Of all of the massive marches that characterized US opposition to the Vietnam War, perhaps none is more burned into the Mexican-American collective consciousness than the National Chicano Moratorium of 1970. Intended as a peaceful display of ethnic solidarity and anti-war sentiment, the National Chicano Moratorium eventually descended into a brutal display of police repression that left several marchers dead – among them the iconic Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar.
Filmed almost accidentally in the midst of violence, a short documentary by Tom Myrdahl entitled Chicano Moratorium powerfully captures the chaos of that fateful afternoon. After a poetic introduction, Myrdahl presents us with postcard images of peaceful demonstration, with colorful marchers accompanied by cultural activities like dancing and singing. A voiceover narration explains the nature of the event, which called attention to the disproportionate amount of Chicano deaths on the battlefront while shifting focus to the battle against prejudice at home.
As a film student at a nearby college, Myrdahl seemed to attend the day’s events with an almost tourist curiosity, but as the filmmaker was swept up in the demonstration’s violent climax, the material took on a dynamic urgency. The short concludes with powerful, almost surreal shots of the immediate aftermath, with burnt mannequins strewn about the scorched streets and storefronts as firefighters tamp down smoldering fires.
Offscreen, one interviewee reflects on the reality of the Chicano experience. His voice filled with angst, he embodies the frustrations boiling over in East LA and across the nation at the time: “The Chicanos are trying to escape from this environment… The white people have given it to us and we cannot survive in it. We have to go to jail or die. We’re ready to die to get out of it!”
Despite being shot and edited in 1970, Chicano Moratorium didn’t see the light of day until Myrdahl released the short documentary on Youtube in 2010.