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AGUSTIN GURZA

After 30 Years, Cantina Becomes Consecrated Ground

August 29, 2000|AGUSTIN GURZA

The late afternoon sun gave a warm glow to the freshly painted storefront on bustling Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles. Passersby seemed curious about the business, whose name has been painted on distinctive windows shaped like matching half-circles.

The Silver Dollar, say the signs, punctuated by a sparkling asterisk. But there's no clue to its historic significance.

"You think that's going to be another bar?" asks a teenage girl, as workers put finishing touches on an outdated design of floating musical notes and bubbly martini glasses.

No, not anymore. Now it's a museum, a memorial, a hallowed ground. True believers have turned the Silver Dollar into a community theater and coffeehouse, designed as a replica of the old neighborhood watering hole that became a flash point of social upheaval 30 years ago today.

They've consecrated this former cantina in honor of the Chicano spirit to rise above, to be better than before.

For politically conscious Mexican Americans, the Silver Dollar Cafe is a name that rings forever with the memory of traumatic events. This is where newsman Ruben Salazar was killed Aug. 29, 1970, while covering a massive antiwar march and the angry riot that ensued.

The rally exploded when police and protesters clashed at a park now named after Salazar, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and news director for the Spanish-language TV station, KMEX. At one point, Salazar entered the bar to take a break. He died after being hit accidentally in the head by a tear gas projectile fired from the street by a sheriff's deputy.

At least that's the official version. Activists have always suspected that the high-profile journalist was targeted for his outspoken columns, especially those critical of police abuses. Whatever the truth, Salazar became a martyr to La Causa and his death became a rallying cry in the drive for equality.

"I know Ruben is here," Ricardo Lopez, the former gang counselor-turned-theater producer, said as he supervised last-minute details of the Silver Dollar's transformation.

Friday was opening night for the new theater, at 4945 E. Whittier Blvd., leased by Lopez just 27 days earlier. Just in time for an anniversary production of "The Silver Dollar," the play by Teatro Urbano's Rene Rodriguez that re-creates fictitious events in the bar just before Salazar was killed. (It continues through Sept. 17, with a memorial performance tonight at 5 p.m., about the time Salazar actually died. For information call [323] 780-0544.)

The one-act play was first performed inside the Silver Dollar in 1990, with patrons engulfed in the action. But when the bar became a bridal shop a few years back, the group lost its venue for this unique form of theater verite. Then this spring, the bridal shop closed too. That's when Lopez, 53, stepped in with about $9,000 in personal savings and proceeds from the sale of his car and TV set.

Lopez is a former L.A. city recreation director who retired after getting injured in the cross-fire of gang conflicts. In the late 1960s, he was serving with the Air Force in Vietnam, an experience that informs his role in the play as a bitter veteran.

Lopez has spent 13 years researching FBI files and other documents on Salazar's death and Chicano politics. He became a "mini-scholar of the movement," he says, "because I missed it."

Now, he's also an expert on the Silver Dollar's decor. Right up to show time, he fretted about accuracy of the reproduction, which includes three bar stools preserved by the original owner, who helped as consultant of authenticity. The crew even worried over the precise placement of voluptuous female silhouettes above the front windows, re-created with a false front.

As the nude figures were raised by ropes from the roof, workers studied a photograph of deputies taking aim at the outside of the bar. The historic picture was shot by activist Raul Ruiz, who showed up for the premiere. Once used in the inquest on Salazar's death, his photo now served to align sexist images of a chauvinist era.

Behind the theater, a driveway served as rehearsal area, makeup room and prop closet. Three police helmets sat on a folding table, freshly spray-painted to convert them from LAPD white to sheriff's gold. They had been donated by a friend at one of the precincts.

To Rodriguez, the cigar-puffing playwright, the donated helmets symbolized social change. "We didn't have friends in the Police Department back then," he said.

"I think it's important, not only as artists, but as people, that we exchange our history," added Lopez, the graying producer. "That's why we're here. We owe it to Ruben."

*

Agustin Gurza's column appears Tuesday. Readers can reach Gurza at (714) 966-7712 or agustin.gurza@latimes.com

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