25 Years After the Riots: What a Teenager Learned Walking Home Through the Flames

Aurea Montes-Rodriguez about a year before the riots, on the balcony of her apartment building
Aurea Montes-Rodriguez about a year before the riots, on the balcony of her apartment building
Courtesy Aurea Montes-Rodriguez

This is our seventh installment in a series of as-told-to stories from Angelenos who witnessed the first 48 hours of the 1992 riots. When the riots broke out, Aurea Montes-Rodriguez was a 17-year-old high school student living with her family in Compton and taking the bus to a magnet school on the Eastside. Today she is executive vice president at Community Coalition, a social justice nonprofit based in South Los Angeles.

I came to South Los Angeles from Mexico in 1979, as a child. When I started at West Vernon Elementary there were very few Latinos. It was a mostly black school. I like to think that the reason I became such an assertive person, and in some ways a leader both in my family and in my community, was because of my friendships and relationships with the African-American students, who were always very direct and spoke up in school and were very confident.

My mom worked in the garment industry, sewing in the factory. My dad worked in the swap meets, selling used auto parts. He used to work in a manufacturing plant on Alameda, but he was injured. A piece of metal went into one of his eyes and he lost his vision in that eye, so he couldn't keep working at the manufacturing plant. The manufacturing plant eventually closed and left, like many other plants did along Alameda.

I went to Carver Middle School, where there was a whole group of us being tracked for college. I ended up getting bused to a magnet [program] at Roosevelt High School in East L.A. for the college prep program. Then in '91, about a year before the civil unrest, our family moved to Compton, about an hour and a half away from Roosevelt on the bus.

I would leave my house in Compton at 6 in the morning so I could get to Roosevelt before 7:30 for before-school activities. I was involved in sports, and I was in the band and part of the flag team during football season. I was a kid who was clearly on my way to college. I got into a number of schools, and I thought I was going to go on to UC Berkeley. But I could understand how people — who were feeling more disenfranchised or disempowered than I — had had enough.

Even as a college-bound kid, I had still experienced police harassment and abuse. One time my brother and I were going into a hamburger joint and he made a left and crossed a yellow line, and so a police car pulled us over and they pointed a rifle at his head. I was sitting in the passenger side, and they told me that if I just stayed quiet, nothing would happen to him. There were other times when I was with girlfriends from school when the officers would pull us over and they would just flirt with us, and think that that kind of harassment was OK.

Rodney King has been beaten on national television. This was after Latasha Harlins has been killed by a liquor store owner over a dispute over a bottle of juice. I and my friends had had a number of disputes with business owners in our neighborhood because they supervised us so intensely when we went through their businesses, even though they had known us for years. For me, the violence that broke out was not about just the verdict, it was about the level of tension and police aggression that we had had to deal with for so long. Even when things were documented on camera, there was no justice system that was going to protect us.

I still remember on April 29 when the verdict came out in the evening, I was watching TV with my older brother, my mom and my dad, and we started to see all of the people who were at the criminal court and at the Parker [Center] police station, who were protesting and beginning to get violent or angry, expressing their frustration, their rage. When I saw the violence, I felt a sense of relief that the community had finally said enough is enough.

Good student that I was, the next day I got up and went to school. The principal got on the PA system in the late morning and said, "The mayor has declared a state of emergency. Those of you who are dependent on public transportation on the buses, make sure you go straight to the bus when the bell rings because they are going to stop running."

A woman pushes a stroller with her younger daughter on Vermont Avenue in South-Central Los Angeles on May 1, 1992.
A woman pushes a stroller with her younger daughter on Vermont Avenue in South-Central Los Angeles on May 1, 1992.
Ted Soqui

After school we all went straight to the bus. Heading south on Soto, we could just see fires all over the east side of the city. We took Pacific Boulevard south through Huntington Park, and then for some reason the bus driver said he couldn't continue south of Imperial. He was apologizing to us and saying he can't keep going, he has to stop here on Imperial. I don't know if it was because that's where the fires were the most active or what. He put his bus into non-service.

All of us got off the bus, and once we got off the fires had already started a few streets past Imperial. These were the first fires in South-Central. The kids who knew each other, it was a group of maybe five or six of us, we started walking down Long Beach [Boulevard], and we could see the active fires and the looting of the businesses on the boulevard. I vividly remember when they broke into an auto parts store, it was an Auto Zone, I had just applied for a summer job there in February or March, and the store was completely looted. It was engulfed in fire, and I’m thinking, there's my job. It just went up in flames.

I think I probably walked over 3 miles to get to my house. We saw the Compton Swap Meet, and some of the Korean business owners were standing on the roof, water all around. They were trying to contain the fire, to make sure it wouldn't get to the swap meet. They're pointing rifles down at us, and guns. It wasn't directly at us, it was at anyone who would go near the swap meet.

Near my house, people had broken into the Top Valu grocery store on the corner of Long Beach, and they were just coming out with crackers and milk and diapers. There was no police anywhere. As a kid, I don't remember feeling unsafe, just a little afraid; no one was assaulting anyone and as kids we were just walking through. I remember thinking, oh my gosh, how far is this going to go? Is this violence going to spill into our homes? Because no one is here to protect us.

When my brother got home he was like, let's go see what's happening. He was a senior at the magnet at San Pedro High, where he bused every day to school. We got in his pickup truck and drove down Rosecrans. There was a truck in front of us whose driver got down to get a television that was on the street, and when he got down to get the television somebody got in his truck and drove away with it. It was that kind of chaos that was happening. They had looted the Circuit City that is close to the City Hall in Compton. You just saw fires everywhere.

My mother was really upset at us when we got back home. We knew we were in trouble and that we wouldn't be able to leave, at least for a little while. We did get away once more to get burgers at a local burger shop the Monday after the unrest began. We drove by Lueders Park on Rosecrans and saw Bloods and Crips hanging out together in the park. It was the first time either of us had seen people wearing red and blue together at a park where there weren't any shootings. It was almost, I don't want to say celebratory, but they were definitely hanging out peacefully at the neighborhood park.

Earlier I had been selected to go to Washington, D.C., for a school trip. I was supposed to leave on a Monday, and the National Guard had come in by then. We had to leave at 6 in the morning, before the curfew was over in the morning. It was my first time leaving Los Angeles to go to another part of the country, and I had to get permission from the National Guard stationed on Alondra, just south of our house, to let us get to the airport.

When I got to Washington, D.C., I thought, I'm representing my school, I'm representing my community, I'm going to learn about our country's capital and our federal government. But when people in D.C. found out that I came from L.A., from South-Central, from Compton, their reaction was really jarring to me. I think it was the first time that I saw how people outside of our community viewed us.

They couldn't comprehend that so much of Los Angeles, of South-Central, was burning. It was really shocking to me how people assumed the civil unrest was about Rodney King, and that they had no idea the level of police brutality and aggression that we had been experiencing or why the community had become so enraged. In the justice system, in the mainstream media, everyone thought it was OK to criminalize all of us.

It really was life-changing in so many ways. Going to D.C. allowed me to see what the world thought of my community and of the people, my people. Not everyone had respect for communities like South Central, for the people who lived here who made it possible for me to go to college. I realized if I really wanted to see things different for young people or for my siblings, I needed to stay close to home.

A few weeks later, in May, I ended up submitting my acceptance letter to UCLA.


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