"I was there..."
Interview of Ricardo Carrillo by Francisco Flores Landa
The following interview was incidental to the researching of and of documenting the history of the Mission High School 1969 race riot and student strike. Important lessons can be drawn from the student rebellion against the status quo at Mission High. These bear exploring and documenting because the history of the Mission District during the late '60s to '70s is a fascinating series of events and actions we wish to pass on to posterity.
The Mission District, this small patch of geography was a cauldron of activity — reformist, progressive, revolutionary, and Marxist. In passing on Ricardo’s story two lessons that I find particularly useful for the next generations of activists, progressives, revolutionaries, and democrats who fight for an improved future for oppressed communities of all ethnicities, are: 1. how a young person can get trained to be a social justice organizer by mentors, and 2. the resilience of the young, how they manage to rise from humble beginnings, overcome traumatic events and reach a life of either normalcy or of heights of accomplishment.
Ricardo and I have many things in common; an immigrant background, having suffered traumatic events and overcoming them. We also shared space in a sociopolitical and cultural sense.
In our mobilization at Mission High School a lesson I learned how correct we were about our mobilization and the reforms we offered. Another is that we were part of the new and continuing Latino(a)/Chicano(a) social movement within the civil rights and the class struggle nationally and internationally, We were also part of the broad anti-imperialist movement. Our focus was educational reform, what we called “relevant education.” During this time we learned how interethnic (interracial) and intergenerational support could play a crucial role in the social movement.
San Francisco’s Latino community has the distinction of not being Mexicano, Mexican American, or Chicano/a like other communities in the Southwest. In the Mission District the majority of its Latino members happen to descend from countries other than Mexico. This fact has hindered other regions from accepting our “Latino” contributions to the Chicano/a movimiento. From my vantage point, as my vision grew and developed, we denounced the “narrow nationalism” of the Chicanos and Chicanas. The reason for this was that it leads to conflict with African Americans as well as it being the outlook of chauvinism, superiority and injustice. In addition to class oppression, African Americans are one of the ethnic groups with whom we should strive to unite with to struggle against white supremacy in addition to class oppression. That position of ethnic competition plays into the reactionary’s weapon of divide and conquer. After the race riot, we made interethnic unity one of our touchstones.
We, those who lived through this experience, agree that this story has to be shared. The article mentioned above led to the activity where Ricardo stood up and made his presence count. As I interviewed Ricardo to continue that story I was fascinated by his personal history—his early family history and his story as a Mission District youth activist.
This story is about Ricardo, not so much about the political motions at the high school campus. But Ricardo’s history and the political movement intersect at many points. The entire story about the struggle in the high school will be forthcoming. While Ricardo’s story is the story of La Raza and the movimiento, simultaneously the movimiento is the story of the many brave youth activists like Ricardo.
He played a crucial role at a crucial time. When we the organizers were frozen with fear and ineptitude Ricardo literally stood up and showed us the way. We the Latino student organizers at Mission High School in 1969 called for a strike in alliance with the BSU—Black Student Union, in preparation we had distributed flyers calling for the gathering, when we had the students gathered in front of the school clamoring for action, none of the organizers had the experience and courage to tell the world we were beginning a strike at Mission High School. Who dared to get up there? It was Ricardo. He made the call to rally the troops; he made the speech that had to be made. And so, with his timely and crucial intervention the strike started. If he hadn’t done that we would have petered out. We moved on to other facets of striking like meetings with the principal and to presentations at the SF Board of Education and other activities maintaining the student agitation.
Opponents of our movements consistently claim that outside agitators rile up the students, even though Ricardo was not a student at the high school he was part of the Mission community and had a stake in the reform movement; he had every right to be involved in a movement of Latino youth in a Latino community. [As well as any class conscious persons who supported us, they have the right and the duty. The claim of “outside agitators” was used then and it is used now in other struggles, the conservative reactionary forces of society consistently dredge up this claim to delegitimize supporters and organizers and divide and conquer. This is a lesson to be clear about, the purpose of that claim is simply and always, in my experience, a way to attack the movement, thereby denying the intrinsic reasons for the rebellion and supporting the claims of the colonized mentality.]
