns along our way, and I asked the drivers to find us a Mercado where we could stop and eat. We had the munchies.

(END)

Mas Un Mitote, Part 1, by Miguel Roura

29 Apr

MIGUEL ROURA is a writer/Actor/Producer/Activist and a retired LAUSD English Miguel's JC HeadshotLanguage instructor from Boyle Heights.  Since his earliest days during the Chicano movement as a community organizer and educator to his current involvement with CASA 0101 Theatre, Miguel’s life-work has been to contribute to the betterment of his community.  He’s performed shows such as:  Naked Stage Nights, Awkward, Remember La Causa?, Frida Kahlo Ten Minute Festival (No Me Queda Otra), La Bestia Band Theatre Project, Shakespeare Sonnets Night, and the Fall 2014 production of Julius Caesar.

One Saturday in the summer of 1970, I boarded a Tres Estrellas bus and headed south, down the international highway, taking me on my first in-depth exploration of Mexico.

I was part of a group of 150 Chicano students who rented apartments at La Plaza Tlatelolco while attending classes at UNAM –- La Universidad Autónima de Mexico. I came searching for an identity, encouraged by my Chicano graduate student teachers at UCLA, who nurtured me through the first two years, and by my mother’s prodding that I learn the truth about the land of my ancestors. I remember my high school teacher and mentor, Sal Castro, telling us: “Your people founded highly sophisticated civilizations on this continent centuries before the European stepped on this land.” So this afternoon with this group of young enthusiastic men and women, I loaded my baggage on a  coach that took us from Tijuana to Tenochtitlan.

That first day of travel started off full of excitement as we jockeyed for a seat next to someone with whom to share the experience. Once we sat down and the bus started to roll, the conversation focused on the women on the trip with us. Our bus was all male, another was all female, and the third carried the married and matched couples. After the subject was thoroughly reviewed, we took turns sharing why we came on this trip, what part of Mexico our parents were from, and how much Spanish we actually knew. Most of us, whose parents spoke mainly their native language, had that idioma deleted in school by teachers and deans who strictly enforced English-only policies through corporal punishment. Those kids whose parents were second and third generation at the urging of their counselors took French or Italian as their foreign language requirement in high school. After we drank all the beers that the bus drivers provided and we tired of the talking, we each settled into our seat. Images of people and places floated in and out as I sat by the window contemplating the passing panorama.

The words of Ruben Salazar crossed my mind: “A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself….” Looking around the bus, I realized I was part of a new generation seeking to re-define itself. What did I know about myself? Mother from Colima, father from Tabasco, and just like their geography, they were extreme opposites. My parents met, married, and divorced in Tijuana; but they “dropped me” (I was born at Paradise Hospital) in National City, California, ten miles north of the border. They raised me in Tijuana until their divorce when I was five. I went to school, church, and to the bullfights on Sunday; my mother was a big fan of La Fiesta Taurina. When I turned ten, my mother used my dual citizenship to exchange her passport for a residence card. As I grew up, what I knew about Mexico came mainly from her recollections and from the conversations I overheard from her friends over the years. Usually the talk revolved around heartache, tears, and suffering. Through my adolescence I never wanted to accompany my mother when she went to visit her family.

But now I was sojourning with other Chicano activists on this  pilgrimage to the land of the chinampas (floating gardens of Xochimilco in Mexico City). Six hours into our trip, I realized I’d transferred from a luxury Greyhound bus to a transport with no air-conditioning, with one very small and smelly bathroom, and a radio with garbled sounds which gave me a headache. I shared the window with my new camarada, Mangas, a moniker he’d tagged himself: his real name was Richard, a 6’2″ chain-smoking Vietnam vet, who was a little older than most of us. We stared at the scorching, sun-drenched Sonora Desert until it was too dark to see anything. The rocking of the rickety bus lulled me in and out of sleep. Far in the distance a summer storm illuminated the distant mountains with veins of muted thunderbolts.

