Transcript of interview of Adolfo Guzman Lopez conducted by Chris Greenspon for the July 22 edition of SGV Connect

Chris: Adolfo Guzman Lopez, welcome to SGV Connect.

Adolfo: Thank you for the invite Chris. Really, really appreciate it.

Chris: So we’re here at Morgan Park in Baldwin Park. And the reason for that being you just finished releasing an investigation into a former resident of Baldwin Park who had a mysterious death. Would you mind telling us a little bit about your project?

Adolfo: So the podcast is Imperfect Paradise: the Forgotten Revolutionary, and it’s about Oscar Enrique Gomez. Oscar Gomez grew up here in Baldwin Park in the 70’s and 80’s, middle class family, his father was a veteran of the Vietnam Army. His father was an L.A. County firefighter. 

Oscar Gomez, by all accounts, has a very stable, loving upbringing. He’s a scholar athlete at Baldwin Park High School and ends up being accepted to UC Davis. I ended up going there in 1990 and getting involved in the Chicano student movement. At the time, there was a lot of red hot politics mostly focused against Latinos, Spanish speakers, Mexican residents, because there had been a lot of immigration and that had tested California’s institutions. 

So, Oscar becomes involved in the Chicano student movement in the early 90s. And four years later, he’s found dead on the shore in Santa Barbara.

It’s a very sad story. 

Chris: Why do you think people in Baldwin Park particularly should remember him as a son of Baldwin Park?

Adolfo: As I look around Baldwin Park, and I see elementary school age kids line up and take lunches for the summer lunch program…I see people of all ages around here. I’m thinking this is a community 40 years ago that Oscar grew up in… Similar dynamics: Spanish speakers but also I guess assimilated Mexican Americans. People in Baldwin Park should know about Oscar because he was a civil rights activist, because people in Baldwin Park, kids, continue to grow up with similar kinds of dynamics of both stability and loving family, but also a lot of pressures on them. A lot of economic pressures, instability, dysfunction in the home. 

People still do remember Oscar here in Baldwin Park. There’s an organization called the Lucha Foundation that Oscar’s friends and family started over a decade ago. That organization gathers money and gets donations and hands out scholarships to high school graduates in the area, so they can continue their higher ed.

Chris: So, in your podcast, you kind of look at Chicanismo from a variety of lenses; from your own upbringing as somebody who crossed the border I don’t know how often from Tijuana. You look at somebody who was raised in the Ramona Gardens housing projects in South Boyle Heights. And then you know, you also look a little bit at Santa Barbara, and various student populations. What’s your sense of how Oscar’s upbringing influenced his politics?

Adolfo: Well, when he got to UC Davis, he met people from the 1960’s Chicano movement. He met Malaquias Montoya who was a founder of a group called the Royal Chicano Air Force or Rebel Chicano Art Front, an arts group and performance group, visual arts group from the 1960’s and 70’s. And Malaquias told Oscar about the 1960’s and 70’s movement and that fed Oscars imagination. Oscar wanted in a way to recreate some of that 1960’s and 70’s Chicano Movement. 

One of the reasons Oscar felt so strongly about what had happened in the 60’s is that some of the same things, some of the injustice in inequity towards Mexican and Spanish speaking communities was continuing to happen in the early 90’s when Oscar was in college. 

And so, Oscar and also some of his fellow activists at UC Davis, held protests and marches and hunger strikes. They also apart from wanting to strengthen Chicano studies on campus, they also went out into the community. 

Oscar, very much connected with public schools in the surrounding area around Davis, connected with school aged kids to tell them about what he was doing; but also encouraging them to stay in school, keep focusing on their studies and go to college. That was a big part of what his message was about. 

And so in the podcast, you’re gonna hear different types of Chicanismo more different Chicano identities Oscars identity, right? 

My identity as somebody who was born in Mexico, came to Tijuana when I was very young, moved to San Diego when I was about seven years old, mother cleaned houses, stepfather was a maintenance guy and I went to the schools in the beachfront communities where they worked. but then came back to my working class, Mexican-Filipino community at night and then on the weekends and then went to Tijuana a lot to visit my aunts and uncles. So I was living in all these different worlds and for me, it was just what I did. That was my life, right? 

All kids kind of grew up this way: bilingual, bicultural, crossing borders and everything. Later on I find out, no, that’s not the case. So I think you’re going to hear in this podcast, a rainbow of brown identities.