Note: Brackets [ ] are comments by the author, where parentheses ( ) are inserted to clarify Ricardo’s comments.
Ricardo, say something about your background
I’m a sixty year old licensed clinical psychologist, born in Guadalajara, raised in the Mission District of San Francisco. Right now we are doing community psychology work in east Oakland. [He is active in the violence prevention efforts in that city.] And right now I have a small practice down in the Peninsula.
You lived in the Mission?
I lived in the Mission all my childhood since I was seven through to when I went to college, 1969.
Your folks were immigrants, what kind of work did they do?
My dad was a miner from Nogales, Sonora . . . three generations of miners . . . (in) the mining industry they didn’t work for big mining companies like Dodge Phelps and those things. Back then they kind of did their own mining business . . . family of laborers, hard working men for the most part, (my) father was the youngest of five kids. My dad and uncle and granddad built the family adobe home down there in Nogales . . . he migrated when he was eighteen . . . [Ricardo’s and my family immigration journey share features like our fathers leaving home in Mexico and coming to el norte and laboring on the US railroads, thereby contributing in building the US’s western economy to what it is today.]
The work had dried up there so he ended up in El Paso doing construction work . . . that type of thing . . . that’s when he met my mom and then he worked trains. So he was a railroad maintenance guy laying track . . . all that kind of thing and he ended up here in Oakland . . . The maintenance business kind of thing. [This is an example of how the second wave of Mexican immigration built up the Southwest United States, building the railroad and mining industries, as well as the large agricultural enterprises. This is the untaught history of Mexican Americans of the US. US companies first displaced individuals and family miners in Mexico by infiltrating the economy in Northwest Mexico, modernizing and mechanizing it. And afterwards some came to the US to work as cheap labor contributing to the US economy. Furthermore, Mexican Americans are made to feel as foreigners, even second and third generation residents.]
So he ended up in San Francisco, we lived on Twentieth and Bryant. Those really old apartments, ‘u’ shaped places . . . he ended living there. [By the N.W. corner]. That is my earliest memory of being in the city there. And then my dad struggled, he didn’t acclimate too well, he didn’t do the immigrant taqueria thing [or] the gardening thing, he was a construction guy tried to do the steel mills and that kind of thing for a little bit, did Bethlehem Steel, did some bus boy thing at Fisherman’s Wharf. So he said, “You know what? This ain’t me!” So he got into a pretty particular kind of lifestyle, pretty extreme, pretty out there, for even back then, late 50s early 60s. He started selling dope. He got into selling pharmaceutical liquid amphetamine. So . . . he had a script for that and had people coming to the house all the time. My mom didn’t like those people who came. She tolerated the guys that drank and the guys who smoked dope; [father] he was musician, he played music, she (tolerated) musicians, guys who liked music.
So my mother was the one who worked two jobs, different kinds of job, waiting on tables, working in restaurants, that kind of thing. And my dad was a kind of a freelance guy that is how he supported the family. Around that time, late sixties, I was nine years old going to St. Charles Elementary, my brother and I, my sister went there. My mom was pretty adamant . . . she wanted to protect us from these addicts . . . they were pretty psychotic. See there (are) addicts now using methamphetamine and they are pretty out there , think about . . . pure stuff . . . they were we into pretty dangerous things . . . so he got murdered over some drug deal . . . some guys came in the middle of the night October 22nd 1960, ripped him off, brought him into the house, cut him up pretty bad, put the house on fire, my brother and I were in the house when the fire was raging . . . woke up in the middle of the night . . . my dad was screaming, “the house is on fire.” Smoke coming through . . . smoke . . . trying to get to him . . . smoking billowing in . . . breathing it in . . . my dad stopped screaming and I started thinking about, “ I got to get out of here.” That’s what happened to me.
