COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program,) the program run by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI tracked, harassed and disrupted or destroyed political organizations considered subversive, and the Chicano movement was one of their biggest targets. Momentum was lost, people gave up, got burned out, and with the passage of time, the story of Free Los Tres was largely forgotten.
The play doesn’t try to turn Los Tres into larger than life legends, or some kind of barrio superheroes blasting away at The Man, riddling him with bullets. That would be silly, not to mention propaganda instead of storytelling. They are flawed characters, and the play lets you decide whether their intentions or actions were appropriate.
Carmelo tells me about a saying women used in the barrio – me puta ni santa, I am not a saint, but I’m not a whore either. “We’re not saying we are saints or holier than thou, but that we’re normal,” Carmelo says. “We have temptations, we are human beings, and that nobody is 100 percent good or evil.” On one hand, the authorities called Los Tres vigilantes and criminals. But on the other hand, and there are thousand shades of grey in between these two extremes, Los Tres believed they were protecting a neighborhood that was under assault. Carmelo says the shooting was not premeditated, and Los Tres carried weapons because they were dealing with a drug dealer – and that shortly after Los Tres got busted, the gates to the drugs opened.
“The neighborhood I grew up in – Pico Gardens and Aliso Village – after they squashed the movement and locked us up and things kind of died down—-that area became known as 31 Flavors. You could get anything there, from drugs to guns,”Beto says. The gangs became more powerful and the violence in Boyle Heights got out of control, with cliques from 1st to 4th Street killing each other.
The drug problem today is overwhelming. The so-called “War on Drugs” failed because arresting dealers didn’t work as long as the demand was so high and another replacement was willing to step up. Small towns across America, but particularly in Rust Belt states like Ohio and West Virginia, are being decimated by an epidemic of opioid abuse. Drugs overdoses killed more than 72,000 people in 2017, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control, the worst year ever. That’s nearly 200 people a day (there was a decline of overdose deaths in 2018, perhaps a sign the epidemic has peaked.)
When I asked Carmelo if the drug epidemic could have been stopped by a few men protecting their neighborhood, he said the idea was never that they could stop the entire drug problem. If Los Tres and others took care of their own barrio, and if other communities began to do the same, they could start a movement and slow if not stop the influx of drugs.
“When you give power to the people, when you let them handle it, the community can take control of the neighborhood and make it better,” Carmelo says.
Before the bust, this was already happening: Boyle Heights activists were educating people in the projects, circulating petitions and bridging divisions, and Rudy thinks this sense of purpose may have attracted the attention of the authorities. “Also at that time, a lot of barrios were coming together – there was unity, there was even unity with theAmerican Indian movement, we were beginning to work with other organizations, the hippies, whatever–” and he believes this very unity was seen as a threat.
Rudy says an article called Strange Rumbling in Aztlan by Hunter S. Thompson(HST) also may have brought the Feds attention around to the neighborhood. It was published in Rolling Stone on April 29, 1971, just eight months after L.A. Times reporter Ruben Salazar was killed during the Moratorium march and rally against the Vietnam War.
Salazar was only tangentially involved with the Chicano Movement, but he became a martyr for it after a Sheriff’s deputy blew his head off with a tear gas canister fired through the door of the Silver Dollar Cafe in East L.A., the now defunct spot located a little less than four miles from where Casa 0101 is today. Tensions in the community were very high as evidence emerged that contradicted the official version of Salazar’s death, suggesting a cover-up.
Rudy is mentioned and quoted in Strange Rumblings, which like all of Thomson’s best work, mixes strong reporting and novelistic attention to detail with tales of his crazy but always entertaining antics. Rudy is not the center of that particular story, however.
He came from a pro-Union family and says he was politically conscious from an early age. His parents joined protests against unsafe working conditions and unequal wages at the Empire Zinc Mine in New Mexico; they are featured in the 1954 film Salt of the Earth, which recreated the strike using real participants as actors in the movie. Rudy grew up in Estrada Courts, a low-income housing project in Boyle Heights.
He had been in juvenile hall and in the prison system; he knew La Eme (the Mexican Mafia) and they knew him, and he had a drug problem. He started reading in prison and had an awakening. He sobered up, got out of jail and got involved in the Chicano Movement after he met Oscar Zeta Acosta, an attorney who defended scores of activists from East L.A.
Acosta was also the inspiration for Dr. Gonzo, HST’s partner in crime through the drug-fueled odyssey depicted in Fear and Loathing in Law Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. HST met Acosta when he was writing “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan” and they took that Vegas road-trip partly to escape the pressure surrounding the Salazar case.
Rudy became Acosta’s bodyguard. He met Free Los Tres through Acosta and some of his associates, gradually seeing the Chicano organization as more serious and his political involvement deepened. The set-up came soon after. “They weren’t interested in me when I was running around the hood, but they sure came after me this time,” Rudy says.
The trial of Los Tres may not have attracted as much notice outside of Boyle Heights and in the Anglo world because it didn’t have the mystique, and the depraved glamour of the Manson trial. East Los Angeles even today is not paid its due. Most stories about Los Angeles are set on the Westside (after covering Boyle Heights, HST writes of his discomfort at ordering a drink at the Beverly Hills Hotel because he was “oriented to a completely different world – 15 miles away.)
