By Stan Santos
I Remember the Boot…
I remember the boot on my face, as I lay on my back in an alley, hands cuffed behind me. I remember the feel of the gravel stuck to the bottom of the boot, as it dug into my cheek. The gouges they left in my skin surprised the booking officer and prompted extra photos.
I had left a music concert and was standing in line at a phone booth with a bunch of other kids. The Fresno police unit abruptly drove up the walkway and two officers jumped out. “So what are you up to? You buying the drugs or selling drugs to him?” Suddenly, the cuffs were on, and I was being placed in the squad car, angry that they could arrest me for “standing while brown.”
So I did what many angry young men might do, although today it can bring deadly consequences: I ran. I ran, hands still cuffed, past the crowd of young people who cheered me on. I ran like I was in the West Coast Relays, across the street and down a dark alley. Fortunately, instead of pulling his gun, the officer threw his baton and it skidded past me. I ran until I slipped on some gravel and fell.
The rest of the story remains deeply engrained in my memory and my cheek. They cussed and punched me as they shoved me into the patrol car, “Stupid Mexican.” Today, it seems almost humorous, but I am reminded that now young men are shot for doing exactly what I did. Now the charge is “posing a potential danger to the public.”
In Lak’ech: Tú eres mis otro yo
It had been many years since I heard the poetic Mayan expression: In Lak’ech. In Spanish, it translates to Tú eres mi otro yo. In English it means, “You are my other me.”
I recently sat in a circle at the Chicano Youth Center, with elders, ministers and community activists. We listened to Nane Alejandrez, founder of Barrios Unidos of Santa Cruz, along with other seasoned veterans of the streets and the prison system. They are doing the important, grinding work of intervention in the lives of young Chicanos, Blacks and Asians who are involved in gangs, and likely headed for the prison system or the cemetery.
One presenter by the name of Sammy spoke with authority and deeply felt emotion, bringing tears to my eyes. He shared his life, being raised in Mexican traditions of respect, dignity, la familia. He spoke the words: “In Lak’ech: Tú eres mi otro yo.” He also spoke of life in the barrio, almost losing his life and working for peace.
The words “In Lak’ech: Tú eres mi otro yo—you are my other me” were first spoken to me more than 30 years ago by my friend Catarino Hurtado. These words are part of the foundational thinking of La Raza Unida, the political party founded in the 1970s for the empowerment of the Chicano community.
“Si te hago daño a ti, me hago daño a mí mismo. Sí te amo y respeto, me amo y me respeto yo.” If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself. If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself. This spirit of solidarity and sacrifice can also be found in the Brown Berets, MeChA and other community-based movements of the past and present.
Cat was a leader of La Raza Unida in Fresno as well as the Brown Berets in Fresno. I am encouraged to hear those words spoken by the present generation of dedicated leaders. I am awed to see the continuity and spirit of struggle that began for me in the 1960s.
You Killed All Our Leaders
The 1960s were much more than a romantic notion of drugs, sex, peace and love. I recall the image of a man in a photo on the mantle in our living room. It seemed like all the Mexican families had the same picture. They killed John F. Kennedy in 1963, when I was 9 years old. My mom and dad were deeply saddened.
In 1965, they killed a Black man named Malcolm X. He was barely 40 years old.
Then came the killing fields of ’Nam, where my cousin Ralphie and kids of so many other families went and never returned.
In April 1968, when I was in the seventh grade, they killed Martin Luther King, in a South seething with hatred. They now say that his stand against the Vietnam War also figured in his assassination, or at least, who benefited from it. Years would pass before I understood what his life and death meant to people and the leadership void he left.
In June 1968, Cesar Chavez and the Chicano community carried Bobby Kennedy to victory in the California presidential primary. In Los Angeles, a Mexican busboy, Juan Romero, would cradle his head, pressing a rosary into the dying leader’s hands.
The 1960s came to a close, and as a high school student I marched in San Francisco and Fresno against the war in Vietnam. My brother Joe was arrested in the August 29, 1972, protest in Los Angeles where four people died. Fresno bail bondsman Albert Ramirez put his money or bonds where his mouth was and bailed everyone out.
The Panthers and “Gato”
The Black Panthers started health clinics and were early leaders in the fight against sickle cell anemia in the Black community. In 1969, they had their own breakfast programs, five of which were started in Chicago under chair Fred Hampton. They also advocated armed self-defense and “open carrying” of personal weapons.
