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Where Oscar Gomez Died, Students Have Created An Altar And Vigil For The Anniversary Of The Chicano Activist's Death

Detail of the altar, eagle feathers behind a black and white photo of two young men, one with a black beanie that says Xicano, the other with his fist raised.
Detail of the Oscar Gomez altar
(Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)
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Earlier this month I drove the three-hour stretch from my house in Long Beach to UC Santa Barbara. I’d done the drive several times a year ago in search of public documents, answers from the Santa Barbara Sheriff, and to do interviews seeking clarity about the life and tragic death of 1990s Chicano college student activist Oscar Gomez.

Listen to the podcast
  • In Forgotten Revolutionary, Adolfo Guzman-Lopez investigates the unexpected death of Oscar Gomez, who was a star of the 1990s Chicano student movement.

But this time I was in search of something different.

Lily Espinoza, a student at the university had messaged me that she had listened to Imperfect Paradise: The Forgotten Revolutionary, the podcast I hosted, and was so inspired that she rallied fellow students to create a large Day of the Dead altar at the entrance to the university’s busy student center.

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“It’s very important that we are keepers of memory,” Espinoza said next to the altar.

The altar was up for about a week in the foyer of the university’s busy student center. Espinoza and other students planned a vigil and procession for Thursday evening, starting at Manzanita Village campus housing and ending near the Santa Barbara cliffs where Oscar is believed to have fallen to his death.

The altar and the vigil signal a desire by these students to learn more about the activism of students like them nearly 30 years ago, a history that historians say is a significant part of California politics but that is not easily found in history texts or other platforms.

“As soon as I listened to the whole podcast, I brought it up at every meeting like ‘hey, guys listen to this podcast, [Gomez] was very important for our Congreso history,’” she said.

About The Altar For Oscar Gomez

Gomez grew up in Baldwin Park in Los Angeles County and was a student at UC Davis from 1990 until his death on November 17, 1994 in Santa Barbara. He was at the UC Santa Barbara campus to attend a college student protest in support of Chicano studies.

According to a Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office coroner’s report Gomez died of severe cranial trauma but the death has not been categorized as an accident, a homicide, or suicide. Investigators said no evidence was found and no witnesses testified to any of those scenarios so the manner of death remains undetermined.

A medium-tone skinned woman and a medium-tone -skinned man at the entrance to an office building.
UCSB student Lily Espinoza, left, and Chicana and Chicano Studies Professor Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval talk about the Oscar Gomez altar
(Adolfo Guzman-Lopez
/
LAist)

The El Congreso students used traditional methods to create the altar for Gomez. Espinoza and other students who are members of El Congreso, the university’s Chicano student organization, used marigolds, skulls cut out from thin multicolored paper, bread, and a sarape-colored blanket.

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But the students also reached out to Gomez’s family for photos and more information. The altar contains items that signal moments in Gomez’s life: a Dodgers jacket, a photo of Gomez in high school wearing football gear, and eagle feathers that signify Gomez’s strong interest in Indigenous history and philosophy.

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Where Oscar Gomez Died, Students Have Created An Altar And Vigil For The Anniversary Of The Chicano Activist's Death

“For me a focus point is the beanie [that says] Brown and Proud,” Espinoza said. “It reminds me of Oscar’s iconic beanie that says Xicano… I want students that come in here and look at that to be proud of the community that they come from.”

The UC Santa Barbara campus has a long history in the Chicano student movement. Students from many parts of the U.S. Southwest gathered on the campus in 1969 to create a structure for Chicano student organizations. Many of the groups remain active today.

Strengthening The Memory Of Chicano Activism

Historians on this and other campuses say new ethnic studies classes at California’s public universities and community colleges will give an opportunity to bring to a greater audience stories of 1990s Chicano activism that have remained mostly out of sight in research papers and fading memories.

“One way to really keep those memories alive… is creating some permanent thing, like a plaque or a memorial,” for Oscar Gomez and Chicano student activists from the 1990s, said UCSB professor Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval.

An event flier with a QR code on it
There's a vigil on Nov. 17 for people in the UCSB community.

“There's nothing on campus,” he said.

His book Starving For Justice, is one of the few published books that focus on 1990s California Chicano college student activism.

Espinoza said membership in El Congreso was down to a handful of students during the first year of the pandemic even though Chicano and Latino enrollment at UCSB has reached nearly 25%.

The altar is the first part of her effort, and the vigil on Thursday to remember Gomez is the second. She credits both as motivation that’s inspired her to keep working to reach graduation day.

“That was what I wanted to do, [to] inform the current Congresistas of what had happened in our history before,” she said “so that we could build a community because what I would like to do… I want to build an alumni network so that we can be connected to that past.”

But it’s not just about the past. She and other students have sent demands to the university administration to do more to support students with counseling and basic needs. Lily Espinoza is holding out hope for change because it’s now clearer to her that she and her fellow activists stand on the shoulders of Oscar Gomez and the 1990s generation.

What questions do you have about higher education?
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez focuses on the stories of students trying to overcome academic and other challenges to stay in college — with the goal of creating a path to a better life.