Some People in This Town Don't Like Herman Baca

The National City godfather of San Diego Chicanos

Herman Baca calls the Border Patrol a reincarnation of the old Texas Rangers, whose unofficial duty was to “make sure the Mexicans didn't get uppity.”
  • Herman Baca calls the Border Patrol a reincarnation of the old Texas Rangers, whose unofficial duty was to “make sure the Mexicans didn't get uppity.”
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

Herman Baca, the Chicano activist from National City, arrived at the University of Southern California to give a speech one gray evening in early May. He was wearing Levis and a work shirt with embroidery on the chest, the same clothes he’d worn the previous night for a speech in the half-darkened cafeteria at Southwestern College in Chula Vista.

Herman Baca in his shop. It’s certain that his business is slow. He seldom prints more than half a day at a time.

Herman Baca in his shop. It’s certain that his business is slow. He seldom prints more than half a day at a time.

He doesn’t look as fearsome in person as he sometimes does on television news programs. In social encounters his manners seem old-fashioned. He rises to shake hands, even in a bar, and excuses himself when leaving a group of people. He is short and stout — as lean, really, as anyone with a fondness for Budweiser can expect to be. His hair is completely without gray, which seems odd. Four years ago he came home to find a bullet hole in his window, and last year found “KKK” spray-painted in blue on the driveway and wall of the house that he rents from his father on National City’s comfortable east side.

Baa was accompanied to USC by a bodyguard and an aide-de-camp, Richard and Ralph Inzunza, respectively. They are fellow members of the Committee on Chicano Rights, founded in 1970.

Baa was accompanied to USC by a bodyguard and an aide-de-camp, Richard and Ralph Inzunza, respectively. They are fellow members of the Committee on Chicano Rights, founded in 1970.

He was accompanied to USC by a bodyguard and an aide-de-camp, Richard and Ralph Inzunza, respectively. They are fellow members of the Committee on Chicano Rights, a group Baca helped to organize in 1970 as a temporary committee, and which was legally founded last year as a nonprofit corporation. Both Inzunzas are longtime friends of Baca. Indeed, the committee seems more like a group of friends than a cadre of activists, for Baca's aptitude is in organizing his friends.

Committee on Chicano Rights march. Support comes from contributions and from dances held occasionally at Club 21 in National City.

Committee on Chicano Rights march. Support comes from contributions and from dances held occasionally at Club 21 in National City.

At Sweetwater High School in the late Fifties, he was president of “Los Solteros” (“The Bachelors”), a club of boys from National City’s west-side barrio. The club's usual activity was to hang out at Bob’s Coffee Shop at Seventeenth Street and National Avenue, and maybe sling a bottle across the street at the Anglos — the lettermen and Key Clubbers — who hung out at Oscar’s hamburger stand. As president, Baca suggested something new. The club should sponsor dances — rent the National Armory, arrange for tickets, publicity, hire a band. “We had two bands sometimes,” said Luis Natividad, a “Soltero” who later chose the route that Baca didn’t, from Chicano activist to government employee. ‘ ‘Even in those days, he said, “Herman could put things together.”

At Sweetwater High School in the late Fifties, he was president of “Los Solteros” (“The Bachelors”),  from National City’s west-side barrio. They hung out at Bob’s Coffee Shop at Seventeenth Street and National Avenue, and maybe sling a bottle across the street at the Anglos.

At Sweetwater High School in the late Fifties, he was president of “Los Solteros” (“The Bachelors”), from National City’s west-side barrio. They hung out at Bob’s Coffee Shop at Seventeenth Street and National Avenue, and maybe sling a bottle across the street at the Anglos.

After checking in at USC's office for Chicano students, Baca and his companions were conducted a short way to a classroom in the university’s Methodist church (a lovely brick relic that dates from 1880, when USC was founded as a Methodist school) Richard Inzunza went straight to a seat against the yellow wall that faced the audience and the door.

Baca's fridge. Baca belongs to an unofficial party that exists only in name: La Raza Unida.

Baca's fridge. Baca belongs to an unofficial party that exists only in name: La Raza Unida.

Baca took a chair in the front row and folded his hands. He was weary with a cold, and with having just returned from the national conference of MECHA, the organization of Chicano students, in Denver. His speeches, which deal mainly with the Mexicans who sneak into the United States to work, are fairly well known in San Diego because his language is so harsh.