I went to wake up my brother who had already been inhaling the smoke, I woke him up and immediately tried to drag him out trying to go to the back door, and I fell out. The next t thing I remember we were at the hospital, my mother was already in the hospital because she had been pistol whipped a couple of days before by one of these guys who were trying to get dope from my dad, so she was in the hospital. Luckily my sister was not at the house. The baby Rosalinda she would have died because the crib she slept (in) was in my parents’ bedroom, so the survivors were; my brother, myself, and my father didn’t survive he had burned to death. [Here is an important lesson for those who want to survive by dealing dope or don’t see other choices. If you are not at risk of going to prison from the pigs, the dealer is at risk from the drug users or competitors. I understand that lack of opportunity, racism and discrimination, sometimes makes the black market appealing. What is a poor Mexican to do? The system presents demeaning opportunities and it needs a reserve pool of unskilled labor; on the other hand the underworld is an appealing choice. To avoid this, young people need to prepare themselves for living a legitimate adulthood. Drug dealing and other black market activities are responses to the social environment with poor job prospects and inferior education in ghetto communities such as the Mission.]
We had to start all over again; my brother, myself, two sisters, and my mom. We survived that with the help of familia (and) St. Charles’ folks. We survived the homicide with the help of the church, Red Cross and that type of thing . . . my mother didn’t ask for welfare or anything like that she just worked and I remember the way in which we were treated by the department of social services, we were made to feel like there was something wrong with us—dirty Mexicans needing assistance.
What year was it?
1960. . . . in San Francisco. The nuns were cool, they were white and Filipina, Sisters of the Holy Cross. The rest of the community looked at us with a lot of pity and disgust, “Why did we need this kind of help?” My mom was pretty proud and she just kept working and made sure we went to Catholic School. She didn’t want us in public school. We started off in Marshall and Hawthorne [currently Cesar Chavez] but eventually went to Catholic. She didn’t want us to be gangbanging and all that. You know that crazy stuff. Trying to do something different for us . . . so we stayed . . . we stayed in school . . . I was a school boy . . . after school, I come home make sure the house was clean.. . . trying . . . fix the kids dinner, my mom always worked two jobs. Then got accepted into Sacred Heart School and went through that whole thing and talk about overt racism. There I was the spic and the greaser, I wore nigger knockers and pachuco suits and having fights with the Irish and Italian boys . . . every Friday (I) was involved in some kind of fight.
How many Latinos were there?
There weren’t too many of us maybe five or six . . . Sacred Heart School, all boys’ school. And the blacks who went there they were the affluent, the Francois’, he was a supervisor [on the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco circa 1964] like Barry Bonds that is the kind of black kids we had [not sure what comparison with Bonds Ricardo is making, I suppose the well-off arrogant kind of person]. So the rest of us came from the Mission. Now it’s different, its boys and girls and lots of Latinos go there back then it wasn’t that much.
It was from a very turbulent time from 1965 to 1969. There was a lot of action going on; there were a lot of things going on. Every community of color was talking about racism and discrimination. Schools and universities, UC Berkeley, and San Francisco State was in the middle of the Third World organization [student strike], you know, different ethnic groups organizing.
What saved me, I was part of Horizons Unlimited, Roberto Vargas was counselor there. He lived down the street from where we were living on Twenty-Sixth Street. [Roberto is a well-known cultural activist in the Mission District. He was active in the cultural world and was in leadership of the Nicaraguan solidarity movement in the 1970s.] My brother and this guy named Charlie Gil were kinda hanging out and said, “Hey man, this dude, Hippie Bob, come meet Hippie Bob.” “Who is this guy?” I said. This poet, El Nicoya, this Nicaraguense guy living (with) this white broad. . . . naked poetry down at North Beach. And, you know . . . got me hooked up with Horizons, bunch of kids, like me, kids of color, going to different schools, went to Balboa, went to Mission, went to different high schools, played a little music . . . so got me plugged up . . . hooked up . . . a chance to play a little music with them. It was the first time I was social . . . that (I) had to do anything to do with anybody else that had to do beside with my family. [Here one can see how issues of Adult Child of Alcoholic/Addict (ACA) crop up transgenerationally. Being a child of an addict has the effect of isolating the family and the children in the family, around issues of shame and guilt they crop up emotionally, mentally, and socially. Here is another similarity between Ricardo and myself, where political involvement drew me away from ‘ripping and running’ in the street life, although only temporarily, until much later getting over that totally.]
Mission High students march in support of striking farmworkers, c.1969.
Photo courtesy Francisco FloresLanda
That was after you graduated?
