Today is the 53rd anniversary of the National Chicano Moratorium and we honor the late and great Dr. Roberto ‘Cintli’ Rodriguez. 

On July 31, 2023, he transitioned from Mother Earth at the young age of 69 to the spirit world—Mictlan. One day he’s a mortal among us, the next day he’s an ancestor of the struggle. He joins the likes of Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones and Dr. Gloria E. Anzaldúa. He also joins the likes of Elizabeth “Bebita” Martinez and Rudolfo Anaya, including countless who fought for la Raza in occupied America—a term borrowed from Dr. Rodolfo F. Acuña’s classic book.

Dr. Cintli (or Roberto) had many identities: Chicano, scholar, journalist, writer, runner, traditional expert on maíz, elder and compañero en la lucha.

Born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and raised in East Los Angeles, Roberto apparently died while living in Mexico’s sacred Teotihuacan. The symptom of his untimely death is a reported heart attack. Yet, the root cause of his sudden death occurred 44 years on East Los Angeles’ Whittier Boulevard—the capital of lowrider cruising—when the cops brutally assaulted him.

On March 23, 1979, on the same night that the movie Boulevard Nights premiered, four cops (or Los Angeles County Sheriff deputies) jumped Roberto. They repeatedly hit, kicked and beat him with their batons. Causing him brain damage and PTSD, they almost killed him that tragic night. Instead of calling for an ambulance, the cops drove Roberto to the Los Angeles County General Hospital (or General Hospital) on State Street. On the way to General Hospital, they repeatedly threatened his life. They even threatened to drop him off in the notorious Ramona Gardens public housing project (or Big Hazard projects) in the middle of the night, telling the homies that he belonged to a rival gang. This is an old, racist cop trick. 

Adding insult to injury, they charged him with assault with a deadly weapon against the same cops that almost killed him. His alleged weapon? A camera! As a then-reporter/photographer for Low Rider Magazine, he dared to photograph the cops beating up an unarmed Chicano on East Los Angeles’ Whittier Boulevard during a cruising night–a Chicana/o ritual. As a result, the cops turned their fascist gaze onto Roberto. This is a case of what the late and brilliant Chicano historian Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones refers to as anti-Mexicanism. 

Thanks to his resilience and legal defense, Roberto was eventually cleared of all criminal charges and reached a settlement in 1986 for over $205,000 with the police state. Instead of using the money for personal use, which he had all the right to do, he invested it in a bilingual magazine, Americas 2001

I first met Roberto at UCLA during the inaugural issue of his magazine. As an alum of UCLA, he visited us—as MEChistas—at our office on the fourth floor of Kerckhoff Hall. He spoke to us about his horrific police abuse experience and the importance of Raza publications. While a student at UCLA during the 1970s, he was the Editor-in-Chief of La Gente de Aztlán (or La Gente)a Chicana/o student-run magazine. This was the start of his promising and uncompromising writing vocation in service of our people. 

The more I got to know Roberto and all his contributions to la Raza since the 1970s, the more I appreciated him and looked up to him as an elder in the Chicana/o movement. There was a unique bond and kinship that I shared with him. For instance, we have deep roots with Mexico. We both once lived in East Los Angeles. While his case with the police was extreme, I experienced police abuse and harassment while growing up in the Big Hazard projects. While he attended UCLA in the 1970s, I attended this elite university in the 1980s. We received our doctorates after engaging in community-orientation actions on behalf of (and with) los de abajo–where we derive from–for several years. As scholar activists, we engaged in scholarship at the academic and public level. We also participated in countless community-based events and protests for el movimiento

While we have a lot in common, his generation (and previous ones) of Chicana and Chicano leaders paved the road for my generation and future ones to challenge systemic racism in America. For those of us of Mexican origin, respect for our elders is deeply embedded in our culture. This is something that the assimilated Mexican American forgets–as a ticket to be accepted by the dominant culture. 

By sheer chance or coincidence, on the same night that he was almost killed by the cops on Whittier Boulevard, our generational paths almost crossed. For me, it started when my older sister Ofelia took my brother Salomón (an acclaimed artist) and I in her Impala lowrider to watch the premier of Boulevard Nights at the Fiesta Four Drive-In in Pico Rivera. (As kids from the projects, as passengers, we always snuck in the truck to save money. It was one of our street hustles.) After rival gangs engaged in a shoot-out at the start of the movie, my sister quickly fled and took us cruising on Whittier Boulevard. 

For over four decades, Roberto was a constant critic against police abuse. He did so in the form of his many articles, books (e.g., Yolqui…), lectures and protests. It takes a lot of courage to do so, given the potential consequences from violent agents of the state.

He helped launch the Raza Killings Database Project to find a more accurate number on how many Latinos are being killed by law enforcement nationwide. He asserted that Latinos are vastly undercounted in many public databases, such as the Washington Post’s Fatal Force Report. Roberto said this newspaper’s database places many Latina/o-sounding names in their “unknown” racial category or their white racial category–causing a vast undercount for Latinos. CALÓ NEWS interviewed Roberto in April 2022.

“For me, everything goes back to when Ruben Salazar [the first Latino columnist for the Los Angeles Times] was killed. That’s why I wanted to be a journalist, because he was killed right down the street from where I grew up. I grew up on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles. I was almost killed about four or five blocks from where he was killed. That’s always been part of my psyche. Having that consciousness is what pretty much motivated me, has always motivated me to keep fighting,” he told CALÓ NEWS at the time.

Despite suffering from PTSD and retaliations from the police state, he didn’t stop speaking out against police abuse towards Brown people. He was also in solidarity with Black communities, Native American communities and other oppressed people in el norte and the Global South. He understood the necessity for all oppressed people to unite and fight against all forms of oppression. 

As a human being, however, he could only take so much. Hence, on that fateful day of July 31, 2023, the heart of a warrior finally gave out. 

While his heart could no longer take the abuse of racial capitalism, his indigenous warrior spirit lives on for current and future generations of Brown people to continue en la lucha

Rest in power, Dr. Cintli.

Álvaro Huerta, Ph.D., is a Religion and Public Life Organizing Fellow, Harvard Divinity School (HDS). He’s also an Associate Professor at Cal Poly Pomona. Dr. Huerta is the author of the forthcoming...