An East Side Story

The fine line between upstanding citizen, political activist and criminal could be true

By Roberto Rodriguez
Published on LatinoLA: October 19, 2005

An East Side Story

A close friend of mine tragically died 30 years ago this month. And after all these years, his spirit is still alive.

Sometimes I pause to wonder: why did we all go in different directions? One friend became a hit-man, another a preacher, one is on death row and one is now the mayor of a major American city. I chose to be a writer. (Of course I had many more friends, but these are the ones I'm thinking about at this time.)

Maybe the notion that there's a fine line between upstanding citizen, political activist and criminal is true. Or maybe it's just that society wants to see it that way: we're all potential criminals, one disaster away from descending into barbarians.

Not quite (but what do I know? I was recently described on television as living with brain damage). Each of us, given the chance, can attain greatness? all it requires is the belief that we're all not merely salvageable, but full human beings.

When my friend, David Tut Hernandez, died, it was as if the heavens opened up. The week before, I had taken my girlfriend to meet him. He was a righteous homeboy. We were athletes, but also activists. He was born in the Maravilla housing projects and then had moved to Boyle Heights, then East L.A. In college, I found out that he and my friend Gilbert Cedillo (now a California legislator), had played football together when they were kids in Boyle Heights.

There was a bunch of us from the East Side that went to Montebello High School? kind of like refugees because we somewhat didn't fit into that suburban school. (Many of us were members of MEChA - Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan - which was banned there.)

I lived in a shack in an alley on Whittier Blvd. in East L.A? far different from Montebello? but as different as they were, nothing could have prepared me for moving to Westwood and attending UCLA? surrounded by super-rich Bel Air and Beverly Hills. There's where I learned the meaning of dehumanization, where people of color were treated as if we didn't belong.

Almost instantly, I lost contact with my old friends? but not Tut, Bone or Arnold, friends I played racquetball and handball with. Tut was active in the United Farm Worker's Union and the Chicano Movement in general, as was I. Yet, truthfully, activism doesn't keep you off the streets. When my girlfriend met him, he was high, and I told her: He's going to die.

One week later, Gilbert called. Without even completing a sentence, I hung up. I left where I was and ended up crying uncontrollably in my girlfriend's arms. You don't forget that. (It was ruled an accidental overdose. But what did it matter?) In the next several years, about another 20 friends also died or were killed. I don't even want to go there. I just want to honor Tut's memory.

I'm not sure I'm so different from the other friends I grew up with. Why did we take different paths?

The friend on death row, he took part in something with me that is perhaps very minor in his life, but for me, it was important. Tired of being daily denigrated by bigots on campus, we left a message on the walls of the most anti-Mexican group on campus. They never bothered us again. This friend wasn't a UCLA student. Just a daring homeboy? And today, he's on death row. I'm not oblivious to what he was convicted of. It's just sobering to have a friend on death row.

Then there's my friend, the mayor. I can't count how many times we protested together - against injustices and for the dignity of all human beings. After college, I once saw him with a broken jaw (as he had earlier seen me with a cracked skull, the way I later saw Dolores Huerta recovering from cracked ribs). The price of activism and the pursuit of truth. Another time, I ran into him while waiting to see Nelson Mandela in D.C.

How different was he and Gilbert from Tut? I used to ask myself that. I always knew my college movement friends were going to run the state one day. And the friends I grew up with? if given the same education, maybe they too would be running something? rather than lining up cemeteries.

A fine line between death row, the cemetery and City Hall? Maybe. What it does mean is that there's hope. Always.

Rest In Peace, carnal.

? 2005 Column of the Americas

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