Arizona, Sun and Big Ideas

On Friday, July 22, I gathered part of my family -- my wife Trini and my two youngest boys, Ruben and Luis -- for a trip to Arizona. My daughter Andrea and my granddaughter Catalina stayed at home (Andrea had to work and continue her Mission College classes). The plan was to go to Sierra Vista, Arizona, near the US-Mexico border (and where Minutemen have held recent vigils against the undocumented), then to Tucson and finally to the Navajo Reservation (where we've tried to go at least once a year for ceremonies with our adopted family of elder/road man Anthony Lee).

It was around a nine-hour ride to Sierra Vista, including through sweltering Phoenix, which hit record highs that week (around 18 people, mostly homeless and elderly, had died). I was invited by the University of Arizona South to speak to 50 teachers-to-be (mostly Latino) for about three hours. I brought copies of my nine published books to show the group. The area around Sierra Vista had been drenched with rain from the night before. The temperatures were moderate and pleasant.

At my talk, I started out with my story about growing up as an immigrant Mexican child in South Central LA and then the East LA area. How I got involved in crime from age 7 (stealing). How I eventually joined a gang at 11, got into drugs at 12, and was in and out of jails and juvenile facilities until I was 19. But I also talked about why and how I changed my life. How I found art (painting and writing), help (mentoring), a cause (the revolutionary working class wing of the Chicano Movement), a spiritual path (eventually indigenous spiritual practices), and learning to own one's life (after I had turned my life over to a gang and to drugs, including heroin).

I also discussed how there are four major openings in the life of a person where major changes can occur -- where doors open and possibilities can be born. While change is constant and can occur anytime, these four thresholds are common among all humans.

The first is the infant developmental period from birth to around age three. Love, nurturing, holding, attention are critical if a child is to properly develop their emotions, their psyche, their being. The next opening is the pre-pubescent, when the hormones begin to kick in and a child may appear crazy. Gangs usually recruit around this time (ages 10 to 12, more or less).

The next opening is from the late teens to early twenties. This is generally the age when gang youth mature out of the gangs. This is when "school is out" and a life must be imagined and perhaps started. This is why charging youth as adults is ridiculous -- there is still room to teach, to grow, to guide. The brain is still malleable (around the mid-twenties it finally sets itself). While many miss the changes necessary for this period, most people make their major life-changing decisions then.

Again, while changes can occur at any time, the next big opening does not happen until someone is in their 40s. I have seen this even in prison. I've known guys who were incarcerated in their youth, who didn't go through the opening of their late teens and early twenties, some who had murdered and done terrible crimes. Yet in their forties, they become gentle, wise, artistic, calm.

Of course, there are people for whatever circumstances who fail to go through any of the openings for change even beyond their 40s. But in general this is the developmental doorways that should guide our work with infants, children, youth, and adults, particularly with the most troubled and troubling people.

I'll go into the rest of my talk the next time I visit this blog space -- with more on our visit to this wonderful, varied, and immensely mysterious place, Arizona.


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  • busermo molpey
    commented 2023-06-27 21:35:37 -0700
    The brain may still be shaped to some extent (although by mid-adulthood, it has already mostly hardened). Many individuals fail to make the crucial choices about their lives at this time, yet it is also when they are most likely to make those changes.