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April 30, 2011

History, Identity & Purpose: California, Chicanos, and Beyond @ LAT FOB

Hector Tobar, LAT columnist moderating the panel. Our first author is Mario T. Garcia. His book is Blowout: Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice.

Daniel Hernandez is second panelist. Former staffer at LAT and currently lives in Mexico City. Down and Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropilis in the 21st Century.

Our final panelist is Miriam Pawel. Worked for 25 years for Newsday and LAT. Her book is the amazing The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement.

Sal Castro is known in LA History for the riots on the East Side in 1968. He's known that this moment rose spontaneously, but from your book we know that he knew for decades about the ideology that led to the walkouts. One of the few Latino teachers in the 1960s. He had lived through the Mexican schools. Their children had to attend segregated, inferior schools. The tracking system of putting Mexican kids, Latino kids into vocational classes. This is what Sal Castro lived growing up in LA, born in 1933. He grew up as a young shoe shine boy. He graduated from Cathedral High School in 1952, went into the military and was sent to the South where he saw segregation. He grew up when Latinos and blacks could only go to public pools on the days that they were cleaned, hence the term 'dirty Mexican.' He was in Texas where a waitress refused to serve him and remarked that the waitress must remember the Alamo. He witnessed the kids being tracked and so forth. He helped to organize some of the kids into "the TiEms" - the tortilla movement. He knew that the problem wasn't the students, their parents: only a dramatic action will shake things up. The problem is the schools themselves and their approach to teaching Latino students. That led to the blowouts, or the walkouts of 1968. Three months later, he and twelve others were arrested. The East LA 13 were arrested for conspiring to foment the walkout and if convicted, he would have be in jail for 113 years. The community staged a sit in at the Board of Education when they refused to allow him to teach. Moved from Lincoln to Bell.

Daniel Hernandez: So my book started out. I tried to pinpoint in the book where my fascination or intrigue with Mexico City began. My parents are from Tijuana, so we don't really have any bloodline into the center or south of Mexico. I kind of had this dual understanding of what it meant to be Mexican or Mexican-American. When I was at Berkeley I met a girl who was from Mexico City. When I told her my family was from Tijuana she said "that's not really Mexican." And I thought, "really? that's not how we were perceived." She had blonde hair and blue eyes and thinking that she was Mexican really tripped me out. I got a job out of school to be a metro reporter for the LA Times and took a break between school and working in Mexico. I saw a landscape that I could not have ever imagined. An enormous bowl of grey smogginess. And the smell of corn, oil, maiz, and toxicity and man there are 20 million Mexcianos here - what is going on? ...how borders can be criss-crossed between an individual and community. Switched to the LA Weekly in March, 2006. I convinced the LA Weekly to allow me to go cover the elections in Mexico and there was a politician trying to form a power base completely around addressing the deep, violent social inequality in Mexico. I started hearing from editors who told me to go back there and write a book. At a certain moment, I decided it was important for me to get out of my comfort zone and explore it. I went to neighborhoods where I was told not to go, I went to parties I was told I wouldn't get in, I went to markets where I was told I wouldn't come out and I would come home and write. I was so stimulated, I felt like I was on this constant acid trip - over stimulation on every level. The book gradually came together. I would post a photo on my blog and an impression would come out of that. My editor told me to focus on young people and that turned out to be fun. And I would be confronted with, "So what are you? Are you a gringo, eh?" In the span of a day, I would get polar reactions.

Miriam Pawel: Your book about Cesar Chavez follows these people who joined Chavez on his struggle. It's about this larger sense of power too. But yet you show that building a movement takes work, takes patience, and sort of becomes messy at times. Tell us a little about their journeys.

Miriam: These books are all about people who felt tremendously passionate about people what they were doing. I came to this from a different route from other panelists. I spent a year at the LAT doing a series about the UFW union today and what it's become. It's not a major force in the farm movement today and if you go out in the fields today and ask them who Cesar Chavez is, they think you're talking about the boxer. As I began to talk to people who were involved in it, they were all sort of caught up in the last great social movement of this country. ...Activists all over the country who had committed their life and worked for free to change the condition in the fields, I met all these people who are literally haunted 30 years later about what they weren't able to succeed and why the UFW didn't become a sustainable union for farm workers. It's not a book about Chavez per se, it's a book about the movement he inspired. I chose to write the book about 8 characters who represent the ways the movement changed the lives of a generation. It was a part of Chavez's ability to drive these people into a movement together. It was an idea that you could send farm workers across the country and were wiling to go around the country to ask for money, "I'm a farm worker and I'm 2,000 miles from home and all I'm doing is asking you to not buy grapes." California to this day has the only law on the books to allow farm workers to join a union and protects their right to do so. Farm workers and domestic workers are the only workers not included in the National Labor Relations Act (editor's note: and government employees). It was a little like the story of the blind man and the elephant. Depending on where you were, your perspective was very different. I wanted you to be able to see as a reader what it was like to go through this experience. As the omniscient reader narrator you have an idea of where it's going. Cesar Chavez: he is an incredibly important figure in American history who in someways, because there is so much hagiography around him, that has done him a disservice. Writing about his life in all its complexity allows people to know that heroes are human and heroes have flaws. Academics and journalists have shied away from writing about Chavez in any way but celebratory, but he was brilliant and brought about significant change not just for farm workers but for everyone who joined the movement. My book only deals with the part of his work that dealt with the farm workers movement, but the larger Chicano movement is distinct from that. He's a fascinating character and the people around him were. As many of the people who were involved in the movement ended up disillusioned, sad, or angry. They left on voluntary or sometimes involuntary terms. I came about at a point when people felt that it was history and it was okay to talk about it now. How do you participate in a movement and have a democratic movement and still get things done. So people left on very kind of mixed terms, but I've never met anyone who worked even for a brief time who felt like it was the most important thing they've done in their lives. So that's what I tried to capture in very human ways, so I wanted you to be able to care about the people.

Hector: For me, Cesar Chavez is about awakening the civic spirit. I'm going to throw the mike, metaphorically speaking, over to Sal. We were talking a little bit about you before you got here and the book that you two produced together. And there was a question that Mario brought up is what the legacy of the movement you were involved in is. How is LA education different because of the movement?

Sal Castro: The producer and director asked if I would help them with the movie, the project "Walkout," about the students who walked out of school. This thing was an urban movement across the SouthWest, the entire country. My first question was who would be my love interest. ... My second question was who would play me. When I was invited to the White House in 1996, I spoke to Clinton about the fact that we're the country with the highest rate of high school and college drop outs. I'm sorry to say my statement to Obama would be the same thing..

Question from the owner of Libros Schmibros, a lending library in Boyle Heights.

Sal: We as Mexicans have been involved in every war the US has been involved in, including the Revolutionary War. We came with troops, 44 vessels that blockaded the Southern ports, and money. There is no American cemetery without a Mexican buried in it, including Gettysburg.

Posted by cj at April 30, 2011 12:31 PM


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