By Regina Zamarripa
Boyle Heights Beat
During the 1960s and 1970s, La Raza newspaper captured the essence of East Los Angeles. From social inequity and student-led walkouts to the deaths of community members at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department, La Raza published the previously untold narratives of the communities it served.
“Once, a mother called me up and said, ‘My son was shot nine times by the police. Would you go to the coroner’s office and take pictures of him?’ And so I did and wrote a story about it,” recalled Joe Razo, 79, former co-editor, writer and photographer.
Today, Razo lives in a cozy Alhambra home. Retired, he lives a quiet life, giving grants and scholarships to students. But at one time, he served on the front lines of the Chicano movement, a civil rights movement led by Mexican Americans, informing residents of the Eastside about political issues and how they could advocate for change.
Stanford graduates Eli Risco and Ruth Robinson founded La Raza in 1967 as a platform for community organizers. It was sold by subscription, but free for those who couldn’t afford it and often found in local libraries.
Risco and Robinson left the paper after its first edition. Razo and Raul Ruiz took over as co-editors around 1968.
More than a local newspaper, La Raza was a campaign of active resistance during the Chicano movement. Its writers also taught themselves photography. Over a decade, they took at least 25,000 images – some of which are on display through February, 2019, at the Autry Museum.
“Because we didn’t have any representation in the media, they didn’t have any pictures of us. They didn’t have any stories of us,” Razo said. “We started our own newspaper.” Publishing costs were covered mostly by donations, Razo said.
Throughout a decade of publishing stories and sharing powerful imagery, La Raza became one of the most influential media outlets of the Chicano movement.
It closed in 1977 after the movement began to fade and its members became more focused on personal projects, Razo said.
However, in his opinion, the movement never died, as many former members continue to be engaged with the needs of the community.
“Thousands of people have been hired through the combined efforts of the La Raza staff,” Razo said. “This still continues, as we have set up scholarship programs through numerous groups. We have moved from a street demonstration to a more sophisticated organizing phase.”
The exhibit at the Autry, also titled “La Raza,” is another way for former contributorsto inform the current generation about history and the influences of those before them.
“The exhibit is going to introduce people to the general notion of what happened, but it won’t specifically tell them about the historical aspect of the Chicano movement,” said Razo. “Finally, museums are recognizing Latino contributions. It reflects who we are.”
Boyle Heights Beat spoke with Razo about his background,and his collaboration on the exhibit’s creation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
BHB: Tell us about yourself.
JR: My real name is José Ángel Razo. People have always called me Joe, which is typical in the United States. I was born in 1938 in El Paso, Texas. My father couldn’t get a job after he came out of the Navy, so we moved to California in about 1945, and because we were poor, we lived in a garage. My mother cleaned houses, and my father was a handyman. We averaged one meal a day. That’s just the way it is with impoverished people.
I went to Belvedere Junior High and started hanging around the wrong crowd. I was put in a special homeroom because I was too disruptive in class. Our homeroom teacher was a parole officer. I only lasted two weeks in that special homeroom. I found out I wasn’t as tough as I should be.
I went to Garfield High School. After high school I joined the Air Force because although I could have possibly gotten a scholarship to go to a university, I didn’t have the grades.
After the Air Force, I went to East L.A. College (for two years) and got an athletic scholarship to Cal State L.A. to run track and cross-country. After I graduated in ‘65 with my B.A., I did a couple of years of graduate school in clinical and experimental psychology.
BHB: For anyone that doesn’t know what La Raza was, how would you describe it?
JR: La Raza was primarily a group of organizers, and [organizing] was our primary aim. And we used photojournalism as a way to organize our people. Now it’s turned out that our legacy is going to wind up being the photojournalism, but the organizing is, again, our main topic.
BHB: What led you to become involved with La Raza in 1967?
JR: During that time Councilman Art Snyder from the 14th District, which included Lincoln Heights and El Sereno, asked me to sit in on a panel at a community relations meeting. And so I, along with another five people, sat in there, and during that time some people came in and tried to break up the meeting. And, they were people from La Raza. They had just started their newspaper and had come up with their first edition, and I told them, ‘If you think you can better represent the community, come on up here and take my spot on the panel.’ And of course they didn’t, since they were handing out their newspaper. I saw the address on the newspaper and went the next day and started meeting with the people. I didn’t like some of the stories and said, ‘I can do better, so let me do research for you on the dropout rates.’ And then I started writing stories for them, and that’s how I got involved.
BHB: Why did you decide to do the Autry project now? Why not sooner?
JR: These pictures were lost to us for 46 years. After I got them, I organized them for a number of months and then got all of the photographers together and said, ‘Rather than giving you back the negatives, I think we should choose a university that we could give them to. The university can put them online and eventually make them available to the public, for researchers and educators that want to write books, filmmakers that want to film documentaries and so forth. We need to make this available to the public.’ And so after looking at a number of universities and interviewing them, we chose UCLA.
BHB: How did the images of La Raza become an exhibit?
JR: UCLA submitted a grant to the Getty Foundation to have this exhibition. The Getty Foundation has 80 exhibits throughout the state, all on Latino culture.
BHB: What is your overall goal for the exhibit? What impact do you want it to have?
JR: The short-term goal is exposure. The long-term goal is really to educate our people. Eventually, it’s going to be a tremendous resource for educators and for researchers and for students. It’s going to be very good.
Photo above: Joe Razo goes through old photographs taken by him and his colleagues during his time with La Raza in his Alhambra home. All photos by Regina Zamarripa.
Regina Zamarripa is a junior at Felicitas and Gonzalo Méndez High School. In her spare time she enjoys listening to music, writing poetry and watching documentaries. She plans on pursuing higher education outside of Los Angeles after graduating high school.
Through February 10, 2019
Autry Museum of the American West
4700 Western Heritage Way
Griffith Park, Los Angeles