By Adairis González-Sánchez
Well-known Boyle Heights activist Carlos Montes is a very energetic person, even at 73. Not only that, but he understands technology very well. Since this interview couldn’t be done in person, Montes joined a zoom call through his phone.
From the beginning of the interview, Montes showed that he is a happy man who enjoys cracking jokes. Montes was open during this interview, both about his current plans as well as his earlier life as a high school student. During the interview he recalled various moments of the Chicano Movement back in the 1960’s and 1970’s and his participation in the East LA Walkouts of 1968.
This interview from March was translated and edited for length and clarity.
Boyle Heights Beat: It’s a pleasure to interview you. What is your date of birth?
Carlos Montes: No comment [laughs.] December 28 1947. I tell people, I’m only 53.
BHB: Well, where were you born?
CM: I was born in El Paso, Texas, but I was raised in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua.
BHB: What made you want to be part of the Chicano movement? Did something happen that pushed you in that direction?
CM: Well, you know, it was a series of things and life experiences. I can’t say one thing did it. I’ll have to say it was my environment, my family, and then reading history. For example, growing up in East LA, my mother always telling me, “dí que eres Mexicano, habla espanol.” And then when we were kids we would go to Mexico for the summer to visit my grandfather, and he would tell me stories about the Mexican Revolution. He’d show me his guns. Big old giant 45 revolver. His sombrero. My grandfather Alejandro got his leg shot off in the Mexican Revolution. He had a wooden… a peg leg. He was like a teenager, right? After the revolution, he had to leave Mexico and come to California because they were gonna kill him. So I would hear all these stories as a little boy, right? So nunca se me olvidó, I always remember those. And then, you know, growing up in East LA, cruising Whittier Boulevard, I’d get harassed by the Sheriff’s, and I didn’t like that. I didn’t think that was the right thing. And then I went to Roosevelt and Garfield. I would have some nice teachers, but I had some bad teachers that treated us bad, made racist comments, right?
CM: So all that kind of just sticks in your brain. I tell people that, in my opinion, I got brainwashed in the school system to think that America is the greatest country in the world, and we’re free and all this. So I was what you call being assimilated or acculturated. The one thing that helped me is that I learned to speak Spanish and read Spanish, because even though I was born in El Paso, we lived in Juárez so I went to school in Juárez.
BHB: You said part of your youth was in East LA/Boyle Heights. When did you come to California?
CM: We came to California in 1955. So I think I was… 8 years old. We would move from Juárez to El Paso briefly and then from El Paso we moved to South LA, Florencia neighborhood, and then from Florencia I went to Miramonte Elementary school, Edison, and then we moved to Boyle Heights. I went to Hollenbeck and Roosevelt and then we moved to East LA, so I went to Garfield. Most of my formative years, whatever that means, it was Roosevelt, Hollenbeck and Garfield.
BHB: During the Walkouts, how were they organized?
CM: Well, it took us a couple of months of having meetings and passing out flyers, going to the schools, talking to parents, teachers, administrators. The students did a survey about school conditions. And then we published the survey and then the students and the community, the Brown Berets, took a list of demands to the school board. And the school board said okay, we’ll look into it, we’ll study it. They were gonna do nothing about it, right? So we decided to start agitating, popularizing the word “walkout”. We started doing flyers and newspapers, Inside Eastside, Chicano Student News, La Causa Newspaper, talking “walkout, walkout.” So one day I had a meeting at the Church of the Epiphany in Lincoln Heights, and they told me, “Okay, Carlos, you and these guys, you go down to Lincoln High School and run in there and yell “walkout.” So the next day, March the 6th, we did that, we ran into Lincoln High School and started yelling “walkout.” The students were ready, they came out. There’s pictures of that, by the way. The cops were outside taking photos, so, in front of Lincoln High School you see everybody marching, you see Moctezuma Esparza, Sal Castro, myself. And then after that, we went over to Roosevelt. What high school do you go to?
CM: Okay, well. Then we went and ran over to Roosevelt at one o’clock. When we got to Roosevelt, they had locked up the gate with chains. So we’re on the Mott Street side over there by 6th Street, you know where that is right? Near the auto shop area. And the gate was locked. The students threw a rope out and we brought it out, we were pulling the gate on the rope and they were pushing. And I didn’t think it would ever gonna be open, anyway the chain popped open and then everybody came rushing out and I turned around. And then the cops took pictures of us. So there’s a picture of that, too. You can google it. So the way they were [organized], it took several months. It wasn’t a one-day thing. It was a group effort. It was the first time that Chicanos in an urban area came out and did a mass protest for two weeks. Then we went to Belmont after that, went to Garfield and Wilson and… all of the high schools in East LA walked out for two weeks.
CM: Sorry about that. I got a call and I couldn’t decline it. I kept pushing the button.
