The story of my second arrest

canalJuly 19, 1994. About 3 pm. I’m standing on a canal bank in south central Bakersfield, talking with some members of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department’s Search and Rescue team. They have been called, as have I, to this location for a report of a little boy who has disappeared in the canal’s waters. I don’t know it, but in about 10 minutes, I’m going to be arrested for the second time in my career. And that’s the nature of photojournalism, that’s how quickly a situation can turn on you. One minute you’re talking with deputies and officers you know. The next minute, one you don’t know shows up, decides you don’t belong there, and all hell breaks loose. And that’s what happened on this day.

Interestingly, Henry Barrios has also come to the scene. I don’t notice as he snaps a picture of me talking to these guys. It turns out that that picture will become a crucial part of my defense. Notice the lens on my camera. It’s a 300 mm f4 Nikkor, and we’re going to be able to use it to blow away the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s contention that I was physically interfering with their efforts to put their boats in the water. That was the lie the prosecutor came up with. You can’t get on top of people with a 300 mm lens.

When the little boy’s body is seen floating at a different part of the canal, I arrive at the same time as authorities. They cut the gate, enter and begin the process of putting their boats in the water. I enter, too. My second camera contains a 50 mm lens, but I decide to head down the canal bank to shoot the boats going in with the 300. I am about 50 yards away, nowhere near any of the officers or boats, when a sheriff’s sergeant sees me and motions me to leave the canal bank. I initially ignore him. He yells and motions me toward him. I comply, and he tells me I can’t take pictures from that location. We argue. I ask him to explain why. He answers “because I said so.” Not good enough, I tell him. I ask him again, and he repeats “because I said so.” I tell him I’m going back to my spot. He says “do it and you’re going to jail.” I say, “well then take me to jail,” and I start to head back to the spot. He arrests me. It’s such a bullshit arrest that on the way to jail, the transporting officer, who was not the arresting officer, says, “I can’t believe he arrested you. You weren’t doing anything wrong. I’m sorry this happened.” Yeah, that much of a bullshit arrest. And how about this: when we were ready for trial and received the prosecution’s witness list, the arresting officer was not on it! Yeah, the prosecution was not even willing to put the guy who arrested me on the stand. That ought to speak volumes about him and his bogus arrest.

Henry Barrios would access the scene from a vantage point where there were not any deputies and would make a series of photos of the little boy being recovered. They were extremely graphic, and The Californian would decide not to publish them. And that’s how it’s supposed to work. The editors decide, not the cops. There’s no question in my mind this sergeant’s intent was singular – to prevent photos from being taken.

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This would be the only photo I would take before being arrested. It’s Sgt. Marty Williamson cutting the gate to the canal fence where the little boy has been spotted. Williamson is not the officer who arrested me. He is a long-time friend.

About a week later, I have my first meeting with my attorney, Stan Simrin. I walk into his office, and he says “I have good news for you.” I break into a grin. “Case dismissed,” I ask? After all, that’s what happened the first time I was arrested by KCSO, back in 1981. “No,” says Simrin. “This case isn’t going to get dismissed. (District Attorney Ed) Jagels is going to take this one all the way to the mat. You need to understand, Jagels hates The Californian. This is his opportunity to nail them. You really don’t matter. This is Jagels vs. The Californian, not Jagels vs. you. We’re going to win this case, but it could go all the way to the state supreme court. Are you ready for that?”

I tell him of course I am, and then ask “what’s the good news?” “The good news is I got the police report and it matches your report, almost exactly.” OK, I’m a little puzzled. Why is that good news? “Because there is no dispute about what happened. What you say happened and what the deputy says happened is the same. We do not have a he said, she said. A jury will not have to decide who is telling the truth, you or the deputy. Our case will be entirely about the law. Who was right within the law, you or the deputy?”

And, of course, I was. The case would wind through two courts and four judges, and take almost a year. Simrin was right about Jagels. When a municipal court judge refused to even allow the case to go to a jury and declared that I was not guilty and that the sheriff’s department was in the wrong (he said that!), Jagels appealed to superior court. There, a three judge panel ruled in my favor and rejected Jagels’ request to overrule the first judge and remand me for trial. It was the first case in California since the state supreme court’s ruling in Leiserson v. San Diego, which held that news media have an absolute right to access accident and disaster scenes, and it was Leiserson that the judges used to uphold the lower court.

Jagels did not appeal any further, and the case was over. The worst part of it for me was the fear of losing. Not because of jail – there was no way I would be sentenced to jail – but because of how it would have negatively impacted news photographers throughout the state. The case was being watched all over the state and even the nation, it received a lot of media coverage. But that didn’t happen. The Leiserson ruling held, the judges got it right, and Jagels would never “get” another chance at The Californian.

I just don’t abide censorship

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Kern County sheriff’s technical investigator Tom Jones details the scene near Glennville, California, where two gay men, Sidney Moses Wooster, 26, and Jack Blankenship, 38, were shot and killed by Bakersfield businessman William Robert Tyack, 42. The judge, John Nairn, is to Jones’ right, prosecutor Joe Beckett is at far right and defense attorney Timothy Lemucci is next to him. The picture was taken down by administrators of a large, 18,000-plus Facebook history group, because of fever-pitched reaction, including anti-gay comments by several members.
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Comments to this photo of United Farm Workers president Cesar Chavez, which I shot in 1983, were so brutally negative that there was no doubt in my mind it too would have been removed, but I withdrew from the group before administrators did so.

To my friends: I have withdrawn from the 18,000-plus member Facebook group “Kern County of Old” and have removed all of the contributions I’ve made to the site after the group’s administrators removed one of my photos.

Two days ago, I posted a photo that I shot in 1982, and was published in The Bakersfield Californian, of a remarkable piece of Kern County history: a visit by the court, the jury and the media to the site of the killings of two gay men by a Bakersfield business owner, William Robert Tyack. Reaction to the photo was fierce and quite fever-pitched, and sadly, some comments were way out of line with a handful of anti-gay trolls degrading the conversation. As a result, the site’s administrators chose to remove the photo.

I was provided an explanation by an administrator, and I thank him for it. Unfortunately, it is not acceptable to me, given my position as an educator whose very essence is defined by a fervent opposition to censorship and an insistence that all views – including unpopular views and views I might not agree with – be tolerated. The administrators invited me to re-post the photo with the caveat that nobody will be permitted to comment on it. To agree to this would essentially be violating the very anti-censorship principles that inform every moment of my teaching. Because my massive collection of photos involve significant past news events – some quite notorious, as is the nature of photojournalism – I cannot agree to the posting of truly historic photos that members of the group may or may not be allowed to comment on.

Additionally, a photo I posted this morning of Cesar Chavez conducting a United Farm Workers meeting in 1983 – also a published Bakersfield Californian assignment – elicited an overwhelming number of anti-Chavez and anti-UFW responses and while administrators did not take that photo down, I was relatively sure they were going to remove it, too, given that these comments were equally as vile as some of the murder trial comments.

It wasn’t too long into my career I began to learn hard lessons about the nuances of censorship. And I came to form an opinion, which I still hold, that of all forms of censorship, self censorship is the most insidious of all. When you are made to be afraid to post or comment or, in this case, share pictures that have real value to our area’s history, because of a fear of others’ responses and reactions, or acquiescing to their views that history is best when it is wiped clean of its sometimes unsavory and gritty reality, that is the chilling effect at its very worst, and I will have no part of it.

Understand, this is not a legal issue, it is a moral issue. “Kern County of Old” has a right to control the content of its page, and I have a right to decide the manner and means in which I decide to share my photos. All of the photos I have removed from Kern County of Old are posted on my blog or on Facebook. It was nice sharing some of them with such a wide audience, but I can no longer do so under their terms, then walk into my classes at Cal State Bakersfield and Bakersfield College and in good conscience lecture about the importance and value of free thought, the free exchange of ideas and why, I hope, my students will some day come to oppose censorship with the same fervor I do.

LA on fire: the first night of the 1992 riots

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With police and fire staying out of the area, a man watches the massive fires burn in the area of Florence and Normandie avenues, the flash point of the riots. I shot this just after dark.

I was a little more than two hours into my shift on April 29, 1992, when the verdict came in. About 77 miles (110 miles by car) southwest of Bakersfield, in a predominantly white, affluent suburban city northwest of Los Angeles called Simi Valley, four Los Angeles police officers – three white, one Latino and white – were acquitted of charges stemming from the violent beating a year earlier of Rodney King, a black motorist who had led them on a high-speed car chase. It was one of the most closely-watched trials and eagerly anticipated verdicts in Los Angeles history, due exclusively to a now common happenstance that was a rarity for its time –  a citizen, George Holliday, had captured the beating on videotape from the balcony of his apartment. The video shocked the world, was played thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of times throughout the world in the ensuing year, and reignited long-simmering racial tensions in Los Angeles.

My shift was routine that day, and even after the verdict was announced at 3:15 pm, I continued with my regular assigned duties. I had no idea that in about four-and-one- half hours, I would be driving, alone in a white Toyota Corolla, through a firestorm that was south central Los Angeles. It wasn’t until about 4:30 pm or 5 pm that I got paged to radio the Bakersfield Californian newsroom. Yeah, paged. Yeah, radio. We didn’t have cell phones yet. We communicated with the various desks via two-way radio and pager. The editor told me they wanted me to head to downtown Los Angeles, to Parker Center, the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, where it was believed people would be gathering to protest the verdict. Sure, I responded, I’ll head back to the office to pick up the reporter. Well, the editor explained, there will not be a reporter going with me. I’d be going alone. This was essentially a “scouting mission,” I was going down there just in case something happened. Nobody had any idea what was coming. I sure didn’t. I was 33 years old, and 33-year-old photojournalists are invincible. Or is it stupid? Either way, I headed down to Los Angeles, alone in that white Toyota Corolla with the number 60 attached in big stickers on the rear fender. Had I known what would begin almost immediately after I started the two-hour trip down Highway 99 toward downtown Los Angeles, I never would have agreed to go alone. OK, I’ve convinced myself. Let’s make that 33 and stupid.

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I drove down this street toward the plumes of smoke. The street was mostly empty – few cars, no people – but it led me to an inferno of numerous burning businesses and automobiles.

At around 5:30 pm, reports of disturbances at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues in south central Los Angeles began coming in. I had no idea what was going on down there, I was just driving. I did not know that in the course of the next hour-plus, the disturbances at Florence and Normandie would progress to the flash point of the riots that would take the lives of more than 60 people and burn down dozens of businesses. Those that didn’t burn were looted, then burned. I did not know that an ill-prepared Los Angles Police Department was so taken by surprise by the spreading violence at the intersection that they pulled out of the area and that an unimaginable violence-fueled anarchy would take over the area and quickly spread. I did not know that news photographers were being attacked and assaulted, that motorists were being dragged from their cars and beaten. And, of course, I did not know that at 6:46 pm (check out this fantastic timeline from the Los Angeles Times), about 45 minutes before I would drive into the very same intersection, Reginald Denny, a white truck driver making a delivery in the area and unaware of the dangerous and volatile situation, was dragged from his truck and so severely beaten he would have died if several citizens had not intervened and rescued him. The horrifying video, shot from a helicopter, would stun the world, just as Holliday’s video of the Rodney King beating had.

My only source of information was the broadcasts of Los Angeles’ two news radio stations, KNX and KFWB. But I could not access a clear signal until I was over the Grapevine, the passage that cuts through the mountains separating the San Joaquin Valley from the Angeles National Forest, so I was able to only get sporadic bits of information until I got closer to the LA basin. When I was able to get clear radio signals, I learned that there was significant unrest in the area of Florence and Normandie avenues. The newspaper regularly covered the Lakers at the time, and I was somewhat familiar with the area, since it was close to the Forum, where the Lakers played, so I scrubbed the Parker Center trip and headed to Florence and Normandie. Again, I was aware there were disturbances, but was not remotely aware of how volitile things were. I got off the 110 freeway and headed down Florence toward Normandie. As I drew closer, the area seemed relatively calm. People were out on the streets and it seemed more like a party than anything else. There didn’t seem to be any violence at this location. Obviously, it was a lull. I also noticed no police of any kind, and this tricked me into a false sense of security. I had no idea that the police had been so unprepared for any unrest they had been pulled from the area for their safety. It was getting dark, probably around 7:30 I guess. Nobody accosted me, but I still resisted the urge to get out of my car and try to shoot photos.

I drove through the intersection, I guess it was too dark to see the bloody remnants of the Denny incident, and a few blocks past Normandie, made a right hand turn and headed down that street. I don’t remember what it’s named. As I drove that street, I noticed, on the sidewalks, groups of police officers, about 10 or 20 per group. I figured they were in the area in case things got out of hand. Again, I had no idea they had been pulled out of the area, and apparently weren’t staging, they were waiting for instructions. As I drove that street, I saw plumes of smoke about a half-mile, maybe less away. So I drove toward the smoke.

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Looters enter a store in south central after busting through the doors. This was one of the few buildings in the area I photographed that had not been set on fire.

And it was there that I was confronted by fire, lots of fire. Few people, no police, no firefighters, just building upon building burning in the darkness. Somebody had lit up the whole area. I stopped my car and decided to get out to take a few pictures. I saw no people, and figured it was safe. Within seconds of getting out of the car, gunshots rang out. They were close. Was somebody shooting at me? Or was somebody just shooting and it coincided with my getting out of the car? Didn’t matter. I jumped back in the car and moved along. At one point, I heard glass smashing and watched looters rushing into a store. This one wasn’t on fire. I was across the street and shot a few frames, then got out of there. As I drove in this area, it was eerie. All these burning buildings, with virtually nobody to be seen. I shot what I could, then realized I had to head back to Bakersfield. Newspapers at the time had these nice agreements with each other where visiting photographers could use their darkrooms and transmitting equipment to send pictures to their home paper. There was no such thing as digital! But I knew that on this night, that would not be possible. Every newspaper in the city undoubtedly had their hands full. My only option to get pictures back was to head home. I probably spent abut an hour photographing. That was it.

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Driving through streets of burning buildings, with no people or firefighters around, was eerie.

I got back to the freeway and headed north. I stopped when it was safe, near Burbank, and called the desk to tell them what I had. In the meantime, the story was the biggest in the world. LA was burning! They did not need my scouting report. As I was driving home, teams of Californian reporters and photographers were heading to Los Angeles. It was back in the day when we chased big stories – really chased big stories – and we would have people in Los Angeles for the several days the riots lasted. Almost every staff photographer was dispatched. When I returned to the paper that night, I was met with another surprise. Because I traveled to LA alone, they needed a story. They asked me to write a first-person account of what I witnessed. I agreed, and it was the first story I had written since moving to the photo department from the sports staff 11 years earlier. Only one of my photos ran, the one of the looters. By the time I got back, the story was so huge, and the developments were so rapid, that more timely and incredible pictures were moving from the wire services. By today’s standards, any pictures were likely outdated when they hit the morning papers. But that was journalism in 1992. Today, a story like this would provide nonstop images for 24-7, both from professionals and citizens.

 

 

Incite that violence! Spread that hate! Wait. Who? Me? Well that’s a first

If you work in journalism long enough, you’re going to be called just about everything by just about everybody. It comes with the territory, and if you don’t start out with a thick skin, you’ll soon develop one. Most of the time, you ignore it. But in this environment supercharged with a nastiness many of us have never seen before, sometimes you get shocked. Like when the nastiness comes from people you’ve known most of your life. People who were not just friends, but close friends. It happened to me today, when I was accused on social media by a high school pal of both spreading hatred and inciting violence.

And what exactly did I do? Well, I produced a slide show. I had a rare Friday off, and used it to make my own statement about what might lie ahead following the election. And I did so through use of the most powerful communication tool in the history of mankind – the still photograph. I no longer work in daily newspaper journalism. I’m a college instructor nowadays. I teach on two campuses; California State University, Bakersfield, where I’m a lecturer in communication studies and media arts. And Bakersfield Community College, where my courses are photojournalism, multimedia reporting and media and society.