My mother gave me the thousand dollars I needed for this excursion; money she worked for and saved over the years. In Tijuana she’d been a registered nurse at Salubridad (public health clinics specifically for treating prostitues), caring for fichera (woman who drinks with clients at bars and earns a chip for every drink the man buys, which she later cashes in),  prostitutes, and their clients, mostly American servicemen. When she came to the US in her middle-age years, she did back-aching work: sewing, cleaning, and mopping kitchens and toilets in Brentwood and Bel Air homes.

After ten hours on the road, the driver pulled into the bus station in Culiacan, Sinaloa to refuel and to rest.

 

In high school I had never smoked marijuana. Most of the parties and dances I went to only served beer and sometimes cheap liquor. Moctezuma, our high-school class valedictorian, was the first one I saw take out a joint and fire up. He hung out with college kids and professors, and showed off his high vocabulary, which most of us football players didn’t understand.

But on the first days in the fall of ’68, just before classes started, and the first day I moved into the Brown House, I smoked my first toke. Brown House was a student housing complex right behind fraternity row. The university rented it for ten of the fifty male Chicano special-entry students whom they couldn’t place in the dorms. Toby and I were the first to arrive early that morning. He and I had been members of rival gangs back at Hollenbeck Junior High: him from Primera Flats and me from Tercera. But that was ancient history now.

After choosing my room, making my bed, and reading the first chapters of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the early afternoon, I took a walk to the patio to stretch out. Toby was lying down in a couch with a headset and a peaceful look. He asked me if I had heard of Hendrix. I said no. He handed me the headset. He lit a joint, took a deep drag, and then handed it to me. I imitated him but instantly choked on the contents, coughing out the smoke which had made my lungs explode. My eyes watered as the spasm subsided. Thereafter, I lay back to hear and feel the electrical impulses that oscillated in my brain and tingled down my body. With that I became a toker.

Being an only child, I was always hungry for friends. Smoking a joint became a gratifying communal experience. Those were the times of sit-ins. teach-ins and love-ins, rallying at Royce Hall and occupying the Administration Building on Mexican Independence Day 1969. Smoking a joint broke down racial, economic and gender barriers. It was cool to do! People got happy when they knew I had joint to share. Scoring an ounce of weed for the ASB president got me many benefits.

End of Part 1/2. To be continued.

Surfer Dudes, Teeny-boppers, and TJs. By Maria

16 Aug

Maria is currently involved with the Alternatives to Violence Project, which works within State Prisons, and Homeboy Industries, which encourages young people to transform their lives for a more purposeful and successful experience.

I recall the days in the early ‘60s when the high school in the San Gabriel Valley [near Los Angeles] where I taught was filled with young white surfer dudes—long, blond hair, sun-tanned football physiques—and  teeny-bopper girls who swarmed around them.

Then came the influx of “TJ”s (degrading slang for Mexican immigrants) with their plaid shirts, striped pants and “broken English”—or  “Spanglish,” as they called it.

The surfers would stand sullenly against the wall at the foot of the main staircase during “passing period,” watching the “TJs” pass by on their way to classes, their eyes downcast, trembling a bit as they avoided the intimidating glares of the much larger Anglos.

A few of us staff grew increasingly concerned for their safety and established a meeting place in the neighborhood which became known as “Bienvenidos Community Center.” There issues pertaining to the Spanish-speaking community were discussed and ways of integrating them into the local high school environment were launched. Among these ways was the creation of a new staff position—home/school coordinator—and a school club called TOHMAS (To Help Mexican-American Students).

Later a mural was painted on the wall of the school at the point of greatest tension, depicting the value of the Mexican culture and providing a sense of pride to these “new arrivals” who struggled so in this middle-class white school. A  school club called UMAS (United Mexican-American Students) was formed to offer a venue for students (both white and Latino) to come together to gain a better understanding of the positive attributes of each culture.Maria.UMAS

Meanwhile, in the neighborhoods surrounding the school, gangs began to appear, and tensions at school ramped up. One day a popular young Mexican-American boy was shot and killed, and the Bienvenidos Center was re-named in his memory.

Cultural conflicts also arose between white school authorities and Mexican-American students. For example, whites looked up when spoken to while Mexican-Americans looked down out of respect. Teachers took this as a sign of disrespect. Whites took pride in wearing their shirts neatly tucked in, while the style preferred by Mexican-Americans was to have their shirts highly starched and hung outside their pants. Teachers were told to enforce the dress code: “shirts tucked in.” They would send students outside the classroom to tuck in their shirts. To Mexican-American students, this was an affront to their choice of dress, and a personal embarrassment.

