Voices of old rebel organizers mingled with a significant number of new ones in 2015 as anti-war activists across generations jammed into the main hall of New York Street Presbyterian Church, Washington D.C.—they were there to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the first national protest against the Vietnam War, organized in D.C. back then by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
Event organizers invited me to speak about the 1970 Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War. My friend, the late Tom Hayden, made this possible because he felt anti-Vietnam War commemorations were largely devoid of the vital role Black and Brown people played in ending that war.
The peace movements among Blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans is often missing in historical accounts of a war that involved the United States for eight years, claimed 58,220 lives—and another 1,353,000 Vietnamese lives—at a cost to taxpayers, in current dollars, of close to $1 trillion. Black and Brown military personnel were disproportionately killed or wounded—at the time, activists claimed 22 percent of the war’s casualties were of Mexican descent, although Mexicans in the US made up around 6 percent of the population.
During my speech, I pointed out that if it wasn’t for the Chicano Moratorium, the first major antiwar protest in a working-class community of color, the war may have taken longer to end. I also recounted my own ordeal during the riots that ensued after law enforcement attacked a largely law-abiding crowd at Laguna Park (now Ruben Salazar Park) in East Los Angeles.
On August 29, 1970, I came by bus to East L.A.’s Belvedere Park, where the march began, as a 16-year-old gang member and drug addict. I joined the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people for one thing—to party. What moved me, however, was something I had not witnessed before: the peaceful, unified crowd; the chants, the Brown Berets marching in cadence; the signs that exclaimed “Raza Si, Guerra No” (The People Yes, War No) and “Chicano Power.”
The catalyst for sheriff’s deputies, LAPD, and other officers to use teargas and batons, some armed with shotguns, was the burglary of cases of beer from a liquor store on the corner of Alma Avenue and Indiana Street. I know because my homies, among other “cholo” gang youth, ripped off the store. I decided to get more beer, but by then the store had closed. The vast majority of the protestors, consisting of workers, students, musicians, artists, and their families, had nothing to do with this.
The row of riot-ready officers—who I believe were waiting for any excuse to attack—moved quickly against the small number of people banging on the liquor store’s windows to open up. Law enforcement later claimed the “robbers” had run into the crowd, forcing them to close everything down. This wasn’t true. A deputy put a shotgun to my head, knowing I was a perpetrator, and told me to move or he’d “blow my brains out” (cuss words excluded). Most of the vatos did take off. I left, but then, enraged, decided to turn back and confront the police. It was a matter of “tired of being tired.”
Moratorium organizers locked arm-and-arm told people to not fight back and return to their homes. “Tomorrow is another day,” one said. I told him, “there were no more mañanas for me.”
I didn’t last long. A deputy bashed my head with a baton, knocking me to the ground. Officers held me down as they handcuffed me. Blood ran down my face. They threw me into the back seat of a deputy’s squad car. From there I could see deputies and police officers hitting people on their heads and bodies, many trying to get up from blankets on the grass, often with children. I saw officers pull people off their porches or from inside their homes along the residential area across from the park.
Teargas smoke, yelling and screams, everywhere.
Around 200 people were arrested that day. Most were released within hours. However, several of us cholos were held at the East Los Angeles substation away from the rest. The youngsters among us were placed on a bus to juvenile hall, but when we got there, I understood it was too crowded. We ended up on another bus to the L.A. County Jail. As we sat with chains on our ankles and arms, deputies sprayed us with Mace, while laughing, as our eyes and lungs burned.
From the County Jail, about five of the youth—ages 13 to 16—were taken to the Hall of Justice Jail downtown; we were placed into its infamous “Murderer’s Row.” Deputies claimed we’d be charged with murder since we “started” the riots that by then had engulfed major sections of Whittier Boulevard and other parts of East Los Angeles, killing a few people.
I was in a cell next to Charles Manson, who was going to trial at the time. The “row” had other murder suspects, all Black and Brown except for Manson. I decided to protect the 13-year-old; two bigger guys in the cell with us put a razor blade to my neck to get to this kid. But I had already been in the streets, homeless, and in various jails and juvenile hall. I stood up to them, showing no fear, which is what they were trying to elicit. They liked my gumption, the only thing that could possibly save you in these situations. They smiled, took the razor blade away, and then we played cards.
Yet, I wasn’t interested in cards. With borrowed paper and pencil, I began to write my first “poems.”
We stayed on the “row” for several days and nights. On a radio, I heard about the murder of Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar, who was on Whittier Boulevard to cover the riots; a sheriff’s deputy fired a teargas canister into a populated bar where Salazar was allegedly having a beer—an improper use of equipment meant for outdoor public gatherings. Upon hearing this, a small disturbance ensued on the tier; someone burned a mattress and others rattled steel bars. Deputies sealed us in, forcing us to put wet cloth on our faces so we wouldn’t collapse from the smoke.
My parents during that time tried to find me, but I was “lost” in the system. For one thing, the facility was meant for people 18 years and older. And we were being held without charges beyond the 72 hours when one is supposed to be released in such cases. But laws be damned—this was “riot” time and we were gangsters. Also, deputies protected Manson—he was kept in a special padded cell when the rest of us were outside our cells on the tier. He’d be let out, spitting out racial epithets, when we were back in our cells, unable to reach him.
I realized that Manson’s life was worth more than mine; deputies made sure he was safe but if someone had cut my throat, who’d care?
Finally, in the middle of the night, deputies woke me up and removed me from the cell, onto a long corridor, and into a room where my parents were waiting, exhausted. No charges were filed. In talking with Rosalio Muñoz, the chairperson of the Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War in 1970, who also attended the D.C. anti-Vietnam War anniversary event, we surmised what helped me was that Chicano activists filmed everything, showing only law enforcement officers beat and kill people, including Ruben Salazar. Essentially, they had nothing on me.
But the “damage” had been done. A seed of revolution had been planted. I was called to another destiny—to use my innate passions and gifts, mostly involving words and ideas, to become an indispensable link in the indispensable chain for truly liberating and rooted social justice. I still had one foot in gang life, but another one now in social struggle. I emerged eventually wiser and hungrier, enough to get me out of heroin, crime, and jails four years later. I also joined with a growing number of strategic-thinking and visionary Americans against war, against poverty, against environmental destruction, and against racial injustice—the foundation of a decent and inclusive society.
This is a trajectory I’ve been on ever since, although now tied to the national and global protests after the murder of George Floyd to end systemic racism and class subjugation. What a powerful time to remember and commemorate the first Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War fifty years ago!
Here’s an excerpt from a poem I gleaned from my scribbling in the Hall of Justice:
The calling came to me while I languished / in my room, while I whittled away my youth / in jail cells and damp barrio fields. // It brought me to life, out of captivity, / in a street-scarred and tattooed place / I called body.
Trump’s “law and order” has turned into a war against the American people. He’s been at war with the United States for some time. His claim to be against “immigrants” to save American jobs, like most of his claims, was just a ruse to galvanize white supremacists as his “civilian” army. But he also has a real “army” to call on.
These past days, the Department of Homeland Security, created following the terrorist acts of 9/11, mobilized militarized personnel to Portland, Oregon. These federal agents, including from U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group and the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, are supposed to “safeguard” American lives.
Now they teargas and abduct U.S. citizens—including a “wall of moms.”
According to the July 23, 2020 Los Angeles Times’ article “Border Patrol’s brute power spreads to cities,” the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has more than 60,000 agents, the federal government’s largest law enforcement agency. In 1953, the U.S. Justice Department extended the border area, which has been militarized and abusive of migrants for decades, to 100 miles into the interior as well as 100 miles beyond US maritime borders. The article states that around two-thirds of Americans—some 200 million people, including 9 of the country’s 10 largest cities—are within these bounds.
Social justice leaders and organizers were right in protesting the caging of Central American children and others along the border. They were right in protesting for years the pattern of police killings of Black people. They were right in demanding defunding of local police departments—now with combined budgets of more than $115 billion—while putting tax dollars into community-driven treatment, education, mental facilities, health care, crime prevention and intervention, and re-building poor urban and rural communities.
Now with an uptake in crime in cities like Chicago, New York City, Albuquerque, and others, Trump says we need police more than ever. We’ve been here before. This was Nixon’s rant after the 1960s rebellions, many sparked by police abuse. Also Reagan’s after drugs and guns permeated most urban core communities in the 1980s during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression at the time. And Clinton used “crime” to enact draconian mass incarceration policies following 1992’s Los Angeles Uprising around the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King.
Yes, we need to do more to address crime, gun violence, gang and drug warfare. But the most effective way is to address the root causes—poverty and an increasing divide between those who have and those who don’t. This is not a law enforcement problem. It’s a societal problem. It’s the problem of cities, states, and, yes, the federal government. “Law & Order” means we extend dealing with crime to attacking and jailing protestors. Trump by executive order has “criminalized” what is constitutionally protected rights—exaggerating the destruction of property to justify such a decree. He also uses actual crime to bring in more “law & order.”
We don’t need “Law & Order.” That’s the demand of a fatigued and dying capitalist social order. We need to re-imagine everything and renew what has worked before: compassionate and comprehensive systemic change. This is only “un-American” because it’s never fully been tried in this country. It’s American in that it flows from the minds of the indigenous peoples of the land and the progressive freedom-loving minds of Americans from Tom Paine to John Lewis.
When Trump began his presidential bid in 2016, he targeted Mexican migrants. Now his “guns” have been turned on the rest of us.
Dear Fellow Leaders, Thinkers, Artists, Poets, Organizers, Healers:
Greetings from the Luis and Trini Rodriguez household!
There is no word for “art” in most indigenous languages. Why? Because art is in everything, everywhere, the very nature of human beings and a living earth. In time of crisis, the next move is not order, but creativity. It’s time to be in the often-messy place where we contemplate what’s possible, about where the uncertainties and pains are taking us, and how we can activate the most abundant power within everyone: the imagination.
That’s my thought to share, but first I have to relate my recent personal ordeal leading me to revive all this. To begin I honor my beautiful family in our seclusion—my three sons Ramiro, Ruben, and Chito have been wonderful doing most of the shopping, yard work, and plumbing. Everyone lost work except one son. One of my son’s girlfriend, who also lives with us, was laid off as well. I lost around $30,000 worth of speaking gigs through the end of summer. I’ve applied for grants and other compensation. I’m in touch with my daughter Andrea in Chicago and grandchildren (and thinking constantly about my four great-grandchildren).
