Saturday, February 24, 2018

A Reminiscence and A Trip with Moe by Antonio SolisGomez, Part I

The librarians at the old Carnegie Library had seen their share of characters walk through the double front doors during the time that Tucson had grown from a small pueblo to a good size city. But my librarian co-workers weren’t prepared for the entrance of Moe and Fernando. Frankly neither was I. Moe looked menacing even when he was trying to look pleasant. He had a crooked nose and several deep scars acquired in countless prison and barrio brawls. The rest of his face was etched with lines of troubles and adversities. His posture honed from years of needing to be tough, and needing to hold his own regardless of the odds against him, was tilted back ever so slightly. His head was also thrown back so that the back of his hair touched the collar of his shirt. He stood a couple of inches over six feet and he was muscularly built. Fernando was as tall as Moe but much thicker in the arms and chest. Whereas Moe was turning heads because his Indian features and battle scarred face gave him the look of a never defeated warrior, Fernando was turning heads because of his handsome looks. Fernando was my compadre and homeboy, and we had known each other since we were youngsters.

 “Who’s that?” I was asked by the librarian next to me, when I waved to Moe and Fernando from behind the reference desk.

The question was asked both with apprehension and fascination. “Just a couple of ghosts from my past,” I answered.  
Eduardo Zapata Aguirre aka Moe, Lalo

I had to admit they were quite a pair to look at. They had a presence that was captivating and a little scary. Fernando and I stayed in touch by telephone and every so often his furniture accounts brought him to Arizona. But he hadn’t informed me that he was stopping in. “Orale carnal,” I greeted him and went around the desk to where he stood to give him a big hug and to shake Moe’s hand. Guys like Mo are funny about hugs. Their machismo, learned inside prison walls doesn’t allow for much touching between men.  Moe’s handshake was purposely limp, similar to the handshake of humble Mexicans or Native Americans, but which in his case was done so as not to imitate that John Wayne ‘grip em til they fall to their knees’ that is cultivated in the United States.

Right away Fernando said, “hey man, Mo and I came to get you so that we can go down to Mexico to see Arturo. Wanna go?”

This was classic Fernando spontaneity. It was difficult to get Fernando to keep appointments because he was up for anything that sprang up and in a moment’s notice he was gone. Too bad for you if you were planning to see him later that day.

“Slow down vato,” I answered, more to catch my own breath at the surprise of seeing both of them in this setting.

The context of my friendship with them was East Los Angeles. And East Los Angeles of the late sixties and early seventies when we were all battling the ‘establishment’ during the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, that we simply called ‘El Movimiento’.

“Let me see if I can get someone to replace me on this desk and we can go get some lunch and talk,”I said. “Hang out here and I’ll be right back,” I added as I turned and quickly went to the back office to find someone to cover for me.

L to R Fernando Morales, author, Arturo Carranza Arocha, 1992

As I made my way to the office, I couldn’t believe Moe was standing out there. The last time I had seen him was at a large party that Con Safos Magazine hosted in the early 1970's.

The day of the party was warm and the sky was a clear blue, providing outstanding views of the entire city. The hill, where the magazine had its workshop, was one of several that lie east of downtown Los Angeles. In other parts of the city, hillside properties had become chic and prices had skyrocketed.  In the barrios hillsides homes were modest and one could still detect the conditions of poverty that had relegated the dwellers to hillsides in the first place. The hill where we were partying was known locally as Rose Hill, named after the two land developers, Hill and Rose. It was a large hill, covering several square miles, and most of its slopes were well dotted with homes that clung precariously. The roads were often steep, far exceeding conventional grading requirements and naturally potholes abounded. The very top of the hill and the west facing slope that stopped at the Lincoln High School athletic field that fronted Broadway Street, remained virgin. The homes of Rudy and Rafas two of our Con Safos editors, were situated on the eastern slope close enough to the top to have million dollar views of the city and beyond.

On this west facing slope, that changed vesture with the seasons, now golden, now green, we drew the name Con Safos in fifty foot letters in white chalk. It would last but a season, we knew, but during the time that it was visible, it could be seen from the downtown city hall; and it was there the day of the party.

People started arriving just after midday. It was an outdoor gathering and most of the people were in the front portion of the yard or out front at the edge of the hill conversing with each other. We were wearing our Con Safos T-shirts, greeting people and offering them something to drink. We already had several ice filled metal tubs cooling bottles of wine and beer and more was being brought by guests. It didn’t take any effort to introduce people as most of the few hundred people that arrived knew each other. I was making the rounds and listening to bits and pieces of conversation. When I spotted Al Zapata, my co-worker I went over to welcome him. He was with Moe, his cousin and a few others.

Moe had come with his usual entourage of 'pintos' but they were off to the side and he was hanging out with his sister Armida and her friend Francisca Flores, the editor of the feminist and left leaning magazine La Regeneracion, the same title of the publication of the Flores Magon brothers. Since his attack in south central a couple of years ago, Moe was rarely in public without his soldiers to guard him. Back in the late 1960’s, he had been attacked in south central outside a hamburger stand when he had gone to see some friends who had been robbed. A group of Afro-Americans attacked him and he was struck on the head with a 2x4. He spent three weeks in the hospital and the anticipation of a race war between Chicanos and Afro-Americans rippled throughout the barrios and ghettos.

