Through My Father’s Tears: Remembering the Chicano Moratorium and My First Lessons in Chicano History

When my father told me about the events on August 29th, 1970, it was one of the few times I have seen my father cry. I was in middle school when he began to tell stories about growing up in East LA. I know it had something to do with the release of the PBS documentary Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement that he had me watch with him. After viewing it (yes all four parts), he ordered shirts, mugs and, a poster from PBS and collected orders from friends who wanted items that had the logo of the documentary and the word Chicano! When the box arrived, my pops gave me a shirt that was too big that later got lost or “borrowed”, but the poster he gave me, now has slightly bent corners and holes from thumbtacks I used to hang it on walls in my younger years. I didn’t know better then on how to hang something that would become so important to me. Now in need of a new frame after moving many times, this poster has been the center of anywhere I’ve lived since middle school.

We hold things in until we can’t anymore, but once we release them, there’s no putting them back. This is how I remember first learning Chicano history before I walked out for Prop 187 when I was in middle school, before I was a student in the first Chicano Studies class at Rubidoux High School, before barely graduating high school, before community college, before the degrees, before it all. It comes back to sitting there in my parents living room learning what a Chicano is. Growing up in the mid-90s, I always remember reading and how my father called me a hermit because I sat in my room all day. I remember the old books my parents kept on the fireplace mantle-books that would now be considered Chicano Studies books. These books that I still have with me to this day that were well taken care of and passed down just like knowledge, memories, and lessons are passed down knowingly and unknowingly through generations.

Lesson # 1: My father talked about the East LA walkouts in 1968. He was a student at Griffith Junior High School in East Los Angeles. This was also the year his mother, my grandmother, passed away. 1968 is a year that is engrained in my memory for so many reasons. It was around the mid-90s I remember my father would share these stories with those who listened. As years passed, more details would be shared with the release of the film Walkout in the mid-2000s and yes to this day as well.

Lesson # 2: “They killed him”. At some point my father shared the story of the Chicano Moratorium. Every time he shares the story, just like with the other stories, I always learn a new detail I didn’t previously know. By this point my dad was at Garfield High School. My father and his two friends saw in the distance the smoke coming from Whittier Boulevard. They went to see what was going on since they had heard of the moratorium. They got down to a back alley part when they saw the cops were already shooting off tear gas. They had to leave to avoid being hit by the canisters so with their eyes stinging they ran. It wasn’t until he started to speak about Ruben Salazar being killed that I saw tears form in the corner of his eyes and his voice begin to tremble just like to this day me writing this also brings me to tears. I’ve learned more about these events and about Ruben Salazar since. I studied journalism in late high school and early in community college. I wrote for community papers and got a full time job as a reporter for El Chicano in San Bernardino when I was 17-it was a job I couldn’t take because living in the IE means you need to have a car, something I didn’t have. I later worked at the Press Enterprise in Riverside as a news assistant after coming in second at the age of 21 to be an assistant sports editor with no college degree. I wrote obituaries and edited the weather page. I went to workshops for the CCNMA that talked about Ruben Salazar and his life. His words remain an inspiration to me so much so I enrolled in a journalism class this week at a community college to keep learning not just how to tell my own story and become a better writer, but to share stories from people we may not read about in history books, like my parents. To do so I’ve learned I need to surround myself with a supportive network so I can keep telling the stories that matter most to my community.

Lesson # 3: I find my fathers diploma for ELAC (East LA Community College) in a broken frame at the bottom of an old desk. I was 16. I asked my father about it and why he never told us about his associates degree. I never even realized before that point that he went to college. He tells me it didn’t matter and turned over. I remember holding back and pausing all my attitude and defiance I carried with me (and still do), to gently whisper to his back as he dozed off to sleep before his graveyard shift, but it does matter pops. As I went on to community college and beyond after barely graduating high school and ended up writing a dissertation on the experiences of Chicanx and Latinx community college students, I would learn in 2020 more about how my father wanted to teach (Chicano) history, how he worked briefly as a teachers aide, and how he wanted to be a high school teacher and a baseball coach. More than my degrees, I know my parents are proud of the work I do with using the degrees as an educator.