Both campuses are heavily Latino. The Latino student makeup of CSU Bakersfield is 49 percent, and the Latino student makeup of Bakersfield College is 62 percent. So with certainty, a  percentage of those students are DREAMers, and are among the 800,000 young men, women and children who have known the United States as their home for most or almost all of their lives, yet are subject to deportation under President-elect Donald Trump’s deportation plan, which he has doubled and tripled and quadrupled down on during his campaign. Some of these DREAMers are known to me, many others are not. And I’m worried sick about them. Could something this cold, this callous, this utterly without compassion actually happen to these kids and young adults?

So I spent the day culling historic images from The Library of Congress, purchased a piece of music and produced a video showing what it looked like the last time the United States rounded up and relocated human beings in a “humane” manner. You know, back in 1942. My intent, of course, was to show through history what we as a nation are on the precipice of repeating. I see it as a cautionary tale. Spreading hatred? Inciting violence? Well, check it out and by all means, you tell me.

Update: Damacio Diaz sentenced to 5 years in prison in police corruption case

Update: Damacio Diaz was sentenced to five years in prison by a federal judge in his highly-publicized police corruption case today in Fresno. The sentence was substantially more lenient than the 17 to 22 years federal prosecutors asked for. You can read The Bakersfield Californian’s story here.

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Damacio Diaz signs autographs at the Bakersfield sneak peak of the Disney film “McFarland USA” in February, 2015. Photo: John Harte

Original post from May, 2016:

Damacio Diaz, one of the three “running Diaz” brothers who helped build the McFarland High School cross country dynasty of the 1980s and 1990s and whose adventures were a key story line in the inspirational Disney film “McFarland USA,” has admitted to an array of charges stemming from a federal police corruption investigation and will almost certainly spend time in federal prison, according to published media reports.

Diaz, who went on to become a detective with the Bakersfield Police Department and was employed for 17 years, was arrested in November, 2015 and charged with 16 counts in a federal indictment. He resigned three months ago, on February 24. According to a Bakersfield Californian article published today and written by Steven Mayer and Christine Bedell, “Diaz admitted to a litany of crimes while he was working as a cop, including taking bribes, large-scale distribution of methamphetamine, working in partnership with a known drug dealer, stealing evidence and providing police intelligence to criminal partners.”

Federal prosecutors are recommending lenient sentencing for Diaz in exchange for his testimony and cooperation in their continuing investigation of the case. However, the amount of time Diaz might have to serve in prison has not been disclosed, and it will be up to the federal judge who handles the case to accept or reject the deal. Some of the charges against Diaz carry lifetime prison terms. The willingness of federal prosecutors to offer leniency for such serious crimes seems to indicate that the corruption scandal, in their view, might extend well beyond just Diaz and his former partner, who, according to The Californian, is expected to also be charged.

The Diaz arrest and admission is yet another devastating blow to the community of McFarland. The success of the cross country program has been a source of pride for the small agricultural community located 20 miles north of Bakersfield, which in the 1980s  endured unspeakable heartache and tragedy. Those included a cross country practice accident that took the lives of two members of the girls team, the death by heart attack of the school’s football coach, a Valentine’s Day car crash that claimed the lives of six teenagers from McFarland and neighboring Delano, the accidental deaths by drowning and a car accident that claimed two other teens, and a mysterious and unsolved cancer cluster that afflicted and claimed the lives of several children living in a several-square block section of McFarland.

The story line involving the Diaz brothers in the film “McFarland USA” highlighted the cultural differences between McFarland’s residents and the community’s burgeoning population of Mexican immigrants and their children. In the film, and presumably in their real lives, coach Jim White wants the Diaz brothers to run on the cross country team, but meets stiff resistance from the Diaz brothers’ father, who insists that they must work alongside him in the fields before and after school. The Diaz family also provided one of the film’s funniest scenes, when coach White, played by Kevin Costner, joins the family for dinner and is fed almost to the brink of unconsciousness by Mrs. Diaz. The film, while not accurate in many respects, still reflected positively on McFarland and has been well received by its residents. Many of the athletes who competed for coach White have had successful careers as adults. The other Diaz brothers, Danny and David, work as educational administrators.

The charges against Diaz – and the speculation that the scandal might run deep inside the Bakersfield Police Department, according to statements made by Diaz’s attorney – come at a time when law enforcement in Kern County is facing tremendous national and international scrutiny. Earlier this year, the British newspaper The Guardian, one of the world’s best investigative journalism outlets, published a series in which it declared police in Kern County to be the deadliest in America. Several of the cases highlighted were Bakersfield police cases.

 

Time to retire one hell of a camera

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My Canon EOS 1D Mark II N. One hell of a camera.

Well, old friend, the time has come. And what a run it has been. We threw down some serious images these past 10-plus years. I was making so much money when I bought you in 2006, or was it 2005, that I plopped down the $4,000 you cost without a second thought, as easy as spending a couple of bucks on a cup of coffee. It’s a little different now, and it took me three years to pull the trigger on purchasing your replacement. My income is about half of what it was when I bought you, but my happiness is double, so we’re doing fine. Fair trade off. In digital camera time, 10 years is probably a hundred, maybe even more, and you just grew a bit outdated. Not being able to effectively use you indoors or at night sporting events was too much of an obstacle to overcome. And that 8-megapixel CMOS sensor, so groundbreaking for its time, has grown a little long in the tooth. But you were a pioneer, and the stunning cameras we have today would not have been possible had you not come first. You are not my oldest camera, but you are the one I used the most, and by far the best. The good news is you have virtually no resale value, so it makes no sense to sell you. So you get to hang around, enjoy your retirement, and I’m sure you’ll even get a little work as a backup now and then. I’ll even let my photojournalism students feel what it is like to work with a real photo beast. So you’re not done quite yet. You were one awesome photography tool, my friend.

Damacio Diaz of McFarland cross country fame admits to police corruption and drug charges, faces federal prison

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Damacio Diaz, right, shakes hands with Tomas Valles as the team readies for the start of the Southern section championships in the 1987 season.

Damacio Diaz, one of the three “running Diaz” brothers who helped build the McFarland High School cross country dynasty of the 1980s and 1990s and whose adventures were a key story line in the inspirational Disney film “McFarland USA,” has admitted to an array of charges stemming from a federal police corruption investigation and will almost certainly spend time in federal prison, according to published media reports.

Diaz, who went on to become a detective with the Bakersfield Police Department and was employed for 17 years, was arrested in November, 2015 and charged with 16 counts in a federal indictment. He resigned three months ago, on February 24. According to a Bakersfield Californian article published today and written by Steven Mayer and Christine Bedell, “Diaz admitted to a litany of crimes while he was working as a cop, including taking bribes, large-scale distribution of methamphetamine, working in partnership with a known drug dealer, stealing evidence and providing police intelligence to criminal partners.”

Federal prosecutors are recommending lenient sentencing for Diaz in exchange for his testimony and cooperation in their continuing investigation of the case. However, the amount of time Diaz might have to serve in prison has not been disclosed, and it will be up to the federal judge who handles the case to accept or reject the deal. Some of the charges against Diaz carry lifetime prison terms. The willingness of federal prosecutors to offer leniency for such serious crimes seems to indicate that the corruption scandal, in their view, might extend well beyond just Diaz and his former partner, who, according to The Californian, is expected to also be charged.

The Diaz arrest and admission is yet another devastating blow to the community of McFarland. The success of the cross country program has been a source of pride for the small agricultural community located 20 miles north of Bakersfield, which in the 1980s  endured unspeakable heartache and tragedy. Those included a cross country practice accident that took the lives of two members of the girls team, the death by heart attack of the school’s football coach, a Valentine’s Day car crash that claimed the lives of six teenagers from McFarland and neighboring Delano, the accidental deaths by drowning and a car accident that claimed two other teens, and a mysterious and unsolved cancer cluster that afflicted and claimed the lives of several children living in a several-square block section of McFarland.

The story line involving the Diaz brothers in the film “McFarland USA” highlighted the cultural differences between McFarland’s residents and the community’s burgeoning population of Mexican immigrants and their children. In the film, and presumably in their real lives, coach Jim White wants the Diaz brothers to run on the cross country team, but meets stiff resistance from the Diaz brothers’ father, who insists that they must work alongside him in the fields before and after school. The Diaz family also provided one of the film’s funniest scenes, when coach White, played by Kevin Costner, joins the family for dinner and is fed almost to the brink of unconsciousness by Mrs. Diaz. The film, while not accurate in many respects, still reflected positively on McFarland and has been well received by its residents. Many of the athletes who competed for coach White have had successful careers as adults. The other Diaz brothers, Danny and David, work as educational administrators.

The charges against Diaz – and the speculation that the scandal might run deep inside the Bakersfield Police Department, according to statements made by Diaz’s attorney – come at a time when law enforcement in Kern County is facing tremendous national and international scrutiny. Earlier this year, the British newspaper The Guardian, one of the world’s best investigative journalism outlets, published a series in which it declared police in Kern County to be the deadliest in America. Several of the cases highlighted were Bakersfield police cases.

The Bakersfield Californian articles report this story in depth. Click here to read yesterday’s story by Steven Mayer and click here to read today’s by Mayer and Christine Bedell.

The Guardian series declaring Kern County police the country’s deadliest

Twinkies, Hawaii and messages in the sand: The story of Sylvia and Herlinda

The real “McFarland USA” beach scene, from the album of Silvia Diaz

Photos from the Bakersfield sneak peek of “McFarland USA”

A look at the real “McFarland USA” kids and coach Jim White

Update: Show the world what has happened to my son

McFarland’s never-ending heartache

Prom night, a crash and six teens lost

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Damacio Diaz signs autographs at the Bakersfield sneak peak of the Disney film “McFarland USA” in February, 2015.

 

My last photographs of Merle Haggard

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I photographed Merle Haggard a lot during my 28-year career as a Bakersfield Californian photographer. One of Bakersfield’s native sons and arguably the greatest country musician and song writer of his generation, Haggard performed in Bakersfield often, and also visited frequently from Redding, California, where he lived, for social functions, to visit friends and even for medical treatment.

Haggard died today, on his 79th birthday, and even though he was in failing health, his loss has hit this town and the entertainment industry hard. A cause has not been listed, but he had been battling with double pneumonia since late last year.

Oddly enough, despite the number of times I photographed Haggard, I never really got to know him, unlike Bakersfield’s other giant of country music, Buck Owens, whom I became quite friendly with. I’m sure we said “hello” to each other a time or two, but the circumstances of the various shoots – usually his very busy schedule and the fact that he did not live in Bakersfield – never gave us an opportunity to talk. But he was a great photo subject, friendly and polite, and best of all for a photographer, completely at ease and even oblivious to the camera.

And, of course, I loved his music. I was a fan long before I was a photojournalist, and remember many a night as a teenager in Taft, California, cruising around in my friend Bill Wheeler’s Datsun pickup, listening to Merle Haggard songs for hours.

Some of the Haggard assignments were routine, mostly a few shots of his many concerts he performed at local venues, big and small. But some took on more importance. One, which I wrote about last year on this blog, was “Together Again: Buck and Merle and the Great Country Music Summit of 1995,” a high profile reunion of Owens and Haggard, along with Dwight Yoakam. Another would be the final time I would photograph Haggard as a staff photographer for The Bakersfield Californian. It was Haggard’s first concert after he underwent lung cancer surgery two months earlier. It was Friday, January 2, 2009, two months before I would leave the newspaper, and it was a busy afternoon and evening. It started with Haggard being given a star in front of Bakersfield’s historic Fox Theater, where he played a few times, and concluded with a concert at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, before a packed house, of course. It was not easy for him, and he had to stop a few times, freely talking to the audience about the surgery and his challenging recovery.

These are the pictures I shot for The Californian that day.

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Two months after his lung cancer surgery, it was a big day in his home town for Merle Haggard, who was honored with a star outside the historic Fox Theater and performed his first post-surgery concert at the Crystal Palace.
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Merle Haggard glances toward the crowd that assembled outside the Fox Theater Friday afternoon to watch the unveiling of his star.
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A smiling Merle Haggard acknowledges the crowd that was on hand for the unveiling of his star outside the Fox Theater Friday afternoon.
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Merle Haggard looks at his star outside the Fox Theater after it was unveiled Friday afternoon.
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Merle with his wife, Theresa.
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Several dozen fans turned out for the dedication ceremony.
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Merle Haggard takes the stage at the Crystal Palace for his first performance since undergoing lung cancer surgery. Behind him is his son, Binion.
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Merle Haggard performs for the first time since his lung cancer surgery.
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Merle Haggard and his son, Binion, during Haggard’s first concert following lung cancer surgery two months earlier.
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The Buck Owens Crystal Palace was packed for Merle Haggard’s first concert, on January 2, 2009, following his lung cancer surgery.
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Merle Haggard removed his hat and spoke candidly to the audience at Friday’s show. He talked about the honor of receiving a star outside the Fox Theater and about his recent lung cancer surgery, saying “It still hurts.”

 

Thank you, WordPress editors!

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Just a little note to thank the editors of WordPress for choosing this blog as an “Editors’ Choice” in both the “media” and “photography” categories. That’s quite a nice honor!

Here’s a picture that really doesn’t have much of a story behind it but I thought would be nice to share. It has never been published before. It’s the trail from a missile launch of some kind from Vandenburg Air Force Base on California’s central coast that I saw while driving to the coast along Highway 166 in 1999. Up until that time, we had a pretty nice agreement with the newspaper regarding use of photos that we took on our own time and with our own equipment. They would either pay us or give us some time off in exchange for the photos, and it worked out great for many years. But just a few months before this picture was taken, a new photo editor objected to that agreement, and a rather nasty atmosphere developed, really for the first time, between the photo staff and their photo editor, who demanded that all “own time” photos be given to the newspaper for free. So I decided not to offer the photo to the newspaper, and you are seeing it for the first time. I always thought it was a cool shot. The photographers would eventually prevail, after five long months the editor was fired, but victory was not without cost: we lost a remarkably talented young photographer – who had been harassed mercilessly by the editor – to a Los Angeles newspaper.

Heaven: shooting what I want to shoot

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One of the things I don’t miss at all about working in newspapers is the incredible frustration of not being able to get the time to do a story or project the way you want to. So many times I would convince the editors to give me a day or two to work on something, then when I’d get to work, my all-day project has now become a two-hour project. “Sorry, something came up,” they would say, and I’d spend my shift doing the most routine daily work. One time, when my home town of Taft, California was hit by a devastating downturn in oil prices  – similar to what’s happening now – I proposed doing a project on the impact it was having on families. The editors agreed, I found several families willing to be photographed, and one Thursday afternoon, I headed out to do my first of what would be many shoots in the small oil town. And then, bam!, as I was leaving, the editor says, “By the way, we need this project completed tonight. We’re running it this weekend.” Yep, I don’t miss that at all. (I categorically reject, and always have rejected, the notion that if you really want to do a project, you should do it for free or on your own time. That’s just another way a predatory industry takes advantage of its journalists.)

It looks like we’re going to have a gorgeous spring here in Kern County, California, as the long-awaited rains have brought some relief, though by no means an end to the drought. Wildflowers are a big thing around here, and thousands of people take to the countryside when they are in bloom. They’re just now starting. I found a nice, small field yesterday that was in near full-bloom, and stopped to do a little shooting. I spent three hours shooting a combination of time lapse photography and video and another six hours editing it. Never would have happened as a newspaper assignment. It is so liberating and invigorating to work on what I want at my own leisure.

Spring is almost here, the days are gorgeous and in the 70s and 80s right now, and to all you blog readers back east, don’t worry, you can get even with me this summer, when we will be baking in 100-degree heat!

Click the photo below to view the video, or you can click here, too.