Perhaps a hundred years from now his style will be appreciated as “Renaissance Sixties,” but in this decade it is considered bad form. Border patrolmen view Baca the way Israel views Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. “We do not recognize him and therefore we have no comment,” said Muriel Watson of the National Border Patrol Council. San Diego Police Chief Bill Kolcnder calls him “terrible, irresponsible”; and Kile Morgan, the mayor of National City, told the San Diego Union, “I don’t understand his cause, and I think most of the Mexican people don’t believe in him.” Tom Ridley, the owner of La Jolla Offset, where Baca was employed in 1967, said, “That guy makes my blood curdle every time I see him on TV.” Ridley fired Baca one afternoon when he suspected him of pilfering chemicals, which Baca denies.

Baca begins a typical speech these days by calling immigration “the slave issue of the Twentieth Century.” He calls “illegal alien” a slur that the racist news media invented to exploit the American fear of foreign workers. And when he calls the Border Patrol a reincarnation of the old Texas Rangers, whose unofficial duty was to “make sure the Mexicans didn't get uppity”; and accuses the patrol of “innumerable beatings, rapes, and murders”; and says “the human rights of Mexicans. Chicanos, and Mexican-Americans are routinely violated at the border and at Border Patrol checkpoints,” he is being lenient. He sometimes calls the patrolmen Nazis. The moral climate of San Diego, he adds, resembles that of Germany when ordinary people peeped from behind their blinds to see the Jews led away, and conspired in the holocaust by remaining silent. “If two Jews, in Russia had been handcuffed together and shot, you would have heard a cry of indignation from all over the world.” he said at Southwestern, referring to an incident on March 17 in San Ysidro, where patrolman Dan Cole killed Efren Reyes and wounded Benito Rincon after handcuffing them together. “Here that happens and not one newspaper, not one church, not one politician or businessman stands up to protest. But we protest, because we’re the ones getting killed…and when the net falls, every one of us is going to be in it together.”

Preparing the audience for a message like this is one of the jobs of Ralph Inzunza. He describes himself as the committee’s “media specialist. ” An instructor in Chicano Studies at Southwestern, he spends his free time arranging Baca's schedule, writing press releases, and talking with news editors and reporters. “The way we work with the media is second to none,” he told me. To preface Baca's speech at USC, he'd arranged for a videotape showing of Illegal Aliens: A Different Perspective, the half-hour television documentary that Channel 39 had broadcast on April 4, the eve of Baca's thirty-sixth birthday. If any documentary could faithfully express the committee’s views on Mexican immigration, it should be this one; for Baca and Inzunza helped to write it. They reviewed the narration script as it was being written; they counseled the producer. Maria Velasquez, on what should be inserted, what left in, what taken out.

“I was really scared going into this project,” Velasquez said. “I didn't know anything about immigration and the Committee on Chicano Rights…and I felt that showing them the script was the only way of getting it right.” She added that when she had approached Baca with the idea of the documentary, he was not in the position of giving favors. “Let's face it,” she said, “he didn't owe us a thing.” And who, after all, is going to tell Baca and the CCR what to do? The committee receives no money from the government: its annual income of $15,000 (the figure was supplied by Inzunza) comes from tax-free contributions and from dances held occasionally at Club 21 in National City. Because the committee pays its own way, it can speak out on issues that social service agencies must hold their tongues about, as their governmental contracts call for public services and not statements to the press.

Bilingual education, law enforcement, immigration law — the committee keeps a Navy-gray filing cabinet stocked with reports and newspaper clippings on these topics. Baca reads them all. Two years ago, when President Carter announced his desire to appoint Leonel J. Castillo as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Baca flew to Houston and jawboned with Castillo. Baca, at the time, could inform him on the fine points of INS procedure: the effective use of an “H-2” program, for example. “Baca knows the immigration issue,” said Gus Chavez, who directs the Educational Opportunity Program in San Diego. “He’s not qualified to speak on every issue, but he’s not too had on immigration.”

Efficient in putting out press releases, diligent in returning phone calls. Baca and the CCR have a reputation for being, at the least, convenient sources of quotes for news stories. About a month ago I called the Chicano Federation, the community service group, to request an interview with executive director José Moreno. A secretary answered. “Mr. Moreno isn't here right now,” she said. I gave my name and telephone number and told her I was a reporter. “Oh, maybe you want to talk to Herman,” she said. “Do you know Herman?”

