All I can remember is that it was hot. Not searing or unbearably hot, but still the kind of hot that made people edgy.
Of course, by nature Southern Californians are fairly spoiled. What we claim is hot weather on the Left Coast might qualify as downright pleasant in other parts of the United States. If the mercury breaks 80 here, we think it’s hot. Add 10 degrees more, which is a common occurrence in the summer months in Texas, Indiana or Florida, and Californians insist that global warming has reached the cruelest proportions.
The problem was, on this day in 1992, that it was not summer yet. The calendar confirmed that April still had one week remaining. And it certainly wasn’t Texas or Indiana or Florida. This was California, the southernmost region of it, a mixture of ethnicities, tongues, skin tones and customs, where the melting pot was more like a crowded elevator.
That is why, as April tried to dissolve into May and the normally mild sunshine extended into a booming furnace, the edginess took over. That was the week San Diego exploded.
The Imperfection of Beauty
San Diego, California, is one of the most pristine cities in America. Before Pete Wilson took over the gubernatorial reigns of the state in 1991, he was once mayor here and dubbed this “America’s Finest City.”
Who could argue? With seemingly endless beaches, sweeping desert terrain to the east, picturesque mountains to the north and even a rising cosmopolitan feel, it had everything one could ask for. If you wanted to visit another country, all that was required was a 20-minute drive south to San Ysidro, where the Mexican border awaited.
Tourists flock here: Arizona residents (“Zonies,” we call them with derision) escaping the suffocating August heat or snowbirds seeking a respite from Midwestern winters. I can recall one December day as a kid going on a field trip to the world-famous San Diego Zoo and smirking at a family in shorts and tank tops. “They must be from Chicago,” I muttered to a classmate, “who else would dress like that when it’s freezing?”
The temperature that afternoon was 68 degrees.
Yes, we’re spoiled—and we act like the weather is our bragging right, like we actually have something to do with it being so nice.
That’s what the rest of the world sees, postcard-perfect views of booming blue skies, lush flowers and golden sunsets. It’s what we want them to see, and there are ample evidences of this beauty.
But during the last week of April 1992—and probably even before that, but this week it was crystallized—I started to notice a grittier side of San Diego. The side that did not make its way onto brochures and commercials.
Maybe it’s the equivalent of realizing that the political party you supported as a youth, mainly because your parents did, was not flawless after all. Or that the clothes, music or religion that seemed perfectly fine before now merited some examination. Not that you wanted to abandon them, but at least you start to acknowledge their imperfections.
That’s all part of being a teenager anyhow, this subtle yet profound awakening that leads to a questioning of everything around you. Your friends. Your dogma. Your choice of Magic Johnson over Michael Jordan. Your city.
What I started to notice was the abundance of neighborhoods within San Diego County that were not so pristine. Graffiti splashed across walls and bridges; schools and houses in dilapidated conditions; herds of people huddled together while sleeping on a sidewalk.
Much of this I viewed from the relatively safe confines of the school bus, which would transport me from my middle-class suburban neighborhood to the grimier heart of the city where my school was located, and back again.
But what I sensed on that particular week was more than just the adverse effects of a 1980s economy gone sour or the rugged nuances of inner-city poverty. What I sensed was tension.
I heard it, I saw it, I felt it.
That April week a verdict was due out of a Simi Valley courtroom involving the police officers charged with the unlawful and excessive beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King. King, as the world knows, was black; the multiple officers who arrested him in March 1991 were white.
As the court case had progressed, it seemed to many a foregone conclusion that the grainy home video which captured the apprehension and subsequent melee would be sufficient for the jury to find the officers guilty. Naively, I figured it was an open-and-shut case that would surprise no one.
Not everyone was convinced it would turn out that way. We debated this in my government class, taught by a cross-country coach who normally liked to confine subject matter to indisputable facts. You know, Founding Fathers, three branches of government and all that jazz. It usually made for a quick and stress-free hour. Not on this warm day. The teacher/coach invited us all to share our views on the King trial, and though the consensus was that the LAPD “finally got caught and are finally gonna pay”—as one youth put it—our instructor disagreed. “Don’t be so sure that they’ll be found guilty,” he said. “And don’t be surprised if trouble ensues.”