Moreover, Mexican-American students were counseled against enrolling in college prep classes. Boys were instructed to take shop classes; girls were encouraged to learn secretarial and homemaking skills. Later these students would attend East Los Angeles Community College rather than UCLA, largely due to their lack of the requisite preparation in higher math, science, and critical thinking.

As the school population turned increasingly Latin, a demand for the hiring of Latino staff emerged. Along with this came a more balanced and equitable attention to both cultural groups. With decreasing white enrollment and increasing Latino enrollment, the tables were turned a little. Football became less significant. Our school suddenly jumped to prominence in soccer. Stellar soccer players materialized.

Our school mascot  had always been the Aztecs. The student chosen to represent the Aztecs at the time (he actually had familial Aztec roots) was not permitted by the administration to  perform authentic dances in “full Aztec regalia.”  Apparently it projected an inappropriate image of the school.

The highlight of my tenure at this school came in the early ‘70s. At a school assembly one day, César Chavez walked out onto the stage, accompanied by leaping, screaming, and arm-flailing of the Latino students. Tears of joy ran down some of our faces–both students and staff–as we finally hailed with grateful pride  our multicultural, neighborhood school.

Cesar Chavez

Chile: The First 9-11, Part I, by Isabel Rojas-Williams

3 Aug

Isabel Rojas-Williams has served as Mural Conservancy LA’s Executive Director since 2011. A native of Chile and resident of Los Isabel Rojas-WilliamsAngeles since 1973, she became an immediate and passionate fan of the mural movement here. Isabel pursued a business career ranging from retail sales to wholesale and import/export. She is a longtime civic activist who has served as the Mayor’s liaison to the Latino, the Asian, and the African American Heritage Committees.  Isabel earned her graduate degree in art history from Cal State Los Angeles, and joined the faculty there in 2007.  Among her numerous research works are “Los Angeles Street Mural Movement, 1930-2009,” her master’s thesis, and a video on David Alfaro Siqueiros, “Siqueiros: A Muralist in Exile,” which led to her participation on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretative Center project that was completed in 2012.

Check Isabel’s work at MCLA on the following links: https://www.facebook.com/muralconservancy

and  http://muralconservancy.org

I was born in Santiago, Chile in 1949. In the 1960s and early 1970s I was involved in the global student uprisings for civil rights. In high school I was involved in the struggle for democracy, By the time I got to college, I was fighting for the right to elect Allende in his fourth (1952, 1958, 1964, and 1970) and ultimately successful campaign to become president and then to keep his government in power in face of the pending 1973 coup by dictator Augusto Pinochet.

My father was a socialist, a political activist, and a poet who went from town to town to unionize railroad workers. He died of tuberculosis when I was two. He hadn’t even realized that he was sick; that was at the time when they just discovered penicillin, and even though mass production of penicillin began in 1948, by the time penicillin reached Chile, it was too late for my father. My mother figured out later from his symptoms what he had died of.

My mother was from an upper middle-class family. She met my father in a small town where he was organizing. He was a charming man and she fell in love. She also believed in his cause. However, my mother’s father was deadly opposed to their marriage and disinherited her. When Dad died at 33, my mother, who was only 22, was heartbroken. My parents already had two children, my sister and me, and she was pregnant with her third baby. I learned a lot of this through love letters from Dad to Mom; Mom keeps a stack of them near to her, tied with a ribbon, and won’t let us read them, but she tells us what’s in them.

After my dad’s death, my grandfather gave my mom a job as a blue-collar worker in the national dairy distribution company, which he directed. My mom had no babysitter so she’d take me with her to work, leaving the other children with neighbors. As I grew up, I watched my mother’s struggle to survive. After working all day in the dairy company, she took in piecework at home at night. We lived only four doors from my grandparents, but my mom had to rent a room for the four of us from a neighbor. To escape the poverty she remarried at 27 and had three more kids, but my stepfather was not a good man for her. She continued to struggle.