He was ten years old when he took the Greyhound bus to join his father and mother in National City. They’d left him with his grandmother in Los Lentes, New Mexico, the family home for four generations. Nick Baca, a plasterer, had left for lack of work. Los Lentes at the time had no electricity; the heavy work was done by livestock and windmills; and household water was fetched from an outdoor pump, sometimes by a toddler who lived in fear (as Baca was) of the feisty backyard rooster. The Rio Grande could be seen from the edge of town, and the slopes of the high, rocky valley were perennially shadowed with piñon. In the winter the men worked in nearby Albuquerque, and in the summer most families raised crops. “I was happy, ” said Baca the other day in the darkroom of his print shop, which smelled of hyposulfite. “There weren't a lot of what you would call ‘urban pressures.’ Everybody had a role. Mine was chopping wood, carrying water, bringing in eggs, and doing what I was told.”

The family resettled in a brown stucco house on McKinley Avenue in National City’s Old Town. Today the house stands about forty feet from the river-green embankment of Interstate 5, but at the time it was part of an ordinary Mexican-American neighborhood, where Herman spent an ordinary adolescence. He hawked the Evening Tribune in restaurants after school, and sometimes missed a school day altogether when one of the local slaughterhouses needed boys to load cow hides on a gloomy boxcar, bound for some distant tannery.

Reading Time and Newsweek during study hall was one of his favorite pastimes at Sweetwater High. He never intended to enter a university — he says his counselors didn't encourage him — and although he resents the system that guided him and his friends to wood shop, auto shop, and metal shop, he never objected at the time. He graduated in 1961 with a diploma and a 1952 Ford.

His car qualified him for employment delivering blueprints for Graphic Trades Company in National City. He stayed four years, working his way into the back shop and eventually learning the basics of the printing trade. Meanwhile, he'd married Bobbie Watts, seventeen, an Anglo girl he’d met after his family moved out of Old Town and bought a house on the east side. Their first child was born in 1964, when Baca, twenty-one, was on his way to becoming a conventionally successful young man. He left Graphic Trades for a higher-paying job as a cameraman at Merlin Printers in Imperial Beach, where he stayed two years, learning on his own time to operate a commercial press. Unknown to his employers, he asked the National Labor Relations Board to review the firm's books to determine if the employees were eligible to form a union. They weren’t. Soon Baca was looking for another job. He says he was fired; his employers — Rex M. Foster and Jake Immings — say he quit. In any case, he worked for a number of shops during the next four years, impressing his employers — even Tom Ridley — as a steady and competent worker whose ambition was to open his own shop.

“Back then I saw myself as an individual who had 'made it,” Baca said the other day. “I had come out of a barrio-type environment, and out of all the friends I grew up with, a couple were already dead, a couple were in jail, and some had gone over to Vietnam and were just getting back, while here I’d started as a delivery boy and had worked myself up to printer. I was even driving the Car of the Year, a 1968 Pontiac LeMans. ” This was the year in which he got involved with politics. He volunteered as a block captain to muster votes for the president-to-be. Richard Nixon. “I wasn’t surprised that Herman worked for Nixon,” said Charlie Vazquez, a friend from high school and now a member of the CCR. "We grew up in the tradition of our parents. We were Democrats, but basically conservative. We didn't know what the world was like. You could say we didn’t know any better.”

His nascent political interest drew Baca to the Mexican-American Political Association. which then was concerned with registering Mexican-Americans to vote and with teaching them the basics of the political system. A charter member. Baca became the group’s president in 1969, just at the time that Mexican-Americans in National City were beginning to swing elections. Ernie Azhocar won a seat on the Sweetwater High School District Board, the first Mexican-American to do so; as did Oscar Cañedo on the board of the National City Elementary School District. “We started to feel confident.” said Luis Natividad, also a charter member of MAPA, “and confidence was something new for Chicanos in politics.”

Something new for Baca at the time was his social attitude, which was less materialistic. “I had thought that my minor achievement — being a self-made man — was something spectacular,” he said. “But it didn't mean anything. Some people |Chicanos| get a little bit of money and change their name from Montez to Montay; or some people tell you that they never eat Mexican food anymore — nothing for them but roast beef. That's crazy. If you’re Mexican, that's it and there's no denying it.”

Between 1968 and 1970 Baca became, in his own words, educated and politicized. He said, “When you’re a kid, you accept the conditioning. We used to think that if the police didn't stop us at least twice a week, then they didn't care about us. We never questioned why they were always stopping us. And what we re doing now, in the [Chicano] movement, is stopping and saying. ‘I'm through with all that conditioning.’”

