Political Action and Empowerment
Impressed with Epiphany’s dedication to its community, in 1967 Eliezer Risco, an activist with the United Farmworkers, took a position at Epiphany’s Social Action Training Center, a program funded by the state’s Community Development Corporation that was founded in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots to serve urban youth. La Raza, an underground community newspaper, was started through Risco’s work with local Chicano youth and housed in the church basement. Run largely by volunteer youth and featuring photos and community members’ stories, the outspoken paper was critical of unjust treatment in the community by local politicians and police. The Brown Berets, modeled on the Black Panthers, were also formed during this time and with the church, became a lightning rod for even more negative attention from the police.
Leaders from these different youth groups at Epiphany came together to support the 1968 high school walkouts in East Los Angeles. Students from five high schools organized the protests, formulating over 50 demands focused on improving their education, allowing Spanish to be spoken at school, and greater representation of Mexican Americans within their schools. Sal Castro, the teacher at Lincoln High School, helped recruit student groups from college campuses to show up, while the Brown Berets acted as bodyguards and La Raza published student stories about the protests. In the end over 30,000 Chicanos participated in the “East L.A. Blowouts,” as they were known.
Thirteen people were arrested for “conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor,” including Sal Castro, who lost his teaching job. Though the charges against him eventually were dismissed, after the insult to Castro, the walkouts exploded into a community-wide movement with parents and members of the older generation joining in the protests at school board and civic meetings. During a mass occupation of the City of Los Angeles Board of Education offices, Epiphany’s priests celebrated the Eucharist with a tortilla and 35 people were arrested after the seven-day sit-in (including the priests). Sal Castro got his job back, and the walkouts had their intended effect: conditions began to improve and many Mexican American students eventually went on to top universities and successful careers.
Fr. Luce was a special mentor to these emerging youth leaders in the 1960’s. With his gregarious personality and combination of education and work experiences, he moved easily between the barrio and the higher levels of church and society. Intensely focused on neighborhood needs and always circulating on the streets, he used his relationships with prominent Mexican American leaders – labor union leader Cesar Chavez, journalist Ruben Salazar, noted organizer Bert Corona and others – to expose the youth to inspiring role models. He had the ability to spot and nurture leadership qualities in young people and to facilitate empowering experiences for their development. These experiences would affect many of the youth for their lifetimes.
In March 1968, shortly after the walkouts took place, Robert F. Kennedy announced his run for the presidency. Because of his ties with the farm workers, Epiphany became the center of organizing for his campaign for the California June primary. On election night, June 5, he was assassinated. Cesar Chavez was sleeping at Epiphany’s rectory that night when he learned about the assassination. In the aftermath of this devastating blow, parishioners, farm workers, and organizers realized that their voter registration efforts had in fact created real momentum and went on to launch Chicano candidates like Art Torres and Richard Alatorre into the California State Assembly in the early 1970s. In 1973, these Chicano leaders joined with the African American community to build the coalition that elected Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor of Los Angeles.
The Chicano Moratorium was organized in 1970 under the leadership of Rosalio Muñoz, the former student body president at UCLA. Epiphany clergy lent their encouragement and support to the effort to protest the disproportionate numbers of Chicano fatalities in the Viet Nam war. At the actual march to Laguna Park (now Ruben Salazar Park) on August 29, 1970, the police showed up with riot gear and the scene turned violent, with three deaths. One was Ruben Salazar, the Latino reporter for the L.A. Times and KMEX news director. He was sitting in a bar when a sheriff’s deputy shot a tear gas projectile at his head, allegedly accidentally. He had been a close friend of Fr. Luce. The Epiphany Folklorico dance group had been performing on stage at the protest when the riot erupted. Fr. Wood was able to quickly move the dancers offstage to safety.
Though spectacular, Epiphany’s role in these momentous events did not arise in isolation from the currents of the larger Episcopal church. The national church was spending $3 million per year from 1967 – 70 on organizations that served the poor and supported self-determination. Fr. Luce said that the work of the church is “to try to reach out and work with all sorts of different groups and kids, drug addicts, people who had been in trouble with the law…We feel that carrying out this type of work by the church…the support of indigenous organizations of the people themselves, will build real democracy in this country.”