We siblings were very close, like a fist. We all aspired to education in order to escape our poverty and to help our mother.

Chile. IsabelCanalesEspinoza.Mother.12-13

Isabel’s Mother: Isabel Canales Espinoza

From the time we were 12 or 13, in order to save money for our schooling, my sisters and I knit sweaters, which we sold to members of our family; made our own clothes; and helped our mother iron garments she made for garment factories. Because of all this, I was familiar with the struggles of poor people.

My mother is my hero. She is amazing. She struggled to help feed her kids and to give them an education. She is my daily inspiration.

As a child I was very sick with pneumonia. My grandmother took me to live with her part of the time so she could take me to the hospital daily for shots—she feared TB. I went from one world to another. While at my grandparents’ house, I saw how they lived—they had a chauffeur, housekeeper, cook, and personal caretaker for me. I became aware of the disparities between the rich and the poor. I identified with the latter.

My grandmother was not a cold woman. She had sympathy for the workers; she understood their struggle, and she suffered because of not being able to help my mother. But my grandfather was physically intimidating and arrogant. He thought that he was “entitled.”

I have always been an avid reader, but once in high school I immersed myself in books. I became aware of Fredrick Engels and of Marx’s Das Kapital and Communist Manifesto.

CommunistManifesto

I became a firm believer that capitalism was the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” and was run by the wealthy classes for their own benefit. I felt that the only way to blur the lines between the “haves” and the “have-nots” was socialism. Raised in a country at a time when education was extremely Euro-centric, I was aware of the European student movement of the 1960s.  This phenomenon caused political activism among students all over the globe, including in the Americas. I was one of those political activists. As I approached the end of high school, I became involved with students who attended La Universidad Técnica del Estado. This was the college where most of my left-leaning friends attended and where I studied for one year. We thought of ourselves as Bohemian intellectuals who wanted to make a difference. Growing up in Chile during the 1960s and early 1970s, I was—like many of my generation in countries around the world—politically and culturally aware. We championed labor organization, land reform, anti-imperialism, and anti-Vietnam War causes. These were the sentiments that guided Chileans to elect socialist president Salvador Allende in 1970.

Salvador Allende

Salvador Allende

[Note by editor: “Salvador Allende known as the first Marxist to become president of a Latin American country through open elections. As president, Allende adopted a policy of nationalization of industries and collectivization. On 11 September 1973 the military moved to oust Allende in a coup d’état. As troops surrounded La Moneda Palace, Allende gave his last speech vowing not to resign, and then committed suicide.” (Source: Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvador_Allende)]

However, Allende was not allowed to govern freely. The right-wing opposition and the Catholic Church were displeased at having a socialist for president; tensions grew with foreign corporations. The Chilean economy suffered as a result of a U.S. campaign against the Allende government. It was widely known then about the U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s involvement in the 1973 Chilean coup d’état, following orders from President Nixon to do whatever was necessary in order “to get rid of him [Allende].” (The now declassified documents can be read here: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8i.htm.)

[Note by editor: “The violent overthrow of the democratically-elected Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende changed the course of the country that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda described as “a long petal of sea, wine and snow”; because of CIA covert intervention in Chile, and the repressive character of General Pinochet’s rule, the coup became the most notorious military takeover in the annals of Latin American history.   (Source: George Washington University: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8i.htm)]

Pablo Neruda and Allende

Pablo Neruda and Allende

So to keep our dignity and our voice while our rights were denied, a cultural resistance was born. Mural brigades expressed political views on Chilean walls (“…podrán cortar las flores pero no podrán evitar la primavera…,” which means “they can cut the flowers, but they can’t keep spring from coming.” Other slogans were: “Another Chile is possible,” “Let’s build a new Chile,” “Children are born to be happy”). Pablo Neruda’s poetry was circulated underground from hand to hand, and we reveled in Victor Jara’s songs of love, peace, and social justice. This was the environment in which Chileans like me lived.

