Tag Archives: East L.A.

Chile: The First 9-11, Part 2, by Isabel Rojas-Williams

6 Aug

My Life in the US

In the United States I lived in Los Angeles at 4901 S. Figueroa, in Highland Park. I worked as a clerk for the York PumpIsabel Rojas-Williams Maintenance, Inc., which took care of maintaining gas stations. Its office was exactly where the Avenue 50 Studio is located today. It was owned by a Chilean, who paid me half the minimum wage. I will be forever grateful to this man who gave me the opportunity to have my first job in the U.S., which allowed me to continue helping my family educate my younger siblings. I hardly spoke a word of English but became immersed in this new world, into which the Anglo workers at the shop integrated me. I worked from 8 to 5, and then attended ESL evening classes at Franklin High School.

By this time my future husband had moved to Los Angeles; he knew my boss. He and I decided to move in together. We lived in a studio apartment at the old building on Figueroa & Avenue 50. I could walk to the post office to send letters to Mom and to my siblings. (Phone calls to Chile were $50 a minute at that time so everyone wrote instead.) The Highland Park Library was also within walking distance so I could check out books written in Spanish; there weren’t many so I read them all over and over. I was lonesome for my family, my language, and my culture.

During the 1970s many Chileans arrived in San Francisco; political activists created groups of resistance formed of the refugees arriving from abroad to oppose Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship. Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center was founded by Chileans in 1978 in response to the 1973 overthrow of President Allende. “Song of Unity,” the mural on the façade of La Peña (on Shattuck Ave & Prince Street), was created as homage to Pablo Neruda, Violeta Parra, and Victor Jara, among others.

In Los Angeles I did not find or know of a group of Chileans doing as much political work as those in the Bay area. I felt isolated and I felt I was not doing my part to help the country I left behind. I was, as all immigrants, trying to survive. But I was also searching for something to identify with politically. It was at this time, when I became aware of two art studios I would see on my walk to the market, the post office, or the Highland Park Library. Highland Park was home to two Chicano artist collectives: Mechicano Art Center (Figueroa and Avenue 54) and Centro de Arte Público (Figueroa and Avenue 56), which included some of the most important Chicano artists of their time: Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero, Judithe Hernandez, Gilbert Magú Lujan, Leo Limón, Barbara Carrasco, and John Valadez. These artists were greatly influenced by the messages the great Mexican masters depicted in their murals.

As a young woman, I was highly inspired by lovers and philosophers Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, the intellectual-power couple of the 20th century. They were my political and intellectual inspiration and I wanted to be like them. So, like De Beauvoir and Sartre, I didn’t want to get married. Eventually I did, however, in order to give birth to my son and to appease my mother. My husband and I had brought jewelry (inherited from our grandparents) with us when we left Chile. (That’s about all we brought with us.) At that time, many businesses in East Los Angeles were owned by Jewish families. As the Chicano Civil Rights movement began to grow in the ‘60s and ‘70s, those families felt uneasy and began to liquidate their stores and move elsewhere. We sold some jewelry we had brought from Chile and put a down payment on a franchise that sold Singer sewing machines in the heart of East Los Angeles (Whittier and Fetterly).

Here it was that everything began to shift for me. East Los Angeles in the 1970s was home to radical strains of politics and a feeder for the Vietnam War, to which disproportionate numbers of Latinos were consigned. Murals were appearing, and it was here where, for the first time, I saw the conceptual art collective ASCO (Willie Herrón III, Harry Gamboa, Jr., Gronk, and Patssi Valdez), who often staged the equivalent of living murals in East Los Angeles and in downtown streets. I soon noticed how murals were appearing in East Los Angeles.