The Black Panthers stepped into the fray as did Opal Jones and a meeting was arranged to discuss and if possible resolve the situation. The meeting was a negotiated point and finally a place in East Los Angeles was selected. Fortunately, political awareness was well developed on both sides. They knew that nothing could be worse for their individual efforts than to fight among themselves and lessen their collective strength when they went up against ‘the man.’  Rudy Salinas, a Con Safos member who was present at that meeting reports, “Almost everyone was packing that evening and each person placed his weapon on the table in front of where he was sitting. I thought 'what the hell am I doing here?'  No one knew if they would walk out alive, including me. Fortunately, the key players seemed to know each other from prison and there was some trust established. The message from the Chicano contingent was that we could not have one of our leaders attacked in that manner. The response of the Afro-Americans was that they would take care of the perpetrators.” I think everyone gave a sigh of relieve as it could have been very ugly. 

Moe however was never the same after the blow to the head. His friends could not pinpoint exactly what it was that was different other than he was even less trusting of people, and he suffered painful headaches.

Joe Duarte from the East Los Angeles Task Force had joined Moe and Armida as had Al’s wife, Jerri. Moe and Francisca tolerated each other but generally found themselves on opposites sides of an issue. They were talking about the growing presence in East Los Angeles and elsewhere in California of immigrants from Mexico.  Moe, because he saw the southwest as occupied Mexico, was greatly in favor of Mexicans coming to help reclaim what was theirs and ours.  Francisca was the founder and CEO of the Chicana Service Action Center and the leading voice of feminist thought in Los Angeles. But she was involved in all the issues and she was grounded in community organizing since her early work with the CSO, that helped elect Roybal to the US Congress. It was her belief that large numbers of undocumented workers stressed the social infrastructure and diluted the efforts of Chicanos to better their social and economic conditions.

“Moe I know all that history,” Francisca was saying, “but Chicanos cannot tackle the problems of the Mexicans. They come here to work period. End of story. They look to a time when they can return home and have no desire to become citizens. You can’t organize people who can’t vote. Mexico needs to fix their own economy".

Joe Duarte responded. “I think all Chicanos feel a bit guilty about this issue. It’s a very emotional subject. But I have to agree with Francisca, we never…

Moe interrupted Joe mid sentence, “They will keep coming and nothing we do will keep them out… unless you start shooting them.”

I was called away as Francisca was explaining that Mexico needed to create economic parity with the Unites States.  She was well versed in economics and years before was a member of the Communist Party.  Moe had strong feelings against communists because of the dictatorships that were associated with the party and because he had some pedo with a group of Marxists who operated in East Los Angeles.  It was rumored that the Marxists had once shot up Moe’s LUCHA offices.  I hated to leave at this juicy juncture.
L-R Nati Cisneros, Frank Sifuentes, George 'Chapo' Meneses - photo by Oscar Castillo

I walked in amazement at seeing all the people that had showed up.  It seemed as if anybody who was somebody in East Los Angeles had come. Over there was the Reverend Madirosian, who was the Chair of the Chicano educational committee; Mel Sherman, the Director of the International Institute and his protege the ex-pinto addict Robert Bully Hernandez.  Bully headed One Stop Immigration, one of many new agencies that had sprouted in East Los Angeles with Federal money.  Grace Davis was there.  She was a longtime Chicana activist who now worked for Mayor Bradley.  Francisca had come with Armida and Gloria Molina of the Commision Femini; David Lopez Lee, a city council candidate; Professor Rudy Acuna; Roberto De la Rocha, the artist; Sal Castro, the school teacher at Lincoln High School who was the first Chicano teacher to advocate for  students; Sister Corita, the famous Catholic Nun Painter; Moctezuma Esparaza and Jesus Trevino the film makers and producers.     

When I returned, I spotted Magu, our radical Con Safos artist, at the center of another group that was talking about barrio aesthetics.  Within Con Safos, Magu often had to argue and convince us of his point of view, which was not so much that it was radical as much as that we were stodgy about what contemporary art entailed.  Magu had grown up as one of the vatos in old El Monte and he was  quiet and thoughtful, with a nice smile and a friendly personality that verged on shyness. He was also a very intellectual person and was already working on extending barrio motifs, such as the low rider car, into new realms and causing us, his fellow Con Safos members, anguish. His rendition of Oscar Acosta, as a brown buffalo for our Con Safos issue that carried the first chapters, was shocking to us and to Oscar, offensive because it depicted him with a diminutive penis.  Oscar and his sidekick Benny Luna were there, as was the woman who ran the Mechicano Art Center, Diane Arias an Anglo woman married to a Chicano doctor, our good friend Maxine Junge, and Tudi’s wife Adalberta.  Diane Arias, an intelligent but spacey kind of person had asked Magu to give her a short definition of barrio art for the book that she had been writing for the past few years. Magu looked at her with his kind eyes and said,

Brown Buffalo rendering by Magu

“I doubt that anyone could define barrio art in a short sentence….to reduce all the dynamics and essence of so many people and events is a daunting task and if someone can do it, I would pay my respects. I could give you platitudes or hyperbole of what it is…."