Lessons in the year of 2020
I’ve lost track of the lessons by now. There are many. Perhaps thousands. I ended up home with my parents 20 years after I left at age 18 and likely said I wouldn’t return. Now I’m a mother of a little boy who is now 8. I realize I have been broken, but am putting the pieces of my life back together just as we know Coyolxauqui teaches us as well. I dedicated a lot of time and energy to sustaining movements and people in them that don’t always ensure the well being and safety of those around them. Our communities are still facing so many issues that my father talks about and that my mother has begun to speak about as well. I realize I needed to come home sooner as they tried to get me to do in February this year. I realized in all this remembering where we come from is how we can find the strength to move forward again.

I speak to my pops and my mom. They tell me to keep moving forward despite all the challenges I have experienced as a woman, as a Xicana, as a mother, as a teacher, and as a writer. They tell me not to listen to those who put me down, be it my education, my degrees, my writing, or my life. They know much of my life has been very much dedicated to the movement and I know they can see the loss of a big part of my life all at once and perhaps before I saw it. I reflect upon the fact that in the end my job is to protect myself and my son be it from state sanctioned violence and these larger issues that still impact our communities as well as from the violence of patriarchy and misogyny and how these things play out on a personal level in these movement spaces. I will not sacrifice myself or my son and realize I don’t have to. I don’t go to commemoration for the moratorium today. I remember it everyday.

I close my eyes and am easily there on the streets my parents grew up on and where the history of my life before I was born happened. I am there visiting the cemetery where all my grandparents are buried. I am there on Whittier Boulevard in the back of my family’s van with my siblings after we moved away and my parents still brought us there every weekend to visit my grandparents before they all died. I am looking out the window as a little girl and how it feels slow motion remembering how my father drove slow down a street that means so much and that Ruben Salazar died on. I know I am safer here and I carry these stories with me and from that I draw the strength to keep moving forward to do the work I need to do for our gente, but especially for my son, myself, my family, and my students first.

My mom and my dad drop off a rocking chair on a hot August morning. I have a new space that is quiet. Peaceful. My dad walks to where I have photos and looks at the card of my late mentor Bobby Verdugo. I think about May 1st when Bobby died. My dad asks about him. I tell him and can see now how in Bobby’s passing he also inspired me to get back home. I remember how I regretted not being able to see Bobby this past year much and how many stories he had that remained untold. I look at my parents and think the same. I finally buy a recorder-one I had wanted for years. This weekend I honor our struggle, our history, and our survival by finally sitting down and recording my fathers stories about all these things and more because really what use is any of these degrees if I can’t use them to help open not only doors of opportunity for students, but doors of stories needing to be heard.

The power of memories will sometimes bring you back to that moment and bring you to tears. I still cry when I watch the movie walkout. I cry when I read certain words like Ruben Salazar’s. I still cry on graduation days to see so many brown kids walk across that stage, defying all the odds and statistics that have tried to define us as a people. I see them proud. I also see those who would wish we would not walk so proud and instead bow our heads in shame. Those days are long gone gente and we need to make sure they remain gone. Today is the day we walk unapologetically with our heads high. Today is the day we honor those who came before us, those who have fought and died and those who continue to fight for our communities and for justice. Today and everyday is a beautiful day to be proud of who we are just like I was taught. We are Chicanos.

For more information on the history of the Chicano Moratorium and reflections on it, please see the Los Angeles Times special project: https://www.latimes.com/projects/chicano-moratorium/

For more on Ruben Salazar and his work/life please see the USC special collection of his papers: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/p15799coll78

For more on the Chicano Moratorium from the perspective of grassroots journalists see: https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/episodes/la-raza

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