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Brown Berets Of Barrio Logan Unite To Protect Community

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The San Diego neighborhood of Barrio Logan celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Chicano Park on Saturday. The park is under the onramp to the Coronado Bridge near downtown San Diego. It’s considered a legacy of the Chicano Power movement. A group called the Brown Berets has been a big part of that movement since the 1960s.

— The San Diego neighborhood of Barrio Logan celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Chicano Park on Saturday. The park is under the on-ramp to the Coronado Bridge near downtown San Diego. It’s considered a legacy of the Chicano Power movement. A group called the Brown Berets has been a big part of that movement since the 1960s.

Maintenance crews trim the grass of Chicano Park. Bright, colorful murals adorn concrete pillars that soar up to the freeway up above. Mothers stroll by holding children and shopping bags.

Before the 1960s, rows of houses stood here. They belonged to working class Latino families. But the families were pushed out and the homes were torn down to make way for a freeway and the Coronado Bridge.

City officials wanted to build a police substation on the remaining parcel of land – that's when the people of Barrio Logan united.

“My name is Irene Mena. I'm 81 years old. I am the mother of the Brown Berets.”

The Brown Berets served as the paramilitary arm of the Chicano Power movement in Barrio Logan during the 1960s and 1970s. Mena and her sons helped preserve what was left of the community. She still wears her brown beret despite some moth holes. As a youngster she saw her family being ordered to move.

“My mother bought a property right there on the side of the freeway and they cleared it out,” Mena recalls. “At that time, the neighborhoods were not warned about it. All of a sudden (families) received notices (they) are ordered to move out by a certain date.”

So the Brown Berets took matters into their own hands. They referred to themselves as Chicanos, meaning Mexican Americans committed to social change.

After a tense standoff with police and city officials, the berets and other activists took over the land intended for a new police substation and reclaimed it as Chicano Park.

“We were like soldiers. Soldiers for our community,” David Rico said, a founding member and commander of the Brown Berets. He said the brown beret symbolized Mexican American militancy. He said the murals reflect that.

“Our history and our politics are on those walls,” Rico said. “I don't care where you're from, you go and look at those murals and if you really study them, you know something happened here.”

“It was a struggle against oppression,” Isidro Ortiz said, a professor of Chicano and Chicana Studies at San Diego State University. He said Mexican American people during this time were struggling to assimilate yet make sense of their own cultural identity. They were faced with daily acts of discrimination.

“What groups do is they turn inward,” Ortiz said. “They turn inward to their own kind for acceptance, for pride and for culture. It's part of what we did. Those of us who struggled to find acceptance and finding denial of acceptance turned inward.”

“My name is David Rico Jr. and I'm from the Brown Berets de Aztlan. I'm 35 years old.”

David Jr., the son of founding member David Rico, represents the new generation of the Brown Berets. He says the group is about 100 members strong now in San Diego. David Jr. says he's honored to be following in his father's footsteps.

“When I put on a beret, I feel proud to be able to represent that history that they fought for in the 60s and 70s,” David Jr. said. “Blood sweat and tears. It makes me feel good in my heart that I’m putting on a symbol that says we’re going to stand up for our people. We’re going to educate our people.”

And David Jr. says Barrio Logan is once again under attack – this time by gentrification. As the redevelopment of downtown San Diego's East Village extends south, more and more homes and businesses in Barrio Logan are getting leveled and replaced. Proposals for a new football stadium could transform the community. David Jr. is now rallying the troops, much like his father did 40 years ago, to fight for the character of the community that Mexican Americans have claimed as their own.

“It's so historical as far as the movement goes. We can't let them take it away,” David Jr. said. “ We can't let them take our people out of there because it has such a rich history of the movement, Chicano power and Chicano Park. It’s just too much history that we can't let it be changed.”

And that’s why David Jr. said more berets are needed now than ever before.

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