Imperial Valley roots evident in the history of Red Ribbon Week
Room 7 students at T.L. Waggoner Elementary School march in a Red Ribbon Week parade at the school Friday in Imperial. (Gerard Delaney)
Various accounts as to the actual origins of Red Ribbon Week and its relationship to the slain Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena have been told yet three names tend to resurface repeatedly, those of El Centro’s David Dhillon, Calexico’s Henry Lozano and former U.S. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter.
“In 1984-85 I was a teacher (at Calexico High School),” Dhillon said Thursday.
“I started getting involved with ‘Just Say No’ (that) Nancy Reagan had taken on at the time and, simultaneously the issue with Kiki Camarena happened,” he said.
After Camarena’s kidnapping and brutal killing occurred at the hands of the Mexican drug cartel of Guadalajara, Dhillon said 12 to 15 Calexico High School students — some who were younger cousins of Camarena — came together and asked him to be their adviser in an after-school club, originally called the “Say No to Drugs” Club, to which he agreed.
Dhillon said the name changed to the “Red Ribbon Club” as the youngsters began doling out red ribbons throughout Calexico.
“It was as simple as local merchants donated rolls of red ribbon to us,” Dhillon said. “We did it with no budget but we were given a boost by local service clubs.”
“We used to hand our red ribbons out during football games or during dances, at public events and even (raised awareness) through public service announcements,” he said. “Tragically, we were given a lot of attention because of the Camarena (story).”
At about the same time Henry Lozano, a long-time friend and high school classmate of Camarena and his wife, Geneva, said he was working as the director and founder of the Imperial Valley Teen Challenge, a local chapter of a national, nonprofit, faith-based organization focused on turning the lives of substance abusers around.
“All of a sudden this thing happened with Kiki and Congressman Hunter wanted to help all these folks,” Lozano said in an interview Friday.
Hunter became aware of the Calexico High School club and asked them to change their name to the “Camarena Club,” and they did, Dhillon said.
“That was almost unheard of in 1985, kids talking about being drug-free,” Lozano said. “Obviously this was a big topic; we were making news.”
Lozano said the red ribbon campaign began to gain local media attention when the “Camarena Club Proclamation” was signed by 100 Calexico students along with Hunter’s wife, Lynne, and others pledging in honor of Camarena “and others risking their lives to stop the flow of illegal drugs to say no to drugs” as well as pledging to help others say no to drugs and educate them on the dangers of drug use, according an article in The Brawley News dated April 20, 1985.
From there Lozano and Hunter began receiving phone calls from local high schools in Imperial County to speak about the red ribbon campaign.
Shortly thereafter, Camarena clubs began cropping up in the Imperial Valley, Lozano said. The group was invited to speak at a Parents’ Resource Institute for Drug Education Inc. international conference in Atlanta in April 1985.
“My organization and other clubs raised the money to send 18 high school kids, some Imperial Valley College professors and high school teachers over there,” Lozano said.
“In the middle of that conference they had to design an action plan on what we were going to do when we returned home. That action plan was the beginning of creating an Imperial County Drug Summit with the sheriff’s office,” Lozano said.
“When we got back there were about 150 to 200 students involved, the Elks were involved, the Lions were involved,” he said. “All of a sudden California for Drug Free Youth came down. It was a big deal.”
The state followed suit in 1986 when the California State Parent-Teacher Association adopted the Red Ribbon Week campaign, according to redribboncoalition.com