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A visit home and a picture I’ve been meaning to shoot

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Can you point to a time and place that profoundly impacted your life, that you can say with certainty either made, or played, a role in making you the person you are today? I can. It’s this building and sidewalk at the corner of Harrison and Elm streets in Taft, California, the town about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles I spent my teen years in after leaving New York City. In 1976, I was 17 and my mom and stepfather were doing whatever they could to make their fractured marriage work. Complicating matters was the abject poverty we were living in, my dad earning little more than $250 per week and trying to support a family of nine on it. So they took a gamble. My dad quit his job and decided to make a go of it, as a machinist , on his own. He would do the physical work and mom, who had gone to Taft College and earned an AA in business, would handle the finances. They rented out this building from a rather unsavory landlord whose greed and unreasonable demands for payoffs in exchange for promising to provide customers made success a long shot. Work would trickle in and the wait for payment would seem eternal. Every morning, my dad would stand out front, on that corner, waiting for the mailman. Waiting for a check. Any kind of check. My mom would call, every day, with just one question: “Did any checks come?”

I worked for them doing sandblasting, using a high-pressure air hose to clear caked on oil and debris from the natural gas compressor valves that my dad would recondition. And I would watch the daily ritual, my dad standing out front, on cold and foggy mornings, wearing his oil-stained, navy blue sweatshirt and worn jeans, his hands that were permanently the color of oil, tucked into his front pockets. Staring at the ground, shuffling from side to side, waiting for the mailman. I would work the sandblaster bundled like we were in the arctic, as we could not afford to run the large, drafty building’s heater. It is that image, of my father standing in front of that shop, days on end, waiting for the mail, that’s seared into my memory.

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In my first photography class at Taft College in 1977, my inspiring photography teacher, John Christensen, began introducing us to the master photographers of our generation. Then he gave us an assignment: shoot a picture in the style of one of the photographers we were studying. I chose W. Eugene Smith, who to this day is my favorite photographer. I loved his dark tones and the way he highlighted the important parts of his photos. So I shot this picture of my dad, at work in that building, trying as best as I could – at 18 and in my first college photo class – to make it look W. Eugene Smith like.

And then came the time for me to go to college. I did my two years at Taft College, and had applied to Cal State University Northridge. I wanted to be a journalist, and remember the thrill of being accepted. But how could I possibly go? I especially loved the chocolate chip cookies they sold in the cafeteria when I was at Taft High School. They cost a dime, and my mom would cry because she could often not find 10 cents so that I could buy a cookie. (I never saw her cry. She told me this in later years.) There was no way they could send me off to college. But somehow, some way, they decided they would try. Nobody in the history of my family had graduated from a four-year college. I would be the first. I wanted it and more importantly, my mom wanted it. So we made a deal: I would go off to Cal State Northridge with the understanding that it was a month-to-month situation, and if they called me home, I would have to come home. No questions. I went, and as I studied with a sense of purpose, knowing that every class session might be my last, their business gradually picked up. And they were able to keep me in school. While I was at school, they moved out of that building and away from the horrible landlord, who was really taking advantage of them. They moved into a building down the street, and this time found a kindly landlord who recognized their difficulty, did everything he could to help them along and eventually became a beloved family friend who we to this day fondly regard. (Their business, Taft Controls Repair, eventually became successful.)

I’ve always said I would someday stop and photograph this building and tell this story. Today I was in Taft for a good friend’s mom’s funeral, and as I drove by the building – now a feed store – the sky dictated that this was a nice time to take that photo. It was missing my dad standing out front, waiting for the mailman, but I saw. I’ve seen it for 40 years. It’s never gone away. It’s instilled in me my work ethic and my values, my attitude about responsibility and pulling your weight in what can sometimes seem a big, bad world. It’s helped me become the person I am today.

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As we struggled to survive, a kind county worker got us into this Housing and Urban Development complex on Monroe Street in Ford City, a section of Taft. We lived there for two years, in the apartment on the right. We were together, my mom, brother and sister and I. My stepdad would visit frequently, and gradually he and my mom reconciled. We were, believe it or not, extremely happy in that little place.

“McFarland USA” coach Jim White recovering from heart attack

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Jim White at the Bakersfield premiere of “McFarland USA” earlier this year.

Jim White, the legendary cross country coach who was the inspiration for this year’s Disney film “McFarland USA,” sustained a minor heart attack and is recovering, according to several posts on the Facebook account of his wife, Cheryl. Here is one of the posts from today.Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 4.29.29 PM

White was portrayed by Kevin Costner in the film, a fact-based account of how he brought a string of cross country state high school championships to the small California farming community of McFarland. There are several other posts by Cheryl White confirming White’s medical status, thanking supporters for prayers and encouraging others to please be aware of their own family medical histories.

November 7, 1991: “Magic Johnson might have AIDS”

John Harte / The Bakersfield Californian On November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson shocked the world with his announcement that he was HIV positive and, still in the prime of his career, retiring from the Lakers. In this frame is NBA commissioner David Stern, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson's agent, Lon Rosen. Californian reporter Brad Turner and photographer John Harte covered the announcement, racing to the Great Western Forum in Inglewood and entering through a kitchen when the main entrance to the press area was inaccessible due to a throng of media and fans who descended to the scene.
On November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson shocked the world with his announcement that he was HIV positive and, still in the prime of his career, retiring from the Lakers. In this frame is NBA commissioner David Stern and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Californian reporter Brad Turner and I covered the announcement, racing to the Great Western Forum in Inglewood and entering through a kitchen when the main entrance to the press area was inaccessible due to a throng of media and fans who descended on the scene. This is one of my shots from that day.

By the Fall of 1991, I was firmly established as The Bakersfield Californian’s “night photographer,” working the evening shift exclusively. The shift was not popular with the other photographers, almost all of them preferred the morning shifts, so there were no objections when I volunteered to work the night shift permanently, something I did for a good 20 years or so. I loved staying up late, sleeping in, and working with as few editors around as possible. A newsroom takes on a whole different feel when the daysiders head home. More relaxed, less confusion and everybody knowing what their job is and how to do it. It almost runs itself. I always believed your basic American newsroom could run smoothly and more efficiently with about 25 percent of the editors they employed. But most of all, I loved shooting sports, and sports happen in the late afternoon or at night.

My morning routine always started with me heading over to Marie Callender’s for my coffee. On November 7, 1991, a Thursday, I finished my coffee run and noticed the light blinking on my phone’s answering machine. We did not have cell phones at the time. It was a message from my photo editor, Casey Christie, asking if I could come to work early and to call him back. Getting called to work early was not very common back then. We had a decent sized photo staff – nine people – so that indicated something big was going on. Casey answered my call and I remember him saying “Can you come to work early and head down to Los Angeles with Brad Turner? The Lakers are holding a press conference this afternoon. Something about Magic Johnson, but I don’t know what.”

The Californian had not yet been swallowed by the “hyper-local” newspaper craze, and at the time operated as a regional newspaper. We routinely covered professional and major college sports in Los Angeles, and did not hesitate to pack up and head to any major news stories occurring anywhere in California. The Lakers, of course, were NBA royalty and Bakersfield was very much a Lakers town. I had just photographed the season opener a couple of days earlier. Brad Turner – who now covers the Clippers for the Los Angeles Times under his full name, Broderick Turner – was The Californian’s Lakers beat writer. Because of the distance to the Great Western Forum (about two hours) and the lack of easy means of transmitting photos under deadline, we did not shoot all of the Lakers’ games, but we shot a lot of them, and I did most of that work.

By the time I got into the office a few minutes after talking with Casey, more information had filtered in. I’ll never forget Casey’s words when I asked if he knew what was going on. They hit me like a sucker punch. “Magic Johnson might have AIDS.”

Within minutes, Brad and I were on our way to Los Angeles. But it didn’t look good. The press conference was less than two hours from starting, and I didn’t see any possibility of us getting there on time. Not with Los Angeles traffic, and the most brutal LA traffic you’re likely to encounter, the 405 through the San Fernando Valley, over the Sepulveda Pass, then through Los Angeles’ busy westside and on to Inglewood, right into the teeth of Los Angeles International Airport traffic. Nope, we weren’t going to make it, I decided. But Brad had just purchased a brand new Isuzu Trooper. Bakersfield Californian cars were equipped with devices that monitored our driving performance, forcing us to drive the speed limit, which at the time was 55 mph. So we took Brad’s Isuzu instead. Brad did not drive 55 mph. At each glance I took at the speedometer, we were going 90 mph! Seriously, we were flat out flying. I remember Brad saying something about this story being worth a speeding ticket.

We breezed into the San Fernando Valley from Bakersfield, always an easy drive, and now it was time to face the beast. I looked at my watch. Hmmm, maybe we could make it after all. Oh, but the beast. If Satan was a stretch of highway, he would be the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass. It’s a relatively short stretch that joins the San Fernando Valley with the Westside, and let me tell you, folks, it is pure evil. Many a trip has been ruined by Sepulveda Pass traffic, at times so brutal that when you finally reach your destination, you’re so pissed off you don’t even want to be there. Well, the traffic gods were on our side, and we flew over the pass. No traffic! And it happened again as we cleared Westwood and headed to the Forum on Supelveda’s evil twin brother, the stretch from Santa Monica to Inglewood, which just happens to include the highways 405 and 10 interchange, the busiest freeway interchange in the United States. We were going to make it in time!

This frame grab from the ESPN documentary
This frame grab from the ESPN documentary “The Announcement” shows the scene Brad Turner and I encountered outside the Forum’s media entrance when we arrived. There was no way we were going to get through that and into the press conference.

We pulled into the Forum’s parking lot and immediately encountered another obstacle. By now, the Los Angeles and national media were reporting the pending announcement and that Johnson had contracted HIV, and hundreds of people had descended upon the Forum. You can see from the above picture there was no way we were going to make it through that crowd. They probably had already sealed off access just to comply with fire codes.

But Brad knew the Forum and the Lakers pretty well. Like in a movie – how does “Broderick Saves the Day” sound – Brad says “follow me,” and the next thing I know, we’re racing around the side of the Forum, into a door and we’re inside a huge kitchen! Then through some hallways and finally we enter the big room where the press conference will be held. Brad knew his way around that building. We were in!

In my 28-year newspaper career, I never saw so much media assembled in one location. “Media crush” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Photographers had already taken all the floor space in front of the podium, and a huge throng – both still and video shooters – assembled in clusters wherever there was room. I nudged and squeezed my way into one of the groups at the rear of the room. It was so packed that I could barely reach down and grab the second camera hanging along my left side. This was where I was going to shoot from, and there would be no possibility of moving around. The room was hot and smelled of perspiration. It was also quiet, something you don’t usually get from journalists in large groups. I was slightly to the right of the podium, and it looked like it would be OK, just as long as security didn’t position themselves to where it blocked the podium.

It may have just been a few minutes, but it felt much longer. And then, a solemn procession filed in – I think from the same door Brad and I entered through a few minutes earlier. Magic entered first, followed by Lakers owner Jerry Buss, general manager Jerry West, NBA commissioner David Stern, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson’s wife Cookie and his agent Lon Rosen. He smiled that big smile and putting his hand over his eyes, acknowledged the massive throng of media with a simple “whoa.” The cameras clicked and the flashes fired. And with the entire world watching on live television, Magic Johnson said the words that would play a role in changing the face of AIDS in America forever: “Because of the HIV virus that I have obtained, uh, I will have to retire from the Lakers today.”

In this frame grab from the ESPN documentary
In this frame grab from the ESPN documentary “The Announcement,” I am somewhere in that room, judging from the angle of my photos, most likely in the throng of photographers in the upper right portion of this photo.

Of all the sports I photographed in my career, noting came close to the thrill of watching, and trying to shoot, Magic Johnson and the “Showtime” Lakers running a fast break and taking control of a game. It seemed the Lakers would always be trailing when Magic would take over. With a 180mm or 300 mm lens pointed at him from the opposite baseline, he would grab a rebound or take a pass and head toward me. I could swear he was looking right into my camera, but of course, he wasn’t. Then he would fire the ball. I could swear he was throwing it right at me, but of course, he wasn’t. When I was convinced I was about to get nailed by a Magic Johnson pass, James Worthy or Byron Scott or A.C. Green would swoop into the frame, catch the ball and throw down a slam dunk. Switching cameras to capture both ends of the play was impossible, at least for me, it happened so damn fast. The Forum crowd would roar, the opposing team would call a time out to try and stem the tide. The Laker girls would file onto the floor as Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” would blast over the loudspeakers. The Forum was delirium, the game now in hand. I didn’t get to hear it, because I was sitting on the floor, but up above me Chick Hearn was declaring “This ball game is in the refrigerator. The door is closed, the lights are out. The eggs are cooling, the butter’s getting hard and the jello’s jiggling.”

And it was all over. This day, the great Western Forum was a crypt. The announcement was brief, and Magic tried to keep it positive, promising that “I’ll still being around bugging you guys.” But everybody in the room, heck, in the world, knew that Magic would soon be gone. Utah Jazz star Karl Malone candidly admitted that he thought Johnson was a “dead man walking” after the announcement.

Magic Johnson delivers his shocking news to the world that he has contracted HIV and would be retiring from the Lakers on November 7, 1991. This is another of my images.
Magic Johnson delivers his news to the world that he has contracted HIV and would be retiring from the Lakers on November 7, 1991. This is another of my images.

After the announcement, most of the media and some of the Lakers staff made their way to the Forum Club, adjacent to the players, media and VIP entrance. I always loved leaving a Lakers game and passing through the media/VIP exit. I had a game I would play. Lots of celebrities attended Lakers games so lots of paparazzi assembled outside the exit, hoping to snap pix of Dyan Cannon or Jack Nicholson or Goldie Hawn or any assortment of Lakers, actors, sports stars or power players who attended the games. So I would wait for a celebrity to leave the Forum, then I would walk out beside them. The flashes would fire from all the paparazzi, and a week or two later I would check all the celebrity gossip magazines to see if I was in any of the pictures. It never worked, but I tried!

As I was leaving the Forum after the announcement, I glanced into the Forum Club and saw a moment that I simply had to capture. Lakers general manager Jerry West was sitting alone at the bar, seemingly staring into nowhere, his face more than anything I had seen telling the story of the day. I fired two shots, having to use flash because it was dark in there, and left it at that.

I don’t remember what Brad and I talked about on the ride back to Bakersfield, and with a ton of work still ahead of me, I don’t think I was really processing what had just happened and what I had just covered. Back in the newsroom, the edit was fairly easy. The two pictures you see here of Magic are the ones we ran. I was pretty excited about the Jerry West photo, but was disappointed when the picture came out of the soup. That’s what we called the processing chemicals back in the day. Something hanging from the bar had blocked the flash and thrown a large shadow across West’s forehead. At the time, we were shooting transparencies and did not have any digital software that could lighten or darken shadows. I declared the picture not publication worthy because of the shadow. But I had told Casey Christie about the photo and he wanted to see it. He overruled me, and I’m glad he did. Sometimes I get too carried away with my obsession over the technical aspects of my photos. I saw a shadow that ruined a picture. Casey saw emotion etched in the face of the man who ran the team that just lost it’s heart and soul, one of the greatest players the NBA had ever produced. He saw historical value, and he saw a picture we were pretty sure nobody else had. So the photo ran.

Los Angeles Lakers general manager Jerry West sat alone in the bar at the Great Western Forum in the moments following the announcement on November 7, 1991, by Magic Johnson that he was HIV positive and would be retiring from the Lakers.
Los Angeles Lakers general manager Jerry West sat alone in the bar at the Great Western Forum in the moments following the announcement on November 7, 1991, by Magic Johnson that he was HIV positive and would be retiring from the Lakers.

America did not handle the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s well. In fact, from political and religious leadership to media responsibility to public health protocol, everything about America’s handling of AIDS in the early days was a failure. President Ronald Reagan essentially refused to acknowledge the spreading epidemic or even mention the word “AIDS” for several years, and even tried to reduce AIDS funding in the federal budget as the disease was spreading. The media largely ignored the new disease because it was a so called “gay disease” affecting what was considered by Americans at the time to be an unworthy class of citizen. Vile preachers with huge followings like Jerry Falwell (one of the most awful people I ever met and photographed in my career) worked the citizenry into a frenzy, declaring the disease “God’s punishment” for the homosexual lifestyle, self-proclaimed “Men of God” spreading hatred and intolerance when they could have fostered compassion, understanding and education. And this disturbing article from the Journal of Public Health Policy details how the Centers for Disease Control, admittedly stifled by the Reagan Administration, dropped the ball in the early days of the epidemic at a time when funding, education and prevention protocols could have been invaluable.

So Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive transcends sports, and sits as one of the defining moments in the nation’s coming to grips with the disease. I’m not a health journalist, but as a photojournalist whose career started about the same time the AIDS epidemic did, I covered a lot of stories about AIDS and because of the fear and hysteria that pervaded every corner of American society, I followed this story closely. I believe there were six defining moments that helped America come to terms with the epidemic and that forced social, medical and political change. First was the death of actor Rock Hudson from the disease. It wasn’t until a friend of Reagan’s died that he finally decided to address it publicly, doing so at the request of another actor friend, Elizabeth Taylor, in 1987. Next is Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s battle with the Reagan Administration to address the epidemic, concluding with his release of an informational pamphlet in 1988 to every American household. It was the first significant step by the government to educate its citizens, and it was a brutal fight for Koop, who insisted that the pamphlet be free of moral and political statements. He even had to “sneak in” a recommendation advocating the use of condoms, for fear that the White House would not allow it.

Next up is Ryan White, an Indiana teenager who was infected by HIV from a blood transfusion. The boy found himself facing discrimination at every level, including being expelled from school for having the disease. The Ryan White case would lead to passage by Congress of the Ryan White CARE Act which mandates major federal funding for AIDS care, treatment and research. It would also signal that AIDS was not just a “gay disease” or a “druggie disease,” sending a major wake up call to America. Tennis legend Arthur Ashe announced in 1992 that he had contracted AIDS, most likely from a blood transfusion during heart surgery. He created the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat AIDS which advocated the need for AIDS research and funding as well as sex education and safe sex practices. His celebrity and status as a respected athlete kept AIDS from sliding out of the public consciousness.

In 1993, Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington starred in Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia,” the first major studio film to tackle AIDS. The film was a major hit, Hanks won the Best Actor Oscar, and it probably did more to bring attention to HIV/AIDS than all the news stories and political hearings and funding battles ever could, such is the nature of celebrity.

Magic Johnson’s announcement stands with those, maybe even above them, given his stature. He was easily one of the most loved figures in American sports history. He shattered the illusion that only “other people” get HIV/AIDS and he set out to educate others and raise awareness of AIDS and how to prevent it, even serving on President George Bush’s council. (In later years he would admit what was widely suspected, that his sexual promiscuity likely led to his contracting HIV.)  And of course, by living with HIV for more than 20 years now, he provides hope for others. He is by far the most famous American to have contracted the disease. The New York Daily News devoted both its front and back covers to Magic’s announcement, which should give an indication of the impact it had.newsWhen I got home that night, I finally began to digest what I had just covered. I got to know Magic Johnson a little bit over the years, and he really was, and I’m sure still is, a very nice guy. He was the guy who would come over and say “hello” when he saw me in the Forum hallway. He was the guy who was always the same, win or lose, upbeat, happy and friendly. One day, in 1988, I was covering a Raiders game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. I got up from my shooting position, turned around and found myself staring into the chest of a very large person. I looked up, and it was Magic. He was looking down at me and with a big smile said, “Hey, nice hat.” That summer, the Lakers had won the NBA title for the second year in a row and I had purchased a Lakers “Back-to-Back” championship hat, which I was wearing. I said, “Thanks, I like it, too,” and shuffled off to a new shooting position. I have a rule about autographs. Never, ever, ask for an autograph from someone you are photographing. Ditto for asking to pose for a picture with them. It’s unprofessional in my view. But I got to thinking, “Damn, I sure would like to have Magic autograph this hat.”

But a rule is a rule, right? Never before had I asked for an autograph, and never since, either. Then a thought entered my brilliant head. Earlier that summer, I had photographed “A Mid-Summer Night’s Magic,” Johnson’s fund raising all-star basketball game. During the game, the players cleared the floor and set up a one-on-one showdown, Magic Johnson against his teammate and buddy, Michael Cooper. Johnson tried to put a move on Cooper, and as he fell backward, Cooper threw out his leg, tripping Magic. I got a shot of Magic heading to the floor, a big smile on his face. I bet Magic would like to have that picture, I thought, so I walked up and made the proposition; I’ll trade Magic a copy of the photo for his autograph on the cap. He was all for it. He signed the cap (which I have kept in plastic ever since) and I mailed him the picture. I saw him at another Raiders game later in the season, and asked if he got the picture. “I did, it’s great,” he said. “I hung it up.”

I traded Magic this photo I shot of him and Michael Cooper for an autograph, the only one I ever obtained in my career.
I traded Magic this photo I shot of him and Michael Cooper for an autograph, the only one I ever obtained in my career.

magic_autograph_web Magic_hat_webI thought Magic Johnson was going to die. Everybody did. One of the networks dedicated an hour-long special that night to Magic Johnson. I was exhausted and didn’t want to watch it. So I programmed my VCR and recorded it. I wrote “Magic Johnson -32-” on it and put it away, deciding I would watch it in a few months when Magic passed away. I’ve never watched it. I’m two years older than Magic, so maybe I’ll never watch it. Heck, maybe when our time comes, there will be no way of ever watching a VHS tape!Magic_VHS_webNovember 7, 1991, is a day that will stay with me forever. That wild car ride with Brad, running through the Forum kitchen, being in the largest crush of media I’ve ever experienced. But mostly, realizing the incredible things we get to see as photojournalists. It was one of the most momentous moments in American sports history, and I was in the room that day. I was in the room.Lakersweb

Magic Johnson, teammates and fans celebrated the Lakers 1988 NBA title in downtown Los Angeles.
Magic Johnson, teammates and fans celebrated the Lakers 1988 NBA title in downtown Los Angeles.

Unpublished: Cesar Chavez at home, 1986

chavezwebOn the eve of Cesar Chavez Day and what would be his 88th birthday, I’m sharing a never-before published photo I made of the labor and civil rights leader at his home in Keene, California in the mid 1980s. I’m pretty sure it was 1986. I shot this on assignment for The Boston Globe, which was doing a story on Chavez’ grape boycott protesting the use of pesticides. The Globe sent a reporter out from Boston and hired me to shoot some black and white photos of Chavez, as well as photos of the United Farm Workers’ communication center at the Keene complex.

The interview lasted a long time, around two hours, and Chavez was oblivious to the camera, which, of course, is the way we photographers like it. After shooting the black and whites for the Globe, I popped a roll of color slide film into my camera and shot a set of images for myself. I’ve always liked this picture, but never had an opportunity to have it published. The Bakersfield Californian, my employer, had its own set of images of Chavez, or would send us to shoot new ones when needed. So, the picture sat in one of those big boxes of photos I’ve accumulated over the years and am now sharing on this blog. You are seeing this previously unpublished photo for the first time, nearly 30 years after it was made.

“You Can’t Have My Job, But I’ll Tell You a Story”: The slide show

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I have created a music slide show of the images from this blog for a lecture I will be presenting in two weeks at the California Journalism Association of Community Colleges annual convention in Sacramento, California. It contains most of the stories I have already told on this blog, plus the pictures for about 18 stories I have not written yet, like this poor soul who decided to fight the cops after a car chase. You know, that never works out. Click here to see the show on You Tube. (I’m sending you to YouTube because I’m not too crazy about the WordPress video player.) Enjoy, and keep on visiting this site. You honor me and I appreciate it very much!

Twinkies, Hawaii and messages in the sand: The story of Sylvia and Herlinda

During the beach trip in 1985 when coach Jim White took the teams to Cayucos following the Santa Maria Invitational, Herlinda Gonzalez wrote "MHS #1" in the sand. From left is Herlinda, Delfina Herrera, Sylvia Diaz and her brother, Raul Diaz. The photo was taken with Raul's camera by a teammate and are the only known images of the real beach trip depicted in the movie "McFarland USA.".
Herlinda Gonzalez, Delfina Herrera, Sylvia Diaz and her brother, Raul Diaz at Cayucos on October 4, 1985. The photo was taken with Raul’s camera by a teammate and the images are the only known pictures of the real beach trip depicted in the movie “McFarland USA.” It is from Sylvia’s personal photo album. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz

 

This is the full version of the story that appears in the March 15, 2015 Bakersfield Californian about Sylvia Diaz, Herlinda Gonzalez and my experiences photographing McFarland cross country in the days following their deaths. The remembrances provided by their friends, relatives and teammates were so loving and heartfelt, I am including them, in their entirety, following the story. — John Harte


The McFarland girls ran in the CIF Central Section South Area meet at Hart Park on November 13, 1986, two and a half weeks after the accident that claimed teammates Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez. This is Norma Torres and Hollie Wykoff (right) after the race. Wykoff was one of the runners who witnessed the accident.

  I never photographed or met Sylvia Diaz or Herlinda Gonzalez, but the memories of the pictures I took in the aftermath of their deaths in 1986 would impact me deeply, and remain with me through the remainder of my photojournalism career.

The Disney film “McFarland USA” shines a light on the now-legendary McFarland High boys cross country program and it’s selfless and caring coach, Jim White. It’s a feel-good movie and a real good one at that, and it has helped make tens of thousands of Americans aware of a little San Joaquin Valley farming town they likely never heard of.

The real McFarland story is much more deeply layered, and darker, than the film depicts. I know, because as a young Bakersfield Californian photographer during the 1980s, I was part of the team that covered it. It’s a story about a terrifying and unsolved cancer cluster affecting and killing the town’s children, their primarily immigrant parents living in unspeakable fear for their children’s health. It’s a story about a string of devastating accidents, including a Valentine’s Day car crash in 1987 that claimed the lives of four teens from McFarland and two from neighboring Delano, the death of the school’s football coach, and the accidental deaths of several popular McFarland High students. All in a town of about 6,500 at the time.

And it’s a story about Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez. Monday, October 27, 1986, was a beautiful autumn day for cross country practice. It was 85 degrees, sunny with a very slight breeze. Sylvia, 16, a McFarland High senior, and Herlinda, 14, a sophomore, were running that afternoon with teammates Alicia Herrera and Hollie Wykoff on Whisler Road, a long country road that dissects the area’s bountiful grape vineyards and almond orchards, when they were struck by a car following a slow-moving truck. The girls had moved to the side of the road to allow the truck to pass, but apparently unaware of the trailing car, veered into its path. Sylvia was pronounced dead at Delano Regional Medical Center, but in reality died at the scene. Herlinda died the following morning. Just like that, the town’s emerging bright light – a cross country program enjoying success even before 1987, the year depicted in the film – found itself immersed in the cruel and seemingly unrelenting tragedy that was 1980s McFarland.girlsweb

I was assigned to cover two of McFarland’s races in the days following the accident. A palpable somberness and eerie quiet hung over Hart Park for the Kern Invitational the afternoon of November 1, 1986, just five days after the accident. The pain was cruelly etched on the faces of the McFarland runners and the empathy for the well-respected team was palpable among opposing runners, coaches and spectators. I remember the birds. The sprawling park nestled in the foothills of northeast Bakersfield offers a  beautiful chorus of chirping and whistling from its assortment of bird species, and when the park is empty, it almost sounds as if you’re being treated to a free concert. But not when dozens of athletes gather for one of the season’s big cross country meets. The birds become a barely perceptible background chatter as teenagers do what teenagers do when they assemble in numbers. Not this afternoon. I only heard the birds. It was so quiet. I photographed Herlinda and Sylvia’s teammate, Tammy Carter, crossing the finish line, then collapsing in inconsolable grief into the arms of girls coach Gary Pierson. I photographed Thomas Valles, long before he would be made famous by the movie, just a kid, bringing his hands to his face in prayer before the start of the boys race and keeping them there for what seemed eternity.Syl_Her_Harte_1

At the Kern Invitational on November 1, 1986, five days after the accident that took the lives of Herlinda Gonzalez and Sylvia Diaz, team member Tammy Carter collapses into the arms of McFarland girls coach Gary Pierson.

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At the Kern Invitational, five days after the accident, Tammy Carter finished the race and collapsed into the arms of coach Gary Pierson. Coach Pierson is wearing a shirt from the Mt. SAC Invitational, the last race the girls ran. They performed well and had been excited.
At the Kern Invitational on November 1, 1986, Thomas Valles prays before the start of the boys race. This photo ran in The Californian the next day.
At the Kern Invitational on November 1, 1986, Thomas Valles prays before the start of the boys race. This photo ran in The Californian the next day.
At the Kern Invitational on November 1, 1986, five days after the accident that took the lives of Herlinda Gonzalez and Sylvia Diaz, the boys team lines up for the start of their race. From left: Victor Puentes, Johnny Samaniego, Damacio Diaz, Thomas Valles and David Diaz.
At the Kern Invitational on November 1, 1986, five days after the accident that took the lives of Herlinda Gonzalez and Sylvia Diaz, the boys team lines up for the start of their race. From left: Victor Puentes, Johnny Samaniego, Damacio Diaz, Thomas Valles and David Diaz.

Two weeks later, at the CIF Central Section South Area meet, both McFarland teams arrived by limousine, the girls clutching long-stemmed roses, a gesture by one of the parents to help them cope with their pain. And then an image, teammates Norma Torres and Hollie Wykoff, alone on a bench, clutching their red roses, the warm, amber afternoon back light we photographers love, this time heartbreakingly accenting a despair no child should endure. Hollie and Alicia Herrera had witnessed the accident. One team member, Tammy’s sister, Deborah Carter Stockett, told me she resented my being at those races and yelled at me to go away, but now she is glad that I was there.

Two and one-half weeks after teammates Herlinda Gonzalez and Sylvia Diaz were killed in a practice accident, the McFarland girls competed in the CIF Central Section South Area meet. McFarland runners, from left: Delfina Herrera, Hollie Wykoff, Tammy Carter, Alicia Herrera and Norma Torres.
Two and one-half weeks after teammates Herlinda Gonzalez and Sylvia Diaz were killed in a practice accident, the McFarland girls competed in the CIF Central Section South Area meet. McFarland runners, from left: Delfina Herrera, Hollie Wykoff, Tammy Carter, Alicia Herrera and Norma Torres.
Hollie Wykoff and Alicia Herrera (right) raced in the CIF Central Section South Area meet at Hart Park on November 13, 1986. Both girls witnessed the practice accident that took the lives of Herlinda Gonzalez and Sylvia Diaz two and one-half weeks earlier.
Hollie Wykoff and Alicia Herrera (right) raced in the CIF Central Section South Area meet at Hart Park on November 13, 1986. Both girls witnessed the practice accident that took the lives of Herlinda Gonzalez and Sylvia Diaz two and one-half weeks earlier.
The McFarland girls arrived for the CIF Central Section South Area meet on November 13, 1986 in a limousine. It was a gesture by Hollie Wykoff's mom to help the girls feel better as they dealt with their grief after teammates Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez were killed in a practice accident two and one-half weeks earlier. From left: Eva Renteria, Hollie Wykoff, Delfina Herrera, Maria Herrera, Alicia Herrera, Tammy Carter, Norma Torres and coach Gary Pierson.
The McFarland girls arrived for the CIF Central Section South Area meet on November 13, 1986 in a limousine. It was a gesture by Hollie Wykoff’s mom to help them feel better as they dealt with their grief after the accident. From left: Eva Renteria, Hollie Wykoff, Delfina Herrera, Maria Herrera, Alicia Herrera, Tammy Carter, Norma Torres and coach Gary Pierson.

There is little question the all-too-short lives of Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzales played a role in not only the boys’ first state championship the following year, but in the lives of their teammates – boys and girls – as they moved forward following their high school years. I was an outsider, an observer trained to record emotion without much feeling and then move on to the next assignment. That sounds so cold, so callous, but the McFarland shoots always stayed with me. When I opened those assignment envelopes and looked at those photos nearly 30 years later, they slapped me with an emotion that shortened my breath and caused my heart to skip a beat. I never forgot being at those races and what I witnessed, but this time I felt as if I was viewing the photos not as a photographer, but as a reader. From the image of those girls posing in front of the well-intentioned limousine and trying to look happy to the night one year later when Ernesto Bravo saw me photographing his 14-year-old son, Mario, in his casket, the town’s sixth cancer victim, and walked up to me and said, “Show the world what has happened to my son,” I have never forgotten what it was like covering 1980s McFarland.