Chris: So you’ve covered higher education as a beat reporter for awhile now. And in this podcast, you revealed that you struggled a lot in college, you talked about some struggles Oscar had. What kind of pressure do you think Oscar was under?

Adolfo: People who knew Oscar at the time, paint a picture of an Oscar who arrived at UC Davis in 1990 as a freshman was kind of like, bubbling positivity. There’s this burst of positivity and being happy-go-lucky. He finds out and gets involved in the Chicano student movement, traveled to Cuba, he learns about the politics in the State of California, and the proposals of many public officials to take away rights from residents of California based on them being immigrants. 

This creates a lot of anger in Oscar and a lot of students back then. That’s one of the reasons that students marched and protested, right? 

So you have this very, very positive student at the beginning. And then you have somebody who’s in the words of Judith Segura-Mora, one of Oscars’ friends at the time, as somebody consumed by rage. 

And that’s, and that’s something that quite a few students at the time were feeling. Segura-Mora talks about the toll the emotional toll, the mental health toll that that activism took on her and on Oscar and a lot of friends 

At the time, activists didn’t have words like self care, checking in, or anything like that. And there’s more awareness of that now on college campuses and definitely in the activist community. It had an impact on me. I mean, I had been undocumented until 1986 when federal amnesty was approved by Ronald Reagan.

Yet I was still kind of carrying that. That feeling of keep your head down, compartmentalize things. Don’t tell people about that part of you that identity. And so yeah, for me, it for me, it took a toll. It’d be something I’d have to work out and I’m still working through even 30 years later. But I think the deep sharing of stories in this podcast reveals what people were going through at the time.

Chris: So as a general public or as a news consuming public, we hear a lot about the need for resources. For students like Oscar students, like yourself, you know, who either might be first generation college students or who might be undocumented. We’re constantly hearing about how these people need resources, but as somebody who reports on this and sees it up close, what are the resources they actually need more than just a brochure or the announcement that resources are available and how are they actually supposed to reach them?  You know, how are these things supposed to get to them instead of just being in a part of the Student Center they’ve never been to?

Adolfo: As a higher ed reporter, I’ve written stories about the three levels of public higher education, what they’ve done to improve mental health services to students, you know, can be colleges, Cal State schools and UC schools. 

And there’s quite a bit of work that’s being done. Administrators know that it’s a big problem. And it’s a problem that affects the student, you know, day in, day out. 

It’s a problem that leads students to take fewer classes, not earn their degree, not finish their studies. 

So there are more resources. One of the one of the very positive things I’ve seen in Counseling and Psychological Services on different campuses is, is more intentional counseling. So counselors and therapists who are aware of the cultural backgrounds of people, I talked to a therapist at Cal State Long Beach who brings that background within herself and has studied it and has created support groups on campus to help students who are from a Spanish speaking background or Latin American background, right? 

LGBTQ therapy on campuses: There are therapists at different college campuses who are very aware of the issues and help students who come forward and say that that is something that they need help with. 

So it’s improving but it’s definitely not enough. You know, there’s more awareness now. I think some of the campuses are also creating peer groups that go to different classrooms or student groups and let the students know of the services that are available so that they can make use of them. So that’s a good thing. But it’s a problem that hasn’t been addressed and more resources are needed.

Chris: SPOILER ALERT, if you intend to listen to the entirety of Imperfect Paradise: the Forgotten Revolutionary, you’re gonna want to pause here. I don’t know where to warn you to fast forward to maybe I’ll track that in later.

Adolfo: You know your audience Chris.

Chris: So Oscar seems to have perhaps fallen to his death from an unfenced cliffside in Santa Barbara. On your show you had an expert and I’d say ex legal representative for the County of Santa Barbara, tell you that the county could have been more at risk of liability if it had built out fencing along a natural formation a cliff side which otherwise by leaving in its natural state, they were less at fault if anyone assumed the risk of spending time along the edge of it. The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s ruled that Oscar Gomez’s death was an accident. Correct?

Adolfo: It’s kind of a mixed ruling if you want to call it that. I don’t know if I call it a ruling, but they found the investigation that the chair has conducted… in it yhey suggest that Oscar fell to his death and died from the accidental fall but the final document leaves that determination open ended because they did not find evidence of where he fell and they could not find a witness who saw Oscar fall. So it’s a conclusion that is still open ended.

