Let's Begin a Dialogue That Makes a Difference

It struck me recently--while thinking of ways to introduce Orange County readers to this new column--that I've lived through two race riots in Southern California. I survived them 22 years apart, like violent bookends to an otherwise tranquil adulthood spanning both the Disco and Me decades.

I displayed no distinguishing valor to speak of in these dual disturbances. Few things are as scary as the collapse of social order. Even war has rules; riots are so darn anarchic.

The angry events seem distant now, almost foreign to our bucolic region, cheerily named after a citrus fruit.

While Orange County has been a focal point of friction in the 1990s over emotional issues such as immigration control and bilingual education, we can take heart that social conflict has never spun out of control into mass violence.

I shiver to recall what can happen when people let their differences divide and destroy them. When people stop talking.

When we stop sharing stories.

I was a naive college kid barely toying with journalism in 1970 when I came in a caravan from Berkeley to march in the National Chicano Moratorium in East Los Angeles. We had gathered to protest the disproportionate sacrifice of Latinos in Vietnam, death in battle being one of the few distinctions readily attainable by the poor.

News clips refreshed my memory: 20,000 demonstrators, a rally in a park, a scuffle with police--then pandemonium, tear gas and random sacking of shops along Whittier Boulevard.

To this day, I don't understand how looting Latino businesses helped our cause.

Three people died that hot and hazy Aug. 29. The one we always remember is Ruben Salazar, then a Spanish TV reporter and former foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. After moving to television, Salazar continued writing a hard-edged weekly column for this newspaper on Latino issues.

The newsman and his crew had briefly ducked into the Silver Dollar Cafe to take a break from the action on the street. Suddenly, a tear-gas projectile found a precise trajectory to his bar stool, striking him in the temple and snuffing out the only voice for Latinos in the region's mainstream press.

An investigation proved inconclusive, never satisfying conspiracy theorists who believed cops had targeted Salazar for his outspokenness on topics like police brutality. To me, the mystery always was how this man could find the composure to sit down and order a beer in the midst of chaos. That must be what real reporters do while everybody else is running away, I thought.

Ruben Salazar is said to have inspired a host of aspiring young reporters, but I must confess I had never read his articles until now. Pessimists say things haven't changed. But read on.

Thirty years ago, Salazar complained about low minority hiring in local government. This was at a time when Orange County almost deserved its reputation as an all-white bastion, with minorities accounting for less than 10% of the population.

That statistic seems almost quaint by today's demographic standards. Latinos alone now represent about 30% of residents, and their share of Orange County government jobs more than matches their numbers in the available labor force.

Here's an even more revealing number Salazar cited: In all of Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, only 500 Mexican nationals had become citizens in each of the final three years of the 1960s.

He quoted an activist urging a law to allow immigrants to take the citizenship test in Spanish. Otherwise, political power would always elude the Latino community, the so-called Sleeping Giant, a term that made my skin crawl with shame.

It turns out a language exception was not what we needed to wake up. Twenty-five years later, a little persecution helped pry open the flood gates of citizenship. In 1996, two years after Prop. 187's assault on immigrants, the number of Latinos who became citizens in the same three-county area hit almost 118,000.

That marked the coming of age of the Latino community. Still today I can feel the energy it created when I meet people around Orange County. There's a dynamic, optimistic air that charges even the most routine business mixer.

I can't go anywhere without gathering stories, like lint on a coat. Stories about people helping out, moving up, fighting back.

In the weeks and months to come, I'm going to be introducing you to some of these people. I hope their stories will touch you as they do me. Because no matter how much progress we've made in this multicultural experiment we call California, differences always threaten to divide us.

I was reminded of that during my second riot, the apocalyptic civic spasm following the acquittal of white police officers in the Rodney King beating case. This time, I was a working reporter wrestling against my terror. (I doubt anybody took a break for a beer during that nightmare.)

Alone in my old Audi without even a cell phone, I cruised past an awesome scene of looting on La Brea. Suddenly, my front window exploded with the sound of a thunderclap inside my car's sealed interior. Startled, I turned to see a young African American man back away from the curb with a bat in his hand, apparently content with the minor damage he had caused.

To this day, I don't understand how shattering my windshield helped a cause that I cared about, too.

I sure hope we're all done smashing things.

Because we still have a lot to talk about.

Agustin Gurza's column appears Tuesday and Saturday. Readers can reach Gurza at (714) 996-7712 or agustin.gurza@latimes.com

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