Those Were The Days

In May, Russell, a Venezolano student I was volunteer tutoring, opened his history class assignment on his DPS Chromebook: the Chicano movement, photo of Corky, fist raised in front of West High School.

Button that appeared when Corky was in jail.

“I was there,” I exclaimed.

“What? How old are you?” Russell blurted, without meaning to. He’s usually polite, this teenager.

“Tengo ochenta” I responded, causing two other Spanish speaking students nearby to pause from games on their phones long enough to look at me. Perhaps they’d never seen an eighty-year-old person before.

“I thought you were sixty,” Russell replied.

If I didn’t love this child before, I do now.

“So you were in your twenties…” he mused, deciding, reluctantly, that my claim might be humanly possible.

I understand—those demonstrations I joined, those Wednesday lunches at the Crusade for Justice, are ancient history to be studied in class, along with the Civil War and the fall of Rome.

The smell of pepper spray at West High School in 1969, my eyes watering, the sight of Corky Gonzalez being taken away in handcuffs with dozens of others, people I knew standing by me poised to throw the rocks hidden in their hands but refraining from doing so. It was bad enough, could have been much worse, that day at West High School.

The 16th of September protest parades with the Brown Berets, Chicano vaqueros on horseback, guitars playing “Yo Soy Chicano, tengo color…” a song written by my friend Juanita Dominguez, and all of us chanting “Che, Che, Che Guevara…” without barely a blink of consciousness about that name’s far-left implications.

“What’s a Chicano?” Russell might well have asked. Nothing to do with him. Venezuelan born, he was eight when his family fled to Colombia, then Ecuador and finally at sixteen, Colorado; his seven-year exodus bringing him here more than fifty years after el movimiento. In Colorado, Russell has at last the chance for a rooted life.

“What did the Crusade for Justice accomplish?’ is the question on Russell’s digital worksheet. Where’s Nita when I need her. I haven’t seen Corky’s daughter in decades. Nita ran that place, after her father. And the school.

Telling Russell about it, I recall the mural paintings that bloomed at the Crusade and on the Westside, the Crusade’s bookstore where you could find movimiento poets when they could be found nowhere else, where I met Lalo Delgado and Luis Omar Salinas in their slender chapbooks, and Rudolfo “Corky” Gonzalez’ epic poem, I Am Joaquin, with its silver and black cover. The Crusade held readings, put on plays, gave classes in Mexican dance, supported grape and Coors boycotts, led protests, supported student walkouts, held youth conferences, founded a school.

Within a few years of all that, predominantly Chicano schools like West High began to offer Mexican American Studies, barriers to employment broke down, Chicanos began to be elected to public office—all things one could say were results of the Crusade’s efforts.

Russell keyed in his answer in his own words, a two-sentence summary of what I said. I suggested a grammar correction but otherwise it was fine. His English is amazing for having been here just seven months, although Russell tells me he began teaching himself English while in Colombia.

The assignment aroused memories I haven’t revisited for years. Nostalgia for our youth is tantalizing and dangerous. In my twenties, I was romantically, passionately involved in the Colorado Chicano movement, married someone I shouldn’t have, and two years later someone else I shouldn’t have, both self-identifying as Chicanos. Hard times ensued, plenty of them, but helping Russell with his homework, I was overcome by warm, misty memories.

Viva la raza! Fists in the air. Strum those guitars and sing “De colores” one more time as we march down 16th, decades before it became a mall. Singing “De colores” for the tenth time in that parade, I was learning Spanish, and believed I was making a difference. Change was coming. Sí, se puede. Yes, it’s possible.

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