"I was there..."
From Latino/Black on Black/Latino Ethnic Conflict to United Political Struggle Interview of Edgar Ivan Morales by Francisco FloresLanda, conducted Sunday, July 31 2011
Introduction: The following interview was conducted at San Francisco’s Dolores Park, at the “bell,” a usual meeting spot for people of our generation. Edgar and I were in the epicenter of a “racial riot” actually a rumble between a Latinos and black students. The conflict between his brother, Edy, and a lone black student became generalized; to the point that the whole school was shuttered down. The students in the school were restricted to the classroom; the students outside were locked out of the school. The rumble occurred during one of two lunch periods, after the rumble both ethnicities lined up with their own, the browns and the blacks lined up on the sidewalks of Eighteenth Street, the African Americans on the sidewalk hugging the girl’s gym on the corner at Dolores Street and the Latinos on the opposite side of the street on the park side. The SFPD Tactical Squad was in between it was quite a display of apprehension, confusion and fear. In my politically developing young mind the manifestation of larger issues went over my head—those of education, racism, police control, inequality, immigration, and more.
This interview is a small part of larger story that is in still being written. That larger expanded part is what came before and what came after that fateful incident in the fateful year of 1969.
Parentheses ( ) are author inserted for clarity.
Brackets [ ] are used for author’s commentary.
Send me comments and any information or leads to persons that could provide information that might add to this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edgar tell me something about you?
My name is Edgar Ivan Morales; I’m originally from Managua Nicaragua. I was brought here in 1963 as an immigrant, along with my other five siblings by a good woman, Manuela Escobar, a single parent raising six kids at a minimum wage. (She) refused to get help or ask for help because of her pride; that was 1963, when Latinos were practically unheard of in San Francisco, (I) arrived here and was put in an elementary school where no one spoke any Spanish everyone spoke English, so I was incommunicado (at) Golden Gate Elementary in the Western Addition. [Then known as the Fillmore, during the time of the War on Poverty Western Addition was used to whitewash the area famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, as a seedy area.]
[Note: I would guess that at Edgar’s age it appeared that Latinos were ‘practically unheard of’ because back in the day, the Fillmore was almost totally black, unlike today, when a large number of young white people and other non-blacks have moved in because of Redevelopment, gentrification, and the shift in the worldwide economy, i.e. the disappearance of local blue collar jobs to overseas by outsourcing. I would suppose that this extrapolation would also apply to Golden Gate Elementary. Recently I went to the area and conducting a quick survey, at first, unbelievably, I saw only Anglos after a few seconds some African Americans appeared in my view but, to me, it maintained its white look and feeling. I was almost in shock. I was aware of the demographic shift but it is still hard to believe how a community can be destroyed--some would say improved.]
Was there a Spanish bilingual program at Golden Gate Elementary School?
There was no one in the whole school that spoke a word of Spanish; it was a very lonely and isolating place to be for me. For me, for someone coming from Central America, where everyone (knows you), where all doors are open, and where everyone knew each other, to a place no one knew how to communicate with me it was pretty bad. [It was evident from Edgar’s tone that the feeling still resonated with him.]
Originally, when I got here, my mother was in the Western Addition, with as many kids as my mother (had) we moved to many, many, houses always looking for affordable housing, my mother’s goal were affordable housing so my mother could support her children.
What kind of work did she do?
When I arrived here, she was working at Foster’s, it was a cafeteria type of restaurant, she was a bus lady, and she went around picking up the dishes after everybody ate. The only qualification I suppose was to speak English that was one of her lucky points.
Spoke English In Nicaragua? How is that possible?
She is originally from Bluefields which is in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua where Spanish is the second language, so she spoke both very well. [Alongside the Spanish, the British established a protectorate on the eastern seaboard beginning in the middle of the 17th century, and ending roughly two centuries later with the rise of the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Granada in the coast. The eastern seaboard retains its colonial heritage; English and Jamaican Patois are commonly spoken and the culture in the Atlantic region identifies as being more Caribbean.]
Coming to Golden Gate Elementary was a turning point in my life, it was pretty much a preview of what life had in store for me in the United States; and that was, I had to fight my way to school every morning and I had to fight my way home every day.
Racism is incredibly strong in this country. One of my first obstacles was having to deal with children that didn’t know anything about social studies; or the world at large, they didn’t know where I was from or who I was, all they knew was that I wasn’t like them; so they wanted to kick my butt.
What ethnicity were they?
This story will wind up into that subject later on. As we speak you will know. [It’s very clear where we are going here]
What year were you at Mission High?
