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AGUSTIN GURZA

Back to the Beat After an Unfinished Dialogue

April 03, 2001|AGUSTIN GURZA

I started as a freelance writer for The Times in the mid-1970s, a technological Stone Age when reporters still used typewriters. I was so flustered on my first assignment, I spooled the special carbon paper backward, until an editor gently touched my shoulder and reversed my mistake.

Considering my inexperience, the editor had given me a big break. He had commissioned a concert review for Calendar: 50 bucks for my take on El Gran Combo, the fun-loving dance band from Puerto Rico.

"I've never written a review before," I warned.

"But you know what you like, don't you?" the editor responded. "That's enough."

And so it was. For the next 10 years intermittently, I covered Latin music as it first gained wider acceptance in Southern California, moving from barrio bandstands to center stage.

Next month, I'm going back to where I started. I'll be covering Latino pop culture in Calendar, keeping a critical eye on music and the arts from a bicultural perspective. I'll be reporting to pop music critic Robert Hilburn, the editor who showed merciful patience for this onetime rookie.

My new job is a perfect fit, turning my hobby into my beat. I hope to share with readers my lifelong enthusiasm for an arts scene that is so much more complex, exciting and accessible than when I came here more than 20 years ago.

Yet, I can't pretend it will be easy to relinquish this column after two years. Columnists let go of their spaces like Charlton Heston lets go of his firearms. You gotta shoot 'em first.

I can't say I feel singled out. The Times is undergoing extensive changes under new editors who understandably seek to put their own stamp on the newspaper. They're so persuasive about our new direction that they've somehow made me feel appreciated while being stamped canceled.

I had hoped I would keep my column until society achieved absolute racial harmony, or until I started writing as gracefully as my colleague Al Martinez, whichever came first. Considering the state of the world and my literary skills, I was counting on a longer run.

Greater minds than mine, however, have argued that a Latino column may be too limiting. Even my friends and family would ask, "Is that all you write about?"

I never felt constrained covering this historically under-covered community. I detest pack journalism. So this job was ideal, because between race riots and gang wars, you don't run into too many other reporters on the barrio beat.

Besides, there's no better time to write about Latinos, an emerging force in politics, business and the arts. I'm looking forward to observing this evolution from another perspective in my new assignment.

I came to Los Angeles when Latinos were still a silent minority. In 1978, the smooth-talking, tightly coiled character of El Pachuco burst on the scene in "Zoot Suit," the play by Luis Valdez. Set in Los Angeles of the 1940s, the work dramatizes the persecution of young Mexican Americans by white mobs, police and the press.

The backdrop for the production, as I recall, was a blowup of newspaper pages symbolizing the sensationalist press coverage that fomented the ethnic hatreds of the time. El Pachuco, portrayed by a young Edward James Olmos, emerges defiantly through the oversize newsprint, flaunting the distinct Chicano identity he knew society hated.

The play marked a milestone for Mexican Americans struggling with their conflicting roles in society. Sadly, many Latinos still see the press as a hostile, or at least indifferent, backdrop to the social struggles of today. In California, Latinos are no longer attacked on the streets, but in the ballot booth, with measures against bilingual education, affirmative action and services for undocumented immigrants.

I'm grateful for the chance to have spoken out on those issues. Not all Latinos agreed with my positions, but many appreciated having a voice to debunk demeaning stereotypes and to accentuate the positive in Latino culture. History shows why they care so much about how the media portray them.

I had critics who called me divisive, even racist, for asserting a strong ethnic viewpoint. But I didn't draw the battle lines. I just took sides for a community that has been under attack for too long.

In my first column of Feb. 9, 1999, I called for a continuing dialogue on the issues that threaten to divide us. Sure, I got hate mail. But most readers seemed eager for a civil exchange on race, culture and what it means to be American.

Now, 208 columns later, it's time to say thanks for a great conversation.

Y hasta luego.

*

Agustin Gurza can be reached at agustin.gurza@latimes.com

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