I want to tell the story of Sylvia and Herlinda because, based on what I witnessed in 1986, a complete story of McFarland High’s inspiring cross country legacy cannot be told without including Sylvia Diaz, Herlinda Gonzalez and the girls team. By every account from their friends, relatives and teammates, these were two special and deeply-loved girls. Herlinda was always so happy, never stopped laughing and smiling, said her teammate Norma Lopez Takahashi. Sylvia was bound and determined to visit Hawaii. Somehow, some way, she was going to visit Hawaii, a seemingly impossible dream for a kid in 1980s McFarland. (Sylvia’s given name was Silvia Virginia Perez Diaz, but she chose to use Sylvia. Herlinda was called “Linda” by her family and “Herly” by her friends and teammates.)

The 1986 McFarland High girls cross country team. Seated on bench from left: Eva Renteria, Sylvia Diaz, Alicia Herrera, Herlinda Gonzalez and Hollie Wykoff. Standing, from left: coach Gary Pierson, Norma Torres, Norma Lopez, Delfina Herrera and coach Jim White. Dolores Plata is sitting on the grass. She was on the 1985 team and became a cheerleader in 1986, but her teammates wanted her in this photo.
The 1986 McFarland High girls cross country team. Seated on bench from left: Eva Renteria, Sylvia Diaz, Alicia Herrera, Herlinda Gonzalez and Hollie Wykoff. Standing, from left: coach Gary Pierson, Norma Torres, Norma Lopez, Delfina Herrera and coach Jim White. Dolores Plata is sitting on the grass. She was on the 1985 team and became a cheerleader in 1986, but her teammates wanted her in this photo. Photo courtesy Norma Lopez Takahashi

“Sylvia was so sweet, kind, and naturally stunning,” says her friend and 1985 teammate Dolores Plata Rodriguez, now an assistant principal at Cesar E. Chavez High School in Delano. “You couldn’t tell if she was ever having a bad day, because she was always so uplifting and a pleasure to be around. At one of our races, Sylvia was trying to teach us this dance move. Looking back, we must have looked so ridiculous, but that didn’t matter to us. We were young and carefree. Fun was all that was on our minds. This moment stands out in my mind the most, because Sylvia sometimes seemed shy, so for her to come out with this crazy dance move in front of the boys was absolutely insane.”

Lopez Takahashi, a mortgage loan processor in Porterville, was given a nickname by Sylvia and teammates Alicia and Delfina Herrera. “They kept giggling and giggling as they were coming up with them. I don’t remember anybody else’s but they nicknamed me “Twinkie.” I asked, ‘Why Twinkie?’ and Alicia and Sylvia both laughed and said, ‘Because you’re so cute and tiny like a little Twinkie.’ I kept the nickname and even used it as my blog handle when I was blogging on a couple of Bakersfield Californian websites.”

David Diaz, one of the three Diaz brothers featured in the film, says Sylvia was “a quiet, well respected young lady with a beautiful smile and disposition about herself.  I can honestly say she was a decent student and I was fortunate to walk along side her to and from school on occasion since she lived just around the block on the next street. Even though we both have the same last name, we are not related and she made sure to tell me that on a few occasions.”

Sylvia Diaz's personal photo album opens with a clear indicator of her dream, a desire to see Hawaii. She neatly included a team photo of her team - boys and girls - at the beach. Courtesy of Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz
Sylvia Diaz’s personal photo album opens with a clear indicator of her dream, a desire to see Hawaii. She neatly included a photo of her team – boys and girls – at the beach. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz
Sylvia Diaz at work in the agricultural fields of McFarland in 1985. A good student, she dreamed of continuing her education after high school and of visiting Hawaii. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz
Sylvia Diaz, then 15, at work in the agricultural fields of McFarland in 1985. A good student, she dreamed of continuing her education after high school and of visiting Hawaii. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz
Sylvia Diaz at work in the agricultural fields of McFarland in 1985. Not unlike many McFarland kids, she worked in the fields to help support her family. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz
Sylvia Diaz at work in the agricultural fields of McFarland in 1985. Not unlike many McFarland kids, she worked in the fields to help support her family. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz

“Herlinda was one of the smartest, if not the smartest, students in our class. I would not have been surprised if she had ended up becoming a doctor or some top-notch lawyer,” says Plata Rodriguez.  “God, she had such a great laugh. She never held back when it came to laughing, making people laugh, and just being downright silly. My most memorable moments with her were the bus rides to away races. She often brought along a music magazine that had all of the current top hits’ lyrics inside. It was gold to us, but complete torture for the guys and probably Coach White as well. We sang those songs at the top of our lungs. None of us could carry a tune even if or lives depended on it.  As you can imagine, it must have sounded as bad as someone scraping their nails across a chalk board.”

David Diaz, now a vice principal at Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, echoes Rodriguez’s remembrances of Herlinda. “(She) was something very special.  She was brilliant and going to make it big without a doubt. She was nerdy, funny and wanting to please. I vividly remember telling her that very same day when that tragedy happened to not say ‘hi’ to me 20 times a day like she used to. Oh, how that stung me for a long time. Herlinda was bound for greatness and every year during cross country season, when the hot summers start to dissipate and the leaves start to change colors, I am reminded of how sensitive life really is. One can be here on earth one minute and gone the next. Ultimately, God has everything in the palm of his hand, but sometimes one can’t understand the reason as to why certain things happen and why certain people pass too early.”

A team photo from the day of the beach trip in 1985 shot with her brother, Raul's camera, likely by a coach. Bottom row, from left: Herlinda Gonzalez, Delfina Herrera, Sylvia Diaz, Gabby Perez, Dolores Plata, Magda Saragoza, Norma Lopez and Raul Diaz. Middle row, from left: David diaz, Thomas Valles, Amador Ayon and Christian Rodriguez. Top, in tree: Luis Partida and Victor Puentes. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz
A team photo from the day of the beach trip in 1985 shot with her brother, Raul’s camera, likely by a coach. Bottom row, from left: Herlinda Gonzalez, Delfina Herrera, Sylvia Diaz, Gabby Perez, Dolores Plata, Magda Saragoza, Norma Lopez and Raul Diaz. Middle row, from left: David diaz, Thomas Valles, Amador Ayon and Christian Rodriguez. Top, in tree: Luis Partida and Victor Puentes. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz

Team member Carter Stockett knew she was living behind a “wall” in 1986, but didn’t really know what was happening to her. She was shy, was doing poorly in school and had to miss several meets because she was on probation. She masked it all with an “I don’t care” attitude. The “wall,” she now knows, was attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And it was Herlinda who helped her break through that wall. “Herlinda broke this wall as she was such an example of hard work, friendship, and love. She stayed after class during breaks to ask the teachers what more she can do to bring up her grades and to do extra work to explore the class subjects even more. It would bug me as she went to the teachers to ask what more she could do. She was a reminder to me of what I was not,” said Carter Stockett.

“In the beginning, I didn’t like that part of her. At practice, we would run eight miles only to have her come back to say ‘What else do you want us to do

Every remembrance of Herlinda included her huge smile.
Every remembrance of Herlinda included her big smile.

Mr. White?’ I wouldn’t talk to her as she “sided with the enemy.”  Every day though, whenever she saw me, she would smile her big, beautiful smile and give me the biggest ‘hello’ as she was excited to see me. She won me over. She had a heart so good. She was an angel. She treated everyone the same way. She loved everyone.  Before her death, I considered her one of my close friends. I want to be just like her in her friendly, loving way. I want to work hard and love others as she helped me want to be a better person,” said Carter Stockett, now a financial legal administrative representative and college engineering student in the Washington, DC area.

“Sylvia was fun! She was always laughing and loving the life that she was given. She sometimes would have me and my sister over her house. She loved the pop culture of the time and was up to date on the hit music. She was always finding the humor in life. She and Herlinda were really the glue of the team. They loved everyone and treated everyone as their best friend. She would walk around at the meets taking everything in. I think of her, of how much she enjoyed the journey. I want to love life as she did. I want to see life as colorful as she did.”

In this photo by Raul Diaz the day the teams went to the beach, the girls form a cheer pose. Sylvia Diaz is in the middle. Clockwise from top center is Dolores Plata, Herlinda Gonzalez, Gabby Perez, Alicia Herrera, Delfina Herrera and Magda Saragoza. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz
In this photo by Raul Diaz, shot the day the teams went to the beach, the girls form a cheer leading pose. Sylvia Diaz is in the middle. Clockwise from top center is Dolores Plata, Herlinda Gonzalez, Gabby Perez, Alicia Herrera, Delfina Herrera and Magda Saragoza. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz

Freshman runner Eva Renteria Ricci would enter her high school years having already experienced heartbreak. In 1980, her 10-year-old sister, Martha, died of cancer. (Eva does not know if Martha is counted among the victims of McFarland’s infamous childhood cancer cluster. Like many

Eva Renteria pleaded with her parents to allow her to remain on the team. Her parents relented after she told them that was all she wanted for her birthday, which was five days after the accident.
Eva Renteria pleaded with her parents to allow her to remain on the team. Her parents relented after she told them that was all she wanted for her birthday, which was five days after the accident.

migrant families working and living in the San Joaquin Valley’s massive, 250 mile long stretch of farmland before passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the Renterias moved frequently, living in McFarland, Mexico, Madera and then again in McFarland. The Renterias lived in McFarland for a time in the early 1970s and moved to Mexico when Martha was three. They were not living in McFarland two years later when she was diagnosed.) After Sylvia and Herlinda’s deaths, her parents, naturally terrified by the thought of possibly losing another daughter, decided she should quit the team. “After the accident, my parents didn’t want me to run, they were scared. I pleaded with them. My birthday is November 1. I said,  ‘All I want for my birthday is to be able to honor my friends,'” said Renteria Ricci, now an advisor at a career resource center in Yuma, Arizona. Eva’s parents agreed and allowed their daughter to remain with the team.

Those runners did not move on to 1987 and forget about Sylvia and Herlinda. “The tragedy that happened to McFarland cross country that year (1986), I believe catapulted many of us to run with more heart in the following years. Sometimes a setback like that brings people and teams closer and more intimate with each other, and we found ourselves running for McFarland, Mr. White and most importantly, for each other,” David Diaz said. The boys team may be depicted in the film, but Lopez Takahashi emphatically states that “we were one team.” The teams ran their races separately, but were otherwise inseparable. Nothing shows that more than the precious gift from Sylvia’s personal album – her set of photos from the real “McFarland USA” beach scene, photographed primarily by her brother, Raul Diaz, and shared by Raul and her younger sister, Flora Diaz. A particularly poignant photograph shows Sylvia and Raul, Delfina Herrera and Herlinda holding up her index finger, showing off the “MHS #1” she has just scrawled in the sand at Cayucos. Nearly 30 years after her death, those photos are a beautiful, incredible gift Sylvia and her family are sharing with the world.

Flora Diaz, now a teacher at Pixley Middle School, was 11 years old when Sylvia died. She began going through her sister’s photo album as interest in McFarland increased in advance of the film’s release. “There are so many people out there who don’t have photo memories of those times. I didn’t want to be selfish with those pictures,” she said. “I wanted to share.”

“It is pure bliss to be able to honor both these girls through these means (photos) after so many years. I have cried welcome tears of joy and sorrow in the last few days,” Flora Diaz said last month as thousands of people began viewing the photos from Sylvia’s album and the release of the film brought national attention to McFarland. “Sylvia shared so many stories with me and I know she was very fond of all her friends and running family.”

I would not be telling the story of Sylvia and Herlinda without the help of Norma Lopez Takahashi, Flora Diaz and Dolores Plata Rodriguez, who began sharing stories about the girls more than three months ago. They're holding Sylvia's album.
I would not be telling the story of Sylvia and Herlinda without the help of (l-r) Norma Lopez Takahashi, Flora Diaz and Dolores Plata Rodriguez, who began sharing stories about the girls  three months ago. They’re holding Sylvia’s album.

Raul Diaz was also a senior in 1986 and on the boys team. His Kodak 35mm camera accompanied him, and his photos fill Sylvia’s album. “Sylvia and I were seniors because my parents placed us in the same grade when we were in fourth grade because they wanted me to walk with her to school. She was 16 and I was 18 on October 27, 1986. She was a smart young lady and she tutored me in math because I could not pass math. We did our homework every day. She had many dreams about college and getting an education beyond high school. She had wanted to join cross country because she wanted to lose weigh and be in shape,” Raul Diaz said.

“Sylvia and Herlinda became good friends during cross country, and they would often run together. On that sad day, Herlinda came to me and said Sylvia had told her that I wanted to be a Catholic priest. Herlinda said that was cool. Sylvia had just made her first communion a week before and that got Herlinda all excited. At about 3:30 pm during warm ups for practice, Herlinda asked if Sylvia and I would invite her to church that Sunday. She wanted us to go together. Little did I know that was our goodbye. Thirty minutes later, they were hit by a vehicle on Whisler Road.”

“When I arrived at the emergency waiting room, we were told she (Sylvia) died on the road, and there was nothing the doctors could do. I loved my sister very much, she was my number one fan. She talked to everybody at school how her big brother would someday be a Catholic priest. It had been a long time since I had said to her ‘I love you, sister’ and that night at the emergency room, that is the only thing I wanted to say, for the last time. But it was too late. I wept and wept, and did not go inside. It was simply overwhelming for me. I was an emotional wreck. But if there’s one thing her death left me, it is always to love people and to speak words of love to others, because there may not be a tomorrow, “ Raul said.  “Ironically, her death gave me life and love. To say to others ‘I’m so proud of you’ and ‘I love you’ must be spoken, it must never be kept inside, it must come out in the open. Words have power over people, and saying ‘you’re such a blessing to me’ must be spoken. That is the lesson she left me when I heard the doctor say, ‘I’m so sorry, there was nothing we could do.’ I learned to love life.”

Raul would walk across the graduation stage in the spring without his sister, her hopes and dreams a memory beautifully preserved by his photographs. But his dream would be realized. Raul Diaz is now Father Raul Diaz, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Dinuba.

Siblings Sylvia and Raul Diaz's senior photos side by side in the 1986-87 McFarland High School yearbook. They would have graduated together.
Sylvia and Raul Diaz’s senior photos side by side in the 1986-87 McFarland High School yearbook. They would have graduated together.

Just as the story of 1980s McFarland is nuanced and layered, so are the stories of the athletes who ran for Jim White and girls coach Gary Pierson. No doubt, those coaches had tremendous influence in the success many McFarland runners would have in their later lives, a point nicely made at the end of the film. The home lives of the athletes would, too. They vary among the runners, some describing structured but loving homes, others talking about unreasonably strict and oppressive home lives, with cross country being an escape that made their teen years bearable.

Plata Rodriguez is among those who admits she had a difficult childhood. “Both Sylvia and Herlinda were kind, caring, respectful, and sweet people to be around. They knew how to brighten our days. Even though they didn’t know my troubles, being around them erased my troubles for the moment. I looked forward to every trip and the camaraderie we all shared. The time I spent with my team was time I always cherished because I could forget about home for a little while. The memory of Sylvia and Herlinda has always held a place in my heart. The tragedy helped me realize how short life can be, how unfair it can be. From that time on, I feel I lived in the moment, and during trying times my mind always took me back to those memories.”

David Diaz says the memory of the accident that took Sylvia and Herlinda more than 28 years ago “feels like it happened last cross country season. We still run the same roads, along the same fields, just with different kids. Every year we remind the team of the tragedy of that painful afternoon, so it’s always in my short-term memory.”

