By Javier Rodriguez from Plaza del Mariachi 22 Feb 2013
The 1963 photo included in this article on West Boyle Heights, from left to right, is of Javier Rodriguez “El TJ” age 18 and Robert Castro “Bighead” 16. It was taken by a street photographer during a wedding party on the indoor balcony of Pontrelli’s Social Dance Hall -now Salon Plaza- on the corner of 1st and State Sts. East of Downtown Los Angeles.
I had just graduated from Roosevelt High School and Robert and another colleague named Abraham “El Teco” and I worked at a summer furniture factory in Baldwin Pk. It was the same year of the 250,000 Civil Rights March on Washington and the historical speech by Martin Luther King. In a similar fashion to the present relationship between the immigrant rights movement and President Barack Obama, in that year, President John F. Kennedy had also a working relationship with the future winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and by extension with the African American Civil Rights Movement. The big prize then was the Voting Rights Act, today, it’s the coveted immigration reform and legalization for the 11.5 million immigrants without papers.
However late that year, President Kennedy was killed by snipers in Dallas. The obvious political execution traumatized the country and with it, America lost its innocence. The oldest member of the Kennedy clan fell victim to the nation’s dark forces in government, the extreme right wing, the American Mafia and the ultra conservative terrorist faction of the Cuban Diaspora, who had recently fled the victorious Cuban revolution. It was then President Lyndon B. Johnson who finally signed the Voting Rights Bill into law in 1965, the same year of the Los Angeles Watts riots, by sectors of the African American community, the sons and daughters of the former slaves.
By then, since my family’s coming to America in August 20, 1956, in the process of my six years attending the area’s public schools and the logical acculturation, I had had several skirmishes against racism and the imposition of the dominant culture. In particular, many of the Mexican American gang members in the barrios adopted the “American mentality” of defining us immigrant Mexicans, their people, as “wetbacks” and it stung. Naturally we defended ourselves verbally and physically. But the neighborhood of the Pico Gardens-Aliso Village Housing Projects, by the river where 20,000 people lived and which was then 80% black, a few whites and Asians and the rest Latino, was a special place. Within time I, my brothers and sister and other immigrants, blended in magically. And so, due to the fact I was a Mexican immigrant, my nickname in the neighborhood and beyond became “El TJ” for Tijuana. So, in this space, the derisive tone was overturned and became a source of pride and inclusion.
The other confrontations I had was in the LA school system and the more intolerant teachers and administrators, which were numerous. I distinctly recall having been segregated with hundreds of other immigrant students from many places in LA County of midlevel age and sent into a small school named McDonnell St. in East LA. I was 12 then, and there in my first semester, I had a music class with a Hawaiian instructor, Mr. Hamada, in the school’s auditorium. He was endeared with me because of my singing and dancing skills. However, about two months into the semester, the period of indoctrination arrived and with it a set of patriotic songs which I refused to sing and that signaled the end of the honeymoon. My punishment was the translation of the “Star Spangled Banner” and spending the rest of the term –four months- isolated in the back of the auditorium, but he couldn’t bend me.
The school was in reality the laboratory for the soon to be “English as A Second Language Program-ESL” which up to then had been called “Foreign Adjustment.” But not all was bad, on the contrary, the system assigned a Mexican Principal to the school who was sensitive to our cultural learning process. On one occasion, he took a bus load of us to visit the Los Angeles City Hall and the visit has vividly stayed with me because we met Latino City Councilman for Boyle Heights Edward J. Roybal. He was a humble leader, for after the council meeting he was informed we were recent immigrants and he addressed us. I clearly remember he wore a light brown tooth hound jacket and dark brown pants. We sat in the back on the Chambers bench seats and he stood in front of us, smoking a cigarette. For me his words in Spanish were unforgettable, “don’t ever forget your who you are, your history, your culture and your language.”
I was a fast learner and I graduated in a year. I was transferred to Hollembeck Mid Level School, about a mile and half east of the projects. For my graduation here in the 9th grade, at the request of my English teacher, I wrote a paper which was submitted to the school for consideration for our school commencement. In it I described the integration of immigrants into the school system and society and I compared President Abraham Lincoln to Mexico’s first Indian President el “Benemerito Benito Juarez.” Of course it was a no no and my speech was turned down. To her credit, my instructor defended my paper but there was no movement to turn to, not yet.
Then I entered Roosevelt High School, named after the American General who led the war against Spain and through it the Empire gained Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Phillipines and more. There I saw the birth of the first immigrant gang which was baptized “La Tercera.” It came after continuous harassment and racism against Mexican students by the established gangs in school and their sympathizers in addition to well publicized fights and at first it was a defensive mechanism for the school’s immigrants.
