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By Samantha Nieves
Jaime Cruz says that growing up in City Terrace was like living through “a renaissance of knowledge.” At an early age Cruz was influenced by his environment, observing his parents organize brick and clay workers. He too began organizing as a student and participated in numerous protests, notably the 1968 East L.A Walkouts and the Chicano Moratorium of 1970.
In a lengthy interview, Cruz shared his experience as an organizer, as a student athlete and even as a TV host:
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Boyle Heights Beat: What is your earliest memory?
Jaime Cruz: Earliest! Well…. I have to refer back to when my parents… When I was born, I was born in Phoenix, Arizona. And my father and mother, at that time, the only place they could rent at that time was in a… well, I call it Japanese American detention camps that were throughout the United States at that time, when World War II broke out. My father was in the Navy. He was a Navy frogman, underwater demolition team and earned 11 Silver Stars. The only place they could rent at that time was in a Japanese American detention camp in Phoenix. The first two years of my life I grew up in one.
I guess that starts there, but it’s such an ironic thing because given that my father, Mexican American, and having served in World War II, that this is the only place that they could rent and could not rent in Phoenix regular housing because they were Mexicans. So that’s kind of like where a lot of things began and my father evolving into a union organizer, and that whole impact in bringing, he and my mother bringing us to East Los Angeles, and growing up in the City Terrace area, all that time, oldest of seven.
So, I would say some of the kind of early memories… the earliest one that I can recall per se, which contributed a great deal to many of my values as my parents raised me and the family in fighting for justice, for workers’ rights, and women’s rights and so on. I would say that that’s kind of one of the earliest. But also the impact of [racism] and discrimination at that time, for many Mexicanos trying to be American, I guess, in some sense, and having to deal with many obstacles and trying to have a quality life and confronting many issues, since then.
BHB: How old were you when you moved to East Los Angeles?
JC: Well, I was probably three years old. Of course, I didn’t move. My parents moved us.
“City Terrace has always been a unique political community in many respects… it was like a little small city in a city. We had our own doctor, lawyer, dentist, pharmacy, markets, we even had our own movie theater there, the City Terrace show. If you’re familiar with City Terrace, you’ll see the St. Lucy’s church, the big green roof and solid aqua blue. We first saw that going up… we used to go to the show. Heck, back then going to a movie cost us 25 cents, but when St Lucy’s church replaced the City Terrace show, we thought they were gonna put like an International House of Pancakes, because of the color of the roof at that time.”
BHB: So you spent your first two years in these concentration camp homes and then you moved to East Los Angeles at the age of three.
JC: Yes. My father was a brick maker, and brick and clay workers… and became a shop steward and eventually an organizer and got sent to LA to organize unions. And I grew up in the City Terrace area, elementary schools and junior high schools and high school, and so on.
BHB: So, they moved for union working or to create unions?
JC: Well, he was sent to LA to organize brick and clay workers. There were various brick making plants at that time in the LA area, not so many now, but he was sent in to organize workers into the union, yes. And eventually became, over the years, vice president of the International Union for Brick and Clay Workers, AFL CIO, Local 820. So, I would go with him to many of these meetings and different things of that sort, which is another aspect of influencing my path in life and, ironically, how it’s evolved.
BHB: Yeah. I’m curious as to how those meetings felt to you, because it sounds like perhaps you were attending these meetings at kind of a young age, so I’m wondering how you perceived all of that information?
JC: Well, it’s, in a way, trained me in a way at how meetings were conducted. What union organizing was all about, workers’ rights, how that moved in many different aspects of fighting for good contracts, health care and so on. Which are, you know, themes today. Although unions back then were certainly I think a little stronger in some senses, and today unions are struggling to survive and continue fighting for workers’ rights. And we see the continuing opposition by corporations to prevent workers from organizing. So, these are themes that continue throughout my life and in… .
BHB: Did you have any family in East Los Angeles when you arrived?
JC: No, no, we did not, No, not to my knowledge. […] City Terrace was such a different community at that time.
BHB: Can you explain how so?