(I) arrived at mission high school after graduating from Horace Mann Middle School [middle schools were then called junior high schools] in 1966 that was the 9th grade. I was expected to graduate in 1969.
Give a little background of conditions in the school, social, ethnic, as well as the halls?
(We were) a group of students that were reluctant to accept what this society had to offer. In plain terms we would be called rebels (but) it was a misunderstanding of society. They [the school and society] didn’t understand where we came from and we didn’t understand this place, we had been brought to, we were only children. Just to remind you that most of those children aren’t here anymore because of the misunderstanding. It was pretty much the tail of the fox [what is that—author] that I had already lived through in my elementary and my junior high school years. It was survival of the fittest. It was racism and social standards (that) had a lot to do with it. It was a misunderstanding with the schools back in those days.
Can you be more particular? Like what happened in the hallways?
Back in those days everybody was in a different group, if you were from a different country you had to look for someone from your country to be your friend. You were not accepted by any other group, so when you walked down the hallway you pretty much looked for faces that you recognize and stick to that. You kept away, if you tried to communicate, you were going to be put down, so it was a matter of holding your pride. We were proud of who we were; so we kept to ourselves. You were proud who you were; you didn’t want to be put down [there was an evident strong emotion in Edgar’s voice]. Back in those days it was a natural thing between periods to look for a person who had a little bit of popularity and social understanding [meaning is unclear here it is either social awareness or social standing] to go hang out in front of his locker while the periods changed spoke to your friends and (made a plan to meet later) . . . .
I don’t want to get into politics, [author encourages Edgar to address social and political issues] what I notice is that Black people have been taught to be aggressive so they can get their way. If you were a newcomer that is pretty much you started to deal with. You would notice that when they were in a bunch they were aggressive. If you met them by themselves they had a little more open mind. If you met them in a group they had a crowd [emphasis by Edgar] mentality. One could set them all off.
Let’s talk about what happened in the stairway? We were having lunch and Edy came running up?
We used to get free lunch, all the Latinos, as a matter of fact; [author comment: I was not enrolled in the free lunch program, it must have appeared to Edgar that “all” Latinos were “in” on it, having known Edgar for a good deal of his life I know that he was a born hustler and natural leader early on] I was one of the ones of the instigators that tried to get everyone to try to get a free lunch. I had found out you could get free lunch, the idea was to get lunch. It so happened that all the African Americans also got a free lunch. The whole idea was get to the café first, have your lunch, and get the hell out of there and go hang out by the park. So we would all rush to the cafeteria as soon as the bell rang. We started to notice that the black kids, if one got there before us, he would let everyone cut ahead of him. You see this; I’ve been to penitentiary, I’ve been (to) free food lunch programs, that is the way they work it. If I’m ahead then all my brothers [sarcastically] are ahead with me. So we started to learn, we (would) have to see how to deal with this, we figured out that the person closest to the cafeteria would have to get out of class a minute before the bell rang and had to be in line before everyone got there so that we could cut in front of him, so we had it down as a plan that someone would show up and be in line one minute before the bell rang, we would always be first in line. So the African Americans noticed . . . and began . . . and started getting frustrated . . . they didn’t know how to deal with it, so they would get so mad that they would want to pick a fight. They knew that together they were aggressive, single they were calm. If they got in a group they were aggressive. One day, when we were in front of the line, my younger brother Edy began walking down the line trying to get ahead of the line and one of the young guys who was there pushed him, so he reacted the way everyone reacted back then, and he called him “stupid Nigger,” to the young black kid it was like someone had stabbed his mother. [Author: I wouldn’t say everyone reacts like that all the time] He was like, “Come on outside were going to fight right now.” My brother came to me and he said, “Hey I’m going to go outside fight this guy.” I said, “If it is one-on-one go kick his ass.” I told Edy, “Go kick his ass I’m in line, I’m going to eat.” No sooner had he walked out he came back in, he said “I kicked his ass.” He said “He brought out a knife and I broke the bottle and said, ‘You want to deal with it like this come on.’ The kid backed off.”
