The Radicals

The incredible stories of four Hispanic Tucsonans who fight for fairness and justice

The last day of Ruben Salazar's life was a busy one, indeed.

It was Aug. 29, 1970, and the noted Hispanic journalist, who did double duty as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and as news director for Spanish-language television station KMEX, was in East L.A. to cover the third and largest National Chicano Moratorium March, a protest against the inordinately high number of Hispanics who were fighting and dying in the Vietnam War. Salazar, who had tried to resign from the Times so that he could concentrate on the TV gig, only to be persuaded by the paper's editors to stay on and write a weekly column, was wearing his TV hat that day.

The march, which attracted 30,000 people, had begun at Belvedere Park in Los Angeles and had stretched six miles to Laguna Park in East L.A., where a rally was to be held. At around 3 p.m., after most of the marchers had reached Laguna Park, a group of about 500 law-enforcement personnel surrounded the park. (The L.A. metropolitan area is a dizzying patchwork of small incorporated towns, Los Angeles proper and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County. On the scene at the park that day was a mixed bag of cops and sheriffs.)

Accounts differ, but several witnesses say that a young Hispanic man tried to bring a six-pack of beer into the park (which is illegal) and got into an altercation with some police, touching off a full-scale riot. Such was the case back in the day. Five years earlier, the Watts Riot--which left 34 dead and a huge section of Los Angeles in flaming ruins--had been touched off by a routine traffic stop.

The cops swarmed into Laguna Park, swinging billy clubs and firing tear-gas grenades. Some of the marchers fought back; others ran away, and still others took out their anger and frustration on businesses along nearby Whittier Boulevard.

Salazar and his TV crew covered the march and the rampage that followed. After some time, he ducked into the Silver Dollar Café on Whittier Boulevard and sat down at the counter to have a beer and gather his thoughts. He would certainly have had a lot to write about that week had he not been hit in the head and killed instantly by a 10-inch tear-gas canister fired into the café by Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Tom Wilson.

(In an infuriating postscript to the tragedy, a coroner's inquest, which was carried live by all local L.A. TV stations, ruled Salazar's death a homicide, yet no legal action of any kind was taken against Wilson. Many observers saw an echo of the Salazar case some 20 years later with the acquittal of the cops in the Rodney King beating case.)

Nellie Bustillos was in Laguna Park (now Ruben Salazar Park) that warm August day. She had her four kids with her and was there to support the cause.

"I was pretty radicalized by then," she recalls from her Tucson home. "Something had to be done, and I just couldn't leave it to others to do it."

Hers had been a rather circuitous route to Chicana activist. In June 1959, she graduated from Roosevelt High School in East L.A and got married the same week. "That's just how it was back then. Chicana women were supposed to get married, start having kids and make a home for their husbands. I'm pretty sure that if my husband had seen what was coming, he wouldn't have married me."

What was coming was a transformation from housewife to hell-raiser, from passively being part of the problem to actively attempting to be part of a solution. It was a startling metamorphosis, to be sure. Like many in her East L.A. neighborhood, she had started off badly. She was part of a barrio gang, although it was mostly just for show. She went to school, but didn't really have dreams and certainly didn't think about anything as fantastic as college.

After having her first couple of kids, Bustillos took what was then a radical step by getting a job outside the house. She worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District as a teacher's aide, translating, tutoring and, all too often, teaching the kids what they weren't learning in the classroom. She thrived in the position, but lamented her lack of higher education and the fact that she was frozen at a low-level position in the educational hierarchy.

As the 1960s progressed, and America became polarized, Bustillos became politicized. She began attending neighborhood meetings on how to improve the schools. "That's how I got started," she says. "My husband didn't want me to go; he thought I belonged at home. But, too bad. I wanted to do something."

In 1969, the teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District staged one of the largest teachers' strikes in U.S. history. It lasted for weeks and stunned the city and the nation. But when the teachers finally settled for more money and went back to work, Bustillos was disillusioned.

"I thought it was for higher principles, for better conditions, for educating our young people. But when they settled, it was like they had just been in it for the money. Right then, I decided that I was going to do something to give young people better educational opportunities."