Springtime: When a Young Man’s Fancy . . .
Aside from the King trial, I had more pressing concerns on my mind. With the season being springtime, a young man’s fancy, as they say, inevitably turns toward sunshine, baseball and girls. This time the female gender had become my priority.
Watching Tony Gwynn perform his artistry with a Louisville Slugger was great, but not even the portly Padre was as wondrous as an enchanting young lady with whom I had become acquainted. Let’s call her “Melissa.” Though I doubt she would ever see this prose, San Diego—despite being the seventh-largest city in the Union—has enough of a small-town feel where all it takes is for, say, one of Melissa’s mother’s comadres (close friends) to read this and alert the entire family. Heck, the entire barrio. So Melissa is a suitable alias.
She was two years younger than I yet seemed unflappably mature. Melissa was gorgeous, with flowing brown hair that extended to her waist and matching almond eyes. She had the type of pretty face that was stunning in its simplicity—no make-up needed, save for a hint of eyeliner.
After knowing her for several months and chickening out of asking her to Homecoming or the Valentine’s Day dance or any number of group outings to In-N-Out Burgers, I finally had enough of my cowardice. After all, I was the guy who a few years earlier had written an amorous note to a young lady, only to watch her dunk it in a nearby trash receptacle with the authority of Shaquille O’Neal. True story. It didn’t really scar me; if anything, it made me ask what I had to lose this time.
So I mustered up some bravado and asked Melissa to my senior prom. I was quaking, but she was characteristically calm. And sweet. The best part was she said yes—on one condition.
I had to meet her parents first and get their permission.
Seemed a little matrimonial to me, but I said sure. How hard could it be?
The Heat Is On
I was all set to visit Melissa’s household after school, and it was all I could think about. But two things caught my attention long enough to snap me out of this daze: the pending verdict of the King trial and the heat.
Each one seemed to affect the other.
The warmer it grew, the edgier people at the bus stop were as they discussed what would happen if the officers were acquitted. The more that the acquittal seemed possible—as one lady in a Malcolm X T-shirt noted: “Simi Valley loves its police officers”—the more I saw the mood of neighbors transform from worried to agitated.
With each passing hour, the early morning marine layer that normally cloaked us dissolved into fierce sunlight. By noon the sun was beating down on San Diego relentlessly.
Only a few months earlier, the popularity of all-news stations on cable television had mushroomed because of the Gulf War. As millions knew that they could flip on the tube at any given hour to watch Wolf Blitzer dodge Scud missiles, they knew that CNN and others could be entrusted with any breaking news.
Before long it was paralysis by analysis as every cable channel and radio talk show competed to be the first to provide that stunning scoop or ingenious interview. During this week, you could barely walk past a grocery tienda or open window of a house or idling car without hearing some talking head counting down the hours until the verdict was read.
Yet as much noise as the newscasters made, it was all a muzzled droning within my head. As soon as the last school bell rang, I trudged toward Melissa’s abode.
Melissa’s family lived in an area called Barrio Logan, which translated means “Logan Neighborhood.” But the “Barrio” part stuck because the neighborhood is distinctly Latino.
To get there I hopped on a bus that departed from my school’s downtown campus, and within 15 minutes I was on the outskirts of downtown. Though the two regions were separated by only a few miles, there was a stark difference as cosmopolitan shops and restaurants were replaced by graffiti-scarred buildings.
Many of the houses were converted into storefronts, with homemade signs touting FRESH TAMALES or TAX PREPARATION / PREPARACION DE IMPUESTOS inside. Most of the tiendas advertised bilingually: milk/leche_, bread/pan_, beer/cerveza. Calling cards were also promoted so that neighborhood residents could easily and cheaply communicate with relatives in Mexico. Because so many Latino immigrants, from all Latin American countries, routinely send money to assist relatives in their homeland, signs for payment-wiring services were abundant.
I glanced at my watch to ensure I wasn’t late. Melissa had left a half-hour earlier and told me that while I was finishing up a layout meeting for the school newspaper, she was going home to get things prepared. What she had to prepare I was unsure. Last minute dusting? A bountiful feast? Hide her father’s shotgun?
