By Lupita P. Gonzales
For the Optic
People who meet Lorenzo Flores tend to have a strong reaction to him.
Many look up to him as a fearless advocate who isn’t afraid to fight for the little guy, even if it means taking on those in power. Others view him as little more than a misguided agitator hell- bent on stirring up trouble.
Whatever one’s view of the 56-year-old activist might be, it’s clear that he isn’t afraid to fight for what he believes in.
His latest battle has been the move to recall Las Vegas Mayor Alfonso Ortiz Jr., an effort that appears to have been unsuccessful. While Flores and others managed to collect hundreds of signatures on a petition requesting a recall election, the city clerk has determined that they failed to get enough valid signatures to force an election.
Flores may not have gotten the recall election he was hoping for, but he certainly succeeded in stirring things up at City Hall.
His home is on Columbia Avenue, adjacent to the Highlands University campus.
His house is a virtual museum of Chicano memorabilia, with banners, flags and photos of Hispanic figures such as Caesar Chavez, Reies Lopez Tijerina and Che Guevara.
Flores, the son of the late Cleo (Salas) and Nash Flores, labels himself as “barrio to the bone.” He was born Dec. 17, 1957, on Armijo Street in “el barrio del tanque.” He is the fifth of eight siblings.
Flores had a typical upbringing. He and his peers grew up playing group games, often supervised by parents or grandparents. He cites a string of typical pastimes he and his siblings played on the porch — “El Gato Pide Rincon,” “Vuela, vuela, paloma,” and “Fin, sera fin.”
He recalls that his grandmother would play “Bizcochitos,” a game in which correctly answering adivinanzas (riddles), would earn a reward —yes, a prized bizcochito.
But other factors played into the life of young Lorenzo. At 7, he was chosen to be an initiate of the Morada de Los Hermanos, also known as Penitentes.
“You’re chosen when you’re young and taught the four basic ‘platforms’: 1) incate (kneel down), 2) callate (be quiet), 3) escucha (listen), 4) aprende (learn).
At age 10, the candidate is “tested,” and if he performs acceptably, he is let into the group.
Flores says it has taken him 32 years to rise to his current status in the group — Hermano Mayor de la Morada de San Juan Baptista.
The various “learnings” include alabados (songs of the dead), cantos (songs of joy), as well as other prayers recited at the Morada which embodies a week of prayer and penance during Holy Week.
‘Making life better’
The life of the youngster was interspersed with other factors due to changes in his parents’ life and other social factors.
He attended West Las Vegas schools up to the ninth grade. In the early ‘70s, Nash, Flores’ father, became affiliated with the Rev. Al Juterbock of the Presbyterian Church. The elder Flores, in conjunction with the Church’s efforts, helped to establish the Plagge Alcoholism Treatment Center in West Las Vegas, the first treatment center besides the New Mexico State Hospital.
His mother, Cleo, oversaw the old Samaritan House, on the site of the current Rio Gallinas School. The couple built a two-bedroom apartment in the vicinity of the two centers, where the family lived.
“My parents were about rolling up their sleeves and making life better,” Flores says.
Around this time, Flores says, he began running with “unacceptable company,” so with the help of the Rev. Juterbock, Nash moved his son to Lavonia, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, where the minister had key contacts. Flores subsequently attended Lavonia Franklin High School, a school of 2,000 students, graduating at age 19 in 1978, “about two years behind my regular class group.”
He described the school as highly ranked, fifth in the nation, for its academic quality. It was a completely different environment from what Flores had known in Las Vegas.
Flores commented that the population of Lavonia was highly influenced by the proximity of Chrysler Corporation, bringing many workers into the region.
While a high school senior, Flores married his first wife, Kerri Donovan, and they had two children, Lorenzo Jr. (now a DJ in Jacksonville, Fla.) and Alicia, a daughter he didn’t meet until last year, via the Internet.
He learned he has four grandchildren from this relationship, but has never met them. He said, “Alicia is fluent in Spanish, now is a Spanish teacher.” Flores later married Paula Gutierrez and had three more children, Alfredo, Felix and Beneranda.
He says his granddaughter Marisol, who just turned 1, “is my world.”
Becoming an activist
After high school Flores wanted to return to Las Vegas to attend Highlands.
“When I returned, I had an epiphany,” about el movimiento, Flores notes. By the time he returned to Las Vegas, however, things had mellowed somewhat.
He cites Juan Jose Peña as a mentor at Highlands, and said the Chicano-American Student Association and La Raza Unida were active on campus. Although he started school at Highlands, at this time “things had escalated in the community — feuds between the moviemiento plebe and the police.”
In addition, Flores was a passenger in an automobile accident on South Pacific, suffering a broken hip, which necessitated a series of surgeries and created other medical problems. He uses crutches and walks with difficulty.
Eventually this would lead to another problem for Flores. He had stopped attending classes by then.
In a subsequent incident related to a movimiento group demonstration between some students and other individuals and local police, Flores and his friends were identified as key persons in an assault in which an officer had been injured in a shooting outside the police station. Flores was convicted of conspiracy and aggravated assault and battery on a police officer in 1980.
He was sentenced to the New Mexico State Penitentiary. Although Flores drew an eight-year sentence, after four-and-a-half years, he was granted parole and planned to return to Highlands.
Flores said that the state prison riot in 1980 had changed conditions for inmates. Federal judges issued an order for improvement of prison conditions. There were opportunities for inmates to develop skills and to provide services.
Flores served on the Dwight Duran Consent Decree Committee on Prisons, which dealt with prison conditions and treatment of inmates.
In the pen, Flores trained as a butcher. He also was a “jailhouse lawyer,” as he puts it, and an inmate advocate regarding issues such as literacy problems.
Upon his release in 1985, Flores returned to Las Vegas, where he volunteered as an umpire for Plaza Little League, a position he filled for 20 years.
“I enjoyed it,” he says. “I see these kids I umpired back then; they still call me ‘Ump.’”
But there were few job opportunities, so Flores has kept busy with campaign jobs, odd jobs working with America Moving Forward, the Rainbow Coalition and as a researcher on land grant issues for Pete Dominici, Jr. He also worked for the Census Bureau.
Flores plays the piano as a sideline.
“I still have a lot of work to do to better this community,” he says. “My life has always been an open book — ‘the good, the bad and the ugly.’”