It all happened in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, on March 30, 1969.
La Raza Unida Chicano Rights March, Del Rio, Texas, March 30, 1969. Photo by Cliff Wilkie.
It was just like in the Marty Robbins song, “in a little cafe just the other side of the border.” We were drunk. Three college kids in our early twenties, from the University of Texas at Austin, sitting in a ratty bar in Ciudad Acuna on the Mexican side of the border across from Del Rio, Texas. Despite all appearances, we actually were there for a cause. We were young, passionately idealistic, and there for the cause of “La Raza Unida!” The next day there was to be a huge civil rights march to protest the beatings of several Chicanos by the Texas Rangers and the unjust firings of several Vista volunteers. Along with many others, we had come a long ways to be a part of it. We were fired up… as well as drunk.
My two friends, Antonio and Mario, were Chicanos. U.S. citizens, born and raised in Texas, children whose parents were born and raised in Mexico. Their parents had somehow made it across the border to grab a piece of the American Dream. They had surely raised their sons to believe they could somehow be whatever they dreamed, limited only by the scope of their dreams and their willingness to work hard to make them come true. I was the only gringo in the bunch. We three had become good friends through our common idealism and sharing rent and expenses in an old Victorian house on a street lined with stately pecan trees near the University.
We studied different things, but we all shared a common passion for justice.
We studied different things, but we all shared a common passion for justice for descendants of Latin Americans who found themselves living under the somewhat rent and tattered aegis of America’s claim of Freedom for All, especially the so-called tired and hungry masses of the immigrants who had crossed the border into the United States in search of a better life for themselves and their families. But it was 1969, and many of us in this country now clearly realized that the dream was pretty much a sham. Maybe not completely, in fact we were pretty sure we could fix things, make it live up to its promise, but we knew there was a lot to do, and that, at least for now, the shelter of Freedom was a torn and tattered umbrella that leaked an awful lot of cold rain onto those below, especially those who hadn’t been blessed to have been born a gringo.
I fancied myself a photographer. Actually, I more than fancied myself a photographer. I was strongly committed to photojournalism. I envisioned myself as a gringo who would be able to show the world the plight of Mexican-Americans in my country, expose the lies, show all the other white folks what it was really like to be Chicano. I spoke Spanish very well by then, and I had known many Mexicans as well as Chicanos. My heart was with them. I felt I could do something, and I was headed that way.