However, we’re going to be okay. Others have it worse.
And we have a stable, imaginative, and growing Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore community, now almost 20 years in existence. We have the most amazing staff of young people, board of directors, and hard-working interns and volunteers. Despite our active programming being canceled and the bookstore closed, we have established a lively virtual workshop space with Open Mics, Social Justice Book Club, Indigenous Cosmology Classes, and more, including such practices as Yoga. And our books are now promoted online for anyone to buy.
All accessible at www.tiachucha.org.
I’ve done my part, but it turned out about a month ago I began a fever roller coaster ride. Doctors said to just stay at home and report any deterioration. I am in the high-risk category—over 65, diabetic, and hypertensive. Finally, two weeks ago, they let me come in for Covid-19 testing and chest X-rays. The good news—I tested negative for Covid-19. But I did have pneumonia. Due to a possible surge in Covid-19 patients, I was sent home to be quarantined in my room—pneumonia is also contagious, and they treated me as if I had Covid-19. Then one night I had unsurmountable pain. I knew what this was—gallstones. I’ve had problems with these for years. Two of my sons drove me to the emergency. The hospital admitted me because it seemed a stone had blocked my bile duct and my liver had heightened levels of enzymes. I’ve also had liver problems for years due to heavy drug use in my youth and then 20 years of drinking beyond that. This year, June 30, I will have 27 years sober; this has helped me regenerate to a somewhat decent degree a worn-out liver.
The next day I had two surgeries, including gallbladder removal. After two days in the hospital, I returned home since they needed beds for a possible Covid-19 surge. I had a draining tube from my liver with instructions on how to take care of this. Trini has been a pillar for strength and healing throughout this time, and my sons helped without complaint. Despite pain and lack of energy, I’ve rebounded well. Yesterday, the surgeon removed the drain apparatus. I’m on the mend—pain is gone, and my energy levels are getting back to what they were.
I’m blessed beyond measure.
Now I’m doing Zoom conference talks, virtual AA-NA meetings, virtual classes, and live-streaming. Trini and I have continued with “The Hummingbird Cricket Hour” podcast—I recommend people listen to the close to two dozen podcasts we’ve done so far. Here’s link: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/hummingbird-cricket-hour/id1381254966
I also recommend everyone get a copy of my new book, “From Our Land to Our Land: Essays, Journeys & Imaginings from a Native Xicanx Writer” (Seven Stories Press). I was on the verge of traveling around the country to promote it when the pandemic forced events to be cancelled. Still you can order at https://tia-chuchas.myshopify.com/
The book, my first of essays, addresses issues like racism; the power of poetry and the arts; how to find belonging in a time of uprootedness; the four key connections for healthy life and relationships; the spirit of learning and the spirit of teaching; my own odyssey in the development of Hip Hop; my over 40 years working in prisons, juvenile lockups, jails, and with street gangs in Los Angeles, Chicago, Mexico, Central America, South America, England, and Italy; and so much more.
I also helped put together a new anthology of prisoner writing for Tia Chucha Press (the renowned small press I started over 30 years ago in Chicago). It’s called “Make a Poem Cry: Creative Writing from California’s Lancaster Prison,” edited by Kenneth E. Hartman and yours truly. Mr. Hartman is a writer and activist, recently released from prison after serving 38 years. The selections in the book is from participants in my creative writing classes in two high-security yards. The book should be available by the end of April. You can order now at https://tia-chuchas.myshopify.com/
My plan, besides being as healthy as I can, is to continue the Hummingbird Cricket Hour with Trini and work on a YouTube channel. I aim to push the conversation in this country and the world about where we need to go as humanity, guided by ancestral knowledge and led by imagination and revolutionary ways of thinking, organizing, and living.
I see the Covid-19 Pandemic as a crisis that is demanding the old, unequal, exploitative, and oppressive societal structures and governance be removed AND new, encompassing, and embracing societal structures and governance be born. It’s time for an economy that is not based on placing most of our resources and labor for the profit of a few corporations and individuals, but for the wellbeing, health, and thriving of all.
It’s time for cooperation, not competition. For a borderless imagination, not one with fences, chains, and isolation. Not fear, but courage and new ideas. Even with somewhat global distancing and seclusion, we’ve seen the earth renewed, less smog, less crime, less stress, and new ways of living, working, and interacting. It’s not time to go back to “normal”—since “normal” wasn’t good when we last left it: homelessness everywhere, suicides and opioids addiction growing, low-wage work, with decent healthcare and education denied to millions. Instead let’s go forward to an economy that aligns resources to human needs, closing the so-called wealth gap, peace and safety throughout the planet, a clean and green earth, and providing quality healthcare, education, living pay and working conditions for all who need it.
We need to take our time getting our society revved up again, but on a new basis. People should not be pushed back to work and to the roads until all of us have everything in place—like widespread testing, possible cures, or ongoing safe practices. And the largest social safety net ever.
So, again, we must use this time to be imaginative and creative. That’s what the arts represents—the core essence of all human beings. And realize the best of our dreams, visions, and aspirations with practical, short and long term, organization and restructuring.
Let’s stay connected. Read, study, and also help transform the world from the trauma we are all undergoing.
Something old and archaic is trying to die; something new and vital is trying to be born.
Revolutionary blessings to everyone,
Luis Mixcoatl Itztlacuiloh Rodriguez
Class warfare is being played out in Congress and on media briefings with Trump. The Congress battled whether the stimulus bill should be used more to bail out corporations, lenders, and the wealthy--or more to support those who need this the most: the poor, whether working or otherwise. And Trump is going against medical and scientific advice to try and get the economy going again by Easter. He'd like to see the stock market rise up again and the unemployment numbers plummet because this makes him "look good" as he faces reelection. But we're in the middle of a world-wide pandemic! The choices appear to be either our health or someone else's wealth. Either our overall benefit or Trump's. This is the scarcity issues capitalism always pushes--we can't seem to keep an economy going and keep everyone safe. Who sets things up like that? Capitalism is the greatest wealth-producing system in history, but it's also the most unequal. This is endemic to the system. How come the health index is not more important than the Dow Index? We must challenge such a system. This crisis is revealing the holes in the body politic as well as the economy. It's unveiling the emptiness at the center of power and wealth. A society that can't take care of its people during crisis--or even when not in crisis--cannot continue to rule. The rulers--regardless of party--have become feeble (even as they go crazy hanging on to power). Who needs them? Time for new visions, new leaders, new ways of thinking. Time for a system whose aim is the well being of everyone, not how much wealth the few can accumulate at the expense of the rest of us. We must learn. Dream big. Then organize. Mark my words--this is not going to get better in their hands. But in our hands--give us the "hammer and nails" and we will rebuild this world. There's an economy worth fighting for!
While reading this, please listen to my poem "Civilization" with the music of Italy's famed Hip Hop artist Flycat from 1998: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVBIdlJzj7E
As we go forward, let's all remember a massive shift in our thinking, connecting, and being is asked of us during this crisis. I've heard from social justice activists who feel the pressures--how do we continue in these trying times? For one, imagine more. Society is having to rethink everything, including capitalism, profits, scarcity, and racism. But also on which way we go from here. Even equalitarian models have to be challenged. Social justice is not a stand-still thing. This crisis is forcing everything to shift. It's time to be creative. The way out of chaos is not order, but creativity and then align to an order that best meets the challenges. Presently we need to imagine more--and then find the means to realize a social system that places society's resources to human needs, which includes safeguarding our planet, the animals, and more. Even revolutionaries must have an abundance in their hearts, in their study, and in their activism. We shouldn't let the rulers off the hook, but we must also extend understanding, love, and healing for the world. Keep your heart/spirit strong, the rest will follow. Go from being stressed, then depressed, to being blessed. The spiritual must be accessed especially when the material is in upheaval. But remember, the material matters (both words have a source in "mother"). The material is our mother. We need to know how to carry abundance in a time-bound world. When we revolutionaries get depressed, stuck, it's time to draw from the inexhaustible in our minds, hearts, and in our relations (with nature, our own natures, with others, and the divine). The world must change. And any industrial and most post-industrial ways to go won't suffice. Think and act beyond all that to bring the change that's needed. Change yourself, change the world. My new book explores this even further. Go to www.tiachucha.org/bookstore to order the book. Ometeotl!
On March 16, a rainy Monday morning, my wife Trini sang me a beautiful song in Spanish she learned from elders in Mexico. As she played a rattle, her voice resonated softly over the kitchen table. I heard well these words embedded in the song, "We are the weave and the weaver, we are the dream and the dreamer." Trini returned the day before from a longer trip with teachings and healing ceremonies among Mexica, Mayan, and other indigenous teachers. She had to cut the trip short by half due to possible problems on the border. She made it safe and the family is well. I write this so we remain grateful and centered in these chaotic and trying times. There's an hysteria gripping the country and other parts of the world around the corona virus pandemic. And still COVID-19 is serious and should be treated as such. Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore has stopped all programming to the end of march. The April 4 fundraiser "Tia Chucha's Barrio Block Party" at the Vortex has been cancelled. I've lost thousands of dollars of speaking gigs through the end of April and my creative writing classes in Lancaster State Prison have been cancelled. But we are strong. Use this time to reflect, but also to practice gratitude. And to be safe and healthy as possible. Every crisis has a measure of death and birth in it--something has to die, like a society that does not adequately prepare us for the health issues arising from a quickening and expanding post-industrial world. But something also has to be born, like the idea that taking care of everyone is the best way to ensure each of us is taken care of. Remember those words: "We are the weave and the weaver, we are the dream and the dreamer." Ometeotl!
What’s Dying, What’s Being Born: Regeneration in a Time of Crisis
In a dark time, the eye begins to see—Theodore Roethke
If all life is made up of stories, there is a story we are living out now. It has a three-act structure, with beginning, middle, and end, as well as setting, characters, conflicts, crisis, motive forces, more crisis, fatal flaws, resiliency, catharsis, and resolution. Like most stories in our culture, it has an aim—how to get back home. Starting with Homer’s “Odyssey,” getting home has been a perennial theme in most literature, not just home as a place, but inside oneself, inside our own hearts, and at the heart of who we are as a people.
