25 Years After His Tragic Death, Oscar Gomez Gets His College Degree
By the age of 21, Oscar Gomez was already a leader and an inspiration in the Chicano community.
It was hard to miss the young man with a silver microphone in his hand and a serape draped over his linebacker's frame during protests in the early 1990s. He was there in 1992 when Chicanos protested the 500-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival. He supported a 1993 hunger strike to create a Chicano studies department at UCLA. He spoke out against Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative that sought to stop unauthorized immigrants from using public schools and hospitals.
"He was everywhere," said Juan Gonzalez, a college activist who grew up with Gomez in Baldwin Park. "If there was an issue up and down the state, he was there to document it and tell his audience about it."
Gomez's audience heard his message on La Onda Xicana, a weekly music and interview show he hosted on KDVS, U.C. Davis's college radio station.
He was majoring in Chicano Studies and Behavioral Science. But Gomez never completed his studies. On Nov. 16, 1994, his voice was tragically silenced.
On that day, he attended a student protest about the direction of the Chicano studies department at U.C. Santa Barbara. A 1969 student conference there had led to the creation of the Chicano student organization MEChA, so the campus was important to Chicano students.
It's unclear what Gomez did after the protest. According to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department, investigators found his body after midnight along the shore at the east part of the UCSB campus. He had suffered massive trauma to his head. He was dead.
The police report said investigators believed Gomez may have died after falling from a bluff above the beach. The Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department told LAist that the circumstances surrounding Gomez's death remain undetermined.
Friends and family members believe Gomez was killed.
His funeral at St. John The Baptist Church in Baldwin Park was a testament to his powerful legacy.
"We had many people from all walks of life attend the funeral," Gonzalez said. "Not just the local community but people from Mexico, campesinos, farm workers from the Central Valley, people from the state capital Sacramento, from U.C. Davis, the Bay Area."
Mixing Music With A Message
Gomez had cultivated a dedicated following through his radio show. He hosted as El Bandido -- the bandit. The name was an homage to Joaquin Murrieta, a hero to 19th century Spanish-speaking immigrants and an outlaw to the California authorities. He played the music of bands like Malo, Tierra, El Chicano and other hits of 1960s and '70s that appealed to many Mexican Americans in the Southwest. He sprinkled the music with political criticism.
"I feel like he definitely made an impact on a lot of people his age, and really was somebody who was like, activating people through his radio show, and also through his activism," said Suzy Zepeda, a professor in the Chicana/Chicano Studies Department at U.C. Davis.
Last year, Zepeda cited Gomez's impact when she petitioned U.C. Davis to grant him a posthumous bachelor's degree. The university reviewed the request and approved it in March.
"He really opened their consciousness and really touched their hearts to understand what it meant to be Chicano, and what it meant to be someone who was challenging the politics without fear, and really putting his life on the line in this big way and that takes a lot of courage," Zepeda said.
There were hints in his middle-class suburban upbringing of the forceful politics Gomez would embody.
"I remember when he just first started to talk," said his father Oscar Gomez Sr. "We went to Juarez to visit his Grandpa and his grandfather asked him, '¿Hablas español?' [Do you speak Spanish?], and he looked at him and said, "Sí, Viva Zapata."
For three years the station's signal carried the music and Gomez's message to students, farmworkers and into prisons. "There are many treaties that were broken and not just with the Mexicans, pero, and many Native American people across, tu sabes [you know], what they call the United States," he said on one show.
He Rekindled Cultural Pride
His message of cultural empowerment and empathy for immigrants impacted students who were far removed from their immigrant roots.
"The way I remember feeling was, 'Wow, you know what? He's right. That could be a relative of mine, that could be my father, that could be my uncle, my cousin,'" said Natalie Paredes. At the time, she was a Cal State Fullerton student who met Gomez at Chicano student conferences.
In the 1990s, the proportion of Mexican American students at Cal State Fullerton and other universities was significantly lower than it is now. That made it hard for Mexican-American students to connect with their campus.
"I remember sitting in a history lecture course of maybe 150, first time freshman, and looking around, and I didn't see many other people that kinda looked like me," Paredes said.
Gomez's radio show, which Paredes heard on cassette tapes, and their discussions at student conferences, encouraged her to be proud of her culture. Her great-grandparents had immigrated from Mexico. She said that helped her through college and contributed to her career choice: college counselor.
Peers and older activists believed Gomez would have been an important civil rights leader. Cesar Chavez died the year before and activists asked who would replace him. "Oscar would never give up on anything... his family, his life or nothing like that," Gonzalez said. "Going to college to apply yourself, to give your best, not to accept what's given to you but to be critical of it, in college and in life."
"I just accept that my friend is not around, he passed on. You know, I'm okay with that. And I know, even though he's physically is not here, but in spirit [he is]," Gonzalez said.
The distance of two and a half decades is encouraging some scholars to probe deeper into Gomez's contributions to Chicano activism and student leadership.
It speaks volumes that some of Gomez's strongest advocates now were female and LGBTQ activists then. They had strong friendships with Gomez and are now professionals in their fields.
"I do believe he was advocating for something deeper, for another kind of politics," Zepeda said.
Gomez's friends say his charisma and easy smile allowed him to make friends and see common struggles with Central American, Asian American, and other students.
Father Imagines His Son's Degree In His Hands
Zepeda and others said Gomez's posthumous degree is a validation of his hard work and the impact he had outside the university walls. It also brings partial healing to the friends and family devastated by his violent death 25 years ago.
"I'm going to be very proud," said Gomez Sr. of holding his oldest son's degree, "because I know that I'm holding something that he worked very hard for, you know, not only the academic part but the community work, the radio work."
Gomez Sr. said he and his wife plan to go to U.C. Davis this spring to hear their son's name called at graduation ceremonies.