Despite lifting up their people from the desperate and dehumanizing effects of poverty and racism, the Black Panthers were reduced to thugs and gangsters by the FBI and local authorities. They became the targets of a brutal campaign of retaliation. They were also infiltrated by agent provocateurs and snitches like the one who helped set up Hampton’s murder, while he lay in bed. A counterintelligence program enabled the authorities to execute or incarcerate, and in a few years the leadership of the Black Panther movement was decimated.
In 1972, we listened intently to Stevie Wonder: “You killed all our leaders…you’ll cause your own country to fall.”
Catarino Hurtado and the Brown Berets were also targeted and accused of involvement in bomb making and weapons conspiracies. He was acquitted of all charges, and it was found that a “Beret” at the center of these conspiracies was actually working for the authorities. In 1977, when Cat was teaching history and other subjects at Millbrook, an alternative community school in Fresno, he was rear ended and killed by a drunk driver. It was a great loss to the Fresno community.
I remember Bobby, another part of that close circle from the 1970s. He was a Raza Unida member, a student at Fresno State and a hardworking fund-raiser for MeChA, selling tacos, menudo—whatever he could do for the “Causa.” He met his wife at Fresno State, and they started their family. One night, Bobby was shot several times while standing at a phone booth in West Fresno, later succumbing to his wounds.
The War at Home Continues
I have pondered the loss of friends and family members to violence. I cannot name them all; it is enough to say they were close to me, including children who were raised with our daughters. Some were kids from down the street, killed within a stone’s throw of our home in southeast Fresno. I tried to connect with the young men who came to our house with baseball bats or other weapons, to attack others inside. I tried to understand what turned them vicious and violent, but I could never reach them. Soon, with our child on the way, we knew we had to move.
Violence ebbs, then suddenly takes someone when you least expect it. Huero used to bang, his ferocity was of legend. But in 2007, barely 23 years old, he was working to pull himself up and out of the barrio. He bought a new truck, was learning decorative masonry and raising two children, with another on the way.
On a beautiful spring day, he helped us move into our new home. The future was looking bright for our family, and we sat and drank a few beers in the front yard. He was quiet, contemplative, not the usual prankster. Before he left that evening he asked to move in with us.
The next day, they killed him, leaving his children, soon to include a newborn, in the shelter of our home. I see his face in my grandchildren every day. The oldest would make the shape of a gun with his little hand and recall what he saw, “Bang, bang, they shot papi Huero.”
Huero was killed by two young men who did not even know him; they only saw him as a “Sureno.” Even though he was raised with other members of their gang and felt like a brother to them, he was perceived by others as their enemy.
It is that type of thinking that takes us to war: “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.” It is also part of the strategy behind attacks such as what occurred on 9/11. Those who plan such attacks anticipate a massive retaliation by a powerful military bent on vengeance. And in predictable fashion, the United States responded in a disproportionate manner, attacking Arab countries, bombing population centers, ancient religious sites and civilian infrastructure. U.S. bombs and depleted uranium wreak destruction that will continue to cause deaths far beyond the initial attacks.
The doctrine of war without end drains our economy and creates further polarization, sidelining moderates and providing free rein for extremists on all sides. It becomes our right-wing religious fanatics against theirs. And the youths, ours and theirs, become the “carne de canon.”
Misguided Revolutionaries or Agent Provocateurs?
Today, as before, the lives of soldiers and innocent civilians fall to the earth like so many leaves. I have read enough about war and seen the effects of senseless violence at home and in other places. I may disappoint my pacifist friends by saying that I have always supported the right to armed self-defense of home, family and national sovereignty. Otherwise, would we still have a Cuban Revolution? Would Nicaragua have fallen to Reagan and the Contras?
But we are not the Venezuelans, nor do we live in Asia or Africa. Instead of building a popular movement, we use violence to attack the symbols of power, paper tigers or police and their families. Not only do we invite the disproportionate response that will inevitably come from those who do not respect human rights or young lives, but we also turn the vast majority of the people against our cause.
We cannot be indifferent to militarism or violence anywhere; they are the tools used to intimidate and polarize the working and the poor, so others can impose their will and economic structures on us. We can come up with better ways to win change in the United States. We need a movement that unites people around respect for family, community, common interests and all life. This must be a creative movement that uses nonviolent civil disobedience and all the other tools at our disposal. I remember the boot on my face, but I am trying to learn In Lak’ech, Tú eres mi otro yo.
Stan Santos is an activist in the labor and immigrant community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.