Chile.Victor Jara.Santiago.ifsa-butler.org

Victor Jara

[Note by editor: Victor Jara (September 28, 1932 – September 16, 1973) was a Chilean teacher, theater director, poet, singer-songwriter, political activist and member of the Communist Party of Chile. Shortly after the Chilean coup of 11 September 1973, he was arrested, tortured and ultimately shot dead with 44 machine-gun bullets. His body was later thrown out into the street of a shanty town in Santiago. The contrast between the themes of his songs, on love, peace and social justice, and the brutal way in which he was murdered transformed Jara into a symbol of struggle for human rights and justice worldwide. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%ADctor_Jara)]

One of my professors in college offered me my first “real” job, as a secretary in the Registro Nacional de Comerciantes (National Register for Businessmen). The purpose of this organization was to pull together under one umbrella all the smaller business organizations such as the Chambers of Commerce around the country. One of the directors of the Registro was the president of the Santiago Chamber of Commerce; many years later he was to become my husband. At the time we became friends because he, unlike many of the other businessmen, gave money to charity and was more middle-of-the-road than the others. He would speak up on behalf of poor people. I felt I could trust him and a few of the others. My future husband did not know about my political sympathies and activities; neither did my family.

My job was to take shorthand at the directors’ meetings, and I was the secretary of the organization’s legal department. I met the ministers of various government agencies and three presidents (Jorge Alessandri, Eduardo Frei, and Salvador Allende). I was 19 and got to travel throughout Chile. From all this I learned what was happening within the power structure. At the same time I was still demonstrating in the streets, living a double life; I worked with the right-wing businessmen during the day and I was a left-wing political activist at night. After work and school, I would join my political activist friends. The more artistic ones would design slogans that were mimeographed in multiple paper copies. Some of us would mix “engrudo” (wheat paste made of water and flour) and then go to paste political affiches [posters] on the walls. Soon mural brigades were formed and youth began to paint political slogans empowering the people and striving for social justice; this is how The Ramona Parra Mural Brigade was born (BRP). At the same time, along with my activist friends I took part in the frequent student demonstrations to support Allende’s government and to oppose foreign interference (“Yankees go home,” “Este es un gobierno de mierda, pero es mi gobierno” (“This is a shitty government, but it’s my government”).

Chile.Demo for Allende

Most high school and college students, as well as the great majority of Chilean intellectuals, were socialists and communists. By now I was attending classes at the Faculty of Law, Universidad de Chile, where two of the lawyers whom I worked for taught. We suspected that the CIA was involved in Chile. US president Nixon did not keep it a secret that he feared Chile could become “another Cuba.” This knowledge was learned from the foreign press. The U.S. cut off most of its foreign aid to Chile and supported Allende’s opponents in Chile during his presidency.

[Note by editor: “Revelations that President Richard Nixon had ordered the CIA to ‘make the economy scream’ in Chile to ‘prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him,’  prompted a major scandal in the mid-1970s, and a major investigation by the U.S. Senate. Since the coup, however, few U.S. documents relating to Chile have been actually declassified—until recently. Through Freedom of Information Act requests, and other avenues of declassification, the National Security Archive has been able to compile a collection of declassified records that shed light on events in Chile between 1970 and 1976.”  (Source: George Washington University: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8i.htm)]

After Allende won the election in 1970, the U.S. and others began an embargo against Chile. There was nothing to eat whether you had money or not. I was lucky; because of my job with the business organization I worked for, we were able to have access to the basics—beans, rice, flour, and sugar—through their connections, which they shared with me for my family. The upper class, who owned businesses and who were the ones opposing Allende’s government, were hoarding food, which forced people to stand in long lines to get the little food available. I became disgusted and stopped accepting food from the connections at my job.

My friends and I increasingly rebelled. We wanted to keep Allende in power and we fought against the intrusion of the CIA. As the situation became more tense, many of us were at risk of being exiled, disappeared, or even killed. At this time many wealthy right-wingers were leaving the country out of fear of the people. Meanwhile, intellectuals and left-wingers were leaving for safety in order to organize the resistance from abroad. I was terrified about my family’s future and—as a committed political activist working towards a world free of violence and poverty—about my own chances to survive the violence affecting my country of birth.

To protect each other, none of us activists talked about our political work. I wasn’t even aware that my brother, who is seven years younger than I, was involved in the resistance that opposed Pinochet.