BHB: And you’re a very popular guy we can tell.
CM: I’m multitasking. I’m unorganized. You know I tell people I’m retired. I collect Social Security. I worked all my life. But I tell people I’m so busy that I need to get me a job, so I could take it easy. They all get mad at me. “Oh, don’t say that Carlos, you think that we work…. you guys don’t work hard. You show up, eight to five, you know. You get your schedule. With me, everything’s different. I’m sorry, back to your questions.
“It was exhilarating. It was awesome. It was exciting. You know that “Wow, it’s happening.” We couldn’t… you know… I’d never seen thousands of people march out like that, especially young Chicanos, right. And they always said “Oh Chicanos will never do it,” you know. Back then they used to call us the sleeping giant, you know, that we were not going to ever do anything. But then I realized in our history, we’ve always protested, we’ve always walked out and did strikes.”
BHB: Regarding the walkouts, what was your reaction seeing all the high school students join the walkouts and advocate for their education?
CM: It was exhilarating. It was awesome. It was exciting. You know that “Wow, it’s happening.” We couldn’t… you know… I’d never seen thousands of people march out like that, especially young Chicanos, right. And they always said “Oh Chicanos will never do it,” you know. Back then they used to call us the sleeping giant, you know, that we were not going to ever do anything. But then I realized in our history, we’ve always protested, we’ve always walked out and did strikes, you know, labor strike, the farm workers. So, to me it was very exhilarating. Rewarding, exhilarating, awesome, exciting, empowering. I’ll use one of these new words, empowering. And proud, it made me proud to see that people are walking out, that we are making… I didn’t realize we we’re making history those weeks.
BHB: What did you do after high school?
CM: I got a job at a factory downtown with my dad. My dad was an assembly line factory worker at Mission Furniture, manufacturing coffee tables… And my dad was in a carpenters’ union. He was a shop steward. You know what a shop steward is?
CM: It’s kind of like the union leader on the shop floor. He’s not a union staff or bureaucrat. So my dad was always very well respected, because I guess he knew how to fight. And he was bilingual, right? So he was elected. I remember also what made me get political. I went to the union meetings with him. And I went to a strike that they had one time, I was a little boy, and I was in the picket line with him, so I never forgot that stuff. So later on that brought back… I became politicized. So, after high school, I barely graduated from Garfield, I almost dropped out by the way, the only thing that kept me there was marching band. I was in the marching band. I played trombone, it was a lot of fun. Went to all the football games and all the excitement and music, right. Fun. And then we had a jazz band. And the music of East LA you know, we had a whole music movement, rock and roll bands, Chicano music bands; that’s where Los Lobos came out. But we had The Village Callers, we had Little Ray, Little Willie G., Rosie… So I needed a job. I always… even when I was in high school in the, 1965, that was 11th grade. I was a janitor at Ford Elementary School. Do you know where that is?
BHB: Yeah, I think so.
CM: So I went to work, you know, and then it was hot, dusty. The sawdust would get all over your hair. Me and my best friend from high school went there and then we said “You know what? Let’s go to college. This is hard work.” So we went to enroll in East LA Community College. After the summer we went to ELAC and there, I wanted to major – and don’t tell anybody– I wanted to major in business. I’m telling the journalist not to tell anybody, right?
BHB: And it’s on the record too.
CM: I know. It’s on the record, but I changed it to political science later on. And Chicano Studies.
BHB: When you go to the East LA classic, what team do you root for?
CM: Wow, I live in Boyle Heights, so all my friends are Roosevelt, right? I buy my ticket at Roosevelt and then I go with my friend, we all walk in. “Where are we gonna sit?” Well, I gotta sit with them at the Roosevelt side, right? So I’m sitting with all the Roosevelt people and then I tell them “I feel sorry for you. I mean, I hope you win, but I feel sorry for you, but Garfield’s gonna win. Been winning for the last 10 years.” And we’re sitting there, the game is on and all of a sudden Garfield scores a touchdown. I go “Yeah!” and I get up and everybody turns around and looks at me. “What are you doing here?” Oh, [expletive]. I gotta sit down and hide, cause he’s gonna kick my ass. So I sit on the Roosevelt side, but I root for Garfield, but I feel sorry for Roosevelt. I hope Roosevelt wins next time. But you know what? I’ve always been a bridge crosser or what do you call it? Look. I was born in Paso, but I grew up in Juarez. Then from Juarez I crossed over to El Paso. In El Paso they would say “Oh, you’re from Juarez.” I said, “Well, I’m from Juarez/El Paso, what does it matter? We’re all in the same boat, right?” And then I come to South LA, Florencia, and they go “oh, you’re from Mexico.” Well I’m from Mexico, so what? And then from South LA I go to Hollenbeck and they say “Where you from? Are you from…” Well I’m from.. where am I from? South LA, Juarez, El Paso? But I got along in Hollenbeck. I got to know the different gangs. I never joined a gang but respected them, White Fence, State Street. But then I go to Roosevelt. And then from Roosevelt, I transfer to Garfield, and then they tell me “Oh, you’re from Roosevelt. Oh, you’re from Garfield. You’re from Boyle Heights.” I go man, come on. I tell people I’m a hybrid. I can go on the east side and the west side of Indiana. You buy that? I can hang in East LA and I can hang in Boyle Heights. What do you think?
