I survived, however, to take part in the Quinto Sol Chicano Literary Awards celebration in Berkeley, hosted by Dr. Octavio Romano and Herminio Rios. In 1973, I was given an honorable mention for a group of vignettes I called “Barrio Expressions.” I had been writing bits and pieces of my life and thoughts in juvenile hall and adult jails since I was 15. Then with the help of a teacher and a school administrator, my pieces were retyped and submitted to this prestigious contest that had given recognition to Chicano greats Tomas Rivera and Rudy Anaya.
The winners of the Quinto Sol award that year were Rolando Hinojosa and Estela Portillo Trambley. I was honored to meet them. I was the least known and, for sure, the least skilled. But they treated me with respect and dignity.
A year after this trip, I quit heroin, cold turkey. And I began to seriously dream about a real writer’s life (which I finally embarked on seven years later).
I have just received news that Dr. Octavio Romano passed away this past week. I am deeply saddened by this loss. I want to convey my deepest condolences to his family and many countless friends.
Dr. Romano will forever stand as the leading light of Chicano letters. He had the vision and fortitude to go far beyond whatever existed before. He helped launch the careers of so many Chicano writers and artists in the literary publication “El Grito,” and later through his Tonatiuh Publishing.
I am indebted to his efforts--and to being able to see this once lost indigenous Chicano youth and find a poet and writer. He was so encouraging and supportive of my small but important writing attempts those many years ago. Now I have eight published books in poetry, children’s literature, fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. My first novel, “Music of the Mill,” is being published this April by Rayo Books/HarperCollins; in the fall, my poetry collection, “My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems,” will be out by Curbstone Press/Rattle Magazine.
I can truly say I would not be here today if not for Dr. Octavio Romano. Descanse en paz, hermano.
What could we do for more justice and peace in this world? Many big ideas are out there--nothing wrong with the big ideas. We need more of them. We also need new ways of looking at history, the truth of it, not the idealized version we have in our history books or mass media. There's much to learn, although it appears moments of justice and peace have been few and far between. Even the so-called bastion of freedom and modernity--the USA--has a bloody and unjust past. I don't need to reiterate what these are--there are plenty of ways to find out. The point is the root of violence and war today goes back to our beginnings.
An unjust land, unless it has a prolonged and conscious period of healing, reconciliation, and transformation, will keep repeating its worse sins. Our country is called great. Of course, it's great. What country wouldn't be great with free land (taken brutally and mercilessly from the native inhabitants), free labor (for more than 400 years, slavery, mostly of black Africans, made this country the richest, most industrialized in the world), and freedom from the past (no feudalism, for example, as most of Europe).
Capitalism in this country has been the most energetic and productive based on the freedom to exploit people and resources, extended throughout the world. Yes, we're "free."
Yet there are other freedoms in our blood--freedoms that I value and use to challenge the "freedoms" I've mentioned above. They include the freedoms to organize, to write, to create, to dream. The struggles for these freedoms have been hard and bloody as well. In my own lifetime, I've seen one of its pinnacles in the Civil Rights and freedom struggles of the past 50 years--with African Americans, leading the way, but also rapidly involving Chicanos, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Women, Gays, the Disabled, workers, and more.
So let's be clear about what's made this country great--it has a bad history, that's true, but it also has correctives in the words, poetry, art, organizations, and visions of the most far-sighted, spiritually-engaged, and human-and-earth connected people.
Fighting for freedom in Iraq is meaningless unless we're clear about which freedom we mean. The freedom to control the political process? To exploit oil? To bring in U.S. based industries (like McDonald's) to a country that doesn't need it?
Or the freedom to organize, challenge, think, write, and create--even if we don't agree all the time. Real freedom is inherently bound up with justice and peace. Any other claims of "freedom" may only benefit the few, for exploitation and power. Again, let's be clear about what we mean. Freedom is a word used often by news people and policy makers--it doesn't always mean what you may think. I'm for freedom. But mine doesn't come with tanks, invading armies, and radio-controlled bombs. Mine comes with books, films, architecture, sculpture, dance, music, ideas, songs, and wholesome/healthy lives.
And that's a world of difference.
We need more trouble in this world--not the trouble we get, but the thoughtful, purposeful trouble that comes from having a vision, a clarity of issues, or even just a stubbed toe. As part of the many fields of interest and work, I'm also editor of Xispas Magazine, an online Chicano magazine of politics, culture, and art.