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Some Believers Are Marching to a New Tune Now

If there is a new Chicano movement out there ready to take hold in the aftermath of Proposition 187, it wasn’t evident Saturday in East L.A.

By my count, fewer than 1,000 marched to commemorate the 25th anniversary of a seminal event in Mexican American history--the Aug. 29, 1970, Chicano anti-war protest that ended tragically with three deaths, including former Times columnist Ruben Salazar’s.

That protest, a march of more than 20,000 people along Atlantic and Whittier boulevards, is considered a significant chapter in Latino history because it was the largest political gathering to date of Mexican Americans in this country.

Although the circumstances surrounding Salazar’s death still remain unclear, the march gave impetus to a civil rights movement that resulted in huge political and educational gains for Latinos.

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Buoyed by last October’s turnout of about 100,000 for an anti-Proposition 187 rally in Downtown L.A., organizers of Saturday’s march were hoping for a decent showing, noting the 1996 vote on affirmative action and continuing anti-government unrest in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

But it didn’t happen. Asked by reporters why more people hadn’t shown up, Jaime Cruz of the National Chicano Moratorium Committee offered this explanation:

“People change, I guess. Well, maybe it’s good for them [but] it may not be good for the movement. But people change. You’d have to ask them why they aren’t here. But we’re here. We’ll always be here.”

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I didn’t hesitate to call Johnny Gallardo. I had met Gallardo, a house painter in West Covina, and four of his friends back in 1990, at the protest’s 20th anniversary march, when about 5,000 showed up.

Now, even five years later, I remembered the anger in his voice as he recounted what he and his friends saw back in 1970. They were shocked at the circumstances surrounding Salazar’s death. They blamed the sheriff’s department for much of the violence that day. And they were resolutely opposed to the Vietnam War.

Gallardo said they were so angry that they vowed to march on subsequent anniversaries of the 1970 protest.

But they were no-shows on Saturday.

I reached him at his home. He readily admitted his “crime.”

“I wasn’t there,” he acknowledged. “I had other things to do and I chose to do them over going to the march.”

Mindful of what Cruz had said of no-shows, I wondered aloud whether he was right.

“I haven’t changed,” Gallardo argued. “I still believe the war was wrong. I still believe the sheriff’s deputies purposely killed Ruben Salazar and started all the s--- that happened later. But other things happened that sometimes change a person’s resolve. I chose to be with my wife instead of marching. I still believe in the movement and just because I wasn’t there doesn’t mean I don’t support anymore. I’m still there. I will always be there.”

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Gallardo’s comments were similar to others I heard when I called around. Taking roll of the no-shows, I called and heard much the same thing.

Stella Lopez, of Norwalk: “I am still angry about what happened 25 years ago, but I couldn’t make it on Saturday.”

Octovio Sanchez, of the Palms District of L.A.: “The movement doesn’t need me to be at every event.”

Don Montes, of Huntington Beach: “When the campaign on affirmative action [ballot measures] begins, I’ll be there. Believe me, I’ll be there.”

Maybe, one of the no-shows suggested, it was time to forget the 1970 protest.

When I started to rage at the suggestion, he backed off.

“Just kidding,” he said, “but you know, movements aren’t just numbers or rhetoric about this or that. It’s about believing--whether you’re at a certain event or not. I believe.”

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Even though it was a hot day, one of the believers who did show up for Saturday’s march was neatly dressed in a dark suit. Unable to walk with the assurance he had had as a young man, he insisted on participating even from his wheelchair.

After the march ended at Salazar Park and the speeches began, the man in the wheelchair beckoned to me. “Big Al” Castaneda of Carson, president of the South Bay chapter of the Mexican-American Political Assn., said he was proud to be at this march--although it was left to a nephew to push him for the 3.7 miles.

Big Al had recognized me before I recognized him. He had worked with my father at the old Uniroyal tire plant in East L.A., now the Citadel outlet shopping center. Dad used to call him Big Al to avoid confusing him with another friend at work, “Little Al” Silva.

Big Al was as I remembered him, soft-spoken and to the point. “This march,” he said, “is important. Very important. That’s why I’m here.”

Sometimes, the believers need to show up.


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