Last night my wife Trini and I watched the new film release "Fruitvale Station" soon after we heard about the George Zimmerman verdict. The film was based on how a transit police officer killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was unarmed, at the Fruitvale train station in Oakland on his way home from New Year's festivities. He was caught in circumstances of life, but for too many poor, black and urban youth these often end in death.
Oscar Grant's killer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and given two years; he was let go in 11 months. The people next to me were in tears. Not long ago, William Masters, a white jogger in L.A., was let go and freed – not even charged – having killed one Chicano youth and wounding another after he confronted them for supposedly tagging under a bridge. One of the youth was shot in the back. Yet police felt Masters was in danger and shot in self-defense. In my youth, sheriff’s deputies killed four of my friends, unarmed and brown. When I moved back to L.A. from Chicago in 2000 – after confronting years of Chicago police murders and even tortures of black and brown victims – a recent report of L.A. County sheriff department shootings – 52 in one year – proved they were all people of color, unarmed, a few mentally ill.
Here's the other side of the coin: I spoke at the largest juvenile lockup in North America last month for a graduation of 30 GED students (the place has between 800 and 1,000 prisoners – 90 percent or more black and brown). The facility is five minutes from my house. Seven of the graduates talked at the podium, saying great words, talking about big dreams. More than a few are going to adult prisons for 25 years to life. Some of those cases didn't involve any actual involvement in murder, but often just being around with friends when someone was killed. The injustices in the face of the current justice system are so palpable and patterned.
Trayvon Martin deserved his day in court, his story told, his life given value. Anyway you look at it, it was Zimmerman’s actions that eventually lead to Martin’s death (and a culture where black youth are feared and profiled). Still the patterns continue. We can't let up. Justice for Trayvon Martin must not end here. The circumstances of poverty, racism and historical imbalances must now be on trial. The anti-poor and anti-working class criminal justice system must be on trial. The exploitative capitalist political and economic system must now be on trial. Most Americans are for fairness – the majority has no idea what their government has done. It's time to change the conversation. No more of our youth, of any color, should be profiled, sought and then killed the way Trayvon was killed. The way Oscar was killed. The way those Chicano youth under the bridge were shot. Or my four homies. Nobody ever again.
Yesterday at around 10 am, I lost one of my teacher/elders among the Dine people (the Navajo). John C. Smith passed on at the San Juan Regional Hospital in Farmington, New Mexico. He was 85.
Mr. Smith was a Hataalii (Medicine Man) as well as a Native American Church/ABNDN Roadman, Historian, Educator, Philosopher, Herbalist, and Elder Statesman. He was of the Ma’iideeshgiizhnii (Coyote Pass Clan) and born for the Dziltl’ahnii (Mountain Cove). Mr. Smith was also a spokesperson and advocate for the Dine Hataalii Association, Inc.
For almost twenty years, I’ve been doing ceremonies, including peyote prayer meetings and sweat baths, with the Dine near the Chuska Mountains on the Arizona side of Dine Bikeyah (Navajo Nation). Medicine man Anthony Lee and his wife Delores of Lukachukai have taken in my whole family – and even adopted my wife Trini in an adult adoption ceremony, which many traditional Navajo do (and they treat these adopted children as their own).
These ceremonies have been one of the most vital aspects of my sobriety that I’ve now carried for twenty years after 27 years of drugs and alcohol (in the Rez, peyote medicine, which is not a drug, although this is the impression usually given by non-natives, is the number one way to deal with the high rates of alcoholism).
Anthony introduced us to John C. Smith, who was almost always at our ceremonies – with songs, with chants, with powerful prayers. Even though I only know a couple of Navajo words, I always felt his spirit, his intense devotion to medicine and ceremony, and was moved when tears would fall. He was a man unafraid to express the range of human emotions, generous and inviting. He was also extremely funny. His jokes, his laughter, were contagious. He knew English and Spanish, with some problems, but he mostly communicated in Dine.
John liked the Chicano Natives that would come to connect to Dine traditions (Trini and I, as well as our two young sons, my daughter, two brother-in-laws, nephews, and many friends, including Louie Ruan who was the first one to bring me to Lukachukai). It has taken a long time, but many traditional peoples have accepted Chicanos as fellow natives, even though most Chicanos, Mexicans and Central Americans have lost direct tribal ties.
It is also true that Chicanos/Mexicans have been responsible for much suffering of the Dine. When this land was part of Spain more than 200 years ago, and part of Mexico more than 100 years ago, ruling governments (during the Mexican period, the country was run by light-skinned mostly Spanish criollos) used other Mexican native peoples (like Yaquis, Chichimecas, Huicholes, and more) to hunt down and kill Navajos, Apaches and others. The old divide-and-conquer has brought much animosity between the large number of Chicanos/Mexicans and other native peoples.