Murals.Moratorium BandW

1973. “Moratorium: The Black and White Mural” by Willie Herrón IIIrts, Boyle Heights. Photo from The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles’ website by Robin Dunitz

Murals. Walking Mural

1972 ASCO’s “Walking Mural.” East LA. Harry Gamboa photograph (1972)

“Somos dueños de nuestro propio destino” (“We own our own destiny”), 1971-72: http://us.fotolog.com/muralespoliticos/46296516/. http://us.fotolog.com/muralespoliticos/46296516/

Murals. Song of Unity

1978 “Song of Unity” (“La canción de la unidad”) at La Peña, Berkeley. Photo @ Pablo Cristi

I finally found what it was that I could identify with in Los Angeles. I realized that Chicano issues were the same as mine, as the Chilean ones. The issues depicted on the Chicano murals spoke about the very struggles the muralists from Ramona Parra Brigade (BRP) spoke about when defending Allende’s government in Chile in the 1970s. The BRP began to mass-produce murals throughout Chile to defend Allende’s government. When Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government, persecuting and eliminating anyone who opposed him, muralists with their brushes and paint began to oppose the military regime that established the bloody 17 years of Pinochet’s dictatorship. I fell in love with the murals and I realized that my sociopolitical work had just begun.

Murals. Dreams of Flight

Photo © Isabel Rojas-Williams. “Dreams of Flight” (1973-1978) by David Botello

Isabel. Son Pablo Cristi

My son Pablo Cristi and his wife Natsumi Iimura (2013)

I remember walking around in the August heat very pregnant. My son, Pablo Cristi, (named after Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso, and Pablo Casals) was born in the heat of the summer. I brought him with me every day to the sewing machine business in East Los Angeles. My son would ask me who my Chilean role models were, because for Mexicans there were so many, such as Cesar Chavez, Siqueiros, La Adelita, Hidalgo, and all the heroes of the Mexican Revolution, whom he learned about from his young Mexican American friends. By now I was divorced and as my son grew older, I was exposed to more and more murals in L.A. Many years before I decided to study art history, I learned about and met through my son, who is now a visual artist himself, many artists long before I saw their artwork in books. My son would invite me to Self-Help Graphics to see exhibitions of emerging young artists that have been writing the history of our city in our “open-air galleries” all over Los Angeles.

Little did I know that driving my young teenage son to make “pieces” or to watch murals being made by the L.A. River or under the bridges on Santa Fe Yards would spark my passion for this art. Although neither of us realized it, my son was educating me about Los Angeles culture through his own and other artists’ street art.

Epilogue: My Life After the ‘70s

Then the story came full circle. I became even more fascinated by muralism while completing my higher education at Cal State L.A. I was one of fifteen graduate students in Dr. Aguilar’s Master Seminar, the Seminar that evolved into the remarkable “Walls of Passion: The Murals of Los Angeles” photo-documentary at the school. By this time I was immersed in the history of Los Angeles murals and reading about “Los Tres Grandes” (“The Three Greats”): Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros, and their inspirational influence on the Los Angeles muralists in the younger artists’ search for identity, racial and political activism, and connectedness to their roots. I learned how the “Three Greats” inspired generations of muralists in the city of Los Angeles and in the world.

As my son grew, so did my knowledge of street art and my awareness of how these muralists and graffiti artists march behind a common banner, fighting with their brushes and their spray-cans against war, inequality, and other socio-economic issues. I learned how murals create a direct connection between artist and viewer. I learned that muralists’ quest for communication, empowerment, and education compel these artists to create ideological works for the community and to confront those observers with the social issues that affect the lives of the artists and the marginalized communities alike in richly diverse Los Angeles.

Since my son was able to discuss art with me, we lived and breathed murals to the point that each of these murals we discussed became, in a way, ours. Once out in the streets and the parks (in areas that in many cases I had never before visited), we began to understand that the murals of Los Angeles could not exist without the communities in which they sit just as we have also begun to realize that Los Angeles would be greatly diminished without those murals.

In 2009 my son and I both received our master degrees, an MFA and an MA. The open-air galleries of Los Angeles bridged the generational gap between us, giving us both the opportunity to engage in the experience of artworks that transform the city walls into beautiful creations that should be preserved as our city’s artistic, cultural, and historic legacy. I became the executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles in 2011. My son is a visual artist who has exhibited throughout the US; he has also painted a mural for peace in North Derry, Ireland and in West Oakland, California. Pablo is currently the co-chair of the Visual Art Department of Oakland School for the Arts.

