[News] Remembering the Black Berets and the Struggle for La Raza in New Mexico
news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Feb 3 17:46:58 EST 2014
Remembering the Black Berets and the Struggle for La Raza in New
Monday February 03 2014
A little more than a half-century after conquered New Mexico became a
U.S. state, resistance and rebellion percolated throughout the land.
Dispossessed of their land base, thousands of people joined the Alianza
Federal de las Mercedes, an organization of Spanish and Mexican land
grant heirs led by Reies Lopez Tijerina, demanding the return of their
The Alianza's 1967 armed take-over of the Tierra Amarilla court house
and subsequent National Guard deployment cast international attention on
an unresolved issue that remains very much alive in the 21st century.
Across New Mexico, young people calling themselves Chicanos demanded
recognition of and respect for their Spanish language, their culture and
their history. And in the barrios of Albuquerque, Las Gorras Blancas,
the Black Berets, rose up to challenge the power structure.
Founded in 1969 and similar to the Black Panther Party, the Berets
mounted community patrols, opened free medical and dental clinics, fed
hungry children and issued a 12-point program that called for Chicano
self-determination, community control of institutions, armed
self-defense and liberation. Ahead of the times, the program attacked
machismo by name and upheld equality for women.
In the late 1960s, police brutality was a huge issue in Albuquerque, and
community members turned to the new activist organization for
protection, recalled Black Beret co-founder Richard Moore. "They were
beating and shooting our people throughout the city", Moore said at an
Albuquerque forum held this month on the history and legacy of the
group. "We were facing incredible, incredible police repression."
Moore joined several other former Berets in a presentation to an
overflow crowd at Albuquerque's South Broadway Cultural Center. The
event was emceed by Nita Luna Davis, an ex-Beret and well-known New
Mexico theater producer and writer. Prior to the discussion, the
audience watched a short piece by New Mexico filmmaker Dr. Federico
Reade, "American Blowback: New Mexico's Black Berets," which is a
documentary-work-in-progress about the group.
Movement veterans Joaquin Lujan and Placido Salazar placed the emergence
of the Berets within the context of New Mexico's particular historical,
cultural, economic and social relationships.
Growing up in the Duranes barrio of Albuquerque's North Valley, Lujan
described feelings of oppression and frustration by the time he was a
teenager in the mid-1960s, an era when the freeway symbolized the racial
divide between the Chicano river valley and the then-largely Anglo and
more affluent heights. Police beat young people, and the schools did not
properly educate their students, instead grooming the young for low-wage
work, the military or prison system, according to Lujan.
"I'm 16 and in school, and they're already pushing me to join the
Marines," Lujan told a packed room.
The longtime activist spoke about the heroin scourge that afflicts New
Mexico to this day, recounting how use of the drug had become a
multi-generational disease decades ago. "There was already a
grandfather, a son and a grandson who were all strung out," Lujan said.
Hungry for a different direction in life, Lujan found his answer in the
Chicano movement. First a member of the Brown Berets, the young man then
joined the Black Berets when the group formed. "My true history came out
when I hooked up with the gente," he said.
Lujan reminded his listeners that a long line of resistance preceded the
Berets, evident in such movements as Las Gorras Blancas, a guerrilla
organization that cut fences and fought against land encroachment in
northern New Mexico in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and in the
miners' strikes during the last century.
Sporting a long gray pony-tail, Placido Salazar introduced himself in
Spanish and then explained he was from a land grant community. As a
young man, Salazar joined the Navy and received training as an
electrician. Unable to find a job after leaving the service, the New
Mexico native enrolled at the University of New Mexico (UNM) to study
engineering but discovered that he had "the only brown face" of 1,000
students in his class.
Salazar became active with the United Mexican American Students, a group
he credited with starting Chicano Studies at the state's flagship
institution of higher education, and the Black Berets. Salazar depicted
the Berets as bold, innovative and unafraid to challenge power on its
"We crashed Bruce King's (gubernatorial) inauguration. We just walked in
and sat in on the front row of the inauguration," Salazar recalled,
adding that the New Mexico State Police quickly mobilized a large force
to evict the uninvited guests.
