A UC Davis senior, radio host and activist died 25 years ago. Now, he is a graduate

At 21, Oscar Gomez Jr. was “desarrollando – blossoming,” in the words of Eddie Salas, a close friend and Davis community member.

A member of the UC Davis chapter of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (MEChA) and the host of radio show “La Onda Xicana,” Gomez was known and loved on UC campuses, in state penitentiaries, on fields worked by Chicanx farmers and in his hometown of Baldwin Park – anywhere the airwaves carried his voice on KDVS 90.3 FM, anywhere he had traveled to orally document the struggles of Chicanx people.

Friends described a magnetism that drew people toward him and each other, making community coalesce. “He was glue, binding all of us,” said Juan Gonzalez, a lifelong friend and fellow MEChA member.

His premature death on Nov. 6, 1994, left family, friends, fellow organizers and fans of his radio show bereft. “They held vigils in the state penitentiaries when he passed away,” Gonzalez said.

Last Friday, 25 years later, Gomez was finally awarded a posthumous degree in Chicana/o Studies and Community Development at the Chicanx and Latinx Graduation Celebration of 2019. (Chicanx and Latinx are gender-neutral alternatives to Chicano and Latino.)

His father, Oscar Gomez Sr., a former firefighter who, according to friends of Gomez’s, imparted his expansive warmth and intent manner of listening to his son, was there to accept the degree on his behalf.

Friends and family in the bleachers, reunited at UC Davis after decades dispersed across California, stood with a collective roar of “Que viva Oscar,” cameras raised high.

Oscar Gomez Sr. was accompanied by his second son, Eduardo Gomez, who draped his brother’s shawl over his shoulders: “Oscar E. Gomez Jr. El Bandido. UC Davis MEChA. Class of 1995.”

El Bandido de Aztlán

Every Sunday morning between 1991 and 1994, students, activists, farmworkers and prison inmates tuned into KDVS 90.3 FM to catch Gomez’s voice.

Gomez – alias El Bandido de Aztlán – mixed Chicano soul oldies with talk of art, people’s history, and present-day political challenges and objectives. In a recording, his Spanglish drawl is relaxed and assured, improvisational but deeply researched. “Para toda la gente ahi de los barrios ahi de Sacramento y Yolo ... We’re gonna be here ... talking little bit more of the lucha and the spirit of the juventud. ... Llamada: 752-2777 ahora lo puedes.”

His alias, El Bandido, was a reference to famous 19th-century vaquero and outlaw Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo, according to The LAist – “sort of like Robin Hood,” said Susy Zepeda, professor of Chicana/o studies at UC Davis. “He was naming an indigenous self – but a complicated one, with an anti-colonial and anti-imperial view.”

“La Onda Xicana,” inspired by grassroots radio of the 1960s, snagged listeners with sweet tunes, then engaged them with their histories and communities. As peers organized against the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and the politics of Gov. Pete Wilson, Gomez pulled greater numbers into the struggle.

“Oscar politicized me,” Sharon Torres, a local activist, said.

Fellow organizers joined him in the studio. And he joined them in the field, microphone and recording equipment in hand — extensions of his persistent desire to hold dialogue. He pastiched his field recordings – from farms, schools, prisons and university protests – into “La Onda Xicana.”

“He opened doors for anyone with a cause to talk,” fellow DJ Rafael Chávez said. “He picked up calls from LA, Yolo County, Santa Barbara – anywhere there was a university he had a connection.”

His public engagement connected activist scholarship to working-class people, Chávez said.

“He had an innate ability to engage. I don’t care if you were the mayor or you were the homeless,” said Salas. “He could make you feel like you were the most important person in the world. Everybody gravitated towards him.”

The Sunday after Nov. 16, 1994, however, there was radio silence from Gomez. He had died in what the police ruled an accident while covering a student protest at UC Santa Barbara against Proposition 187, which blocked undocumented immigrants’ access to non-emergency health care, public education, and other services,.

Gomez’s family and friends, roused to action by a coroner’s report of head trauma, called for a reopening of the case under the slogan “Justicia Para Oscar” – to no avail.

His death was deeply felt across multiple communities. “They held vigils in the state penitentiaries when he passed away,” Gonzalez said.

Twenty-five years later, his posthumous degree is “long overdue,” several friends – Gonzalez, Salas and childhood friend Israel Calderon – said on separate occasions.

Zepeda, who spearheaded the awarding of the posthumous degree, said it was about “humanizing and remembering” Gomez. “We have to look at our genealogy and … see the lessons of it.”

