The tributes are pouring in, as well they should, for Frank Casado, who died last week at the age of 66. He was well-known--and not only in Los Angeles--as the co-owner, maitre d' and resident philosopher at Lucy's El Adobe, a popular Mexican restaurant on a rather seedy stretch of trendy Melrose Avenue.
Because Lucy's is a hangout for folks from Paramount Studios, right across the street, and several nearby TV stations and recording studios, the tributes are playing up the Hollywood angle, focusing on the movie stars who ate there and especially the young rock musicians that Frank and his wife Lucy helped and encouraged with many a free meal and margarita.
That's fine, and I must admit that even a jaded, native Angeleno like me sometimes enjoyed stopping by Lucy's to stargaze. But the Frank Casado I want to remember had a harder edge to him--an edge that pushed him and his wife to become political leaders in the Mexican-American community long before it was fashionable, or easy.
I'm referring to that almost-forgotten period between 1945 and 1960. Back then the Casados (because you really can't talk about Frank without including Lucy, the two were that close) were among a handful of Eastside activists who circulated petitions and got out the vote to help elect a young social worker named Edward R. Roybal to the City Council in 1949, making him the first Latino on that body in this century. In the 1950s, the Casados helped found the statewide Mexican-American Political Assn. to promote the candidacy of other Latino politicians. They remained active in MAPA until it began to fade in the 1970s, when Chicano politics got too sophisticated for any one organization to speak for a growing and complex community.
Late into many an evening I enjoyed listening to Casado reminisce about the early days. He gave a young political reporter many insights into what Latino politics was like before TV, radio, specialized mailers and high-paid consultants turned it into a vaguely picante version of modern mass-media politics everywhere.
I learned from those conversations that the successful restaurateur never completely forgot the resentment he felt as a Latino growing up in Boyle Heights, being regularly harassed by the cops for no particular reason. In current terms, Frank would be referred to as a wanna-be pachuco . But before he could become a genuine gang member, World War II broke out, and he joined the Navy to fight in the Pacific. The Eastside, indeed the entire city, are better places for that happenstance. Like many Chicano veterans, he returned from the war matured and eager to exercise his rights as an American.
As noted, Lucy Casado had a great deal of influence on her husband. She grew up in Texas, where anti-Mexican prejudice has historically been more overt (if not more pervasive) than in California. Frank, whose father had immigrated to the United States from Spain, often spoke angrily of the discrimination Lucy had experienced. That also influenced them both to become active in politics on a national scale.
Their close friendship with former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. brought them some notoriety in the 1970s. But long before they adopted Jerry Brown, they worked for various nationally known politicians like Robert F. Kennedy, who was a special favorite. But for all the big-name Democratic and Republican politicians who dined at their restaurant--making it as much a journalistic and political hangout as a Hollywood one--they never lost touch with their roots in the politics of the Eastside.
One of the Casados' proudest memories, one I find especially illustrative, is of the intense 1968 presidential campaign. The soon-to-be-assassinated Kennedy was trying to win the Democratic nomination with a strong showing in the California primary. Yet Frank and Lucy persuaded him to take time off from a hectic schedule to meet privately at El Adobe with a group of Chicano college.
The young people who met Kennedy included some of student leaders who, earlier that same year, had gotten into lots of legal and personal trouble for helping organize walkouts at several local high schools that are still remembered as the "East L.A. Blowouts." Historians now consider those 1968 protests as a turning point in the political development of the nation's Mexican-American community. If they were, there must have been a symbolic passing of the torch that day from old veterano Frank Casado to the young Blowout leaders, many of whom still play important roles in local Chicano politics.
Kennedy's taking time to pay attention to those young Chicanos--most of whom could not yet vote and who probably didn't tell the senator anything he couldn't already figure out about the shortcomings of public education in the nation's barrios--is just one more vignette that explains why Kennedy is still revered by many Chicano activists.
The Casados, going to the trouble of helping set that session up--in the hopes of enlightening a powerful politician to the needs of their community and to convince some angry young activists that they would be listened to even by a quintessentially Establishment figure--illustrates why Frank Casado will be missed by many more people than the denizens of the wonderful restaurant he ran.