What’s Dying, What’s Being Born: Regeneration in a Time of Crisis
In a dark time, the eye begins to see—Theodore Roethke
If all life is made up of stories, there is a story we are living out now. It has a three-act structure, with beginning, middle, and end, as well as setting, characters, conflicts, crisis, motive forces, more crisis, fatal flaws, resiliency, catharsis, and resolution. Like most stories in our culture, it has an aim—how to get back home. Starting with Homer’s “Odyssey,” getting home has been a perennial theme in most literature, not just home as a place, but inside oneself, inside our own hearts, and at the heart of who we are as a people.
The current stage of this story is filled with uncertainty and dread. It’s also intertwined, as always, with luminance and possibilities. Crisis is about what’s dying and what’s being born. We need clarity to know which is which. Or we may move into danger, not opportunity.
After the most pernicious presidential primaries and elections in recent times, the United States on December 19, 2016, when the Electoral College sealed the deal, confronted a new presidency. I’m not alone in saying Donald Trump represents the worse sentiments in America—racism, dividing and pitting Americans against one another; xenophobia, particularly against Mexicans and Muslims; misogyny, degrading and diminishing women; homophobia, pushing away and again criminalizing non-straight love; classism, where the rich get richer and the poor poorer; and environmental destruction, where the science proving climate change is denigrated and gains in environmentally clean economies undermined.
The essence of the crisis is about empire. The United States is going the way of all empires, into implosion and chaos amidst a growing stridency. Empires are said to last around 1,000 years. Hitler’s Third Reich was to last as long (it didn’t go beyond a dozen). The US can also fall, perhaps within 300 years of existence—or we can curtail this entirely by rising up to meet the country’s great promise and hope.
The real battle is for the soul of America.
Thus far, Trump’s presidency is narrow and militarized, all that feeds the Empire. His transition team has selected one of the richest cabinets in history (adding to the already more than half of Congress who are millionaires, although these make up less than 4 percent of the population). At this writing, the proposed cabinet members are worth $14.5 billion, more than the bottom poorest 43 million Americans combined. They include execs from Exxon and Goldman Sachs. Their business ties and interests (including Trump’s) invite conflicts of interest. Trump also has at least five military men considered for his cabinet—compromising subordination of military powers to civil government (even if these men are retired; one reportedly has not been retired long enough).
Trump’s even come out in favor of a nuclear arms race, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia seems to be in line with him. The two most nuclearized nations now appear united, based on power and wealth, not the best interests of humanity (Putin is also a multi-billionaire, even richer than Trump).
Although there are women proposed for this cabinet, it will be mostly white and male—what the transition team has called the most “successful and accomplished” minds in the country. Who are they kidding?
Americans of conscience—and I mean Republicans, Democrats, third party people, and independents—must challenge Trump’s every move as ardently, as thoroughly, as strategically, and, yes, poetically, as possible. Here are lines from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, arguably the best poet of the 20th century:
Death arrives among all that sound / like a shoe with no foot in it, / like a suit with no man in it, / comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, / with no finger in it, / comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, / with no throat. / Nevertheless its steps can be heard …
Death is visiting here, the death of illusions for one.
To be clear, Hilary Clinton had her own baggage. Yes, a woman should be elected president, but Clinton couldn’t carry the vision of a new America. Clinton is establishment with a capital E. Most of what she said in the last weeks of the campaign was anti-Trump. This was a losing proposition. As a result around 100 million voters didn’t vote, unmoved by either candidate. Still, while Clinton is close to 3 million more votes than Trump in the popular vote, Trump only had to make sure his support in key states, largely Republican held, did vote (even if only slightly more than Clinton since the Electoral College is winner take all).
Is Trump an outsider? Most of us aren't fooled—he’s insider among those who have been pulling the strings since time immemorial. Trump said what he had to say to a certain demographic (much of which he now says he didn’t mean). He geared his rallies to “heart of America” people, largely isolated, impoverished (in funds as well as ideas), which for some time have been tuned into Clear Channel radio stations, right-wing talk show hosts, or evangelical Christian TV.
I’ve driven many times through the middle of the country. There the radio dial becomes less cluttered, less dense, more caustic and conservative. These aren’t dumb people or hardly “deplorable.” Nonetheless, a significant number are being used against the rest of us. The ground for Trump’s victory had been prepared for years.
We are in for a rough ride. This conclusion makes sense for anyone who’s studied history as story, our story, the American story. Most textbooks with this story are idealizations of the past, including outright lies, misrepresentations, and racial paradigms. Even worse is what Breitbart News writes or Alex Jones iterates or Fox News distorts. Or, for that matter, their liberal cohorts—who may not seem as bad, but still manage to mislead the American people.
Liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, the official narratives of this country are incomplete, askew, and for the most part disgraceful. It’s time for a new discourse, another conversation, not what is spewed out of commercial media (which survives on ads—why wouldn’t they be influenced by such?).
Actor Denzel Washington said recently if you don’t read the news “you are uninformed.” If you do “you are misinformed.” He said anyone could get good at anything with practice “even BS.” That’s real talk.
Yet truth can still be found and grasped. That’s also a gift of practice—discerning, studying, armed with the proper tools and resources. Most Americans aren’t given critical thinking skills to do so—and not by accident.
Keeping America ignorant takes billion of dollars.
So much information is flooding our brains but few can figure out what it all means. Entertainment news predominates most outlets—we may know what dress Kim Kardashian is wearing on a night out, but not where Aleppo is located. Social media has become a Frankenstein monster of our making. Trump is also a product of the worse of social media, celebrity TV, and “fake news.”
Bringing together complicated, seemingly disparate, knowledge and information into a coherent whole won’t be easy. Please bear with me, then, as I expound further and at length (this is not a tweet or sound bite) on why the future of our country is at stake.
The truth of our story is more compelling.
The United States has been divided since the beginning. In 1788 the framers ratified a new Constitution. A “grand old document,” this was also a limited warranty, spelling out some rights while indigenous people here had full rights, like any human being, even if unwritten. For most cultures, these “laws” or values include a meaningful and respectful relationship with the divine (although a common element, this is defined by specifics of culture and people, as it should be); with nature and its designs and rhythms; with our own natures, geniuses and gifts; and with one another (“treat others as you want to be treated”).
What I call the four key connections, none in contradiction. Native peoples on the land didn’t need a document to recognize, nurture, and live by these essential agreements. For them nature, including the smallest aspects to the vast cosmos, is their university, their books, their “constitution.”
One way the US Constitution circumscribed rights was to allow states to determine who voted— most insisted on enfranchising only white men with property. There were also compromises with slaveholders, like counting slaves as three-fifths of a person to give Southern states more congressional representation, even though slaves could not vote.
After close to 230 years, several battles, mobilizations, rulings, amendments, marches, riots, and a Civil War, the country extended constitutional rights to include women (who got the right to vote in 1920); Native Americans (who were not considered “citizens” until 1924); Blacks, Mexicans, other communities of color, the disabled (who, at least on paper, received civil and voting rights in 1964 and 1965); and Gays (such as when the Supreme Court ruled for same-sex marriage in 2015).
None of these were “entitlements.” Nobody gave anybody anything—all this had to be fought for, at the cost of thousands of lives. Whether de jure or de facto, by law or practice, discrimination and disenfranchisement had to be named and changed.
A different kind of country
The United States was unique among nations for many reasons. One, it had no feudalistic restraints, which took Europe and Asia several generations to unshackle from—capitalism has been with us from the start. The US also obtained land by the forced removal and genocide of Native peoples. In addition, it had free labor since the 1600s, including indentured servants from England, and then solely on the backs of Africans stolen from their homeland. And driven by “manifest destiny,” the inane notion that the US was destined to reach from shore to shore, the country invaded Mexico, led at first by slave-holding interests in Texas. Even with $15 million paid for California and other lands (less than .02 cents per acre), Mexico lost one-third of its territory, including 60 percent of its mineral and oil wealth. If Mexico still had those lands today, it would be the world’s largest oil producer.
Free land, free labor, cheap access to minerals and oil… enough to make any country “great.”
The US ideal also appealed to migrants, forced to leave famines, pogroms, and other calamities in Europe and Asia, or just for a better life. Many, however, ended up in the country’s developing industrial areas, including on railroads, with little pay, tenement housing, and child labor. The Irish, Italians, Germans, and Eastern Europeans began their first inroads then, undergoing their own hurdles—at first many of them weren’t even considered “white.” But that changed once these migrants understood the black-white racial divide.
The first efforts to limit emigration were aimed at Southern Europeans, then Chinese, later against Mexicans and others of color. In the 1930s, around a million Mexicans were “repatriated,” sent back to Mexico without due process; about 60 percent were US citizens. Since 1790, when the first immigration policies were enacted, whites were favored, except in a few exceptions like the “Bracero” program, which from the 1940s until the 1960s brought in Mexicans to work under restricted periods, low pay, and second-class status.
In fact, “white” as a racial category kept shifting—Arabs, Latinos, and such were given “white” status at various times, in various states. In Texas, Mexicans were considered “white” even if they were indigenous or mixed with African. If you look at my birth certificate from El Paso, Texas, my parents were labeled “white” although my mother’s roots were with Tarahumara natives of southern Chihuahua where she was born. And my father’s roots include Native, Spanish, and African from Guerrero (the most African of Mexican states) where he was born.
“White” can be a label of convenience. Hitler, for example, declared Japanese and Turkish SS troops “honorary Aryans.” Once my family moved to California, we became “brown,” living with blacks in the ghetto-barrio of Watts (restrictive covenants in housing limited our options because we weren’t “white” anymore). In fact, many Mexicans lived with blacks in South Los Angeles, Pacoima, Compton, Inglewood, and such because of these “covenants” (now illegal, although many landlords find ways around this).
“White,” “Aryan,” whatever they call themselves (all made up anyway), can nonetheless be downright deadly for most of the world. But Irish, German, Welsh, Greek, Italian—any European peoples, of course, are fine. I have some of these in my DNA. I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren with European ancestry. All fine. Just don’t make this more valuable, more privileged, than the Native, African, Mid-Eastern, or Asian peoples who are also integral to the human family (all of which, by the way, are also in my DNA).
Back to our story: In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many immigrants came with new ideas and experiences. Socialists, anarchists, revolutionary Christians, and socially engaged writers, among others of the time, organized and obtained the eight-hour day, child labor laws, settlement homes, immigrant protections, and unions (with this, entry restrictions for ideological reasons were also applied).
There has always been another side to the story, a revolutionary thread in the fabric of our existence. This thread is linked to kicking out the English monarchy (voiced most deeply by Thomas Paine in “Common Sense” and “Appeal to Reason”), but also going beyond the rich and powerful who insisted the land’s bounty belonged to them. This thread contains Bacon’s Rebellion, Nat Turner’s uprising, John Brown’s insurrection, the Seminole Wars (blacks and natives together), and more. It’s the side that led to abolition of slavery, Native sovereignty, woman’s suffrage, immigrant rights, organized labor; that stopped Jim Crow and lynchings; that struggled for civil rights, for peace, for LGBT rights.
Key shift in production
The purported end to the “Indian Wars,” the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre in South Dakota, occurred when US Calvary slaughtered around 150 Lakota natives, mostly women and children, with Hotchkiss guns mounted on carriages. Another 150 or so died later of wounds or exposure, or were unaccounted for. Twenty-five US troops were killed in the crossfire. Nobody was ever held responsible. Instead, 20 Congressional Medals of Honor were bestowed upon the 7th Calvary. Wounded Knee happened after over 400 years of battles, massacres, forced acculturation, and removals (the Five Nations’ “Trail of Tears” and the Navajo’s “Long Walk,” among them). In California, during and after the Gold Rush, the wanton killing of natives with bounties, raised by local bonds voted by the populace, led to the most Natives killed in the United States. From an estimated million people before Europeans arrived, only 16,000 survived by 1900 (90 percent of Natives still alive when the US took over in 1848 were gone by that year).
Once the Native organized resistance got broken, even more land became available by massive theft, made legal by law and frontier justice, including homestead acts: you found a piece a land you liked, applied (or squatted on it for a while) and it could be yours—only to whites; some 270 million acres of public lands went to 1.6 million homesteaders. Land became power, wealth, and inheritance.
As a result, for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the majority of people in the United States worked in agriculture, often on their own farms. In the South they had massive plantations feeding textile mills in England and New England with cotton. However, large-scale manufacturing, first begun in Italy, but developing mightily in England, found a massive berth in the United States.
Pushed by the invention of the steam engine (and later electricity), capitalists and their representatives introduced laws, schooling, and culture to force people out of the farms and into the industrial centers. A major catalyst of the Civil War was the underlying need to stop chattel slavery from competing with wage labor. This also created vagrants, periodic crises, slums, and illicit criminal enterprises (the start of Mafias, Tongs, rural banditry, prostitution rings, etc.). People were alienated from the fruits of their labor. Other alienations followed. The capitalist ruling class became more entrenched in government, making sure their interests were met with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats (examples include Tammany Hall in New York City).
In the South, gains by blacks after the end of slavery to go to school, run governments, and excel in business got overturned with the end of Reconstruction, rise of the Ku Klux Klan, removal of federal troops to maintain order, and the establishment of Black Codes. Soon lynchings became the norm through the 1950s—some 4,000 blacks were lynched in that time. Whites rioting against blacks hit Tulsa, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, New Orleans, and more, resulted in hundreds of deaths. The next largest group targeted by lynchings was Mexican, around 700, mostly in Texas.
The real great divide was always between those who labored, whether as slaves, wage-slaves, sharecroppers, or small farmers… and those who owned the land, the mills, the factories, the transportation systems, and had the means to buy the government. Race, again, played a role as the corporate owners used a significant number of whites, including among the poorest, to keep the laboring classes divided.
The racial antagonism within the working class in the United States continues till this day, despite proof “scientific” eugenics, and other so-called theories of racial superiority, are false as well as politically and economically motivated.
