The Center Theater; A Date With Destiny. Commemorating the 38th Anniversary of the E.L.A. Chicano Moratorium Demonstrations and the Murder of Ruben Salazar on August 29th 1970.
It was a roasting, sweaty Saturday. I was on summer vacation from elementary school. Mom had been edgy all day with all that news coming over Canal 34 and KWKW radio about the “Chicano Riots” coming down Whittier Blvd…. We’d caught some TV clips of the riot police and the tear gas flying over at Laguna Park a couple of miles west, and my Mom had pleaded with all of us to please stay indoors.
My Dad had gone into his Red Revolutionary mode. I’d never seen him so serious and at the same time, so thrilled. His lifelong political fight for justice, rights and equality for “El Pueblo Proletario” was being manifested a few feet from our house. He took my hand and said quietly, “Vente, vamos a ver.” My mom howled in protest as my dad and I walked out to the street and joined a crowd of neighbors, business owners and strangers on Kern Avenue, just a few yards south of Whittier Boulevard, in front of the Acapulco Tortilleria. Minutes later, the rest of my family had joined the sidewalk audience, (my mom’s intense hunger for Mitóte overcoming her fears). Distant echos of plate glass windows shattering somewhere down Whittier Boulevard filled everyone with quiet dread. Soon, we began to catch sight of the demonstrators. They were using advance scouting parties to “mark” targeted businesses with paint or by shattering the windows with chains. Next, would come the second wave who finished trashing and shattering the marked stores. We also noticed that apparently there had been some pre-planning done by the demonstrators at some point. We watched as they’d approached certain sidewalk trash cans, they would then reach down to the bottom of the cans and pull out various instruments of destruction, including Molotov Cocktails. As the wild sights and sounds hypnotized me, I realized that my Dad had begun leading me slowly walking towards the raging Boulevard. I could hear my Mom calling out after us, but in seconds we were in the middle of a brown riot unleashed. Bottles and debris flew inches from us and crashed who knew where. We ducked and kept low, moving fast along Whittier going east from Kern Avenue towards Fetterly Avenue as storefronts shattered left and right. I recall flashes of shirtless, shiny brown skinned young men, darting angrily through the streets, their coiled torsos slick from the dog day sun, their hoarse roars of “CHICANO POWER!” filling the air.
I recall feeling a rush of fear mixed with excitement as the reality of being in the thick of it set in. I was only a wayward second from becoming collateral damage and yet a strange sense of security flowed over me as I looked over at my Dad and saw the serenity in his walk and the fire in his eyes. Moving towards the middle of the littered asphalt to stay clear of shattering debris, we managed to approach the shuttered JonSon’s Market. We could see Fraser Avenue ahead with our neighborhood Thrifty’s Drug Store on the corner as an advancing squad of L.A.P.D. troops began moving west towards us. As we turned to retreat, we could see a wave of police and SWAT troops zoom to a stop a half block east of Thrifty’s. They appeared to be grouping near the front of the Silver Dollar Café.
My Dad and I eventually made our way back to our original viewing spot. We were welcomed by my relieved family and my Mom’s verbal lashings. As we were debriefed by the crowd, the human storm we had been witnessing intensified into a red hot parade of passion and destruction.
All eyes turned skyward, as suddenly, hellish dark plumes of smoke appearing above the scene. “Dios Mio! Es el Cine!”, the voices cried around us. We watched in terror as enormous dark clouds of smoke rose from the commercial rooftops. From our vantage point, we were in direct line with the alley and parking lot behind the 4700 block of Whittier Blvd and we could see from where the fire was erupting. Within seconds, roaring balls of flame exploded from the top of the theater building. The smell and ferocious heat bore upon our faces and drove us to retreat nervously backwards from our positions. A nervous laughter swept over the crowd as the aroma of roasting meats filled the air. The “Carniceria” next door to the theater was now engulfed by the flames and the incinerated meats were smelling like the biggest BarBeQue East L.A. had ever witnessed. The sights, sounds and smells were absolutely mesmerizing. Hell had come to East Los Angeles as we stood by, strangely transfixed.
Soon, a second dark tower of smoke was seen rising from further east on the Boulevard.
Reports trickled in that The Goodrich Tire Store over on Clela Avenue was burning. The smoke reached as high as the heavens.
Someone had a radio going, frightful reports were coming in from all over the Eastside. Riots on Third Street, Demonstrators on Brooklyn, Boyle Heights and Lincoln Park. Shootings in Hollenbeck,……
Muertos, Sangre y Bálas!
Mother’s held their children tighter. Our eyes burned painfully from the smoke. An empty beer bottle flew swiftly above the intersection, I watched it catch the sun’s blazing rays at it’s arc. An instant of slow motion descent, and then it crashed with a crystal scream, lost somewhere among the chaos and the wreckage.
Whittier Blvd. smoldered late into the night. Fire crews had knocked down the flames and were digging for flare-ups by the time we turned around and walked back home. Our streets and neighborhood were never to be quite the same again. The next morning’s calm was broken early by the harsh noise of store window glass being swept away. A new chapter would begin for E.L.A. and it’s people after that day. I had watched the soul of the Center Theater drift away with the smoke and ash and fade into the steel blue sky on that hot August day.
The Chicano Moratorium demonstrators march down Whittier Boulevard in this old newspaper photo. Note that they are crossing Kern Avenue.
This is a photo taken by an L.A. Times photographer through the mail slot of the Silver Dollar Cafe, showing the interior of the bar where Ruben Salazar was killed one day before.
This is an actual aerial shot of Whittier Boulevard on the day of the riots, August 29, 1970. The smoke on the lower part of the photo is from the Center Theater at Kern Avenue. The black smoke cloud above is from all the tires burning at the Goodrich Tire Store on Clela Avenue.
The morning after. Shopkeepers clean up what’s left of their stores. Many shopkeepers left the area for good after that day.
This is the former site of the Goodrich Tires Store as it stands today on Whittier Boulevard & Clela Avenue.
This is Whittier Boulevard and Kern Avenue as it looks today,…
Whittier Boulevard looking east from Fraser Avenue during the Chicano demonstrations.