Special to San Jose Mercury News
It began on Sept. 19, 1985, at 7:25 a.m., but nobody knew then that one of the worst earthquakes in the history of the Americas would jolt a popular San Francisco Bay Area television newsman into a new chapter of his life.
As he stood before collapsed burning buildings reporting the grim story of Mexico City’s devastating 8.1 quake, Rigo Chacon fought back tears for his people and his homeland. He didn’t want to be there. He had balked at the assignment but the news director insisted, chartered a Lear jet and sent Chacon flying south of the border to cover the quake. Chacon’s day-to-day live coverage on San Francisco’s ABC 7 touched raw nerves in the always quake-prone Bay Area. His heartfelt stories elicited an emotional response and prompted a fund drive. More than $1.3 million in donations poured into Channel 7 bound for Mexico City charities.
The money came in small donations from people of little means from all over the Bay Area—including 63 percent from Santa Clara County’s eastern Latino communities. “That’s when I was reminded that good comes out of tragedy,” Chacon said.
In the hard-hit Tepito district, 3,500 homes were rebuilt within the year. The day classrooms reopened in two schools in Xochimilco, Chacon arrived to cover the event. “When I saw a nine-year-old girl’s tearful, eloquent expression of gratitude to the Bay Area, it told me we needed to do much more than give them only buildings.”
A New Vision
Burdened by nightmare images he never forgot (memories of stacked bodies in a Mexico City stadium haunt him still), Chacon grew uncertain about his spectator role. He felt he should do something more than report tragedy. But what? By the fifth anniversary of the Mexico City quake, he knew.
Out of his own pocket, inspired as a child by the charitable works of his parents, and, years later, by the tenacity of the late Cesar Chavez, Chacon started a non-profit charity. He would change lives by education.
Donations trickled in. One of the first was a dime taped to a letter from a nine-year-old.
With the blessing of Channel 7, (“which ran countless public service announcements—and still does”) and his wife, Lucy, Chacon set out to help Santa Clara County’s new high school graduates achieve otherwise unimaginable goals. He called his project Abrazos and Books. “Abrazos,” Chacon explains, “is Spanish for embraces, a traditional Latino greeting. It is more than a hug; it’s a handshake, an embrace, and a second handshake. And the word “books” is a metaphor.“Abrazos and Books doesn’t buy or sell books,” he said. “It encourages youth to embrace studies—to hit the books.”
His one-man project has a three-fold mission to:
He keeps track of his success stories, attends graduations, and calls grads back as role models. “In a way,” he said, “the scholarships are incidental because we send them away with a feeling that ‘We believe in you.’ “I know some think Abrazos and Books is for Latinos only. It’s not, repeat, not. It is for everyone,” Chacon said. “As an immigrant child, I would never exclude anyone.” His winners have represented a cross-section of Santa Clara County citizens—Wang, Gonzalez, Weitzel, Nguyen, Riley, Evans, Singh, Yañez and Kim.
From Here to Harvard
In the 19 years since Chacon began Abrazos & Books, hundreds of Santa Clara County high school seniors have won scholarships to universities and colleges, including San Jose State, Santa Clara, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and more. Scholarships range from $2000 to more than $10,000. Their success stories are the stuff of legend. Nobody calls the honor roll with greater pride than Chacon.
Crossroad of Culture
As a journalist, Chacon went everywhere in the long wide valley of two million people and met an ethnically diverse collection of folks who live in 152 cities, towns, neighborhoods and subdivisions. He discovered they seldom meet except, perhaps at a mall or workplace. Except for car crashes random encounters are few. Folks who live in Saratoga pass through the East side, on the freeways and expressways that divide the valley into separate villages. There is Japantown, Little Saigon, Downtown, Eastside and Westside. The East Foothills and Lexington Hills are two different worlds. High schools stand on opposite sides of the valley and at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. “If not for Abrazos and Books a student from Saratoga High school would never sit at the same awards ceremony with a student from Overfelt High,” Chacon said. “Their parents also meet at the same table. “One year Cheryl Jennings brought a box of Kleenex for each table,” Chacon said, “because she knew there would tears of joy.” Once a year this crossroad of culture happens.
Door Closes; Another Opens
The career path for valley youth begins in the cramped windowless fifth-floor room of a Julian Street mid-rise in downtown San Jose where a staff of volunteers keeps odd hours at Abrazos and Books. It is next door to Channel 7’s high-tech South Bay Bureau, where until six years ago Chacon reigned in his corner office as the three-time Emmy Award-winning South Bay Bureau Chief. After years of juggling his six-figure television job with his fledgling charity, and raising his sons as a single parent, Chacon hung up the microphone and retired.
