Dispatch from Aztlán

September 27, 2020

I am a passenger in this neighborhood, in this country…on this pale blue dot hurtling through the cosmos. I race my three-year-old daughter up the stairs of the Kiosko Azteca pyramid in Denver’s La Raza Park to show her David Ocelotl Garcia’s sprawling four-sided mural The Journey for the first time. She holds my hand as she twirls in concentric circles marveling at the spiraling Nahuatl iconography depicting the travails of the people of Aztlán. She may or may not remember these stories; they are so easily forgotten. Memories are ephemeral—they shape-shift; they metastasize; they migrate. They are the journey and we the passengers.

mural panel of two indigenous figures pulling a third from the earth painted at La Raza Park

Aztec creation story from the mural The Journey by David Ocelotl Garcia.

As the story goes, Ruben Salazar ducked in to the Silver Dollar Café when the Los Angeles riot police turned the Chicano Moratorium march into their own private hunting grounds. He wasn’t the type who panicked when things got hot. He’d served as a Los Angeles Times war correspondent in Vietnam, covered the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, gone undercover to report on drug cartels, witnessed the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City. Salazar had just propped himself on a barstool near the entrance to the Sliver Dollar and was about to take a sip of beer when a 10-inch wall-piercing projectile of tear gas was fired through the doorway. It struck him in the head, likely killing him before his body hit the floor.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department called his death an accident. They argued that officers were attacked by rioters while responding to a call from the owner of the Green Mill liquor store who had requested protection from looters (a claim he later denied).

Hunter S. Thompson wrote in Strange Rumblings in Aztlan, “Salazar was killed, they say, because he happened to be in a bar where police thought there was also a ‘man with a gun.’ They gave him a chance, they say, by means of a bullhorn warning…and when he didn’t come out with his hands up they had no choice but to fire a tear gas bazooka into the bar…and his head got in the way. Tough luck. But what was he doing in that place anyway? Lounging around a noisy Chicano bar in the middle of a communist riot?”

marchers holding flags

Chicano activists marching for worker’s rights and social justice from The Journey.

After he joined the prominent Spanish-language television station KMEX as News Director, Salazar continued to write a weekly column of unapologetic, incendiary, erudite articles on Mexican-American affairs for the Times. But at KMEX, he had license to give the Chicano anti-Vietnam War movement a legitimate platform. He exposed police intimidation and violence in Mexican-American communities. He amplified the voices calling for education and social reform in the barrios of East LA. He waded into the deep and sordid injustices occurring on the homefront that his previous editors wouldn’t (or couldn’t) publish and ended up a martyr—one whose name is whispered by few.

Ruben Salazar died on August 29, 1970. Three days later police “discovered” his body among the debris inside the boarded up Silver Dollar Café.

A thousand miles east of Los Angeles lay the deserts of Aztlán, a mythical homeland of the Aztec diaspora corresponding to the southwestern United States. The term refers to the conquered lands of northern Mexico that were ceded to the U.S. at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. When Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales introduced El Plan Spiritual de Aztlán at the first Chicano national conference in Denver in 1969, he redefined Aztlán to signify not just a homeland of myth and legend but a polity of repressed peoples stretching from California to Colorado. The land of la Raza.

“Aztlán,” wrote Gonzales, “a mythical land of the Aztecs? Aztlán an abstract illusion of a Nation? Aztlán a common denominator that la gente de La Raza, the mestizo, the Chicano can agree upon is not based on a phantasma of romantic delusions. It is conceived on the foundations of history and the reality of its existence can and will be proven by law; not a law based on political courts of injustice and cold Anglo legalities, but based on human fact and historical inheritance.”

revolutionaries fighting a guerrilla war among agave plants at La Raza Park

Depiction of the Mexican Revolution from David Ocelotl Garcia’s The Journey.

