Mis Ángeles: 'Ruben Salazar ¡Presente!' We Went Searching For Meaning In A 50-Year-Old Police Killing And The Chicano Moratorium
I was standing on Whittier Boulevard outside an East L.A. record store a few days ago with my friend and colleague, Chava Sanchez, while store manager Mario Reyes tried to explain the nuances of record player needles to a customer.
They were standing right near the doorway of Sound of Music Records and Chava and I were eager to get in, but with the threat of COVID-19 all around us, we didn't want to push through and endanger anyone's physical health.
While we waited, I wondered if this older Latino customer identified as Chicano. I wondered if he knew he was possibly standing in the path of a tear gas canister that killed L.A. Times columnist Ruben Salazar 50 years ago this Saturday. I wondered if the Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy, who shot that canister into this small building that used to be the Silver Dollar Bar and Cafe, thought twice about endangering the lives of those inside.
"Maybe Ruben was murdered intentionally," I said to Chava, who nodded as he unpacked his camera. "Maybe the cop who killed him just didn't care about shooting tear gas into a building full of Brown people."
Chava and I spent the better part of this week talking with people in East Los Angeles trying to find meaning and a deep connection to Aug. 29, 1970, when a peaceful anti-Vietnam War march known as the Chicano Moratorium ended violently after L.A. County Sheriff's deputies declared an unlawful assembly and broke it up with batons and projectiles.
Three people died, including Salazar, who was there doing his job. And while there's nothing to prove he was intentionally targeted, there will always be speculation. Either way he died at the hands of someone with a badge — a scenario that keeps repeating itself.
We carried out our mission not just in the long shadow of a 50-year-old history, but in the blazing daylight of a string of recent police killings of Black and Brown people all across the country that have made me feel at times angry, sad and numb to the injustice of it all.
'ALL THAT HAPPENED HERE'
Finally, we entered the store and saw the original Silver Dollar Bar and Cafe sign mounted near posters and photos of Ruben Salazar. It was surrounded by records of Black and Brown music, Chicano art, hats with L.A.'s iconic Latino neighborhoods scrolled on them.
I asked Mario Reyes, whose dad owns the shop, if he remembers when he first heard of Salazar or of the National Chicano Moratorium Committee Against the Vietnam War, a movement that protested not just the war, but the use of young Brown men with few educational alternatives as cannon fodder.
"I must have been like 20 when I first started working in the shop," he said. "And the veteranos would come around and talk about it. And I was like, 'Wow, really. All that happened here?'"
I have to admit, both Chava and I, two Mexican American journalists deeply indebted to a pioneer like Ruben Salazar, were struggling to connect in a meaningful way to this important and often unheralded moment in American history.
Our disconnect, I'm sure, also has to do with the fact that U.S. history usually leaves Latinos out. Almost no one we spoke to this week learned about Ruben Salazar or the Chicano movement in school.
But a big part of it has to do with the fact that Chicano culture, as we've experienced it, can sometimes feel like it excludes people like our parents, who are immigrants, and other Latin American communities that have also contributed a great deal to this country.
I remember watching an HBO movie about the Chicano blowouts as a kid and asking my father if we were Chicano and my father telling me, "No. Chicanos are like gringos. They hate us, too." Chava told me he had a similar experience with his father being called a wetback and told to go back to Mexico by Chicanos.
It's also invariably my proud Chicano relatives, friends and acquaintances who often say things like, "What about Brown Lives Matter?" They seem to not understand that at least 25% of Hispanics identify as Afro-Latino. Black lives are also Latino lives.
But painting an entire culture with a broad brush for the behavior of a few ignorant members is its own kind of ignorance. Chicano culture has helped define Los Angeles culture as a whole, and the Chicano movement helped strengthen our access to education and amplify our political voice.
It helped shape us, even if we weren't aware of it.
Our friends at the Los Angeles Times have dedicated a beautiful package to the history and legacy of the Chicano Moratorium, and our own station, KPCC, has partially dedicated the airwaves to it this week.
And then you have me and Chava, trying to live in the present and look toward the future of Latinidad in this town founded by our ancestors.
THE MURAL ON FERRIS AVENUE
We spoke with many people this week who did not know about Ruben Salazar or did not want to share their memories about the Chicano Moratorium with a couple of strangers.
