Time on our side
In the 13th century when we marched, we were called la gente de razón, la gente del Quinto Sol. We were descendants of the ancient Mexicas who emerged from the mythological land of Aztlán-Chicomoztoc, “Land of the Seven Caves,” also called the “Land of the Heron Feathers,” where life as we knew it had begun. We were the beginning of what would become modern-day Mexicans and Chicanos.
On August 29, 1970, once again, in the sweltering heat, men, women, children, nanas and tatas marched, searching for a place to rest, searching for a new identity in America. Over 30,000 joined in the march that day, thousands wearing black t-shirts, a sign of mourning, proudly displaying a picture of la Virgen de Guadalupe-Tonantzín, the regal Mexica princess, or the word chicano in white letters. A huge banner announced to all: peace moratorium, august 29, 1970. It was the greatest protest in the history of the Chicano nation against the Vietnam War.
The marchers proceeded out of Belvedere Park in East L.A., onto 3rd Street and up Whittier Avenue. It started like a Sunday stroll, women pushing baby carriages, the elderly relying on canes, young men bare chested, people dressed in quetzal plumes, everyone chanting. They were moving in the same direction for the same reason at the same time. They would arrive in Laguna Park to gather, pray, make speeches and weep over those who had died in Vietnam. Chale con el draft! It sounded like slang, street language, obscene to those who considered themselves purebred Spaniards. But it was real, a cry of protest from the heart. The installation of the draft was killing our kids. Uncle Sam was targeting the barrios and ghettos, gathering brown and black soldiers to send to the front lines. And it was all legal.
In 1999, I interviewed Rosalio Muñoz, the first Chicano to become president of the student body at UCLA in 1968, and one of the leaders on that day of the march. I had seen black-and-white film clips of sheriff deputies brutally attacking unarmed men, women and children in Laguna Park, hurling tear gas at them, and throwing them almost lifeless into waiting buses.
“A call started it all, set up by the police,” Rosalio said. Sheriff deputies reported that someone had tried to rob the Green Mill Liquor Store, and the bandit had run into the crowd. The owner of the liquor store later related that no burglary had occurred. Now the police had what they wanted: the okay to begin a massive search for the “criminal.” Then the sheriff deputies shifted gears and went after the man they had targeted even before the march got started: Ruben Salazar, the L.A. Times reporter and spokesman for the Chicanos/Latinos. They found him at the Silver Dollar Café and, without warning, fired a tear gas projectile aimed at his head. He was killed instantly.
“Police, hold your line!” was the cry heard over and over again over the microphones from moratorium leaders as police attacked. The rest is history, a gory history that some would rather forget.
I visited the place of the moratorium march as I completed work on Let Their Spirits Dance, and walked into the bridal shop, which was once the Silver Dollar Café. It was clear how easily Ruben Salazar had been killed. The shop is a long rectangle with no place to run. I walked with Rosalio Muñoz through Laguna Park, now renamed Ruben Salazar Park, a lame attempt to balance the scales of justice.
“Time is on our side,” Rosalio said in reflection. And I believe him. Marching courses through our blood, and Aztlán was our beginning – unity, our final destination.