The Struggle Continues
By Zamná Ávila, Assistant Editor
Certain tragedies, such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, become lodged in the perpetual memory of the nation. However, there are some historical events that often escape the collective memory of Americans, such as the National Chicano Moratorium.
On Aug. 29, 1970, more than 25,000 Chicano anti-war and anti-draft demonstrators from across the country gathered on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles to protest the Vietnam War. Law enforcement officers claiming to have been chasing a robbery suspect that ran into the demonstration in Laguna Park (now Ruben Salazar Park) attempted to break up the gathering, herding participants at the park back toward the street.
“The moratorium was a massive attack on the civil rights of our community, which included the deaths of various people, injuries to scores and the arrests of hundreds,” said Juan Gomez-Quiñones, a history professor at the University of California Los Angeles. “The march was peaceful, orderly….There was no reason for police interference with the march and assembly….The police said it was a Chicano riot. The Chicanos said it was a police riot. When you look at the film and you hear the audio transcripts, what you hear is mayhem being driven by police.”
For Eliseo Montoya, the events of that day are not a lost memory. Montoya and his family went to Laguna Park to see what was going on that day. He said his parents weren’t political. They were just curious about the moratorium. They couldn’t have known that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department was going to turn the peaceful event into a war zone.
“All I can remember is my mom picking me up, my dad, and running, running,” recounted Montoya. “I can’t remember speeches or who it was. I was maybe 7 years old at that time. I was barely going into the first grade.”
Tear gas canisters were dropped from helicopters and demonstrators were chased through the streets by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies and Los Angeles Police Department officers. Four people were killed, 150 were jailed and a number of businesses went up in smoke. Mike Castañon, who was about 10 or 11 years old at the time, was riding his bike to the event when the violence erupted.
“All you’d see was smoke and siren, and people running,” said 56-year-old Mike Castañon. “It was just chaotic.”
Gomez-Quiñones also remembers that day vividly. He and his friends were close to the stage when the officers attacked the large group of people.
“We had to scramble to get out,” Gomez-Quiñones said. “I had to carry a friend’s young child. We had to get out quick.”
Luckily for his friends and him, his godmother’s home was only a block away.
“I was just flabbergasted,” he said. “We did not hear any order of disbursement. The only warning was when people began to shout and pushed us to each other. Like a thunderbolt.”
A Bit of History
The National Chicano Moratorium was the pinnacle of opposition to the Vietnam War by Americans of Mexican descent.
“The 5,000 to 10,000 who were actually in the park had a deep experience,” remembered Rosalio Urias Muñoz, one of the co-founders of the National Chicano Moratorium. “The most important driving force was the war and its impact on the community. But our method of organization, our intent was to build it as part of the overall Chicano movement and to reinforce so that it didn’t become a separate issue competing with the other issues.”
Muñoz and one of his friends, Ramses Noriega, set out to mobilize the Chicano community against the war. Muñoz, a multi-generational Chicano, came from a middle-class, educated family. Both of his parents were teachers. Noriega came from a working-class family of Mexico. They met at the United Mexican-American Students, which became the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, best known as MEChA.
Muñoz, who became the first Chicano student body president at UCLA, was drafted Sept. 16, 1969. He refused induction and they decided he would use that day to mobilize Chicanos around the country, starting in Los Angeles.
The two young men began meeting with several grassroots community organizers such as Cesar Chavez, Reies Lopez Tijerina, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, Dolores Huerta and MECha leaders to lend their support in opposition to the war and share ideas. His action against induction hit Chicano, as well as mainstream, media.
There had been several moratoriums throughout the country, but this one was a united display against the Vietnam War. Members of the Brown Berets were among the groups active in the community, setting up and operating health clinics, organizing community watchdog groups in an effort to curtail police brutality, and protesting the high number of Latinos serving and dying in a war they didn’t support. The first demonstration, Dec. 20, 1969, was organized by the Brown Berets in Los Angeles. By March of 1970, the different leaders—comprised of student activist groups, nonprofit organizations, unionists and clergy—decided to organize the National Chicano Moratorium on Aug. 29, 1970.
“We marched right in the middle of the barrio (in this context “barrio,” which literally means “neighborhood,” means “community”),” Muñoz said. “We marched not in downtown LA or the federal building, we marched right through the heart of the community.”
In many of the communities, people taking part in the demonstration had to argue with their school principals, police, parents, priests, who believed going to war was a duty to the country.
As early as 1965, politicians, journalists, students and youths had voiced their unhappiness over the massive number of student deferments granted to white students, allowing them to avoid going to war.
In the fall of 1966, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara began Operation 100,000, which relaxed physical, mental and language proficiency standards for the draft. That enabled the armed services to put more minority and poor youth on the front lines. From October 1966 to December 1971, the Operation 100,000 program brought about 354,000 people to the military.
“It was opening [the military] to more people from the ghettos, from the barrios, from the fields,” Muñoz said. “It hit the minorities and then the very poor whites as well. And they said, ‘Oh, this is giving them job opportunities.’ Later on, they looked at the people who were let in, and it was the same educational, the same low-paying jobs, when they came back, if not worse.”
Muñoz noted that too many were dying, and Chicanos began asking why they were told to give their lives in a place far from home.
“The government was lying about why they were doing this and wouldn’t really talk about what happened,” Muñoz. “And the GIs [who] came back or wouldn’t, and those who came back, many were hooked on drugs or had PTSD…. There was a part of it, ‘It’s not ours to reason why, it’s what to do and die.’ We began to challenge that.”
National Chicano Moratorium Casualties
Ruben Salazar, the news director for the Spanish-language TV station, KMEX, was one of the four casualties of the National Chicano Moratorium.
