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What Did Chicano Moratorium Of 1970 Mean For Chicano Activists?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium. On August 29, 1970, hundreds of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles marched to protest the Vietnam War. Sheriff's deputies and police officers broke up the protests. By the end of the day, 200 people were arrested. Three were dead. Many Americans do not learn about the moratorium in school, but the protests influenced an entire generation of Chicano activists, some of whom overcame the trauma of that day, some of whom never did.

NPR's It's Been A Minute producer Andrea Gutierrez brings us a story about what the moratorium represents, not just for Mexican Americans nationwide but for her own family.

ANDREA GUTIERREZ, BYLINE: Can you tell me what you know about it?

MONICA: I know it's part of the Chicano movement, but it was a protest against the disproportionate number of Chicano youth being sent to Vietnam and dying.

GUTIERREZ: That's my sister, Monica (ph). We got together a little while ago to talk about the events around the Chicano Moratorium and our family's connection to it. Lots of people protested the Vietnam War in the 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Stop the war now. Stop the war now. Stop the war now.

GUTIERREZ: But like my sister said, Mexican Americans were dying in Vietnam in big numbers, about twice their proportion of the U.S. population. That is why this movement was called a moratorium. Protesters wanted to end this loss of life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: Chicanos are marching to protest the high casualty rate of our people in Vietnam.

LORENA OROPEZA: So this was the Chicano movement's main argument - (speaking Spanish) - our war is here, and we should be addressing inequities on the home front not dying in Vietnam.

GUTIERREZ: That's Lorena Oropeza. She's a professor of history at the University of California, Davis. As my sister and I started to look back on the moratorium, I called Oropeza to learn more. She says Chicanos weren't just protesting the war. They were also fighting for other issues like education and economic equity. They were fighting to belong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Because today was a day of history.

GUTIERREZ: Oropeza says at least 20,000 people marched that day. They were filled with hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).

GUTIERREZ: But then things took a turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE SIRENS)

GUTIERREZ: A disturbance at a local liquor store turned into a scuffle between police and protesters at an East LA park.

OROPEZA: So when the sheriff's deputies throw tear gas canister, like one young lady picked it up and threw it back at the sheriff's deputies.

GUTIERREZ: In the chaos, buildings burned. About 200 people were arrested, many were injured. And three people were killed, including Ruben Salazar. He was a Spanish-language TV news director and columnist for the Los Angeles Times who was dedicated to covering the Chicano community.

MONICA: Out of the blue, he said, you know, I was there when Ruben Salazar was murdered. And I was like, what?

GUTIERREZ: That's my sister Monica again. Turns out, our dad was there that day at the protests. And he almost never talked to us about it.

MONICA: And that was the first time that Dad had ever mentioned anything like of an identity of Chicano. Like we, up to that point, I had only ever heard Dad like, say, you know, we're American. And that answers all questions.

GUTIERREZ: Dad passed away in 2011, but even when he was alive, we never talked much about our identity. Chicano felt like a dirty word, and as I talked more with my sister, we pieced together some of our family history that helped explain our dad's silence. It goes back generations.

MONICA: Grandma talked about how they only spoke Spanish in the family until she went to kindergarten. And then after that, her parents were very adamant she speak English - no more Spanish for her - and that she had to assimilate and try to be as white as possible. But no matter what Grandma did, time and time and time again, Grandma was discriminated against.

I kind of feel like dad maybe had the same attitude that grandma had in that right before Grandma passed away, I asked her if she ever imagined that people would want to learn Spanish, that it would be so common and so accepted. And she said, I had no idea. If I had known, I would have taught Spanish to my kids a long time ago. And she said, I was just trying to save my kids.

GUTIERREZ: I think we saw that, like, wait. You didn't save us from anything. It still happens.

MONICA: I mean, how many times in our lives have we been asked, like, what are you? And then we give an answer. No, but like, really, what are you? You know, or like, you know, questioning, do you speak Spanish? OK, why don't you speak Spanish? Oh, shame on you, you don't speak Spanish - and stuff like that. Like, that, you know, is not a shameful thing. And I feel like it was kind of that way for Dad and then for the generation before.

GUTIERREZ: How much have you thought about that, especially now that you're a parent? How much does that - how have you brought that to the future?

MONICA: You're going to make me cry (laughter). It is a huge piece of my parenting. And with my daughter - can I say her name?

GUTIERREZ: If you want to.

MONICA: OK (laughter). So Olivia (ph) is my daughter, and she is 9. And before she was even born, I knew without a doubt I wanted her to learn Spanish from a young age. I'm going to find a way. And from there, like, I wanted to raise her to know where she's from and to keep fighting the good fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: That was Andrea Gutierrez of NPR's It's Been A Minute podcast sharing her family history with the Chicano Moratorium. Anjuli Sastry, also from the podcast, produced the piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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