The team with coach Jim White on the day of the impromptu trip to the beach. Silvia is in the pink shirt. Dolores Plata Rodriguez says the bus trips were the most fun of her cross country experience. Now, nearly 30 years later, Norma Lopez Takahashi gives a little taste of what they were like: "The movie made the boys look so tough. Heck, we girls could have beat them up," she says, delivering a good-natured salvo to her former teammates. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz
The team with coach Jim White on the day of the impromptu trip to the beach. Silvia is in the pink shirt. Dolores Plata Rodriguez says the bus trips were the most fun of her cross country experience. Now, nearly 30 years later, Norma Lopez Takahashi gives a little taste of what they were like: “The movie made the boys look so tough. Heck, we girls could have beat them up,” she says, delivering a good-natured salvo to her former teammates. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz

For Lopez Takahashi, the memories of her teammates would also greatly influence the adult she would become. But the path was especially difficult. Her parents forced her to quit the team after the accident, and she struggled with a stifling guilt, a guilt she says remains with her today. Herlinda was Lopez Takahashi’s pacer, a running partner who helps make sure a teammate is not running too slowly or quickly. But Lopez Takahashi was absent from practice on the day of the accident. “We would have been running together that day. I’ve always felt like if I was there I would have been able to save her. I was the one always paranoid about cars so I would look (and) then look again before switching to the other side of the road. I would have grabbed her arm and lectured her about looking first before running from the shoulder to the road.”

“But, also, I just kept thinking, ‘why them and why not me?’ Back then, I was your typical teenage girl who couldn’t see past her teenage problems and was just trying to make it through life one day at a time. I had no future goals. No plans. When they passed away I felt like they were stripped from their life and dreams so abruptly and unfairly. Yet there I was with no goals and no dreams. So why was it them and not me? It really forced me to take a good look at my life and decide, ‘Are you in or are you out?’ I changed my attitude from ‘why not me?’ into ‘it wasn’t me so you’ll be doing them a disservice if you continue living like this. Don’t squander this gift. Take this opportunity and make something of it,’” Lopez Takahashi said.

Syl_Her_beach_1
The McFarland team on the beach at Cayucos on October 4, 1985, the day coach Jim White surprised them with a trip to the ocean following the Santa Maria Invitational. Dolores Plata Rodriguez says the excitement that day was beyond extreme, as most or all of the kids had never before seen the ocean. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz

Sylvia and Herlinda are two athletes sadly omitted in the recent media publicity generated by  “McFarland USA,” but who have never been forgotten by their teammates or their home town. “Both girls were certainly part of the early fabric McFarland cross country was trying to stitch together when tragedy struck,” David Diaz says.  “However, we have never forgot and most importantly, we will always remember Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez for their ultimate and personal willingness to endure this great sport we love here in McFarland and hopefully in the whole USA.”

In this photo likely shot by a teammate with Raul Diaz's camera, the McFarland boys and girls cross country teams pose on the beach at Cayucos after coach Jim White made and impromptu stop following the Santa Maria Invitational in 1985. Raul is at the left, his sister Sylvia next to him. Photo courtesy of Sylvia Diaz and Raul Diaz
In this photo likely shot by a teammate with Raul Diaz’s camera, the McFarland boys and girls cross country teams pose on the beach at Cayucos after coach Jim White made a surprise stop following the Santa Maria Invitational in 1985. Raul is at the left, his sister Sylvia next to him. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz

The photos I made of the teams in the aftermath of the accident were the first I would shoot of McFarland’s string of tragedies in the 1980s. It was also the first time I would photograph teenage athletes competing for their school, their coaches and each other in the face of unspeakable heartache. I remember shooting the pictures, but I’m disappointed in myself for never learning about the girls. Like so many of us who were around back then, I always remembered that two girls were killed in a practice accident in McFarland, but we never learned who those girls really were.  I don’t know if anybody outside McFarland ever asked. I missed out – we all missed out –  because I would have loved knowing these past 28 years what I’ve learned about them these last three months.

Lord willing, I hope to have another 28 years, and no doubt the memories of covering McFarland will always be with me. But now, when I remember those stories, it’s not going to include “two girls killed one day in practice.” That memory has now been replaced by one of two beautiful, smiling angels, eternally 16 and 14-years old, forever running like the wind in heaven’s boundless skies. Two girls I wish I had photographed. Two girls I wish I had known. Two names I will always remember. Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez.

Whisler Road, McFarland, California
Whisler Road, McFarland, California. March 2015

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I left The Bakersfield Californian in March, 2009 after 28 years as a staff photographer and I am now a journalism instructor at Bakersfield College. I teach photojournalism, multimedia reporting and mass communication.

These are the cameras I used to photograph the McFarland runners in 1986. The lens on the camera at right is a replacement, everything else is the original equipment.
These are the cameras used to photograph the McFarland runners in 1986. The lens on the camera at right is a replacement, everything else is the original equipment.

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IN THEIR OWN WORDS

Remembrances, in their entirety, of Sylvia, Herlinda and McFarland cross country from the teammates, friends and relatives who knew them best

DOLORES PLATA RODRIGUEZ:

Sylvia and Herlinda are two of the most genuinely beautiful people I have been blessed to know during my life.  I really got to know Sylvia during cross country and track. Sylvia was so sweet, kind, and naturally stunning.  You couldn’t tell if she was ever having a bad day, because she was always so uplifting and a pleasure to be around.  My most memorable moments with her were in the fall of 1985 while on the cross country team.  I was a freshman and believe she was a sophomore.  At one of our races, Sylvia was trying to teach us this dance move.  Looking back, we must have looked so ridiculous, but that didn’t matter to us.  We were young and carefree.  Fun was all that was on our minds.  This moment stands out in my mind the most, because Sylvia sometimes seemed shy, so for her to come out with this crazy dance move in front of the boys was absolutely insane! I loved it.

Herlinda and I were in the same grade.  She was one of the smartest (if not THE smartest) students in our class.  I would not have been surprised if she had ended up becoming a doctor or some top-notch lawyer.  God, she had such a great laugh.  She never held back when it came to laughing, making people laugh, and just being downright silly.  My most memorable moment with her were the bus rides to away races. She often brought along a music magazine that had all of the current, top hits’ lyrics inside.  It was gold to us but complete torture for the guys and probably Coach White as well.  We sang those songs at the top of our lungs…none of us could carry a tune even if or lives depended on it.  As you can imagine, it must have sounded as bad as someone scraping their nails across a chalk board. Those were the days.

Both Sylvia and Herlinda were kind, caring, respectful, and sweet people to be around.  They knew how to brighten our days.  Even though they didn’t know my troubles, being around them erased my troubles for the moment.  I looked forward to every trip and the camaraderie we all shared.  The time I spent with my team, was time I always cherished because I could forget about home for a little while.

I remember the day of the tragic accident.  I was at cheer practice.  The squad was making posters for an upcoming game…maybe homecoming.  It was late in the afternoon when we heard the sirens speeding by the school.  I remember standing up and thinking to myself, “I hope no one is hurt.”  We continued to make posters and carried on with our day.

I lived out on Famoso and Woollomes, a farm labor camp just north of Richgrove (it has been demolished since then), so it was about seven miles away from McFarland.   That night, Connie Rosales – the lady who paid for my cheer uniform because I couldn’t afford it, drove all the way out there to see me.  That was odd.  No one ever visited me at my home.  I didn’t even know anyone knew where I lived.  She gave me the horrific news. She informed me that Sylvia and Herlinda were hit by a car during practice earlier that day. Mrs. Rosales said that Sylvia was killed instantly and that Herlinda was on life support. I felt my heart drop to the pit of my stomach.  I had no words…what does a 14 year-old say or do after news like that?

By that morning, the news had spread that Herlinda had also died.  I experienced a mess of emotions.  I was confused.  How does that happen to people like Herlinda and Sylvia? They didn’t deserve that.  I felt so sorry for them, for their parents.  I was so sad that I didn’t get to tell them good bye.

I don’t think anyone was the same, but even the buildings, the classrooms, the hallways…it was all so oddly different.  I tried to go to first period, but Herlinda’s chair was empty.  I recall all of us just sitting there quietly and staring at her empty chair.  Our teacher informed us that the gym was open for anyone who felt like they needed to be with other students and that counselors would be available.  I walked out of class and headed straight for the gym to find my best friends, Norma Lopez and Gabby Perez.  By then, I was now feeling so angry that God took them away from us.  We left the school (it was open campus at that time) and walked across town to Alicia Herrera’s house.  She was one of the runners who saw the girls get hit by the car.  She recalled the screams they made…the sounds she heard when they hit the ground.  I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for her.

Then came the guilt.  The guilt was not so easy to overcome.  I felt guilty that I wasn’t there…that it was them and not me. I felt so guilty and thought that if I had been there, maybe it would have been different.

Throughout my life, moments would trigger my memory and remind me of both Sylvia and Herlinda.  I miss their contagious laughter and smiles.

For me, the cross country team was my safe haven…my home away from a living nightmare.  I loved being with all of them.  We were all silly together.  The innocent crushes, passing love notes around the bus or in class…such innocence…the dares and triple dares.  It was good, old fashioned fun.  Back in ’85 we all crammed into that old Chevy.  Coach White would drive us out to the orange groves near Student Baker Hill.  He would have us run hills until our legs could run no more but we didn’t mind it.  We would have ran a marathon if he asked us to.  Call me crazy, but it was FUN.  Sometimes he would divide us into teams and would have us play tag in the almond orchards.  There’s nothing like a bunch of boys and girls chasing each other around in the orchards! Hahahaha

The time we spent with our cross country family was absolutely the best days of our school lives. Herlinda and Sylvia were a breath of fresh air. They always knew how to cheer us up. Their smiles, their bright eyes. Without saying a word, we knew they cared and never judged us. After Sylvia  passed away, my mom and I spent the night at her house. Her mom had me sleep in Sylvia’s room. In all honesty, I was afraid because I didn’t understand why…but looking back now that I’m older, I’m glad that I did. Because I felt like she was with me. I’m grateful for that night. I remember going through her albums and it wasn’t until Flora shared them with me that I remembered that night. I’m crying, sad and happy all at the same time. I still have so many unresolved issues about my childhood but at least now as an adult I have learned to appreciate how those crippling moments made me into the person I am today. I remember how little Flora (Sylvia’s younger sister) was and can’t imagine how she felt. I hope that all of this…what John is doing…the movie….I hope it brings her much happiness and pride. Thank you Flora. I can’t say it enough.

Just a few months after Herlinda and Sylvia died, we experienced yet another tragedy when six teens died in a car accident that February.  That was a trying year for our small community.

You asked how our careers progressed.  There’s no short version to explain how I arrived to today, but I will do my best.

It was that same year that I attempted to commit suicide at school in May of 1987.  I was told that I flat-lined that day. This is an entire different chapter of my life and for whatever reason, God gave me a second chance.  I would spend the next several years questioning God and wondering WHY he didn’t just take me.

I could write a lifetime movie or give Dr. Phil a month’s worth of topics to discuss on his show with the next decade of my life.  Because I got married while a junior in high school, had my three children by the time I was 21 and then divorced at the same age, I had to put my dreams on hold until I was 29.

It wasn’t until I met my current husband that I was finally able to go back to school and work towards my degree to become a teacher.  I yearned to be a teacher and coach like the ones that served as an inspiration to me.  By the grace of God and the support of my family and friends, I worked full time as a principal’s secretary at Delano High School and took on a full schedule in college.  I was determined set a good example for my children and provide them with a better life than I had.

John, my road was a long and brutal one, but mostly due to my poor choices and circumstances. I do not blame anyone for my past shortcomings.  If Coach White taught me anything, it was to believe in myself, make no excuses, always take responsibility for my own actions, and to learn from my mistakes.  He is the kind of coach and teacher I always wanted to become.

Thank you, John, for writing this story about Herlinda and Sylvia.  It was such a defining moment for our team, our school, and our community.  I know that you will honor them for the amazing people that they were during their short lives.  I imagine they are smiling down on us right now.  I hope we’ve all made them proud.

I could go on and on, John.  Didn’t I say that you opened the flood gates?  There is plenty more where this came from.

This photo, from the 1986 Central section championship meet, shows the cheerleaders, including Dolores Plata (second from left) decorating a bus in memory of Sylvia and Herlinda. It was shot by Casey Christie.
This photo, from the 1986 Central Section championship meet, shows the cheerleaders, including Dolores Plata (third from left, pointing) decorating a bus in memory of Sylvia and Herlinda. It was shot by Casey Christie.

 

DAVID DIAZ:

I just wanted to thank you for your genuine interest in the McFarland story.  Too often, the voices and sentiments of a “true story” are embedded with other factors.  So I appreciate your take on things and what you’re trying to do.

What I can remember from both Sylvia and Herlinda are ever so present in my  long term memory and makes it seem like what happened some 25 years ago appear like if it happened last cross country season.  You know John, we still run the same roads, along the same fields with just different kids.  Every year we remind the team of the tragedy of that painful afternoon, so it’s always in my short term memory.

 As far as Sylvia goes, she was a quiet, well respected young lady with a beautiful smile and disposition about herself.  She was a little introverted with most and personal and outgoing with few.  I can honestly say she was a decent student and I was fortunate to walk along side her to and from school on occasion since she lived just around the block on the next street.  Even though we both have the same last name, we are not related and she made sure to tell me that on a few occasions.

 The tragedy that happened to McFarland cross country that year, I believe catapulted many of us to run with more heart in the following years.  Sometimes a setback like that brings people / teams closer and more intimate with each other and we found ourselves running for McFarland, Mr. White and most importantly for each other.

 Herlinda was an underclassman and something very special.  She was brilliant and going to make it big without a doubt.  She was nerdy, funny and wanting to please.  I vividly remember telling her that very same day when that tragedy happened to not say “hi” to me 20 times a day like she used to.  (Oh, how that stung me for a long time.)  Herlinda was bound for greatness and every year during XC season when the hot summers start to dissipate and the leaves start to change colors, I am reminded of how sensitive life really is.  One can be here on earth one minute and gone the next.  Ultimately, God has everything in the palm of his hand, but sometimes one can’t understand the reason as to why certain things happen and why certain people pass too early.  Both girls were certainly part of the early fabric McFarland cross country was trying to stitch together when tragedy struck.  However, we have never forgot and most importantly we will always remember Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez for their ultimate and personal willingness to endure this great sport we love here in McFarland and hopefully in the whole USA.

David Diaz runs in the Kern Invitational at Hart Park on November 1, 1986, five days after the accident that took the lives of Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez.
David Diaz runs in the Kern Invitational at Hart Park on November 1, 1986, five days after the accident that took the lives of Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez.

 

CYNTHIA GONZALEZ GARCIA:

My name is Cynthia Garcia (Cynthia Gonzalez is my maiden name). My husband and I are both related to Sylvia and Herlinda. My husband, Manuel Garcia, is Sylvia’s brother and I am Herlinda’s cousin. We both had absolutely no idea our families were tied together in so many ways. Now we are each related to both of them! I thought I’d share our story.  I was only a year old when the accident happened, so I didn’t know my cousin or Sylvia. I do know that the house I live in now was the house Sylvia asked her parents to buy for her.

Emma Sylvia Garcia, Sylvia's neice. Photo courtesy Cynthia and Manuel Garcia.
Emma Sylvia Garcia, Sylvia’s niece. Photo courtesy Cynthia and Manuel Garcia.

She already had her room picked out, and the day of the accident was the day it became officially theirs. It was also her father’s birthday. Herlinda’s mom, Linda Gonzalez, passed away a little over two years ago. She had been living in Texas for many years and became very ill and wanted to come and see Herlinda’s grave before she became too ill to travel. Unfortunately she only made it to Bakersfield. She passed away the day of her arrival and didn’t make it to her daughter’s grave. I know that at one point my aunt Linda and and uncle Guadalupe (Herlinda’s dad) wanted to move Herlinda to a cemetery in Texas but decided to leave her with her eternal friend Sylvia so they could be together. We named one of our twin daughters after Sylvia. Her name is Emma Sylvia Garcia.

