Late in the summer of 1970, just as my summer vacation was coming to an end, the Chicano Moratorium organized a huge march through the streets of East L.A. to protest the war in Vietnam, the many Chicano soldiers who were being drafted and sent overseas to fight it and the higher than average mortality rate among Chicano soldiers.
Chicano Moratorium March, August 29, 1970.
Image courtesy of Dept of Special Collections/UCLA Library, A1713 Charles E. Young Research Library, 405 Hilgard Ave, Box 951575, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1575; http://www.library.ucla.edu/libraries/special/scweb/
My father never liked the term "Chicano" because he believed the word was derived from a derogatory term used when he was young and working as a bracero and he did not usually get involved in political demonstrations. This time, he surprised us by volunteering to take us to the march. We parked our car near the 7 (now the 710) Freeway, just a couple of blocks away from Whitter Boulevard, where the march was already underway. We walked up the street and were able to find a spot where my sister and I could see. I think we were expecting a parade but there were just a lot of everyday looking people: mothers, fathers, kids and students with signs, crosses (to symbolize the fallen soldiers) and fists pumping in the air, some chanting "Chicano!" while the onlookers would yell back "Power!" I remember being most impressed by the Brown Berets and being totally dazzled by their coolness.
Brown Berets stand at ease.
After a while, my sister and I begged to join the march but my father was looking uneasy. The crowd was swelling and we found ourselves being pushed back. My father, sensing something was wrong, pulled us back even further. To my surprise, we saw police cars parked along the side streets. Not ten minutes had passed from when he'd forbidden our participation than we saw a young man throw a beer bottle towards the marchers, then quickly run and disappear into the crowd. There was no one following him but we could see a wave of people push back as he shoved his way through the crowd. I couldn't see where the bottle landed, but I did see the results. Suddenly, people were shoving and yelling. More projectiles flew through the air; one hit the roof of one of the police cars. Panic broke out as the crowd pushed in all directions, trying to get away from the situation. And then, just as suddenly as it had started, it ended as the attackers fled on foot through the crowded sidewalks. A few cool heads tried to calm people down and reorganize the marchers, but my father rushed us back to our car and drove away. As I watched out the car window, I could see the policemen on their radios calling for backup and getting out of their own cars. I thought they might have been waiting until things stopped flying through the air before stepping in, but they didn't seem to be too concerned with catching the people who threw the bottles. I could see parents holding their children's hands and trying to stand their ground as we turned the corner and sped away from the danger.
Ruben Salazar, L.A. Times Reporter, killed by LAPD during the
Chicano Moratorium march, August 29, 1970.
Photo courtesy of Intersections by Daniel Hernandez.
At home, we watched the news on TV and we heard that a riot had broken out when a bottle had been thrown at a police officer. From my perspective, it had been a minor altercation and the police had made no attempt to catch the individuals who had been throwing bottles in the first place. A reporter named Ruben Salazar who was favorably disposed towards the Chicano movement and had been an outspoken critic of police brutality had been shot and killed by a deputy sheriff. The riot squad had been called in to clear out the demonstrators, using tear gas and batons, resulting in dozens of injuries and three deaths. I shuddered. remembering the worried faces of parents as they clutched the hands of their kids. I couldn't believe that what had started as a peaceful march protesting a war halfway around the world had turned out to be so ugly.
I will never forget that day, August 29, 1970, for two reasons: one was that I had never before realized that I was part of a minority group and I felt good about being part of something as powerful as the Chicano Movement; the other was that this group had enemies who weren't afraid to throw bottles at us or shoot us. Throughout my early childhood, policemen had been the knights in shining armor who had rescued my mother from my father's vicious attacks. In my eyes, they had always lived up to their motto, "To Protect and Serve." That day, I saw my knights like the other people in my life: their capacity for good was matched by their capacity for evil. It seemed that diametrically opposed impulses had to exist for things to make sense. My world was coalescing into a ball of love and hate, trust and treachery.