Isabel. Husband Stephen Williams

Isabel Rojas-Williams and her husband Stephen Williams

2013 will mark the 30th year since I met Stephen, my husband. While I was going through a painful divorce, I met a man who spoke to my heart and my intellect. For the first time in life I met a man who would read Shakespeare to me during rainy nights, recite poems by e. e. cummings when happy, and read Pablo Neruda’s poems in Spanish to remind me of my country and my family. He also shared with me his love of jazz, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Grateful dead, and the Rolling Stones. He helped me raise Pablo as one of the most understanding stepfathers ever!  Together we blurred the lines of two different cultures that melted into one. Strangely enough, Stephen’s ancestors departed from Scotland into two Americas: Chile in South America and to the United States in North America. It took five generations for Stephen and I to find each other. Stephen is currently a college counselor at Eagle Rock High School and an adjunct professor at both Los Angeles City College and East L.A. City College.

About My Mother

Chile. IsabelCanalesEspinoza.Mother.12-13My mother is turning 83 this year. She gardens, cleans, and cooks everyday (“because she wants to”). She spends the cold Chilean winters knitting scarves, socks, and gloves for the needy. She goes to church on Sundays. If the weather allows it, she has tea with her “Golden Years” friends on Wednesdays. She is known for raising money or gathering groceries for the families of the imprisoned, and at Christmas time, she helps an orphanage with little gifts for 80 kids. In this latter project she involves everyone around her and that includes her six children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren. She is one inspirational woman and she is my mother!


August in Laguna Park: The Chicano Moratorium, by Roselva Rushton Ungar, Part 1 of 2

24 May


Roselva Rushton Ungar is a retired teacher, 86  years old. She is currently writing a memoir. She has authored a history of union organizing in the early childhood/Head Start field and written extensively on educational issues such as bilingual education, scripted reading programs, and high-stakes testing. Born in Detroit, she grew up in Russia and returned to the U.S. for college. She helped build the Early Childhood Federation, Local 1475 AFT. Most of her adult life has been spent organizing around social justice issues such as campus free speech, civil and women’s rights, defense of immigrants, and a sustainable planet.

[Editor’s Note: “The Chicano Moratorium, formally known as the National Chicano Moratorium Committee, was a movement of Chicano anti-war activists that built a broad-based coalition of Mexican-American groups to organize opposition to the Vietnam War. Led by activists from local colleges and members of the “Brown Berets”, a group with roots in the high school student movement that staged walkouts in 1968, the coalition peaked with an August 29, 1970 march in East Los Angeles that drew 30,000 demonstrators…. Laguna Park is now Ruben F. Salazar Park.”   Source: Wikipedia]

Part 1 of 2

It was August 29, 1970, a warm, sunny day in Laguna Park. Birds had taken refuge in the trees, waiting for scraps from family picnic baskets. Free sandwiches were provided by “green power,” a youth environmental group. A couple of booths had literature. An anti-war march scheduled for Whittier Boulevard was to end at the park. I was with several teacher friends from eastside Head Start schools, who’d decided to go directly there for a pleasant afternoon and to support the community in which we worked. Ominously, some UCLA medical students were staffing a first-aid center at the park building.

We sat down on the grass near the front and listened to music and a Puerto Rican drum group, watched children in traditional costumes dancing folklorico. Hot dogs were passed out, cakes and Kool-Aid. The park was crowded; people sat very close to each other. Children, babies, elderly people—everyone in a happy picnic spirit, festive and relaxed. We were all watching the program, applauding and occasionally shouting Viva la raza!

The march of mostly young Chicanos protesting the war joined us at the park chanting Raza Si, Guerra No as they entered, bringing the crowd to over 30,000. Many of these people had been activated by the “blowouts,” when Lincoln High School students walked out in 1968 led by Salvador (Sal) Castro. The year before there had been Viet Nam Moratoriums all over the country and a National Student Strike to stop the war, but not much had been organized against the war on the east side of Los Angeles. These were patriotic people who had sent their sons off to the armed services as a matter of course. But as it became clear that proportionately much higher numbers of Latinos were coming back in coffins or badly injured, it was time for them to speak out.