The United States becomes a world power
The “robber barons” had names: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, Ford. They made their wealth in oil, steel, banking, autos. They helped finance/create the building of the first skyscrapers and urban centers like New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. Although, in fact, it was the working class that “built” them.
The country underwent intense labor battles and strikes for better pay and conditions, including against Carnegie’s Homestead Steel plant in Pennsylvania during the 1890s that led to nine workers and seven Pinkerton officials killed—and Rockefeller’s coal mine in Ludlow, Colorado when guards killed 25 strikers and family members.
The United States had also become an imperial power, controlling the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and several South Pacific Islands. U.S.-held companies ruled over parts of Mexico and Central America, including the United Fruit Company, determining who ran governments, undermining strikes, and destroying any opposition (this is where the term “Banana Republics” came from). Much of this targeted indigenous populations, like the 1932 massacre of 35,000 mostly Native peasants in El Salvador and whole villages in Guatemala.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, against the more than 30-year dictatorship of pro-US Porfirio Diaz, ended up destroying one million lives and creating around a million refugees, at a time when Mexico had only 15 million people (about what Guatemala’s population is today). Genocidal in nature, whole villages and small tribes vanished. Mexicans began their first-wave migration at that time, which created the first major barrios in the United States.
My father was saved as an infant when his Guerrero village was destroyed during the Mexican Revolution. His father, who was a rebel, managed to get a message to his wife that federales were preparing to attack. My grandmother Catita jumped on a burro with baby in her arms and in the dark withstood brush and sage until she confronted two bandits. One bandit threatened to kill her. But the other asked, “What you got there?” She answered “The son of a revolutionary.” With that the bandits let her pass.
US industrial prowess grew and even helped the allies win World War I. Still Woodrow Wilson hesitated to get involved. Wilson was a pro-Klan president (Wilson showed “Birth of a Nation” about the Klan’s origins at the White House, with glowing statements on its behalf; the organization grew to its greatest numbers during his presidency). He was also known for US isolation and even waited two years after Germans torpedoed the British passenger ship “The Lusitania,” killing 1,198, before committing troops although many Americans were among the dead. The United States apparently entered the war not because of unheard carnage on both sides, but after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution succeeded, as a show of force against the world’s first socialist state (even helping foment the 1918 Russian Civil War that the Bolsheviks won).
At home, the government as well as media, and right-wing groups initiated the first Red Scare from 1917 to 1920, aimed at weeding out persons in favor of the poor, working class, or in organizing them (particularly those pesky socialists and communists).
US participation in World War II also helped turn the tide against Hitler and the Axis powers—the bravery of Britain and resistance fighters in occupied countries notwithstanding. Although Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 was the catalyst, US mobilization again appeared tied to the Soviet Union’s heroic efforts in turning back Nazi armies.
World War II cost 60 million lives, including 6 million Jews and 20 million Soviet people. The US dropped the first atomic bombs, killing 200,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ushering the Atomic Age and “Cold War” with the Soviets. In five years “McCarthyism” and the second “Red Scare” trampled rights domestically and removed socialist or Marxist ideology in government, the movies, literature.
Waging this Cold War and even beyond, US intelligence services, including incarnations of the CIA, from 1946 to 2000 helped change the outcome of more than 80 elections of sovereign countries. The US also assisted military coups and regime changes in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile, among others. If Russia has tampered with the 2016 elections, as current CIA reports claim, this is the chickens coming home to roost.
Unrest, however, was brewing in the United States after World War II. African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and Puerto Ricans fought bravely in the Pacific and European theaters. For example, Native speakers were used as Code Talkers to stymie enemy code breakers. African Americans known as the Tuskegee Airmen proved to be skillful and brave pilots. The Japanese American 442nd fought fiercely, even as their families were held in concentration camps. Mexican Americans garnered more Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group, despite attacked by sailors and soldiers in the so-called 1943 Zootsuit Riots in Los Angeles.
Upon their return, all these groups faced discrimination in jobs, housing, and education. In some states, black and brown people, including veterans, couldn’t get buried with whites
After the war, a new chapter in the American story was unfolding—despite all the tax dollars and private funds to destroy “radicalism” by claiming they were communist led or inspired, even if untrue, civil rights battles to end segregation as well as unfair living and labor practices reached new heights.
A time of rebellion
The United States became involved in another war that exacerbated every major conflict in the country. Vietnam, a poor Southeast Asian country, divided into two, where Cold War politics drastically played out, leading to the deaths of more than 3 million people in Vietnam Laos, and Cambodia, and 58,000 Americans, from 1955 to 1975.
This war served as backdrop to the extraordinary time known as “The 60s.” I grew up during those years—this is when my story intertwines with the story of this land. President Kennedy was assassinated. The Beatles and other British bands changed Pop Music forever. New styles emerged—from flower-power hippies to Hugh Hefner chic. Drugs spread from urban core communities to middle class homes—including weed, LSD, mescaline, and even heroin and cocaine. This was a time when Hell’s Angels, Black Panthers, United Farm Workers, La Raza (Chicano movement), Young Lords, American Indian Movement, Students for a Democratic Society, and East Coast Mobsters became household names.
My heroes then were heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali; martial arts master Bruce Lee; and Mexican “Lucha Libre" wrestler Mil Mascaras. I was into Motown, James Brown, Chicano Rock, and Urban Funk. I also loved jazz (Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, John Coltrane)—and Salsa music coming out of New York City from Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican musicians, exemplified by Fania Records. In addition, the great Black Experience books with authors like Malcolm X, Piri Thomas, Claude Brown, George Jackson, James Baldwin, Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti), LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and Maya Angelou, changed my life
The modern Civil Rights Movement, led by African Americans, began in the late 1940s, leading to boycotts, marches and Freedom Riders in the 1950s. Often not mentioned, however, is that Civil Rights also involved Chicanos, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Gays. However nonviolent much of this was, in the 1960s these morphed into violent responses to racial hatred, police killings, intractable Southern and Northern white power structures. Urban riots in 1965-67 burned swathes of black communities in Harlem, Philadelphia, Newark, Cleveland, and Detroit, among others. In 1965, Watts in Los Angeles became the most destructive.
Students on university campuses—Colombia University; University of Wisconsin, Madison; and University of California, Berkeley; among others—also exploded in free speech protests and against the escalating war in Vietnam. News organizations brought the war home on TV. My friend, the late Tom Hayden, played a leading role for peace and justice along with other young, mostly white, activists. Veterans were returning mentally and physically scarred, often with drug addictions. Black and brown people were disproportionately dying in a conflict that used the country’s first integrated army.
In 1965, for example, one in every four American deaths in Vietnam was black; Chicanos had a 22 percent casualty rate although they were less than 6 percent of the population. With police and National Guard suppressing black uprisings, and even the murder of anti-war protestors at Kent State, Jackson State, and the Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War in East Los Angeles, the war had come home.
At 16, I got arrested during the Chicano Moratorium, beaten and Maced, then held on “Murderer’s Row” of L.A.’s Hall of Justice Jail for several days. Most of the over 200 other arrestees had been released within hours. Deputies threatened five of us with murder charges after three persons were killed. Charges were never filed when film and photos of what happened showed only law enforcement beating and shooting people, including the murder of Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar. In the wee hours, I was roused out of bed and let go.
Prior to this, Martin Luther King, Jr., moved from black boycotts and marches to pulling together all poor people—from the inner-city, rural hamlets, Native American reservations, barrios, migrant camps, Appalachia and other poor white areas. He began a Poor People’s Campaign that brought thousands to Washington DC. King helped combine civil rights, the anti-war campaigns, and ending poverty. King’s murder in 1968 stopped much of the momentum. The murders of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Robert Kennedy, Fred Hampton, and Salazar during that time added to the dismay. Rock stars of the 60s were also dying from drugs and hard life—Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison.
Nonetheless, people power from the US, other parts of the world, and above all the Vietnamese themselves, ended the war. Laws and court rulings dismantled most segregation laws and outlawed discrimination. Radical politics began to have new names, a new presence. This was when I found revolutionary study and organization to guide me on another trajectory of life.
Another key shift in production
Our story takes a momentous turn. The industrial world gave way to advanced technology in the form of the microchip, which began much earlier but broke through in the 1970s. The impact would usher in a new world.
There was an important element to keep in mind. The industrial age proved extremely powerful for capitalism, leading to vast expansion of cities, infrastructures, and innovation. Capitalists extracted “surplus value,” the amount unpaid to workers for their labor power (wages cover only part of what workers actually produce—the rest is pocketed). Although price hikes, creation of markets, extensions of production relations, and more contribute, it’s surplus value that determined long-term profitability.
Surplus value allowed capitalists to become filthy rich and powerful. Mines, steel mills, auto plants, large farms, and more, fueled by fossil energy, kept people working, even at low pay, even as “cogs in the wheel,” even to early deaths from cancers, cardiovascular disease, and other industrial-based diseases, even from overwork and drink.
Automation and the first stages of advanced technology represented the next major production shift in the country—from mechanical production to electronic production.
In the 1970s, I worked in those mechanical soul-deadening jobs, rotating shifts (day, afternoon, nights), even double-shifts (16-hour days). I married, had my first kids, and tried to find a stable life from the erratic one I had as a youth. Inspired by the social justice struggles of the time, at 20, when I held my newborn son, Ramiro, I vowed never to return to crime, gangs, drugs. Despite other turmoil, more kids, other marriages, drinking and rage issues, I kept that vow. Them days were like those Bruce Springsteen songs about labor, love, and loss.
However, by the 1980s de-industrialization was in full swing. Robotics invaded the workplace, pushing people out of livelihoods, and at the same time subverting surplus value. Yes, industrial jobs still exist in the US and developing countries (there it’s mostly for cheap labor). Manufacturing in the US is still powerful, but with fewer and fewer workers. Profit making moved into the unstable kind—speculation, housing, bank interest, debt, derivatives, and made-up financial instruments.
Digital technology changed forever how we worked, communicated, lived, and profited.
We’ve been here before
Trump now claims he’s going to bring manufacturing jobs back. But the genie can’t be pushed back into the bottle. This transformation is permanent. In fact, Trump’s recent United Technologies/Carrier deal to keep 1000 jobs slated for Mexico in Indiana fell apart when it was revealed that despite some $7 million in tax incentives to Carrier, hurting a state already hurting, hundreds of jobs will still go to Mexico and many of the remaining jobs, in time, will be automated.
That’s why Trump’s presidency will be full of uncertainties. Nonetheless, I’m certain of one thing—however bad our economic and political realities have been, his policies and actions will make things worse.
Why? Because we’ve been here before.
In my lifetime alone I’ve witnessed horrendous presidencies. Richard Nixon, who became president in 1969, served as a reactionary backlash to the 60s protests, unrests, and cultural clashes. Nixon introduced cuts in social programming— dismantling teen centers, the arts, urban development, jobs training. The FBI ran amok. COINTELPRO, a domestic spying and disruption machine, infiltrated Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, Brown Berets, American Indian Movement, Young Lords—and even racial harmony groups, mostly nonviolent. As leaders got killed, deported, or jailed, Nixon introduced a war on drugs that brought more drugs (also intentionally flooding “Hippie” communities and inner cities). As it turned out, Nixon cut his own throat with illegal wiretapping and other crimes. Vice-president Spiro Agnew resigned first, followed in 1974 by Nixon. But the damage had been done.
I thought this was the worse president ever.
Then in 1980, newly elected president Ronald Reagan brought more social cuts, and a more insidious drug war that actually included new drugs like crack. He was president when Los Angeles, the largest US manufacturing center, shuttered more than 300 factories and mills by the mid-1980s. The highly industrialized Mid-West was renamed the Rust Belt, encompassing cities like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Youngstown. Some 4 million jobs were lost, including union jobs with better pay and benefits like healthcare and pensions. Reagan helped break unions and escalated the “outsourcing” of jobs to cheap labor areas, including Mexico, Central America, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia (where the US returned in the form of Nike). Going away were the jobs that “saved me” in the 1970s. Bethlehem Steel, where I worked from 1974-78, closed in 1984. During his “Born in the USA” tour of that year, I met Bruce Springsteen when he visited our local union hall in Maywood, CA. By then, Local 1845 had become the largest food pantry in the country and a service center for unemployed steelworkers.
Reagan was also behind the illegal Iran-Contra Affair. I became a journalist by then, my way out of the receding industrial world. I was in Nicaragua and southern Honduras in 1982 when the US provided guns to anti-Sandinista guerrillas, and used money from sales of crack in US inner cities to pay for them. I got fired upon and bombed twice covering this war. I also covered indigenous and peasant uprisings in Mexico when that country underwent the worse economic crisis since the Revolution. As it were, Reagan’s administration had more members arrested and convicted than any other administration in history, although he was spared (and most of the others were pardoned by George H. W. Bush).
While Reagan’s presidency also saw some 2.3 million new jobs, most were in low pay, nonunion, service work that has been spreading around the country ever since. Proof of this is that today the number one employer in formerly industrial states like Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Texas, Kentucky, West Virginia and Florida is Walmart.
Reagan supported wars in El Salvador, Guatemala; invaded places like Grenada; allied with anti-Soviet Mujahedeen in Afghanistan (including Osama Bin Laden); and bombed Beirut from offshore Navy ships. Even the Soviet Union collapsed during Reagan’s tenure, with fracturing of the country, the largest sell off of public entities in history, all backed by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and private interests. Today 110 people in Russia own 35 percent of the wealth. Yes, the Soviet system had its failures and gaps, but nothing to what it has now.
Meanwhile in the United States, rich people got richer and homelessness became a permanent feature of our landscape.
Damn, this had to be the worst president.
George H. W. Bush followed Reagan, getting us into the first Iraqi War. He also failed miserably after Los Angeles exploded in 1992 following the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King beating. The uprising became the most costliest and deadliest in recent history. I also covered its aftermath, getting published in the Los Angeles Times and other publications. In addition, my 1993 memoir “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA” about how a Chicano gang member overcame the odds, became a bestseller when national interest in LA gangs spiked. I quit all my work then, including in news radio for CNN, NBC, and Westinghouse. I decided to work for myself (that year I also sobered up), which I’ve been doing ever since.
