Thursday, February 04, 2021

Generations of Change


            Jorge Mariscal's book tells the stories of Chicanos(as) at war in the streets and in the jungles

     Here is one answer to the question Michael Sedano asks in “March in Rain, January 31st, 1979” (La Bloga, 2/2/21) “Where were you on August 29th, 1970?”

     Unfortunately, to many Chicano/Latino(a) readers who did not take a Chicano Studies class or were not politically engaged at the time, the date may not mean a thing, or it may conjure up a vague recollection of something bad that happened on Whittier boulevard in East L.A. Others may get it mixed up with the Blowouts or with the Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement.

     Now, how would I have answered this question had I not been a teacher and studied the Chicano Moratorium and its aftermath throughout my years in the classroom?

     In February 1969, I, like scores of Chicanos, hit the streets after serving two or three years in the military, many of us surviving Vietnam’s jungles, and the fog of war. We didn’t know a thing about “shell shock,” the “thousand-mile stare,” or what is commonly known today as PTSD, but we knew something had changed in us, and we had no idea how to deal with it. The “Me Generation” helped. We lost ourselves in all the vices available to us at the time.

     By early 1970, I had sputtered through my first year of college, mainly to collect the G.I. Bill, oh, and to satisfy my promise to Uncle Sam who gave me a three-month “early-out” of the army to start my education, as long as I maintained a 3.0 GPA, or what East Coasters call--a “gentleman’s C.”

     At Santa Monica Community College, I ran into a few friends from the neighborhood who invited me to a MEChA meeting. (A wild guess, I’d say raza and blacks together made up less than 5% of the student body.) I had no idea what the acronym MEChA meant.

     I quickly realized I was the only veteran in the room, but I kept that to myself, especially since college kids, at the time, were railing against the war and those of us who fought in it.

     Truly, I wasn’t college material. I hadn’t ever been a conscientious student during my school days, my grades just good enough to keep my parents off my back and the small perks that came with it. In the Catholic high school I attended, the good Brothers of Saint Patrick lumped us in groups A, B, C, and D, by how well we did on our entrance exams. I was in the D group, which meant the school accepted me, barely, so I had to take Spanish instead of Latin and Basic Algebra instead of Intermediate Algebra. My point—I didn’t get the most out of my education.

     What struck me that day about the kids in the MEChA meeting was their passion about arguing over what, to me, were insignificant issues. After a while I got the feeling that some guys really liked hearing themselves talk, but I’d just spent almost three years listening to some of the best “talkers” across the country, black guys from Chicago, New York, and Philly, Chicanos from Albuquerque, San Antonio, and even Detroit, and white guys from San Francisco to Connecticut and every state in between, guys who could hold your attention for hours. Whether they were telling the truth or not, who knew? Entertainment was much more important than truth.

     When two gallos in the MEChA meeting nearly came to blows over staging a mass protest about forcing the administration to put burritos into the vending machines, I called it quits. I wasn’t ready to get arrested over burritos, and not very good ones. Protests? In 1967, I’d patrolled Washington D.C.’s streets with the 82nd Airborne after Martin Luther King’s assassination. I watched Washington burn, or, at least, the poor parts of it. I didn't think a handful of Chicanos could stage much of protest.

     In fact, just a few days ago, Americans became outraged at the sight of National Guard troops forced to sleep in parking garages during their off-hours from protecting the Nation’s capital from domestic terrorists. I thought, at least they’ll stay dry and get a little warmth. I remember sleeping on the floors of laundromats, not far from Howard University, when we weren’t patrolling D.C.'s streets. That’s what soldiers do--rough-it.

     Then came August 29, 1970, I had my hands full. I was married with a child, working 40 hours a week, playing in a band four nights a week, and enrolled in evening classes at SMCC trying to get off probation for low grades. Then, there was what I will just call—the other “distractions,” anything to avoid thinking about the war, as the body bags continued to arrive at Andrews Air Force Base from Southeast Asia.

     The Veterans Administration had nothing to alleviate our ailments, no counseling, no psychological programs or de-programming, nothing, unless you were really bad, as in suicidal. There was always the medication, but most guys didn’t like walking around like zombies, nor did they want the side effects, so our distractions took on many forms, some downright destructive to the body and soul. By this time, it was education that saved me, my spirit lost in books and the words of the masters.


                                                             Books became my salvation

     Like many Angelenos, I watched the Moratorium and the smoke coming from Whittier boulevard from the sidelines, the television newscasts and the newspapers broadcasting the event, which made it appear like a minor annoyance in the larger problems facing the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, until the news of Ruben Salazar’s death. The event took on more significance.

     My generation was raised on newspapers, the Los Angeles Times in the morning and the Herald Examiner and local papers in the afternoons. The magnitude of the day’s trauma didn’t register, unless one was at the Moratorium, or residing on the Eastside, as Michael Sedano so aptly suggested, for those on the Westside or in the Valley, “My gosh, that’s just terrible.”  