As a born-again Chicano, so to speak, Baca volunteered to aid Pete Chacon in 1970, when the school teacher entered the Democratic primary for the state assembly seat of south-central San Diego. Bringing in some friends from MAPA. Baca took charge of Chacon's Logan Heights office, where, despite a lack of money, he managed to execute a variety of jobs and arrangements. The campaign went so well that days before the election Chacon escaped from his position as an underdog; his victory in the primary was not so much a surprise as it was a relief. The surprise was hearing Baca tell a few friends on election night that he was dropping out of the runoff campaign. No one close to Chacon — not attorney Ramon Castro or Dr. Gil Oddo, who were co-chairmen of the runoff campaign, nor aide Jose Diaz — said that Baca was asked to leave. Diaz said, rather, that Baca had urged Chacon to run an ethnic campaign — playing up his Chicano background — which Chacon refused to do. His opponent was former San Diego Councilman Tom Hom, who was indicted just before the election in a scandal involving the Yellow Cab Company. Chacon, who’d run a “straight” campaign, was boosted into office and became San Diego’s first Chicano assemblyman.

Baca's associates viewed their victory in the primary as a good-bye kiss from the Democratic Party. “After we won, the party came in and said. ‘Get rid of the radicals,’ meaning us.” said Vazquez. “For us, the Chacon election was the turning point away from traditional party politics.”

Now Baca belongs to an unofficial party that exists only in name: La Raza Unida. He votes in every election, but is the kind of voter who, when he was given a choice between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, decided “not to vote for either of the two evils.”

Baca himself has said he won't run for political office, which in National City is like a blind man saying he won't become an optometrist after all. Baca is dead politically. But his political soul lives; he builds on defeat. After leaving Chacon's campaign, he helped organize the Ad Hoc Committee on Chicano Rights, a coalition of local Chicano leaders, who were united in a jangling way, like keys on a ring. The group's purpose was to speak with one voice on issues concerning all Chicanos. The voice turned out to be Baca’s. As chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee, Baca transformed it by luck or veiled design into a fixture around himself.

In 1974 a Chicano youth named Tato Rivera was shot while fleeing a policeman in National City. A hundred or more people came to Baca's print shop in the weeks following the incident. They wanted to join the Ad Hoc Committee, which staged a special election against the city council for refusing, at first, to reveal the policeman’s name (Craig Short). It was a showcase election in which the Ad Hoc Committee, sponsoring as candidates the well known Oscar Cañedo and Jess Ramirez, fell right off the platform, having drawn the whole county’s attention, then losing by a margin of two to one. Baca could not deliver the votes, and he still can’t. Last year, when San Diego Councilman Jess Haro was imprisoned (for evading customs taxes), Baca called a “community convention” to nominate his successor. Of course the San Diego City Council was going to choose a successor on its own, but Baca declared that the council was “not going to be able to ignore” the convention’s choice. It did seem likely that the council would appoint a Mexican-American to replace Haro, the first Hispanic councilman in the city’s history. But the council instead chose Lucy Killea (who speaks Spanish), and Baca declared a boycott of her office until the primary election this September. Killea speaks of that boycott as if it never really happened. “It would not have bothered me because Herman lives in National City,” she said one day during the council's lunch break. “He’s not a resident of San Diego, much less of my district.”

What Baca dragged out of the ruinous election in National City was a permanent committee capable of staging a “community convention.” (Killea spoke at that convention and “enjoyed it very much.”) The Ad Hoc part of the committee's name has fallen away, and today, with forty members, the group still attracts a few fresh volunteers. Among them: Dave Oddo, son of the political scientist who took Baca’s job on Chacon’s campaign.

Even the problems in Baca’s home and business seem to have settled themselves in a way that accommodates him as spokesman for the committee. His marriage dissolved in 1972 (Baca kept his two sons and his Car of the Year), and two years later he married a Chicana he’d met at a conference on immigration. His business appears to exist for the committee and not for his profit, so that people who detest his politics have to admit that he doesn’t use his notoriety as a feedbag. He said his income last year was $6000, and whether that’s true or not, it’s certain that his business is slow. He seldom prints more than half a day at a time.