Salazar said King, ever the politician and speaking in his rural "Texas
drawl" commanded the police, "'No, these boys are staying here'!" The
legendary rancher/politico then asked the Berets what they wanted, and
the new governor was presented with the organization's 12-point program,
Like the Black Panthers, the Berets had a very strong community service
component. They began a free breakfast program for low-income children
even before the Albuquerque Public Schools had one, distributed clothing
to the poor, launched a wood cooperative, ran a "liberation school" for
pre-school age children, opened a dental clinic, and delivered health
care at the Bobby Garcia Memorial Clinic, named after the young Chicano
activist, UNM student and Beret associate who was found murdered outside
The Berets even had a short-lived newspaper. A 1971 issue, published in
a year when a youth uprising shook the city, was headlined "La
Revolucion de Albuquerque," or "The Albuquerque Revolution."
Politically, the Black Berets were soon embroiled in virtually every
issue that cropped up in New Mexico-labor strikes, student struggles,
prisoner rights, protests against a noxious sewer plant in the Duke
City, the Chicano Moratorium against the War in Vietnam, and opposition
to gentrification, including a landmark fight over urban renewal and the
fate of the Martineztown neighborhood near downtown Albuquerque.
"We were saying Martineztown is not for sale, and this year we are
saying that New Mexico is not for sale," Moore said.
The Berets made alliances with many groups both inside and outside the
Chicano community. They supported the American Indian Movement, backed
Navajo movements against racism in the border town of Gallup, linked up
with the new National Organization for Women and worked with
African-American community organizations.
The black beret itself evoked the group's international outlook, as the
hat was chosen in honor of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara. "It
was said Che is alive and well in the mountains of northern New Mexico,"
Moore said, repeating a popular slogan of the
John Goldsmith served as the chairman of the New Breed, a predominantly
African-American organization in Albuquerque. Recalling collaborations
with the Berets and others on community redevelopment issues, Goldsmith
sketched a city where racial and class divisions and police abuse were
the order of the day.
Fast forwarding years later, Goldsmith lamented the erosion of progress
from the earlier struggles, with two or three generations "lost" in the
aftermath, the doors of economic opportunity shut tighter for
African-Americans and others and civic education for the young neglected.
"Now more than ever, we have to become more involved in our community,"
Filmmaker Reade credited an 80-year-old retired priest in attendance,
Father Luis Jaramillo, for providing the spiritual guidance to a "rag
tag group of vatos (dudes)" that became a disciplined force.
In comments that delighted the crowd, Jaramillo said there was no
contradiction between his career as a man of the cloth and his life as
an activist. "I love being a priest, but that doesn't exclude me from
being a radical," Jaramillo said. "You can't be too intellectually
radical, you just need to be intelligently rational, and that will make
Jaramillo warned that tough times were coming, and it was time for a new
generation to stand up. "Caca smells really bad no matter what, and when
you smell it you fight it," Jaramillo said to a roused house.
The Albuquerque forum did not go into detail about repression against
the Berets, but the group's activities drew the wrath of authorities and
shadowy right-wing groups like the Minutemen, which regularly mailed the
Berets cross-haired threats, Moore later told FNS.
The most well-known case is the police killings of Beret members Antonio
Cordova and Rito Canales at an isolated site near Albuquerque in January
1972. The police agencies involved in the affair, including the
Albuquerque Police Department (APD), New Mexico State Police and
Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office, alleged that the pair was attempting
to steal dynamite from a construction shed and resisted arrest.
In 1996, a man named Tim Chapa came forward to declare that he had been
a police informant who set up Cordova and Canales for assassination.
Chapa's testimony formed the basis for an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by
the families of Cordova and Canales against several former police
officers and governmental entities.
Two months prior to the killings, the Berets attempted a citizen's
arrest of New Mexico State Penitentiary Warden Felix Rodriguez.
According to multiple accounts, Cordova and Canales were killed just as
they were getting to expose official wrongdoing at the pen to the press.
For years, the Berets' criticisms of corruption and violence at the
joint mainly fell on deaf ears in state government.
In 1980, the prison finally exploded in a gruesome riot that left 33
inmates brutally murdered, upwards of 100 injured and several guards
tortured, according to press accounts and the New Mexico Office of the
State Historian. A smoldering heap of blood, smoke and ash was the
result of the long-neglect and tolerance of drug-dealing and corruption
at the prison.