The current stage of this story is filled with uncertainty and dread. It’s also intertwined, as always, with luminance and possibilities. Crisis is about what’s dying and what’s being born. We need clarity to know which is which. Or we may move into danger, not opportunity.
After the most pernicious presidential primaries and elections in recent times, the United States on December 19, 2016, when the Electoral College sealed the deal, confronted a new presidency. I’m not alone in saying Donald Trump represents the worse sentiments in America—racism, dividing and pitting Americans against one another; xenophobia, particularly against Mexicans and Muslims; misogyny, degrading and diminishing women; homophobia, pushing away and again criminalizing non-straight love; classism, where the rich get richer and the poor poorer; and environmental destruction, where the science proving climate change is denigrated and gains in environmentally clean economies undermined.
The essence of the crisis is about empire. The United States is going the way of all empires, into implosion and chaos amidst a growing stridency. Empires are said to last around 1,000 years. Hitler’s Third Reich was to last as long (it didn’t go beyond a dozen). The US can also fall, perhaps within 300 years of existence—or we can curtail this entirely by rising up to meet the country’s great promise and hope.
The real battle is for the soul of America.
Thus far, Trump’s presidency is narrow and militarized, all that feeds the Empire. His transition team has selected one of the richest cabinets in history (adding to the already more than half of Congress who are millionaires, although these make up less than 4 percent of the population). At this writing, the proposed cabinet members are worth $14.5 billion, more than the bottom poorest 43 million Americans combined. They include execs from Exxon and Goldman Sachs. Their business ties and interests (including Trump’s) invite conflicts of interest. Trump also has at least five military men considered for his cabinet—compromising subordination of military powers to civil government (even if these men are retired; one reportedly has not been retired long enough).
Trump’s even come out in favor of a nuclear arms race, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia seems to be in line with him. The two most nuclearized nations now appear united, based on power and wealth, not the best interests of humanity (Putin is also a multi-billionaire, even richer than Trump).
Although there are women proposed for this cabinet, it will be mostly white and male—what the transition team has called the most “successful and accomplished” minds in the country. Who are they kidding?
Americans of conscience—and I mean Republicans, Democrats, third party people, and independents—must challenge Trump’s every move as ardently, as thoroughly, as strategically, and, yes, poetically, as possible. Here are lines from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, arguably the best poet of the 20th century:
Death arrives among all that sound / like a shoe with no foot in it, / like a suit with no man in it, / comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, / with no finger in it, / comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, / with no throat. / Nevertheless its steps can be heard …
Death is visiting here, the death of illusions for one.
To be clear, Hilary Clinton had her own baggage. Yes, a woman should be elected president, but Clinton couldn’t carry the vision of a new America. Clinton is establishment with a capital E. Most of what she said in the last weeks of the campaign was anti-Trump. This was a losing proposition. As a result around 100 million voters didn’t vote, unmoved by either candidate. Still, while Clinton is close to 3 million more votes than Trump in the popular vote, Trump only had to make sure his support in key states, largely Republican held, did vote (even if only slightly more than Clinton since the Electoral College is winner take all).
Is Trump an outsider? Most of us aren't fooled—he’s insider among those who have been pulling the strings since time immemorial. Trump said what he had to say to a certain demographic (much of which he now says he didn’t mean). He geared his rallies to “heart of America” people, largely isolated, impoverished (in funds as well as ideas), which for some time have been tuned into Clear Channel radio stations, right-wing talk show hosts, or evangelical Christian TV.
I’ve driven many times through the middle of the country. There the radio dial becomes less cluttered, less dense, more caustic and conservative. These aren’t dumb people or hardly “deplorable.” Nonetheless, a significant number are being used against the rest of us. The ground for Trump’s victory had been prepared for years.
We are in for a rough ride. This conclusion makes sense for anyone who’s studied history as story, our story, the American story. Most textbooks with this story are idealizations of the past, including outright lies, misrepresentations, and racial paradigms. Even worse is what Breitbart News writes or Alex Jones iterates or Fox News distorts. Or, for that matter, their liberal cohorts—who may not seem as bad, but still manage to mislead the American people.
Liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, the official narratives of this country are incomplete, askew, and for the most part disgraceful. It’s time for a new discourse, another conversation, not what is spewed out of commercial media (which survives on ads—why wouldn’t they be influenced by such?).
Actor Denzel Washington said recently if you don’t read the news “you are uninformed.” If you do “you are misinformed.” He said anyone could get good at anything with practice “even BS.” That’s real talk.
Yet truth can still be found and grasped. That’s also a gift of practice—discerning, studying, armed with the proper tools and resources. Most Americans aren’t given critical thinking skills to do so—and not by accident.
Keeping America ignorant takes billion of dollars.
So much information is flooding our brains but few can figure out what it all means. Entertainment news predominates most outlets—we may know what dress Kim Kardashian is wearing on a night out, but not where Aleppo is located. Social media has become a Frankenstein monster of our making. Trump is also a product of the worse of social media, celebrity TV, and “fake news.”
Bringing together complicated, seemingly disparate, knowledge and information into a coherent whole won’t be easy. Please bear with me, then, as I expound further and at length (this is not a tweet or sound bite) on why the future of our country is at stake.
The truth of our story is more compelling.
The United States has been divided since the beginning. In 1788 the framers ratified a new Constitution. A “grand old document,” this was also a limited warranty, spelling out some rights while indigenous people here had full rights, like any human being, even if unwritten. For most cultures, these “laws” or values include a meaningful and respectful relationship with the divine (although a common element, this is defined by specifics of culture and people, as it should be); with nature and its designs and rhythms; with our own natures, geniuses and gifts; and with one another (“treat others as you want to be treated”).
What I call the four key connections, none in contradiction. Native peoples on the land didn’t need a document to recognize, nurture, and live by these essential agreements. For them nature, including the smallest aspects to the vast cosmos, is their university, their books, their “constitution.”
One way the US Constitution circumscribed rights was to allow states to determine who voted— most insisted on enfranchising only white men with property. There were also compromises with slaveholders, like counting slaves as three-fifths of a person to give Southern states more congressional representation, even though slaves could not vote.
After close to 230 years, several battles, mobilizations, rulings, amendments, marches, riots, and a Civil War, the country extended constitutional rights to include women (who got the right to vote in 1920); Native Americans (who were not considered “citizens” until 1924); Blacks, Mexicans, other communities of color, the disabled (who, at least on paper, received civil and voting rights in 1964 and 1965); and Gays (such as when the Supreme Court ruled for same-sex marriage in 2015).
None of these were “entitlements.” Nobody gave anybody anything—all this had to be fought for, at the cost of thousands of lives. Whether de jure or de facto, by law or practice, discrimination and disenfranchisement had to be named and changed.
A different kind of country
The United States was unique among nations for many reasons. One, it had no feudalistic restraints, which took Europe and Asia several generations to unshackle from—capitalism has been with us from the start. The US also obtained land by the forced removal and genocide of Native peoples. In addition, it had free labor since the 1600s, including indentured servants from England, and then solely on the backs of Africans stolen from their homeland. And driven by “manifest destiny,” the inane notion that the US was destined to reach from shore to shore, the country invaded Mexico, led at first by slave-holding interests in Texas. Even with $15 million paid for California and other lands (less than .02 cents per acre), Mexico lost one-third of its territory, including 60 percent of its mineral and oil wealth. If Mexico still had those lands today, it would be the world’s largest oil producer.
Free land, free labor, cheap access to minerals and oil… enough to make any country “great.”
The US ideal also appealed to migrants, forced to leave famines, pogroms, and other calamities in Europe and Asia, or just for a better life. Many, however, ended up in the country’s developing industrial areas, including on railroads, with little pay, tenement housing, and child labor. The Irish, Italians, Germans, and Eastern Europeans began their first inroads then, undergoing their own hurdles—at first many of them weren’t even considered “white.” But that changed once these migrants understood the black-white racial divide.
The first efforts to limit emigration were aimed at Southern Europeans, then Chinese, later against Mexicans and others of color. In the 1930s, around a million Mexicans were “repatriated,” sent back to Mexico without due process; about 60 percent were US citizens. Since 1790, when the first immigration policies were enacted, whites were favored, except in a few exceptions like the “Bracero” program, which from the 1940s until the 1960s brought in Mexicans to work under restricted periods, low pay, and second-class status.
In fact, “white” as a racial category kept shifting—Arabs, Latinos, and such were given “white” status at various times, in various states. In Texas, Mexicans were considered “white” even if they were indigenous or mixed with African. If you look at my birth certificate from El Paso, Texas, my parents were labeled “white” although my mother’s roots were with Tarahumara natives of southern Chihuahua where she was born. And my father’s roots include Native, Spanish, and African from Guerrero (the most African of Mexican states) where he was born.
“White” can be a label of convenience. Hitler, for example, declared Japanese and Turkish SS troops “honorary Aryans.” Once my family moved to California, we became “brown,” living with blacks in the ghetto-barrio of Watts (restrictive covenants in housing limited our options because we weren’t “white” anymore). In fact, many Mexicans lived with blacks in South Los Angeles, Pacoima, Compton, Inglewood, and such because of these “covenants” (now illegal, although many landlords find ways around this).
“White,” “Aryan,” whatever they call themselves (all made up anyway), can nonetheless be downright deadly for most of the world. But Irish, German, Welsh, Greek, Italian—any European peoples, of course, are fine. I have some of these in my DNA. I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren with European ancestry. All fine. Just don’t make this more valuable, more privileged, than the Native, African, Mid-Eastern, or Asian peoples who are also integral to the human family (all of which, by the way, are also in my DNA).
Back to our story: In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many immigrants came with new ideas and experiences. Socialists, anarchists, revolutionary Christians, and socially engaged writers, among others of the time, organized and obtained the eight-hour day, child labor laws, settlement homes, immigrant protections, and unions (with this, entry restrictions for ideological reasons were also applied).
