Anthony J. Garcia on the 1974 murders of six Chicano activists and his play Cuarenta y Ocho

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Forty years ago, bombs exploded in Boulder, killing six Chicano activists. Their deaths are still shrouded in mystery: Who killed them and why? Were they plotting a bombing? Did the police and FBI entrap them? Were they murdered? Su Teatro's Tony Garcia has written Cuarenta y Ocho, a play that explores these questions and more. In advance of tonight's opening, Westword spoke with Garcia about his fictional work and the actual events of forty years ago. See also: Anthony J. Garcia on Ludlow: El Grito de Las Minas

Westword: Talk about the upcoming production.

Anthony J. Garcia: The production is called Cuarenta y Ocho, which means 48. It is set against a background of two bombings that took place in Boulder in 1974. They took place 48 hours apart. It's set against the time between the first one and the second one.

At the time there was a lot of student unrest, especially within the Chicano community then. There was a takeover of Temporary Building One. In the first explosion, two people were killed. Two days later, there was another explosion. Nobody really knows what took place there. There was a grand jury that was convened afterwards, and the grand jury sealed the findings. Then FBI files from there were disappeared, or were gone, so nobody really knows what took place or who did what.

The speculation was that the six people who were killed were getting ready to blow up something, and they ended up blowing up themselves. It was in a period of time when there were a lot of other possibilities that could have happened. There are a lot of unanswered questions in there. I don't think that the play will answer those questions, because the one thing we know is that this play that I wrote is fictional. I don't know what the truth is, but I know this is not the truth. This is pretty much what I made up. It's set against that background and it covers that tension, that possibility of what else could be happening.

The Chicano activists felt that there wasn't enough investigation looking into the possibility that somebody else had set the bombs and that these people were actually assassinated and that the bombs were exploded. There are a lot of inconsistencies in a lot of the conversations, but the police seem to latch onto that one argument and then nothing else was ever really explored. It just kind of went away.

That's what Cuarenta y Ocho is about. It's a drama. It begins with an explosion and it ends with an explosion, so you know the beginning and the end and can only speculate about what took place in the middle. Talk about the tensions in the Chicano movement at the time. It's complex. The movement drew people across a broad spectrum. There were people who believed and had interest mildly in getting involved. Some people were heavily involved. Some people believed that nonviolence was an absolute. This is a big question in the United Farm Workers movement. People were very angry with what was taking place and they wanted to retaliate. Cesar Chavez really held the line on nonviolence. On the other hand, you had people who believed that it was important to send a message that we were living in a territory that had formerly been Mexico and that we were treated like second-class citizens, and there had to be a change. There had to be a much more serious conversation than was taking place.

I don't know who did what. All I get is information from people telling me what other people did. (Laughs.) Nobody tells me about what they did, right? There was a definite rhetoric about how we need to do something. "We need to send a message. We need to send a wakeup call. I want the police to feel as intimidated as they made us feel." Actually, that's a line from my play. It's all speculation.

There were so many loose ends. It's possible that people did things on their own. It's possible that people were set up to do some things. There is a conversation and enough evidence to indicate that authorities were willing to allow them to get further and further into this kind of stuff with the idea that it would just blow up in their faces. That's part of the conversation, too.

People are not going to walk away with an answer to any of this stuff.

There was a real force recognizing that there were forces across the world that were not exactly thrilled with what the U.S. was doing and what those in power were doing. There's a great quote that I picked up. It says: "We seem to accept violence by those in power and to be appalled by violence from those outside of power." I think this is part of that same conversation.

Read on for more from Anthony J. Garcia.

What conversation needs to happen today within the Chicano community and within contemporary struggles? How does all this relate?

I'll try to answer that. I was part of that stuff. I'm 61 now, but I was on the tail end. I was somewhat younger. The dynamics were changing so dramatically. You had a lot of people, the first wave of students into the universities, who were actually older students, students who were coming back into the university. The life they had lived was so drastically different from the life that me, maybe ten years younger than them, was living. They lived life on the edge of a different kind of racism and a different kind of repression than I encountered. Nonetheless, I did see stuff.

There are stories of police beating somebody's mother up. This was right after the incident with Santos Rodriguez, who was a young boy in Dallas. When the police arrested him, they played Russian roulette with him and the gun shot him in the head and nothing happened to the cop. These were the kinds of things that were happening that these guys witnessed first-hand and understood.

Their view of how you had to confront the system was a little different. By the time I came into this thing, I was an artist. I was an activist, but I wasn't into that kind of thing that we have to go and confront and the battle is right now.