     Some people probably saw the Moratorium as one more march against the war, this one getting out of hand. Today, we know it was much more, not just another antiwar protest, but a stand against the number of Mexican war dead, the inequality in the education system, police brutality, and access to higher education. Boom! And then it was forgotten. Or was it?

     As Esteban Torres told Sedano, “…the movement was the collective labor of millions of people, raza, and allies, pursuing community needs. The Movement is an organic feature of a community that develops and changes through generations.”

     Now, it's January 29, 2021. I picked up the L.A. Times, and right there on the front page, I read: “Record numbers seek UC entrance: Aiding diversity goals underrepresented students apply for fall admission in droves.” Did this increase just happen because students are stuck at home and have more time to fill out college application, as the article posits? I don’t think so. It’s a long process that started long ago, the Moratorium, maybe, the turning point.

     At the end of WWII and Korea, Chicano veterans used the G.I. Bill to attend college, as well as buy homes in areas forbidden their parents before them, Vietnam veterans and veterans of the Middle East wars following their path.

     In 1965, the UC system started its first Education Opportunity Programs (EOP) admitting, and academically supporting, Chicano and black students for the first time. The Cal State started its Affirmative Action programs, and private universities, such as USC, began their student equity programs. Though it was only a trickle, at least someone, like the growing numbers of Latino and Latina politicians in the state legislature, had the sense to open the faucet of opportunity.

      Then there were the 1968 Blowouts, where students in schools across Los Angeles, led by dynamic teachers like Sal Castro, walked out of their classrooms in masses to protest the poor learning conditions in Los Angeles schools, from old decaying facilities to an irrelevant curricula, and calling out teachers who were taking up space.

     By the 1970s, college students, graduates, professors, and administrators like Ernesto Galarza, George E. Sanchez, Refugio Rochin, Porfirio Sanchez, Jess "Chuy" Leyba, Frank Sifuentes, Fernando Denecochea, Juan Gomez Quinones, Juan Quevedo, Elma Gonzalez, David Hayes-Bautista, Rudy Acuna, Aida Riddell, William Estrada, Sy Abrego, Rosalio Munoz, Raul Ruiz, Jorge Mariscal, Charley Trujillo, Barbara Carrasco, Roberto Rodriguez, Jesse Coronado, and so many others had helped pave the way for students who had never thought college an option in their lives.

     By 1980, the UC system began its first Early Outreach, Partnership, and Partners programs, sending Chicano college students into the communities to explore educational options with the students in neighboring junior high and high school. Leading the way at the high schools were college advisors like Judy May, Jack Wright, Tony Solorzano, and Phyllis Hart.

     It all worked like a pipeline, opening the flood gates to a new contingent of students. Those who didn’t have the grades for UC, enrolled at community colleges, transferred, and graduated. Some never made it to college, but they never forgot their exposure to higher education, and they passed the word on to their younger siblings, who passed the word on down the line.

     As new immigrants came into the U.S. from Mexico and Central America in the 1990s, California high schools had hired more raza faculty and administrators supporting the students. A college education was no longer a foreign concept but something achievable.

     Nothing in life works in a vacuum. Everything connects, for me, even my father mentioning names of friends who graduated college, going way back to the forties, names like judge Ray Cardenas, Max Vigil, and Edward Royball meant something.

    When I think of my own education, I often return to that MEChA meeting in 1970, and I realize my mistake. The students that day didn’t care about burritos in the vending machines. What they were asking for was representation, to be seen, to be acknowledged, to become a part of a higher educational system that had not only excluded them, but excluded their siblings, and in some cases, even their parent before them. Finally, it appears, the ivy walls have begun to open wide for those who have been at the doors for too many years.


Al Manito said...

If you were in Washington DC, were you with the 82nd Airborne? I will re-read your comment but want to know if you can tell me how to see what elements of the 101st Airborne was deployed to Detroit in the summer of 1967. IF I understand things correctly, the entire 101st Airborne deployed to Vietnam with initial elements arriving in the summer of 1967, but the bulk of the 101st were played toward the end of 1967. I am trying to see if someone who deployed in late-Nov. 1967 may have been in Detroit that summer. Email me if you have time to reply.

Daniel Cano said...

Al, yes, 82nd was called to D.C. in 1967. Not sure about the 101st and Detroit. sounds familiar. In Vietnam, only the 1st brigade of the 101st left Ft. Campbell in Kentucky to deploy. I arrived in Dec. '66 to the 101st base camp at Phan Rang. I know guys who had been at some of the bad fighting going back to June of '66, especially places like Tuy Hoa. I came home in November '67, and only the 1st brigade was still there. In '67, elements of the 82nd deployed to Vietnam. I don't know if they stayed or returned soon after.