Augusto Pinochet

Augusto Pinochet

Years later and during Pinochet’s dictatorship, my sister found pamphlets in our brother’s briefcase. I learned through my sister that they were terrified about our brother’s participation in politics. People who opposed Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship were tortured, disappeared, or killed. I, as well as my family, were happy to see my brother immigrate to Switzerland in 1981; he was able to return to Chile in 1989.

My last memories of Chile, the country that I left in a rush in 1973, are chaotic. Two months before the violent September 11, 1973 coup d’état that killed democratically chosen President Salvador Allende, I narrowly escaped being killed by a shotgun pointed at my neck. I was 22 and a college student. I was terrified for my family’s future and—as a committed political activist working towards a world free of violence and poverty—about my own chances to survive the violence affecting my country of birth. Five long years passed before I was able to see my family again!

[To be continued in Part 2 of 2 about Isabel’s life after she came to the United States, including pictures of some of the murals in Los Angeles.]

Sal Castro: an Obituary, by Kitty Kroger

27 May

Sal Castro 1

Sal Castro, a lifelong educator and a leader in the 1968 “blowouts” that occurred in Eastside Los Angeles schools, died of cancer on April 15, 2013 at 79 years of age. More than 1000 people gathered to eulogize him. In 1963 while teaching at Belmont High School Castro got into trouble for supporting Latino students who wanted to run for student body offices. When they gave their campaign speeches, they were disciplined for speaking Spanish, and when Castro defended them, the school district transferred him to another Eastside school, Lincoln High School in Lincoln Heights.

Although he was “given” five different courses in five different buildings, he still managed to sponsor students in a variety of events. He also helped them organize protests over unequal learning conditions for minorities. Students were demanding curricular and textbook changes which would reflect their history and culture. Bilingual education was also a key demand. They also called for more Mexican American administrators and teachers. And they wanted the counselors to stop shunting them into the Industrial Arts Program and discouraging them from college prep classes and professional careers.

Furthermore, students were affected by the high minority death toll in the Vietnam War and the Chicano Civil Rights movement. When the students walked out, Castro joined them. This walkout spread to Roosevelt, Wilson, Garfield, and Belmont and became known as the “Chicano blowouts.” (Chicano was a relatively new term at that time.) The protests lasted a week.

Sal Castro 3Sal Castro 2

Castro was arrested and charged with disrupting schools and disturbing the peace. He was indicted on 30 counts and removed from Lincoln High School. Although the State Supreme Court dismissed the charges, the Los Angeles Unified School District punitively relocated him to three different high schools before returning him to Belmont in 1973.

Castro retired in 2003 after 42 years as a classroom teacher and has since been recognized by numerous agencies and organizations. On the Belmont campus a middle school was named after him.

Sal Castro is a fine example of the best that came out of the sixties and seventies.

August in Laguna Park: The Chicano Moratorium, Part 2 By Roselva Rushton Ungar

27 May

Part 2 of 2

When we finally made it back [to the park], I pulled into the driveway closest to the first aid station. Marilyn got out to get the injured, while I waited with the car. An officer came up and ordered me out. I explained that I was waiting to take the wounded to a hospital. He shouted, “This is for police cars only; now get out!” I backed up onto Eastern Avenue from where I was able to see what was happening. I saw two young people shoved into a police car. Near the gym, an officer was dragging a young man by his long hair and thrusting him against a car. He could not have gotten into the park by this time unless he had been in the building. I had not seen policemen enter the park buildings before.

I saw two policemen rush across the street toward a man who had been pushed  down on the sidewalk by another cop. He jammed his club with great force into the man’s groin from the rear. The people standing around yelled, “Leave him alone.” The wounded man dragged himself into a nearby house while several policemen ran after him and forced the door open. I was just opposite where this was happening. I think an officer on my side of the street must have been upset that I witnessed this brutality because he shouted at me, “Get out!”  I pretended that he was ordering me to get out of the middle of the street, so I backed into an empty space just behind where I had double-parked. Worried that Marilyn hadn’t yet returned, I got out of the car to see what was holding her up. The same officer screamed, “Get back in the car!” I complied, heart in mouth.  Marilyn returned but with only one fellow. The rest had already managed to leave because it had taken us so long. The doctor escorted the wounded youth to my car and asked me to check Belvedere Park nearby for any lost or hurt people before leaving the east side of town.ChicanoMoratorium.BrownBerets