There has always been another side to the story, a revolutionary thread in the fabric of our existence. This thread is linked to kicking out the English monarchy (voiced most deeply by Thomas Paine in “Common Sense” and “Appeal to Reason”), but also going beyond the rich and powerful who insisted the land’s bounty belonged to them. This thread contains Bacon’s Rebellion, Nat Turner’s uprising, John Brown’s insurrection, the Seminole Wars (blacks and natives together), and more. It’s the side that led to abolition of slavery, Native sovereignty, woman’s suffrage, immigrant rights, organized labor; that stopped Jim Crow and lynchings; that struggled for civil rights, for peace, for LGBT rights.
Key shift in production
The purported end to the “Indian Wars,” the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre in South Dakota, occurred when US Calvary slaughtered around 150 Lakota natives, mostly women and children, with Hotchkiss guns mounted on carriages. Another 150 or so died later of wounds or exposure, or were unaccounted for. Twenty-five US troops were killed in the crossfire. Nobody was ever held responsible. Instead, 20 Congressional Medals of Honor were bestowed upon the 7th Calvary. Wounded Knee happened after over 400 years of battles, massacres, forced acculturation, and removals (the Five Nations’ “Trail of Tears” and the Navajo’s “Long Walk,” among them). In California, during and after the Gold Rush, the wanton killing of natives with bounties, raised by local bonds voted by the populace, led to the most Natives killed in the United States. From an estimated million people before Europeans arrived, only 16,000 survived by 1900 (90 percent of Natives still alive when the US took over in 1848 were gone by that year).
Once the Native organized resistance got broken, even more land became available by massive theft, made legal by law and frontier justice, including homestead acts: you found a piece a land you liked, applied (or squatted on it for a while) and it could be yours—only to whites; some 270 million acres of public lands went to 1.6 million homesteaders. Land became power, wealth, and inheritance.
As a result, for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the majority of people in the United States worked in agriculture, often on their own farms. In the South they had massive plantations feeding textile mills in England and New England with cotton. However, large-scale manufacturing, first begun in Italy, but developing mightily in England, found a massive berth in the United States.
Pushed by the invention of the steam engine (and later electricity), capitalists and their representatives introduced laws, schooling, and culture to force people out of the farms and into the industrial centers. A major catalyst of the Civil War was the underlying need to stop chattel slavery from competing with wage labor. This also created vagrants, periodic crises, slums, and illicit criminal enterprises (the start of Mafias, Tongs, rural banditry, prostitution rings, etc.). People were alienated from the fruits of their labor. Other alienations followed. The capitalist ruling class became more entrenched in government, making sure their interests were met with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats (examples include Tammany Hall in New York City).
In the South, gains by blacks after the end of slavery to go to school, run governments, and excel in business got overturned with the end of Reconstruction, rise of the Ku Klux Klan, removal of federal troops to maintain order, and the establishment of Black Codes. Soon lynchings became the norm through the 1950s—some 4,000 blacks were lynched in that time. Whites rioting against blacks hit Tulsa, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, New Orleans, and more, resulted in hundreds of deaths. The next largest group targeted by lynchings was Mexican, around 700, mostly in Texas.
The real great divide was always between those who labored, whether as slaves, wage-slaves, sharecroppers, or small farmers… and those who owned the land, the mills, the factories, the transportation systems, and had the means to buy the government. Race, again, played a role as the corporate owners used a significant number of whites, including among the poorest, to keep the laboring classes divided.
The racial antagonism within the working class in the United States continues till this day, despite proof “scientific” eugenics, and other so-called theories of racial superiority, are false as well as politically and economically motivated.
The United States becomes a world power
The “robber barons” had names: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, Ford. They made their wealth in oil, steel, banking, autos. They helped finance/create the building of the first skyscrapers and urban centers like New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. Although, in fact, it was the working class that “built” them.
The country underwent intense labor battles and strikes for better pay and conditions, including against Carnegie’s Homestead Steel plant in Pennsylvania during the 1890s that led to nine workers and seven Pinkerton officials killed—and Rockefeller’s coal mine in Ludlow, Colorado when guards killed 25 strikers and family members.
The United States had also become an imperial power, controlling the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and several South Pacific Islands. U.S.-held companies ruled over parts of Mexico and Central America, including the United Fruit Company, determining who ran governments, undermining strikes, and destroying any opposition (this is where the term “Banana Republics” came from). Much of this targeted indigenous populations, like the 1932 massacre of 35,000 mostly Native peasants in El Salvador and whole villages in Guatemala.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, against the more than 30-year dictatorship of pro-US Porfirio Diaz, ended up destroying one million lives and creating around a million refugees, at a time when Mexico had only 15 million people (about what Guatemala’s population is today). Genocidal in nature, whole villages and small tribes vanished. Mexicans began their first-wave migration at that time, which created the first major barrios in the United States.
My father was saved as an infant when his Guerrero village was destroyed during the Mexican Revolution. His father, who was a rebel, managed to get a message to his wife that federales were preparing to attack. My grandmother Catita jumped on a burro with baby in her arms and in the dark withstood brush and sage until she confronted two bandits. One bandit threatened to kill her. But the other asked, “What you got there?” She answered “The son of a revolutionary.” With that the bandits let her pass.
US industrial prowess grew and even helped the allies win World War I. Still Woodrow Wilson hesitated to get involved. Wilson was a pro-Klan president (Wilson showed “Birth of a Nation” about the Klan’s origins at the White House, with glowing statements on its behalf; the organization grew to its greatest numbers during his presidency). He was also known for US isolation and even waited two years after Germans torpedoed the British passenger ship “The Lusitania,” killing 1,198, before committing troops although many Americans were among the dead. The United States apparently entered the war not because of unheard carnage on both sides, but after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution succeeded, as a show of force against the world’s first socialist state (even helping foment the 1918 Russian Civil War that the Bolsheviks won).
At home, the government as well as media, and right-wing groups initiated the first Red Scare from 1917 to 1920, aimed at weeding out persons in favor of the poor, working class, or in organizing them (particularly those pesky socialists and communists).
US participation in World War II also helped turn the tide against Hitler and the Axis powers—the bravery of Britain and resistance fighters in occupied countries notwithstanding. Although Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 was the catalyst, US mobilization again appeared tied to the Soviet Union’s heroic efforts in turning back Nazi armies.
World War II cost 60 million lives, including 6 million Jews and 20 million Soviet people. The US dropped the first atomic bombs, killing 200,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ushering the Atomic Age and “Cold War” with the Soviets. In five years “McCarthyism” and the second “Red Scare” trampled rights domestically and removed socialist or Marxist ideology in government, the movies, literature.
Waging this Cold War and even beyond, US intelligence services, including incarnations of the CIA, from 1946 to 2000 helped change the outcome of more than 80 elections of sovereign countries. The US also assisted military coups and regime changes in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile, among others. If Russia has tampered with the 2016 elections, as current CIA reports claim, this is the chickens coming home to roost.
Unrest, however, was brewing in the United States after World War II. African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and Puerto Ricans fought bravely in the Pacific and European theaters. For example, Native speakers were used as Code Talkers to stymie enemy code breakers. African Americans known as the Tuskegee Airmen proved to be skillful and brave pilots. The Japanese American 442nd fought fiercely, even as their families were held in concentration camps. Mexican Americans garnered more Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group, despite attacked by sailors and soldiers in the so-called 1943 Zootsuit Riots in Los Angeles.
Upon their return, all these groups faced discrimination in jobs, housing, and education. In some states, black and brown people, including veterans, couldn’t get buried with whites
After the war, a new chapter in the American story was unfolding—despite all the tax dollars and private funds to destroy “radicalism” by claiming they were communist led or inspired, even if untrue, civil rights battles to end segregation as well as unfair living and labor practices reached new heights.
A time of rebellion
The United States became involved in another war that exacerbated every major conflict in the country. Vietnam, a poor Southeast Asian country, divided into two, where Cold War politics drastically played out, leading to the deaths of more than 3 million people in Vietnam Laos, and Cambodia, and 58,000 Americans, from 1955 to 1975.
This war served as backdrop to the extraordinary time known as “The 60s.” I grew up during those years—this is when my story intertwines with the story of this land. President Kennedy was assassinated. The Beatles and other British bands changed Pop Music forever. New styles emerged—from flower-power hippies to Hugh Hefner chic. Drugs spread from urban core communities to middle class homes—including weed, LSD, mescaline, and even heroin and cocaine. This was a time when Hell’s Angels, Black Panthers, United Farm Workers, La Raza (Chicano movement), Young Lords, American Indian Movement, Students for a Democratic Society, and East Coast Mobsters became household names.
My heroes then were heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali; martial arts master Bruce Lee; and Mexican “Lucha Libre" wrestler Mil Mascaras. I was into Motown, James Brown, Chicano Rock, and Urban Funk. I also loved jazz (Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, John Coltrane)—and Salsa music coming out of New York City from Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican musicians, exemplified by Fania Records. In addition, the great Black Experience books with authors like Malcolm X, Piri Thomas, Claude Brown, George Jackson, James Baldwin, Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti), LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and Maya Angelou, changed my life
The modern Civil Rights Movement, led by African Americans, began in the late 1940s, leading to boycotts, marches and Freedom Riders in the 1950s. Often not mentioned, however, is that Civil Rights also involved Chicanos, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Gays. However nonviolent much of this was, in the 1960s these morphed into violent responses to racial hatred, police killings, intractable Southern and Northern white power structures. Urban riots in 1965-67 burned swathes of black communities in Harlem, Philadelphia, Newark, Cleveland, and Detroit, among others. In 1965, Watts in Los Angeles became the most destructive.
Students on university campuses—Colombia University; University of Wisconsin, Madison; and University of California, Berkeley; among others—also exploded in free speech protests and against the escalating war in Vietnam. News organizations brought the war home on TV. My friend, the late Tom Hayden, played a leading role for peace and justice along with other young, mostly white, activists. Veterans were returning mentally and physically scarred, often with drug addictions. Black and brown people were disproportionately dying in a conflict that used the country’s first integrated army.
In 1965, for example, one in every four American deaths in Vietnam was black; Chicanos had a 22 percent casualty rate although they were less than 6 percent of the population. With police and National Guard suppressing black uprisings, and even the murder of anti-war protestors at Kent State, Jackson State, and the Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War in East Los Angeles, the war had come home.
