I love Los Angeles. Not the la-la land of the media. I like downtown LA, east of Hill St., the Maginot Line the LAPD puts up to keep the homeless away from the high rises. I grew up in the fifties just east of downtown and could see City Hall from my grammar school window by day, then on TV’s Dragnet show at night.
On special days we’d go to the Old Plaza Olvera and eat cactus candy. Every Saturday we brothers would accompany Dad to the Grand Central Market where he would buy the freshest produce, especially the chiles. It was full of different people and their foods. Brown, Black, White, Asian, working people. It was fascinating and fun.
All my adult life I have continued going by these places almost weekly, most often to march, picket and advocate with working people, Black, Brown, white and Asian, with LAPD keeping watch all around. It is fun and fulfilling. It was here I got to know one of Los Angeles’ finest working class heroes, Don White.
Don passed away June 19 at the age of 71. He was one of the key people who linked the struggles of Central Americans, here and in their homelands, to the progressive movements in greater Los Angeles. Leaders and activists of the progressive movements of Central American peoples, here and abroad, affectionately came to call him Don Blanco. He became a leader of the city’s progressive movement as a whole.
Don grew with the causes he served because he applied his wonderful gifts: intelligence, sensitivity, imagination, humor and courage with both modesty and assertiveness. He could focus on the key tasks at hand and get others to agree to disagree enough to develop the social force needed for regional, national and international impact.
Don emerged as a key citywide activist in the early eighties when Ronald Reagan was president and state and county government as well as the LAPD were run by rightwing Republicans. He helped make this town a powerhouse for progressive politics.
He had already been a history and journalism teacher for two decades, in a middle school in an inner city working class neighborhood that was becoming a Latino barrio in 1963 when he started. A founding member of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, he was by all accounts an effective and popular teacher. He obviously learned much from the over 5,000 students who passed through his classrooms.
At an Aug. 10 memorial meeting at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, attended by a thousand multiracial progressive activists, I learned that in the mid-seventies, Don had become very active in humanitarian aid for natural disasters in Central America, and that as a college student in the late fifties he actively opposed the House Un-American Activities Committee’s red-baiting. Like most Southern Californians he was raised out of state, growing up in a working class family in Mount Vernon, Wash. where he became high school student body president.
In 1983 Don White became a key local activist and then a leader in the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. While the spokespersons were mainly Salvadorans and established local activist leaders, he was everywhere, working on details to move things forward. He often risked his life traveling to El Salvador on solidarity missions. Don’s leadership emerged even more strongly with the setbacks to Central American democratic movements as U.S. global corporate dominance intensified following the Cold War.
His retirement from teaching in 1997 made him more available to help facilitate development of the progressive movement as a whole as reaction took control of virtually every lever of the national government. Increasingly, he was the emcee or a board member for various progressive causes.
Ever youthful, Don was short of stature, with a gleam in his eye and a smile on his lips —always a gentleman with a bit of the elf in him.
I got to know him a bit better on a windy day last winter. It was the day of the monthly Iraq Moratorium and we both showed up at the northeast corner of Fifth and Figueroa — the main gateway from downtown LA onto the freeway system — at 4 p.m. as rush hour started. For nearly an hour and a half we were the only ones holding a 20 by 4 foot banner saying, “Stop the Iraq War.”
Thousands of passing cars honked and waved at our banner. We would struggle to wave back, and then Don — ever alert to details — would remind me the wind had moved us away from the most visible spot and we would move back.
The last time I spoke with Don was later in the spring at a taquito stand on Olvera Street. He was working on a fund appeal for later that afternoon. We chatted about the prospects of defeating the rightwing Republicans in this year’s elections, particularly the nearest Republican incumbent, Rep. David Dreier. After finishing my tacos I left him to his preparations. A month later I learned of his death.
I have thought about him every day since.
As a Mexican American, a Chicano and a worker, I am ever grateful for Don’s contributions to the understanding and strength of Latino progressive movements at home and abroad, and to the overall struggle for progress and democracy here in the United States. In the Los Angeles area there are probably well more than a million people of Central American heritage, a large proportion of whom support the democratic struggles in their home countries, in this country and around the world. Don White helped make this happen.
Among the lessons of Don Blanco’s life is the importance of white American workers’ internationalism and working class consciousness for the democratic transformation of this country and the world. Don Blanco was aware of the connections between imperialism and monopoly, democracy and progress, principle and personality. He was and is an all-American Angelino.
Don Blanco presente!