The Civil Rights Movement was run in large part by young people. Starting in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, it used nonviolent means such as sit in’s, boycotts, picket lines and marches to bring national attention to the discrimination African Americans faced. As the movement gained strength across the nation and parts of White American got nervous, the participants were greeted with police dogs, fire hoses and tear gas. The parts of White American that agreed with the protestors, became angry.
African Americans were not alone. A number of groups organized and began the fight for their own Civil Rights. Native Americans, women and Mexican Americans focused on issues like low wages, lack of job opportunities and discrimination in education and employment. Every single group was battling, along with everything else, the stereotypes that defined them. “Ignorant Negros,” “Lazy Mexicans,” “Unfeminine Women.” It was borderline venery at that time, and it was pretty much accepted, especially by those who didn’t know the individuals who made up the groups.
The Viet Nam War was exceedingly unpopular, and the dislike for the war spilled over onto the people involved in it. Soldiers coming home were treated with disrespect, and soldiers still in the field were sent care packages containing dog food, and notes calling them animals. There were anti-war protests. Things that started peacefully early on became more violent. Young Peter Aarons was more than happy to kick his uniform to the back of his closet and never look back, and he could afford to do that. Many could not.
Somewhere along the line, people protesting for Civil Rights and against the Viet Nam War, many of them high school and university students, realized that an inordinate number of African American, Native American and Mexican Americans were being drafted. The protests grew louder, more violent, better organized.
Los Angeles found itself impacted, not so much by the Civil Rights Movement, as by El Movimiento, or La Raza, as some Chicanos called it. LA had not yet become a sprawling megapolis. There was still a lot of farmland surrounding it – lots of citrus and truck crops that depended on Mexican labor to get it to market. As Peter discovered in his search for Glory and Rafael, many of those people lived in deplorable conditions, and many of them tolerated it because they were undocumented and didn’t want to be deported. The term at the time was, “Wetback,” implying they’d swum the Rio Grande to gain entry to the U.S.
Into the plight of the Chicanos came Cesar Chavez, who was fighting and gaining national attention in his attempts to form the United Farm Workers. Chavez knew Martin Luther King, Jr., and adopted many of his strategies. It didn’t make him popular, either. The big farms were dependent on cheap labor. The Chicanos were scrupulous in their insistence on non-violent protests. They monitored their own parades to make sure no participants became violent, and those who did were strongly warned not to cause problems. This gained LA Raza a couple of things – it got them national respect, and it gave Mexican Americans a new sense of pride in their heritage.
The Chicano movement started with simple goals – a decent wage, a decent place to sleep, a safe environment in which to work, free from pesticides, herbicides and the chemicals increasingly being used on crops – but it also included respect for who they were as a people, a need for their voices to be heard in the political realm, and the desire for equal footing in business and education.
No matter how peaceful the intent, how righteous the cause, it is a terrifyingly short hop from “I don’t understand you,” to “That scares me,” to “You scare me,” to “I don’t like being scared,” to “I don’t like you.” From dislike to hatred can be a small step when fueled by the threat of economic upheaval and the fiery rhetoric of those who equated equal rights with anarchy and the overthrow of European America by people of color. Police brutality was accepted by many mainstream Americans as a necessary part of controlling “Those People,” and too many in law enforcement enjoyed the power.
Many young people, having been active in the farm workers’ movement, wanted changes in other areas. One of the things they wanted, was an end to the racism students experienced in high schools and universities. In March of 1968, Chicano students in an East Los Angeles high school, staged a walkout. Led by Sal Castro, a high school teacher, they protested the treatment of and lack of opportunities afforded Mexican American students. They said they were receiving a second-rate education. Within a week the walk outs had spread across Los Angeles and more than fifteen thousand students left their classes to protest. As a result, the first Chicano Studies department in the nation was founded in 1968 at California State College, Los Angeles.
Because Peter Aloysha Aarons was a polyglot, his military service had not been in the trenches, but slightly away, in the lines of communication. It was a prestigious assignment. He was a valuable asset and one that was protected. He may have gotten sick, but he did not get shot. He may have been glared at, but he was never spit upon. Because he was the son of a rich and powerful man, scion of a rich and powerful family, he would have viewed the goings on in the city below from a safe vantage point. While he was sympathetic, he was not really involved, and quite possibly unaware of the visceral-level muck he was stirring in the ranks of those who worked in the hard-scrabble world of manual labor, by hiring a Mexican man with a Black wife.