I got into Horizons in the last couple of years of high school, it was because I was trying to fit into Sacred Heart, I wasn’t going to fit there, I wasn’t white, I wasn’t Italian, I wasn’t Irish, but you learn how to work around people. Horizons was a really good thing, Judith Dunlap was there, Ed Sandoval was there, Chuy Campusano was there, the artista Roberto Vargas, so it was a really good good group of people and they were into high school dropout prevention. [Also Georgiana Quinones] Made sure we had things to do and out of that group we organized the Brown Berets. So . . . Isidro Macias was a student at Berkeley at that time. Him and Roberto Vargas got together and it resonated with us. You know, we thought it was a good thing . . . get indoctrinated . . . started reading . . . things like Che, like Mao Tse-Tung, Marx and Lenin, we were starting to see the relationship between what’s going on in the United States, Nicaragua, Mexico. Sandino, the struggles of Sandino. Nicaragua starting to heat up, actually Roberto started recruiting to go fight La Revolucion,[this was about ten years later] and that was all that movement, the hippie movement, the Haight-Ashbury thing was going on, free love, all that stuff was going on . . . Free concerts in the park. That’s how I grew up. Because of my involvement with Horizons I got a scholarship, I got in the EOP (Economic Opportunity Program) . . . admitted into UC Santa Cruz, and I was not prepared. I’m over here demonstrating in the streets instead of taking care of my ps & qs. Yea. [During my political involvement my awareness became more class conscious, like Ricardo, I went from cultural nationalism to reading Mao, Che, Lenin, and Marx.]
When we were going on strike at Mission, how did you come there, were you with Roberto?
Because I was involved in Horizons, if you remember, back then in the Sixties . . . they tried to acclimate the communities of color, [I think ‘pacify’ would better describe the goal of the government.] after the Watts (riots), all that stuff, Chicago (riots)[I call them rebellions]. They started . . . federal monies started coming in the community over the summer, called Neighborhood Youth Corps (NYC), [the federal government began President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in 1964 simultaneously the FBI had a program called COINTELPRO or Counter Insurgency Program where the popular movement was attacked in a two pronged manner—direct police attacks, and along with buying off the leadership of the communities with subsidies and money—Model Cities Program (MCP) was more in line with COINTELPRO. One of the stated goals of Mission MCP was to build a “middle class” in the ghetto, as some ‘leaders’ went to college bought homes, etc.] I don’t know how much money came into (the community) but you had to decide where the jobs were going to go. In San Francisco, they did it pretty much according to neighborhood and according to ethnic breakdown, whoever lived in the neighborhoods. The Mission was diverse, so we formed the Mission Area Youth Council, I was the chairman of the Mission Area Youth Council, Sadie Villapando was secretary, she was also part of Horizons, and then every neighborhood had to organize, the African American guys, like in Potrero Hill (was) one group, Bernal Heights was another group, Chicano kind of guys, those guys up on Bernal Heights were radical guys. [Another teachable moment is here, that being the relationship of government money coming into the community after the militant civil rights movement got started, to me this shows the effectiveness of direct radical action for social change, not only money was used to pacify the community but direct FBI and police intervention, false charges were made against people thereby tying up energy and funds in defense campaigns, as well as direct infiltration of civil rights groups, and sometimes direct killing of activists. Today, leaders of the US publicly speak of killing their enemies in other countries when people of color resist US dominations and exploitation so much for the rule of law.]
Was that Model Cities?
