In the fall of 1963, Bob (“Mario”) Savio enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. There, he quickly rose to national prominence as leader of the Free Speech Movement, which became a major catalyst for the anti-Vietnam War movement and years later for the South African anti-apartheid divestment movement.
How did Savio, a brilliant but shy kid from an Italian-Sicilian immigrant working class family in Queens, have the skill and the hutzpah to mobilize a very different student body than the one from which he came?
I knew Mario Savio when he was just Bob, Bob Savio. We were undergraduate students at Queens College in the spring of 1963 and members of the campus Newman Club, which served Catholic students who felt somewhat lost at a freewheeling and seemingly “radical” public campus that was overwhelmingly Jewish.
In the large cafeteria that was our primary common room, we actively debated the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and the threat of nuclear war. (I naively joined the local chapter of the “Fair Play for Cuba Committee,” which almost kept me out of the Peace Corps a year later.) We also debated whether Malcolm X should be allowed to speak at the college, as well as the New York State Regents’ effort to impose tuition for students who considered free public education a right.
In response to the latter proposal, I rode together with Bob and a loud and rowdy busload of QC students to the state capital in Albany to fiercely protest the pending bill, which passed despite our bullhorns, banners and our uninspired chant: “Our Position, No Tuition.”
Later that spring, Bob and I and 38 other Queens College students joined the Queens College Mexican Volunteers. The group was led by the campus Newman chaplain, Father Brown, whose politics were rooted deeply in Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical on labor rights. Father Brown thought that sending 40 students (10 men, 30 women) to Taxco, Iguala, and Chilpancingo in Guerrero, Mexico — to build schools, outdoor washing stands to keep women out of infested rivers, and work in hospitals and public clinics — would be an appropriate summer education.
We were warned, however, that the local Catholic hierarchy in Mexico had aligned itself with the wealthy, landowning class. A local newspaper in Queens announced our project in less than flattering terms: “QC Students Will Invade Mexico to Help the Peons.” (I began to think that the high school nuns who taught me at Our Lady of Wisdom Academy, in South Ozone Park, Queens, were right to warn that Queens College was a hot bed of Communist activity).
Our bus tickets were about two feet long and we changed buses at least once a day
— a pain in the neck since with each change we had to haul our heavy baggage off the bus. It took us several days and nights to arrive in Guerrero. Those of us who brought almost no money slept in bus stations and once on park benches in Texas, until police told us to move on.
Once we crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, we traveled on the Flecha Roja bus line, initially through desolate desert areas. During one long stretch our bus broke down and we were stranded for several hours. A few of us suffered from heat stroke and a Mexican passenger walked a long distance through the desert to get an ice to pack for us until the bus was roadworthy again.
Bob Savio and two other male students (Art Gatti and Kevin Donnelan) were assigned to work with a Catholic parish in Taxco. Our group of five students, assigned to the town of Iguala, bore donated boxes of most-likely post-dated pharmaceuticals from the Pfizer factory in Brooklyn, carefully hand-labeled “Iguala Or Bust.” We never got to Iguala; we ended up in the small and very poor city of Chilpancingo instead.
Despite its Catholic origins, the Mexico volunteer group was mostly secular and open. Some, like Savio, had lost their Catholic faith in high school, but not their Catholic worldview. Savio, who had hoped to be a priest, joked that he had wanted to be called “Father Bob,” like the venerable 1950s-vintage Spencer Tracy Hollywood film priest. I had wanted to be a Maryknoll nun, but the religious order politely declined my letter of interest, in which I had revealed my own battles with “the faith” but expressed my desire to serve nonetheless. Other students spoke openly about the possibility of a religious vocation; one man in my group had recently left the seminary.
My primary co-worker in Chilpancingo was Marsha Steinberg, whose father owned a fish market in Harlem. The local priest assigned us to conduct a parish census among the indigenous poor rural communities, most of whom did not speak Spanish at all, let along understand our extremely limited Spanish. Most Catholic students still studied either Latin or French or both, as I had. Marsha, who was Jewish, knew more Spanish than me.
The priest wanted to know how many Indian couples with families had been officially married by a priest. Marsha had a great sense of humor about coming all the way from Brooklyn to Chilpancingo to help the Catholic Church count how many Indian couples with seven or more children were married at the altar! We abandoned that project as quickly as possible and began working in the local hospital and public clinics; our assignments included hands-on work in midwifery and surgery.
Although disappointed with our first assignment, Marsha and I were moved by our visits to the impoverished mud and stick huts in which the Indian communities lived. I noted (in letters home) the entrenched racism against the Indian communities and the untreated diseases of infants and small children, despite the existence of modern hospitals and clinics nearby, largely reserved for whites and mestizos.
I began to wonder why we had come. What were we supposed to accomplish? Passing out the donations of Pfizer drugs — aspirin, vitamin pills and antibiotics – to the local peasants seemed like a really bad idea. I wanted to leave Chilpancingo — and knew where I wanted to go.
We had been hearing rumors that Bob Savio was stirring up a storm in the beautiful city of Taxco. He was doing what we had hoped to do, advocating for social justice and civil rights among the rural poor. We heard that Bob’s activities had even gotten the attention of Taxo’s local bishop.
So in early August, Marsha and I decided to move to Taxco to see what was going on there and if we might be able to lend a hand. We were disappointed to find on arrival that most of the QC volunteers in Taxco had decamped and returned to the U.S.
We were directed to the small room behind the parish church that Bob Savio shared with the lone remaining Queens College volunteer in Taxco, Kevin Donnalan. Kevin told us that Bob and the bishop didn’t get along and that the bishop had ordered him to leave the diocese.
Kevin was in awe of Savio and told us of Bob’s transformation as he emerged, like a butterfly from its chrysalis, into a powerful speaker and organizer who had led a demonstration of local indigenous Catholics to protest their maltreatment by landowners and to bring their complaints to the bishop. The bishop was not amused. He was so flummoxed by Savio that he had threated to send the rest of the Queens College volunteers packing, as well.
We were amazed: the young man we knew had been almost incapable of carrying on a polite conversation, but somehow was managing to reach strangers across culture, class and language. We knew Savio to be a modest and somewhat solitary fellow. He didn’t much mix with the rest of the Queens College volunteers. He didn’t join us on the one R&R weekend break in Acapulco. Instead, he came and went to Mexico like the Lone Stranger.
We couldn’t fathom how Bob had managed to stir up so much trouble in so short a period of time and what he could have possibly conveyed to the indigenous Nahuatl speakers. That he was “inspired” was all that Kevin could tell us.
More Berkeley Berkeley posts on the Free Speech Movement may be found here.