I was young then

I was young then, just out of the United States Army, my discharge coming on 17 October 1966. By the next month I was preparing to enter the Police Academy in Austin, Texas. I was very sure of myself. None of that minority hiring quota stuff for me. It wasn’t around then, and I didn’t need it. I scored number one of the fifty plus applicants testing. I exited the Army in top physical condition; I was always a surety to max the Army Physical Fitness tests. My Mormon background guaranteed I had a clean slate where the background check was concerned. I looked good in a suit, and when I went before the hiring board, I was smart enough to know what they were looking for, therefor my remarks were measured, particularly since this was yet a time when vestiges of the good old boy system remained. There was one Latino on the exam board, and yes, although he seemed ignorant of the fact, he served as the token Mexican. As a young applicant officer to be, I never had much use for Sergeant “Varela”.* {1} I didn’t and I don’t like obsequious individuals, and I felt he fit that bill. He was their man, a sycophant. I got the toughest questions, the type that could lead a man into a trap, not from the Chief and the upper brass, but from the lowest ranking member on that board, Sergeant Varela. In his place, I hope I would have said little. It was irritating, but I took care to tread carefully in answering his questions, thinking deeply before answering, lest he lead me into difficulty. He and I were but two of the seven Latinos on the force. Later, I was relieved to learn that the others were not in any way like John Varela, who instinctively disliked me.

A couple of years passed, and with the coming of 1968, this country began to see student protests across the country, instigated by the likes of the Students for a Democratic Society, a Communist front. At the forefront of the protests and riots were many a college professor, Communists to the core. Those were the days of flag burning and traitors, one of which was the infamous Jane Fonda, who made it a point to align herself with the enemies of this nation in their very capital, Hanoi. Yes, she was a traitor, this Jane Fonda, who after being slipped a letter by one of the American prisoners of war, turned the note over to the man’s captors, while the prisoner of war looked on, horrified. It cost him dearly.

That was a different era, those were different days. At the age of twenty three, did I harbor some bitterness? Certainly! Were there some racial sentiments involved? Without a doubt! My town of New Braunfels was two thirds Anglo, and one third Americans of Mexican descent. In that town, and in towns all over South Texas, those Latinos bore the burden of that war. Of the eight flag draped caskets which came home to New Braunfels, seven were my dear friends from the barrio. Two sides of the track existed still in the sixties. It was the same all over the Southwest. Our Latino boys were coming home in disproportionate numbers, either drafted or heeding the calls of recruiters, who hit the barrios heavily.

Of course I know that many an Anglo family across the nation grieved over their losses. Much is owed to any young man or woman who gives their all. My heart grieves with all who grieve over the loss of a son or daughter in war time. But I speak of South Texas, where the “first” included a Latino on the city council of San Marcos in 1963, and where another “first” occurred that same year when the 80% Latino population of Crystal City finally had enough and voted in Latinos to their city council. There, the new mayor was welcomed by a Texas Ranger, his brother, and a couple of others in a back room. He was slapped around, and bounced off a wall. Yes, I entertained some sentiments in the matter.

In this very town and others like it across the Southwest, the draft boards were Anglo. Nor was I or anyone else blind to the fact that in some small towns the draftees were almost entirely Latino. The Army National Guard, (which for the most part, did not go to Vietnam) was recruiting Anglo’s heavily, to the exclusion of Latinos. By the end of the Vietnam War, the Guard in Texas was top heavy with Anglo’s. (I later served in Guard recruiting, and as the Legal NCO for my battalion of 500 men, which made me privy to much.) I was livid when on one occasion I heard one of the ranking members complain about the Vietnam Vets coming to the Guard. “They have no discipline,” this sit at home, would be pantie waist soldier, pompously declared. “They don’t make good soldiers!”

Yes, at twenty three years of age, with my younger brother in Vietnam, and so many of my childhood friends there with him, I was impassioned with sentiment, and it was somewhat racially motivated. And yes, I have done much repenting in the more than four decades since, for many and dear to me are my Anglo friends, many who have been much more understanding than I have deserved. But I was in no mood to repent in 1968, when 40,000 students and agitators hit Austin, covering twenty four blocks, wall to wall, from the Colorado River to their target, the University of Texas ROTC Building. I went so far as to volunteer to go in on my off time to welcome them. Who were these privileged people, so many of them draft dodgers, to help the enemy by their protests, when my little brother and so many dear boyhood friends were in harm’s way? Yes, I had my blinders on.

Right or wrong, such was my manner of thinking in those days. And so it was that when I presented myself after my regular work shift one late evening, to the officer in charge of one portion of the barricades on 26th Street, I was quite susceptible to what followed. In charge of that section was one Lieutenant Tate “Johnson”,* Chief of Homicide Detail. No sooner had I walked up then he turned to me. “Lopez, we have been taking crap from these people all day, and now it’s night. Why don’t you take some of your Mexican buddies and go in there and bust some heads? You fellows can get away with it.”

With the passing of years, I have come to realize that Lieutenant Johnson was playing on my emotions. It was surprising that this would come from him, and especially that he would instruct me to take in some Mexicans to whip up on Anglo’s. I was quite willing. (You have to understand the racial strivings of the time to comprehend what was involved.) Tate knew that I was ever ready to mix it up, and he knew that the others would follow me. I should have been offended at his asking me as he did, but I wasn’t.

There were perhaps five Hispanos present. They quickly fell in behind me. Two Anglo officers who wanted to be part of the action fell in as well. Tate opened the barricades, and we went on into the mass, cutting a swath through the crowd with our sticks. I had told the boys to stay close, and not to go off alone in pursuit of anyone. We were wearing gas masks, and having loaded up with tear gas grenades, the air was soon heavy with tear gas. The masks may help against the gas, but they obscure one’s vision, and caused me some concern for anyone who might slip away. Half way into the melee, one of the boys tapped me on the shoulder and gestured far to our left. It was Arnie Hernandez, off by himself, with three men throwing punches and struggling with him, attempting to unmask him. Leaving five men with their present task, I took with me the man who had signaled me and we went to Arnie’s rescue. Sticks swinging, we beat his attackers off. He was fortunate someone had seen him. Except for that, he would have taken a whipping. After clearing the area we made our way back to the barricades, and to a curt “good job, Lopez,” from Johnson.

I look back on that particular incident with regret. It is highly unlikely that those who were earlier tormenting the officers on the line were even present. It was always the outside agitators, hiding behind others, who caused the problems. At any rate, can retribution be anything other than a softer word for vengeance? It has a bad smell. And they were not those on the draft boards, who sent off to war, in the place of their sons, the boys from the other side of the tracks. And they were certainly not that Texas Ranger and his cronies at Crystal City whipping up on a little Mexican who had the misfortune of going against the power elite to get elected to the office of mayor. I’m genuinely sorry now. But at the time, things were different, and when I walked up, Tate Jordan knew he had his man. I have since repented much, but then, at that time, I was surely willing.

With the passing of time, it is hoped that we can acquire wisdom, that We can come to an understanding of a Higher Law. Did not our Christ counsel that “whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment?”{2} Is not anger without a cause, in that it is misdirected, at the heart of racial strife?

Yes, there is a Higher Law, and upon obedience to such a law, even in meekness, blessings do ensue. In this life, all those things with which we have been tried and afflicted, will work together for our good, and for the glory of that Holy Being who issued the Law of mercy. {3} We pray then, that we might obtain mercy by extending mercy even unto those who have despitefully used us. Is this not wisdom?

{1} * Name changed.
{2} Matthew 5:22
{3} D & C 98:3