To be clear, Democrat presidents like Bill Clinton didn’t fare much better. Clinton extended the dreadful mass incarceration that went hog wild under Nixon and Reagan with more federal laws trying juveniles as adults, three-strikes, and increased prison terms (disproportionately aimed at blacks, Latinos, poor whites). He pushed NAFTA through that hurt the economies of Mexico and Central America, bringing in more waves of economic and war refugees. The immigration service deported LA-based gangs to Mexico and Central America, changing cultures and maintaining violence at civil war levels. There was the Monica Lewinsky affair—what a mess.
Then George “Dubya” Bush became president. His victory marred with “hanging chads” in Florida and the mostly conservative US Supreme Court crowning him as president, even though Al Gore won the popular vote. When 9/11 happened, for a time Americans had a reason to unite and care. But Bush turned this into a war with Afghanistan and later Iraq (which had nothing to do with 9/11 nor with “weapons of mass destruction” that Bush had claimed). We are still fighting those wars today—and have entered others in the Mideast—now at a cost of up to $7 trillion.
Even Dubya’s friends in the defense industries benefited from 9/11—by 2003, private contractors received $138 billion from the US, including the Carlyle Group, where the first Bush had ties, and KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, once run by Vice President Dick Cheney.
And the present Mexican drug wars, which began when Bush provided close to a billion dollars to then-Mexican president Felipe Calderon in 2006, only made drug related killings rise to new heights in Mexico, now close to 200,000 people killed or disappeared—while heavy drugs became more accessible than ever before in US communities. I also witnessed part of this—in 2010 I spoke in a prison, a juvenile hall, community gatherings, and in slums in and around Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (where I lived when I was born across the way in El Paso, Texas). At the time, this city was the “murder capital of the world.”
Bush also largely abandoned the victims of 2005's Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans and the Gulf region, leading to 1,245 deaths and $108 billion in damages, mostly poor, including black and white. Years passed and the most devastated areas were still devastated.
How worse could things get?
President Obama seemed like a breath of fresh air, and none of the racist attacks against him should have been tolerated, nor how the Republican-held Congress stymied his every move. Yet, Obamacare, while bringing badly needed health services to millions, was still not the single-payer, free-and-quality healthcare that should have happened. Obama could not pull us out totally from the Mideast, including the systemic use of unmanned drones that dropped tens of thousand of bombs, mostly in civilian areas. And his administration carried out more deportations, primarily of Mexicans and Central Americans, in history. Obama failed to stem the major impacts of the mortgage crisis after the 2008 crash and the worst economic slump since the Great Depression—for example, big developers benefited from the loss of millions of homes (including Donald Trump). Nobody went after the banks and financial institutions “too big to fail,” instead Obama bailed them out with more than $14 trillion in taxpayers' funds. In Obama’s last years as president, the disproportionate killings of blacks by police continued unabated.
In addition, the Obama Administration forged on in the “war on drugs” (really a war on the poor). In my lifetime, for forty-five years or so, I worked with gang members, the incarcerated, drug addicts, and other troubled youth and adults. I did this across the country, but in particular the two “gang capitals”: Los Angeles and Chicago. I also visited hundreds of prisons and juvenile lockups throughout the United States as well as Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Argentina, Italy, and England.
I saw firsthand how with billions spent, thousands killed, mostly in Latin America and US inner cities, and how prison rates made the United States the world’s biggest jailer, drugs continued to permeate every facet of society. Today opioids (heroin, fentanyl, etc.) kill a person every 12 minutes. One in seven persons will be addicted to opioids in the next few years; only one in 10 will find treatment.
It takes billions of dollars to keep us drugged up or drunk—or caught in the web of the criminal justice system or in “recovery,” two other powerful industries.
Now as the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is built while thousands of Native Americans and their allies fight to protect the water, the land, and their sacred sties, it appears that Obama will leave office with no lasting justice as various militarized law enforcement agencies, at a cost of millions of taxpayer funds, escalate their attacks on unarmed protectors. Trump’s invested in the company behind this pipeline, which is why he’s already gone on record in support of its construction. If the Obama Administration doesn’t shut it down completely before January 20 (although the pipeline has been stopped temporarily), when Trump assumes office the “black snake” will likely be finished.
Recently, hundreds of US war veterans converged on the Native American camps of protectors. Veterans of all races, led by Wesley Clark, Jr., spoke to the elders’ council. Clark voiced a litany of treachery, lies, murders, land grabs, destruction of languages and cultures that Native peoples have endured at the hands of official and unofficial US actions. But unlike the 7th Calvary at Wounded Knee in 1890, these warriors asked for forgiveness, getting on one knee and bending their heads. People whooped and hollered in approval. An elder put his hand on Clark’s head. This is the seed of a new America, one many of us for generations have fought for.
If revolution isn’t about healing, then it’s not revolutionary.
The spiral of history moves forward, showing that we’ve been here before, many times. The spiral, as in nature, moves from lower to higher forms, simpler to complex, from what’s dying to what’s being born. The spiral demonstrates few things are really “new under the sun”—yet, at the same time, how we’ve never been in this particular time, this particular place, in the midst of these particular circumstances.
Requiring of us new ideas, new forms, new organizations.
In our developing story, the American people are again at a crossroads.
As Langston Hughes wrote, “America has never been America to me…” It never was for the majority of Americans. Yet Langston also wrote about the “America that can be.” For the conditions are ripening for a land that is free, equitable, and safe for everyone. This is the crux we are in.
Again, the heart and soul of America.
The crossroads is where we face our true selves, both ugly and divisive as well as embracing and inclusive. The latter draws from the best of our origins, full of the ideals of “liberty and justice for all.” Or we continue on the road led by racist, class-based, earth-destroying forces that have hijacked political parties and religious groups on a neo-fascist plan to dismantle generations of hard work and achievements.
Which way do we go?
I say let’s meet the challenge stretching us beyond our limits (the only challenges that matter). This means stretching our minds, hearts, and abilities accordingly, to organize, teach, and find common ground in ways we’ve never done before as we incorporate the diversity of voices, flavors, songs, orientations, and breaths this land is capable of sustaining.
A place for everyone, not just the wealthy, not just “citizens,” not just straight, not just “white.” Everyone.
Media outlets and pundits have talked recently about the rebellion of the “white working class,” which has apparently been ignored and now awaken like a sleeping giant to turn swing states into victory for Trump. But there is no “white” working class. There is only one working class: It’s white, black, brown, and yellow (and all skin tones in-between). It includes the undocumented, LGBT, disabled, Native Americans, war veterans, industrial and nonindustrial. Many have been driven out of the capitalist economy—those who can’t find work, or a home, or a “career path” as the changing economy fails to integrate them.
How come media and pundits don’t address the multi-ethnic makeup of the real working class? They act as if only whites have a working class. And how come “white workers” are being seen as a monolith? Many such workers were for Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton, the Green Party, or like millions of others, didn’t even vote.
This is how racism creeps into the dialogue, as if whites as workers had interests separate from the rest of us. For generations, from our beginnings, whites have been given a “special status,” even though they are often in the same dire straits. The aim is to create an illusion that whites have “interests” as whites, even with the few whites who are rich and powerful (since the rich and powerful happen to be majority white).
Conversely, the illusion is that whites don’t have much in common with other poor working class people who happen to be of all colors, languages, from many countries—all enduring the same circumstances.
Now we can see the key to power in the United States.
To repeat: The “white” race (and “race” as a concept) is one of the biggest lies of the world. It’s illusionary like most of what we think is real and sacred—such as borders, mortgages, wage systems, marriages, binary sex relations, and on and on. All illusions. All man made. For spiritual-driven people, there’s nothing about God in any of these. True nature, true creation (and therefore “God”) is multifaceted, multidimensional, and far richer. The earth, as seen by the Hubble Space telescope, is not veined with nation states and borderlines. It’s one huge blue, green, white ecosystem that we all belong to as humans, as part of an extremely diverse animal world, within delicate yet generative dynamics of a vibrant, living planet.
Scarcity or abundance
Too many “good” people are dying or getting depressed or going to war because of belief systems (because real “knowing” doesn’t need belief). This also goes for patriotism. Patriotism is love of the “fatherland,” rooted in the patrias. This has to be seen not above everything, but nested within the more important Cosmos, Mother Earth, and on down. Nations, tribes, communities, families, are important if they flow from this. But today, patriotism means the “nation” is more important than the earth—to make this nation “great” means a world is sacrificed for the patrias. In the past this was Nazi Germany, or the Roman Empire, or any particular tribe, community, or religious and political group that “believed” it was better or more worthy than others (a psychotic state that apparently embraces whole peoples).
“The Chosen People” (self-chosen in my view) over everyone else (not realizing, that the "chosen," the poor and downtrodden of any age, carries the same mantle as the Jews against the Pharoahs or Romans of the Bible--the dream and realization of a new world). We have to go beyond the immature pre-industrial and industrial mentality of past "civilization" as we embark on a new age, new epoch, a new story.
So what we’re facing, in essence, is either scarcity or abundance. For the 1 percent or 99 percent. For war and want… or living in accordance with nature and our own natures to establish the most abundant and liberating of all possible worlds. This would take a people with integrity, healthy outlook, firm moral grounding, and wise ideas. We don’t have this in Trump.
Trump is about “America First,” even if this makes the world unsafe, precarious, and poisonous. I love my country—my citizenship cannot be denied nor my commitment to the best country imaginable. But as I’m saying, we have to love the world more.
A fascist, albeit of the US variety, will take over the White House on January 20. Yes, fascists have their own form of anti-equalitarian and xenophobic governance to implement, the Nazi’s being the most detrimental. You can't say they are all the same. Still there are a few things we can agree about fascism in general.
Fascism is the unity of big business, big government, and big military—exactly what Trump is establishing in a relatively unmasked manner. Trump and his cronies plan to parcel out public services, again the commons of our society, to private enterprises, including our schools, our health care, our energy needs. Republicans for years have been trying to include social security and veteran services as well. In effect, with Trump, the White House has been parceled out to private interests.
For example, Trump and Republicans want to repeal Obamacare. The hidden benefit is that the wealthiest taxpayers (earning more than $200,000 a year, or $250,000 per couple) will see tax cuts totaling $346 billion over 10 years—while 20 million Americans would lose healthcare coverage. Although Republicans say they may “replace” after the repeal, they’re working on plans with far less tax impact on top earners, and far less reach of affordable healthcare.
Trump will beef up the military abroad, already close to 60 percent of our national budget ($125 billion of which the Pentagon can’t account for). And he will boost up the militarization at home in the guise of “law and order.” That’s the neo-fascist ideal—take money away from housing, healthcare, education, our needs, and put it in military misadventures and so-called domestic security. Most of this will be directed at those who dare oppose the whole set up.
People like me. Perhaps you.
Hitler did this to a gross degree. So did Mussolini, Franco, Pinochet, Somoza, and fascists everywhere. Again, we’ve been here before. Whether Trump will be "worse" than Hitler, this is not clear (again there are parallels between the two men but also striking differences). One thing is clear--Trump will have access to more power and military might than Hitler ever imagined. He's also becoming president during the worst income inequality in human history. Latest reports say only 8 billionaires have more wealth than 3.6 billion of the world's population. US military capacity is greater than all other countries combined (including Russia and China).
Nonetheless, we face something wholly different, requiring an imaginative, short-and-long term, comprehensive revolutionary movement if we are to regain sanity and equanimity in this country.
In effect, we have to out-think, out-organize, and out-last the fascists of the world.
The immediate and long haul
So where do we go from here? For one, the crossroads demands a new social compact in America, new alignments to attune our governance, our economy, our culture to the commons—that which belongs to all of us (instead of what “belongs” to the most powerful and wealthy). This requires a fuller clarity and greater access to deeper knowledge that can guide us through the pitfalls, minefields, and cons.
Yes, let’s meet the gathering storm head on, resisting and fighting “Trumpism” wherever it shows up. But we also have to be about something bigger, better, and long-range, not just against Trump or against the features of a disjointed and alienated social order (otherwise Trump and his fascist elite pull us around by the nose whenever they please).
Of course, we must address the immediate demands of the working class, the dispossessed, the ones who lose regardless who is president or what party is in power. But we must also clarify and take care of the future of that movement—where it’s organically going (and help get it there).
This part, the visionary and long haul aspects, the steady and consistent, are immensely harder to grasp. We’re in a culture, established on purpose, which is about the immediate fix, the immediate impact. A new generation has been raised on the dopamine-inducing joys of drink, drugs, sex, video games, and even social media (although my experience is that young people are grossly underestimated; most are not into all this as one would think).
None of these are bad in themselves. Drinking some. Okay. A blunt now and then. Sure. Consensual mature sex with someone you care about. Why not? Enjoying a good video game. Yes. Even communicating on social media. I’m there.
All this within reason, safe and from strength, measured and guided by greater purposes and meanings, what’s generally missing in the equation. The problem is when all other needs collapse into one “need,” when doing all the above becomes imbalanced and addictive.
The work of a new society involves slow, meandering, and messy processes that take patience and persistence. But few are prepared or trained for this. It’s time to create new types of revolutionary thinkers, teachers, and organizers—who carry the past (the real history we’re barely touching on here), the underlying deep impulses of present-day life and social development—and a dream.
I will also say the creative/artistic/poetic that can point to, and bless, a way out.
Our story is far from over.
The economy doesn't care if you are progressive, conservative, or what party you voted for—or even if you didn’t vote. It doesn’t care if you are Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindi, Native, or atheist. Nor your skin color, sexual orientation, or gender. If you’re in the 99 percent, the income gap is at its widest in history. And with deregulation and tax breaks for the wealthy that Trump is proposing, this gap will get worse.
