Ruben Martinez is a professor of literature and writing at Loyola Marymount University; his most recent book, Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West, will be released in August. At the time of 1992’s civil unrest, he was a reporter for the L.A. Weekly. Martinez spoke to Frying Pan News about his coverage during that volatile week.
Frying Pan News: What was your assignment that first day?
Ruben Martinez: I was at the courthouse in Simi Valley, camped out with Eric Spillman of KTLA – I couldn’t get inside, there were too many people there already. Outside, all the veteran journalists had their lawn chairs and umbrellas — they’d been there for weeks. The spectacle of it impressed me.
Did the acquittals shock the media?
Yes. A really motley crew of people – reporters,
What do I most remember about the uprising of ’92? That certain feeling of powerlessness.
I have so many vivid memories: People swarming the supermarket on Third Street and Bonnie Brae, just west of downtown, rushing out with baskets loaded with diapers and food supplies. Outraged young men standing in the middle of Crenshaw Boulevard near Adams, blocking my way home — at least until I figured out how to go around them. Burning buildings all around where I worked in Pico Union, and where I lived in South Los Angeles. And then the drawings of my five-year-old twins, showing burning buildings and people running for their lives.
I was a 32-year-old mother of three young children, and working as the Executive Director of the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) in Pico Union. I was living in a four-bedroom bungalow house near Crenshaw and Venice boulevards, so between my home and work,
(Editor’s Note: Frying Pan News continues its series about the 1992 unrest with this account told to us by Erin Aubry Kaplan.)
I was living in Inglewood in 1992. When the verdicts came in I was getting a facial — we were all really outraged in the salon. At that time I was teaching adult education courses — basic English and math for GED exams, plus ESL classes. I felt like I had to do something and a teacher friend and I heard there was a rally at the First AME Church. I was excited — I hadn’t really seen this kind of energizing in L.A. before. But as we drove to FAME people were filling up the streets and the energy felt dangerous.
We never made it: This guy threw a trash can into the street and someone tried to stop a motorist. (My father also went to FAME and didn’t make it inside because it was too crowded —
(Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on Dr. Pop.)
On April 27, 1992, my mother had to make probably one of the most difficult decisions in her life— to take my grandmother off life-support. I was eight years old and I remember standing in the hallway, outside Mama Toya’s room because the doctors and nurses said I was too young to see her. Her long battle with colon cancer was finally over; this painful disease had transformed a vibrant and resilient woman into a frail 40-pound shell of a person. She was finally at peace. The pillar of our family left this earth as Los Angeles was at the brink of burning in flames.
Victoria Quintanilla, better know to us as Mama Toya or Niña Toya, arrived to the United States in 1986, six years after my mother came to Los Angeles and three years after I was born.
It was a Wednesday night and my son was watching the news on TV in his room while I fixed dinner. “Dad,” he called from the bedroom, “Dad, you better get in here and see this.”
“This” turned out to be the beginnings of the worst urban social upheaval in American history. Its early moments were caught on film by a news helicopter high over the intersection of Florence and Normandie. We watched, transfixed, as some black kids pulled a white truck driver out of his cab and one of them hit him with a brick. An Asian woman was threatened as she tried to make a right turn off Normandie onto Florence, her face etched with fear. Car windows were broken. The news commentators called them “hoodlums” and the police were nowhere in sight. Then we watched as the city began to burn.
I was an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara when Watts upended L.A.