Then we finally met a group of artists called 3B Collective who were putting the finishing touches on a 50th anniversary Chicano Moratorium mural on the corner of Whittier Boulevard and Ferris Avenue, just a block away from the old Silver Dollar turned Sound of Music.
The 3B Collective is Adrian Alfaro, Alfredo Diaz, Aaron Estrada, Oscar Magallanes, and Gustavo Martinez. The group is made up of Persian, Salvadoran, Indigenous and Mexican American artists who met while attending UCLA. They are all graduates of the school's fine arts program. And these five young men gave me and Chava hope for the future.
"They remind me of Lucia Torres, this young organizer I met last week," Chava said. "She told me how the Chicano movement is now about Black Lives Matter, and trans lives, and more inclusive."
We talked with members of the collective for several hours one hellishly hot day this week in front of their striking mural that invokes the imagery of protest posters with phrases like "Brown Power!" and "Ruben Salazar ¡Presente!" Their mural took several weeks to paint, all during this recent heat wave.
"The community has been very supportive. They are always stopping by and bringing us water or something cold to drink," said Oscar, a Mexican American from the San Gabriel Valley. Almost on cue, a man drove up in a white truck and dropped off a case of soda.
Oscar told us he believes the Chicano movement has evolved, and that past attitudes that had some Chicanos pushing "outsiders" out were based on the systems that are set up to keep marginalized people competing with one another.
He said, "There's so many different challenges between the different communities — Black and Brown, Salvadoran and Mexican — but where does it go back to? Why did they leave [their home countries] in the first place? And then what are the conditions we're forced to live in once we're here? What are we fighting over? It's usually over resources."
That infighting is by design, he said.
"We're pretty much subjugated into trying to fit into this idea of what is American culture, how we should look, speak and dress. I think that's always been the pushback. There's always been these different ways of trying to distinguish ourselves and to say that we're no less American."
Oscar grew up in Azusa. He told us he'd been arrested several times, that he's had to deal with police brutality and the criminal justice system first hand. And he thinks it's important that we see the Chicano Moratorium in the context of Black Lives Matter, the separation of immigrant families, and state-sponsored violence against Black, Brown, Indigenous and transgender communities.
"That's what happens with hyper criminalization," he explained. "A lot of things have to do with the rhetoric going on that is hyper xenophobic, but also the criminalization that's been going on with our community. There's so many different things that came about and really came to the forefront of the American consciousness, basically during the Chicano [movement]."
Next we spoke to Alfredo Diaz, a South Central native who recently returned from getting his master's degree at Yale University. He said the mixing of identities within the modern Chicano movement is where he finds his strength.
He said, "I do identify as Mexican American. I mainly identify as Indigenous. My family's from Oaxaca. I also identify as Chicano. I also identify as American. So I think the fluidity between those identities is what I find interesting about myself and a lot of members of my community."
Aaron Estrada agreed with Oscar and Alfredo. Aaron is a 26-year-old Salvadoran American artist from Pico Union who said he identifies as Chicano.
"With respect to the history of Chicano — it was mainly a Mexican American movement — however, I do know that there were a mixture of different Central Americans and other minorities inside of that movement," he said. "And as things change it's become more wide in the range of the term."
I looked at the mural behind Aaron — a collection of phrases in black, brown, red, blue, yellow — and asked him to talk about what he hopes this piece of street art does in a world where Black fathers such as Jacob Blake and Brown sons like Andrés Guardado are being shot in the back by police officers.
"It continues the conversation," Aaron said. "It shouldn't end. People die, but we'll multiply. We're gonna keep going. We're not gonna stop the movement. There's other phrases that could be added [to the mural] — Black Lives Matter. Trans Lives Matter — all those phrases are just as important."
I wonder how long a wall would have to be if it were just a list of names such as Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Anthony McClain, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Sean Monterrosa, Andrés Guardado, Daniel Hernandez, Angel Diaz, Gustav Montag, Ruben Salazar, and on and on.
And I wonder if police officers will ever think twice about endangering the lives of my people, of Chava's people, Jacob Blake's people, of your people. Because — maybe the 3B Collective's idealism has rubbed off on me — we are all each other's people.
Ruben Salazar was your people, even if he was a Chicano who died 50 years ago, and you're only just now reading about him, or just now realizing why.
About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor of a James Beard award-winning staff.
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