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On a recent sun-spanked morning, the founder of Ladmo Park Chicano Chronicle slinks into Starbuck's, sporting an active cell phone and a ferocious attitude. The notoriously elusive Chicano cyber activist slips into a seat at a side table, his back to the door. Despite the friendly corporate setting, he shuts down any possibility of small talk immediately.
"What do you want to know?" he demands.
Inquiries into his identity, occupation and background prove fruitless; they are questions he has eluded for years. He explains he's nervous about being "outed" by a reporter, agreeing to be identified only by the pseudonym "Joe." He says he fears for his and his family's well-being if his true identity is revealed.
"Really, you can't even tell them what I look like," he says.
Tall, dark and jovially sarcastic are what come to mind.
At first, he seems like a character out of a comic book, a Latino superhero armed with biting wit, refreshing irreverence and an e-mail list 1,000 addresses long. His quest: accountability. His enemies: complacency, ignorance and apathy. His cohorts: a handful of Chicano caricatures dedicated to eroding the stereotypes of their own culture. But it quickly becomes apparent that the battles Joe is fighting are not in an alternate universe, and the topics he addresses in his e-zine are not anyone's fantasy.
Joe is the driving force behind the semi-monthly communiqués dedicated to airing social, cultural and political dirty laundry – with biting wit and little tact – of particular interest to the Chicano community. After a four-year run, Joe retired the e-zine a little over a year ago; he says it was for his own safety.
Ladmo Park's virulent thorn-in-the-side approach to individuals deemed sellouts prompted one of Joe's targets to "get local law enforcement to find out who I was, and I had to go lay low for a while," he says.
But as of December 2002, Ladmo Park Chicano Chronicle is back with a vengeance.
Its stated mission is to "research, inform, advocate, promote, protect and expose by peaceful means in the best interest of Arizona's Chicanos." Its return is prompted by a variety of issues, including the growing vigilante culture along Arizona's southern border, "overt discrimination in the legislature, political leadership taking negative positions against Chicanos" and, Joe admits, "because I'm generally pissed-off."
Joe picks at a bagel and sweeps the room with his eyes. Raised in Phoenix, Joe's a keen and critical observer of politics, culture and their respective figureheads. His opinions are many, his wit biting, his disgust with the lackadaisical approach to social issues by some Valley Chicanos evident.
The cloak-and-dagger aspect of his newsletter is something he takes seriously, he emphasizes. Since Ladmo Park's inception, speculation has run high as to who is behind what is portrayed in its pages as a kind of underground, cultural-revolutionary movement.
"Less than a dozen people know that I do this, and we have to keep it that way," Joe says.
In a low voice, Joe warns that, were his identity to be revealed, he would lose his job, his children wouldn't eat and, thus, they all would soon starve to death.
"If I could say what I have to say in public, there's a potential for great things to happen," Joe says. "But would people be half as interested if it wasn't written by an anonymous group? They'd attack the messenger instead of addressing the message."
The newsletter's name comes from Joe's childhood and a first brush with social consciousness. He sees Ladmo of the Wallace & Ladmo Show as a product of humble beginnings who never lost touch with his roots and, despite his own success, took the time to care and inspire others around him.
"Wallace was just a dick, but Ladmo would come to our schools and say, Hey, what do you want to do when you grow up? You gotta get good grades.' I'm thinking this guy doesn't give a shit, but there he was, worried about me."
Ladmo Park was begun to combat overt discrimination against Chicanos, says Joe, especially in cases in which Chicanos themselves were doing the discriminating. The e-zine's target audience, he says, is "everyone who comes into contact with Chicanos," whether they are sympathetic to Ladmo Park's content, or enraged by it. The catalyst for the first edition was growing disgust with former Arizona Republic columnist Ruben Navarrete.
"He was a paid consultant for English Only and was writing columns about English Only in the Republic. It was ethically wrong and self-serving. Someone had to do something."
The attacks on Navarrete lead the first edition of the newsletter in December 1997. They continued and were brutal yet articulate and carefully researched responses to Navarrete's columns on bilingual education that often exposed his arguments as based on less-than-accurate information. Navarrete eventually left the paper, and Joe believes Ladmo Park's efforts were a factor in his departure.
Attorney Stephen Montoya recalls the considerable buzz surrounding Ladmo Park in its early days. "It was interesting to see all the backlash at his criticism of certain things. They didn't know who to retaliate against."
With Ladmo Park, subtlety and political correctness are eschewed for an in-your-face confrontation of issues. There is no pandering for advertisement or bowing to censorship. The editorializing from Joe is aided by column-type rants authored by colorful recurring characters, caricatures really, who fight the very stereotypes that define them.
In the December issue, "Nezahualcoyotl," described as the "Ladmo Park Prime Minister of Verbal War," addresses vigilantes on Arizona's southern border with typical flair. "Ranch Rescue, American Border Patrol, Civil Homeland Defense, Voices of Citizens Together – who are these morons?! What is wrong? Did NASCAR suddenly disappear? Has professional wrestling been banned? Why do these pendejos all of a sudden have so much time on their hands?"
Joe insists that "Nez" is a real person. "He's the no-bullshit, disgruntled, angry, underachieving, overeducated guy who says what we are all thinking."
Ladmo Parkchooses to celebrate the positive as well. Information on scholarships, job opportunities, fund raisers and internships is provided.
Despite the hours of work and perceived danger of his mission, Joe says, the heroes and triumphs are too few, and the sellouts and injustice are too plentiful for Ladmo Park to rest anytime soon.
"I want us to come out of our shells, stand up and say, 'Wait a minute, that was fucked up!'" Joe says emphatically. "It's accountability; accountability is what I'm looking for. We have to demand that."