In Tucson about that same time, Salomón Baldenegro was rapidly running out of educational opportunities. His personal ruin had been his own doing, but it was facilitated by what he still considers to have been a blatantly racist school system.

"I remember when I was in school at El Rio (now Manzo) Elementary. They had a strict code that you would get a certain number of swats for every Spanish word you used. And it was a mixed neighborhood--blacks, Chicanos, whites, Asians--but everybody used colloquial Spanish in their conversation. If a teacher heard you say one Spanish word, five swats. Two Spanish words, 10 swats. If you had a 'normal' name, the teachers were fine with it, but if you had a name that was hard for them to pronounce, they would simply change it, including on your permanent record. I hated that. I was definitely the square peg that they kept trying to fit into the round hole."

Baldenegro would eventually run afoul of the law and be sent to reform school. The racism he had encountered at El Rio was positively subtle compared to what he experienced during his time at the Arizona Industrial School for Wayward Boys and Girls at Fort Grant. There were separate dorms for whites, blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics. Only the white kids attended classes and worked toward a diploma. The kids of color worked in the cafeteria, pulled weeds and scrubbed the toilets.

The experience at Fort Grant radicalized, but didn't necessarily embitter, Baldenegro. Upon returning to Tucson, he went back to school and eventually ended up at Tucson High School with one-time Weekly and now Tucson Citizen columnist (and well-known smart ass) Jeff Smith.

"Jeff and I got in trouble all the time. The teachers would always make us debate the wrong sides of issues, just because we were so opinionated. One time, we had to argue that the presence of Joe Bonanno and the other Mafiosi in Tucson were good for the economy."

With politics swirling around at the University of Arizona just down the street, Baldenegro found an outlet for his growing radicalism. College students and others were protesting against the Vietnam War, for civil rights and for better educational opportunities. Baldenegro credits three people for setting him on a life path of activism and education.

"Definitely, Maclovio Barraza of the mining and smelter workers' union played a big part in setting me straight. He was driven to make things better for union members and their families--totally dedicated and willing to make any sacrifice. It was amazing to see. There was also Rudy Garcia, also involved with the miners' union, and Julia Soto, who was with the United Farm Workers.

"Those three people showed me what power of the people was about. It wasn't flashy. It was hard work and setbacks. But it also had many rewards, just knowing that you were doing the right thing. I wanted to be like them."

So he started getting arrested. A lot. He picketed the Pickwick Inn (now the Silver Saddle), which didn't serve black customers. He protested speeches at the UA by Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, probably the two best-known racists of the 1960s. He joined the El Rio Coalition Front, a group working for improvements on the westside, but after getting arrested for trespassing on the El Rio Golf Course without paying greens fees (I'm not making that up), he got St. Petered by the group, which disclaimed any involvement with his protests.

He also jumped headlong into the battle for better education. "When I was coming up, Mexican Americans were funneled into vocational education. In a lot of cases, we were forbidden to take college-prep courses. The people in charge thought it was a waste of time and energy to try to educate us."

Baldenegro and others began organizing teach-ins that reached out to students at local high schools, mostly on the south and west sides of town. It was at this time that the paths of Raul Grijalva and Isabel Garcia first crossed.

Grijalva was a senior at Sunnyside High School when a teacher assigned him a term paper on the growing United Farm Workers movement. He read an article in Time magazine, but wanted to know more. So he contacted the union's headquarters and was surprised when they sent him back a wealth of information. He remembers that it was a highly politicized time, but the various movements--labor, anti-war, civil rights--seemed unrelated and disjointed.

"But suddenly," now-Congressman Grijalva recalls, "it was like a light went on. I realized that the struggles of the UFW were related to the other movements. People were trying to make the world a better place for themselves, for their families and for others. The more I read, the more I understood the significance of the struggle and the rightness of it all."

He sought out "like-minded people" and came across Sal Baldenegro. Both agree that it was a heady time, one of ideas and action. Both also agree that it got a little crazy at times.

