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‘The Only Difference Between the Murder of Ruben Salazar and Paul Rea, Is 50 Years’

51 years later, the Chicanx Moratorium celebrates liberation and self-determination. But there's still work to do.

dancers from Xipetotec Danza Azteca de Los Ángeles del General Lorenzo Arvizu wear colorful headdresses
Dancers from Xipetotec Danza Azteca de Los Ángeles del General Lorenzo Arvizu take a break from leading the march at the Chicanx Moratorium. (Photo: Joey Scott | Knock LA)

[Ed. Note: Originally called the National Chicano Moratorium Committee Against The Vietnam War in 1970, anniversary events have since been rebranded as the Chicanx Moratorium. Knock LA will use the former style when speaking of the 1970 event, and the modern style for contemporary marches.]

On August 29, 1970, over 30,000 demonstrators marched in East LA for the National Chicano Moratorium Committee Against the Vietnam War. The peaceful day ended in chaos as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department assaulted and attacked demonstrators indiscriminately with their batons, tear gas, and guns. By the day’s end hundreds were arrested, many people injured, and four people dead, including LA Times journalist Ruben Salazar. 

Now, 51 years later, over 200 activists, community members, and grassroots organizations gathered on Sunday, August 29, to march from Atlantic Park to Ruben Salazar Park to take part in a commemorative anniversary event. Organized by community-based grassroots organization Centro CSO and labor unions like AFSCME 3299 (which represents UC workers), along with other organizations like BLM-LA, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, La Raza Unida Party, and the Association of Raza Educators

Salazar defined Chicano as “a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself.” The embrace of calling oneself Chicano came from a place of recognizing how “politically impotent” they felt in a city where, at the time of Ruben’s writing, no Mexican-American sat on the City Council despite Los Angeles being home to one of the largest Spanish-speaking populations in the country. Being Chicano became a way of seeing one’s self outside the confines of colonization. Instead of assimilating, they opted to celebrate and embrace their diverse background and culture. The Chicano Moratorium, which started as an anti-war movement against Vietnam, has now become a yearly celebration of Chicanx liberation and self-determination. 

“To us, August 29, 1970, is our Chicano liberation day in the US. The way that a lot of people celebrate Cinco De Mayo, or Fourth of July. To us August 29 is a liberation day, not only a day of remembrance but of the ongoing struggle,” said Carlos Montes, the main organizer from Centro CSO and a participant in the original Chicano Moratorium in 1970.

At this year’s Chicanx Moratorium, Centro CSO decided that not only did they want to highlight working-class issues that affect the Chicanx community, including immigration and access to public education, but they wanted to make the LASD and Sheriff Villanueva a main focus of the event. With a rash of recent killings of brown and Black people by the LASD, Montes felt it was important that the event be centered around calling for the accountability of killer cops. Fred Williams III, Andres Guardado, Dijon Kizzee, and David Ordaz Jr. were among those killed in just the past 15 months by the LASD. The event focused specifically on the officers of LASD’s East LA station, who still use the Fort Apache logo of a boot and riot helmet born out of their actions at the 1970 Chicano Moratorium. Their motto — siempre una patada en los pantalones,  Spanish for “always a kick in the pants” — celebrates their violence that day. 

The Fort Apache Logo as seen at the East Los Angeles Station. (Photo courtesy of LAist)

The event began at Atlantic Park and marched down the original route of the 1970 Moratorium. Led by members of Xipetotec Danza Azteca de Los Ángeles del General Lorenzo Arvizu dancing in front of them, a group of over 200 people marched down Whittier Boulevard toward Ruben Salazar Park. Onlookers cheered the march on as it moved through the streets. The group received honks and waves from lowriders cruising the boulevard. The sound truck at the front led the group in chants and encouraged passersby to join in on the celebration. Halfway through, the march paused briefly at the former site of the Silver Dollar Bar, where a plaque now sits honoring the life of Ruben Salazar. Salazar was killed inside the bar by a tear gas canister fired by the LASD. Salazar’s journalism and writings were largely responsible for bringing the Chicano identity to the mainstream, and the impact of his work still reverberates to this day. 

At the park, the organizers moved to center the families who have been affected by police violence. The families of Paul Rea, Anthony Vargas, and David Ordaz Jr. were all  present at the event. 

