Herman Baca, the Chicano activist from National City, arrived at the University of Southern California to give a speech one gray evening in early May. He was wearing Levis and a work shirt with embroidery on the chest, the same clothes he’d worn the previous night for a speech in the half-darkened cafeteria at Southwestern College in Chula Vista.
He doesn’t look as fearsome in person as he sometimes does on television news programs. In social encounters his manners seem old-fashioned. He rises to shake hands, even in a bar, and excuses himself when leaving a group of people. He is short and stout — as lean, really, as anyone with a fondness for Budweiser can expect to be. His hair is completely without gray, which seems odd. Four years ago he came home to find a bullet hole in his window, and last year found “KKK” spray-painted in blue on the driveway and wall of the house that he rents from his father on National City’s comfortable east side.
He was accompanied to USC by a bodyguard and an aide-de-camp, Richard and Ralph Inzunza, respectively. They are fellow members of the Committee on Chicano Rights, a group Baca helped to organize in 1970 as a temporary committee, and which was legally founded last year as a nonprofit corporation. Both Inzunzas are longtime friends of Baca. Indeed, the committee seems more like a group of friends than a cadre of activists, for Baca's aptitude is in organizing his friends.
At Sweetwater High School in the late Fifties, he was president of “Los Solteros” (“The Bachelors”), a club of boys from National City’s west-side barrio. The club's usual activity was to hang out at Bob’s Coffee Shop at Seventeenth Street and National Avenue, and maybe sling a bottle across the street at the Anglos — the lettermen and Key Clubbers — who hung out at Oscar’s hamburger stand. As president, Baca suggested something new. The club should sponsor dances — rent the National Armory, arrange for tickets, publicity, hire a band. “We had two bands sometimes,” said Luis Natividad, a “Soltero” who later chose the route that Baca didn’t, from Chicano activist to government employee. ‘ ‘Even in those days, he said, “Herman could put things together.”
After checking in at USC's office for Chicano students, Baca and his companions were conducted a short way to a classroom in the university’s Methodist church (a lovely brick relic that dates from 1880, when USC was founded as a Methodist school) Richard Inzunza went straight to a seat against the yellow wall that faced the audience and the door.
Baca took a chair in the front row and folded his hands. He was weary with a cold, and with having just returned from the national conference of MECHA, the organization of Chicano students, in Denver. His speeches, which deal mainly with the Mexicans who sneak into the United States to work, are fairly well known in San Diego because his language is so harsh.
Perhaps a hundred years from now his style will be appreciated as “Renaissance Sixties,” but in this decade it is considered bad form. Border patrolmen view Baca the way Israel views Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. “We do not recognize him and therefore we have no comment,” said Muriel Watson of the National Border Patrol Council. San Diego Police Chief Bill Kolcnder calls him “terrible, irresponsible”; and Kile Morgan, the mayor of National City, told the San Diego Union, “I don’t understand his cause, and I think most of the Mexican people don’t believe in him.” Tom Ridley, the owner of La Jolla Offset, where Baca was employed in 1967, said, “That guy makes my blood curdle every time I see him on TV.” Ridley fired Baca one afternoon when he suspected him of pilfering chemicals, which Baca denies.
Baca begins a typical speech these days by calling immigration “the slave issue of the Twentieth Century.” He calls “illegal alien” a slur that the racist news media invented to exploit the American fear of foreign workers. And when he calls the Border Patrol a reincarnation of the old Texas Rangers, whose unofficial duty was to “make sure the Mexicans didn't get uppity”; and accuses the patrol of “innumerable beatings, rapes, and murders”; and says “the human rights of Mexicans. Chicanos, and Mexican-Americans are routinely violated at the border and at Border Patrol checkpoints,” he is being lenient. He sometimes calls the patrolmen Nazis. The moral climate of San Diego, he adds, resembles that of Germany when ordinary people peeped from behind their blinds to see the Jews led away, and conspired in the holocaust by remaining silent. “If two Jews, in Russia had been handcuffed together and shot, you would have heard a cry of indignation from all over the world.” he said at Southwestern, referring to an incident on March 17 in San Ysidro, where patrolman Dan Cole killed Efren Reyes and wounded Benito Rincon after handcuffing them together. “Here that happens and not one newspaper, not one church, not one politician or businessman stands up to protest. But we protest, because we’re the ones getting killed…and when the net falls, every one of us is going to be in it together.”
Preparing the audience for a message like this is one of the jobs of Ralph Inzunza. He describes himself as the committee’s “media specialist. ” An instructor in Chicano Studies at Southwestern, he spends his free time arranging Baca's schedule, writing press releases, and talking with news editors and reporters. “The way we work with the media is second to none,” he told me. To preface Baca's speech at USC, he'd arranged for a videotape showing of Illegal Aliens: A Different Perspective, the half-hour television documentary that Channel 39 had broadcast on April 4, the eve of Baca's thirty-sixth birthday. If any documentary could faithfully express the committee’s views on Mexican immigration, it should be this one; for Baca and Inzunza helped to write it. They reviewed the narration script as it was being written; they counseled the producer. Maria Velasquez, on what should be inserted, what left in, what taken out.