"I remember a roving gang fight one year. Guys running around kicking each other's teeth in. And right at, like, 4:30 it all started."
Lalo Alcaraz has been involved with Chicano Park Day since he was first "put in charge of MeCHA's [Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, a student-activist club] carne asada sale" at the annual celebration of the storied park, which resides between the pillars of the Coronado Bay Bridge on the mainland side.
"There was a lot of alcohol, you know," Alcaraz reminisced. "The giant Miller inflatable beer bottle and all that. So it wasn't the best. It was inevitable, I guess.
"But now it's completely safe," he chuckled, sitting in a well-stocked booth on the fair's de facto midway. "Lots of families, lots of kids. It's great to see all the kids-and some of them conscious kids at that."
Alcaraz is a San Diego native, an L.A. resident and the political cartoonist-satirist recently added-some, including the artist, say surprisingly-by the Union-Tribune as a regular feature. He said he's trying to mix his own skeptical optimism with the younger generation's apparent cultural consciousness.
"I think growing up a poor brown child in San Diego-I'm still traumatized by the experience," Alcaraz said. "But it was real nice to see all these kids today, very confident and proud, knowing who they are."
Who they are, if it could be judged by the merchandise at the dozens of booths and tables set up around the park, is a media-savvy group of black-clad skate-rats who revere the face of Che Guevara and plaster their walls with posters of Mexico's indigenous-rights freedom fighters, like Zapatista rebel leader Subcommandante Marcos.
Oh, and a lot of them are fans of New Jersey punk rockers the Ramones.
Of course, judging by the racial mix of the day's crowd, the cultural exchange was easily flowing both ways.
Alcaraz said this newfound Chicano, or Latino (as most call themselves today), pride is encouraging, but he also thinks acceptance by the mainstream is still bestowed grudgingly by his conservative hometown.
"No one is surprised as I was that [the U-T] picked up my strip and is really backing it up," Alcaraz admitted. Letters about the strip have been mostly in support, too. I never would have thought that would happen in San Diego."
With indigenous, Mexican and Mexican-American-themed murals snaking up and across the formidable concrete arcs, Chicano Park is billed as the "the world's largest outdoor art gallery." And it is unique. Since 1970, Chicano Park Day has been as much a collective political statement as well as one more outdoor festival or block party in sunny San Diego.
In 1970, the Brown Berets, a community activist group of Chicano students and others, protested the building of a Highway Patrol office in a section of Barrio Logan that residents wanted to use for a park. Already demoralized by the government's relocation of hundreds of families to make way for Interstate 5, the community saw it as their last stand against forced removal from an area they had populated for decades. After the 12-day occupation by activists, the state capitulated and handed over the lot for a community arts center and park.
Barrio Logan residents and park supporters have been celebrating that victory for 33 years now.
Marco Anguiano of the Chicano Park Steering Committee, which promoted the event, said the day was about stressing pride. He did want to be clear about motives, however: "It's about re-claiming Chicano Mexicano heritage" and "self determination... where we fight to preserve and defend a small piece of Aztlan."
That word, "Aztlan," is the mythical and symbolic name for the land spanning the southwest United States and most of northern Mexico, adopted by the Chicano movement of the '60s as a "spiritual and physical center." The original logo of the park still carries the word, written across an image of the Southwest.
Less than two months ago, Aztlan was at the center alright-of a short but persnickety tiff over federal transportation funding. "It was about that word in the Chicano Park logo," said Anguiano, referring to the hot-button issue, which involved some arguable restrictions on state funding for the renovation of the park's murals.
Stopping between festival duties on Saturday to chat briefly, Anguiano commented on the hubbub with the glibness of someone who's just won his case on People's Court.
"Some mucky-muck up in Sacramento asked some mucky-muck in Washington [D.C.], and they said it was a discriminatory thing-to have that logo in there. And Caltrans told us they weren't sure if they could use it."
Like much of the spirit of Chicano Park Day, however, Anguiano sounded an inclusive, positive note in the end-which the Aztlan debate, ultimately, did as well; the state removed any objections to the word and the last barrier towards the park receiving its promised renovation dollars, just days after the controversy began.
"To their credit," Anguiano said, "there were some people at Caltrans who sympathized and really helped push us through. They fixed it all up for us. It's all about who's on your side."