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The Gripes of McGrath

Alice McGrath
Women's Work Is Never Done: Unstoppable activist Alice McGrath, now in her 80th year, is pictured in the 1950s, when she focused her energies on teaching self-defense to women in Ventura.

In 1942, Alice McGrath embarked on a path of activism that hasn't reach its end yet

By Traci Hukill

THE VOICE ON THE OTHER END of the phone certainly doesn't sound 79 years old. "I'm in my 80th year," Alice McGrath explains firmly from her home down south in Ventura. "Seventy-nine sounds too uneven. Besides, when you have a birthday, you've finished that year, right?"

Very well, then. The career activist in her 80th year, who swims three to five times weekly and just took a new job--if you can call an unpaid position securing legal counsel for the poor in Ventura County a "job"--has just given herself away with that "80th year" comment. Alice McGrath is nothing, it seems, if not precise. Sensible and articulate, fond of feather-fine distinctions, McGrath is vivacious, friendly and, in spite of her formidable intellect, quite charming.

"She's tremendously charismatic," gushes independent filmmaker Bob Giges, whose documentary, From Sleepy Lagoon to Zoot Suit: The Irreverent Path of Alice McGrath, premieres this Tuesday at Palookaville. "When you hear her speaking, you have to love her."

Giges, who teaches writing at UCSC, first heard the diminutive McGrath speak up on the hill, where she's been a guest lecturer for the past five years. "She would talk about things like how we need thousands of people doing small things," he recalls. "Originally, I wanted to know, 'How can you spend your life as a political activist?'--but then I got derailed. I realized the story was Alice."

Last fall, Giges shot the footage for his film during McGrath's annual visit. The film documents McGrath's activities beginning with the famous 1942 Sleepy Lagoon trial, in which 22 young Mexican-Americans were arraigned for the suspected murder of a Mexican national just outside of Los Angeles. The transparently racist proceedings resulted in 17 convictions and a successful appeal spearheaded by the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, which included luminaries Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Anthony Quinn and McGrath. The trial became the inspiration for Luis Valdez's phenomenally popular play and movie Zoot Suit. In the movie, actress Tyne Daly plays a character based on McGrath.

Defending the Faiths

BUT THE FEISTY ACTIVIST didn't stop with the acquittal of the Sleepy Lagoon defendants. She'd found her calling. In the 1950s, long before women's self-defense classes were de rigueur for every YMCA and city rec program in the country, she was teaching self-defense to women at Ventura College on Saturdays.

"I would start by saying, 'I'm going to teach you simple techniques of self-defense, and I don't think you're going to need them,' " she recalls. "Self-defense, in the traditional way of teaching, assumes that there will be an encounter. I don't agree. Feeling vulnerable is what we want to get over. Feeling vulnerable can lead to being a victim."

Well aware that women's economic and social disadvantages were far more disabling than the fear of going out alone at night, McGrath encouraged her students to examine their lives and make radical changes.

Years passed, and McGrath continued her work for social justice. In 1984, when most women her age were taking up knitting, she took a trip to Nicaragua and realized the staggering disparity between the media's Nicaragua and the war-racked country she saw for herself. She began organizing political tours that eventually metamorphosed into "focus interest" trips for various groups. She took academics to schools and universities. She brought doctors and medical supplies to the clinics. She's been there 74 times in 12 years.

Nevertheless, she's still attuned to the home front. In a chapter on her in Studs Terkel's Coming of Age, McGrath writes, "I happen to be having a wonderful life, but I think, for our country, it's the worst period I've ever lived through." The country is more racist, she says, meaner somehow. As Billie Holiday put it, "Them that's got gets more while the weak ones fade."

"Racism is the worst sickness of our society because it masks the broader economic and social issues," McGrath says. "We don't need more Alices. What we need is a mass-based, multicultural, progressive organization to mobilize the people and make them feel that the little bit they do can be absolutely essential."

Maybe McGrath doesn't think we need more Alices, but with such a tall order on the table, it seems another Alice or two wouldn't hurt at all.

From Sleepy Lagoon to Zoot Suit screens for the first time at Palookaville on Tuesday (6:30pm, free), following an informal dinner served by Aragona's Too. McGrath will attend the showing.

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From the October 10-16, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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