Oscar Gomez (right) and his childhood friend Juan Gonzalez attend a protest in Santa Barbara on Feb. 1, 1992. The protest was in support of CSU Northridge Chicano studies scholar Rudy Acuña, who had been turned down for a faculty position at UC Santa Barbara and was challenging the decision. (Courtesy Gene Chavira)
This week, The California Report Magazine teamed up with LAist Studios to share an episode from the new season of their podcast “Imperfect Paradise: The Forgotten Revolutionary.” It's the story of Oscar Gomez, a radio DJ and Chicano student leader during a time of explosive anti-immigrant political rhetoric in the early 1990s. Some people thought Gomez was going to be the next Cesar Chavez. But then he died near the UC Santa Barbara campus, under mysterious circumstances.
KPCC reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez first started digging into Gomez's life and death back in 2019, when UC Davis awarded Gomez a posthumous degree. The new podcast investigates Gomez's death and delves into his legacy — and reporting it prompted Guzman-Lopez to examine his own life, activism and journalism.
n September of 2021, I and a team of producers set out to find answers to the mysterious death of a 1990s Chicano college activist and college radio DJ. Over the next 10 months, as we interviewed people and looked for documents, I came to the realization that three-decade-old activism fundamentally shaped my three-decade-long journalism career.
It’s certainly not what I expected to find when I first introduced our audience to Oscar Gomez in 2019. Oscar was a scholar-athlete at Baldwin Park High School who graduated in the spring of 1990, then enrolled at UC Davis that fall. In that same year California was entering a red-hot political climate driven by a backlash against increased immigration.
On Nov. 17, 1994, four years after Oscar’s freshman year, he was found dead on a Santa Barbara beach, apparently after a fall from a bluff near the UC Santa Barbara campus. My story detailed how he was awarded a posthumous degree by UC Davis 25 years after his death.
I could have left the story there. I could have moved on. And I was about to move on. But the people I interviewed, Oscar’s activist friends, recounted stories of how Chicano college students resisted and reacted to the state’s politics, sometimes putting their own lives on the line, and that dislodged my own memories of my own activism in those years. In the past 30 years I’ve rarely talked publicly about how I was part of the early '90s Chicano student movement, leading a student newspaper, producing a campus public affairs show and attending protests in California, some of the same protests that Oscar attended.
Those personal connections led me to dig deeper. I spent months searching for documents and engaging in a deep process of thinking about how the activist and journalism work I did back then affects me today. I similarly dug deep into Oscar’s college activism and found overlaps between Oscar’s work and mine. The results are in the eight-episode LAist Studios podcast “Imperfect Paradise: The Forgotten Revolutionary.”
Time traveling back to the early '90s
Doing this work has made me feel like I’ve been living in the years 1990-1994. Judith Segura-Mora was one of the people who triggered a waterfall of memories. She was the UC Davis student who recruited Oscar to a Chicano student organization on campus in 1990. We put two and two together and I recalled having seen her speak at the National Chicano Student Conference in Albuquerque in 1992. I paid my way there to write a story for Voz Fronteriza, the Chicano newspaper at UC San Diego. It was the first out-of-town reporting assignment in my fledgling reporting career.
I talked to Judith at a reception for the Gomez family a day before Oscar’s degree ceremony. She introduced me to Eddie Salas, who was DJing at the reception. He helped on Oscar’s Chicano public affairs radio show, “La Onda Xicana” (also known as “La Onda Chicana”), and had many late-night conversations with Oscar about a variety of musicians. Hearing Eddie’s stories about “La Onda Chicana” took me back to my own public affairs college radio show, “Radio Califas.” My show sparked an interest in the new rock bands coming out of Mexico and Latin America, an interest that would lead me to write music and concert reviews for many years.
I found a box of cassettes of my show. I was surprised at the list of interviews: the film director Robert Rodriguez talking about his first film, the LA poet Marisela Norte, the renowned Chicana journalist Elizabeth Martínez, ethnic studies scholar George Lipsitz guest-DJing while he talked about 1960s and '70s music. And I remembered that I convinced UC San Diego ethnic studies professor Jorge Mariscal to give me and the other students working on the show academic credit for our efforts.
The class was Lit/Writing 121 Reportage. Its four units and the A grade I earned raised my grade-point average enough to allow me to graduate from UC San Diego in 1993. Looking at the diversity of Latino arts, culture and politics on the show, I’d say our Radio Califas production team delivered.
As the podcast production team and I tried to find out what happened to Oscar for "Forgotten Revolutionary," we heard many more stories of 1990s activism.
Valentino Gutierrez, now a high school teacher in Pico Rivera, told us of going on hunger strike to expand Chicano studies while he was an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara. Margarita Berta-Avila, a fellow student and friend of Oscar’s at UC Davis, told us how strongly she felt about the Chicano movement despite not being Mexican American (her parents are from El Salvador and Peru). Other friends of Oscar’s, like Sabrina Enrique, talked of the sexism of the 1990s movement that I believed then was a thing of the past.