It takes billions of dollars to keep people poor.
So I will put forward another controversial statement—okay, we need political options, alternatives, solutions. But these won’t suffice. Society moves in stages and we’ve not understood everything about the past and current stages, nor where the next will lead. Yet these are knowable if we avoid the doctrinaire and stilted.
Revolutionary ideas are still valid if reexamined and renovated like everything else—or create room for new ideas to spring forth even mightier and more aligned than the previous ones. I critique the present-day Left in the United States (a self-critique, if you will) by pointing out that most Left groups are carrying too many “corpses” around, too many dead ways of doing things, forcing an exasperating inertia. Revolutionary science, even in social development, is constant growth, learning, even with mistakes, nodal leaps, stagnation at times, only to find a keyway to push on through to greater awareness and, thereby, enhanced revolutionary practice.
Today, and there’s enough blame to go around, the Left is scattered, embittered, splintered, and often within its own bubbles to matter to the majority of people. History won’t judge this lightly. This is an abdication of leadership and I don’t want any part of it.
Yes, there are objective conditions we all face, and only those who want to muddle, deflect, or confuse will say otherwise. Still what’s missing is the grand imagination, the ability to envision and live out the story we were meant to do as a land and people. We’re missing the true-north teachings with the most original and powerful imagery, language, and lessons to reorient and reshape those conditions toward the new post-industrial potential.
A fatal flaw in our national story, after years of subterfuge, scapegoats, and false hopes, is becoming clear. The “apocalypse” is upon us, not as “the end of the world,” but from the original meaning of the Greek word to unveil, to reveal, to expose. More than a few are realizing “the emperor has no clothes.” This system has no more legs to stand on. And many Americans, especially the young, so-called millennials, are sensing this, even if not all understand the full scope.
If most of our stories is about coming home, then let’s contemplate building a new house within the unequal, full-of-holes house we now live under. It’s not enough to tear down the existing misshapen house without a new plan, a new foundation, the infrastructure of a sturdier dwelling. We’ll just have ruins around us.
When I ran for California governor in 2014, I proposed four pillars of a thriving and healthy society, a likely basis of such a house: 1) clean and green environment for all; 2) social justice, including an end to mass incarceration, police killings, discriminatory practices; 3) the end of poverty, since whenever any people are poor, no matter what that society claims, it’s always wrong; 4) and peace in the world and peace at home.
All of this undergirded by a truly transparent and corporate-free, publicly financed democratic process. Today our “democracy” is another industry—the last election was the most expensive, around $2 billion. Mass media makes a killing on ads and commercials. I’m for the end of “citizens united” (where corporations are treated as people, and therefore provided greater voice and power), machine politics, voter suppression, or the Electoral College.
These pillars, however, cannot be met under capitalism. They are incompatible with a system based on private property and exploitation. All these pillars are linked—you can’t have one or two without the others. It’s time to connect the dots and not get divided by “my” issue over “yours,” a scourge of too many progressive movements.
Where do we go from here?
If you’ve read this far, thank you. It’s remarkable since most people rarely get into history’s depths or intensive ideas, especially contentious ones, for too long. To reiterate, we need to slow down, pay attention, and not get swept up by the speed of modern society. We need well-thought-out, mind-and-soul activating concepts, stories, and proposals.
Short, quick responses, even memes, are okay. But where are the substantial thought-pieces, the ones you have to read more than once, research, uncover new things—that challenge? Most of us are hardly equipped to understand the nadirs and parameters of our complicated economic, political, and cultural system—what makes things tick. We leave that to others and go about our merry way (then wonder why everything fell apart).
Our brains exist for more than just to get by or get over. They exist more than to be consumers or spectators. The human brain is the highest form of matter. Our brain and other capacities, fed by genuine teachings, can take development through its next spiral of integrality.
So let me end on a provocative note, to really get under our skins, so to speak: The biggest task confronting all of us today is to recreate a country that aligns with earth’s regenerative capacity, aligns technology and resources to needs, and values human beings just for being human.
Change is not doing things differently. Again, it is to properly align.
For I contend the real foundation of this land is not with the so-called Founding Fathers, although the early architects had great merit and important principles. History and ideas did not start when Europeans arrived, as textbooks and media tends to portray. The real foundation is with the indigenous peoples of the lands, already here for millennia, they who had gathered wisdom about nature, everyone’s personal nature, and the nature of relationships, human and divine.
Their “science” was in the myths, the stories, the spoken minerals of thought and tongue.
I’m talking ancestral knowledge that crosses all borders, from across this vast continent, drawing from all tribes, but also from the extraordinary (so-called) Inca, Mayan, and Toltec/Aztec worlds. While European conquerors and colonialists destroyed the outward representations of these remarkable peoples, including burning an estimated 60,000 amatl-paper books of the Aztecs (Mexikas), this knowledge is still with us.
When the Spanish first arrived to Mexico-Tenochtitlan in 1519, this city of temples and causeways, they described how glorious, clean, orderly, beautiful, and peaceful it was, larger and more striking than European cities of the time. But when gold was found among the gifts given to them, the natives were then called savages, spawn of hell, demons. They were slaughtered, their temples razed, their leaders tortured. The natives had complex spiritual practices, but they were considered “children” that needed Europeans to save their souls.
To this day, “saving souls” is still mired with conquests, colonialists, and racist precepts. For this is an important point that may take a while for people to get over—there was nothing “un-Godly” about any of their spiritual knowledge and practices.
This “knowing” also embraces the indigenous origins that belong to all peoples, from all continents, whose integral and latent energies still resonant. That’s one thing we all have regardless of so-called race, ethnic group, or creed—ancestral roots (with similar patterns and philosophies across cultures).
US laws and schools largely demeaned and dismissed indigenous teachings. There were many attempts to eradicate the “Indian” mind with boarding schools, English-only curriculum (people punished for speaking their own languages), and often racist pro-capitalist texts. Blacks were treated even more abominably (unable to play drums, speak their languages, keep their spiritual practices, etc.).
I contend these cosmologies are not archaic, quaint, or “sinful” concepts from the past. I argue, with modern rejuvenation, their primary teachings are more valid than ever before.
The root of ancestral knowledge is abundance, the very thing this system has tried to convince everyone can’t have, that can’t exist, unless in fantasy or after you die. Scarcity is another lie that has become deadly truth for most of us.
Scarcity is why Donald Trump perpetuates the lie there are only “so many jobs, homes, and rights” to go around. Scarcity is why we don’t have enough to pay rent, eat, healthcare, or debt-free education at the same time. Why Trump wants to waste money and energy on a wall across our southern border. Or why we must cause climate change to drive our cars and run our factories. It’s why Los Angeles, my home, one of the world’s richest cities, now has the largest homeless population, including with increased removal of poor and vulnerable from inner cities, and where 4003 people died from 2005 to 2015 from homelessness.
Our new house has to be built on abundance. This is nature’s way. If properly taken care of, nature will always provide. Even with destruction, like a wildfire in the hills, nature returns, even coming back with new plants and foliage as if these seeds were deep underground waiting to be awakened.
Capitalism at one time was the dynamo that moved society forward. Now it’s become the chain on our development. It’s clear fossil fuel has done more damage, even if it once pushed our transportation needs to new lengths and heights. It‘s also the lubrication for the earth. With capitalism and oil extraction we’ve now seen more temperature changes, more hurricanes, more earthquakes, more of our earth taken beyond its capacity.
Technology, society’s productive forces, is in constant transition. Despite natural and human disasters, despite wars, famines, and more, we keep expending and extending our tools. In millions of years, we went from foraging on the ground, hunting, hand tools, to planting, hybridizing crops, to creating cities, writing, even things not so good like slavery, wars, and manufactured hunger, to establishing fiefdoms, ruling classes, nations, steam driven apparatuses, to large-scale production, to population-dense cities, to smog, to computers, to airplanes, to space travel, to quantum realities… and onward.
What used to be science fiction is now fact, and in many cases even more fantastic than the original fiction.
The present outmoded social organization is irreconcilable with the new technology, the combined imaginations and intelligences of all people, and with nature’s capacity to replenish.
Imagine, imagine, imagine. It’s about where we’ve been at before, but also where we have to go that’s new and un-traversed.
As for me, with years of organizing, founding organizations, protesting, reporting, teaching, traveling, writing, and more, I’ve pushed the creative/poetic more than anything, including helping establish Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center & Bookstore in Los Angeles and publishing wonderful writers through Tia Chucha Press. I now have 15 of my own books in poetry, children’s literature, short stories, the novel, memoir, and nonfiction, published by Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Seven Stories, Lee & Low, Curbstone, and others. My family of four children, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren is growing. I’ve also been an adjunct professor, interviewed on various TV, radio, and print media, and spent the last two years as the city’s official poet laureate.
For in these times, we need poets more than ever. Here’s William Stafford.
… And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
There’s an ending to our story. Of course, like all endings, it’s also a beginning. Still we have a charge: To make the wellbeing of our children, adults, elders, families, and planet the cornerstone of any new society, and the central adventure of a new story. Any new political party, media, organization, nonprofit, or business must take all of this into account to be part and parcel of this story. A new world is immanent, if we also transcend the rotten and worn out, keep the perennial and lasting, and pray we can figure out what’s what.
It’s time, finally, to come home.
The blogpost first appeared on the Los Angeles Public Library website on October 11, 2016. Here's link: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/los-angeles-poets-and-temper-our-times
Let us dare haunting verse of the oppressed,
poems with hoodies, finger-tapping, ambling.
I mean pissed off and ardently expressed,
poems delirious as midnight rambling.
Bebop, Hip Hop, a decima or slam,
metered lyrics, free shaped texts… no matter,
bring out the fire, the punch, a resounding jam.
Let it ring far, a magnificent chatter.
Naming the nameless, voicing the unheard,
questioning the questions, swimming, splashing.
No expert strokes but damn if not expert word;
every line bleeding, grieving, pleading, slashing.
The power of poetry is its stance,
page or stage, electrifying or trance.
Los Angeles’s creative life appears driven by the vast dream factories established in this city—Hollywood, fashion, murals, car culture, architecture, skateboarding, tattoos, museums, music.
All that glitters. All that blings. All that sings.
Cool. I enjoy a good movie, TV drama, and wonderful museum like anyone else. But glaring to me are the gaps, the unequal economic, political, and cultural rifts, the Paris of the Pacific versus the Beirut by the Beach. This is also our city: Some 40 gang injunctions “arresting” around 70 communities; Los Angeles residents making up 60 percent or so of the state’s massive prison system; L.A. County with more poor than any other U.S. county; the country’s largest homeless population; more police killings than any other city; and violence rates in parts of this city that rival or exceed the world’s most violent places.
For example, from a Los Angeles Times report a few years ago, in South L.A. the homicide rate for Latino males ages 16 to 24 was 70 per 100,000 people; for African American males in the same age range, it was 120 murders per 100,000. The countries with excessive murder rates—Honduras, El Salvador, sections of Mexico, South Africa—go from 70 to 90 per 100,000.
Still, with a creative economy that provides one in seven jobs in the Los Angeles region, close to 730,000, with a combined income of $50.6 billion (from the 2014 Otis Report on the Creative Economy), there are whole neighborhoods, for miles and miles, that have no bookstores, no cultural spaces, no museums, no movies houses—and this in the “Entertainment Capital” of the world.”
Nonetheless, there is much to love and celebrate in Los Angeles.
So I ask, can we imagine a new L.A.—free of poverty; social injustices; toxic air, ground, and water; as well as domestic and street violence? A Los Angeles that’s healthy and thriving, including neighborhoods exploding with public art, festivals, music, dance, theater, spoken word, and more—with a cultural life that incorporates children, teens, adults, elders, not just concentrated for a privileged few.
Perhaps we should listen to poets.
In 2014, Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed me as the city’s official poet laureate. The Mayor made the pronouncement in October of that year at the Central Public Library downtown. I told the story that at 15 I was briefly homeless in downtown’s streets, on drugs, sleeping along the “Concrete River,” in abandoned cars, at all-night movie theaters, on church pews, behind dumpsters. That very library became my refuge. I walked those aisles hungry for ideas, stories, compelling language. I read for hours. These books were my saving grace.
By 20, I became gang-free, drug-free, and crime-free.
Today, 40 years later, I’m all about books. I have published award-winning works in all genres. I also help oversee the bookstore/cultural center co-founded with my wife Trini, Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center. And I’m founding editor of one of L.A.’s premier small presses, Tia Chucha Press.
The point is literacy and arts among the poor, dispossessed, and pushed out is vital in these times when the “bottom line” reigns.
This year, Tia Chucha Press released a new anthology of L.A.-area poets, “Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles,” edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Daniel A. Olivas, and Ruben J. Rodriguez. Beautifully designed by Jane Brunette, who’s been designing our books for 27 years, with cover art by Alfonso Aceves, “Coiled Serpent” is a testament to the powerful poetry undergirding all the ugliness and splendor, scarcity and abundance, of our lives.
Why don’t we hear more from poets? Why don’t we have more poetry at graduations, celebrations, rallies, commemorations… as an every day, every occasion thing? Today, poetry is removed from the mainstream culture—we’re one country that marginalizes poetry while poetry is written, memorized, and recited all over the world, even in the most deprived areas.
In the United States, when a poetry book sells 1,000 copies, it’s considered a good seller; in Japan, poetry books can sell 3 million copies or more. Throughout Mexico and other Latin American countries, children learn to declamar, recite from memory classic verses. Poets in the Mideast, Russia, Europe, Iran, China, and India are revered. In Africa, griots—storytellers and verse purveyors—held entranced audiences for centuries. When the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, arguably the best poet of the 20th century, read at Santiago’s soccer stadium, the audience of 90,000 people would shout back his every word.
Poetry, like all art, needs to be at the center of our reality, for greater depth, enhanced dialogue, striking revelations. Our country is deprived for lack of enriched expression, performance, and blessings.
