Back to the streets - Page 6

The Mission and the revolution, as lived and told by Roberto Vargas

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Poet, teacher, activist, and revolutionary Roberto Vargas helped build the Mission Cultural Center

Vargas began organizing small, tight-knit cadres for battle in Nicaragua, recruiting his Sandinista guerrillas right off of the streets of the Mission. "I was secretive and I found them one by one," he explains. "We were very clandestine and very compartmentalized. We never had more than a dozen people in our committee at once."

Men who were menial laborers in San Francisco would one day be among the most respected heroes of the Nicaraguan Revolution. "When I recruited Chombo [Walter Ferretti], he was a cook at the Hyatt Regency," says Vargas. "Later, Chombo would become a head of national security in Nicaragua. Another recruit was a former pilot, so I went to talk to him where he pumped gas at 21st and South Van Ness. That was Commandante Raúl Venerio. After the triumph of 1979, he would become the Chief of the Nicaraguan Air Force."

When in San Francisco, Venerio later served as the editor of La Gaceta. In Nicaragua, the former gas station attendant became a real hero. "They got an airplane and attacked the National Palace," says Vargas, laughing. "They hit it and split, and got away — real Mission boys!"

Before heading off to join La Frente, Vargas' recruits would undergo a regimen of training and political education, an informal boot camp largely hidden in plain sight in the Bay Area.

"It was primitive," remembers Murguía. "We didn't really have someone with a military background to train us. We got just guns at pawn shops on Mission Street and practiced shooting at the firing range in Sharp Park down in Pacifica. We worked out with a friend who was a black belt in karate."

Murguía says the most difficult part of training was the daily pre-dawn run of five laps around Bernal Hill. "We would run up the hill counter-clockwise — because that way is more difficult," he says, "and we would wear these combat boots we bought at Leed's Shoes on Mission."

Besides being a part of physical conditioning, the run was a litmus test of the recruits' commitment. "Doing activity like that is almost impossible if you're not really psychologically into it," says Murguía. "Try running five times around Bernal Hill! You start wondering after your third lap, 'Goddamn! Why am I doing this?' Especially when no one is forcing you to do it!"

When I ask if the daily jog of 10 or 12 Latino men in combat boots on the hill at sunrise did not attract any, uh, attention, Murguía shrugs. "There were less people on the hill in those days," he says. He recalls that the Mission cadres trained in complete anonymity: "We got money to rent planes and we took turns learning to fly the planes around the Bay Area. Nobody suspected anything because nobody knew anything about Nicaragua then."

When I try to imagine a phalanx of Sandinistas at dawn on today's Bernal Hill, surrounded by a crowd of early morning dog walkers, I can't help but laugh. But the cadre's training was deadly serious, and Murguía says its value was far more than psychological. "What I discovered when I went to the Southern Front was that our San Francisco cadres were some of the most advanced in the war," he explains. "We understood the political situation and the tactic of insurrection and we had a minimum of physical conditioning. But some of these other cats, man! They literally just walked in off the street!"

For a time, Murguía remained the director of the Mission Cultural Center, while making regular trips to fight in Nicaragua. In 1977, Vargas resigned from the Arts Commission and went to battle for six or seven months. He and Murguía would spend the next couple of years rotating back and forth from the war front in Nicaragua to their solidarity work in the Mission. Murguía describes his entry into Nicaragua, his stay in various guerrilla safe houses in Costa Rica, and his experiences in the war in his 1991 American Book Award-winning fictionalized memoir, Southern Front.

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