Chicano Park Day 2023: Youth Demilitarization Space in the USA

Cassy Hernandez hosting the Project on Youth & Non-military Opportunities booth  - Photo NNOMY 2023April 22, 2023 / Jeff McDonald / San Diego Union Tribune / Barrio Logan - In the shadow of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, on the same patch of ground where a community of poor families and immigrants was cleaved by the government in the name of progress, Maria Elena Gomez listened to the music and spoke of the struggle Chicanos have faced for generations.

The retired educator from Fallbrook, wearing a T-shirt bearing the United Farm Workers motto Si Se Puede, was among thousands of people attending the 53rd annual Chicano Park Day festival on Saturday.

“We are still trying to get fair representation for the under-served and the undocumented,” said Gomez, whose own education started later than most, at 31, due to detours of her own making and those imposed by others. “But it doesn’t negate the fact that we have a lot of young people learning about what’s going on.”

What was going on — for the first time in person since 2019 due to the pandemic — was vintage lowriders and food and music and booths, lots of booths.

More important: the celebration of Chicano culture, which has not always been celebrated, and organizing.


Project on Youth & Non-military Opportunities Continues a Tradition of Tabling at Chicano Park Day


Chicano Park Day 2023 posterChicano Park covers nearly eight acres beneath the bridge leading from San Diego to Coronado.

It was created in 1970 only after protesters fought plans for a new California Highway Patrol station, and now features dozens of huge murals that showcase Chicano struggles.

The community, which was cut in two by the bridge construction in the 1960s, had been promised a park but state officials reneged on that pledge. The ruckus raised by residents and others forced the government to change its plan.

The festival Saturday was more than activism and organizing, however. As it always has, Chicano Park Day celebrates the music and food that defines the culture.

Community groups turned out to sign people up, showcase their causes and build on the work that began more than 50 years ago.


Selection of counter-recruitment literature on the table at the Project YANO booth - Photo NNOMY 2023


Project YANO staffers were among them, handing out brochures promoting alternatives to those distributed by military recruiters, who disproportionately mine lower-income neighborhoods for potential soldiers, airmen and Marines.

“Sometimes, they (recruiters) use coercive tactics in order to meet their quotas,” said Cassy Hernandez, a program coordinator with the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, as the Encinitas-based nonprofit is formally known.

“They appeal to economic opportunities and frame it as leadership,” Hernandez said. “But we think there should be clear information on other opportunities, such as access to education and access to jobs.”


Cassy Hernandez, program coordinator with the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities


Brown Berets hold Ceremory at the Kiosco in and on Chicano Park Day 2023


Brown Berets @ Chicano Park Day 2023 - Photo NNOMY 2023

Volunteers with the San Diego branch of the Brown Berets also roamed through the festival, like their predecessors did in the early days when some people in the city did not appreciate the protest that led to Chicano Park.

The Brown Berets grew out of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Modeled after the Black Panthers, the Brown Berets worked to improve local schools, end police brutality and fight for political representation.

“We just want to keep the community safe,” said David Sua, a high school junior who lives nearby and is the same age as the young activists who formed what became the Brown Berets back in the 1960s.

“When the park was first founded, there were a lot of people who didn’t want it,” said Sua, who was working Saturday as a volunteer trainee. “But the Berets became more than a security group. Now we’re helping keep the community together.”



Chicano Car Culture Still Dominates Chicano Park Celebration


The festival also championed the cars — everything from fully restored, gleaming and polished 1950s Chevrolets to mid-1970s Monte Carlos whose frames have been customized with hydraulic suspensions to bounce up and down.

They were on display along Logan Avenue, and on the fields underneath the eye-popping murals depicting the Chicano Movement that are painted onto the massive concrete arches that undergird the bridge to Coronado.

“Ask anybody here and they’ll give you the same story: they saw these cars as kids and they love them,” said Eric Gomez of the Groupe San Diego car club. “Lowriders were built by Hispanic people.”

Gomez said the cars — and cruising culture writ large — got a bad rap for promoting drugs and gang life.

But really, he said, it’s an expensive hobby passed from generation to generation by regular, hard-working and tax-paying citizens.

“I grew up. I have a career, I own a house,” said Gomez, who works as a construction contractor and lives in Chula Vista. “How do you do it? You get a second job and you save your money.”


Car Clubs at Chicano Park Day 2023 - Photo NNOMY 2023


Besides the murals now recognized across the world, no place captures the history and triumph of the neighborhood better than the recently opened Chicano Park Museum and Cultural Center.


Chicano Park Museum


The product of years of planning, pleading, fund-raising and organizing, the museum opened in October as a monument to the Barrio Logan residents and activists who beat back the planned CHP station, some by forming a human chain around bulldozers.

The cultural hub, which also recognizes the continued oppression of Indigenous people, was abuzz with visitors during its first Chicano Park Day.

“The mission is all about elevating the profile of the struggles and triumph of our Chicano community,” museum spokesperson Terri Steele said. “We’re excited to be able to amplify the story.”


City College recruitment booth Brown Berets - Photo NNOMY 2023

Grossmont College recruitment booth - Photo NNOMY 2023


Demilitarized Zone within a Militarized City and Country?

Union del Barrio information booth - Photo NNOMY 2023Chicano Park Day is unique in a country that is overwhelmed by both visible and invisible manifestations of cultural militarization. Though San Diego Police hover on the peripheries of the event, they keep their distance. Another unique characteristic of the event is there are many booths for community colleges and Chicano and Activist groups like College chapters of MEChA and activist groups like Union del Barrio, yet there are no U.S. Military recruiters that are so pervasive at Sports venues and in our public schools. Chicano Park is an historical resistance space and there are the Brown Berets. Do they qualify as a para-military group because they wear military style uniforms? Have to start somewhere to push back against the powers that seek to reign us all in and the response is nearly always militarized. - NNOMY

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