 

EVA RENTERIA RICCI:

My name Eva Renteria Ricci . I was in cross country in 1986. Herlinda was my,  Thomas Valles and Corina Rodriguez’s neighbor. In junior high, I was Herlinda’s campaign manager when she was in the eighth grade. I was in seventh grade. Herlinda was the one who recruited me and talked to my parents about letting me join cross country. To this day, I choke talking about the day of the accident. I vividly remember where I was and when we fist heard about runners getting hit. I was maybe the only girl runner who was not out there when it happened. I had gone to tutoring after school. Herlinda and I walked to school and home together every day, so after I was done, I walked over to where coach was waiting for the runners to return. I’m not sure if it was Coach White or Coach Pierson waiting. Suddenly, football players from our school drove really fast and I thought they were going to hit us. They looked shocked they said “Coach you have to come with us. Two runners got hit by a car.” Coach told me to go home. I walked across the football field and I remember thinking something happened to Herlinda. I walked home alone and when I got to the front of my house, I saw Herlinda’s parents rushing to their car. I knew she was one of them.eva

 Herlinda was a ray of sunshine, the one to start the chanting in the locker room. I loved passing her in the hallways because she always gave me a high five and her winning smile. Sylvia was older than me but she was nice. She encouraged me by telling me we all felt the same. “You’re gonna make it,” she would say.

Our last race with Herlinda and Sylvia was at Mt. SAC. On our way up there we laughed about nothing and everything, we sang and put make up on Herlinda and on all of us,  but she couldn’t stop laughing when she saw herself. I remember when I found out it was Herlinda. That evening, my brother said let’s walk over so you could see if she’s OK. We knocked on the door and before we could say anything her dad shook his head, saying “no.” He said the doctor said if she survives she will be a vegetable. He started to break down but held himself and told us to pray, “because my daughter doesn’t deserve that.” It would be selfish of us to ask for her to live like that. I drove my face into my brother’s chest and walked back home. My family was hoping to hear better news. My parents knew too well the pain of losing a child. My sister had passed from cancer in 1980 after a long battle. After the accident, my parents didn’t want me to run, they were scared. I pleaded with them. My birthday is November 1. I said all I want for my birthday is to be able to honor my friends. Sorry, John, as you can see that day has not been forgotten. I miss my walking partner and refer to it as the day I lost my best friend Herlinda. I have good memories. These are just the ones that my mind plays over as the years pass.

 

NORMA LOPEZ TAKAHASHI:

Herlinda and I became close through cross country, but she was my sister Rocio’s best friend since elementary school. She really had a great outlook on life and had huge goals for herself and never let anything or anybody distract from that. I’m sure she had her doubts and insecurities like the rest of us teenagers, but you’d never know it. There was always two things you could count on Herlinda for: a HUGE smile and encouragement. She was a beautiful person.

She had a very close relationship with her family, especially her older brother Eaustaquio. She was constantly trying to impress him and make him proud. He was a senior our freshman year and played football with my brother. So every time we ran around the football field, she would speed up. She was my pacer so I had to stay with her and so the first time she did that I asked her, “Hey! Slow down. Why are we running so fast?” And she said, “Because my brother is right there and I want him to see how fast I’m running.” She was trying to impress him, as always. She really looked up to him.

One thing I remember about Herlinda that has helped shape the person I am today is that when people would tease her about whatever and they’d sometimes go overboard I would get insulted for her and tell her that she should be upset about it and she always refused. She’d always say, “Ah, they didn’t mean it.” And she’d shake it off. Back then I took everything so serious. Now, I’ve learned to incorporate her way of thinking into my life. In fact I’m constantly giving that advice myself, “Don’t ever get insulted. Your friends didn’t mean it and your enemies don’t deserve a reaction out of you.”  It seems like such a small thing but you’d be surprised how much her attitude in life has really helped shape who I am today.

Sylvia and I became friends through cross country also. She and Alicia Herrera and Delfina Herrera could always be counted on for a laugh. They were always joking around and teasing the boys. One day they decided we should all have cross country nicknames and they kept giggling and giggling as they were coming up with them. I don’t remember anybody else’s but they nicknamed me :Twinkie.” I asked, “Why Twinkie???” And Alicia and Sylvia both laughed and said, “Because you’re so cute and tiny like a little Twinkie.” I kept the nickname and even used it as my blog handle when I was blogging on a couple of Bakersfield Californian blog websites, bakotopia.com and MAS.com.

The one thing that stands out about Sylvia is that she had two goals for herself after graduation.  She was going to lose weight. And she was going to go to Hawaii. And so she spent the better part of that year working towards both goals. She was doing great, too. We loved hearing about all the things she was going to do in Hawaii, and even past that. She dreamed of moving far away and traveling the world.

At that time (of the accident) it affected me a lot. I was angry at myself for not being there that day. Like I said before, Herlinda was my pacer so we would have been running together that day. I’ve always felt like if I was there I would have been able to save her. I was the one always paranoid about cars so I would look (and) then look again before switching to the other side of the road. I would have grabbed her arm and lectured her about looking first before running from the shoulder to the road.

But also, I just kept thinking why them and why not ME? Back then I was your typical teenage girl who couldn’t see past her teenage problems and was just trying to make it through life one day at a time. I had no future goals. No plans. When they passed away I felt like they were stripped from their life and dreams so abruptly and unfairly. Yet there I was with no goals and no dreams. So why was it them and not me?

It really forced me really take a good look at my life and decide, “Are you in or are you out?” I changed my attitude from “Why not me?” into “It wasn’t me so you’ll be doing them a disservice if you continue living like this. Don’t squander this gift. Take this opportunity and make something of it.”

Most of us came from migrant families whose parents’ attitudes were very much like in the movie. Working the fields was a priority for them and school is something they “let us do” as long as it didn’t interfere with work. Most of us didn’t have a Brady Bunch family. We had the typical Mexican migrant worker household family. Cross country was an outlet away from all that. Most of us could relate to the same parental and life issues and we used each other for support.

We also supported each other during the races, cheering each other on and yelling out supportive words to get us through to the finish line. Your chest burns. Your knees hurt. Your legs are jelly. You can’t breathe. You doubt yourself. Then there they are! The boys are all lined up throwing out phrases like, “Don’t give up. You can do this.” Or helpful advice, “move those arms.” “Lift those legs.” “Pace yourself.”  “Pass that group!” or “She’s right behind you, don’t let her pass you.” Just like in the movie. And we did the same for them.

Sylvia kept a detailed chart of the team's performance in 1985. If you look real closely at the lower left of the page, you can see that Norma Lopez's new nickname stuck.
Sylvia kept a detailed chart of the team’s performance in 1985. If you look real closely at the lower left of the page, you can see that Norma Lopez’s new nickname stuck.

 

FLORA DIAZ:

Sylvia…”Nena,” sister…it’s been so unbelievably long since you left us, yet the memory of your existence remains fresh in our hearts. You were the balance and center of our family. You brought equilibrium to our otherwise hectic upbringing. In the often and regular absence of our parents, you made everything fall into place, you made everything…all right.

I have prominent memories of you, the pondering look on your face as you concentrated on homework, the twirling of your thumb as you watched TV. Your stories, your crushes, your likes and dislikes, your dreams that were a “when” and not an “if” in our conversations.

Flora Diaz, Sylvia's younger sister
Flora Diaz, Sylvia’s younger sister

Every time I hear “careless whisper,” I think of you…little things…the smell of Taco Bell…even dusting reminds me of the time we were cleaning and you scolded me for taking my sweet time…lol.

That unforgettable, somber, fall afternoon reigns as the worst Monday of our lives, for it was the day you never returned from school; you never came back, to do your homework, to help with dinner, to help us get ready for the next day of school. Instead, everything was replaced by the emptiness of your absence in our lives.

The morning after your accident, I woke with a throbbing pain in my forehead from crying. I was awakend by the knocking of your friends, Cecilia Anguiano and Veronica who came to show their condolences, through the bright and barely bearable light of day. I was reminded, sadly, that it was not just a dream. You had, indeed, left us. That morning, I missed school. The nearly deflated bouquet of balloons from a crush of yours, one reading “I only have eyes for you,” dismally floated in your room, the lingering scent of your favorite perfume, Gloria Vanderbilt, still permeated your wardrobe.

I often wonder how different our lives would have been had you remained with us. More often than that, I regularly entertain the certainty that you would have been, not only my sister, but my best friend through life’s ups and downs. And just as you did when we were young, you would have made every thing all right. Your departure left a tremendous void in our family. Above all, what’s missed is the unexplainable way you had of bringing order, comfort, and ease in our lives. And making everything all right, simply by existing.

 

DEBORAH CARTER STOCKETT:

I didn’t know that the boys and girls cross country teams were separate until the movie came out. We were already a small school, almost all of us coming from the middle school less than a mile away. My school graduating class was about 75, so it is safe to say we knew everyone. When it came to our team, our circle only became smaller. Much smaller. We spent a considerable bit of time together, sometimes in very small quarters like the back of Mr. White’s pickup truck as we would try to untie everyone’s shoes or whatever else we thought of doing at the time. We would laugh as the truck would go over bumps as we were apprehensive at the hills that Mr. White was going to bring us to. He was pretty good at finding the hills that seemed to go straight up. The girls would run as the boys team spoke encouraging words as they would effortlessly pass us by. They would tell us to lean into the hill when we felt like giving up. Before Herly’s and Sylvia’s death, we didn’t get much support from the school. It was up to us, as we were the boys team’s cheerleaders and they were ours. There was a respect that we had for each other as we saw each other push through our side aches and even shin splints. We were always, in my mind, one team.

Herlinda and Sylvia’s death still affects me to this day. I do not know if I truly was able to grieve for them when it happened as life just seemed to go on without me when all I just wanted was for things to stop. Watching the previews for the “McFarland USA” movie surprised me as I acutely felt the pain that I ignored for years like it was yesterday. Old hurt that I had forgotten about has risen inside of me. I still want their lives honored and not forgotten. It hurt to see that they were not even mentioned in the movie; they were just as much a part of the team. My mind went right back to the time when all of us girls on the team all congregated at one of our teammate’s homes after the accident (I believe it was Alicia’s and Delfina’s home) and we were just trying to wrap our brains about the whole traumatic event and yet not talk at all as we didn’t want to even acknowledge that this was real. We sat on the bed as our hearts went out to Alicia and Delfina as they had to witness the whole thing. We were afraid to ask details as somehow not knowing took away some of Sylvia’s and Herlinda’s pain that they must have felt during the accident. It was all so very confusing.

Going to school in McFarland and being on this team has shaped my life in such a deep way. I am always grateful to this culture that I experienced growing up. Because my parents worked, I would have to wait for a long time at the school to be picked up. Several families in the community took me in and allowed me to stay with them after school. This Hispanic community showed such generosity and kindness to me, that I try to live my life in this same open way, to show kindness to all who I am around. I try to love as they showed me love. They would open their homes and hearts and now I try to keep my home and heart open. We also had mothers of the team that would feed us burritos before the race and make sure we were doing okay. They started enchilada fundraisers so that we could do the things that we wanted to do. These wonderful ladies have shaped me as a mother as I try to be involved in my children’s lives and show the kindness just as others showed me the same kindness.

I had a hard time growing up as I was extremely shy. Because my dad was a math teacher in McFarland, everyone assumed that my grades were good and I had this reputation that I was smart. Many didn’t know that I was struggling in school at the time. A few times I couldn’t go to meets because I was on probation. Embarrassed, I acted like I didn’t care, which was all a lie. Knowing what I do now, I see that I had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and still struggle with it as Adult ADD. This would exhibit itself through daydreaming as I had a hard time paying attention in class. Ironically, the very words that were used to encourage me to do better and work hard caused more pain as I was told that I needed to just apply myself. I didn’t want to admit that I felt like a failure. I actually did alright on my tests for not listening, but I never remembered assignments. This affected my grades drastically. I finally gave up as I couldn’t stay organized or on top of my classes. I built a wall of an attitude around me because I didn’t want to feel like a failure. Our teachers were fabulous. They went out of their way to help anyone who reached out to them for help. It was me who pushed the teachers away, refusing their help. I had my wall, yet Herlinda was a key in breaking this wall for me.

Herlinda broke my wall as she was such an example of hard work, friendship, and love. She stayed after class during breaks to ask the teachers what more she could do to bring up her grades and to do extra work to explore the class subjects even more. It would “bug” me that she went to the teachers to ask what more she could do. She was a reminder to me of what I was not. In the beginning, I didn’t like that part of her. At practice, we would run eight miles only to have her come back to say, “What else do you want us to do Mr. White?” (or Mr. Adams, whoever was there that day.) I wouldn’t talk to her as she “sided with the enemy.”  Every day though, whenever she saw me, she would smile her big beautiful smile and give me the biggest “hello” as she was excited to see me. She won me over as she had a heart so good. She was an angel. I often use her example whenever someone says that someone doesn’t like them. I do not know if Herlinda knew that at first I had a hard time around her. She treated everyone the same way. She loved everyone.  Before her death, I considered her one of my close friends. I want to be just like her in her friendly loving way. I want to work hard and love others as she helped me want to be a better person.

I admire Sylvia the same way. Sylvia was fun! She was always laughing and loving the life that she was given. She sometimes would have me and my sister over her house. She loved the pop culture of the time and was up to date on the hit music. She was always finding the humor in life. She and Herlinda were really the glue of the team. They loved everyone and treated everyone as their best friend. Yes, she would be outspoken and tell you how she felt, but she still was a friend.  She would walk around at the meets taking everything in. I think of her of how much she enjoyed the journey. I want to love life as she does. I want to see life as colorful as she did.
The loss of these two girls broke my heart. My world stopped. Somehow, I had it in my mind that it should have been me who died. I was the one who would run in the middle of the road and they both would get after me in their own way, Herlinda shaking her head at the things I would do and Sylvia in her outspoken self. It was okay with me when they would get after me. I knew they were my friends. I often thought that it would have been better if it had been me who died as Herlinda and Sylvia worked hard and they were focused on their goals. I wasn’t at practice that day of the accident because I had detention. I remember that I started the run later and my sister, Tammy, came to get me as she had work that day. We both missed practice because of it. I had a hard time running after that. When running, it’s hard to quiet the thoughts in your head. I went to Hart Park at the area meet, yet I couldn’t bring myself to ride in the limousine they brought to drive people around the park. To me, I just didn’t want to be there at all. During the race, I just sat down. I really wanted life to stop and yet, it just kept going.

For me, the deaths actually distanced me from the other runners. We all used to joke and talk about everything and anything as we had so much fun on our adventures. Since the deaths, things were different for me. My season was over. I did join the next year, but the levity of the team had disappeared somewhat. Things weren’t the same nor could it ever be the same for me. I still love my team. I am excited for all those who were recognized through the movie. Mr. White to me is so very deserving, and the whole community is deserving of the recognition. Those teachers sacrificed for those children, staying hours after school and doing all they could to help them make a better life for themselves. There were many in the community who were involved and helped out when there was a need. These runners are deserving of the attention as they worked hard to reach and meet their goals.

In this photo by Raul Diaz, Sylvia Diaz (3) and teammate Magda Saragoza run in a race in 1985. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz
In this photo by Raul Diaz, Sylvia Diaz (3) and teammate Magda Saragoza run in a race in 1985. Photo courtesy Flora Diaz and Raul Diaz

 

MARIBEL GONZALEZ LUBEN:

My name is Maribel Gonzalez Luben, and I am Herlinda’s cousin. I grew up in McFarland with Herlinda, and we were in the same grade. Herlinda’s nickname was “Linda”, that is what everyone in the family called her. In Spanish it means “Beautiful.”  Linda and I were very close and I loved her very much. I wanted to share our conversation we had that day of the accident. I was in the gym waiting for volleyball practice to start when Linda came in and said, “I’ve been looking for you. I want to see if you want to volunteer with me to decorate the float for our class for homecoming.” I said “Yes, I would, it sounds fun.” Linda said “It’s going to be a competition and we are going to win. And in order for that to happen we have to help. I’m going to ask more people. It’s going to be a great float.” She smiled and then started telling me how much she liked her team. She said, “Everyone tries so hard, everyone is really good. I really like it.” Linda then said, “Okay, Mari, I’ve got to go. I don’t want to be late for practice, and I will find out for us when and where we will work on the float, okay?” She smiled and ran out. I always remember her smile and how happy she was that day. She was so excited to go to practice, to go and run with her friends. Everyone at our school including the teachers loved Herlinda and Sylvia and I want to thank everyone for keeping them in your memory, THANK YOU so much everyone and thank you John.