As the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats famously wrote in “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Just the same, in Los Angeles I’ve seen the best with conviction, with passion, with images. They include high school students writing in worn journals outside of class assignments. They are at the prolific number of open mics throughout the L.A. area, including every Friday night at Tia Chucha’s Bookstore. They are with organizations like Get Lit Players, Say Word, WriteGirl, Urban Word, Street Poets, Inside Out Writers, L.A. Poet Society, Writ Large Press, and others, bringing classic and new poems to our schools, playgrounds, juvenile lockups, and community spaces.
Poetry won’t solve L.A.’s immense problems. But with images, vision, ideas, we can delve deeper into what can. We can find a commonality beyond the divides.
As I finish my two-year tenure as L.A.’s Poet Laureate, I will remember always my visits to hundreds of schools, festivals, graduations, bookstores, universities, colleges, and more. I spoke, read or facilitated workshops in over 40 libraries as far flung as Sylmar, Sherman Oaks, Woodland Hills, Westwood, Pico-Union, Boyle Heights, Watts, Little Tokyo, and Wilmington. I addressed audiences at one of L.A. County’s juvenile halls, Los Padrinos; at Grand Performances of the California Plaza; at the Mark Taper Auditorium with storyteller Michael Meade and John Densmore of The Doors; at City Hall’s Council Chambers; during the Watts Jazz Festival; at Sirens Café in San Pedro; as speaker for the Poetry Convergence at the Skirball Museum; to support Endangered Languages at the Hammer Museum; and with the Poetry Circus at Griffith Park… to name a few.
Other area highlights include serving as Latino Heritage Grand Marshal in Pasadena; a panelist at the Southern California Poetry Festival in Long Beach; and in conversation with writer Ruben Martinez at Loyola Marymount University in Santa Monica;
During this time, I won awards and certificates from Beyond Baroque, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Con Tinta Literary Association, Leadership L.A.—and I received the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement. I also taught a wonderful class on so-called marginalized literature at California State University, Northridge for spring 2016.
Now, I’m teaching writing in two maximum-security yards at Lancaster State Prison for 30 weeks. And I’ll spend a month in Honduras later this year to facilitate poetry with orphaned teens from violence and poverty.
To punctuate this amazing journey, I invite you all to come to a culmination event on November 1 at the Taper Auditorium of the Central Library, from 3 pm to 5 pm, sponsored by Get Lit Players, Mayor Eric Garcetti, the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Los Angeles Public Library. I will read with current Youth Poet Laureate, Rhiannon McGavin.
Even in these times of growing racial, class and political discord, and increased uncertainty, there are many bards of beauty, bards of bounty. Please, open your ears, your souls, your minds and hearts, and listen. They are revolutionary. They are healing. They are Los Angeles.
The blog post is based on a keynote speech I did two years ago at the 10th Annual J. Paul Taylor Social Justice Symposium at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces on "Justice for Native Americans: Historical Trauma, Contemporary Images, and Human Rights." It first appeared on Los Angeles Public Library website on August 18, 2016. Here's link: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/indigenous-mind—-four-key-connections
First, a number of greetings in the language of a few native peoples on this continent:
Yaa'teeh – “It is good” in Dine/Navajo
Kwira Va – “We are one” in Raramuri
Gualli Tonalli – “Good day,” in Nahuatl, although this can be translated as “have a good destiny”
And In lak’ech – Mayan from southern Mexico and Guatemala: “I am the other you”
What links these greetings is the sense of connection, that we are all related, Mitakuye Oyasin in Lakota, a sense that is largely being eroded in our modern industrial and post-industrial world.
I’d like to propose that these disconnections—separation from nature, from our own natures, from each other, and the divine—is the greatest source of inhumanity, trauma, and disintegration confronting Native peoples today, and, I’ll venture to say, everyone else as well.
First, because all peoples have native roots (indigenous to some part of the world, even if we all originated in Mother Africa). Secondly, because as the world spirals into deeper crisis, ancestral knowledge, often told through stories, mythic imaginations, become much-needed guides through the current morass.
As Native Peoples we saw the invasion, infusion, and infections from European powers more than 500 years ago as the single most important root of our separation from what we consider the Great Spirit, Creator, Ometeotl—including the very earth and sky and systems that have sustained us for tens of thousand of years, or as we would say, “forever.”
For years now, I’ve been around the world addressing this deep separation in a variety of ways. Because of my work, for example, I’ve visited hundreds of prisons and juvenile lockups. I’ve done this for over 35 years. I’ve been to California institutions like Folsom, Soledad, San Quentin, Lancaster, and Chino; to juvenile facilities and prisons in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. I’ve done the same in some of the harrowing prisons of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Argentina, and southern England.
You have not been to a living hell until you’ve walked down several caverns of a Salvadoran prison with no electricity, no running water, tattooed faced gang youth at every turn, 40 to 50 prisoners in a cell meant for two, including a section for women with babies, who are also incarcerated.
Two years ago, I was at the J. Paul Taylor Center juvenile facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico, speaking to adjudicated young men. I can appreciate the difference in how the United States deals with our troubled youth, the much greater resources available, and for the most part staffed by courageous and caring men and women.
I had a great time with these youth, great talks, and like always, I learned much in hearing from them. Yet, I must say, the separation affecting these youth is palpable, punishing, and in my view destructive to their spirits and to our communities.
What traumatized, violent, raging young men need—and this is based on actual practice, study and experience—is more community, more family (and if they don’t have a family, or have a broken one, a healthy sense of family). They need more connection.
Generally, in our so-called adult corrections and juvenile justice systems, in dealing with most trouble, most traumas, we do the exact opposite. Even the psychoactive drugs we prescribe to ADHD children, or mentally ill persons, or the clinically depressed result in artificial separation from one’s own powers and energies to cope and to change.
Why is this so?
Because this is what we’ve done to our whole culture: alienation from the fruits of our labor and creativity, from each other, from the energies in nature and spirit that sustain us.
The poison I’m talking about has penetrated almost all our policies, laws, and history—it has separated us by so-called races, by economic class, young from old, men from women, gay from straight, powerful from the powerless.
We are a divided country, in a “disunited states” of America, one that is constantly at odds. Riddled with social, income, and other gaps. I’m proposing another way to re-integrate ourselves, a way to become more integral as a people, to make sure all basic needs and rights as human beings are met, and a way that will allow us to unite around the essentials, have liberty around the nonessentials, and to be caring, connected, and cooperative in everything else.
We as Native Peoples have an obligation to provide such knowledge and imaginations to the world. My Dine teachers call this at’e—it is. Being whole in the face of immense fracturing.
As a Chicano, my own native roots come from the vast Chihuahua desert, before it was divided into two countries and various states. Before there were any borders. A time when we all spoke a variance of what scholars call the Ute-Aztecan language group, that encompasses tribes on both sides of the border such as the Raramuri, Yaqui, Huichol, as well as the Hopi, Shoshone, Paiute, and Tohono O’odham.
My mother was born in Chihuahua City from a Raramuri woman and a mixed Mexican man. Her grandmother and mother left the Copper Canyon—La Barranca de Cobre—section of the Sierra Tarahumara during the Mexican Revolution, walking for miles during a time when whole villages, and what some people didn’t know, small tribes were being destroyed by federal troops.
My father is from a part of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero with many Nahuatl-speaking peoples but also former African slaves. When my dad’s village of birth was destroyed, his mother carried him as a baby in swaddling on the back of a burro just before federales attacked.
I have Native roots from both areas. Yet there’s a blue-eyed grandfather in my lineage. A recent DNA test shows I’m almost half Native; around 60 percent from people of color, including from Africa; while the rest is a fantastic mix of European cultures. As I’ve written before, I have the whole world inside me.
At’e—it is what it is.
However, for over twenty years I’ve cleaved closer to my native roots when I decided to sober up after having been on drugs for seven years as a youth, including heroin, and then drinking for twenty years on top of that.
I gravitated to the Mexika traditions of Mexico, which is taught and honored in almost every major Chicano community in the United States. I also had teachers among the Lakota from Pine Ridge, where I helped bring contingents of Chicano, Puerto Rican, and African American gang members. I’ve done ceremonies there, as well as in and around Illinois and the Midwest.
In 1997, I began to go to the Navajo Nation for ceremonies and teachings, as well as work with youth and families there. I learned the medicine way from a Dine roadman, Anthony Lee, and his wife Delores of Lukachukai, Arizona, who soon adopted my wife Trini, who has Huichol roots from Jalisco, Mexico.
We’ve gone back there almost every year. My other teachers include Macuiltochtli and Tlacaelel of Mexico; Julio Revolorio of Guatemala; Panduro, Quechua traditional practitioner from the rainforest of Peru; Ed Young Man Afraid of His Horse from Pine Ridge; and Huitzi and Meztli, a Nahuatl-speaking couple who once ran our Mexikayotl and Nahuatl classes at Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural—the cultural space and bookstore that Trini and I helped create fifteen years ago in the northeast San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles.
Trini and I were also among the founders of the Pacoima and San Fernando sweat lodges. Trini now runs the Hummingbird Women’s Lodge of Sylmar, CA. I also help with the Lincoln Heights sweat lodge, working with friend and teacher, with Purepecha roots from Michoacan, Mexico, Luis Ruan. We often have tattooed face former gang members and prisoners in this lodge, now on healing paths.
Here is what I say we need today and in the future, drawing from these varied but linked traditions and teachings, which I believe are more relevant than ever before—these are not to be written off as “archaic” and “quaint” traditions that no longer apply.
There are four key connections we need as human beings.
First is the connection to our own genius, our own unique internal designs, patterns, “dreams” we were born with. This is where callings come from, the great passions of our life, and eventually the character to carry what we need to live the life we were intended to live. This comes from deep soul work, but also proper initiation, healthy and solid community and family, and quality of struggle so we can give “life” to life.
The second key connection is to nature, so we can align to the laws, rhythms, and energies all around us—from ground, trees, sun, clouds, moon, air, animals, and more. In the past 5,000 years of so-called civilization, we’ve become largely estranged from nature, its abundance and potent powers. With massive manufacturing, mining, and such we’ve created a precarious world for most of us. We have false scarcity in our economies. Nature is our greatest teacher if we pay attention, honor its parameters and possibilities, and always allow nature to regenerate and give back.
The third connection is to each other. In the Bible, Jesus said to treat others as one wants to be treated. That means even with disagreements, different belief systems, customs, sexual orientations, and languages. We learn to respect each other as part of the greater human family. We learn to give and care, instead of take and detach. There are too many predatory relationships, even in families, but also in nations, religions, institutions, and corporations. Dignity for oneself also means allowing other people’s dignities to remain intact. No superiority or inferiority. No valuation systems based on who has money, certain skin color, or the “right” sexuality or gender. Everyone belongs. Everyone is valued.
And fourth, is our connection to the divine. What some people call God, Allah, Jehovah, Great Spirit, Brahman, and many more. The names are diverse. These are not as important as what they purport to represent (although they are important to those who believe in them). What I’m talking about is the universal divine/sacred unleashed when one is most aligned, creative, tapped into their genius, and properly attuned to nature, people, and one’s own nature.
You don’t even have to believe in God. You can be as scientific and secular as possible, yet you can still find the beauty and bounty in all things, all arts, all relationships, all humanity and earth. The divine appears in poems, songs, sculptures, painting, dance, stories, prayers. It shows up anytime, especially in the timeless moments within linear time that touches on an eternal quality of existence. Those not linked to this often feel empty, shallow, disaffected. Again, this may or may not be linked to any faith or church. It’s part of who we are if we properly integrate them into our lives, towards a higher level of wholeness.
I contend that with these four key connections, we can renew and rebuild our families, states, and cultures. These connections go counter to the current global capitalist society that is based on exploitation, oppression, power, and war. We don’t have to choose between “lesser of two evils,” jobs or healthy climate, safety or police killings, between dying of cancer or heart disease—and mostly forced to live meaningless and pointless lives, full of delusions and disappointments.
This is how the indigenous mind, ancestral knowledge, mythic imaginations, can be pertinent, vital, and necessary again, especially in these dark, uncertain, and violent times. This can inspire real hope, transformative relations, real personal and social reckoning.
This blogpost first appeared in the L.A. Public Library website on July 29, 2016: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/what-do-notions-race-or-cultural-superiority-serve
Ideas of racial/cultural purity or superiority are alive and well in the United States. These are oppressive, non-biological, and unnatural concepts, pushed on us like other lies and illusions in our society. This wouldn’t matter much except people believe them. The Atlantic Review in 2007 published the results of the Pew Global Attitudes Survey that showed more than half of U.S. respondents claimed their culture was superior to others, more than respondents in Canada, Spain, Germany, France, Britain, and Sweden about their own cultures.
Another prejudice is expressed with the misnomer “Western Culture.” While this term may not be solely about race, I’ve heard it used to mean “white” or Caucasian without explicitly using those words.
For example, Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King remarked during the recent Republican Convention: “Go back through, history… where are these contributions made by these other categories of people that you are talking about? Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes then asked, “Than white people?” King responded, “Western civilization itself, rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States, and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world.”
Unfortunately, Hayes didn’t challenge King’s assertions. He called them “self-refuting.” But they need to be challenged. For as wrong as King may be, there are whole infrastructures in our country that keep these ideas palpitating. Even presidential nominees espouse them.
Let’s be clear: “Western” culture or civilization is a made-up concept. What we consider Western Culture was not born in a vacuum or developed solely by “white” people. For thousands of years, Europeans appropriated other people’s cultures.
From Africa and the Middle East came three of the world’s great religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The first “cradles of civilization” (where the conditions converged to establish forms of writing, agriculture, architecture, governance, and more) were the Niger River (Nigeria), the Nile Valley (Egypt), Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Mesopotamia), Indus Valley (India), Yellow River (China), Mexico and Central America (Olmecs/Toltecs/Mayas/Aztecs), and the Andes (Incas/Quechuas). None were in Europe.