Besides Cordova and Canales, Black Berets Juan Baca and Ramona Griego
also met suspicious deaths at different times. The violent deaths of
Black Berets and associates occurred at the same time FBI Director J.
Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO campaign was in full gear to disrupt, divide
and neutralize the Black liberation, Chicano, Native American, Puerto
Rican, and antiwar movements.
Locally, an insider slipped the Berets a document that revealed a
political spying unit in the APD, the Metro Squad, which kept dossiers
on Chicano, African-American and antiwar activists.
South of the border, meanwhile, U.S.-backed governments in Mexico and
other countries unleashed bloody dirty wars against dissidents, while
the Nixon administration conspired to overthrow the elected government
of socialist Salvador Allende in Chile.
Although the Berets dissolved in 1973, many members stayed active in
different causes. Beret veterans became cultural workers, labor
organizers and environmental justice activists. Founded in part by
former Berets, the Albuquerque-based Southwest Organizing Project and
Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice were both
pivotal in the environmental justice movement that swept many
communities of color in the United States during and after the 1980s.
In an interview with FNS, ex-Beret leader Richard Moore told the stories
behind 29 photos that are on display at the South Broadway Cultural
Center until October 13.
The black and white images show young women and men in an extraordinary
period of New Mexico history that is still largely hidden. Photos show
the Bobby Garcia Memorial Clinic, a Christmas party for children, a sit
in at Gov. King's office, an antiwar march, the 1971 Albuquerque
Rebellion, and much more. In one scene, Bobby Garcia is shown holding a
protest sign during a demonstration in front of the New Mexico State
Fair grounds that was held to demand a Chicano village as part of the
"These demonstrations were what made it possible for there to be a
Spanish Village at the state fair," Moore remarked while scanning the
testament to history. "A lot of people don't know how it started."
Moore detailed how the Berets' activism was done on a financial fly,
with people donating supplies, labor and skills to keep the movement
pumping. Sympathetic mechanics kept the troops' old cars humming, while
gas station franchisees quietly donated free tanks of gas to keep the
vehicles running. Carpenters lent their muscle, and 32 doctors
volunteered their time and talent when the Bobby Garcia Memorial Clinic
got started, he said.
"There was no way we could do all this without community support,
tremendous community support," Moore reflected.
Accurately gauging the popular "pulse" and making everyone a stakeholder
were two crucial lessons in community organizing the Berets took away
with them from those years, Moore affirmed. "Everybody volunteered
something," he said. "Everybody can do something, no matter how old or
young you are. And to us, those somethings add up to a lot."
The Berets' motto, Moore continued, was "Serve, Educate, Defend."
At the Albuquerque forum, the former Berets turned over the microphone
to the audience. In a mea culpa, ex-DEA and CIA agent Eli Chavez
expressed regret for his military leadership in the U.S' secret war in
Laos and the deaths of "hundreds of thousands of people" during the
1960s and 1970s. The one-time Green Beret said he now wanted to wear a
different hat. "I admire what you did," the retired U.S. government
official said. "I want to be a Black Beret."
Community activist Henry Rael told the crowd that studying the histories
of groups like the Black Berets "probably kept me out of jail,
completely strung out." Judy from Martineztown delivered an emotional
thanks to the Black Berets for their activism in her community. Ken
Ellis, father of an Iraq War veteran shot to death by Albuquerque police
in a controversial incident two years ago, updated 1969 with 2012. Ellis
asked people to sign a petition aimed at convening a grand jury to
investigate the shooting of his son and 16 other men by the local police
department since 2010, and announced an October 22 protest at APD
"I think it's more than an untold story," said one young man of the
Berets' legacy. "I think it's a story still being written."
New Mexico ethnographer Dr. Tessa Cordova offered one of the Albuquerque
forum's final observations on the Black Berets. "It's a movimiento
that's not over," Cordova said. "It's a movimiento transformed."
The film showing and discussion in the Duke City were part of a series
co-sponsored by the New Mexico Humanities Council, New Mexico Film
Institute, UNM Center for Regional Studies and other organizations.
Previous events also attracting lively turn-outs were held in Las
Cruces, Santa Fe and Las Vegas.
For future activities on Black Beret history and the Chicano movement of
the 1960s and early 1970s, see here.
/Kent Paterson is the editor of Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico
border news sponsored by the Center for Latin American and Border
Studies at New Mexico State University./
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