At 63, he chases around Santa Clara County in an old Volvo seeking donors, which he couldn’t do before, when it would have been a conflict of interest. “My chief goal now is to concentrate on raising more money so we can give bigger scholarships.” He also visits the county’s 52 public and private schools to tell teachers about Abrazos and Books and urge them to nominate applicants. Chacon personally reviews more than 200 applications each year and picks 20. “Choosing is the toughest part because all are worthy,” he says. “It hurts to eliminate anybody.”
His scholarships bear names of local heroes: Cesar Chavez, Norman Y. Mineta, and Juan Romero, who as a 17-year-old Ambassador Hotel busboy, cradled the dying Bobby Kennedy in his arms in 1968. Community leader Fernando Zazueta is also among the honorees. So are Al Alquist, Blanca Alvarado and slain San Jose peace officer Jeffrey Fontana. Each year in August, 20 fresh-faced high school grads and proud parents come to San Jose’s Wyndham Hotel to be embraced by Abrazos & Books where the past invites the present to the future.
What Makes Rigo Run
Those who wonder what makes Rigo run need only trace his own journey in life. It began in Janos, a failed Franciscan mission town on the Chihuahua prairie, where he was born. Fifth of 10 children of an immigrant farm worker, Chacon picked cotton and onions at age 12 on the outskirts of El Paso. In 1961, Chacon joined his father and his older siblings on the annual trek west, to pick apricots, prunes, cherries, pears, strawberries and walnuts in San Jose. They also picked garlic in Gilroy, a job Chacon considers the worst in his life. After the crop season, Manuel and Antonia Chacon decided California offered a better future for their children and the family stayed in Santa Clara Valley. They lived in a small stucco tract house around the corner from Cesar Chavez in a neighborhood called sal si puedes—Spanish for “get out if you can”—but Rigo didn’t heed the caveat. He stayed on to learn English, attend San Jose High, and became student body president in 1965, his senior year. He attended San Jose State University.
Chacon sold life insurance door-to-door and then worked at a federal job-training center. Soon, San Jose’s ex-mayor Norman Y. Mineta, also a San Jose High graduate, and others recommended Rigo as the first minority hire at San Jose’s Channel 11. He never studied journalism and didn’t know anything about television but he was young and handsome and had a good voice. He was 24. In his first year in television, Chacon became the first Mexican-American in the nation to win an Emmy Award for his interview with the last surviving widow of Pancho Villa. At the Emmy Awards ceremony in San Francisco, he was offered a new, higher paying job at Channel 7. Sent to open the new South Bay Bureau in San Jose, Chacon became a local legend on the strength of his signoff. He pronounced his Spanish name correctly—rreego shah cone. And San Jose’s name, too—sahn ho say. With those four words, Rigo became a household word in the barrio and beyond. Today, other ethnic broadcasters, like National Public Radio’s Mandalit del Barco and Sylvia Poggioli, emulate his ethnic sign-off; in the business they call it “doing a Rigo.”
On television nightly for 32 years, Chacon became a mentor for other Bay Area newscasters. He was nationally recognized by Esquire magazine as one of The Best of The New Generation Under 40—when he was 39. “Made it,” he laughs, “just in time.” Two more Emmys came his way: one for Mexico City quake coverage, the other for Lifetime Achievement. He also won Mexico’s Ohtli Award, which honors native sons and daughters who excel on foreign soil. From grit to great expectation, Chacon inspires hundreds to dream, make plans, seek goals, and change—which is what Abrazos and Books is all about.
Back in The Barrio
On San Jose’s East Side, a few things have changed in 30 years. The Safeway Cesar Chavez first boycotted is now a Mexican American Cultural Center. The Chavez home, still occupied by Cesar’s brother, looks the same except for its historic plaque. Chavez, who died in 1993, appears on a 37-cent US stamp. San Jose’s 2.2-acre grand plaza is named for him. At Our Lady of Guadalupe Church the faithful still barbecue on the curb after the noon Spanish-language Mass. A mural in three languages—English, Spanish and Vietnamese—adorns Cesar Chavez Elementary School. Down San Antonio Street, a fellow in white guayabera and sombrero peddles ice cream from a pushcart. Surprise of all—no graffiti!
On this Sunday afternoon in the Mayfair district, there is an air of serenity even in these hard economic times. Rigo walks the cracked sidewalks of his old neighborhood like a jefe, past sleeping dogs and potted geraniums on porches of houses with too many cars in the front yard. Some things never change. He smiles and waves to all who call his name, asks after an ailing pal, rises from his lunch at El Pirrín (featuring homemade menudo with roasted jalapeños) to embrace an old friend of his late father. In what Ken Bastida, the San Francisco Channel 5 anchor, laughingly calls “Rigoland,” Chacon is a source of pride. A few years ago, friends raised $25,000 in 24 hours and urged him to run for Congress. But he declined. “That,” he says, ”will never happen. I don’t like confrontation.” He wants to change lives his way, knowing his idealism is up against reality. “You can’t save everyone. Nobody can. President Obama can’t. “ But,” Chacon says with broad smile, “that doesn’t mean we stop trying.”