All I knew was that perspiration was dripping from my temple, and it wasn’t just due to anxiety. The heat was stifling.
As I shuffled past a bevy of alleys, auto-repair garages and shops specializing in Mexican party goods—piñatas, streamers and dulces (candies)—it occurred to me that this was the type of neighborhood people reputedly wanted to avoid. Certainly, like most big-city areas, and maybe even small-city ones, it was not wise to travel there at night, especially not alone. You can say that about a lot of places, irrespective of locale.
But it seemed unfair that Barrio Logan would be labeled as unsafe when each store, church or home-based business seemed to focus on one thing: family. Walking through a Latino neighborhood, you’re bound to hear two things wafting through the air (itself filled with the aroma of food): music and the sound of kids playing games.
This devotion to family is a staple of Hispanic communities and is one of the reasons many stay in the same barrio for many generations. Abuelito y abuelita bought a small house there, had children, and now see their grandchildren running about on the same street. Your grandparents’ friends did the same thing, and everyone’s families spend 40 years getting to know each other. On any given day in the barrio, one’s house may be visited by friends, cousins, uncles, aunts and others.
Melissa’s household seemed to fit that description. It was teeming with activity as I walked up, with boom boxes blaring classic mariachi songs as youngsters kicked a soccer ball in frenzied fashion.
Squeezed onto the porch to greet me was a gaggle of whispering kids that Melissa shooed aside. I suddenly felt nervous about giving her the traditional greeting peck on the cheek, as 10 pairs of eyes were watching intently. On that wooden porch and inside the house just past the screen door, a flurry of introductions commenced with people whose names I’d never remember, save for Chuey and Esmeralda. Chuey is a common nickname for guys named Jesus (pronounced hay-soos), and the Latino populace is full of exotic names like Esmeralda.
I don’t remember who they were, though, cousins or friends. In a narrow hallway were walls covered with family pictures and crucifixion depictions, with prayers in English and Spanish dotted throughout.
A side room was filled with older men, uncles probably, who were watching a news broadcast en Español about the King trial. Their brows were furrowed, and they tugged nervously at their mustaches, looking away only long enough to politely greet the visitor in pressed jeans and a floral button-down shirt that Melissa had introduced. After hands were shaken and names again tossed about, the beautiful young lady quickly whirled out of the side room, waving off whatever news they were listening to. I wondered—did she even know that the Apocalypse might be coming?
Two electric fans hummed through the arid hallways. From the back of the house, where the kitchen was located, music was piping through a small radio. The two most important people for me to meet were there. One was standing over a stove, and the other was cleaning some type of tool or appliance at the table: Melissa’s parents.
“Mamí, papi, quiero presentarle mi amigo Alex,” Melissa said to them. After wiping their hands with an apron and rag cloth, respectively, Mom and Dad shook my hand, nodded in a friendly manner and said hello.
That was the general extent of our conversation that afternoon. They spent the remainder of the day speaking in Spanish. Even when their offspring chimed in with English phrases, the parents still responded en Español. Often in Southern California you’ll hear a mixture of both tongues—Spanglish—and families will alternate languages the way they do dinner menus.
Speaking of food, Melissa’s madre prepared a scrumptious dinner. Carne asada, beans, tortillas and thick rice.
It was good that my mouth remained filled, because language was a barrier. As a native Colombian who had moved to the United States at age 4, I was considered a _pocho_—a term for one either born in or newly emigrated to the United States who identifies more with this country than that of his cultural heritage. Language is usually the largest factor in pinning someone with this label, and my Spanish, though not totally lost, was weak. Exactly 10 years later I paid a return visit to Colombia and found that years of schooling and working in an environment where Spanish was frequently used, coupled with spending a month in Medellin on my visit, made me far more proficient. But in the spring of ‘92 I understood more than I could speak.
Fortunately Melissa’s parents were more interested in speaking than in listening. Sure they asked all the standard questions about my interests and family and this impressive school in South Bend to which I had just been accepted, but I had rehearsed all those answers and had my Spanish-speaking friends modify my grammar.
