Where have the Chicano Radio DJs gone? One's death is still unsolved, another's taken to the internet after he lost the airwaves, and yet another got back behind the microphone last Friday in California's Central Coast and spun some oldies sprinkled with Chicano nationalism.
Jorge Zavala called me on Friday to tell me he'd be back on college radio at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo that night. It took me back to 1992; the protests against Columbus, the proposition to strip the undocumented of public benefits, and the elimination of bilingual education all happened within a few years. Zavala lashed out at all that while playing War, Tierra, El Chicano, and non-Chicano music adopted by Mexican Americans as their own.
The day after the show Zavala told me that "Big Manny" a founder of The Blazers was going to be playing at The Redwood Room in Maywood, a neighborhood bar in his hometown. Come on down, he said.
There he told me about his family's roots in Durango, scorpion country. You find them in boots, in beds, on your toothbrush. El Alacran, the scorpion, is Jorge Zavala's nickname. He also goes by Colotl, the Aztec name for scorpion. El Alacran was his nom de Chicano radio when he transferred from East L.A. College to a mechanical engineering major at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo nearly 20 years ago. He'd admired the L.A. DJs in the 1970s and 80s: Jim Ladd on KMET, Sancho on then community radio station KPCC. And the granddaddy of L.A. Spanish language DJs, Pedro J. Gonzalez, who in the 1920s and '30s broadcast messages of empowerment to Spanish speakers interspersed with ranchera music. And he wanted to spread consciousness and separatism over the air. The separatism he talks about is a reaction, he says, to the constant targeting of Mexican Americans over generations.
Sancho was off the air after more than 15 years when KPCC went all news in 2000. Zavala was thinking of Gonzalez, Sancho, and Oscar "Bandido" Gomez on the night he got back behind the mic. Gomez produced a show like Zavala's at UC Davis also in the early 1990s. On air Gomez vented much more of the frustration and anger felt by many Mexican Americans. He was well known by California Chicano activists in the early 1990s because he'd cover many of the marches and rallies of the time whether it was in the northern or southern part of the state. I was producing my own Chicano radio show at UC San Diego at the time and ran into him several times. In 1994 Gomez was found dead at the bottom of a beachside cliff in Santa Barbara. He had suffered blunt force trauma to the head. To this day police have not charged anyone with the crime. Bay Area filmmaker Pepe Urquijo is producing a documentary on Gomez and his death.
Zavala said he remembers talking to Gomez a few times and connecting because both recognized they were pushing the limits as non-traditional journalists.
We talked as Big Manny and his band rocked The Redwood Room. This is Maywood, L.A. County's Rust Belt. A GM auto plant, a few tire factories, and the Rockwell aerospace plant in Downey made this area a triangle of well-paid blue-collar jobs until the factories closed down at around the time Zavala went to college.
The band played some Chicano classics by Muddy Waters, Freddy Fender, and Chuck Berry. Yes, it's all American music, and Chicano music at the same time. Is it possible? In these parts Chicano musicians are doing their part to keep American music alive. All the Chicano DJ's would be proud.
Poet and Journalist Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.