No, that was later on, but I was the youth representative on Model Cities but (that was) . . . because of my involvement [in Neighborhood Youth Corps]. We had Samoans, we had the Native Americans, the Latinos there on Twentieth and Mission [this was the group I had affinity with and belonged to; known as La Veinte], that whole group that was different from the guys on 24th Street; they were achicanados, Pachucos [these youths and young adults were less transculturated than the guys on 24th]. All those guys were there looking for work, “How many jobs you gonna give me?” So we had to decide among us how the jobs were going to be split up, who was going to supervise them, who was going to get hired, all that kind of thing it was a pretty political gig. Again, I was just thrown into it . . . I had a big mouth . . .. I think I was good with people, that’s how I got involved in it . . . I was a young guy, I was chair of the Brown Berets so when we were going out . . . (the) Mission Rebels was doing their thing. RAP was just starting; Jimmy Queen (was) organizing guys there into RAP (Real Alternatives Program) before it finally became what it became. [Jimmy, who had come to the community after the student strike at San Francisco State College was an adult organizer working with the 24th St., 26th St., and the Lucky Alley boys, who organized into the East Mission United Youth Neighborhood Organization (E.M.U.N.Y.O.), RAP was a social service agency formation working with at-risk youth involved with the criminal justice system.] There was a lot of movement, when you guys were doing the High School thing I was involved in that way. So Roberto and Isidro had me as a spokesperson for the Brown Berets or the Mission Area Youth Council trying to advocate. I remember you invited me to do something over there [laughs] I remember the police coming, they were going to charge me with inciting people to riot. [The pigs attempted to grab Ricardo for standing up to call for the strike as explained in the introduction.]
We had passed out leaflets asking student to congregate in front of the school to begin the strike, then what happened?
I came up, you said . . . ok . . . I don’t remember what the topic was but back in those days we were talking about youth empowerment young people having a voice. [We the students had drawn up some reforms as demands we wanted implemented, and we were asking the students to strike in order to implement them.]
We were organizing for a strike but I was afraid to get up there in front of the crowd at the school entrance and make the call that had to be made, people waited, no one was getting up there to lead, we all became anxious, the time had come, and was passing, suddenly you got up and called for the strike, how was that?
It was pretty powerful. The people resonated with it, we were pretty radical . . . powerful . . . it was the times . . .. We were doing these rallies and things in all the parks. Roberto Vargas [Hippie Bob] was reading poetry, Victor Hernandez Cruz was reading poetry, Alejandro Murguia was reading, we had Pocho Ché [Magazine]. [Mentoring and training the young to be able to get out there and lead has its payout.] So there was a lot of talk about empowerment about having a voice and standing up against police discrimination [police brutality] and abuse and racist policies and that kind of stuff. That was before the gang banging days. I think I was giving the same kind of talk because the students were standing up for themselves so my talk was just about supporting them and encouraging them . . . to stand up for themselves to look at injustice and that type of thing. [This was forty two years ago for Ricardo to recall exact words would be extremely difficult.] And then I remember the police wanted to come in, the riot squad had organized and the crowd circled around me and hid me from the cops so I could get out. I remember I went wow! Man, [Ricardo cracks up laughing here] I was gone. That would have messed me up . . . ‘cause Sacred Heart. I was low key at school but I was just beginning to become a student body officer. That type of thing. They didn’t know what I was doing in the Mission. I kept those worlds apart, and then my mother que pedo that would have been something else too.
Did she disapprove of your involvement?
She approved in raising our voice and standing up for things but not if we’re getting in trouble. [Right after Ricardo’s brief words he was followed by an African American young man, I think he was either from the Third World Liberation Front at State or he was a Black Panther who had come to support us and teach us that the enemy was the system not other minorities. When he got up there on the pedestal the pigs grabbed him, arrested him and took him away. He did had a chance to say a few things motivating the students]
What else happened that day?
I don’t remember what happened that day, if I went to Horizons, but if I was hanging out with Roberto probably ended up going back to Horizons, I remember the people there at the school from seeing them in the community at different events and they went to the school there.
Do you remember any adults that were there?
No, I remember you inviting me [by inviting him I was organizing support and reaching out, by this time I had become a full-time self-ordained organizer in the movimiento, for years after even today I look for opportunities to resist ‘the man’]. And seeing some of the different community people I would see at events, students whom I saw around all the time, because I didn’t go to high school there.
I don’t remember anybody with me specifically, I remember the people I was doing things with . . . was Ron Ayala, Sadie Villapando, Ray Romero, these were people who were either at the tail end of the high school or were just out of high school. We were at that time doing youth kind of things The Mission Musician’s Workshop so we offered music classes to people. People would bring their nephews, kids and we would kind of work with them. So we did a lot of the concerts at St. Peter’s [Hall], at Precita Park, at Mission Dolores [Park], we brought Mongo Santamaria, we brought Eddie Palmieri, we were doing all that, but they all ended up being political rallies, at some point or other Roberto would say always say something, and we were part of Pocho Che, were political poetas, and so they were always talking up something, it was an active time. If I would have been with anybody it would have been that circle. The group from Horizons’ probably participated in those things ‘cause the group [meaning some of the youth participants at Horizons] were going to Mission High.