BHB: I mean…
CM: Or do I have to choose sides?
BHB: I don’t think that matters.
CM: Well, it matters to the Bulldogs. I’m over there “Aw man, come on. Are you a Bulldog or are you a Rough Rider?” and then when I go to Boyle Heights “What are you Carlos? Are you a Rough Rider or a Bulldog?” Some people are down, you know what I mean? So you know what I tell them about football teams? I like los Cowboys and they really throw me out of here. “Get the hell out of here Carlos.” You know, all the Chicanos in El Paso love los Cowboys. The Cowboys.
BHB: How does helping the community of Boyle Heights make you feel?
CM: Makes me feel good. I mean, that’s what motivates me, that I’m trying to improve the quality of life of people in Boyle Heights. You know, last Friday we inaugurated the exercise equipment of Hollenbeck Park. [I’m] part of the Park Advisory Board of Hollenbeck Park, wanted to improve our park. It makes me feel good, you know, that we support Roosevelt High School to be public. We support public education to get funding for schools to keep them safe from COVID and against privatization. You know, we work with families who have lost their sons to LAPD killings. So, no, it makes me feel good that… it makes me feel even better when I see mothers and students and other people coming forward and getting involved.
“Makes me feel good. I mean, that’s what motivates me, that I’m trying to improve the quality of life of people in Boyle Heights. You know, last Friday we inaugurated the exercise equipment of Hollenbeck Park. [I’m] part of the Park Advisory Board of Hollenbeck Park, wanted to improve our park. It makes me feel good, you know, that we support Roosevelt High School to be public. We support public education to get funding for schools to keep them safe from COVID and against privatization. You know, we work with families who have lost their sons to LAPD killings. So, no, it makes me feel good that… it makes me feel even better when I see mothers and students and other people coming forward and getting involved.”
BHB: Would you consider yourself a leader?
CM: I don’t consider myself a leader. I consider myself an activist and organizer. Organizer that gets people together, unites with folks and get them active, so that then they could be leaders. I never started on this thing to be a leader… I got involved in this thing, like I said, I was 19-20. I faced discrimination, police harassment, and I read a book. I forgot to tell you, I read a book by Carey McWilliams. It was the first Chicano history book I’ve ever read and it really made me aware of the history of our people who fought for equality and justice, but it also made me aware of all the atrocities our people have faced and discrimination. You know, like the massacre by the Texas Rangers against the Mexican workers in Porvenir, Texas. The hanging of Mexicans at the Placita downtown, the deportations in the 20s and 30s, you know. But it also educated me about Emma Tenayuca, who was the Chicana labor leader from San Antonio, Texas, you know. I forgot to mention, that book helped a lot. Because prior to that, you know, going to high school, all I got is America is great, Bill of Rights, you know, remember I got a little brainwashed. I got acculturated, but I never changed my name to Charlie, even though they tried. Even though my friends did. Ricardo became Ricky. Yeah, go ahead. Questions.
BHB: What are you currently working on? Any activism projects?
CM: Yes, I am working on the advisory committee of the new DA George Gascón, to identify and recommend what police killing cases for him to reopen, investigate and prosecute. I’m also working with Centro CSO, working with families who have been victims of police killings and try to demand justice for them. And I’m also working with the Education Committee of Centro CSO fighting to promote public education, but specifically not to open the schools ’til teachers get vaccinated if they want to, and the students are safe before you return back to school. And we’re also working on a coalition, Check the Sheriff, in which we’re trying to get out and get rid of Sheriff Alex Villanueva, because of his corrupt administration, his tolerance for deputy violence, deputy killings, and his permission to allow the deputy gangs to exist like Los Banditos of East LA sheriff’s station. And you know, I’m also looking for Biden and supporting the movements to open up the doors to Cuba again that Trump had shut down, to be able to travel and do business with Cuba. Let’s see what else? And I mentioned I’m in the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council. We’re fighting to improve the parks and preserve the murals, stop the gentrification of Boyle Heights. I can go on, we’re trying to stop the gentrification of Boyle Heights. I’m working with the Save our Seniors group to save the Sakura Japanese American assisted living senior facilities here on Boyle between Third and Fourth Street, you know where that is?