 

SWORN TO SECRECY:

Our coaches were so hot. Imagine what it is like being a teenage girl, with raging hormones, and having coaches who look like that. One day, I came up with a plan. I was going to “faint” in front of coach Adams so that he would give me mouth-to-mouth. So I did it. He carried me into the office, put a paper bag over my face and said “breathe into this.” That didn’t work out the way I hoped it would.

 

SANDRA GONZALEZ:

Herlinda was our neighbor growing up. Ironically I’d end up marrying into her family later in life. But she and her family hold a special place in my heart regardless of relation. I remember us running back and forth between her house and ours. My older sister, Corinne, “Linda” and I would play for hours. My most vivid memories are of spending time in her room, listening to music, and making up dance routines. It was truly an innocent time. I was a couple of years younger than her. I believe she was a sophomore at the time of the accident and I was in 7th grade. At 12, you don’t fully understand death, but I do remember the days surrounding the accident. I remember because Sylvia and Corinne were good friends. I remember because I no longer could run over to her house and play. Shortly after that, her family moved away.

Herlinda at my sister, Corina's birthday party. Corina is blowing out the candles, Sandra is to her right and Herlinda is to her left in the white blouse with her arms crossed. Photo courtesy Sandra Gonzalez.
Herlinda at my sister, Corina’s birthday party. Corina is blowing out the candles, Sandra is to her right and Herlinda is to her left in the white blouse with her arms crossed. Photo courtesy Sandra Gonzalez.

 

HOLLIE WYKOFF FREGOSO:

It’s kind of hard to decide where to start. I was in the 9th grade when it all happened. I remember that day. It was me, Alicia (Herrera), Herlinda and Sylvia, just the four of us running by ourselves. These girls were awesome. To me, Herlinda was one of the smartest girls I had met. And so determined. Sylvia was like a little body builder to me. And such a pretty girl. Sorry if I

Hollie Wykoff at the 1986 CIF South Area meet, 17 days after the accident.
Hollie Wykoff at the 1986 CIF South Area meet, 17 days after the accident.

bounce around…… I don’t exactly know where to go with this. Well we were running….hadn’t turned back yet….and this car came and hit them.. Hit them so hard they flew to the opposite side of the road. The car kept going, didn’t stop. We ran over to them. It was the most horrific thing I have ever seen to this day. I remember it all. I’m actually crying here while I type this. Then the car came back. It was a lady driving. Come to find out I think she was a nurse from Delano. She put us in the car with her and we took off. We didn’t get too far, a school bus was coming from the opposite direction, so we went back, stopped the bus and the bus driver called for help. Minutes later the cops came and all. A police officer put us in the car and took Alicia and me home. After that there was just like a darkness around McFarland High School. Sadness. I remember the funeral. It was the largest turnout I’d ever seen. We (the team) kept running, so for that fact I believe my mom decided to get us the limo that day (of the section South Area meet.) We had done so well. I am so glad to have been on the cross country team with all these girls. I would follow Alicia around. I looked up to her. Never told her that… wish I did.

 

THE MEMORIAL PAGES:

The memorial pages from the 1986-87 McFarland High School yearbook.

Rosa Soto, Lionel Martinez, Efrain Rodriguez and Sandra Perez were killed in the 1987 Valentine's Day auto accident. Ralph Escalante and Sonnan Silva also died in the accident.
Rosa Soto, Lionel Martinez, Efrain Rodriguez and Sandra Perez were killed in the 1987 Valentine’s Day auto accident. Ralph Escalante and Sonnan Silva also died in the accident.
Football coach Gerry Pitts died of a heart attack.
Football coach Gerry Pitts died of a heart attack.
James Lopez drowned in the Kern River.
James Lopez drowned in the Kern River.
Herlinda and Sylvia's memorial page.
Herlinda and Sylvia’s memorial page.
Stacey Morris died in a car accident.
Stacey Morris died in a car accident.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photos of the real “McFarland USA” kids and coach Jim White

Photos of the real “McFarland USA” beach scene from Sylvia’s album

The funeral of Mario Bravo, McFarland’s sixth cancer victim

The Valentine’s Day car accident

Photos from the Bakersfield premiere of “McFarland USA”

This article contains multiple copyrights and may not be reproduced, published or copied without permission.

The Bakersfield Californian’s 1996 in-depth series on McFarland cross country

You can click on this photo to view it at a higher resolution.
You can click on this photo to view it at a higher resolution.

Former Bakersfield Californian reporter Marc Benjamin, now with the Fresno Bee, sent me this copy of The Bakersfield Californian’s November, 1996 in-depth profile of the McFarland High cross country program and it’s impact on the town and the lives of its young athletes. The series was written by Marc and Doug Church, two of the best reporters I ever worked with. It was photographed by Californian photographer Henry Barrios, and you just have to check out the photos of Coach Jim White riding along with the team, on his now very famous bicycle, thanks to the film. Henry is a quiet, shy and reserved photographer – the exact opposite of me! – and a phenomenal photographer. He’s probably going to be mad at me for bragging on him. The Californian’s series predates the Los Angeles Times profile by more than a year and the Sports Illustrated article by seven and one-half years.

You can click on this photo to view it at a higher resolution.
You can click on this photo to view it at a higher resolution.
You can click on this photo to view it at a larger resolution.
You can click on this photo to view it at a larger resolution.
You can click on this photo to view it at a higher resolution.
You can click on this photo to view it at a higher resolution.

The real “McFarland USA” beach scene, from the album of Silvia Diaz

In this photo provided by Flora Diaz, the niece of Sylvia Diaz, one of the two runners killed in the 1986 practice accident, the 1985 McFarland boys and girls team enjoy the beach at Cayucos.
In this photo shot with Raul Diaz’s camera and provided by Flora Diaz, the brother and younger sister of Silvia Diaz, one of the two runners killed in the 1986 practice accident, the 1985 McFarland boys and girls team enjoy the beach north of Morro Bay. The pictures are from Silvia’s album. Sylvia is on the left, #3.

One of the more touching scenes in the movie “McFarland USA” – as in  get-out-your-Kleenex and hankies – is when coach Jim White, played by Kevin Costner, takes his team to the beach for the first time in most of the runners’ lives. Well, it really happened, though a little different from the movie. Coach White took both the boys and girls to the California central coast beachs at Morro Bay and Cuyucos during the 1985 season, and for many, it was the first time they ever saw the ocean.

Clip courtesy of Norma Takahashi.
Clip courtesy of Norma Takahashi, Herlinda Gonzales and Slivia Diaz’s teammate.

These photos of that day were shot by Silvia Diaz’s brother, Raul, or by teammates using Raul’s camera, and provided by Flora Diaz, Silvia’s younger sister. Silvia was one of the two runners on the girls team, the other was Herlinda Gonzalez, who were struck by a car and killed in the practice accident on October 27, 1986. Silvia died on October 27, Herlinda on October 28. Both girls were on this trip to a meet in Santa Maria and the beachs, and these photos are from Silvia’s album, which her family had saved. Silvia was 16 and Herlinda was 14. Raul was also a runner on the team when his sister was killed.

In this photo from the album of Sylvia Diaz and shot by her brother, Raul Diaz, the McFarland boys and girls cross country team plays on the beach at Cayucos after coach Jim White took them there in 1985.
In this photo from the album of Silvia Diaz and photographed by her brother, Raul Diaz, the McFarland boys and girls cross country team plays on the beach north of Morro Bay after coach Jim White took them there in 1985.
At Morro Bay, Herlinda Gonzalez (6) wrote "MHS #1" in the sand. Silvia Diaz is #3, her brother Raul is at right. (Working to get name of runner at left.) Picture was taken with Raul's camera by a team member.
At Morro Bay, Herlinda Gonzalez (left) wrote “MHS #1” in the sand. Silvia Diaz is #3, her brother Raul is at right. Delfina Herrera is between Silvia and Herlinda. Picture was taken with Raul’s camera by a team member.
At left, Silvia Diaz and Alicia Herrera. Center from left, Tammy Carter, Gabby Perez, Norma Lopez and Dolores Plata. Top, standing on rock is Albert Torrez. Photo is by Raul Diaz and is from the personal album of Silvia Diaz.
At left, Silvia Diaz and Alicia Herrera. Center from left, Tammy Carter, Dolores Plata, Norma Lopez and Gabby Perez. Top, standing on rock is Albert Torrez. Photo is by Raul Diaz and is from the personal album of Silvia Diaz.

Dolores Plata – now Cesar Chavez High School in Delano assistant principal Dolores Rodriguez – was on the 1985 team and here’s what she said about that day: “This was actually our 1985 fall season. Those beach pictures are from the first time (Coach) White took us after the Atascadero race. It was the first time all of us ever stepped foot on a beach. That was a great day!

The McFarland boys and girls teams in Atascadero, the day coach Jim White took them to the beach.
The McFarland boys and girls teams in Atascadero, the day coach Jim White took them to the beach. From the album of Silvia Diaz, photographed by her brother, Raul, and provided by her sister, Flora. Silvia Diaz is seated, second from left, and Herlinda Gonzalez is seated to Silvia’s right.
The McFarland girls in Atascadero. They would later be taken to the beach, with the boys team. For many, if not all, it was the first time they would see the ocean. This photo is from the album of Sylvia Diaz, was shot by her brother, Raul, and provided by her sister, Flora.
The McFarland girls in Atascadero. They would later be taken to the beach, with the boys team. For many, if not all, it was the first time they would see the ocean. This photo is from the album of Silvia Diaz, was photographed by her brother, Raul, and provided by her sister, Flora. Silvia is in the center, in the pink shirt. Herlinda is on the right, and Dolores Plata is standing in white hat..
The teams on the day of the beach trip, fall of 1985.
Coach Jim White with the teams on the day of the beach trip following a meet in Atascadero, fall of 1985. From the album of Silvia Diaz, photographed by her brother, Raul Diaz and provided by her sister, Flora. Silvia is at far right, in pink shirt.
The McFarland boys and girls teams the day of their meet in Atascadero, when coach Jim White took them to the beach.
The McFarland boys and girls teams the day of their meet in Atascadero, when coach Jim White took them to the beach. From the album of Silvia Diaz, photographed by her brother, Raul and provided by her sister, Flora. Silvia is at the far right, #3.

These photographs are the property of the Diaz family and are published here with their permission. Thank you to Cesar Chavez High assistant principal Dolores Rodriguez for facilitating the use of these photos. To learn more about the story of McFarland, the hardships it encountered, Silvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez and the role the cross country teams played in bringing some sunshine to a town enduring unspeakable tragedy and heartache, please visit these links on this blog:

The real McFarland USA kids and coach Jim White

McFarland’s never-ending heartache

Prom night, a crash and six teens lost

Show the world what has happened to my son

Pictures from the Bakersfield sneak peek of “McFarland USA”

 

Photos from the Bakersfield sneak peek of “McFarland USA”

Kevin Costner arrives at the Maya Cinemas for the Bakersfield sneak peak of the movie "McFarland USA," which opens Friday.
Kevin Costner arrives at the Maya Cinemas for the Bakersfield sneak peek of the movie “McFarland USA,” which opens Friday.

I went to the Bakersfield sneak peek of the new Disney movie “McFarland USA” tonight – it was excellent, by the way – and promised myself I was just going to watch the movie like a regular person and not shoot any pictures. Yeah, well, you know.  When it’s what you do, it’s what you do. So here are some pictures from the sneak peak, and I am going to brag on our outstanding Bakersfield College journalism students in a few of them. And please visit the page on this blog featuring photos of the real McFarland team and coach Jim White from the 1987 championship season.

It didn't take long before Kevin Costner was mobbed by fans outside the Maya Cinemas for the Bakersfield sneak peak of "McFarland USA."
It didn’t take long before Kevin Costner was mobbed by fans outside the Maya Cinemas for the Bakersfield sneak peek of “McFarland USA.”
Bakersfield College Renegade Rip editor Elizabeth Castillo interviews the real life David Diaz at the Bakersfield sneak peak of "McFarland USA."
Bakersfield College Renegade Rip editor Elizabeth Castillo interviews the real life David Diaz at the Bakersfield sneak peek of “McFarland USA.”
The real life Diaz brothers (from left) Damacio, Danny and David, at the Bakersfield sneak peak of "McFarland USA."
The real life Diaz brothers (from left) Damacio, Danny and David, at the Bakersfield sneak peek of “McFarland USA.”
The real life Johnny Sameniego at the sneak peak of "McFarland USA."
The real life Johnny Samaniego at the sneak peek of “McFarland USA.”
The real life Damacio Diaz signs autographs at the Bakersfield sneak peak of the Disney film "McFarland USA."
The real life Damacio Diaz signs autographs at the Bakersfield sneak peek of the Disney film “McFarland USA.”
Carlos Pratts, who had a major role as McFarland High runner Thomas Valles, is interviewed by Bakersfield College Renegade Rip editor Elizabeth Castillo at the Bakersfield sneak peak of "McFarland USA."
Carlos Pratts, who had a major role as McFarland High runner Thomas Valles, is interviewed by Bakersfield College Renegade Rip editor Elizabeth Castillo at the Bakersfield sneak peek of “McFarland USA.”
Carlos Pratts, who had a major role as McFarland High runner Thomas Valles, is interviewed by Bakersfield College Renegade Rip editor Elizabeth Castillo at the Bakersfield sneak peak of "McFarland USA."
Carlos Pratts, who had a major role as McFarland High runner Thomas Valles, is interviewed by Bakersfield College Renegade Rip editor Elizabeth Castillo at the Bakersfield sneak peek of “McFarland USA.”
bakersfield College Renegade Rip reporter Elizabeth Castillo and photographer Javier Valdez on the red carpet to cover the sneak peak of "McFarland USA."
Bakersfield College Renegade Rip editor Elizabeth Castillo and photographer Javier Valdes on the red carpet to cover the sneak peek of “McFarland USA.”
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The real life McFarland boys cross country coach Jim White at the Bakersfield sneak peek of the new Disney film “McFarland USA.”
The real life Cheryl White at the Bakersfield sneak peak of "McFarland USA."
The real life Cheryl White at the Bakersfield sneak peek of “McFarland USA.”
The real life Cheryl White signs autographs at the Bakersfield sneak peak of "McFarland USA."
The real life Cheryl White signs autographs at the Bakersfield sneak peek of “McFarland USA.”
The real life Johnny Sameniego is interviewed at the Bakersfield sneak peak of the new Disney film "McFarland USA."
The real life Johnny Samaniego is interviewed by Vida en el Valle’s Daniel Casarez at the Bakersfield sneak peek of the new Disney film “McFarland USA.”
Coach Jim White takes a photo with members of his 1999-2001 McFarland cross country teams at the Bakersfield sneak peak of the film "McFarland USA."
Coach Jim White takes a photo with members of his 1999-2001 McFarland cross country teams at the Bakersfield sneak peek of the film “McFarland USA.” From left, Oscar Rodriguez, Carlos Cabanillas, Giovani Perezchica, Jim White, Hector Perezchica, Arturo Gonzalez, Jr. and Andres Gomez.
Coach Jim White watches his wife, Cheryl, sign an autograph at the Bakersfield sneak peak of the new Disney film "McFarland USA."
Coach Jim White watches his wife, Cheryl, sign an autograph at the Bakersfield sneak peek of the new Disney film “McFarland USA.”
Coach Jim White and his wife, Cheryl, at the Bakersfield sneak peak of the new Disney film "McFarland USA."
Coach Jim White and his wife, Cheryl, at the Bakersfield sneak peek of the new Disney film “McFarland USA.”

All pictures on this site are owned by John Harte.