Chris: So you were never able to get access to any deeper notes from the investigation. Your reporting suggested the Oscars death may have been an accident. So I’m wondering if the City of Santa Barbara could have potentially been opened up to a lawsuit regarding bluff safety if the sheriff’s had released their case files if that could have been their motivation for never releasing any deeper information on it?

Adolfo: It’s an excellent question. It’s a question we had through the 10 month plus investigative journey we were on. Our producers, Natalie Chudnovsky and James Chow found some very important information. James Chow requested documents about people who had been injured and who had fallen to their deaths along the shores of Santa Barbara along those 50-60-70 foot high bluffs. He found documents over the last 30 years that detailed a dozen deaths along those shores, including Oscar’s death. 

And there is a pattern. There’s a pattern of alcohol consumption. There’s a pattern of these very serious head trauma head injuries. And to your other point about the liability of institutions like the county, institutions like the sheriff’s department, well, they had been sued. And Natalie Chudnovsky found through her research that the county was advised not to improve some of these areas along the bluffs because improving those areas would increase the county’s liability, which is hard to wrap your mind around. Even the person who we talked to the former lawyer for the county, Stephen Underwood said, yeah, that’s counterintuitive, but that’s one of the things that he advised the county not to improve those areas because it would open them up to liability

Chris: Your podcast, doubled as a memoir for you and a chance to open up about your Chicano activist days, and the part that still plays in your identity in your work as a journalist. You’ve said it was being shot with a projectile by a police officer during protests coverage in 2020 that made you want to come out of the closet with this personal history. Looking back at why you were an activist then and why you’re talking about it now, what’s the moral imperative that’s pushed you to break the silence?

Adolfo: In searching and searching for what happened to Oscar, I found out that I had put away my activism and along with it, this deep connection that I had with Chicanos as a young beginning journalist. 

Now, I got the bug for reporting coming to protests in LA, seeing the movement, seeing and talking to activists who had been around for, you know, 20-30 years. And then when I started in mainstream newsrooms in San Diego, I got a job at the public radio newsroom NPR station in San Diego and I got the message there and it’s very clear that these outlets like Foreign Language Press or Chicano Activist Press, were advocacy journalism, and that that’s not what we did there in that newsroom. 

You know, without the sensitivity to say well, okay, there’s some merit to that kind of journalism, you know, it’s close to a community, it recognizes it’s close to a certain community, it recognizes the humanity of people, it recognizes certain, you know, impacts on the dignity of people. Which I think in journalism is an important thing. So I’d kind of locked that up. 

I’ve done journalism, I’ve done reporting that tries to reveal the humanity of people, people at different crossroads, education, or, you know, how public agencies are affecting them or their economics or political impacts. I’ve done that right. But I felt that I put away a certain kind of human connection. And then, getting shot with a foam round by the Long Beach police during the George Floyd protests of 2020… I got rattled. I got shook up. 

Then as I was putting myself back together in the aftermath, emotionally, I thought, ‘Oh, I recognize some of these things that I kind of put away’ and they kind of got dislodged.

Some of the stuff was kind of holding me back I just got rid of, like, little more loose, little bit more, you know, kind of like bringing my humanity and emotion to things which I think is still okay. I’m still, you know, trained as a reporter, skepticism and accountability, and all that. So, I’m embracing this this new Adolfo reporter

Chris: You close the series with a quote from Oscar speaking to his listeners. He was a radio DJ and sometimes radio journalist. And he says in your clip, I’m just the needle, you’re the record, which is a beautiful clip, and I think it’s something all of us cultural journalists can relate to. It’s a great metaphor. So what records will you play as your career continues?

Adolfo: That’s a good one. That’s a good one. Every time I hear Viva Tirado (by El Chicano), there’s something emotional that comes out. That was the song that Oscar played to open his show. And the ethnic studies scholar George Lipsitz, has articulated so well some of the deep cultural backgrounds of that song. It’s a song that was adopted by Chicanos, it’s a song that you know, uses you know, kind of a Gerald Wilson riff. Gerald Wilson being one of the one of the most prominent African American composers, you know, of the 70’s 80’s and 90’s. He passed away a few years ago yet. 

Gerald Wilson was riffing off of some Afro Cuban stuff and there’s so many roots, so many cultural layers to Viva Tirado. So if I were to pick one song, I think that’d be a good one.

Chris: Adolfo, thanks for coming on SGV Connect.

Adolfo: Thank you for the invite, Chris. It’s a pleasure to be with you.