At 16, I got arrested during the Chicano Moratorium, beaten and Maced, then held on “Murderer’s Row” of L.A.’s Hall of Justice Jail for several days. Most of the over 200 other arrestees had been released within hours. Deputies threatened five of us with murder charges after three persons were killed. Charges were never filed when film and photos of what happened showed only law enforcement beating and shooting people, including the murder of Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar. In the wee hours, I was roused out of bed and let go.
Prior to this, Martin Luther King, Jr., moved from black boycotts and marches to pulling together all poor people—from the inner-city, rural hamlets, Native American reservations, barrios, migrant camps, Appalachia and other poor white areas. He began a Poor People’s Campaign that brought thousands to Washington DC. King helped combine civil rights, the anti-war campaigns, and ending poverty. King’s murder in 1968 stopped much of the momentum. The murders of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Robert Kennedy, Fred Hampton, and Salazar during that time added to the dismay. Rock stars of the 60s were also dying from drugs and hard life—Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison.
Nonetheless, people power from the US, other parts of the world, and above all the Vietnamese themselves, ended the war. Laws and court rulings dismantled most segregation laws and outlawed discrimination. Radical politics began to have new names, a new presence. This was when I found revolutionary study and organization to guide me on another trajectory of life.
Another key shift in production
Our story takes a momentous turn. The industrial world gave way to advanced technology in the form of the microchip, which began much earlier but broke through in the 1970s. The impact would usher in a new world.
There was an important element to keep in mind. The industrial age proved extremely powerful for capitalism, leading to vast expansion of cities, infrastructures, and innovation. Capitalists extracted “surplus value,” the amount unpaid to workers for their labor power (wages cover only part of what workers actually produce—the rest is pocketed). Although price hikes, creation of markets, extensions of production relations, and more contribute, it’s surplus value that determined long-term profitability.
Surplus value allowed capitalists to become filthy rich and powerful. Mines, steel mills, auto plants, large farms, and more, fueled by fossil energy, kept people working, even at low pay, even as “cogs in the wheel,” even to early deaths from cancers, cardiovascular disease, and other industrial-based diseases, even from overwork and drink.
Automation and the first stages of advanced technology represented the next major production shift in the country—from mechanical production to electronic production.
In the 1970s, I worked in those mechanical soul-deadening jobs, rotating shifts (day, afternoon, nights), even double-shifts (16-hour days). I married, had my first kids, and tried to find a stable life from the erratic one I had as a youth. Inspired by the social justice struggles of the time, at 20, when I held my newborn son, Ramiro, I vowed never to return to crime, gangs, drugs. Despite other turmoil, more kids, other marriages, drinking and rage issues, I kept that vow. Them days were like those Bruce Springsteen songs about labor, love, and loss.
However, by the 1980s de-industrialization was in full swing. Robotics invaded the workplace, pushing people out of livelihoods, and at the same time subverting surplus value. Yes, industrial jobs still exist in the US and developing countries (there it’s mostly for cheap labor). Manufacturing in the US is still powerful, but with fewer and fewer workers. Profit making moved into the unstable kind—speculation, housing, bank interest, debt, derivatives, and made-up financial instruments.
Digital technology changed forever how we worked, communicated, lived, and profited.
We’ve been here before
Trump now claims he’s going to bring manufacturing jobs back. But the genie can’t be pushed back into the bottle. This transformation is permanent. In fact, Trump’s recent United Technologies/Carrier deal to keep 1000 jobs slated for Mexico in Indiana fell apart when it was revealed that despite some $7 million in tax incentives to Carrier, hurting a state already hurting, hundreds of jobs will still go to Mexico and many of the remaining jobs, in time, will be automated.
That’s why Trump’s presidency will be full of uncertainties. Nonetheless, I’m certain of one thing—however bad our economic and political realities have been, his policies and actions will make things worse.
Why? Because we’ve been here before.
In my lifetime alone I’ve witnessed horrendous presidencies. Richard Nixon, who became president in 1969, served as a reactionary backlash to the 60s protests, unrests, and cultural clashes. Nixon introduced cuts in social programming— dismantling teen centers, the arts, urban development, jobs training. The FBI ran amok. COINTELPRO, a domestic spying and disruption machine, infiltrated Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, Brown Berets, American Indian Movement, Young Lords—and even racial harmony groups, mostly nonviolent. As leaders got killed, deported, or jailed, Nixon introduced a war on drugs that brought more drugs (also intentionally flooding “Hippie” communities and inner cities). As it turned out, Nixon cut his own throat with illegal wiretapping and other crimes. Vice-president Spiro Agnew resigned first, followed in 1974 by Nixon. But the damage had been done.
I thought this was the worse president ever.
Then in 1980, newly elected president Ronald Reagan brought more social cuts, and a more insidious drug war that actually included new drugs like crack. He was president when Los Angeles, the largest US manufacturing center, shuttered more than 300 factories and mills by the mid-1980s. The highly industrialized Mid-West was renamed the Rust Belt, encompassing cities like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Youngstown. Some 4 million jobs were lost, including union jobs with better pay and benefits like healthcare and pensions. Reagan helped break unions and escalated the “outsourcing” of jobs to cheap labor areas, including Mexico, Central America, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia (where the US returned in the form of Nike). Going away were the jobs that “saved me” in the 1970s. Bethlehem Steel, where I worked from 1974-78, closed in 1984. During his “Born in the USA” tour of that year, I met Bruce Springsteen when he visited our local union hall in Maywood, CA. By then, Local 1845 had become the largest food pantry in the country and a service center for unemployed steelworkers.
Reagan was also behind the illegal Iran-Contra Affair. I became a journalist by then, my way out of the receding industrial world. I was in Nicaragua and southern Honduras in 1982 when the US provided guns to anti-Sandinista guerrillas, and used money from sales of crack in US inner cities to pay for them. I got fired upon and bombed twice covering this war. I also covered indigenous and peasant uprisings in Mexico when that country underwent the worse economic crisis since the Revolution. As it were, Reagan’s administration had more members arrested and convicted than any other administration in history, although he was spared (and most of the others were pardoned by George H. W. Bush).
While Reagan’s presidency also saw some 2.3 million new jobs, most were in low pay, nonunion, service work that has been spreading around the country ever since. Proof of this is that today the number one employer in formerly industrial states like Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Texas, Kentucky, West Virginia and Florida is Walmart.
Reagan supported wars in El Salvador, Guatemala; invaded places like Grenada; allied with anti-Soviet Mujahedeen in Afghanistan (including Osama Bin Laden); and bombed Beirut from offshore Navy ships. Even the Soviet Union collapsed during Reagan’s tenure, with fracturing of the country, the largest sell off of public entities in history, all backed by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and private interests. Today 110 people in Russia own 35 percent of the wealth. Yes, the Soviet system had its failures and gaps, but nothing to what it has now.
Meanwhile in the United States, rich people got richer and homelessness became a permanent feature of our landscape.
Damn, this had to be the worst president.
George H. W. Bush followed Reagan, getting us into the first Iraqi War. He also failed miserably after Los Angeles exploded in 1992 following the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King beating. The uprising became the most costliest and deadliest in recent history. I also covered its aftermath, getting published in the Los Angeles Times and other publications. In addition, my 1993 memoir “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA” about how a Chicano gang member overcame the odds, became a bestseller when national interest in LA gangs spiked. I quit all my work then, including in news radio for CNN, NBC, and Westinghouse. I decided to work for myself (that year I also sobered up), which I’ve been doing ever since.
To be clear, Democrat presidents like Bill Clinton didn’t fare much better. Clinton extended the dreadful mass incarceration that went hog wild under Nixon and Reagan with more federal laws trying juveniles as adults, three-strikes, and increased prison terms (disproportionately aimed at blacks, Latinos, poor whites). He pushed NAFTA through that hurt the economies of Mexico and Central America, bringing in more waves of economic and war refugees. The immigration service deported LA-based gangs to Mexico and Central America, changing cultures and maintaining violence at civil war levels. There was the Monica Lewinsky affair—what a mess.
Then George “Dubya” Bush became president. His victory marred with “hanging chads” in Florida and the mostly conservative US Supreme Court crowning him as president, even though Al Gore won the popular vote. When 9/11 happened, for a time Americans had a reason to unite and care. But Bush turned this into a war with Afghanistan and later Iraq (which had nothing to do with 9/11 nor with “weapons of mass destruction” that Bush had claimed). We are still fighting those wars today—and have entered others in the Mideast—now at a cost of up to $7 trillion.
Even Dubya’s friends in the defense industries benefited from 9/11—by 2003, private contractors received $138 billion from the US, including the Carlyle Group, where the first Bush had ties, and KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, once run by Vice President Dick Cheney.
And the present Mexican drug wars, which began when Bush provided close to a billion dollars to then-Mexican president Felipe Calderon in 2006, only made drug related killings rise to new heights in Mexico, now close to 200,000 people killed or disappeared—while heavy drugs became more accessible than ever before in US communities. I also witnessed part of this—in 2010 I spoke in a prison, a juvenile hall, community gatherings, and in slums in and around Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (where I lived when I was born across the way in El Paso, Texas). At the time, this city was the “murder capital of the world.”
Bush also largely abandoned the victims of 2005's Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans and the Gulf region, leading to 1,245 deaths and $108 billion in damages, mostly poor, including black and white. Years passed and the most devastated areas were still devastated.
How worse could things get?
President Obama seemed like a breath of fresh air, and none of the racist attacks against him should have been tolerated, nor how the Republican-held Congress stymied his every move. Yet, Obamacare, while bringing badly needed health services to millions, was still not the single-payer, free-and-quality healthcare that should have happened. Obama could not pull us out totally from the Mideast, including the systemic use of unmanned drones that dropped tens of thousand of bombs, mostly in civilian areas. And his administration carried out more deportations, primarily of Mexicans and Central Americans, in history. Obama failed to stem the major impacts of the mortgage crisis after the 2008 crash and the worst economic slump since the Great Depression—for example, big developers benefited from the loss of millions of homes (including Donald Trump). Nobody went after the banks and financial institutions “too big to fail,” instead Obama bailed them out with more than $14 trillion in taxpayers' funds. In Obama’s last years as president, the disproportionate killings of blacks by police continued unabated.
In addition, the Obama Administration forged on in the “war on drugs” (really a war on the poor). In my lifetime, for forty-five years or so, I worked with gang members, the incarcerated, drug addicts, and other troubled youth and adults. I did this across the country, but in particular the two “gang capitals”: Los Angeles and Chicago. I also visited hundreds of prisons and juvenile lockups throughout the United States as well as Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Argentina, Italy, and England.
