Brown Berets Are Back, With a New Mission for the '90s

The past came marching through the front door of The Times the other day. Four Chicanos, dressed in khaki uniforms and brown berets, came to talk about la causa. They said they wanted to help politically empower L.A.'s Latino community, improve the city's schools and, most important, stop the increasing gang violence in the barrios.

They also wanted to say that they--the Brown Berets--are back.

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The Berets were part of the social and political activism that swept Mexican-American communities throughout the Southwest in the late 1960s and early '70s. They were the strutting, arm-waving, shouting messengers of the Chicano movement who believed it was time to correct the inequities of an unjust society. Support for Cesar Chavez and the farm workers' union and opposition to the Vietnam War were important themes of the Berets' message.

Newspapers at the time, including this one, said they were militants. In a way, they were.

Thirteen members of the Berets, including founder and "prime minister" David Sanchez, were arrested in the wake of disturbances that marked the East L.A. high school walkouts in 1968 by thousands of protesting Chicano students.

They were part of the Vietnam War protest march in East L.A. in 1970 that turned violent and claimed the life of Ruben Salazar, then the news director of KMEX Channel 34 and a Times columnist. Also killed during the unrest was Lyn Ward, a Brown Beret "medic" who died after a burning trash bin containing combustible materials exploded near him.

And, in their most dramatic maneuver, a contingent of Berets led by Sanchez sneaked onto Santa Catalina Island in August, 1972, and claimed it and other offshore islands for Mexico. They contended that the islands were not part of the Mexican territory ceded to the United States in the treaty that ended the Mexican War in 1845.

Island residents, at first alarmed at the group's pronouncements, came to regard the 26 Berets on the island as Catalina's newest tourist attraction. The Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies were shocked to learn that the invaders occasionally had to beg for food from the locals.

As a news service reporter assigned to cover the "occupation," I can still recall watching some Berets eat corn flakes, with milk, on flat paper plates. These guys may have been militants but I realized they weren't as tough as they led others to believe.

The Berets peacefully left the island after 26 days when they were declared to be in violation of camping ordinances.

Law enforcement agencies, fearing that the Berets were a brown version of the gun-toting Black Panthers, infiltrated the group but found no evidence that its members were trading in weapons or planning an armed insurrection against the government.

Eventually, Sanchez disbanded the Berets, which boasted about 5,000 members nationwide, because of continual police scrutiny after the Catalina invasion.

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I admit that those plates of corn flakes came to mind when Jeronimo Blanco, the Berets' national leader and a participant in the Catalina invasion, and three others came by the newspaper. The uniformed men seemed out of place, and perhaps lost in time, as they walked in single file into the newsroom.

Drawing on a group of about 20 former members, the Berets have decided to resurrect themselves with a new twist to their message of Chicano power: Gang violence is a threat to L.A.'s burgeoning Latino population that must be stopped.

"We have to stop killing ourselves," Blanco said. "If we can help out, by showing kids there are other things to do, that will help our community. We want to work within the political system."

Although he regretted none of the Berets' past activities, Blanco said that he and the others have grown up a lot since the 1960s. Many of them have joined the society they once scorned--working in well-paying jobs and raising families.

Even Sanchez, who is no longer active with the group, has come full circle. The onetime president of former Mayor Sam Yorty's youth advisory council, who wrote one manifesto after another as founder of the Brown Berets, is now an aide to an L.A. County supervisor and teaches Chicano history at East Los Angeles College.

Blanco thinks the Berets can help stem gang violence.

"There's not a single group of people who can be successful," he said, "unless we create unity. The uniforms are just a way for us to get our message across."

Given the passage of time, it will be interesting to see if the Berets--important yet quirky contributors to Chicano history a generation ago--can make a difference today.

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