Lisa Vargas, the mother of Anthony Vargas, spoke about her son to the crowd. She highlighted what a gentle man he was, and how he was targeted for dressing a certain way and being in a certain neighborhood. “The Sheriff’s Department, also known as Los Banditos, decided that my son’s life didn’t matter anymore, they decided because he was a man in an area that they claim is for impoverished people that they were going to take his life because it meant nothing to him. Because he was dressed a certain way, because they thought he looked a certain way because he was a brown brother, that they thought his life didn’t matter and that nobody was going to stand up for him or nobody was going to fight for him.” 

Anthony Vargas was shot 13 times in the back by East LA deputies in 2018. The family alleges his death served as initiation into a deputy gang: Los Banditos. Their presence in the neighborhood has made community members feel like perpetual targets. Lisa described what it’s like to live in the community patrolled by LASD and how they no longer want to be victims of the department. 

“They think because they have a badge, they think because they are so weak and they can’t make it on the streets that they can hide behind a badge and get immunity. They think they are able to get away with shooting people, like we are animals, well guess what? We’re not.” 

Their anger toward the LASD has led the Vargas family to stay active in the fight. The Vargas family has consistently shown up to protests and rallies in support of the other families who have lost loved ones to police violence. Lisa remarked on the power the families have in working with each other: 

“My son was killed by the Sheriff’s Department. It’s raised a lot of issues for us. It has brought communities together like never before. We’ve been fighting in these streets. We don’t care who you are. We don’t care where you’re from. We don’t care what color you are. If you were killed by law enforcement, then we’re gonna stand up for you. And to those who haven’t been able to stand up, we’re gonna help you too. You feel intimidated but we’re gonna empower you to speak on your loved one.” 

Baba Akili also attended in solidarity with the support of BLM-LA and made it a point to show how little has changed in policing since 1970. “The only difference between the murder of Ruben Salazar and Anthony Vargas, the only difference between the murder of Ruben Salazar and Dijon Kizzee, the only difference between the murder of Ruben Salazar and Paul Rea, is 50 years.” Akili echoed the call to get rid of Sheriff Villanueva, but to also fire LAPD Chief Michel Moore, using the firework bombing of a South Central neighborhood as the most recent example of his failures. 

The most high-profile speaker of the afternoon was US Representative Maxine Waters. She shared the news that she has asked the DOJ to investigate the LASD. 

maxine waters speaks on a stage at the Chicanx Moratorium
Representative Maxine Waters (D, CA-43) speaks at the 2021 Chicanx Moratorium. (Photo: Joey Scott | Knock LA)

“They’re out on the streets, talking about they’re saving the communities from gangs, the gangs are inside the Sheriff’s Department!” 

Waters went on to talk about how the violence perpetrated by deputy gangs hit close to her district with the murder of Andres Guardado, who was killed after being shot seven times in the back by the LASD. Guardado’s death was allegedly part of initiation into another deputy gang, the Compton Executioners. 

“The people we pay to protect and serve are killing us. We cannot take it. We won’t take it. We will stand up. We’ll fight,” said Waters. 

Waters has asked the DOJ to investigate deputy gangs, specifically the Executioners, along with a pattern and practice investigation into the department for potential civil rights and constitutional violations. To have a prominent representative ask for this investigation is a positive development in the fight against the deadly deputy gangs Sheriff Villanueva has repeatedly identified as harmless social groups

While some of the conditions the original Chicano Moratorium dealt with 51 years ago remain, this year’s event is the first time in its history that it was referred to as the Chicanx moratorium. This was at the suggestion of the younger activists who wanted the event to be more inclusive to the LGBTQ community. Montes said some of the younger members of Centro CSO brought it up and, after sitting with the recommendation, the group took an affirmative vote on the change. 

Montes sees the younger generation as a source of inspiration, and sees a bit of himself when he got involved in the Chicanx movement. “I remember when I was 19 I was angry… and I’m still angry. The older generation from the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, they wanted integration and assimilation. Blended into the system by saying ‘we’re American.’ We said no. We don’t want assimilation. We want self-determination. We’re proud. We’re not white. We’re Indigenous. We’re Chicano! And they were saying what! We are Mexican! And we said no! We’re Chicano. And it was the young people saying it so now I listen and respect them.”  

Montes says next year the event will be a learning forum on Monday evening held at the park’s Senior Center, depending on COVID restrictions.