CM: Well, Pacifica Corporation bought them and they want to remove the 80-90-100 year old elders and turn that into market rate, luxury apartments, which I’m against. I’ve been to a couple of marches or press conferences and rallies. I spoke on the TV on it Friday morning and I got Centro CSO to endorse to say no to the eviction note of the transfer of the Japanese American elders. These are people that are 90-100 years old. They want to transfer them to a facility in Lincoln Heights that has a high COVID death rate. So, like I said, I’m retired so I’m able to do these things. And right now it’s easy to do because you go on zoom. The thing with the Sakura one, I had to be there in person for a rally. And I’m sure I’m working on a couple of other things, you know, but I won’t go on. So I guess I need to get a job so I can take it easy.
BHB: You mentioned you work with the families of people killed in police involved or deputy involved shootings, and there was a period a few years ago, where there’s a huge number of those incidents in this community. Why was it so important for you and for Centro CSO to get that involved with that group of family members who are mostly mothers, right?
CM: Yeah, you’re right. In February of 2016 they killed two young men within a week. José Méndez was killed February 6, a 16-year-old undocumented student from Roosevelt was killed on sixth and Lorena. LAPD shot him in the back. And a week later, February 14, the sheriffs killed Edwin Rodriguez, a young father, grocery worker, shot in the back. And then in March, April, they killed Arturo Valdez, and then they killed Jesse Romero in August, and Omar Gonzales two weeks before Jesse, and then Barragán. So there was a series of killings by LAPD. So we thought it was important to support the families and the mothers to show them support and solidarity. But I asked them, what do they want to do? And all of them said, we want justice. We want the cops prosecuted, and they always wanted to do a protest. […] And Centro CSO in 2016 took on that role, that campaign. We were protesting Hollenbeck Police Station like four or five times within two years, because of all the killings that occurred. And we also went to the East LA sheriff’s station when they killed Edwin Rodriguez. And it’s important because we felt there was a human rights violation. The killing of young men on false pretenses, most of the time unarmed and with a false narrative or lies by the LAPD, you know. Eden Medina who killed Omar González in July 28, after he shot him in the back when he was laying on the floor, he started yelling “choke him out, choke him out!” Started yelling to the other cops to choke out Omar after he shot him in the back twice. And then two weeks later, he shoots Jessie Romero, 14-year-old undocumented student from Second Street, Hollenbeck and Méndez, who had run away but had turned around and was starting to kneel and raised his hands in surrendering, he shot [him]point black in the chest, Eden Medina, right. We’re still working on those cases to demand that Eden Medina be prosecuted by the new district attorney. We worked for three years to get rid of Jackie Lacey, the old DA. We worked with Black Lives Matter and a full get out the vote campaign, register to vote, vote for George Gascón, get rid of Jackie Lacey, and get rid of Trump too, of course. Because remember, Trump was promoting a Blue Lives Matter movement supporting the police. So during the Trump administration, there was even a higher number of police killings because he was saying Blue Lives Matter, pro cop, right? So I feel it was direct relationship that the Trump administration, there was a high number of police, higher number of police killings of black young men. And you know, George Floyd to name one of them, and then here in Boyle Heights, in East LA. And we were the only one. There’s a lot of groups in Boyle Heights, nonprofit groups, but none of them took on the issue of police killing. And you got to ask them why. Why? Are they afraid of [being] controversial? Do they get funded? The thing with me and Centro CSO, we don’t get funded by nobody. The money we raised is by membership dues, and contributions that our members give to us, very little, to pay for the flyers and posters and banners. We don’t get money from the government, for sure. We don’t get money from foundations. We don’t get money from any nonprofits. Question.
BHB: No, I think that’s it.
CM: You should be asking me like, what’s your future project? What are you going to work for in the future? I’m gonna do a website. I’m gonna do a book. I’m gonna fight to get Cuba opened up. And I support the movement against corruption and killings in Mexico and the struggle for democracy in Mexico, what else?
Thank you very much. I enjoyed the interview. It was very nice.
BHB: Thank you. Take care.
This is an abridged version of an interview recorded as part of “Voices/Voces,” a storytelling project that aims to connect youth reporters with Boyle Heights and East LA elders. Voices/Voces was a 2020 finalist in (and partially funded by) the LA2050 Grants Challenge. It is also partially funded by the Snap Foundation.
Read other ‘Voices/Voces’ stories:
- Music has been a lifelong passion for Joseph Torres
- How Rubén Guevara became a Chicano Culture Sculptor
- Eloísa Venable Is happy she chose Boyle Heights to retire
- Guillermo Morales: proud to serve the best elotes in Boyle Heights
- Boyle Heights is not what it used to be, according to Ernestina López Muñoz
- Art that celebrates ‘cultura’: what inspires Jim O’Balles
- From organizer to student athlete and TV host: a life of influence for Jaime Cruz