Where Violence Breeds Change and Hope

On Tuesday, I had the honor of speaking to students of the National School of Anthropology in the City of Chihuahua. We held an engaging discussion about the Chicano culture, writing, but also about gangs, the arts, and social change. I also heard comments from students about the issues confronting their communities. Some of their investigations include work among indigenous peoples, in particular the Raramuri of the Sierra Tarahumara, where my mother’s family is descended from and a community I spent some time studying myself in 1997. In the evening, we created a Poetry Jam with students from Chihuahua State University/School of Literature and Philosophy. We had more than a hundred people in the auditorium, graciously listening to my poems. I then invited anyone there to step up and read their poetry. Several students left, but not because they didn’t want to take part—they wanted to get their poems from lockers and cars so they could Jam. Sure enough about a dozen or so students read their original work, which I found quite developed, interesting, and compelling. Mexico is a land of poets, even without many options to develop as one. Yet in Chihuahua these students proved how powerful poetry remains in the heart of the people. The next day I visited the largest state penitentiary. We drove for an hour outside the city limits. We met with the prison director who told us there were 2250 prisoners, including a section for women. They had maximum security and minimum-security cellblocks. I spoke to about 100 men in a lower security section. This proved to be quite fruitful and eye opening. Most of the men said they wanted jobs, training, rehabilitation, and workshops. Apparently the prison lacks many resources and even though there are machines to create furniture and other products, most of them had no access to these machines. Gang violence has forced the prison system to divide the two major gangs in the state into different facilities. Last year, in a Ciudad Juarez prison, one gang rioted against another gang, leading to the massacre of 21 persons. Yet the men we talked to were respectful and open—leading to a group photo in the yard that I hope to share with my blog readers once I get this. I also presented my book “La Vida Loca” to start a library at the prison—they have no books to date—that the US Consulate staff said they would help with donations of other books. Today I was privileged to visit the US Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, the largest in the world for temporary and tourist visas to the United States. It is a new building—about a year old—that since its opening has brought new malls, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses to the surrounding area. The consulate staff was attentive and amiable—and quite active as intermediaries with community-based NGOS and groups among the poorest and most gang-ridden communities. We met with leaders in community-based organizations and a few of their donors. Later I met with youth leaders and activists who are trying to provide levels of resources, mentorship and infrastructure to marginalized communities. In the afternoon, a number of young people, average age of 15, came to the consulate to take part in one of my Empowerment/Expression workshops with words and writing. As always, this proved to be engaging and powerful, especially when they read back their words, full of detail, emotion, and deep soul revelation. I met a woman working with impoverished youth who is also active in justice for the hundreds of women who have disappeared or been killed in Ciudad Juarez since 1993—she also lost a daughter. Despite a few arrests, and many theories, the vast majority of these deaths and disappearances have yet to be solved. This mother told me that women continue to be killed or kidnapped, but with the increased rise of murders due to drug and gang wars in the last three years—making Ciudad Juarez the deadliest city in the world—most of the media has changed its focus. I must say how rewarding all these talks, discussions, workshops, and visits have been. I have even more on Friday and Saturday. Tomorrow I visit a juvenile detention center, have more media interviews, and will present to a group of NGO leaders a presentation entitled: Hearts & Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times. c/s

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