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Momentous day in East L.A.

On Aug. 29, 1970, between 20,000 and 30,000 Latinos took to the streets of East L.A., marching down Whittier Boulevard for a mass rally at Laguna Park. It was an intoxicating moment, old-timers say. High school students and farmworkers, families and college kids had united for a peaceful afternoon of music and speeches. They were calling for equal opportunity and justice: respectful treatment from law enforcement, fair wages and working conditions from employers, a decent education and an end to the Vietnam War.

It was a time when the nation was wrestling with civil rights issues, and Los Angeles was no different. Tensions between Mexican Americans and law enforcement were high; allegations of police brutality were persistent. Militant groups such as the Brown Berets were on the rise and aligning with the Black Panthers. Ruben Salazar, a Times columnist and news director at a Spanish-language television station, galvanized the community with his reporting on conditions Latinos faced in fields and barrios. Teenagers staged walkouts to protest the substandard conditions in their high schools. A poor education was not only an impediment to future achievement but a deadly menace: Boys who did not go to college often found themselves drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam.

Armando Vazquez-Ramos, a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Long Beach and a Vietnam-eraveteran, remembers: “What caught our attention was the high price Latinos were paying. We grew up with the kids who were coming back in body bags. We started to realize the government was targeting low-income and minority communities — brown and black people — and that we were coming back dead or maimed in a disproportionate number.”

That was no myth. At the time, Latinos made up 7% of California’s population, but one study of National Archives and Records Administration documents found that they accounted for 15% of those who died in Vietnam.

At first the rally was festive, but by afternoon it had turned ugly. Monte Perez, then 20 years old, was at Laguna Park that day with his wife and infant. They spread a blanket on the grass, and he went to buy sodas. “A little ruckus started there, and I didn’t think anything of it.” Within minutes, the police were “breaking heads,” he said. Families were beaten and tear-gassed; young people fought back with rocks, bottles and bare hands. Salazar, who was sitting inside the Silver Dollar bar on Whittier Boulevard, was killed by a sheriff’s deputy, shot in the head with a tear-gas canister.

The Latino antiwar movement, which came to be known as the Chicano Moratorium, died out shortly after that fatal day in East L.A. But its legacy endures, particularly in the Southwest. A generation of community activists, politicians, professors, judges and clergy came from the movement, which ultimately became a broader, more inclusive coalition of Latinos.

Perez, who grabbed his wife and child and fled the park when the melee started, is now president of Moreno Valley College, which partners with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department on the training of deputies.

Latino political power, a figment of hope in 1970, today is a reality. Antonio Villaraigosa became Los Angeles’ first Latino mayor after a 133-year gap. The Los Angeles Police Department is now a majority-minority agency, with Latinos making up the largest ethnic group. Monica Garcia is president of the Los Angeles Unified School District board, following in the footsteps of Jose Huizar. Nationally, Sonia Sotomayor is on the Supreme Court. Bill Richardson is the governor of New Mexico. The National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials has more than 6,000 members, and more than 100 Latinos are college presidents.

That is why, despite the grim outcome of the rally 40 years ago, Aug. 29 is a day to celebrate.

“For those of us who went through it, it’s a day of recommitment,” Perez said. “We need to recommit to the struggle. All of us who came out of the Chicano Moratorium, that’s what it left engrained in us.”


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