For Gonzalez, the degree constituted deliverance: “When I got that call from the university, I was bawling. I felt like the chains were released. I could breathe. I could move on.”

Oscar Gomez Sr. said he valued not so much the degree itself as the recognition it signified. “He was being recognized for his work,” he said. “That meant a lot to me.”

But the closure was only partial. For Gonzalez, questions about the circumstances of his death persisted. Salas expressed skepticism toward a university that declined to investigate Gomez’s death only to celebrate a much-dimmed legacy 25 years later. Others felt a bittersweet mixture of relief and renewed grief.

“Now I have a degree, but I have no son,” Gomez’s mother Maria said.

From Baldwin Park to UC Davis

Gomez was born in 1973 in Baldwin Park in Los Angeles County, the eldest of Oscar and Maria Gomez’s four children. Always tall for his age, he was known as a “gentle giant” and “big teddy bear,” his school friends said. Jose Armendariz recalled defending Gomez until Gomez became a defender himself: He shielded vulnerable kids from school bullies on the playground and played linebacker on the football field.

High school graduation photos depict him beaming, broad-shouldered and genial. He had been accepted into UC Davis as a scholar-athlete.

While the boys congregated in the school gym after the handing out of diplomas, they found Gomez sporting a pair of sunglasses, Calderon recounted. “Why are you wearing your shades inside?” they asked him.

“Because the future is bright,” Gomez said.

The boys cracked up.

Gomez entered the 18,000-strong UC Davis student body as one of only 800 Chicanx and Latinx students, according to Margarita Berta-Avila, a fellow UC Davis student and organizer.

Judith Segura-Mora was representing MEChA at a welcome bazaar for Chicanx and Latinx students when Gomez approached her. She clocked him as a jock and directed him wryly towards the party table. MEChA was for hard workers who wanted to make a difference, she told him.

But Gomez’s interest was piqued. At the next MEChA meeting, Gomez was there. Then, when he commandeered a university golf cart and was sentenced to community service, he chose to do his time by hosting a show on the university radio station, KDVS.

The rest was history. Friends attested to Gomez’s rapid blossoming, thirst for knowledge and youthful wisdom. “He was in so many places at once, and resided in so many minds and hearts, and yet was solid, so solid,” said Natalie Paredes. “He loved people so much.”

Re-creating ‘La Onda Xicana’ in Woodland

The emotions that the graduation elicited found release the next day at an intimate gathering of about 30 community members at Taller Arte del Nuevo Amanecer, a warehouse art space run by UC Davis’ Chicana/o Studies Department.

After Calpulli Tlayolotl, a Mexican group, performed an opening prayer, family and friends reminisced amid silkscreen-printed protest art, including work by Malaquías Montoya, a UC Davis professor and one of Gomez’s mentors.

Segura-Mora played a slideshow of images set to the soundtrack of “Young, Gifted, and Brown,” specially re-recorded by Joe Bataan himself. “On a rainy Sunday morning in 1973 / A mother was blessed with a son who grew up to be/ Young, gifted, and brown/ With the strength to tear a mountain down/ With a voice so young and clear/ A chance for everyone to hear.”

The music that Gomez loved filled the space, recreating “La Onda Xicana.”

“It seems like Oscar is still alive because so many people are still doing things for him,” Oscar Gomez Sr. said. “There’s always something – every year a scholarship, a documentary.”

In fact, several Oscars live on: Four of his friends and siblings named their children after him. Two were present at the gathering.

Several of his friends have gone on to work in education, a field that Gomez considered paramount. Calderon teaches at his and Gomez’s alma mater, Baldwin Park High School. Paredes is a community college counselor. Salas still works with high-risk youth. Gladys Gomez, his younger sister, is a teacher. And Almendariz, who didn’t go to college, recently received his teaching certification.

Armendariz, Calderon, Gonzalez and Gladys Gomez, alongside a few other close friends, are board members of LUCHA Foundation, which provides higher education scholarships to first-generation low-income students.

Salas, taking the mic at the gathering, recited a Toltec fragment in the spirit of life lived brilliantly: “Our lives are shorter than flowers. Then shall we mourn? No. We shall dance and dress in bright colors – because our lives are shorter than flowers.”

Editor’s note: This story was corrected June 18, 2019, to say that Oscar Gomez was a senior at UC Davis at the time of his death, not a junior, and that he died while covering a student protest against Proposition 187, not a controversial hire at UC Santa Barbara.

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Chalay Chalermkraivuth, from Yale University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She reports on arts and entertainment, the LGBTQ community and social justice. She grew up in Bangkok, Thailand.