Because his organization is self-supporting, Baca usually has a bad word for his former activists, especially Chicanos, who have merged their community involvement with a government job. (A line from one of his speeches: “Remember the War on Poverty? Lyndon Johnson paid all the activists to shut up, and the next thing you heard, no more poverty.”) Augie Bareño was the president of the Mexican-American Political Association after Baca was, and today he works for the City of San Diego, in the citizens assistance office, and is a planning commissioner in National City. He said, “I have taken the approach that when you help a kid out in Pony League or in boxing, or when you help somebody get his property rezoned, that what you’ve done is just as important as Herman’s work in publicizing the issues.”

The reference to Pony League is apt. Bareño runs the National City league where one of Baca’s sons plays third base (for a team called Howard’s Furniture; Baca's younger brother George is the team’s coach). From time to time, Bareño sees Baca at the baseball field, just standing there watching the boys play, enjoying a benefit of middle-class life as provided by persons who accept society about as it is. What’s surprising is how neatly Baca fits into suburban society. Not only does he jog, but his morning route takes him past a shopping center, then a city park, then a hospital, then a private school, and last along his own street where flagpoles stand in front of seven patriotic houses. It isn’t a high-class neighborhood (one fireman down the street took the hitch off his motorboat’s trailer to prevent its being stolen easily), but it’s the kind of street where a former engineer at Rohr Industries hired a gardener to cut his lawns and later learned that the gardener was a Mexican who worked here illegally. This engineer had heard of Baca, but didn’t know he lives a hundred yards away.

Baca says that Mexican-Americans, as a people, have been “colonized,” severed from their culture, and dominated by a class that profits from them. Yet Baca himself doesn’t seem much damaged by this colonization, not outwardly at least. On an ordinary day, when he’s finished his jogging, he sees his oldest boys off to high school and junior high, then has a cup of coffee with his wife, Nadine. She hears his schedule and maybe decides what kind of lunch she’ll take to him at noon, or whether to let him call out to a restaurant. At work he moves between his presses (an A.B. Dick and a Multilith), listening to the radio, and occasionally going to the fat white refrigerator for a beer. When a reporter calls, Baca usually goes to the curtained darkroom at the back of the shop, sits at an oaken desk that looks like a school teacher’s, holds onto the telephone cord that’s limp from being twisted between his fingers, and delivers such a line as, “Justice in the Anglo community means exactly that — ‘just-us.’ “ Baca is somewhat like the Wizard of Oz (in the movie version): A likeable man behind a curtain who projects an alarming image of himself with thunderbolts blasting around his ears.

“Why does he do it?” said Lowell Blankfort, the former publisher of the National City Star-News. (Baca’s antagonist). “Why is Herman Baca always throwing a tantrum?”

Baca says he speaks out because nobody else does. Put another way: His message is the act of speaking out. Once, when he was describing the case of George Olmos — the boy from Logan Heights who shot himself in the head with a gun he thought was unloaded, and later, unconscious, was denied entry to University Hospital because he appeared to be a poor Mexican — Baca used the word “racist” four times in less than a minute. One questioned if he were more interested in calling names than in solving problems. But witness the major institution in charge of reasonable debate. The San Diego Union printed the story of George Olmos on April 17, two days after the event, in an article that appeared at the bottom of page B-1, below an illustrated story about a spelling bee. The follow-up article appeared the next day on the front page, again at the bottom; and an editorial ran on April 24, nine days following the incident. Just the day before. University Hospital issued a press release which demanded a state investigation into “the general problem of public access to emergency health-care service.” But the release said nothing about George Olmos, whether he was still alive (he is), or exactly why he hadn’t been allowed to enter the hospital after preliminary treatment had been administered at Paradise Valley Hospital in National City. “There are two processes of change.” says Baca. “There’s the legal and political process, which you’ve got to go through whether you like it or not, and there’s the process where Herman Baca gets up there and starts yelling and screaming so that the media can react to it.”

One afternoon I was talking with Baca in the back of his shop when the telephone rang. It was Harold Keen calling from Channel 8. He had tried to set up a televised debate between Baca and somebody from the Border Patrol, but nobody would agree to appear on TV with Baca. This was a few days after May 18, when District Attorney Edwin Miller announced he had no grounds on which to prosecute patrolman Cole for the shooting of Reyes, the Mexican. “Hey, so the fight fell through,” said Baca, winking at me, teasing Keen for being some kind of a boxing promoter. Keen must have said something funny because Baca leaned his head against the wall and laughed. Baca missed a chance to speak on TV. They’ll never believe this at city hall, I thought. Over there they call him Herman Boca.

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