Really they weren’t as interested in the preciseness of my responses as they were the overall likeability of my character. Was I respectful to them and their daughter? Did I listen when they relayed stories about growing up in Baja California? Did I sway to the rancheras when the volume was increased on the radio dial?
They didn’t even say a word about the prosthetics that took the place of my missing arms; their attitude made my prior nervousness on the subject unworthy.
Regardless, I must have done all these things in suitable fashion because, though no formal announcement was declared, Melissa was smiling as she guided me to the screen door at dusk.
“You better catch the bus to your house before it gets dark,” Melissa noted.
“But did they . . .” I started to stammer.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You can pick me up next Friday at 7.”
When Paradise Explodes
I would like to say that the next seven days were heavenly. In reality, it was hell personified.
The verdict in the Rodney King case was announced, and the Los Angeles Police Department officers were acquitted. The jury decided that the piece of evidence which nearly all South Land residents believed to be the most damning—the video of the officers mauling King—was inconclusive and lent itself more to the defense’s claim that it showed King as a dangerous suspect capable of attacking them.
People were stunned by the verdict and perhaps nearly as dumbfounded by the mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, telling an angry crowd that had gathered outside of a church, “Please stay calm and don’t do anything dumb.”
It was like throwing kerosene onto a pile of wood. Which is exactly what scores of people started to do that hot afternoon—setting off fires on cars, buildings and storefronts, especially those owned by Korean entrepreneurs, with whom blacks in particular had a testy relationship. Looting and pillaging ensued, and L.A. was soon an inferno of violence.
My San Diego, 120 miles south, also smoldered. But while all of South Central L.A. was going down in flames, the barrios and inner cities here were livid but not looting. African Americans, Latinos, Caucasians and Asians quickly snuffed out groups—usually composed of teenagers—looking to start mass chaos.
It doesn’t seem realistic, but it was true. People collectively looked each other in the eyes, admitted they were angry about the verdict and angry about how far race relations had deteriorated in general but agreed that violence would not be allowed here.
Somehow the protest rallies and marches and prayer vigils won out. One boy I knew attended a lunch-hour rally at the community college adjacent to our high school and in frustration hurled an empty trash can into the street. As it clanked and rolled to the McDonald’s across the way, two middle-age men—one black, the other Hispanic—grabbed my friend and thrust him onto a lawn. He thought he was about to get arrested or at least yelled at. All they did was utter a stern admonition: We’re as angry as you are, but that’s not how we do things here. Be a part of the solution, not the problem.
The next day I saw the boy wearing a black arm band to school and marching with the two men.
The verdict, the brutality, the bloodshed, the way civilization had so quickly collapsed: It was all depressing. The only silver lining for people in my city was that we had found a way to rise above it while the city two hours to the north was waking up to rubble.
It made for a somewhat somber prom, though youth always finds a way to keep joy alive. Even the thrill of taking Melissa to The Big Dance was a letdown. Not because of the L.A. riots, but because she was a terrible date.
By terrible I mean wayward. Turns out she had arranged for another guy she liked to meet up with her at the dance. Since he came stag, she requested—ostensibly out of kindness—to take a picture with him and enjoy the first slow dance with him. I relented, and two hours later my date was canoodling with Rico Suave near a staircase.
Her loss though. She missed out on the chance to be seen on stage with the Prom King.
As the evening wound down, I took my crown and scepter to a nearby balcony and gazed at the stars. Merely days earlier I could not reconcile the thought of attending college in Indiana with leaving the paradise of San Diego and beautiful inhabitants like Melissa. I was almost glad that she was off flirting with that guy because it was insane to turn down an educational opportunity for her or any young vixen. But it was not Melissa that would keep me here or drive me away or even bring me back in the future.
It was the barrio that she belonged to. At the height of turmoil I thought to myself: How can I afford to leave a place like this that needs so much help? On the balcony I then realized, how could I afford not to?
A gentle breeze embraced the balmy Friday evening. It had finally cooled down.
Alex Montoya is the communications director for the San Diego County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. His first book, Always Positive: The True Story of Alex Montoya, can be sampled and ordered at www.alwayspositive.com.