We're teaching kids that it's part of the legacy. Education is going to make that change for you and that you have options.

That first wave didn't have a lot of options, but they kicked those doors open. Essentially, you can come back and say, "Wait a minute. There were people that were hurt. Violence is not an option."

But it's like, in that world that they lived in, what were those options? Was it really going to be you go to school and then you're going to get to be the President of the United States or you're going to get to work in a bank?

They weren't even giving us loans at the time. Those options were not available. The only way that first wave felt and the only way it was going to change was to make that conversation very serious. The rest of us benefited because we didn't have to have that same conversation.

The whole breakout at TB-1 was what the students felt was the university's desire to strangle the program, to try to repeal the program through ineptitude. That's what they were out there fighting. One of the legacies is that CU Boulder has a strong, vibrant Latino population.

They were only asking for parity. They were only asking that they let in, out of 30,000 students, 1,200 Chicanos. That was one of the legacies. Because of that confrontational conversation, we're not at that place anymore. We can have a different kind of conversation. For better or worse, in terms of the level of violence and the level of activism, we're not in that conversation today. We can see it happening in Third World countries. We can see it happening in other countries, and we can say, "It's not happening here." But it did. It was here at one point.

It's really complicated, and I think that's exciting and it's tense and it's scary for us to go into. Nobody's going to be happy with the answer from it.

In a lot of the activities that were taking place up there, the only people that I know of that lost their lives in those explosions were people who were progressives, people who were involved in the movement. It's possible that I just don't know about it, but there were not human targets. Everything was a building or a mailbox. It's a fine line, because it could have been. But in reality, for the most part, we were the ones that ended up on the worst side of the violence. That's the big argument for us now, is that if we look at all that complication, the ones who always ended up on the worst end of that was us.

Read on for more from Anthony J. Garcia.

Talk about your aesthetic strategy.

The play does not feature any of the six people. It is not their biography. It is a fictionalized imagining of what those 48 hours were like through an experience of a handful of people who were not real people. For me, it's a lot of what could have happened, what might have happened, what people felt.

The first reaction that people felt was that the police had done it and that the police were coming for them next. It was a really terrifying, scary time for them. What people said is that most of the people around were in complete shock. None of them said, yeah, finally that happened. It was like, what the hell happened? I just saw this person yesterday. How could that possibly be?

It's trying to capture that arc and lead us to the inevitable. It does have a conversation about violence. It does have a conversation about the desperation of the times. Everybody in the play is tainted. Everybody's lying. Everybody has a gun. It's aesthetically trying to capture that complexity.

There is a quote from Alfred Hitchcock that inspired me and led me through this. I stumbled on it. He says, "The terror is not in the boom. It's in the anticipation of it." This has been the guiding aesthetic for the piece. It moves very fast. It's very tense.

You need to be there at the very beginning 'cause if you're not, we won't seat you. You'll be lost. It reads like a big suspense story because you know everything that's happening. It's like a train that's coming at you and what are you going to do in the meantime? That's from my conversations with people and my imagining of things. That's what it was. It's the train. You know the train's coming. It's heading right toward you. What the hell are you going to do between now and then? You've only got 48 hours to deal with it. I'm getting scared talking about it. This is enormously exciting.

It's wild. I had the actors come in as I was developing it. We got to the last twelve pages and I said, "Okay, I can stop now and we can go to the end. Who wants to go forward?" They were like, "We want to go forward." I was like, "Does anyone want to speculate on what's happening next?" None of them could. The play doesn't get resolved till the last page and a half. It's that kind of tension.

Every time I would sit with people, they would tell me their stories. That's what I walked away with was nervous anticipation. Nobody knew what was happening. The world was never the same place after. It changed the dynamics. It changed the dynamics of the politics here. After the explosion, everything dried up. The place was crawling with ATF and FBI guys. Everybody got the hell out of there. Activism just kind of went back to a really different place. It just dried up.

Then you also had the legal expenses of people having to deal with that process. The organizations got turned into legal fundraising machines, because that's all they had time to do.

Somebody asked me, "What's the entertainment value? It's so tragic." For me, there is this thing of deep engagement in the subject matter and an intellectual, emotional and political conversation. That's how I would define entertainment: emotional and intellectual stimulation. We'll see how it goes. Cuarenta y Ocho premieres Thursday at 7:30 p.m. and runs through June 29 at Su Teatro, 721 Santa Fe Drive. Tickets are $20, or $17 for students and seniors. For more information, call 303-296-0219 or go to suteatro.org.

Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris

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