Speeches from the stage expressed community outrage. Rosalio Muñoz, UCLA student organizer and co-chair of the event, was speaking when we heard people behind us turning to look at a disturbance. People stood up to see better. The platform speaker and monitors told us to stay seated and not leave, No se vayan.

Within seconds, I heard the cries, La jura, la policía. The police are coming. Bottles sailed through the air. People stampeded toward the platform. A monitor urged us to go home.  I headed in the direction of Whittier Boulevard but was jammed up against the platform and the buses parked along the street. In the center of the park was a wide clearing; people ran and walked toward the periphery at Eastern Avenue.

Buses pulled out. I headed toward Whittier Boulevard when I saw a woman and a small boy crying. A man said she’d been maced after getting off the bus. He held one arm and I took the other to guide the woman and child to the first-aid center. There I helped her wash out her eyes with a hose and tried to reassure her in Spanish. Inside the center several young men were being treated for wounds. An ambulance finally came but took only wounded officers.

Many others arrived with stinging eyes and bloody heads so I stayed to help. As I worked there at the hose, the police sprayed us with more tear gas! It stung my eyes and face and made me dizzy. I washed my eyes out; fortunately only a small amount had landed on me. Gas was directed at the park center, which served as a first-aid station. Both doors were clouded with gas, sprayed from the ball park and from the patio on the opposite side. Some men from Physicians for Social Responsibility tried to go collect the lost and injured, but the gas was too strong.

A young man with a badly bloodied head, which a doctor had bandaged, urged me to call his family to come pick him up. I started for the office where there was a phone, but the police had closed off the park around us and there was violence along the edge. In the next room I saw lost children and mothers, who had somehow ended up here rather than being swept out of the park, looking for their families,.

I offered to bring my station wagon close to the park as soon as possible to evacuate some of the wounded. A young doctor, who appeared to be in charge, sent me with a young woman Marilyn, who had been working with the medical group, to get my car. We started out on foot, only to run into two police officers who waved their clubs and shouted, ”Out of the park.” I explained that we needed to get my car to carry out the wounded. “Not through here!” he admonished. “That way.” He pointed toward the corner of Eastern and Whittier. That was not the direction I needed to go to get my vehicle, but there was no arguing with an angry bully waving his club and holding a tear gas canister. My companion Marilyn ran back to the center to get armbands to show that we were a medical team. I walked slowly in the direction indicated, hoping she would be able to catch up with me.

While I delayed, I saw four policemen roughly shoving a man who was staggering and obviously unable to see where he was going. “He’s been gassed,” I said. “Let me take him to the first aid station.” They ignored me and continued shoving him. I was scared and thought, Why are they doing this? It was a contemptible way to treat a human being, whether guilty of anything or not. He was young, Latino and completely helpless, at the mercy of four strong policemen who continued to push him toward Eastern Avenue. Why weren’t they knocking me around? Was it because I was an older white woman?

We walked a few blocks to the car, seeing hundreds of mostly sheriff deputies around the park, at corners and blockading the streets. We decided to drive a block south of the park, but because of traffic problems, blockades, and difficulty getting back across the freeway, it took 45 minutes to return. As we drove we saw people standing along Whittier looking grim and angry at the invading police; store windows were smashed and angry youths ran to escape. Someone screamed at us, Get out of here, so we realized we had better identify ourselves. Two white faces probably looked like intruders in this barrio under siege. Without stopping, I had Marilyn quickly remove my first-aid book, which had a large red cross on the cover, from the glove compartment and place it on my front windshield. I drove as fast as I safely could through the threatening crowd, then stopped a moment to fasten one of the armbands to the car’s antenna. As we neared the park, we were detained by officers at each corner and forced to turn back and seek another route. In some cases, we were able to talk our way through the blockades. Driving down a side street we encountered a young man with an army armband directing traffic. He escorted our wagon along the block near a burning car. Just in time we were shunted off into an alley as the car exploded with a terrific blast. Fragments flew everywhere. People came running out of their homes toward the alley as other popping sounds occurred; whether guns or other explosions, no one knew. We had to get out of there and back to the park.
[To be continued….]