The public pool at Columbus Park in Denver’s Northside neighborhood was the place to be in the summer of 1971. A place where young people rode the wave of Chicano pride—where la Raza (the community) gathered for “splash-ins,” hung out, networked for jobs and forged cultural and political identities. What outwardly resembled a cool refuge on hot summer days signified a social inflection point—Mexican-Americans finally had a place to call their own. It seemed only fitting that those who gave Columbus Park vitality and meaning should rename it La Raza Park.

Ten years later, a crowd gathered at La Raza to commemorate the anniversary of the park’s renaming. They were waiting to see Corky Gonzales, the Denver-born featherweight boxing legend and founder of the national Chicano movement Crusade for Justice, who was scheduled to attend. The day Ruben Salazar was killed, Gonzalez had been laying low in an East LA hotel near the Chicano Moratorium demonstration—barely evading police by huddling in the back of an innocuous flatbed truck as cops searched the area.

The celebratory mood at La Raza was tempered due to Gonzales’ presence and residual hostilities from a Brown Beret demonstration at nearby Highland Park the previous day. At noon, a phalanx of police cars arrived and the SWAT team surrounded the park. They ordered nearly 400 people to disperse, claiming event organizers had failed to secure a permit. (This was disputed by Arturo Rodriguez, the longtime manager of La Raza Park who spoke as a respected community member and city employee.) Protesters hurled bottles and rocks at the cops, who retaliated by firing tear gas into the crowd and unleashing dogs on those who refused or were too disoriented to flee—demonstrators, park employees, children, women, the elderly.

mural of man reaching for a star with a skeleton behind him

The dangers of the American Dream for Mexican-Americans as depicted in The Journey.

Corky Gonzales never addressed the crowd. But the enduring tragedy was that the city council decided to fill the pool with concrete and restore the name Columbus Park. A farewell fuck you from the city to la Raza. Years later, a faux Aztec pyramid was erected on the site where children used to learn how to swim.

I bring my daughter to the playground at La Raza Park on a blazing afternoon in early September. We race up the steps where two homeless men are sitting in the shade of the hollowed out Kiosko Azteca pyramid, leaning against their tattered belongings. On a picnic table next to the playground, surrounded by spruce trees, a grandmother is enjoying an afternoon merienda with her grandkids. Across the park, a biracial couple lounges under an elm tree smoking a joint. Northside is now called Sunnyside. A once-inimitable Denver barrio is in the throes of gentrification, its past memorialized in a thin coat of spray-paint on the walls of the last taqueria.

There are no signs of the gathering that took place here in late August when community members commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium and celebrated the removal of all Columbus Park signs from La Raza Park. The signs were taken down quietly on June 26th when shelter-in-place orders were still in effect.

three futuristic characters who meet again to return to the earth

A scene depicting the return to the earth from The Journey.

David Ocelotl Garcia’s mural adorning the interior ceiling of the Kiosko Azteca pyramid is one of the few reminders of the public pool where the community once gathered at La Raza Park. He describes The Journey as having been composed like a book. “Each scene flows into the next story. It goes from creation, to a tribal ceremony, to the Mexican Revolution, to the Mexican-American war, to the journey of the people who came to the States…and ends with the characters going back to the earth.”

It has taken fifty years, but later this year when La Raza Park signs are driven deep into the earth around the perimeter of the Kiosko Azteca, the past—and the journey of the people of Aztlán—might finally cease to live only in memory.

Afterword
The renaming process requires Denver Parks & Recreation to collect 300 signatures and send proposals to the city council for a vote. The decision to officially change Columbus Park to La Raza Park is scheduled to be voted on this Fall. 

To see more of David Ocelotl Garcia’s artwork, please visit Ocelotl Art.

Further Reading
In Memory of Ruben Salazar” Republished works by the Los Angeles Times
Strange Rumblings in Aztlán” by Hunter S. Thompson
I Am Joaquin” by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales

Justin Kiersky is a journalist and editorial coordinator at Arts Everywhere. He lives in Denver, CO with his wife and two children.

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