Outside of some coverage by the Herald Examiner, the case didn’t get noticed by a mainstream media obsessed with a celebrity serial killer. Manson is a legend, but Free Los Tres were three guys from the barrio, and they were not civil rights icons like Bert Corona or Cesar Chavez. They never wanted the story to be about them. We were just soldiers for the movement they might say.
It was a time of different values in places like Boyle Heights – people didn’t necessarily aspire to be famous or gaudily rich, and there was of course no social media. These were working class people who wanted to make their communities safer and gain access for their people, achieve equality. Even now Beto says he is hesitant to be in the limelight – but Carmelo told him that you need to embrace your origins.
The trial itself was a farce. “Let me tell you, it was a goddamn Kangaroo court, that’s the way I saw it at the time,” Rudy says. His mentality then was that he was a political prisoner and the cops, prosecutors and the judge were the enemy.
“What I remember from the trial is that the judge, out of 27 motions we had, he denied all of them. He allowed like 5 of our witnesses out of twenty (we wanted to bring to the stand.)” says Beto. They were silenced at every step. “We never had a chance to tell our story. And we knew we were doomed,” Beto says. “It got to the point where when the bailiff came and out said all rise, we wouldn’t rise cause he (the judge) wasn’t respecting us, so we turned around and didn’t give him respect either.”
They were released on bail after two years, pending the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals review. One year later they were rearrested. Their sentences were eventually reduced by 25 years after a charge of violating the Federal Law known as the Jesse James Act was dropped. Each served about eight years in prison before finally being freed.
When I see Free Los Tres on preview night it is a small crowd, and there are the usual glitches in performance and technical quality of a show going through last-minute tunings before its opening. The play begins with the actors playing Los Tres entering in chains, and there are many potent images throughout the show, but I do have some reservations. I don’t believe this play has quite gotten the story down to its essence – but my qualms about the productions are terribly unimportant compared to what people from the neighborhood have said about Free Los Tres.
When I talk to a few people leaving the preview, they are all beaming, and yes of course some of that is because they are friends or family of the cast, but this is something more I think. One family I spoke with were excited to see a story about people from their own neighborhood, and they’d never heard of Free Los Tres before attending the play. They’d been to Casa 0101 only once before, but many of their friends already had tickets to see the show. Sold-out houses followed throughout the run, and a standing ovation ended each performance. Activists from the era reunited in the lobby, and their families came too: Beto, Rudy and Johnny’s sons, all juniors, were there, and they were taken aback by how close the actors portrayals matched their memories of their fathers. This is a testament to the power of storytelling.
Casa 0101 has been telling the stories of this neighborhood for nearly 19 years. Located on East 1st Street just across the street from a police station, the interior has an inviting warmth, the gallery in the lobby displaying images from local artists. You begin to get a sense of all the history found in this neighborhood, and realize that this is not just a theater, it’s a community resource.
Casa 0101’s existence unfortunately has been tenuous of late – as what is unique about Boyle Heights is threatened by another wave of white gentrification, and the theater has suffered financial setbacks and the loss of its 99-seat theater waiver. So far they are surviving–they have created theater on a low budget for years, mostly relying on volunteers from the community, but costs have gone up They have come up with a novel solution that has kept them going so far–they are seeking 350 donors to give them $25 a month, and so far they have found just over half.
Neither Rudy nor Beto live in Boyle Heights anymore, and the area has changed so much. Beto says when he grew up everybody knew each other in the projects. During Halloween, they used to have bonfires at the 4th Street gym, and everyone would come out. There were games too, like putting $50 at the top of a greased up pole and seeing if anyone could climb far enough without slipping to grab the cash. Now Beto is still leery of going there alone, although violence in the projects is down since the 80’s and 90’s. “I’m kind of scared to go in there now because one day I was driving thru there, coming home from work and reminiscing, and about ten guys tried to stop my car, but since I knew the area, I got out of there right away.”
“One of my grandkids told her grandpa that he didn’t know grandpa was a legend in the chicano movement,” Beto says, laughing at the memory. “We didn’t seek to be legends in the Chicano movement, it was an incident that happened and the organizations we were working with stepped up and supported us and defended us and created this whole movement behind Los Tres,” he says. For his part, Rudy finds it wonderful to see the story come alive for him and his children, as well as people from the neighborhood who haven’t heard about Los Tres before – lamenting only that his mother has already passed away and didn’t live to see the story reborn in this play.
The story isn’t over quite yet. Carmelo has already talked about turning the Free Los Tres into a film and Beto has begun working on a book with Professor Victor Viesca of Cal State Los Angeles. It’s almost, to steal a line from Beto, like they can’t quite get rid of Los Tres del Barrio. Maybe no one outside of Boyle Heights will notice Free Los Tres, or maybe it will become an inspiration for a new generation of activists, perhaps both. “If we can throw another yell, let’s throw another yell out there,” Rudy says, and for a story that has been asleep for 47 years, it’s the telling that matters.