JC: Well, yeah, City Terrace has always been a unique political community in many respects. And we used to have… it was like a little small city in a city. We had our own doctor, lawyer, dentist, pharmacy, markets, we even had our own movie theater there, structure, the City Terrace show [moviehouse] for example. If you’re familiar with City Terrace, you’ll see the St. Lucy’s church, the big green roof and solid aqua blue. We first saw that going up, well … we used to go to the show. Heck, back then going to a movie cost us 25 cents, but when all the transition changed and things of that sort and St Lucy’s church replaced the City Terrace show, we thought they were gonna put like an International House of Pancakes, because of the color of the roof at that time, or something like that, which is kind of funny, but that church has been a mainstay in the community since then.
BHB: Yeah, I’m familiar with that church. That Church has a mural on the side. Yes.
JC: Yeah. Then you had very evolving political movements happening. Still, we were Mexican American, but that didn’t change ‘til much later on.
BHB: How was life as a teenager, especially with all the energy going around at the time?
JC: Well, I’ve always been kind of like, how should I say, moved to do certain things when I see certain things that need to be addressed. In elementary school, I went to Harrison at that time and discrimination was a standard thing, so they never really appreciated the Mexican culture. So every year, we had a May Day Dance, and that would have like square dancing and different things like that, and I would get suspended every year because I refused to dance.
BHB: You would get suspended on purpose or when they saw that you weren’t dancing, they’d suspend you?
JC: Well, they purposely suspended me because I refused to dance these Anglo dances, square dancing and different things […] and that was not the thing for me, and why I refused is because they did not want to allow us to have any kind of Mexican dancing.
BHB: Was that school Mexican American?
JC: It was largely Anglo.
“[My father] was a Navy frogman. He was supportive of me opposing the war. And he was supportive of me refusing to be inducted. Because he understood that the war in Vietnam was an unjust war, and broke from many conservative groups. He was a member of the LA County Democratic Central Committee for several years. But he was supportive as my mother was. The issue of being an American was in a different context at that time. AsI said, he opposed the war in Vietnam he… and supported my position.”
BHB: Oh, okay.
JC: Yeah. You have to understand it was entirely different and I think a lot of young people today don’t understand the transition of that, see, and how that really was something that you could not avoid. And so, I get suspended because I refused to dance the dances. And I said I would dance if they had Mexican dancing. So finally, by the time I was in sixth grade, they allowed Mexican dancing and I danced the Mexican hat dance, even got pictures. So yes, I would stand up for our rights, even then as a kid.
That continued into junior high, and so on, and even then becoming aware of the war in Vietnam, the emerging war in Vietnam at that time. And how I became involved in a lot of those things early on, even going into Garfield High School, and so on, but it’s always been a pattern and a lot of this has to do with understanding organizing and how I learned from my father and mother the importance of organizing and fighting for your rights. So, it’s always been a constant thing.
BHB: I’m aware that you are a national chairman of the Chicano Moratorium Committee since 1994. However, can you tell me about your personal experience participating in the first Chicano moratorium?
JC: Wow. Well, actually, I’ve been chair since 1991 to the present, and we’re presently organizing the upcoming moratorium on August, this coming August 28, 2021, entitled “The 50-51 National Chicano Moratorium Commemoration.” Why 50-51? because we couldn’t really have it this past year because of the pandemic. The piece that I’m writing, that’s going to evolve into the actual moratorium event, and how we were influenced so much by the transition from Mexican American to Chicano, and this occurred actually, while I was at ELAC. In 1968 we had an organization called the Mexican American Student Association, MASA. And then the conferences held at Santa Barbara, which evolved into the Plan de Santa Barbara, where we declined to be hyphenated people transitioning to Chicano at that time. So the moratorium was really an event that was organized through several different moratoriums leading up to August 29, 1970.
In respect to the gathering that occurred here, in East LA, over 30,000 Raza and supporters marching through East LA, against the war in Southeast Asia, Vietnam, against the economic repression, exploitation, inferior education, health care, many of the same topics that we are still addressing today, and we were, we [weren’t] the only, we were at that time raising issues of white supremacy, which was not really understood by many Raza, respect to the severity of the historical roots of white supremacy. And which is, hopefully, we can talk about its impact today, because I think many, many people don’t really understand the historical foundation of, of white supremacy and its danger to ongoing democratic rights and freedom and liberty in this country.