I saw firsthand how with billions spent, thousands killed, mostly in Latin America and US inner cities, and how prison rates made the United States the world’s biggest jailer, drugs continued to permeate every facet of society. Today opioids (heroin, fentanyl, etc.) kill a person every 12 minutes. One in seven persons will be addicted to opioids in the next few years; only one in 10 will find treatment.
It takes billions of dollars to keep us drugged up or drunk—or caught in the web of the criminal justice system or in “recovery,” two other powerful industries.
Now as the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is built while thousands of Native Americans and their allies fight to protect the water, the land, and their sacred sties, it appears that Obama will leave office with no lasting justice as various militarized law enforcement agencies, at a cost of millions of taxpayer funds, escalate their attacks on unarmed protectors. Trump’s invested in the company behind this pipeline, which is why he’s already gone on record in support of its construction. If the Obama Administration doesn’t shut it down completely before January 20 (although the pipeline has been stopped temporarily), when Trump assumes office the “black snake” will likely be finished.
Recently, hundreds of US war veterans converged on the Native American camps of protectors. Veterans of all races, led by Wesley Clark, Jr., spoke to the elders’ council. Clark voiced a litany of treachery, lies, murders, land grabs, destruction of languages and cultures that Native peoples have endured at the hands of official and unofficial US actions. But unlike the 7th Calvary at Wounded Knee in 1890, these warriors asked for forgiveness, getting on one knee and bending their heads. People whooped and hollered in approval. An elder put his hand on Clark’s head. This is the seed of a new America, one many of us for generations have fought for.
If revolution isn’t about healing, then it’s not revolutionary.
The spiral of history moves forward, showing that we’ve been here before, many times. The spiral, as in nature, moves from lower to higher forms, simpler to complex, from what’s dying to what’s being born. The spiral demonstrates few things are really “new under the sun”—yet, at the same time, how we’ve never been in this particular time, this particular place, in the midst of these particular circumstances.
Requiring of us new ideas, new forms, new organizations.
In our developing story, the American people are again at a crossroads.
As Langston Hughes wrote, “America has never been America to me…” It never was for the majority of Americans. Yet Langston also wrote about the “America that can be.” For the conditions are ripening for a land that is free, equitable, and safe for everyone. This is the crux we are in.
Again, the heart and soul of America.
The crossroads is where we face our true selves, both ugly and divisive as well as embracing and inclusive. The latter draws from the best of our origins, full of the ideals of “liberty and justice for all.” Or we continue on the road led by racist, class-based, earth-destroying forces that have hijacked political parties and religious groups on a neo-fascist plan to dismantle generations of hard work and achievements.
Which way do we go?
I say let’s meet the challenge stretching us beyond our limits (the only challenges that matter). This means stretching our minds, hearts, and abilities accordingly, to organize, teach, and find common ground in ways we’ve never done before as we incorporate the diversity of voices, flavors, songs, orientations, and breaths this land is capable of sustaining.
A place for everyone, not just the wealthy, not just “citizens,” not just straight, not just “white.” Everyone.
Media outlets and pundits have talked recently about the rebellion of the “white working class,” which has apparently been ignored and now awaken like a sleeping giant to turn swing states into victory for Trump. But there is no “white” working class. There is only one working class: It’s white, black, brown, and yellow (and all skin tones in-between). It includes the undocumented, LGBT, disabled, Native Americans, war veterans, industrial and nonindustrial. Many have been driven out of the capitalist economy—those who can’t find work, or a home, or a “career path” as the changing economy fails to integrate them.
How come media and pundits don’t address the multi-ethnic makeup of the real working class? They act as if only whites have a working class. And how come “white workers” are being seen as a monolith? Many such workers were for Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton, the Green Party, or like millions of others, didn’t even vote.
This is how racism creeps into the dialogue, as if whites as workers had interests separate from the rest of us. For generations, from our beginnings, whites have been given a “special status,” even though they are often in the same dire straits. The aim is to create an illusion that whites have “interests” as whites, even with the few whites who are rich and powerful (since the rich and powerful happen to be majority white).
Conversely, the illusion is that whites don’t have much in common with other poor working class people who happen to be of all colors, languages, from many countries—all enduring the same circumstances.
Now we can see the key to power in the United States.
To repeat: The “white” race (and “race” as a concept) is one of the biggest lies of the world. It’s illusionary like most of what we think is real and sacred—such as borders, mortgages, wage systems, marriages, binary sex relations, and on and on. All illusions. All man made. For spiritual-driven people, there’s nothing about God in any of these. True nature, true creation (and therefore “God”) is multifaceted, multidimensional, and far richer. The earth, as seen by the Hubble Space telescope, is not veined with nation states and borderlines. It’s one huge blue, green, white ecosystem that we all belong to as humans, as part of an extremely diverse animal world, within delicate yet generative dynamics of a vibrant, living planet.
Scarcity or abundance
Too many “good” people are dying or getting depressed or going to war because of belief systems (because real “knowing” doesn’t need belief). This also goes for patriotism. Patriotism is love of the “fatherland,” rooted in the patrias. This has to be seen not above everything, but nested within the more important Cosmos, Mother Earth, and on down. Nations, tribes, communities, families, are important if they flow from this. But today, patriotism means the “nation” is more important than the earth—to make this nation “great” means a world is sacrificed for the patrias. In the past this was Nazi Germany, or the Roman Empire, or any particular tribe, community, or religious and political group that “believed” it was better or more worthy than others (a psychotic state that apparently embraces whole peoples).
“The Chosen People” (self-chosen in my view) over everyone else (not realizing, that the "chosen," the poor and downtrodden of any age, carries the same mantle as the Jews against the Pharoahs or Romans of the Bible--the dream and realization of a new world). We have to go beyond the immature pre-industrial and industrial mentality of past "civilization" as we embark on a new age, new epoch, a new story.
So what we’re facing, in essence, is either scarcity or abundance. For the 1 percent or 99 percent. For war and want… or living in accordance with nature and our own natures to establish the most abundant and liberating of all possible worlds. This would take a people with integrity, healthy outlook, firm moral grounding, and wise ideas. We don’t have this in Trump.
Trump is about “America First,” even if this makes the world unsafe, precarious, and poisonous. I love my country—my citizenship cannot be denied nor my commitment to the best country imaginable. But as I’m saying, we have to love the world more.
A fascist, albeit of the US variety, will take over the White House on January 20. Yes, fascists have their own form of anti-equalitarian and xenophobic governance to implement, the Nazi’s being the most detrimental. You can't say they are all the same. Still there are a few things we can agree about fascism in general.
Fascism is the unity of big business, big government, and big military—exactly what Trump is establishing in a relatively unmasked manner. Trump and his cronies plan to parcel out public services, again the commons of our society, to private enterprises, including our schools, our health care, our energy needs. Republicans for years have been trying to include social security and veteran services as well. In effect, with Trump, the White House has been parceled out to private interests.
For example, Trump and Republicans want to repeal Obamacare. The hidden benefit is that the wealthiest taxpayers (earning more than $200,000 a year, or $250,000 per couple) will see tax cuts totaling $346 billion over 10 years—while 20 million Americans would lose healthcare coverage. Although Republicans say they may “replace” after the repeal, they’re working on plans with far less tax impact on top earners, and far less reach of affordable healthcare.
Trump will beef up the military abroad, already close to 60 percent of our national budget ($125 billion of which the Pentagon can’t account for). And he will boost up the militarization at home in the guise of “law and order.” That’s the neo-fascist ideal—take money away from housing, healthcare, education, our needs, and put it in military misadventures and so-called domestic security. Most of this will be directed at those who dare oppose the whole set up.
People like me. Perhaps you.
Hitler did this to a gross degree. So did Mussolini, Franco, Pinochet, Somoza, and fascists everywhere. Again, we’ve been here before. Whether Trump will be "worse" than Hitler, this is not clear (again there are parallels between the two men but also striking differences). One thing is clear--Trump will have access to more power and military might than Hitler ever imagined. He's also becoming president during the worst income inequality in human history. Latest reports say only 8 billionaires have more wealth than 3.6 billion of the world's population. US military capacity is greater than all other countries combined (including Russia and China).
Nonetheless, we face something wholly different, requiring an imaginative, short-and-long term, comprehensive revolutionary movement if we are to regain sanity and equanimity in this country.
In effect, we have to out-think, out-organize, and out-last the fascists of the world.
The immediate and long haul
So where do we go from here? For one, the crossroads demands a new social compact in America, new alignments to attune our governance, our economy, our culture to the commons—that which belongs to all of us (instead of what “belongs” to the most powerful and wealthy). This requires a fuller clarity and greater access to deeper knowledge that can guide us through the pitfalls, minefields, and cons.
Yes, let’s meet the gathering storm head on, resisting and fighting “Trumpism” wherever it shows up. But we also have to be about something bigger, better, and long-range, not just against Trump or against the features of a disjointed and alienated social order (otherwise Trump and his fascist elite pull us around by the nose whenever they please).
Of course, we must address the immediate demands of the working class, the dispossessed, the ones who lose regardless who is president or what party is in power. But we must also clarify and take care of the future of that movement—where it’s organically going (and help get it there).
This part, the visionary and long haul aspects, the steady and consistent, are immensely harder to grasp. We’re in a culture, established on purpose, which is about the immediate fix, the immediate impact. A new generation has been raised on the dopamine-inducing joys of drink, drugs, sex, video games, and even social media (although my experience is that young people are grossly underestimated; most are not into all this as one would think).
None of these are bad in themselves. Drinking some. Okay. A blunt now and then. Sure. Consensual mature sex with someone you care about. Why not? Enjoying a good video game. Yes. Even communicating on social media. I’m there.
All this within reason, safe and from strength, measured and guided by greater purposes and meanings, what’s generally missing in the equation. The problem is when all other needs collapse into one “need,” when doing all the above becomes imbalanced and addictive.
The work of a new society involves slow, meandering, and messy processes that take patience and persistence. But few are prepared or trained for this. It’s time to create new types of revolutionary thinkers, teachers, and organizers—who carry the past (the real history we’re barely touching on here), the underlying deep impulses of present-day life and social development—and a dream.
