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.