From South and East Asia came Buddhism, paper, fireworks, oranges, porcelain, fishing reels, suspension bridges, tea, medicine, and much more. From Native peoples of the so-called Americas, who lived here for at least 30,000 years before Europeans arrived, the world obtained corn, tomatoes, chocolate, avocados, potatoes, rubber, gum, hummingbirds, forms of democracy, again herbal healing knowledge, and more. From Africa came musical instruments (guitars, drums, harps), mathematics, astronomy, engineering, medicine, and navigation, to name a few.
The “New World” and Africa also provided gold, silver, diamonds (and other minerals—all stolen) that made Europe a world power. To be accurate, European colonial domination in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia did the same thing.
And in the United States, don’t forget the “contributions” of African-based slave labor along with stolen land from Native Americans and mineral-and-oil rich territory conquered from Mexico. Free labor, free land, oil and minerals to exploit—enough to make any country “great.”
Our “culture,” therefore, is a product of the whole world. For example, if you’ve ever flown a kite, barbecued, surfed, participated in martial arts, become a cowboy, played rock-and-roll, bounced a rubber ball, chewed gum, eaten a chocolate bar, used a compass, witnessed a fireworks display, visited a library, smoked a cigarette, enjoyed a pepper, or drank coffee, then you’ve done things with origins in Africa, South and East Asia, the Middle East, and Native America.
When I grew up, schools and other institutions hounded Mexicans and others to “assimilate” into so-called Anglo culture. In fact, the assimilation expected was to submit to world cultures rendered through the prism, often violent, of U.S. history, laws, politics, etc., including a race-and-class based lens.
To be fair, most peoples of the world have adapted to, assimilated into or appropriated from other peoples—however, few to the extent or levels as Europeans or U.S. European-based peoples have done.
Does this mean that Europeans didn’t contribute anything meaningful? Of course not—Europeans and European-descended peoples in the U.S. and elsewhere have deep formidable imprints in modern technology, industry, science, governance, literature, and art.
Yet, this cannot be an argument for superiority. Only conquests, power dynamics, and wars have sustained such thinking. All of us from whatever culture, ethnicity, or so-called race, have added to the world’s complex development, both good and bad, both wondrous and disastrous.
Again, you wouldn’t know this if you studied official history books or watched TV and movies. Most of these facts and history is skewed. Misrepresented. Thrown on its head.
Recently, my wife Trini and I decided to explore our ancestral DNA. We are living in pioneering times in this field, which has yielded fascinating discoveries and will become more precise as more data becomes available. Current DNA tests through online sites provide only estimates, but quite amazing results nonetheless. We did this not to find any purity or “favored” cultural relationship, but to understand where we came from (at least from the past 1,000 years).
To provide a context, Trini and I both recognize our Native roots—Trini with the Huichol/Mexica tribes of Mexico and me with the Tarahumara/Mexica. In the U.S., we’ve worked with Native Americans (Lakota, Navajo, Chumash, and other tribes), including in spiritual and healing practices. Twenty years ago, Dine elders in the Navajo rez spiritually adopted Trini and, as a consequence, the whole family.
We also identify as working class—that class that must sell its physical or mental labor to survive. We were both born in the United States. And still, we culturally identify as Xicanx, drawing from our Mexican migrant parents, the indigenous, and expanding to include all genders and gender non-conforming members of our community. This simply situates us, providing a framework to distinguish us, not to separate or be classified into notions of superiority or inferiority.
Yet, we know we are culturally and racially mixed—like most Mexicans. A recent genome study in Mexico showed it is one of the most diverse lands on earth. Yet, genetics proved that Mexico has more native roots (at least 60 percent, taking into account all the people) and more African (in one state, Guerrero, the people had 22 percent African descent) than is often recognized. And that Mexico has significant numbers of Europeans (Spanish and otherwise), Middle Easterners, Asians, and more.
Now a summary of our DNA results.
Interestingly, Trini and I have similar ethnic/cultural breakdowns. The biggest chunk of our DNA is Native American (45 percent each). This is native from the whole Western Hemisphere. The tests didn’t break down Native America as well as I know they could. But for now, suffice it to say we have 45 percent DNA tied to all indigenous people of North, Central, and South America.
We also have African DNA—mine was linked to North Africa, Benin-Togo, and Mali. Trini was with Benin-Togo, North Africa, and Africa Southeastern Bantu. This makes sense due to the African presence in Mexico. We also have traces of the Middle East and Asia. With all this, we are each close to 55 to 60 percent with DNA from people of color. As for European strands, we are as diverse as you can imagine: Trini has traces of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Western Europe, Great Britain, European Jewish. Not surprisingly, she is about a quarter from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain/Portugal). But she is also 9 percent from Italy/Greece. I have traces of Western Europe, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, European Jewish, Ireland, and 8 percent from Italy/Greece.
What threw me off is this—I’m only 13 percent from the Iberian Peninsula. I thought it would be more. But the real kicker—I have 13 percent from Great Britain (England/Scotland/Wales). I have no idea where this came from, but there you are.
Trini and I have the world in our DNA. What a wonderful racial and ethnic mix. With our DNA you can see the ongoing powerful impact of global migrant patterns, trades, wars, conquests, and other interactions humans have had over millennia.
Trini and I are also borderless, citizens of the planet, unbounded in many ways. We come from many stories, a culture of stories, a rich tapestry of colors, flavors, tongues, skins, and imaginations. And still, our biggest DNA bloc is Native American. As we stay connected to our indigenous roots, we can also honor the rest of humanity that came together at one time or another so both of us could be born, marry, have children, and help shape the world in the most positive, healing, and liberating ways possible.
The point is—wherever anyone is, wherever they came from, they belong. No one should ever feel estranged or less than others. The earth welcomes all, acknowledges every step regardless of skin color, creed, sexual orientation, or beliefs. Only nation-states and cultural xenophobes say otherwise. It’s time our economy, politics, and governance aligned to this important truth. It’s time the world could be seen as everyone’s home and all its inhabitants—people, animals, plants, trees—as part of a greater earth family. It’s time we allowed ourselves the dignity and respect we all deserve as human beings. Anything less dishonors the sacrifice and dreams of all our ancestors.
As the Lakota say, O’Mitakuye Oyasin—we are all related.
This poem first appeared June 18, 2016 on the L.A. Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/poem-new-dream
In the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub massacre, Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016
Hate becomes death becomes hate.
The world unravels in fear.
Columbine: 13 students and a teacher gone.
Sandy Hook: 20 children and 6 adults murdered.
Charleston, North Carolina: 9 black churchgoers killed.
San Bernardino: 14 men and women destroyed.
Orlando, Florida: 50 patrons of a LGBTQ nightclub slaughtered.
Hate that shouts without a voice,
that uses bullets to speak,
that has a finality to its grief,
that can’t see because this rage has no eyes…
Hate in Wounded Knee, 1890: 300 Native men, women, children wiped out.
Ludlow, Colorado, 1914: National Guard and John D. Rockefeller’s company guards
kill some 25 men, women, and children during coal miners’ strike.
Tulsa Oklahoma, 1921: Upwards of 300 black residents slaughtered by whites
In 1919 alone, hundreds killed in more than 300 riots against blacks.
Some 4,000 blacks lynched from 1860 to 1950.
Around 700 Mexicans in roughly the same years.
Millions erased bringing Africans to America….
In the first 15 years of the 21st century, police killed unarmed black residents
in Ferguson, Baltimore, Oakland, New York, Los Angeles…
Salinas police killed 5 unarmed Mexican and Salvadoran farmworkers in 2014.
Black lives matter because when they stop being killed, we’re all free.
Hate against the raped women (1 in 5 women raped in the United States),
killing women’s choices for their bodies, killing and killing and killing.
Oklahoma City: 168 blown to pieces.
Twin Towers, New York: 2,752 massacred.
6 millions Jews destroyed in the Holocaust.
When right becomes hate, it loses its right.
When walls are the response
—or invasions, drone attacks, torture, perpetual war…
Ask Hitler. Ask Mussolini. Ask Pinochet.
Ask the 75,000 killed during the 1980s in El Salvador,
or 100,000 Mayan villagers in Guatemala,
or the hundreds of protesting students in Tlatelolco, Mexico.
90 percent of Native peoples dead within 50 years of European invasion.
I recall Malcolm teaching that in the ghetto we’re seeing
“the hate that hate produced.”
I’ve seen this in the barrio.
In the reservation.
In the trailer park.
Self-hate is also hate.
It’s in suicides of LGBTQ youth hounded to death.
When an interviewer insinuated to Muhammad Ali that he learned
to hate white people from being a Muslim, Ali said,
“I learned to hate white people from white people.”
When Gays and Trans folk get beaten, stabbed, shot, just for being what they
can’t help but be, hate is the normality of our existence, the fabric in our tapestry,
the fetid air we breathe.
White. Black. Brown. Women. Men.
Christians. Buddhists. Muslims. Hindu. Natives. Nonbelievers.
And transitional beings.
More than 200,000 annihilated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Hate is in the blood.
Guns don’t hate. But those who want guns in all our hands do.
When 6,800 people died since 1998 trying to cross the Mexico-U.S. border.
And 164,000 killed, with 30,00 missing, since 2006 in Mexican drug wars.
When hate says we can’t reach out across all walls,
then tear down those walls.
Poverty is hate. Prison is hate. Families without homes…
Hate. Hate. Hate.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. got assassinated
—and John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, Ruben Salazar,
Rudy Lozano, Harvey Milk, John Lennon…
Hate sang its sanguine song.
When 15,000 young people in the barrios and ghettos of Los Angeles
died from gang violence from 1980 to 2000.
When Chicago sees hundreds of mostly black and brown youth destroyed
every year for forty years.
When the murder capitals of the world are Detroit, New Orleans, San Pedro Sula,
Ciudad Juarez, Johannesburg… hate capitalizes.
When refugees of hate now have Syrian faces, Afghani faces, Iraqi faces,
Honduran faces, poor faces…
That’s hate. Self hate. The hate that hate produced.
Hate is an industry. Hate makes some people rich. Capitalism is hate.
The answer to hate is not hate. Justified by hateful Gods in people’s minds.
When even love is a reason to be killed, then hate is the heart gone mad.
As prayers shroud the dead, guns sales rise, and defense budgets take up
the majority of our tax dollars (even if most days we forget we’re at war).
Violence sells movies, books, music.
And the violent, victims and perpetrators alike,
fills jails and mental institutions.
When in every poor neighborhood you can buy guns all you want,
but you can’t buy a book?
We need people to be Queer. Unique. Different. To make us more human.
When access to love, peace, connections, hearts, brains, and books becomes
Then revolution is the only way to go. An armed revolution, yes, but not of guns.
Armed with art, connections, hearts, brains, books, and a multiplicity of
Imagine… imagine… imagine.
We reweave the unraveling cloth of our lives with dreams, not screams.
So love becomes life becomes love.
This piece first appeared May 21, 2016 on the L.A. Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/%E2%80%9Cpoet-motion%E2%80%9D%E2%80%94north-carolina-and-transgender-justice
North Carolina has some of the most diverse terrain of any state—from the Great Smoky Mountains, which includes the Blue Ridge peaks of the massive Appalachian mountain range, to the Outer Banks on the Atlantic coast. The state is rich in bio-diversity, history, and people. North Carolina was home to the first English settlement and is one of the original 13 colonies. The Cherokee are among the state’s first peoples. Although many Cherokees were removed during President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 (catapulting the infamous “Trail of Tears”), the tribe maintains a reservation here. The state’s biggest city, Charlotte, is a financial center. And Raleigh-Durham is known as the Triangle, encompassing higher-learning research institutes like Duke University, North Carolina State University, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Tobacco is big here—as are turkey farms, textiles, furniture, processing plants, and more. The state had slave plantations but also a divided legislature during the U.S. Civil War. The state joined the confederacy later than other southern states and only after the attack on Fort Sumter, signaling the start of war that eventually took 40,000 North Carolinian lives.
Although a segregated southern state, in 1960 the first national sit-in for integration occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina.
By the new millennium, an interesting development appeared—a 600 percent rise in Mexicans and other Latinos in North Carolina, leading to tensions between whites, blacks, and the mostly brown migrants. Jobs once held by poor whites and blacks were now going to cheaper labor made up of Mexicans, Central Americans, and South Americans. While a few communities embraced the new make up, others were up in arms. This is where I come in.
A North Carolina literary consortium, spearheaded by the North Carolina Arts Council, invited me to do the largest writer’s residency in the state’s history called “Word Wide.” I spent 10 weeks in North Carolina during the winter and spring of the year 2000, traveling from one end of the state to the other—I was a “poet in motion.” I spoke, read poetry, or conducted writing workshops in prisons, juvenile lockups, public & private schools, universities, colleges, migrant camps, churches, libraries, manufacturing plants, conferences, and at the Cherokee Reservation—from seventeen to twenty-four events a week.
The audiences were Latino, but also black, white, and Native American. I spoke English and Spanish, although as an “English Only” state, I couldn’t speak Spanish in public schools (even with Spanish-speaking children). California is also an official English language state, but I’ve spoken Spanish in many California schools—a matter of application.
In Siler City, the ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke held a rally against Mexican migration not long before I was scheduled to visit. Some 400 people reportedly showed up (although allegedly 100 of them were shipped in by Duke). He called Mexicans and other Latinos “undesirable.” When I ended up there, most of the community embraced me and wanted to be clear—they had nothing to do with David Duke.
I made many friends in North Carolina. I know my talks helped many suppressed communities, particularly among Latino migrants, prisoners, Natives. But I’ve only made sporadic visits since 2000.
Then in March of this year, North Carolina hit national news when Governor Pat McCrory signed HB2, nullifying LGBTQ-inclusive ordinances like one enacted earlier in Charlotte, and forbidding cities and counties from enacting new ones. The law also forbids transgender people from using restrooms, locker rooms, and other single-sex facilities in government buildings, including public schools, which match their gender identity. Right away, personalities like Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Native American writer Sherman Alexie, and others cancelled events in the state to protest. The Los Angeles City Council approved a resolution in April, signed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, to ban official travel to North Carolina for nonessential business. I applaud these efforts.
