Signs and fists pierced the sky. Conga drum beats swirled around a grouping of people at one end of the park.” This is how Luis J. Rodriguez, author of Always Running, describes the Chicano Moratorium of 1970, a march against the Vietnam War. At the time, Rodriguez was 16 years old, a gang member who had come to the demonstration to, in his words, party. Once there, he was moved by the unification of the crowd.
Chaos ensued after the demonstration. He, along with others, landed in the Hall of Justice jail in Downtown Los Angeles. But this was not the last of Rodriguez’s political activism. He was swept into the world of Mexican American social action.
Mexican Americans had long experienced discrimination and racism. It started in classrooms. Schools in Chicano communities were often underfunded and overlooked by school districts. However, in 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson officially deployed troops in Vietnam and Chicanos found themselves disproportionately being killed in the war, their feelings of injustice were exacerbated. Even though Mexican Americans were a minority in the United States, they made up 20 percent of Vietnam War casualties. Factors in this disparity included a lack of a college education, resources, and knowledge surrounding the draft.
“In the mid-1960s, the students at Garvey had some of the worst academic scores in the state. Most of the time, there were no pencils or papers. Books were discards from other suburban schools where the well-off students turned up.… It had more than a 50-percent dropout rate among Mexicans before they even got to high school,” states Rodriguez in Always Running.
In 1968, Mexican American students banded together to protest poor classroom conditions and inequality in public schools in the East Los Angeles walkouts. An Abraham Lincoln High School teacher, Sal Castro, was one of the first to organize the movement after his students’ calls for equality within classrooms went unaddressed by school officials. His goal was to include as many Chicano students as possible and create change within the public school system.
The walkouts involved seven high schools and 15,000 to 20,000 protesters across Los Angeles. After 10 days, the Los Angeles Board of Education wound up agreeing to listen to the list of demands from the Educational Issues Coordinating Committee, a group formed by students, parents, and teachers.
On the heels of those 1968 walkouts, with the East Los Angeles Mexican American community already familiar with protests and social action, came the Chicano Moratorium of 1970. The antiwar protest took place in Laguna Park, now Ruben Salazar Park. Organized by local activists from surrounding colleges, including Rosalío Muñoz, who spearheaded the National Chicano Moratorium Committee, the demonstration was attended by around 30,000 participants, many of whom were people of color. At that time, it was the largest antiwar action taken by an ethnic group in the United States.
“Young mothers with infants in strollers, factory hands, gang-bangers, a newly-wed couple in wedding dress and tuxedo—young and old alike—strolled beside me,” recalls Rodriguez.
The antiwar sentiment present in the Mexican American community kept the march going. Chicanos felt the war was targeting their families, and it highlighted the racism already present in their communities. Cries of “Ya basta” (“That’s enough”) were heard throughout the march. Not only were Mexican Americans disproportionately affected in Vietnam, but the war also diverted funds from low-income communities, many of which were predominantly Latino, to the war efforts.
The march ended in a panic when 1,500 police officers showed up and started beating protesters and throwing tear-gas containers inside local stores and at the general public.
“Through the tear gas mist, I saw shadows of children crying, women yelling, and people lying on the grass, kicking and gouging as officers thrust black jacks into ribs and spines,” recollects Rodriguez.
Four people died, including Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar. The Vietnam War ended in 1975, but the Chicano Moratorium had a deep impact on Rodriguez and Chicano communities.
In one of his blog posts, Rodriguez recalls, “This demonstration awakened me to the vital struggle for justice, peace, and the possibilities of a new society, something I had only glimpsed at but never really understood.”•
Join us July 21 at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Rodriguez will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and special guest Rubén Martínez to discuss Always Running. Visit the Alta Clubhouse to share your thoughts on the memoir with fellow California Book Club members. Register here.