I will also say the creative/artistic/poetic that can point to, and bless, a way out.
Our story is far from over.
The economy doesn't care if you are progressive, conservative, or what party you voted for—or even if you didn’t vote. It doesn’t care if you are Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindi, Native, or atheist. Nor your skin color, sexual orientation, or gender. If you’re in the 99 percent, the income gap is at its widest in history. And with deregulation and tax breaks for the wealthy that Trump is proposing, this gap will get worse.
It takes billions of dollars to keep people poor.
So I will put forward another controversial statement—okay, we need political options, alternatives, solutions. But these won’t suffice. Society moves in stages and we’ve not understood everything about the past and current stages, nor where the next will lead. Yet these are knowable if we avoid the doctrinaire and stilted.
Revolutionary ideas are still valid if reexamined and renovated like everything else—or create room for new ideas to spring forth even mightier and more aligned than the previous ones. I critique the present-day Left in the United States (a self-critique, if you will) by pointing out that most Left groups are carrying too many “corpses” around, too many dead ways of doing things, forcing an exasperating inertia. Revolutionary science, even in social development, is constant growth, learning, even with mistakes, nodal leaps, stagnation at times, only to find a keyway to push on through to greater awareness and, thereby, enhanced revolutionary practice.
Today, and there’s enough blame to go around, the Left is scattered, embittered, splintered, and often within its own bubbles to matter to the majority of people. History won’t judge this lightly. This is an abdication of leadership and I don’t want any part of it.
Yes, there are objective conditions we all face, and only those who want to muddle, deflect, or confuse will say otherwise. Still what’s missing is the grand imagination, the ability to envision and live out the story we were meant to do as a land and people. We’re missing the true-north teachings with the most original and powerful imagery, language, and lessons to reorient and reshape those conditions toward the new post-industrial potential.
A fatal flaw in our national story, after years of subterfuge, scapegoats, and false hopes, is becoming clear. The “apocalypse” is upon us, not as “the end of the world,” but from the original meaning of the Greek word to unveil, to reveal, to expose. More than a few are realizing “the emperor has no clothes.” This system has no more legs to stand on. And many Americans, especially the young, so-called millennials, are sensing this, even if not all understand the full scope.
If most of our stories is about coming home, then let’s contemplate building a new house within the unequal, full-of-holes house we now live under. It’s not enough to tear down the existing misshapen house without a new plan, a new foundation, the infrastructure of a sturdier dwelling. We’ll just have ruins around us.
When I ran for California governor in 2014, I proposed four pillars of a thriving and healthy society, a likely basis of such a house: 1) clean and green environment for all; 2) social justice, including an end to mass incarceration, police killings, discriminatory practices; 3) the end of poverty, since whenever any people are poor, no matter what that society claims, it’s always wrong; 4) and peace in the world and peace at home.
All of this undergirded by a truly transparent and corporate-free, publicly financed democratic process. Today our “democracy” is another industry—the last election was the most expensive, around $2 billion. Mass media makes a killing on ads and commercials. I’m for the end of “citizens united” (where corporations are treated as people, and therefore provided greater voice and power), machine politics, voter suppression, or the Electoral College.
These pillars, however, cannot be met under capitalism. They are incompatible with a system based on private property and exploitation. All these pillars are linked—you can’t have one or two without the others. It’s time to connect the dots and not get divided by “my” issue over “yours,” a scourge of too many progressive movements.
Where do we go from here?
If you’ve read this far, thank you. It’s remarkable since most people rarely get into history’s depths or intensive ideas, especially contentious ones, for too long. To reiterate, we need to slow down, pay attention, and not get swept up by the speed of modern society. We need well-thought-out, mind-and-soul activating concepts, stories, and proposals.
Short, quick responses, even memes, are okay. But where are the substantial thought-pieces, the ones you have to read more than once, research, uncover new things—that challenge? Most of us are hardly equipped to understand the nadirs and parameters of our complicated economic, political, and cultural system—what makes things tick. We leave that to others and go about our merry way (then wonder why everything fell apart).
Our brains exist for more than just to get by or get over. They exist more than to be consumers or spectators. The human brain is the highest form of matter. Our brain and other capacities, fed by genuine teachings, can take development through its next spiral of integrality.
So let me end on a provocative note, to really get under our skins, so to speak: The biggest task confronting all of us today is to recreate a country that aligns with earth’s regenerative capacity, aligns technology and resources to needs, and values human beings just for being human.
Change is not doing things differently. Again, it is to properly align.
For I contend the real foundation of this land is not with the so-called Founding Fathers, although the early architects had great merit and important principles. History and ideas did not start when Europeans arrived, as textbooks and media tends to portray. The real foundation is with the indigenous peoples of the lands, already here for millennia, they who had gathered wisdom about nature, everyone’s personal nature, and the nature of relationships, human and divine.
Their “science” was in the myths, the stories, the spoken minerals of thought and tongue.
I’m talking ancestral knowledge that crosses all borders, from across this vast continent, drawing from all tribes, but also from the extraordinary (so-called) Inca, Mayan, and Toltec/Aztec worlds. While European conquerors and colonialists destroyed the outward representations of these remarkable peoples, including burning an estimated 60,000 amatl-paper books of the Aztecs (Mexikas), this knowledge is still with us.
When the Spanish first arrived to Mexico-Tenochtitlan in 1519, this city of temples and causeways, they described how glorious, clean, orderly, beautiful, and peaceful it was, larger and more striking than European cities of the time. But when gold was found among the gifts given to them, the natives were then called savages, spawn of hell, demons. They were slaughtered, their temples razed, their leaders tortured. The natives had complex spiritual practices, but they were considered “children” that needed Europeans to save their souls.
To this day, “saving souls” is still mired with conquests, colonialists, and racist precepts. For this is an important point that may take a while for people to get over—there was nothing “un-Godly” about any of their spiritual knowledge and practices.
This “knowing” also embraces the indigenous origins that belong to all peoples, from all continents, whose integral and latent energies still resonant. That’s one thing we all have regardless of so-called race, ethnic group, or creed—ancestral roots (with similar patterns and philosophies across cultures).
US laws and schools largely demeaned and dismissed indigenous teachings. There were many attempts to eradicate the “Indian” mind with boarding schools, English-only curriculum (people punished for speaking their own languages), and often racist pro-capitalist texts. Blacks were treated even more abominably (unable to play drums, speak their languages, keep their spiritual practices, etc.).
I contend these cosmologies are not archaic, quaint, or “sinful” concepts from the past. I argue, with modern rejuvenation, their primary teachings are more valid than ever before.
The root of ancestral knowledge is abundance, the very thing this system has tried to convince everyone can’t have, that can’t exist, unless in fantasy or after you die. Scarcity is another lie that has become deadly truth for most of us.
Scarcity is why Donald Trump perpetuates the lie there are only “so many jobs, homes, and rights” to go around. Scarcity is why we don’t have enough to pay rent, eat, healthcare, or debt-free education at the same time. Why Trump wants to waste money and energy on a wall across our southern border. Or why we must cause climate change to drive our cars and run our factories. It’s why Los Angeles, my home, one of the world’s richest cities, now has the largest homeless population, including with increased removal of poor and vulnerable from inner cities, and where 4003 people died from 2005 to 2015 from homelessness.
Our new house has to be built on abundance. This is nature’s way. If properly taken care of, nature will always provide. Even with destruction, like a wildfire in the hills, nature returns, even coming back with new plants and foliage as if these seeds were deep underground waiting to be awakened.
Capitalism at one time was the dynamo that moved society forward. Now it’s become the chain on our development. It’s clear fossil fuel has done more damage, even if it once pushed our transportation needs to new lengths and heights. It‘s also the lubrication for the earth. With capitalism and oil extraction we’ve now seen more temperature changes, more hurricanes, more earthquakes, more of our earth taken beyond its capacity.
Technology, society’s productive forces, is in constant transition. Despite natural and human disasters, despite wars, famines, and more, we keep expending and extending our tools. In millions of years, we went from foraging on the ground, hunting, hand tools, to planting, hybridizing crops, to creating cities, writing, even things not so good like slavery, wars, and manufactured hunger, to establishing fiefdoms, ruling classes, nations, steam driven apparatuses, to large-scale production, to population-dense cities, to smog, to computers, to airplanes, to space travel, to quantum realities… and onward.
What used to be science fiction is now fact, and in many cases even more fantastic than the original fiction.
The present outmoded social organization is irreconcilable with the new technology, the combined imaginations and intelligences of all people, and with nature’s capacity to replenish.
Imagine, imagine, imagine. It’s about where we’ve been at before, but also where we have to go that’s new and un-traversed.
As for me, with years of organizing, founding organizations, protesting, reporting, teaching, traveling, writing, and more, I’ve pushed the creative/poetic more than anything, including helping establish Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center & Bookstore in Los Angeles and publishing wonderful writers through Tia Chucha Press. I now have 15 of my own books in poetry, children’s literature, short stories, the novel, memoir, and nonfiction, published by Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Seven Stories, Lee & Low, Curbstone, and others. My family of four children, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren is growing. I’ve also been an adjunct professor, interviewed on various TV, radio, and print media, and spent the last two years as the city’s official poet laureate.
For in these times, we need poets more than ever. Here’s William Stafford.
… And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
There’s an ending to our story. Of course, like all endings, it’s also a beginning. Still we have a charge: To make the wellbeing of our children, adults, elders, families, and planet the cornerstone of any new society, and the central adventure of a new story. Any new political party, media, organization, nonprofit, or business must take all of this into account to be part and parcel of this story. A new world is immanent, if we also transcend the rotten and worn out, keep the perennial and lasting, and pray we can figure out what’s what.
It’s time, finally, to come home.
The blogpost first appeared on the Los Angeles Public Library website on October 11, 2016. Here's link: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/los-angeles-poets-and-temper-our-times
Let us dare haunting verse of the oppressed,
poems with hoodies, finger-tapping, ambling.
I mean pissed off and ardently expressed,
poems delirious as midnight rambling.
Bebop, Hip Hop, a decima or slam,
metered lyrics, free shaped texts… no matter,
bring out the fire, the punch, a resounding jam.
Let it ring far, a magnificent chatter.