Now the U.S. Justice Department has filed a civil rights lawsuit against HB2, while North Carolina lawmakers came up with their own lawsuit against the Justice Department (all echoes of 1960s civil rights battles).
In mid-April I traveled to Appalachian University in Boone, North Carolina. Here’s why: It was organized a while back so I could speak to the university community, but more importantly, to around 170 middle-school at-risk youth, many of them Latino, who have been repressed for years but also face growing gang violence. This is mostly what I do in my travels—address the poorest, often most troubled, young people. I tell my story, often with my poems, about having been in the streets, in a gang, on drugs, and in jail in my youth, and how I overcame the madness with arts, books, writing, political education, strong mentoring, and a powerful sense of social justice. My memoir, “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.,” as well as my poetry books, are used with these young people. I felt compelled to reach out to them. But I was also mindful of the state’s discriminatory actions. I had to find a way to bring these two together—a delicate, artful challenge.
While at Appalachian, I made sure to publicly oppose HB2. Many university students were active in protests against the law, protests that have spread to campuses across the state. I also will not accept any other invites to North Carolina as long as HB2 exists. I’ve added Mississippi and Alabama, who have enacted similar laws. The youth were glad to hear from me, but also understood my position.
I am a poet in motion, and I’ve much to say about discrimination and repression against people of color, the poor, the dispossessed, including against women and LGBTQ communities. I also make clear the underlying class nature of our society in which 1 percent own most of the wealth and power, and the rest are scrambling to get by. We all belong. We all have value. And I will be an outspoken poet on these and other issues all my life.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent letter by an Appalachian University student:
I’ve never been so touched and inspired by a visiting writer, and even now, almost a week later, I still feel the utmost respect for you. I bought your book Always Running at your speech, and I can barely put it down! I have to because exams are coming up, but if I had my choice, I’d sit and read it all the way through. You have a beautiful writing style, and from the very first page, I was invested in you and your life. I absolutely love the way you insert certain Spanish phrases and words—I’m ecstatic when I recognize and understand them (I’ve been taking Spanish for two years).
Thank you so much for coming and speaking on our campus. I can’t express how grateful I am to hear someone with a voice loud enough to be heard take up for people who have been, and still are being, oppressed and discriminated against. Hearing you take up for the LGBT community meant so much to me, and it made me feel seen and cared for. A majority of my teachers, and even my family and friends who know about the passing of the bill and my sexual identity, have said nothing about the bill and haven’t seemed to express any kind of resentment towards it either. So, I really can’t tell you how important it is to me that someone as successful and experienced as you came and discussed it as one of the first things you said to all of us. I also want to tell you how much I respect you for your activism and involvement. My teacher showed us a video of you in our class, and it really struck me how you’ve mentored youths and encouraged them to go to college and pursue an education rather than just settling for what’s expected of them.
Your support of the Black Lives Matter campaign and everything involving racial minorities and racial discrimination is so important to our society and the kind of country that we are living in. In your speech, you said that you went to a poetry reading that changed your life, and I want you to know that going to your reading changed mine.
We move forward.
This piece first appeared April 19, 2016 at the L.A. Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/los-angeles-industry%E2%80%94where-past-and-future-collide
Any good craftsman carries his tools.
Years ago they were always at the ready.
In a car. In a knapsack.
Claw hammers, crisscrossed heads,
32 ouncers. Wrenches in all sizes,
sometimes with oil caked on the teeth.
Screwdrivers with multicolored plastic handles
(what needed screwing got screwed).
I had specialty types: Allen wrenches,
torpedo levels, taps, and dies.
A trusty tape measure.
Maybe a chalk line….
In the 1970s, I labored within industrial Los Angeles—in a steel mill, a foundry, a paper mill, a refinery, in construction. I picked up important skills: truck driving, mechanics, welding, carpentry, smeltering, piping, down and dirty. When people think of the city they generally don’t conjure up steel mills or auto plants. The images tend toward Hollywood. Glittering lights. Marquees. Sunset Strip. More like beaches.
Los Angeles is that, but it’s also the country’s largest manufacturing center. Today it leads in aerospace, defense, and the so-called creative economy—movies, music, fashion, design. It has the largest commercial port in the U.S.—the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbors.
I’m now part of that creative economy—the current official poet laureate of the city with books in poetry, children’s books, fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. I became a journalist beginning in 1980 when I worked in East L.A. weekly newspapers. I later worked in a daily newspaper in San Bernardino as well as in news radio in California and Illinois. I’ve also been a freelance writer, fiction writer, essayist, publisher, and poet in Chicago, where I lived for fifteen years, and after I returned to Los Angeles in 2000. I co-founded and help run a cultural space and bookstore called Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center in the northeast San Fernando Valley, now in existence for 15 years.
But in the 1970s I was an unlikely working class hero (I was more likely a working class fool). When union-negotiated consent decrees during that time brought African Americans, Mexicans, Native Americans, and women into the higher-paid skilled jobs, previously dominated by white males, the Bethlehem Steel Plant in Southeast Los Angeles hired me for their “repair gang.” Previous to this I labored in unskilled drudgery. The year was 1974. I had just married my “high school sweetheart,” who received her diploma only two months before the wedding. Less than a year later, we had our son Ramiro. Two years after that, a daughter, Andrea.
Soon after getting hired, I donned my hardhat, safety glasses, steel-toed shoes, mechanic’s uniform, and stared at a mirror. My life seemed to have purpose, direction, longevity. This job consisted of rotating shifts, including “graveyard,” often double shifts (sixteen-hour days), and great pay, particularly with overtime. My bride and I had been living in the South L.A. barrio of Florence. Until then, newly wed poor.
The plant’s nineteenth-century equipment was brought over from back east around World War II, when L.A. also boasted fabrication, assembly, or refinery work in auto, tires, garments, canneries, shipbuilding, aerospace, meatpacking, oil, and more. We had GM and Ford plants, Firestone and Michelin, Boeing and Lockheed. This industry drew workers of all ethnicities from the South, the Midwest, the Northeast, Southwest, and Mexico for what were largely well-paid, mostly union jobs with pensions, health benefits, and a taste of blue-collar stability.
Despite being miles removed from the industrial powerhouses of Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and the like, in Los Angeles you could follow much of this industry from the northeast San Fernando Valley, to the Alameda Corridor north of downtown, down to the Harbor. Whole town with names like Commerce and Industry thrived.
What a time it was! But like most of the “American Dream,” it soon screeched to a halt. Deindustrialization began in the mid-1970s throughout the United States, hitting Los Angeles hard and picking up steam in the 1980s, mostly due to advanced technology, including robotics. Labor saving devices became labor replacing. Major industries also sought cheaper labor markets in the U.S. South, Mexico, Central America, Southeast Asia—impoverished areas with little or no regulation, down to $1 day wages, and low living standards. Then during the first Reagan Administration, the worst recession since the Great Depression exploded in 1981-82 and the unemployment rate went double digits. Only the 2008 recession cut deeper.
Homelessness became a permanent feature of American life.
We all know about the Rust Belt that traversed through states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. Los Angeles may not be considered part of the Rust Belt, but the impact was the same. As plants closed, the two most industrial cities—Los Angeles and Chicago—became known as the “gang capitals” of the world when drugs, guns, and gangs became key to a new, largely illicit, economy.
Mass incarceration, which heightened in the 1990s, turned into it’s own “industry” arising from the crisis. In California alone, the state went from fifteen prisons with 15,000 people in the early 1970s to a height of thirty-four prisons and up to 175,000 prisoners in the 2000’s.
The places I worked in during the height of industrial might in the 1970s went down—Bethlehem Steel in 1981, but also at various times St. Regis Paper Company, National Lead Foundry, Chevron Chemical Refinery, and others. Some 300 big mills and plants gone by the mid-1980s—and with it, any illusion of stability.
I eventually lost my job, my wife, and kids. A life-long struggle to make my way back to my children involved many moves, other marriages, a slew of mistakes. In 1985 I ended up in Chicago, which was also losing its storied industry. Besides writing, reporting, and editing, I conducted writing workshops in prisons, juvenile lockups, schools, homeless shelters. I led arts projects and gang intervention efforts.
Ramiro, unfortunately, who came to live with me at age 13, joined a Chicago gang. Involved with crime and violence, he ended up serving close to 15 years in Illinois prisons. My daughter and I over the years had sporadic periods of closeness and distance. Things shifted, so did my life, mostly now for the better.
Still, I don’t want people to forget the City of Angels as a City of Workers. My decade or so in that industry were extremely meaningful. At the same time, we can’t go back fully to that kind of work. Instead the city, the country, and world is crying out for something new and momentous—aligning our governance, the economy, environment, and culture to the possibilities of the new technology as well as the creative potential in every person, family, and community.
Today I’m reconciled with my oldest children. Ramiro is out of prison and crime free, drug free, and gang free. I’ve been married to my current wife Trini (co-founder of Tia Chucha’s) for almost 30 years. Trini and I also have two children of our own, my youngest sons Ruben and Luis. All my kids are now grown up. We also have five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, with another one on the way, spread between California, Illinois, Vermont, and Florida.
As the world changed, I’ve stayed active in imagining and creating that post- industrial future with healthy and thriving communities for all—truly equitable, truly just, environmentally clean, and in peace. This time around, it’s about thinking, writing, strategizing, teaching, and organizing.
I often met other travelers, their tools in tow,
and I’d say: “Go ahead, take my stereo and TV.
Take my car. Take my toys of leisure.
Just leave the tools.”
Nowadays, I don’t haul these mechanical implements.
But I still make sure to carry the tools
of my trade: words and ideas,
the kind no one can take away.
So there may not be any work today,
but when there is, I’ll be ready.
I got my tools.
Celebrate National Poetry Month with "Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles"
Below is the introduction by Luis J. Rodriguez to the newly released L.A.-area poetry anthology “Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles,” featuring 160 poets and published by Tia Chucha Press, where Luis, the city’s Poet Laureate, has been founding editor for 27 years. The book is now available through Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center & Bookstore (www.tiachucha.org) in the San Fernando Valley and other book outlets. This anthology is a great testament to the diverse voices and variety of verse of this great city. This piece first appeared March 23, 2016 in the L.A. Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/celebrate-national-poetry-month-coiled-serpent-poets-arising
…Fire in the village
An energy storm in gathering light
Fire in the village
Changing night a cloud’s going to lift
Fire in the village
Liberty is shining in a new world’s soul
Fire in the village
The little people listen with a fancy step
Fire in the village
The little people can’t help but dance
Fire in the village…
For me, Los Angeles is smoldering, deeply poetic, expansively settled, with rebellion beneath the normalcy, which has un chingo to do with our collective and personal spiritual awakenings, creative birthings, political schooling—why our lives are in flames.
This city/village has been rumbling for decades, waking up the world every few years with revolutionary ardor—consider the 1965 Watts Rebellion (now 50 years later), the 1970 Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War (the so-called East L.A. riots), and the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising after the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King beating—and numerous civil disturbances in between. Close to 100 people killed in these battles and a billion dollars in damage in the 1992 riots alone (with millions more in other conflagrations).
This city has had more civil unrests than any other U.S. city in the past 100 years. L.A. is “shaky town” after all, but this has more to do with social and economic tremors and movements than earthquakes.
Why the title? The coiled serpent is connected to the earth, but also ready to spring, to strike, to defend or to protect. This image appears in various forms in mythologies and walls throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, India, and America. In pre-conquest times, Quetzalcoatl—the Precious Serpent—served as a personification of earth-bound wisdom, the arts and eldership in so-called Meso-America, one of seven “cradles of civilization” that also includes China, Nigeria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and Peru.
As I write this, mostly black and brown people in L.A. are being driven off older urban areas. Witness the gentrification of Echo Park, Highland Park, Pico-Union, Venice, sections of South Central. There’s a big 1930 Art Deco building on Broadway downtown where in the early 1980s I rented a space for $60 a month. Today this building has million dollar lofts.
Gentrification, anti-gang injunctions, police violence directed at the poor and working class residents, pushing out the homeless—they are all linked to whether this city, like the state and country, will only benefit the relatively few well-off and powerful rather than those in need.
These social conflicts have an objective foundation: Los Angeles is one of the richest cities in the United States and one of the poorest. What lies beneath all the seething are the social and economic gaps. This is also expressed as gaps in the collective imagination.
This poetry collection addresses the natural and unnatural condition of our city in the first 15 years of the new century: Inequalities of income and race, how peace can blossom in a time of perpetual war, the escalation of police killings, and climate peril. These poems are “flower and song”— in xochitl in cuicatl—as the Mexica natives of Mexico would say, stanzas that point the way out of social and personal dilemma by simply being, persisting, even in the in-between spaces, the undefined areas, in the complexities of poetic and mournful pondering of squandered possibilities.
Still we celebrate the native and the immigrant (and so-called immigrants who are actually natives), the queer and straight, women and men, young and old, humanity in all its colors, voices, and fluidity. This book could have been hundreds of pages. The limitations of publishing forced us to select one to two poems per poet. We want to publish the best of the poems submitted, not so much for literary acrobatics, but for any wonderment and twists a verse may spring upon a reader.
The backdrop to this collection is a society rent with class, racial, gender, and sexual discord; the foreground is imaginative renderings without limits, without fear. In skilled hands, such poems re-shape the idiom and push our minds to enlarge so they can hold the images. All contribute to the beauty, good, and truth that arise from the ruins, the rages, the desperation beneath every breath. This is about the poet’s veracity in challenging “sacred cows”: capitalism; the immense powers that control wealth, production, the media; even God and other “precious” things.
How in crisis poems are dreamt, born, fashioned. The world can judge how far these poets have taken this. There is art in the trying.