So, it was a march against all of those issues, and Brown Berets from different quarters of the Southwest. At that time emerging students… I was at ELAC at that time and then transferred over to CSUN. And the gathering of different student organizations, and our fight for self-determination. It focused on that but also against the draft. The draft was quite prevalent at that time. And the unjust death of black and Chicano soldiers in Vietnam, disproportionate numbers.
BHB: That leads me to my next question, which is, what were your feelings towards the draft? And how did your father who was in the Navy react to your feelings about the draft?
JC: Well, as I said, he was a Navy frogman, was the predecessor to what are known as the SEALs today. He was supportive of me opposing the war. And he was supportive of me refusing to be inducted. Because he understood that the war in Vietnam was an unjust war and broke from many conservative groups. He was reactive into the Democratic Party, he was a member of the LA County Democratic Central Committee for several years. But he was supportive as my mother was. However, the irony to all of that is, and I think, in the piece I sent you, [you read] some other sections of there were we were involved in different aspects, even with the American Legion at that time. I mean, the issue of being an American and so on, was in a different context at that time. And he was, as I said, he opposed the war in Vietnam he… and supported my position. And, yes, they took a different attitude.
In fact, you see a lot of different plays and that were generated at that time by Teatro Campesino. “Soldado Razo” very much in point, a great play, which I had an opportunity to produce for the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture and bringing it back, because it hadn’t been shown since like 1972. And we showed it, produced it. and it was very, it was a very emotionally impacting play for many people who didn’t understand the street theater as it evolved out of the farmworkers’ movement, Teatro Campesino. So there was a lot of a lot of opposition to it. And a lot of Raza that were refusing to be inducted. Many of us refused induction.
BHB: I’m aware you created a lot of access [for yourself] through tennis. So I’m wondering, [how you] discovered tennis.
JC: Well, baseball was always something that you grew up as a kid. I mean, I don’t know today […] but yeah, [I was] pretty good. I was a pitcher. I was gonna pitch for Garfield. But then one day I was watching television, and back then TV was in black and white, and I was watching USC and UCLA play tennis, I go, what the heck’s this, so… I didn’t know anything about it.
SN: That was your first time seeing tennis on TV?
BHB: Yes. So I went to the library here in City Terrace, and checked out a book on tennis, and read up, and I say, this looks interesting. So, I checked out a racket at the park, City Terrace Park. And started, I have kind of like the ability to observe something and then replicate it. And in pitching the release point for the ball and pitch is the same contact point with the tennis racket when you serve. So, I transitioned pretty good and was number one Varsity at Garfield, and [All League] so on, and was able to do quite well and things like that. And it enabled me to go into… it assisted me in being able to pay for my education, because I was able to receive a scholarship from ELAC when I played for the ELAC Men’s tennis team, and we were undefeated there, back to back Western coast champions.
BHB: I wonder why!
JC: It’s kind of funny, but even that was an interesting experience. But that’s lucky.
BHB: What age were you? I’m curious.
JC: Oh, 18
BHB: So you joined tennis in your senior year at Garfield?
JC: No, as a 10th grader.
BHB: What does tennis mean to you? I mean, you did mention that it helped you with your education fund, but what does it mean to you?
JC: It was…. At that time, there were a lot of things that we weren’t supposed to be able to do, Mexicanos. And, oh, we couldn’t be… we couldn’t achieve academically, we couldn’t do certain things. So junior high school was a unique experience. And I did fairly well academically in… and it was a renaissance of knowledge for me. At that time, I had a choice to take typing or music and I chose music. And I played French horn. And I still have my French Horn, toot once in a while.
BHB: You were in the..
“As a seventh grader [I] took music… but I was also taking courses like pre algebra, different things like that. And it was like a renaissance for me in knowledge, the sciences and mathematics and so forth. I was in science fairs and all that kind of stuff. I even won the speech contest as a seventh grader, [wrote a] speech on being Mexican American and the ultimate sacrifice of dying for your country that many Raza did, that we still were not considered Americans, second class citizens. I actually won a medal for that, as a seventh grader. All of that had a unique way of forming my approach to things and, and not being afraid to speak out against injustice. All of that evolved throughout Junior High School.”