At the same time, our common heritages are now being explored and many inroads have been made to bring Chicanos and Native Americans together. I have done talks to many Dine, Apache, Pueblo and Tohono O’odham youth in reservations and schools. With large numbers of tribal peoples from Mexico and Central America coming to the United States, the issue of us coming together is imperative. There are now three million Mayan people from Mexico and Guatemala in the U.S. (more than the total Native American population) – and millions more such as Mexicas (Nahuatl-speaking people), Mixtecos, Zapotecos, Purepechas, Pibils, and others.
As well Chicanos have been now trained and fully sanctioned as Mexica Danzantes (so-called Aztec ceremonial dancers) and are now a major number in most Sun Dances in Lakota reservations and others across the United States.
John C. Smith will be remembered as one who worked hard to bring our peoples together, although he did this as a Dine, using the complex Dine cosmologies to teach, the wondrous Dine tongue to sing and pray. Anthony and John also taught us how Mexicans – like the Hopi – have been incorporated into the tribe with their own clans. The Navajo know how to adapt and incorporate the world and peoples around them.
I hope what John C. Smith has done resonates throughout all the Native world, regardless of borders that have blinded us to our common heritages, histories and values. We can no longer afford to be divided.
Today I celebrate twenty years of sobriety. My new birth date since the last time I drank in 1993 has been June 30. What a long painful and wondrous road this has been. I never imagined how intense this process would be. First I had to deal with seven years, from ages 12 to 19, when I was on drugs, alcohol, “huffing,” and also heroin. The latter finally getting its grips on me when I thought I’d never end up like the tecatos I knew in the barrio – usually in the alleys, chantes (“shooting” shanties) or hobo junctions along the railroad tracks.
I let all this go against great odds, against my own impulses, after getting politically engaged through the radical wing of the Chicano Movement, linking me to the larger working class, anti-war and civil rights struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I liked being on drugs, especially heroin, but I had convinced myself of the one thing I dreaded most in being in a gang, on drugs and violent – I was never going to own my life if I continued toward these pulls and webs. La Vida Loca – the Crazy Life – was a chain I enjoined to my soul and my mind. I had to let this go.
Political consciousness helps one to become self-aware, especially with the demands to be learned, skilled in words and ideas, and in convincing a world not to act the way it had been accustomed to act. I wanted to be true to myself, a difficult thing for an addict who never is. But, unfortunately, I didn’t give up on addiction—I just turned it toward the bottle, which I was good in imbibing, maintaining for a good while, and for the most part functioning, although after many years I reached a point I only thought about the bars, the women, the smoky rooms, the way tequila and rum germinated inside me, mutating my cells, my brain, my values.
Finally, when I was losing my teenage son to drugs and gangs, when I almost lost my present wife Trini, the last big love of my life, and possibly my daughter and two younger boys, I awoke to sobriety. More liked slapped into it. A year before this I had finished my memoir “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” This proved to be a powerfully healing thing. Then I found a Chicago-based recovery program that spoke to my needs, soul hungers and angers. I quit drinking the same year that “Always Running” hit the literary world like a hammer. Although I had one final terrible relapse during a poetry tour in Europe, apparently almost dying from what recovery people said was most likely alcohol poisoning (although I refused medical attention).
I kept myself sober ever since, even when I switched to Native American and Native Mexican spiritual practices, even when my oldest son ended up in worse trouble, eventually getting a long prison term, even when the family moved back to L.A. from Chicago, then trying to create a community-based cultural center and bookstore while writing more books, more poems, stories, children’s books, and a novel as well as traveling to speak, teach, and read. Even when my mother died, my best friends were taken from me (also heroin, cocaine, and alcohol heads at one time or another, two died by suicide), when I underwent some deep betrayals, and I raged and raged.
I’m still here. My body is worn – bad liver, diabetes, hypertensive, high cholesterol, eye retina tears, slipped discs in my back, kidney and gallstone attacks… but I’m still unbelievably better than if I kept drinking. I’ve made it so far. And my son Ramiro is now out of prison after a total of 15 years behind bars. He’s also crime free, gang free and drug free. In addition, my wife Trini and I celebrated 25 years of marriage this year. And my daughter is doing well, presently pregnant with my fifth grandchild, while my youngest boys are in wonderful straits – one just finished a year at the University of California, Riverside, and the other going to UCLA in the fall.
Twenty years. I have many more years to go – more books to write, more talks, more peace and healing work, more community activism, more revolutionary teachings and writings, even perhaps a political campaign or two (last year I was the Justice Party’s vice presidential candidate). And, of course, many more years as a husband, father and grandfather.
I thank the Creator, my community, my family. Nothing could be done in a vacuum, disconnected, or by following the dreaded internal pressures to give up. My biggest battle was with myself. I now have strict loyalties and principles (for fear if I fudge any of these, I’ll fall back). I’m ready for the next twenty – a new adventure, giving back more than receiving, teaching more than doing, and extending my love for family and community to the world.
Twenty years – and I’m still bleeding blossoms, perspiring poems, and an undeterred warrior of peace and justice wherever I go.