Currently, I’m Poet Laureate of this contentious, vital, and imaginative city. Over the decades I’ve read poetry at hundreds of schools, libraries, colleges, universities, graduations, festivals, book fests, juvenile lockups, prisons, bookstores, housing projects, and homeless shelters. I’ve heard a 14-year-old youth at the Nidorf Juvenile Hall (the largest juvenile lockup in North America) read poetry during a behind-barbed-wire poetry event—at the time he faced 135 years in prison. I’ve read poetry with the Homeless Writers Coalition at the El Paso Bar on Main Street (now gone as gentrification encroaches on Skid Row, the largest homeless enclave in the U.S.). I’ve recited a Nahuatl (a key indigenous tongue of Mexico and Central America) poem at the Hammer Museum to draw attention to the world’s “Endangered Languages.” I read poems at the Watts Jazz Festival under the shadow of the Watts Towers with my formerly incarcerated son Ramiro (we lived in Florence and Watts when Ramiro was a baby). I’ve done months of writing workshops at a Maximum Security yard in Lancaster Prison, the only state prison in L.A. County (although L.A.-area prisoners are 60 percent of the state prison system). I’ve taken part in a Charles Bukowski Festival in San Pedro and in honor of Wanda Coleman at Leimert Park. Read with John Densmore of the Doors at Hollywood’s Montalban Theater and did a one-man poetry-play at the John Anson Ford Theater, directed by the renowned “Funkahuatl,” Rubén Guevara. I’ve read at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA and USC to “Celebrating Words” festivals in the barrios of Sylmar and Pacoima; from the Spanish-language “LeaLA!” book fair in downtown to the “Farce of July” festivals by Xicano Records & Films in Boyle Heights and East L.A. I’ve even recited love poems with my wife Trini at the Malibu Poetry Series… so many events, too numerous to recall.
From the embattlements, I can see generative ideas, strategies, forms of organization, and meaningful expression toward a fuller, cooperative and creatively active society. We can now envision healthy, thriving, and culturally alive communities for all. And we should embolden ourselves for the long haul struggles until this becomes reality. So here we go, poetry that captures a city, a dreamscape, the shape of land and culture… from its underbelly and from among the unseen and unheard. These are artistic weapons in the social battles upturning what America is today and what it can be—toward a grander sense of belonging and inheritance.
This book is dedicated to the irrepressible African American poet Wanda Coleman, a fiery soul who also embraced and guided many young poets, myself included, a rather raw and hungry writer when we first met some 35 years ago. To John Trudell, the Native American warrior-poet and personal teacher, with whom I spent many hours talking, learning, sharing at his Santa Monica abode soon after I returned from Chicago in 2000. And to my friend and fellow Chicano wordsmith and activist, the much-beloved Francisco X. Alarcon, whose poetry drew from deep in the earth and the bones. All three have passed on, but not their dreams for our humanity, their words, their indelible imprints on countless lives.
The aim again for all of us is to be truly alive, blood flowing, consciously awake, despite death everywhere and our culture stuck in a dying time of archaic ideas, moribund infrastructures, and spirit-crushing forms of control. Poetry takes this challenging time and intertwines it with the relentlessly new, the promise that is yet to be, the impossible become possible.
This blogpost first appeared on March 2, 2016 on the Los Angeles Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/why-children-should-not-be-treated-adults-crimes
Walk with the young, America;
be young, again, America,
among the defiant and awake,
solid in their dreams.
Be the revolution in the marrow
where passions, ideals, fervors,
purpose and courage,
are not just qualities
people had in history books,
but what we have to possess everyday,
any time repression, injustice,
fear, and greed
gather like night riders
preparing to gallop
through our living rooms.
For over 35 years, I’ve done talks, readings, and/or writing and healing workshops in prisons and juvenile lockups throughout the country. In California I’ve been to juvenile halls and probations camps up and down the state as well as adult prisons like San Quentin, Soledad, Folsom, Lancaster, and Chino. These are some of my best audiences, with powerful insights, poetry, and stories arising from men and women whom most of society has written off.
I can’t and won’t dismiss any prisoner’s capacity to dream, to renew themselves, to restore and transform their lives and that of their communities.. Every human being needs to be given a chance to live, to grow, providing they are armed with adequate tools, education, drug and mental treatment, and other resources. Providing they enter a space that embraces this and their personal gifts. Only recently has rehabilitation become an integral part of prison life. For decades it was not. And even now it’s not enough.
Across the past decades, I witnessed the increasing inhumanity of courts handing out longer and longer sentences, the enactment of three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws, gang and gun enhancements, gang injunctions, and removing indeterminate sentences.
As we added more laws, we made more lawlessness.
In the early 1970s, California had some 15,000 prisoners in 15 prisons. Now with 34 prisons, at its height the population went upwards of 175,000. The current state prison budget of $10 billion is more than the entire budget of the University of California system.
Under the political climate of “tough on crime,” I saw viable programs get eliminated all over the United States, including educational ones. My oldest son Ramiro was one of those who suffered for such cuts when he served almost 15 years in Illinois prisons (he’s now been out for six years and is nonetheless gang-free, gang-free, and drug-free—mostly due to his own heroic efforts).
Still, one of the most detrimental of such laws has been the trying of youth as adults, even children as young as 10.
Not long ago, I took part in a poetry reading at the Barry Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, five minutes from my home and now the largest juvenile lockup in North America. I was invited to speak, sponsored by the Inside Out writing program. Many juvenile wards read their poetry, including a baby-faced Mexican-Guatemalan of 14 years. His mother and grandmother were in the audience, pride on their faces.
Although I never ask why these youth are behind bars, in this instance a staff member wanted me to know—this particular young man was facing 135 years in prison. This to me, in the so-called free and democratic United States of America, is unacceptable.
Here or anywhere.
A new book I’ve recently “blurbed” for publication later this year is a meticulously researched argument against such laws and practices. Written by prison drama facilitator Jean Trounstine, “Boy with a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice” (IG Publications, New York) retells the harrowing true story of a poor white youth, Karter Kane Reed, who at 16 was arrested for murder. Tried as an adult, he received a life sentence, with the possibility of parole after 15 years. Reed, after 20 years behind bars, became one of a few who sued the Massachusetts Parole Board to win his freedom.
This fall, in California, there may be more than one initiative to reform the state’s bloated and largely failed prison system. Governor Jerry Brown has proposed an initiative to end determinate sentences, something he championed in his first round of governor during the 1970s. The Governor now recognizes the danger of such sentences that don’t allow for early release due to good behavior or proven rehabilitation. Nonviolent felons will now have the possibility of parole hearings and early releases. I support any such changes, anything that begins to tear away at the punishment-driven mass incarceration of mostly poor and working class people, disproportionately from communities of color.
We must also do all we can to reverse adult sentences for youth criminals. Why do we treat youths as adults in crimes when they are not treated that way in anything else? In every young person, even with horrendous mistakes, is the seed of a new world, of the future, as we often point out, but mostly fail to live up to.
Every mistake can be a new style; every trouble can make for a healthy and whole life. Instead of “scared straight,” we should try cared straight.
Trounstine points out that every year in the U.S. around a quarter of a million youth are tried, sentenced, or imprisoned as adults. I also witnessed the increasing number of troubled youth being thrown away, abused, and in too many cases, prepared as higher-end criminals, all at taxpayers’ expense. Read Trounstine’s book and take action.
Anybody can change. Anybody can be saved. It’s time our laws and justice systems aligned to this moral and biological fact
This piece first appeared on January 21, 2016 on the Los Angeles Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/city-angels-city-poets
On historic Central Avenue near East 45th Street, the Vernon Branch Public Library looks like a jail—tall fences surround the circa 1915 building and a fenced walkway leads up to the doorway. Like the surrounding neighborhood, the library appears worn, beaten down. It’s situated on the edge of the high-crime Central-Alameda reporting area of L.A.P.D.’s Newton District—in the six-month period ending November 22 there were 249 violent crimes with an average 145.7 crimes per 10,000 residents.
Yet, once inside its doors, the library is alive with children, parents, teachers, and some of the most engaged librarians you’ll ever meet. Inside is an oasis of books, computers, CDs, DVDs, and more books.
Last April, I conducted a writing workshop there with 30 mostly middle-school-aged Mexican, Salvadoran, and African American children. I displayed the culturally rich poetry collections from Tia Chucha Press, which I founded almost 27 years ago, and several of my own works. I read a poem. And I had the children put pencil to paper, including from a prompt about being in a forest, perhaps light-years away from their environment, yet even from their imagination, the children wrote strong, descriptive, and emotion-laden words.
Books. Poetry. Healing.
This workshop was a highlight of my first year as the city’s second Poet Laureate, chosen by Mayor Eric Garcetti in the fall of 2014. From January 1 to December 31, 2015, I’ve read poetry, lectured, and/or facilitated workshops in more than 100 venues in the Los Angeles area, to around 13,500 people, including libraries, schools, book fests, community festivals, graduations, and more. Millions more were reached through English and Spanish language media.
These amazing events included the Celebrating Words Festival in Pacoima; LeaLA! Spanish-language Book Festival downtown; the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC; a “Black Lives Matter” reading in Silver Lake; at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights; Little Tokyo’s and Encino-Tarzana’s library branches, among others; the Charles Bukowsky Festival in San Pedro; honoring the late great L.A. poet Wanda Coleman at Leimert Park; workshops and readings for Urban Word, including helping select the new Youth Poet Laureate; a Hip Hop educational conference at the Hammer Museum; Get Lit Players’s Poetic Convergence at the Skirball Museum; and reading poetry with my son Ramiro at the Watts Towers Jazz Festival (Ramiro and I were residents of Florence and Watts when he was a toddler).
This City of Angels is indeed a city of poets.
And these poets do more than just sing the city fantastic. Many draw attention to the social gaps, the poverty, the police killings, the deteriorating schools, mass incarceration, climate change, homelessness. They are bards of beauty and bounty, even when these are lacking. And they often point out viable ways out. Poetry is the essential soul talk we rarely find in this society, where most words are to inform, instruct, or to sell you something.
Last summer I began soliciting poetry from the L.A. area for what may be the largest, most comprehensive anthology of its kind, slated for March 2016, entitled “Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles.” Three editors from Tia Chucha Press shifted through almost 400 submissions to feature 160 poets. I’ve written the introduction. The anthology is dedicated to the irrepressible Watts poet, Wanda Coleman, and Native American poet and activist, John Trudell, both who passed on, leaving a legacy of language, lunacy, and love.
Next year, I’ll continue doing events, of course, as well as write monthly blog posts for the L.A. Public Library website. But mostly I’ll be promoting the “Coiled Serpent” anthology, proof that in hard or good times, poetry is the “news” we don’t get on TV, that invites us to think, feel, and often act in the most meaningful and lasting manner, that can help liberate the creative and imaginative capacities for an equitable, just, and clean world for all.
Below is one of at least two poems to Los Angeles I’ll have written before my two-year tenure as Poet Laureate ends. My thanks to everyone who helped make 2015 a wonderful year for poetry.
Love Poem to Los Angeles
To say I love Los Angeles is to say
I love its shadows and nightlights,
its meandering streets,
the stretch of sunset-colored beaches.
It’s to say I love the squawking wild parrots,
the palm trees that fail to topple in robust winds,
that within a half hour of L.A.’s center
you can cavort in snow, deserts, mountains, beaches.
This is a multi-layered city,
unceremoniously built on hills,
Flying into Burbank airport in the day,
you observe gradations of trees and earth.
A “city” seems to be an afterthought,
skyscrapers popping up from the greenery,
guarded by the mighty San Gabriels.
Layers of history reach deep,
run red, scarring the soul of the city,
a land where Chinese were lynched,
Mexican resistance fighters hounded,
workers and immigrants exploited,
Japanese removed to concentration camps,
blacks forced from farmlands in the South,
then segregated, diminished.
Here also are blessed native lands,
where first peoples like the Tataviam and Tongva
bonded with nature’s gifts;
people of peace, deep stature, loving hands.
Yet for all my love
I also abhor the “poison” time,
starting with Spanish settlers, the Missions,
where 80 percent of natives
who lived and worked in them died,
to the ruthless murder of Indians
during and after the Gold Rush,
the worst slaughter of tribes in the country.
From all manner of uprisings,
a city of acceptance began to emerge.
This is “riot city” after all
—more civil disturbances in Los Angeles
in the past 100 years
than any other city.
To truly love L.A. you have to see it
with different eyes,
beyond the fantasy-induced Hollywood spectacles.
“El Lay” is also known
for the most violent street gangs,
the largest Skid Row,
the greatest number of poor.
Yet I loved L.A.
even during heroin-induced nods
or running down rain-soaked alleys or getting shot at.
Even when I slept in abandoned cars,
alongside the “concrete” river,
and during all-night movie showings
in downtown art deco theaters.
The city beckoned as I tried to escape
the prison-like grip of its shallowness,
sun-soaked image, suburban quiet,
hiding the murderous heart
that can beat at its center.
L.A. is also lovers’ embraces,
the most magnificent lies,
the largest commercial ports,
a sound that hybridized
black, Mexican as well as Asian
and white migrant cultures.
You wouldn’t have musicians like
Ritchie Valens, The Doors, War,
Los Lobos, Charles Wright &
the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band,
Hiroshima, Motley Crue, NWA, or Quetzal
without Los Angeles.
Or John Fante, Chester Himes, Charles Bukowski,
Marisela Norte, and Wanda Coleman as its jester poets.
I love L.A., I can’t forget its smells,
I love to make love in L.A.,
it’s a great city, a city without a handle,
the world’s most mixed metropolis,
of intolerance and divisions,
how I love it, how I hate it,
can’t stay away,
city of hungers, city of angers,
Ruben Salazar, Rodney King,
I’d like to kick its face in,
bone city, dried blood on walls,
wildfires, taunting dove wails,
car fumes and oil derricks,
with every industry possible
and still a “one-industry town,”
lined by those majestic palm trees
and like its people
with solid roots, supple trunks,