“Well if it captures the essence," Diane interjected before Magu could add to what he was saying, "that would do. I just need something short.”

Magu smiled and looked at Oscar and Benny who were already snickering at Diane’s naivete and toking-up on a joint which they passed to Magu.  Magu took a good deep drag and with held breath uttered

“Artwork based on Chicanada culture including the notion of place, with eclectic motifs.” 

“Yes that’s very good,” Diane said as she busily wrote in the notebook that was her constant companion.

Benny was pacing and bouncing energetically as was his custom, seldom ever being able to stand still.  He was making comments to Oscar, who was enjoying his high and looking around at the people.  Benny could no longer contain himself and said to Magu
“Bullshit! You just want to rip off the lowrider lifestyle and all the homies.  Don’t hide behind all that intellectual garbage.” This was classic Benny Luna, who in the very near future would attack Oscar Acosta for writing about Chicanos in his novel “The Brown Buffalo,” claiming that Oscar was just an opportunist who came to East Los Angeles to exploit Raza.
Adalberta, always poised to strike men whenever the opportunity arose, also jumped in
“Yes Magu that’s all fine and good but people in the barrio can’t afford fine art. There’s a lot of people out there who all they know is work or taking care of children. I know that for a fact, my husband just takes off and expects me to tend house.  You macho guys think that women don’t have a brain and you expect us to be your mothers.”

“Poor Magu,” I thought to myself as I left to mingle with another group.  It was early and already it looked like a party.  There were groups everywhere on the hill.  Some were just staring at the city and trying to spot landmarks such as the brewery on main street in the Clover barrio, or the Los Angeles river that long ago separated downtown from the Chicano barrios of the East Side.  Other groups were leaning against cars that were parked on the illegal dirt road that ran along the crest of the hill. Cumbia music was blaring from Rafas’ stereo and here and there some bodies were wiggling to the rhythms.    

I saw that the meat was being brought out and I headed over to the long tables that we had borrowed from Father Luce’s Church of the Epiphany. Chapo had marinated the meat before wrapping it in the burlap and he was incharge of unearthing it from the pit where it had cooking the entire night and carving it for the guests. Even though it was buffet style, still there was a lot of work to feed that many people and we missed many of the great conversations that were taking place. It was only until the early evening after all but a few close friends had left that we were able to relax completely. Tudi was already drunk. He had been serving the wine and toasting with everyone that he encountered on his rounds.  Rafas too was out of his gourd, having met up with Benny and Oscar and their seemingly inexhaustible supply of mota. They were now supplying the small group that was left.  We had set up some chairs at the edge of the hill. Rafas was sitting atop the hood of someone car, playing his guitar and singing his original song about a barrio boy.

Rafas on the guitar photo by Oscar Castillo

     “hey little vato let me sing you a song”

Several joints were being passed around, the smell of the herb wafting deliciously around all of us. Moe sat next to me bolgarding a joint that Oscar had rolled especially for him. They had never met before but their mutual experience in law, Moe as a jail house lawyer, and Oscar, of course, as the defender of Chicanos indicted on all sorts of scams.  Moe was particularly interested in Oscar’s strategy of attacking the composition of the Grand Jury.

“How in the hell are you going to get away with that?,” Moe asked incredulously.

“It’s simple shit, Moe, I’ll subpoena all the judges to testify.  I’ll cross examine their asses and ask them why there are no Chicanos on the Grand Jury”.

Tienes muchos huevos Oscar, Moe complimented him.

"Somebody got to show them son’s of bitches," Oscar answered back, obviously enjoying the admiration that he was receiving.

Meantime Rafas was still singing and his brother Bear was beating the rhythm on a beer can with a fork. Tudi went to his car and brought back his clarinet and saxophone and offered them to Oscar.

“Choose your weapon God damn it,” Tudi told Oscar playfully.

Oscar looked at Art as if saying “you gotta be shitting me” but he took the clarinet anyway and after inspecting the mouth piece critically he made everyone laugh when he poured some wine on it as if to sterilize it.  Art laughed too and said in reference to Oscar propensity for drugs and women.

“Hell Oscar you put more garbage in your mouth than you’ll ever get from me”

It wasn’t long before they were both jamming along with Rafas’ guitar. Bear the percussionist had been joined by Maxine on an old watering can, Father Luce on a garbage can lid and John Figueroa, our Puerto Rican member, on maracas.  It must have sounded dreadful but we were having a great time.

Rafas and two unidentified men- Photo by Oscar Castillo


1 comment:

Daniel Cano said...

Antonio, you have given us a history and a psychology lesson in this piece. Whenever I read Revolt of the Cockroach People, I always wondered what was real and what was fictionalized. Thanks for filling us in.