Halfway into the tenth grade I had a Junior Problems class which dealt with society’s issues and the teacher was a Mr. Hatten who unfortunately for me was also a music teacher. To make it brief, one afternoon I didn’t take my books to class, we didn’t have to that day, and he called me out on it. In a rage Hatten added, “you damned wetback, why don’t you go back to Mexico where you came and stop wasting our time.” He became judge and executioner with no due process. I, along with a Japanese immigrant student whom the teacher had called “a dirty Jap” defended ourselves and denounced him, but the school Vice Principal, another racist, separated us and transferred us to another class which I ended up failing. But neither those two teachers nor the administration bended my will.
During those wonderful years, my brother Antonio became the president of the Rebels Youth Club in the projects whose primary mission was playing sports all year round and organized social activities. Sponsored by the County Commission on Human Relations, the club as well as my brother were highlighted by the media on several occasions, being that Antonio was the first of all us in that barrio to attend college. Along with a growing layer of Mexican-Chicano students, in 1971, he graduated from UCLA Law School and passed the bar on the first try. His law practice became exemplary in the field of civil rights and police brutality.
The second generation of the Latino neighborhood’s youth left a bigger mark. These included my brothers Jaime, Jorge, Ricardo and our sister Isabel and about 50 other youth which including Alberto Ortiz and Juan Fernandez, two of Los Tres del Barrio, the Rolon Brothers, Armando Garcia and many others whose accomplishments were also becoming activists, attorneys, teachers, etc. Isabel actually attended and graduated from the People’s College of Law founded by the National Lawyers Guild and also passed the bar immediately. Additionally, and a sign of the times, this generation formed the first political youth group named Carnalismo and most of them participated in the 1968 Student Walkouts as well as the movement against the war in Viet Nam. In the 1970 student strikes of all the East LA High Schools, our brother Jorge was recognized as the leading figure. In 1971 the National Committee to Free Los Tres was convened as well as a chapter of the legendary C.A.S.A.
Without knowing ahead of time, we joined the ongoing Mexican culture that was never wiped out by the United States and Mexico War of 1848, where we lost half of all Mexican territory. Many of those that were left behind here to live and die, resisted all forms of cultural aggression, language, segregation, imprisonment, the loss of their homes and lands and businesses by crooked sheriffs, judges and lawyers who skewed the constitution to favor the new White settlers and thieves. So when we came, there was already a one hundred and eight year struggle, I call it a societal cushion. It is similar to when the Central Americans began to arrive in the 1980s and here we were, in full display, fighting the good old fight with already decades of struggles and social accomplishments, and we extended our hands in solidarity.
It was in 1966 that all my family fully entered the historical Chicano Civil Rights struggle and to reiterate we joined along with many others of that generation and beyond to the present. We all left an imprint of radical social struggle in this corner of Boyle Heights founding organizations and participating in street protests and marches against school inequality, institutional discrimination, women’s and workers battles, police brutality and with the old man Corona as a mentor we also entered the epic battle for immigrant rights in 1971.
Pontrelli’s, Westside Story and the photo…
The suits and the thin ties, were in style due primarily to the progressive Oscar winning musical “Westside Story” with George Chakiris, the great Rita Moreno which made history winning the Oscar for best supporting actress and the late Natalie Wood. The movie’s plot was about a prohibited romance between a young recently arrived Puerto Rican Latina with a white young adult veteran gang member and at the same time depicted life in a New York segregated working class neighborhood in the early sixties, as well as the rivalries between the dominant White and minority Latino gangs. Chakiris was the leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks and in the big dancing hall scene he sported a black narrow suit, with a stark magenta shirt with a midsize collar and cufflinks along with the super thin black tie with a pearl broach in the middle to hold it. Logically the trend was set for some time and ZAZ many of us in the barrios, diligently followed it.
Pontrelli’s was the place to go for wedding parties and we used to crashed them. But as I recall only one time did we get into a big brawl with adults and I ended getting cut up with a bottle. The rest of the time it was about socializing, meeting women, partying and dancing to the rhythms of the times: Cha Cha Cha, Mambo, Corridos, Boleros, Rock and Roll, the Twist, Holly Gully, the James Brown Walk, romantic ballads and more.
I was forced by tragic circumstances to quit that factory job in the same year. It was tragic because one morning as we exited the San Bernardino Freeway in Baldwin Pk. A group of White high school students challenged us to race with them. They were in a 57 Ford Convertible, the top of the line and fast. However as we neared the railroad tracks, the morning train began to cross the boulevard and the ford did not stop in time and hit it. For a moment the car froze in time, but then it flew, spinning about 15 yards and landed upright. Along with many other people we stopped and got off to help. But later the city’s White authorities launched a witch hunt and began searching for the Mexicans in the other vehicle, but they were unsuccessful. We never took that car to work again.
*Javier Rodriguez is a journalist and a media and political strategist. He recently completed his third trip thru Mexico, observing and writing about the country’s political process, the aftermath of a highly questioned presidential election, the drug war and migrants. A long time social activist, he was the initiator and directed the making of the 1.7 million historical immigration march in Los Angeles on March 25, 2006 as well as the May 1st 2006 Great American Boycott. He still lives half time and is active in Boyle Heights. Blog Larayueladejavier.wordpress.com email firstname.lastname@example.org.