Returning to Roots

A person's life can often be measured by their returns. People go out into the world, have adventures, trials, tribulations, initiations. Most, however, don't ever come back to original spaces, first contemplations, to various places called home, completing circles. I've been fortunate to have done this many times.

When I left my barrio of South San Gabriel in the west San Gabriel Valley, it took me twenty years to return. Like Odysseus, I had many wondrous but also tragic things happen to me in those intervening 20 years. When I did return, I came back with my recently released memoir, "Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA." I had been contacted by five homeboys and homegirls who wanted me to speak at our old schools, to the youth, many of whom were entering the same gangs we took part in during the late 60s and early 70s. A couple of the homeboys had lost their own children (one, a former heroin addict and friend of mine, lost two sons to the gang warfare that continues to this day).

I even went to "rival" territories, although warned that the battles between my old neighborhood and their so-called enemies were still going on. But they weren't my "enemies" anymore--I had to go and talk to these children and youth as well.

Of course, those talks were rich, powerful, and very respectful. I never felt in danger. I hope someday to return again to that area, by the efforts of teachers and some old friends who still see the need to raise some important issues of poverty, war, gangs, and a meaningful life.

Recently, in mid-February, I returned to another one of my old haunts--the San Pedro section of Los Angeles. San Pedro is part of the world's fifth largest harbor (Los Angeles-Long Beach, the largest in North America). I lived there at age 19 for two months in the old section of the Rancho San Pedro Housing Projects. I had just left the gang life a year before and had barely let go hard drugs, including heroin (which I gave up "cold turkey" with help from friends).

I was in San Pedro gathering myself in revolution: studying Marxist theory and taking part in collective study about society, the world, the present, and the future. I jogged every morning, part of my personal recovery routine, and visited the local San Pedro Library to read books and do research. It was an intense period, with intense study and equally intense activity (running off leaflets all night long for morning factory distributions, speaking at community meetings, bringing new people to study circles).

It was the only way to counteract an intense street/gang life.

I remember walking around those old harbor streets, with the bars, the fish stores, the modest homes, and markets. There was the old Warner Grand Theater, holding around 1,900 seats, built in the amazing Deco style of the 1920s. There was Pacific Boulevard and Gaffey Street. I recall the old canneries (and Joe Biff's bar, where many cannery workers hung out), the shipyards, including Todd's and Bethlehem, and the many warehouses, small bucket shops, and brightly-lit refineries.

The LA Harbor was very industrialized; still is, but not like in the mid-1970s.

On February 15 of this year, I spent a whole day back in San Pedro. I spoke to two large school assemblies at San Pedro High School, whose students were enraptured with my words, many of whom asked thoughtful questions. I met with leaders in the community, including those working in gang prevention (the Harbor has many old gang structures, mostly in the Chicano/Mexicano communities). I ended up on a cable TV show where a density of issues came to the fore. I hung out with old friends Dave Arian (director of the Harry Bridges Institute) and Diane Middleton (who runs the Middleton Foundation, funding important community organizations throughout the city, including film workshops at Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural).

And that evening, with my name in the marquee lights, I spoke to about 350 people at the old Warner Grand Theater--talk about completing circles. It was a great response, full of enthusiastic dialogue, and people lined up around one side of the theater for me to sign books.

It felt good to come back here and have such a tremendous response (of course, I was a working class youth, working in industry, the first time I was in San Pedro -- now I'm a well-known author with ten books to my name and a wonderful bookstore/cultural center in the San Fernando Valley).

Like Odysseus, I came home. I've done this many times. And each time, I've come with gifts, experiences, knowledges, and a spirit that can help enhance the places I once left behind.

Perhaps now, I won't take so long in returning to the Harbor. I have many friends and supporters there. It was another important example of returning to some of my roots.

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