BHB: At Garfield?
JC: No, at Belvedere junior high school.
BHB: Oh, junior high school. Okay.
JC: Yes, as a seventh grader, took music and… but I was also taking courses like pre
algebra, different things like that. So I had a unique academic experience, it was fortunate. And it was like a renaissance for me and in knowledge and different things, the sciences and mathematics and so forth. I was in science fairs and all that kind of stuff. So I was kind of a little different kid, but still. I even won the speech contest as a seventh grader, the [inaudible] oratorical contest, speech on being Mexican American and the.. even after the ultimate sacrifice of dying for your country that many Raza did, that we still were not considered Americans, second class citizens. I actually won a medal for that, as a seventh grader. And a lot of it, you know, I learned how to, how to speak from union meetings, observing people, how they present things and so on. All of that had a unique way of forming my approach to things and, and not being afraid to, to speak out against injustice. So all of that evolved throughout Junior High School.
At Garfield, I was a science college preparatory major and played tennis, and was involved with student movements emerging at that time. And also [… ] moving towards the walkouts and everything else. All of this going on throughout the Southwest, the influence of moving into the Chicano movement.
BHB: So I know you graduated from Garfield in 68.
BHB: 67. Okay. And did you plan on attending university?
JC: Yes. [At] the LA City Tennis Championships, as a senior that time, I upset some really high-ranking white players from a real la-di-da high school. One of the people I defeated was I think it was ranked number three in the city. Yeah, and the coach there approached me and my coach at that time, and it’s kind of funny. [He] goes, Cruz, what club do you play at? I looked at my coach Hastings and I go, club? Yeah, tennis club. And I look at him and go, I’m sorry, the only clubs we have in East LA are car clubs. And my coach pushes me to the side like this and we chuckle about that. [He goes] well look, I recruit for the USC men’s tennis team, recruiters can’t promise you a scholarship or anything but I think you could make the squad. So that summer after graduation, I was going to have a tryout, the latter part of July. It was July 25, as I recall, and I went to go work to raise some money because I didn’t have a whole lot of money to, especially at that time to go to USC. And unfortunately, I suffered an industrial accident that injured my left Achilles tendon, almost lost my foot. So that opportunity went out the window. So I had to start up completely all over again, and learn to walk. I wasn’t supposed to play sports at all anymore. But I was determined, and trained and eventually made, went to ELAC, and against the odds of playing sports again, and was able to overcome those odds. and subsequently earned an opportunity for scholarship, which at that time wasn’t a real big scholarship, because registration fees were so different back then, believe me! And so yes, that’s, that’s kind of what happened. And so I ended up working my way back there. But eventually, I did get back to USC, ironically, later on, in the years, different capacity. But yes.
BHB: What work experience or job have you enjoyed the most?
JC: Well, you know, it’s ironic that I got my degree in philosophy and did attend law school, but people ask, why did you… even Chicanos ask, why are you majoring in philosophy because they go, “What the heck’s that?” So I had to explain… What kind of job can you get? I say, well, that’s a good question. I guess I’m gonna have to find out. So…
BHB: That’s a good question actually.
JC: I did think of going into law but I regrouped after my father passed away in 1975 and had to change course to help the family. That lectureship at CSUN at that time, I was one of the first Chicano Studies instructors, I taught U.S. immigration history and law. I used to represent clients, used to work for the San Fernando Valley neighborhood legal services as a lay advocate. And became the senior lay advocate. Lay advocates at that time, were allowed to practice before various administrative law courts, such as unemployment insurance, welfare law, workers comp, Social Security, nursing home, and immigration. And I represented clients in some of the first deportation hearings, and was involved deeply in being against many of the immigration issues at that time. So it… all of that influenced me into, eventually… And I taught a course called US immigration history and law. And I also taught that at the People’s College of Law, but all of this evolved into like a subliminally, I suppose. becoming an organizer, in a sense of, and this is what philosophy taught, teaches you. Teaches you to look at many aspects of life. And in a logical way, in some senses, and it taught me to be able to deduce things and to understand the fundamentals of organizations, and how to organize. And so I ended up being able to work for many different community based nonprofit organizations and to assist them in resolving some of their issues, whether it was funding, board development program, and so on. And so I became something of like, someone who could help your organization and get it back on track, and I did that for several groups.