Edy came back (and) got in line. We all had lunch and went outside to the stairway on Dolores at 18th. Now it has an iron gate, back then you could go sit on the stairways and have lunch as long as you didn’t make a mess. [The interview was at the bell at Dolores Park we looked across the street and saw all the stairways had iron gates] that was 1966/67/68 there were no iron gates. So that day we went out and we were all sitting there. It was a few guys, a few girls, just as the way we always did. We were probably discussing what had gone earlier when I saw a group of kids walking across the street. I recognized them right away. Now, Francisco Flores, who is right here [I am the interviewer, we laugh], and Henry Menjivar was there, may he rest in peace, Oscar Coronado was there, Jose Barraza was there, my brother Edy, and I and a few young women. As I saw them approach us I recognized the young kid who my brother had just smacked. And they came up to, us, but now, he had his two older brothers with him, they were inclined to be more aggressive. They wanted my brother to fight the oldest brother, they had, actually it was (the) middle brother. As the middle brother was saying, “I want to fight you.” I felt compelled to stick up for my brother I said “Hey, he fought your brother, I will fight you.” So then, his older brother stepped in and he said, “No, I will fight you.” And my brother here, Francisco Flores stepped in, which I thank god to the day, and said, ‘No I’ll fight you.’ It was pretty cool. When you said that at the same time Henry said, “What the hell are we talking about,” but he said it in Spanish, “Let’s just kick ass.” There!, that’s when we just jumped on them and started fighting, we came out to them, [we were sitting holed up inside the stairwell]. It just became a rumble, hit who you can while you can, there were more of them than there were of us, it was a little frightening. The defense we had (was) to step forward or we were gonna get caught stuck inside the stairway. It ended up us chasing them outside. Pretty much it was what came down.
[Author: I didn’t manage to get out of the stairway, I and someone else faced them in the stairway, luckily they couldn’t surround us, only two of them could come at us at a time as we traded punches until they retreated chased off.]
It was a minute or two?
Seconds, seconds was pretty much, just at the spur of the moment, only moments. I remember running with two of them after me. Yea, two after me, I remember it had been raining around that time. I remember smacking one of them with my umbrella, they had umbrellas, too, I remember I was afraid I was gonna get stabbed. Considering the odds and the situation we were under, we were able to get back to where it all started, and laugh at it. Saying, “Hey we all defended ourselves the way we expected”, we were not going to get beat down for no reason.
I remember more guys, Latinos coming to help us?
I remember people running over to see what was going on because the girls were screaming too. It was a commotion, on that side of the particular block where we sat, it was always very calm, and we were at the other side of the park. [Between 18th and 19th opposite the park next to today’s Dolores Park Café] Everybody used to sit at the park; it was noticeable what was going on. By the time everybody gets there it was all over, as fast as it started it was over. Some white guys came to offer help. [The White-shoes, as we called them, students who hung out by the lunch store called Dine-a-Mite, on the corner of 18th and Church, kitty-corner from the boy’s gym.] What I’ve been trying to remember is, if it happened before Martin Luther King got killed, or after Martin Luther King got killed, because if it happened after the young African American kids had gone up the hill and had attacked the young white kids (and) they retaliated, which I thought it was pretty stupid because here they were these guys they had nothing to do with what Martin Luther King got killed for or where he got killed. He got killed somewhere in the south, Alabama or something and here we are in San Francisco. Who you are retaliating against are just innocent people. If it happened after, the reason would be we had gotten some people who used to hang out up the hill they came down and said “We’ll help you." If it happened before, it would be that the black kids were very aggressive, it wasn’t just against the people who stood in line for lunch it was against everyone, they weren’t specific about who they were going to target, they didn’t like nobody, they were going to attack anyone.
It was in the newspaper as “Racial Tension at Mission High School.” When the police came, they had riot gear on when they showed up. It had been publicized as a racial riot the next day. End of story goes (that) you [interviewer] went to fight (the) older brother. I think (that if) back then (if) the principal had been told on [reported], he probably would have been prosecuted, whooped, tarred, and feathered. The principal took the stand (that) if we’re going to have a riot here and it’s only because two people fought, let’s just let two people fight it out. And, that will end the whole situation. They took Francisco Flores [points at me] here and the young man, the oldest brother . . . the principal took them up to Twin Peaks. [Actuality the principal and community activists, Alberto Martinet, Jimmy Queen, an officer who was the police-community representative and others took us to Diamond Heights]. It was the idea of the principal who took you. All I remember (is) you coming back saying I kicked his ass it’s over. It must have been the (same) day (when) they got together (to discuss it). [Actually I didn’t really kick his ass what really happened is that we wound up wrapped around each other]
After the fight they thought there was going to be tension. It never materialized as a riot. [Note: as an afterthought Edgar said, “As they were wishing for . . . a riot the next day.” [Author: Edgar assumes that the authorities wanted to see blacks and browns fighting each other, the old adages at play being “divide and conquer” and “let them kill eat other”]. Everybody (was) ready for a fight. It didn’t happen. It would have been to the disadvantage of the African American kids. The, it felt (like the) whole school was behind our group although they didn’t identify . . . us, they didn’t know us, but they knew the group that had defended themselves against the African American kids, they were right. It was the icing on the cake the suds on the beer just spilling over. [Edgar laughs.]