It is said that when zealots form a firing squad, they assemble in a circle. So it was during the wild times of the late '60s and early '70s when political and social radicalism ran to extremes that today seem comical, but at the time were seen by some as the next step in the progression. As local Tucson activists were working for better schools, parks and sidewalks for people on the westside, the rest of the country was going mad:

· Members of the Weather Underground made plans to blow up buildings by day and then by night would have group orgies that some members of the group postulated would help break down social and sexual stereotypes.

· The federal government, through the FBI's CoInTelPro and other programs, attempted to battle the wave of violence by infiltrating radical groups and spurring them to commit crimes, perchance to catch the culprits (but not the infiltrator) in the act.

· And finally, have any of you who lived through it ever tried to explain Patty Hearst to a teenager? See, there was this billionaire heiress who got kidnapped by a black radical gang, which demanded as her ransom the feeding of poor people in Oakland in hopes of starting a revolution among the needy. The rich daddy sent truckloads of food into the ghetto, but the people just fought over the steaks and cheese. Meanwhile, the heiress joined the radicals in robbing banks. After most of the gang members were killed in a fire started by the Los Angeles Police Department, Hearst could have turned herself in, but chose to stay on the run with the two original white members of the gang. She eluded capture for another year and for a time hid out at the house of Bill Walton, who was the Most Valuable Player in the NBA.

The only good thing that can come from telling a young person that story is that they'll probably be scared away from ever smoking crack for fear they might start babbling like you just did.

For a variety of reasons, few Mexican-American activists fell into any of the aforementioned self-destructive patterns. To be sure, their activism was taking them into uncharted territory. In a way, it was like puberty, where one attempts to negotiate the blind curve of adolescence in a vehicle he's never driven before. But family and upbringing kept many of them grounded in reality and kept their eyes on the true prizes, those being meaningful social progress and true justice.

"My mother was an orphan," says Baldenegro, "and she grew up very independent. But she and my father also had a well-defined sense of right and wrong that they passed along to me. Plus, my mom, like my other heroes, was a strong union person, and the union is like another family. That's what Rudy Garcia taught me."

Rudy Garcia should be a legend in this transient town of short memories, but instead is known to a select few. A union man born in Culiacan, Mexico, and raised in the border town of Naco, Garcia was a man who had only three years of formal education, but became a leader and an inspiration to many. Certainly, no one was more inspired by him than his daughter, Isabel, who is currently the director of the Pima County Legal Defender's office.

Isabel Garcia grew up in a bustling household where there was a mimeograph machine on the dining-room table. Her dad was a union organizer who worked tirelessly for his fellow miners at the San Manuel mine and smelter.

"He had such a sense of justice and what was right. There were guys in the union who wanted to use union dues to buy a keg and have a party. My dad would say, 'No, we've got to be serious here. We have to have political-education meetings.' He wanted people to know what was really going on, and if they did, he knew that would make them want to work for what he was working for."

She was a student at Pueblo High School when Grijalva, Baldenegro and others came to the campus and convinced the students to walk out to protest the Vietnam War. "I thought that was amazing," she recalls. "These people were so involved and so concerned. It had a strong impact on me."

While Sal Baldenegro was influencing others, his own life was sketchy. Twice, he got kicked out of the UA for academic underperformance, even as he was helping to organize the New Start Program, which is responsible for getting thousands of minority and low-income students off to a good start at the UA. After being asked to leave the second time, it would take him 13 years before we went back and eventually received his degree. Likewise, it would take Grijalva nearly a quarter-century from the time he graduated high school to finally receive his college degree. (Not so for Isabel Garcia, who went straight through the UA and then law school; she was a lawyer at 24.)

For a time, Baldenegro worked as a union organizer for the princely sum of $5 a week. He bounced around and crossed paths with the great and near-great. He counts the late Cesar Chavez as one of his dear friends, and just last month finished a long teaching career at the UA. He plans on writing a book or two about his experiences and then perhaps getting back into teaching somewhere.