Leaving was very difficult; officers would not allow us down the side streets. We didn’t want to attempt Whittier Boulevard where confrontations were still taking place. We drove many blocks in a round-about way, seeing fires, smoke, broken glass, people distraught and bewildered. Police cars, sirens blaring, raced by. Marilyn screamed as a speeding police car came straight at us. Terrified, I pulled over to the curb just in time. By now I was very anxious to get out of the battle zone. We deposited the wounded man at White Memorial Hospital, then drove by Belvedere Park. No one needed us there. Mission accomplished, we wanted to quickly get away from the eerie unreality of it all.

It became apparent that battle lines were drawn between the sheriff deputies and the young people of the march. Later we learned that the melee had started with an altercation at a liquor store at the back of the park. Why couldn’t a small detachment of police have tactically and rapidly settled whatever problem had existed at the liquor store across the street from the park? Why couldn’t that have been contained so as not to disturb the anti-war rally in the park? It looked suspiciously like an excuse to break up the rally.

ChicanoMoratorium.PoliceAttack

What a contrast to the festive spirit before the police swept everyone out of the park, gassing and clubbing as they moved in. Such hostility this creates in the community! Whatever wrong-doing may have occurred before the police arrived was nothing compared to the violence that occurred after their invasion. The very presence of the police provokes this community, but when they come in the hundreds and bear down on innocent people enjoying freedom of speech in the park, hatred and resistance is aroused. Must any small insult become a challenge or excuse to beat and gas hundreds of people? The people must be subdued because they are unfriendly? What arrogance!

The police in the barrio do not provide the community service and protection they do in middle-class communities. They are an invading enemy out to terrorize and subject the people. They set off the violence that occurs when people who still have spirit and dreams are thwarted and driven to despair. The armed might of society is saying, You may not get together in the spirit of your own culture and aspirations. You may not question sending your young sons to die in Viet Nam for a country that gives you the least education, the poorest jobs, the worst places to live, strips you of your culture, your language, and prevents you from expressing yourselves collectively in your own communities.

Had the dignity and pride of being Latino or Chicano been allowed expression in the park and on the march, a constructive unity and dialogue about the war and solving the pressing problems of the barrio might have emerged, this free speech being the highest form of patriotism. Had this occurred, it is inconceivable that people, at the crest of their celebration of unity would have gone about burning and looting Whittier Avenue. The sheriffs drove them in rage from the park onto the streets. Many like ourselves scurried to find shelter and others, especially youths, gave vent to their wrath by retaliating.

When I got home and turned on the TV, I saw the war zone where I had been. I heard that a  driver, trying to cross the barricades as we were, was shot. That was when I began to shake. While in the midst of the destruction I had no such reaction; I was bent on a task. I understood now how soldiers in battle focus in the same way.

Altogether three people were killed that day.ChicanoMoratorium.LATimes

Ruben Salazar was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Spanish Television News Director, and a two-time winner of the Greater Los Angeles Press Club Award, along with other prizes. He was the first Mexican American journalist to cover the Chicano community from the mainstream media. He had come that day, with the L.A. Times photographer, to observe. After the rioting, he and the photographer went to rest at the Silver Dollar Bar on Whittier Avenue. A sheriff standing in the doorway shot a ten-inch gas projectile into the bar, which fatally struck Ruben Salazar in the head. That day there would be no respected, honorable Latino reporter writing about what really happened.

To this day many believe that his death was the premeditated assassination of a prominent, vocal member of the Chicano community. Ruben Salazar had written many articles critical of the government’s treatment of Chicanos, having come into conflict with the police during the 1968 East Los Angeles walk-outs protesting unequal treatment of students in the Los Angeles schools. According to FBI reports, the L.A. police considered him to be a dangerous radical. Why would an officer shoot into a peaceful bar if his mission were to stop violence along the street? There would be many questions, but no one there that day will ever forget—or forgive.

After that August 29th of 1970 Laguna Park was renamed Salazar Park.