We came back and laughed right there, we came back to the stairs and didn’t go back to school. The whole school was expecting something that day that’s why the next day the riot police was out there. The same day, everyone lined up; Latinos and African Americans. The reason it was happening . . . it wasn’t that serious, I don’t think the people knew why. It was all a surprise to us. To me . . . the young kid was disrespectful and annoying, I wish someone had told him you had it coming sucker. It helps someone a lot more if you tell him the truth, “You know what, you got a big mouth, you go around picking fights now live with it, and you got your ass kicked.” The next day when you went back to classes what happened?
That there only made me wearier of the whole educational process. There is NO way can you learn feeling a threat. Whether it be from another student or the police or the system. After that day a lot of us, I must say, I didn’t feel comfortable in the classroom, we felt safer in the park surrounded by people that we knew instead of being in the hallway where we didn’t know if someone was going to do something or walk up. . .
What was your participation afterwards, when we united with the African American students and presented the demands when we united as a political group with the black students?
(I did) to an extent, not very deeply participated, didn’t believe much was going to change. (It seemed the) demands, it was little silly kids demands. I know it had to do (with) the way the school was being run. In the 60s the (the schools were run) in the style of the 50s. It was a different crowd of people (the administration and the students). So the demands were pretty much acceptance. Now I understand what the demands were about.
[The demands were for more Latino teachers, Raza history classes, relevant education, and Latino food in cafeteria.]
I remember Fridays after lunch no one would come back to class we would go back to school and party in the hallways? The whole school it seemed to me?
If you go back to those days, a lot of those kids were talking about ended up in the penitentiary, many . . . as we now know, I didn’t know then, that the penitentiaries of California, the prison industry, the biggest industry California has, we were all being prepared to work in the biggest industry that California has. That is (getting); an A number; and a B number; a C number; and a D number, it was a way of life. If you don’t want to go along with the program . . . (societies response is) “we already got a program for you.” You are going to end up in San Quentin, Soledad, and Folsom prison.
Remember the hall guards?
That was the system, those ladies were married to white folk, they didn’t want you to even talk Spanish, they felt it was disrespect, I don’t know to who or to what. I think we were rebels but there were methods of communication that they failed to use. It was their way or no way.
What about the reds and acid? I dealt reds, and then I took them.
Never touch the merchandise Frankie; I have a saying, that I tell many people, that I use now, “It was easier to get drugs than it was to see your school counselor.” I could come to the park and get drugs and I didn’t need an appointment. I didn’t have to find my counselor in the office, didn’t (have) to be reprimanded or talked (to) bad! to me. It was easier to get drugs than it was to speak to a teacher . . . as that is why it was so easy for all of us to get involved with drugs.
Did you graduate?
I never thought that I was going to drop out, that I would end up in the situation where I ended up by my eighteenth birthday. But I struggled with society . . . drugs and . . . with my family. Why did I do what I was doing? I did go back to John Adams and graduated from high school. Graduated . . . mechanic technician . . . body and fender. (Afterwards) I went to a trade school (for the skills) [so did the author] but I went to John Adams Adult High School up in the Haight for my diploma, while I was strung out on heroin, I struggled but I went and got to my high school diploma.
Have you got any last comments, anything more to say?
Not just one, I got a dozen things to say [laughs], but whatever you write out of this . . . that some understanding comes out of it because . . . because the problem is still here, the misunderstanding doesn’t go away, it’s gonna be around, kids are running in more danger than we ever did. We sort of killed ourselves with drugs and now kids are killing themselves with guns, it hasn’t really changed much. In some way . . . this story . . . whatever . . . can shed some light on the problem on the subject . . . that would be god’s way. Good Luck Franqui.
Conclusion or summary:
This is a small part of a larger history that began months before and ended much later than the two days that are described here. That history began and continued when a few Latino students began organizing and developed a set of four demands. After this incident the demands expanded to seventeen when we united with the African American at the urging of striking students from SFSU by “raising our level of consciousness” about necessary unity between oppressed peoples—Latinos and Blacks. In the short run the history continues when the demands were attempted to be implemented. But that story is in progress for later . . .
bottom-unknown, Choco, top unknown, Francisco Reyes, Julian, behind Oscar Coronado, Neftali with girlfriend, Rigo, standing unknown.
Photo: Francisco FloresLanda
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High School Rising. Shot in and around Mission High School, c. 1969.
Video: Prelinger Archive