Salazar was in East Los Angeles covering the event on Aug. 29, 1970. More than 25,000 people—predominantly Americans of Mexican descent—came to Laguna Park to march and rally. Large contingents of federal, state and local law enforcement showed up, too, and they ultimately launched a violent attack on the demonstrators.
To escape the madness in the street, Salazar sat down with a beer at the Silver Dollar tavern. A deputy fired a tear gas canister through the front door of the bar, striking Salazar in the head, killing him instantly.
The coroner’s inquest ruled the shooting a homicide, but Tom Wilson, the sheriff’s deputy involved, was never charged. Though a 2011 civilian panel concluded there is no evidence that sheriff’s deputies intentionally targeted Salazar or had him under surveillance, many people still believe the homicide was a premeditated assassination.
Salazar served as a Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent in 1965, covering the escalation of the Vietnam War. In 1970 he became the KMEX news director, where he investigated allegations that police were planting evidence to implicate Americans of Mexican descent in the July 1970 police shooting of two unarmed Mexicans. Salazar’s statement on Bob Navarro’s KNXT show three months before his death that undercover LAPD detectives had warned him that his investigations were “dangerous in the minds of barrio people,” lends credence to the belief.
The violent end to the peaceful moratorium, the murder of Salazar and the continued opposition to the Vietnam War outraged communities throughout Southern California—including Wilmington, where about 500 people gathered near the 900 block of Avalon Boulevard the evening after the National Chicano Moratorium. Community members reacted to the police presence with rocks and bottles. At least 80 businesses were damaged. The following Monday, at least six fires were set, including an empty house, a vacant commercial building and trash bins in the general vicinity.
“We kept on,” said Muñoz about days after the attack. “We didn’t back down. We didn’t say, ‘Oh, gosh, there was violence,’ We handled that. There was no reason for them to attack. It just proved that our front line was in the barrio. We had to fight discrimination by the police and the political system for what they had done to us in the war. It was a turning point in our attitude…. We protested; we fought back; there was an inquest into Ruben Salazar; and there was this whole experience.”
For more than a year, groups continued the fight despite government infiltration, which was a common tactic for handling other groups, such as the Black Panthers.
The events that took place on Aug. 29, 1970 deserve more than a simple mention in history books. There is relevance to events taking place today, Muñoz said.
“It shows that activism—principled activism—that works for unity can have tremendous impact on a local, regional, national and international level, on all those levels,” Muñoz said. “It shows that there is systemic and systematic discrimination in government policies that are…detrimental to our interest.”
Montoya is now a member of the Chicano Brown Berets, a group that emerged from the Brown Berets of the 60s and 70s. He believes that the moratorium still provides the mentality for “our raza (Montoya prefers to use the term raza to describe people of the Americas of indigenous, mixed and Spaniard descent) to know you can talk back,” Montoya said.
Leaders who have emerged from that generation include politicians, judges, professors and union leaders who marched in the moratorium and walked out of the schools.
“If you look at the big lawsuits [against] the LAPD and the sheriff’s, you’ll start finding the names of the attorneys, Roxanne Paz or Luis Carrillo, for example, and others [who] marched in the moratoriums. They were organizing in the Brown Berets, and the MEChAs.…They were monitors during the Chicano moratoriums.”
Participants in the moratoriums also have become leaders in the fight for immigrant rights. The late labor and civil rights leader Humberto Noé “Bert” Carona was one example.
Much has changed in the 45 years since the National Chicano Moratorium. Latinos have more representation and a greater voice in both academics and politics. The draft is gone.
Despite improvements in the lives of Chicanos, Latinos and other people of color in this country, struggles remain. Black and brown people continue to be the targets of systemic and systematic racism. A disproportionate amount of people of color and poor whites are actively recruited into the military, poor people and people of color often face a lack of job opportunities and high student debt. Additionally, the lack of relevant education for people of color makes them easy targets for discrimination.
“We do want our education; we want more than a paragraph for our history…Chavez is not the only one,” Montoya said. “We’ve got to save our history, we’ve got to save our culture, we’ve got to save our youths, we can’t let them forget. “
Also, racist attitudes in privileged communities, such as those present in the people who support presidential candidate Donald Trump, are still prevalent.
Montoya, who was in Berlin when the Berlin Wall came down, said it’s ironic that the U.S. government cheered the event, but now wants to do that to neighboring counties to the south.
“How can we be so freaking hypocritical to demand a wall be taken down and yet we want to build the biggest wall there is,” Montoya said. “We are looked at as less-than-equal-to…. Here’s a man (referring to Trump who had several deferments during the Vietnam war) who had no huevos (balls) to be in the military.”
Muñoz said the banks and mainstream media are partially to blame for Trump’s popularity.
“Some of them say they don’t like him, but how come he’s in every headline?” he asked rhetorically. “There are probably as many people for Bernie Sanders in the polls, but who’s getting the headlines?”
Yet, Montoya sees a positive reversion due to Trump’s xenophobic comments.
“A lot of people are starting to get fired up again,” Montoya said. “Thank you Donald Trump…Please keep talking shit, ‘cause it’s riling up my raza.”
The movimiento Chicano (the Chicano Movement) is about more than the moratorium. In fact, being Chicano is more than just being an American of Mexican descent, Montoya said.
“In order to have the privilege to call oneself a Chicano or Chicana requires you to play an active part in the advancement of your raza,” Montoya said. “Get off your nalgas (butt) and stand up and be seen and heard; make your representatives work for you.
Muñoz, who is now active in Latinos For Peace, an antiwar group seeking to cut the military budget, agrees.
“It’s a struggle,” he said. “It’s a democratic and class [and] cultural struggle that you have to keep on renewing and developing.”