Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Aztec Printing in National City.
Each humble place birthed a powerful movement.
After being in business for 45 years, Aztec Printing permanently stopped the presses. More significantly, it closed its doors as the birthplace of the San Diego County Chicano Movement. After-hours meetings hosted by owner Herman Baca spurred Chicanismo and the creation of civil rights groups like the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), CASA Justicia, La Raza Unida Party and the Committee on Chicano Rights (CCR). These and other groups of artists, academics and activists used the shop as la casa por la causa.
Baca said it provided a platform for the disenfranchised.
“The thing you have to remember is that when the shop opened there were few, if any places Chicanos could meet,” he said. “It was like the Big Bang. Politicians, professors and attorneys all came out of there.”
Baca said the business doubled as a makeshift Chicano rights think tank, drawing in people who would go on to have a far reaching impact.
“Just like Sun Records produced Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins who changed the country,” he said. “We had an attorney who came out of Aztec Printing who argued in front of the Supreme Court and won the case that allowed undocumented Mexican kids to attend school.”
Baca said his journey from his tiny hometown of Los Lentes, New Mexico (population 600) to national Chicano rights leader was unwittingly kickstarted by a ’54 Chevy.
“I had just filed for unemployment and my friend told me this print shop was hiring,” he said. “I’ll always remember the interview, the foreman asked me, ‘can you read a ruler?’ I said no. ‘can you read blueprints?’ I said what’s that? He said don’t call us we’ll call you if something comes up. As I was leaving he said ‘Is that your car? Would you like to be our delivery driver?’ I didn’t know what that was either, but I said sure. That’s how I got into the print business.”
His involvement in the printing industry is what turned the decidedly apolitical Baca into a full-fledged activist.
“I was just trying to provide for my family and have enough for a couple beers on the weekend,” he said. “But printing presses have a way of attracting politically inclined people and it was the late ’60s, so things began to percolate.”
Carlos Vasquez, a former Southwestern College student who has worked closely with Baca since 1970, said they began by combatting local issues.
“There was a lot of police corruption at the time,” he said. “We were successful in forcing the police chief of National City into retirement, then we went after the police chief of San Diego, Ray Hoobler, and we were successful in having him fired. Once we became organized our voice was beginning to be heard, it was a very exciting time.”
Although many of these issues seem very similar to the ones we grapple with today, the ’70s were a markedly different time for a Chicano. According to the 1968 U.S. census there were only 7 million Chicanos and Latinos in the country. Their representation in government was virtually non-existent. California’s State Legislature and the San Diego City Council had a grand total of two Latinos. Baca said Chicanos were dubbed the Silent Minority. to the ones we grapple with today, the ’70s
“There was literally nothing in our community,” he said. “There was no such thing as a Chicano principal in the schools. There was no such thing, statistically speaking, as a Chicano doctor or lawyer. You could literally count them on your hand. We had no social, economic or political presence.”
Today the U.S. census tallies 55 million Latinos. There are countless Latino politicians as well as a presidential front-runner in Sen. Marco Rubio. It appears as if a great deal of progress has been achieved, but Baca said he is not so sure.
“We have Chicano politicians now, but what are they doing for us?” he said. “Politics isn’t about people or money, it is about organized people and organized money. We need to get more organized as a people. That is what Aztec Printing was all about.”
Baca’s dedication to the Chicano Movement was historically validated in 2004 when UCSD asked to house his archives. Newspapers throughout San Diego County reported that this was the first major Chicano collection acquired by the university. Bound documents stretched over 40 feet long and detailed 38 years of the Chicano Movement in San Diego County.
Vasquez said it was the culmination of their careers in the civil rights trenches.
“UCSD acquiring our archives is the greatest thing to happen to us,” he said. “What we are dealing with is a historical problem so it is important that our struggle is documented for future generations.”
Although Baca closed down the shop, he said he will always be involved with the Chicano movement. In the meantime, he will be focusing his efforts on cataloguing and updating the archives for posterity.
“We are a proud people. We built pyramids, made the Mayan calendar and invented the zero,” he said. “As long as there is inequality, there will always be a movement.”