The emotional toll of activism
I heard former activists, including Judith, talk about the emotional toll so much activism took on her and her fellow student activists. She said her grades and mental health suffered. Mining my own feelings and looking at my academic transcript, I remembered how mine did, too.
“I don't think we're at where we're at today without these sacrifices and activism of the folks in the '90s,” said Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval, a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at UCSB.
“I don't feel like they've always been properly recognized.”
The activism of 1990s college students survives in memories and on mostly analog platforms. These students’ newspapers, film print photographs and cassette audio recordings remain in dusty boxes in attics and garages, and in some university archives, if they’ve survived at all.
And that contributes, Ambruster-Sandoval said, to 1990s Chicano student activism being a “lost period.”
For about 25 years, that’s what the early 1990s college activist experience felt like to me. Every time I take out copies of the UC San Diego newspaper, Voz Fronteriza, that contain my writings, the pages seem to be more yellow and more brittle. I have cassette copies of my radio shows that need to be digitized before time erases their content.
As I began a mainstream journalism career in the late 1990s, I heard people in my first newsroom say journalism that came out of activism and even ethnic journalism fell into the category of “advocacy journalism.” There is some truth to that. But the comments left a chilling effect that led me to put away my college journalism experiences and lock them up in favor of a traditional “objective” approach. I was at the very beginning of a paid journalism career and I didn’t want another target on my back.
But to tell Oscar’s story for the podcast, I had to tell my own story as a 1990s activist because he and I moved in some of the same activist circles and attended some of the same marches, including the protest in downtown Santa Barbara to support Chicano Studies Professor Rudy Acuña on Feb. 1, 1992. Acuña had been turned down for a faculty position in Chicano studies at UC Santa Barbara the year before and would sue the university, alleging bias against him for his activism, race and age. Acuña’s 1972 book, “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos,” and subsequent scholarship led many to consider him a founder of Chicano studies.
That’s where I met Oscar and talked to him briefly.
California’s red-hot politics brought Oscar, me and thousands of other students to those Santa Barbara streets.
The state’s institutions were being stretched to the limit after large numbers of people immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1980s to escape economic crisis in Mexico and violent civil wars in Central America, both situations stoked by U.S. policies. Anti-immigrant groups responded with nativist proposals to take away the civil rights of immigrants. They successfully proposed ballot measures like Proposition 187 that targeted undocumented immigrants and their kids. (A federal judge ruled in 1997 that Prop. 187 was unconstitutional.)
Those anti-immigrant sentiments led me, Oscar and many other Chicano students to feel like we each had a target on our backs. And that environment spilled onto campuses, too, as Agustín Orozco, my friend from UC San Diego, describes in this essay.
Our shared, yet different, backgrounds
Oscar and I were both Chicanos but different in many ways. He was a middle-class U.S. citizen raised in the suburbs of LA County. My mother cleaned houses for a living. She and I moved to San Diego when I was 7 years old. We overstayed our tourist visas and only received the authorization to stay permanently about a decade later, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, most often described as amnesty, became law in my senior year of high school.
Oscar responded to the xenophobia by joining the Chicano student organization on campus, then producing a weekly college radio show that mixed various types of music with in-studio interviews and field recordings from protests and marches he attended in different parts of the state.
Before this podcast, my identity as a Chicano felt stuck in the 1990s. But I’ve adopted a fuller understanding of what Chicano, Chicana, Chicanx, Latino and Latinx activism has led to. I now see how the student activism of the 1990s helped lead to the intersectional coalition building of current times, and the exploration of Indigenous philosophy.
“The more that we could find out about these people and what they went through and, you know, even in this case, how they passed away or were killed, you know, the more we can share truth with people,” said Israel Calderon, a history teacher at Oscar’s alma mater, Baldwin Park High School, and a childhood friend of Oscar.
“As journalists we do not check our humanity at the door. What we must do is try and give an accurate representation of what is happening before us to the best of our ability, leaving aside our prejudices,” she said.
How and whether I compartmentalize my humanity in the work I do is a question this podcast has raised for me and for others.
“Am I doing what we had set out to? Have I compromised?” said Margarita Berta-Avila, who’s now a leader with the California Faculty Association, the union for California State University professors.
She said thinking of Oscar, 28 years after his death, has been an opportunity to check her ideals from her college years and ask whether she’s become jaded.
I have spent 21 years telling people’s stories at Southern California Public Radio. I have, to the best of my ability, tried to tell stories about people living deep moments in their lives, and of policies that would affect people in one way or another.
I feel like I’ve kept a part of my humanity checked at the door at times, fearing that some kind of bias would creep in. There is no bias in connecting deeply with human experiences and letting my own humanity live in that moment, too.
For that insight, I have El Bandido de Aztlan, Oscar Gomez, to thank.
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