Roberto put me on the caseload as a youth organizer, I said.
That was a wild time, thinking back on that, we don’t have that right now, I see the community really needing youth to be involved, the way we were involved, there is too many killings, too many distorted gang banging kinds of ideas and ideologies, people standing up for things but in the wrong way. I don’t think it was ever our intent to be violent when we organized back in the sixties. People had a lot of rhetoric, the Black Panther Party had, “By All Means Necessary”, the Wa-Ching had martial arts training, we in the Brown Berets had a little martial arts training but we were not going to kill anybody, when Nicaragua came along and people were being recruited to fight in La Revolucion then the pedo got serio (serious) that was there, that wasn’t in the hood. [The anti-Somoza revolution in Nicaragua occurred ten years later, that is when the FSLN through Roberto recrutited people] People in the Mission District were not talking about violent struggle. [The uprising to overthrow the Somoza Dictatorship in Nicaragua began in 1979; our high school reform movement was in 1969.]
So you curtailed your activism after High School? What happened later in the Mission?
I got admitted into Santa Cruz in ’69. I left for school. But the Mission, they always had different elements, some very conservative people, there was Model Cities [yea, there was money] Soto . . . Lee Soto and Arriba Juntos, all the different community people they had different ideas. Some people were about violent struggle, other people were radical advocating for that, there were differences of opinion. I left went to Santa Cruz, not really knowing what I wanted to do, struggling with what . . . needed to do. I began getting disconnected from what went on the Mission. Shortly thereafter that is when I got strung out [addicted to heroin] myself and ended up doing time. It took me ten years to get back to school finish up my bachelors because I got diverted, you know, instead of going (and) finishing my education or instead of going into the military because Vietnam was hot. They say, “How did you do? What did you do?” I say, “Oh I went to the department of corrections.” [Laughs]. I learned that I didn’t belong.
Do you want to say anything more?
I hope that this historical piece helps young people, that they think about the need for involvement in what is going on in their community because a lot of the things that are wrong today, they are being committed by a lot of young people, I think that we as elders have to provide some leadership like what we were doing back in those days organizing, but we were being mentored by cats who pretty much had pretty good minds, pretty good hearts, and I think that is what young people are missing right now, leadership, guidance, direction and a voice having a voice so they can learn to make their community safe. It’s not safe right now.
Ricardo Carrillo came to us at Mission High School us at a critical time. It is important to see how his background and his level of training paid off at a critical time. I don’t mean to minimize his courage and valor and say that it was only his training that allowed him to jump up on the platform. His training and his mentoring as a leader, organizer and public speaking, shows how a young person can develop those skills. Personally, my leadership and speaking skills hadn’t developed by this time so Ricardo was a ray of sunshine for our movement at the school. Today as always, it is important to train young people in developing these skills. Conversely, if you are a youth you can seek mentoring opportunities trying on different roles in hospitals, in education facilities, in clubs, drama groups, and other venues. Remember, we become what we think about, what we pursue. We could join groups at school or in the community.
In other areas of Ricardo’s life we learn how we can come back from trauma like his father’s murder and having fallen to addiction. Ricardo can testify that it is possible to get “strung out” and jump back to become productive constructive people. As I pointed out as the interview progressed there are a lot of lessons we can learn in this story and more importantly pass on. We, all of us, with Ricardo, are intertwined with history. Lucky for us, the Mission was a cauldron of activism struggling to overcome racial, class, and gender oppression, and exploitation. We are also lucky we lived and saw firsthand what happened. Our fight was a local expression of a worldwide mobilization in the '60s and '70s. Locally, we wanted educational reform and learned valuable lessons of how to change education society has to change. Another valuable lesson is about how adults, the community, and interethnic unity are crucial. The struggle continues.
“Youth makes the revolution.”