Digging for the Mixteca Period in East L.A.

This is commencement week in Los Angeles high schools, the time for a ritual that doesn't seem to change much, no matter how times change. Lincoln High on the Eastside, the school that I "commenced" from back in the Pleistocene Epoch--at least 1968 seems that long ago--had an extra ritual to go along with the caps and gowns, the yearbook, the prom, the speeches. On graduation day the senior class would place a small time capsule covered by a plaque in the school courtyard.

I was back at Lincoln a few weeks ago, working on a story, and the rows of plaques caught my eye. They are bronze slabs, about an inch thick and the size of a license plate. (Some of my classmates actually went on to the public service of making genuine California license plates, by the way. Some others didn't turn out as useful to society; they became politicians.) As I looked for the Class of '68, I began to see some of the plaques as signs of their times.

At Lincoln each class picked a name for itself. That name was emblazoned on senior class sweaters and just about every other object associated with senior class activities, including the plaque.

Years later, the names on these dozens of bids for immortality served to some extent to reveal the preoccupations of their times. My brother's class, 1959, chose the name Explorers. Explorer I, of course, was the first satellite launched into orbit by the United States. It came as an urgent "we-got-caught-with-our-pants-down" response to the revelation that the Soviet Union had gotten to the heavens first with Sputnik. The plaque in the cement with the name "Explorers" seems to tells us what Eastside L.A. kids felt about the race for space: commitment to win, with a vengeance.

As I moved along, I noticed that the most revealing mirror of the times could be seen in the transition reflected in the senior class names of the late '60s and early '70s.

For some unfathomable reason, the most popular class names at Lincoln were taken from classical Greece: The Aristotelians. The Athenians. The Peloponnesians.

In the late '60s there was a sudden change, reflecting the turbulent events of the Chicano civil-rights and cultural movement. Now the class names shouted out a newly discovered sense of pride and awareness for barrio students: The Mixtecas. The Aztecs. The Aztlans.

In 1968, when I was the editor of the campus paper, Lincoln was the focal point of a massive student strike on the Eastside. The Times called them "walkouts." Most of us wide-eyed students referred to the spontaneous boycott of classes on behalf of Brown Power as the "blowouts." Whatever the name for it, that precocious yet defiant effort to declare and claim "Chicano Power" was a crucial baptism of social activism for a lot of us.

What we called ourselves changed, too. We were no longer "Mexican-Americans" but Chicanos--no longer some sort of hyphenated, schizophrenic group of folks responding to a label they had imposed on us. By calling ourselves Chicanos, we became not two disconnected halves of humanity, but whole human beings.

This new sense of identity was recorded in more than our shift from the Prometheans to the Mixtecas. Lots of Bobbys found new pride and assurance in calling themselves Roberto. Lots of Joeys were now Joses. Jess was now Jesus. Mary Helen became Maria Elena. For many of us, it was a powerful statement to use in public for the first time what our mothers and baptismal certificates had been calling us all along.

That little infusion of name identity--individually and as a group--has endured. Lots of my friends from those days are having kids now, and are giving them names like Emiliano (as in Zapata) and middle names such as Cuauhtemoc (after the valiant Aztec king who fought the invading conquistadors).

Those turbulent times of the Chicano movimiento were heady times. Naive times, perhaps. But definitely a milestone. The monuments were still here to prove it.

Those small thoughts were percolating through my head as I walked along. The voices of the soon-to-be-graduates of these Max Headroom-'80s could be heard wafting out of the auditorium, rehearsing commencement speeches about "we are the future." I came to the end of the row. The cultural-political Great Leap Forward that I had re-created (or created) in my head went out the window. The later plaques mark where the spirit of the Mixtecas and their brethren subsided. The class of 1974 was (gulp!) the Imperatorians.

Right about there, the practice of embedding plaques with class names came to a halt at Lincoln High. The current principal plans to resurrect the tradition next year on the 75th anniversary of the school. She hopes to get the alumni association to organize the planting of plaques, retroactively, for the last 10 years' classes. But, she assured me, while the plaque-placing stopped in the mid-'70s, the tradition of adopting a class name has continued.

May Huitzilopochtli not turn over in his grave to hear that this week's Lincoln graduates wish to be known forever as . . . Les Classiques.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World