The mysterious death of Oscar Gomez, unraveled A new podcast — Imperfect Paradise: The Forgotten Revolutionary — tells the story of a Chicano student-led protest movement in California, and organizer Oscar Gomez's mysterious death.

Details of a Chicano activist's mysterious death are unraveled in a new podcast

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It was the early 1990s. And a voice piercing through the airwaves at a student radio station in Davis, Calif., galvanized the growing Chicano movement.


OSCAR GOMEZ: Make sure and question the history that you've been taught, because a lot of times you know that George Washington is not your father. What are these people scared of? That the raza's going to get educated, and they're going to be able to go back and empower their communities? It's something that we've got to ask ourselves, raza, and something that we must continue to ask ourselves because la lucha continua.

MARTÍNEZ: Within a few years, that man would be dead, his voice silenced. His name was Oscar Gomez, and his body was found at the bottom of a massive bluff in Santa Barbara. A reporter at Southern California's KPCC has been unraveling the details of his mysterious death.

ADOLFO GUZMAN-LOPEZ, BYLINE: It was during a time when California's politics were red hot.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez. His new podcast series is called "The Forgotten Revolutionary."

GUZMAN-LOPEZ: There was a lot of immigration from Central America and from Mexico into the United States, and this was largely because of the U.S.-funded Central American civil wars and this Mexican economic crisis that happened in the 1980s. And that really tested the institutions in California and Texas and lots of other places. And the response by policymakers was to try to shut people out of services. It was a xenophobic response. And Oscar was one of thousands of college students who resisted, who tried to return the dignity back to people who were targeted, who were being called less than human.


GOMEZ: You know, the California (speaking Spanish) because when we start seeing walls, walls on the frontera, you know, the military, the National Guard, you know, all these kind of - the army, tu sabes, in our own tierra, it makes living conditions pretty rough for the gente.

MARTÍNEZ: And that radio show that he had - tell us about the radio show and what he talked about.

GUZMAN-LOPEZ: He had a show called "La Onda Xicana." La onda xicana means the Chicano wave or thing, right? And so this was 1990s, so he was playing music from maybe a generation ago, doo-wop, love ballads but also James Brown, bands like War, El Chicano. So he was a radio DJ, but he also inserted politics into his show.


GOMEZ: They think that, you know, oh, they don't need these people to go get an education. We can use these raza as our workers. We can use these people as our mechanics. We can use these people, you know, as just a gente who are just going to go off and do all our dirty work. (Speaking Spanish). It's about time that we realize, you know, all the stuff that they do to us aqui in this university and with the educational system in general.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, his death, Oscar's death - at the time, what was the public told about how he died, how it happened?

GUZMAN-LOPEZ: He died the day after a protest. The autopsy and coroner's report in Santa Barbara found that he died from blunt force trauma to the head. And the manner of death was left undetermined. The sheriff's department investigators could not find any witnesses who saw Oscar fall from the bluffs there in Santa Barbara, which can be up to, you know, 70, 80 feet tall. So that left a lot of questions open. And when we talked to Oscar's father and closest family members, they believe that Oscar was murdered because of his political activism, because he was speaking truth to power, that he was broadcasting, really, within earshot of the state capital of California. And so we set out to investigate.

MARTÍNEZ: Why did you feel, Adolfo, so compelled to try and get answers about his death?

GUZMAN-LOPEZ: I've been holding this story for 30 years. I met him at a protest in Santa Barbara. I was a Chicano journalist. I had a Chicano radio show at UC San Diego. One of Oscar's best friends kept telling me, hey, Adolfo, you're a public radio reporter. Why don't you look into this? This would be a great investigation. And then part of me resisted that, A, because to do that would be to go back into my own activism back then, which I had put away because the message in the public radio newsroom was that that's advocacy journalism, right? And so I've been holding this story, holding this story. And right now was the time to tell it.

MARTÍNEZ: What do you remember about him and that time you met?

GUZMAN-LOPEZ: OK, so it's important to say who I was at the time. So I was a formerly undocumented Mexican-born, border-raised 19-year-old guy. Oscar was a U.S. citizen, came from a very functional and loving home. There was a lot of dysfunction in my home. And he was a big guy. Well, I'm 5-4, so...

MARTÍNEZ: I was going to say, Adolfo, I know you.

GUZMAN-LOPEZ: (Laughter) Anything above 5-6 is tall for me. But he was a jock. He was a scholar athlete. He played tuba in the school band. He had all of these traits and qualities, and he exuded this confidence that I didn't have. So I met him. It was at a protest. And check this out, A. He was wearing a white shirt. He was wearing a Pendleton. And he was wearing denim pants kind of low on the waist.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

GUZMAN-LOPEZ: He looked like a cholo.


GUZMAN-LOPEZ: But he wasn't a cholo. Friends told us that he wanted to put that image forward to challenge people's perceptions that a person who dress like that could be intellectual, could be an activist, could be all of these things that they didn't think somebody dressed like that could be.

MARTÍNEZ: And you took a very personal approach to telling this story.

GUZMAN-LOPEZ: Well, A, back when I was in college or growing up, I didn't really use the word vulnerability. Thank you, millennials, for, you know, explaining what that means. So thanks to the production team and the way in which they pushed me to bring out what I was feeling back then of being in this middle space kind of between English and Spanish, between Mexico and the United States, really being rejected by both countries, right? So that came out, and it was painful.

MARTÍNEZ: That's reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez. His investigation into the death of Chicano activist Oscar Gomez makes up the latest season of the podcast "Imperfect Paradise." His story is called "Forgotten Revolutionary." Adolfo. thank you very much.

GUZMAN-LOPEZ: Thank you, A.


GOMEZ: The migration continues, and so does our history and our legacy. And we got to keep on heading to the border (inaudible). Don't put me down 'cause I'm brown - this El Chicano. Too brown, too down.


EL CHICANO: (Singing) Don't put me down if I'm brown. Hear what I say.

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