“Well, I was invited, this is like 1994, ‘95, to be interviewed. And I was invited to be a co-host on that show, “East LA After Dark.” And it was on every Wednesday, from seven to eight, primetime live. I love live TV, it’s great. The best format. At that time, it was Buenavisión… Eventually, I became the host, producer and director of it. And when it evolved to Time Warner Cable, was with them for many, many years until legislation occurred to eliminate public access. This is probably 2010 when that happened.”
BHB: What can you tell me about your TV show?
JC: Well, I was invited, this is like 1994, ‘95, to be interviewed. And I got interviewed and I was invited to be a co-host on that show, “East LA After Dark.” And it was on every Wednesday, from seven to eight, primetime live. I love live TV, it’s great. The best format. So at that time, it was Buenavisión. And I believe Moctezuma Esparza was the owner at that time of Buenavisión. And so I accepted being a co-host. And it enabled me to see an aspect of communication that was very unique.
So eventually, I became the host, producer and director of it. And when it evolved to Time Warner Cable, took over Buenavisión, and was on, was on here with them for many, many years until legislation occurred to eliminate public access. This is probably 2010 when that happened. So I’m attempting to do, get back on. And I have a collection of all my shows and different things and show controversial topics, subjects that… It turned into a really, really fun experience. And I really looked forward to every Wednesday, seven o’clock to eight o’clock, but I would have extended shows for an hour and a half, two hours depending on what I would show. I would show interesting guests. But I also showed documentaries, films like “Salt of the Earth.”
So it was an opportunity to show those things but also musical groups, it was that kind of show format. I did also have a presentation of a film and lecture series at the East Los Angeles library, the Chicano Resource Center. I had a monthly film and lecture series where I was showing films in the community room and have panel discussions often and so forth so it’s always been the film and so forth has been a large part of how I take messages out into the community as well.
BHB: I’m wondering if the recordings of “East LA After Dark” exist anywhere other than in your possession.
JC: No that’s why I’m bringing it back. I do hold the rights to it and I do have a collection of all the shows I’ve done. I’m discussing with the East LA Library to house a collection, also the document collection I have since1964. I have this huge document collection, in fact I have all the meeting minutes agendas and everything for the Moratorium meetings and posters, flyers, things of that sort, all kinds of things. So I’ve been in discussion to hopefully they’ll be able to house that for research and so on.
UCLA has offered it but the problem with that is that they’re a research institute and are not really community based in the sense of being able to access, so I’m not going to do it there because I want it at the East LA library, so that the community can have access for reasons for review and so on.
BHB: So what’s next for you? I’m aware you’re writing. So I’m just curious as to what you’re going to produce next.
JC: Well, bring it back to the “East LA After Dark” show. Continuing the National Chicano Moratorium Committee, bringing young people into the, into the committee to carry on the integrity and honesty of what we’re trying to do in, in establishing our right to self-determination, our right to quality education and our understanding that we need to fight not just for Raza, but for a lot of other people in this country who are oppressed.
Hopefully bringing back the East LA After Dark. Get it on, on the computer somehow. And continue my writing and organizing, and hopefully, having an influence on the political system of this country have to move more aggressively on issues of democratic rights, women’s rights, everyone’s rights, labor rights, our health education. And unless we affect some of these curriculums for the young people, they will never know, the true history.
We need.. we have our own role models. And hopefully, they can be role models, role models that everyone can appreciate, because we do have a lot of a lot of history and, and contribution to this country in many aspects. And we need to keep going in our pursuit of national liberation or liberation and our right to self-determination, and been able to do things.
BHB: Thank you Jaime
JC: ¡Viva la Raza!
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