Ask any one of them, and they'll say that their activism grew out of a sense of purpose and responsibility, one fanned by turbulent times and kept going by an atmosphere of change that was palpable. But whether it was anti-war or civil-rights or union activities that got them started, they all will say that their involvement in education turns out to be the most important thing they ever did.

Nellie Bustillos took her disappointment at the outcome of the teachers' strike and turned it into a crusade. She taught herself all there was to know about Title I, the federal law that was passed in 1965 with the purpose of giving education opportunities to the disadvantaged. She learned that some schools in her area didn't even apply for those funds, while others would get them and just dump them into the general revenue. Every school was supposed to have a Title I community liaison whose job it was to coordinate with the school's administration regarding the acquisition and dispersal of those monies.

"Often, it would be a friend or crony of the principal, and the money wouldn't be targeted for where it was needed."

She began speaking out at meetings, organizing committees and making herself a general nuisance. And she got results. Funds were targeted; problems were identified and addressed; progress was made. It was not, however, without a price.

"One of the worst things about that time was the toll it took on families. I'm sorry, but Mexican men have a reputation of being macho for a reason. There was a lot of domestic violence, divorces and separations. The men didn't like their women out in the street protesting and demonstrating. It caused a lot of problems, for me and for a lot of my friends."

She eventually moved to La Puente on the then-outskirts of L.A. and was persuaded by local activists to run for the school board on the La Raza Unida party ticket. In a mostly Anglo community, she finished a respectable fourth out of seven candidates, missing a spot on the board by just a few votes.

In the early 1980s, she moved to Tucson, where she had spent time in her childhood with a grandmother who was a member of a Tucson pioneer family, the Mannings. Almost upon arrival, she jumped into local politics and sued the Tucson Unified School District for misuse of Title I funds. (Her name is on that lawsuit, which should not be confused with the one from a couple of years earlier that remains the Desegregation Suit That Will Not Die.)

She continued working to get progressives elected to school boards and public office, but was selective in her support. She felt TUSD Superintendent Stan Paz was a disaster who actually hurt Hispanic kids in the long run.

After a bout with spinal meningitis and then a broken ankle, Bustillos is currently laid up for a while, but is by no means down for the count. "Once you have activism in your blood, it doesn't go away. I'll be back again."

As Bustillos recuperates and Baldenegro slides into an early retirement, Grijalva and Garcia roll along. Grijalva is in the middle of another re-election campaign, and while his many vocal critics rail against his voting record and unashamedly liberal bent, he appears to be unbeatable in a district that includes lower-income parts of Phoenix and Tucson, as well as Yuma.

He says that he's disappointed at the acrimony with which business is conducted in Congress these days. "I looked forward to joining what was billed as the greatest deliberative body in the history of mankind, a place of civility where people searched for common ground. Instead, it's a place of 30-second soundbites. It's punitive and mean-spirited. But I'm not going to give up."

Garcia decided early on not to go into politics, believing that the ass-kissing and compromising that are necessary in that endeavor would take too much of a toll on her soul. She's approached from time to time to run for one office or another, but steadfastly refuses.

She becomes disappointed at times, but refuses to sink into despair. She wishes people were better informed about the world in which they live. "We still have a huge number of people who think Saddam Hussein had something to do with Sept. 11, and people think terrible things about immigrants. I understand that we're in a process that will take many generations, but I sincerely believe that we, as a people, will reach a point of enlightenment.

"We're building a framework for the next generation, and they'll add to it. I sincerely believe that. I have to."

All four are proud of what they did and proud of the word "radical" being attached to their legacy. They now live in a world in which many of the things they struggled for have become a seamless part of the national fabric. It's no big deal to have Hispanics in high office (including the mayor of Bustillos' one-time home, Los Angeles). Bilingual education and affirmative action have been implemented in the schools, and many people of all ethnicities are looking forward to the day when those programs will no longer be necessary.

They lived through times that were frantic and uncertain, and occasionally even dangerous. They've earned the scars and the worry lines, but not one of them would trade their experiences for a life easier lived.

Ah, to have been young, Hispanic and radical. It had to have been great. To have never lost sight of one's principles has to be even greater.