Naming the nameless, voicing the unheard,
questioning the questions, swimming, splashing.
No expert strokes but damn if not expert word;
every line bleeding, grieving, pleading, slashing.
The power of poetry is its stance,
page or stage, electrifying or trance.
Los Angeles’s creative life appears driven by the vast dream factories established in this city—Hollywood, fashion, murals, car culture, architecture, skateboarding, tattoos, museums, music.
All that glitters. All that blings. All that sings.
Cool. I enjoy a good movie, TV drama, and wonderful museum like anyone else. But glaring to me are the gaps, the unequal economic, political, and cultural rifts, the Paris of the Pacific versus the Beirut by the Beach. This is also our city: Some 40 gang injunctions “arresting” around 70 communities; Los Angeles residents making up 60 percent or so of the state’s massive prison system; L.A. County with more poor than any other U.S. county; the country’s largest homeless population; more police killings than any other city; and violence rates in parts of this city that rival or exceed the world’s most violent places.
For example, from a Los Angeles Times report a few years ago, in South L.A. the homicide rate for Latino males ages 16 to 24 was 70 per 100,000 people; for African American males in the same age range, it was 120 murders per 100,000. The countries with excessive murder rates—Honduras, El Salvador, sections of Mexico, South Africa—go from 70 to 90 per 100,000.
Still, with a creative economy that provides one in seven jobs in the Los Angeles region, close to 730,000, with a combined income of $50.6 billion (from the 2014 Otis Report on the Creative Economy), there are whole neighborhoods, for miles and miles, that have no bookstores, no cultural spaces, no museums, no movies houses—and this in the “Entertainment Capital” of the world.”
Nonetheless, there is much to love and celebrate in Los Angeles.
So I ask, can we imagine a new L.A.—free of poverty; social injustices; toxic air, ground, and water; as well as domestic and street violence? A Los Angeles that’s healthy and thriving, including neighborhoods exploding with public art, festivals, music, dance, theater, spoken word, and more—with a cultural life that incorporates children, teens, adults, elders, not just concentrated for a privileged few.
Perhaps we should listen to poets.
In 2014, Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed me as the city’s official poet laureate. The Mayor made the pronouncement in October of that year at the Central Public Library downtown. I told the story that at 15 I was briefly homeless in downtown’s streets, on drugs, sleeping along the “Concrete River,” in abandoned cars, at all-night movie theaters, on church pews, behind dumpsters. That very library became my refuge. I walked those aisles hungry for ideas, stories, compelling language. I read for hours. These books were my saving grace.
By 20, I became gang-free, drug-free, and crime-free.
Today, 40 years later, I’m all about books. I have published award-winning works in all genres. I also help oversee the bookstore/cultural center co-founded with my wife Trini, Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center. And I’m founding editor of one of L.A.’s premier small presses, Tia Chucha Press.
The point is literacy and arts among the poor, dispossessed, and pushed out is vital in these times when the “bottom line” reigns.
This year, Tia Chucha Press released a new anthology of L.A.-area poets, “Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles,” edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Daniel A. Olivas, and Ruben J. Rodriguez. Beautifully designed by Jane Brunette, who’s been designing our books for 27 years, with cover art by Alfonso Aceves, “Coiled Serpent” is a testament to the powerful poetry undergirding all the ugliness and splendor, scarcity and abundance, of our lives.
Why don’t we hear more from poets? Why don’t we have more poetry at graduations, celebrations, rallies, commemorations… as an every day, every occasion thing? Today, poetry is removed from the mainstream culture—we’re one country that marginalizes poetry while poetry is written, memorized, and recited all over the world, even in the most deprived areas.
In the United States, when a poetry book sells 1,000 copies, it’s considered a good seller; in Japan, poetry books can sell 3 million copies or more. Throughout Mexico and other Latin American countries, children learn to declamar, recite from memory classic verses. Poets in the Mideast, Russia, Europe, Iran, China, and India are revered. In Africa, griots—storytellers and verse purveyors—held entranced audiences for centuries. When the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, arguably the best poet of the 20th century, read at Santiago’s soccer stadium, the audience of 90,000 people would shout back his every word.
Poetry, like all art, needs to be at the center of our reality, for greater depth, enhanced dialogue, striking revelations. Our country is deprived for lack of enriched expression, performance, and blessings.
As the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats famously wrote in “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Just the same, in Los Angeles I’ve seen the best with conviction, with passion, with images. They include high school students writing in worn journals outside of class assignments. They are at the prolific number of open mics throughout the L.A. area, including every Friday night at Tia Chucha’s Bookstore. They are with organizations like Get Lit Players, Say Word, WriteGirl, Urban Word, Street Poets, Inside Out Writers, L.A. Poet Society, Writ Large Press, and others, bringing classic and new poems to our schools, playgrounds, juvenile lockups, and community spaces.
Poetry won’t solve L.A.’s immense problems. But with images, vision, ideas, we can delve deeper into what can. We can find a commonality beyond the divides.
As I finish my two-year tenure as L.A.’s Poet Laureate, I will remember always my visits to hundreds of schools, festivals, graduations, bookstores, universities, colleges, and more. I spoke, read or facilitated workshops in over 40 libraries as far flung as Sylmar, Sherman Oaks, Woodland Hills, Westwood, Pico-Union, Boyle Heights, Watts, Little Tokyo, and Wilmington. I addressed audiences at one of L.A. County’s juvenile halls, Los Padrinos; at Grand Performances of the California Plaza; at the Mark Taper Auditorium with storyteller Michael Meade and John Densmore of The Doors; at City Hall’s Council Chambers; during the Watts Jazz Festival; at Sirens Café in San Pedro; as speaker for the Poetry Convergence at the Skirball Museum; to support Endangered Languages at the Hammer Museum; and with the Poetry Circus at Griffith Park… to name a few.
Other area highlights include serving as Latino Heritage Grand Marshal in Pasadena; a panelist at the Southern California Poetry Festival in Long Beach; and in conversation with writer Ruben Martinez at Loyola Marymount University in Santa Monica;
During this time, I won awards and certificates from Beyond Baroque, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Con Tinta Literary Association, Leadership L.A.—and I received the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement. I also taught a wonderful class on so-called marginalized literature at California State University, Northridge for spring 2016.
Now, I’m teaching writing in two maximum-security yards at Lancaster State Prison for 30 weeks. And I’ll spend a month in Honduras later this year to facilitate poetry with orphaned teens from violence and poverty.
To punctuate this amazing journey, I invite you all to come to a culmination event on November 1 at the Taper Auditorium of the Central Library, from 3 pm to 5 pm, sponsored by Get Lit Players, Mayor Eric Garcetti, the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Los Angeles Public Library. I will read with current Youth Poet Laureate, Rhiannon McGavin.
Even in these times of growing racial, class and political discord, and increased uncertainty, there are many bards of beauty, bards of bounty. Please, open your ears, your souls, your minds and hearts, and listen. They are revolutionary. They are healing. They are Los Angeles.
The blog post is based on a keynote speech I did two years ago at the 10th Annual J. Paul Taylor Social Justice Symposium at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces on "Justice for Native Americans: Historical Trauma, Contemporary Images, and Human Rights." It first appeared on Los Angeles Public Library website on August 18, 2016. Here's link: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/indigenous-mind—-four-key-connections
First, a number of greetings in the language of a few native peoples on this continent:
Yaa'teeh – “It is good” in Dine/Navajo
Kwira Va – “We are one” in Raramuri
Gualli Tonalli – “Good day,” in Nahuatl, although this can be translated as “have a good destiny”
And In lak’ech – Mayan from southern Mexico and Guatemala: “I am the other you”
What links these greetings is the sense of connection, that we are all related, Mitakuye Oyasin in Lakota, a sense that is largely being eroded in our modern industrial and post-industrial world.
I’d like to propose that these disconnections—separation from nature, from our own natures, from each other, and the divine—is the greatest source of inhumanity, trauma, and disintegration confronting Native peoples today, and, I’ll venture to say, everyone else as well.
First, because all peoples have native roots (indigenous to some part of the world, even if we all originated in Mother Africa). Secondly, because as the world spirals into deeper crisis, ancestral knowledge, often told through stories, mythic imaginations, become much-needed guides through the current morass.
As Native Peoples we saw the invasion, infusion, and infections from European powers more than 500 years ago as the single most important root of our separation from what we consider the Great Spirit, Creator, Ometeotl—including the very earth and sky and systems that have sustained us for tens of thousand of years, or as we would say, “forever.”
For years now, I’ve been around the world addressing this deep separation in a variety of ways. Because of my work, for example, I’ve visited hundreds of prisons and juvenile lockups. I’ve done this for over 35 years. I’ve been to California institutions like Folsom, Soledad, San Quentin, Lancaster, and Chino; to juvenile facilities and prisons in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. I’ve done the same in some of the harrowing prisons of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Argentina, and southern England.
You have not been to a living hell until you’ve walked down several caverns of a Salvadoran prison with no electricity, no running water, tattooed faced gang youth at every turn, 40 to 50 prisoners in a cell meant for two, including a section for women with babies, who are also incarcerated.
Two years ago, I was at the J. Paul Taylor Center juvenile facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico, speaking to adjudicated young men. I can appreciate the difference in how the United States deals with our troubled youth, the much greater resources available, and for the most part staffed by courageous and caring men and women.
I had a great time with these youth, great talks, and like always, I learned much in hearing from them. Yet, I must say, the separation affecting these youth is palpable, punishing, and in my view destructive to their spirits and to our communities.
What traumatized, violent, raging young men need—and this is based on actual practice, study and experience—is more community, more family (and if they don’t have a family, or have a broken one, a healthy sense of family). They need more connection.
Generally, in our so-called adult corrections and juvenile justice systems, in dealing with most trouble, most traumas, we do the exact opposite. Even the psychoactive drugs we prescribe to ADHD children, or mentally ill persons, or the clinically depressed result in artificial separation from one’s own powers and energies to cope and to change.
Why is this so?
Because this is what we’ve done to our whole culture: alienation from the fruits of our labor and creativity, from each other, from the energies in nature and spirit that sustain us.
The poison I’m talking about has penetrated almost all our policies, laws, and history—it has separated us by so-called races, by economic class, young from old, men from women, gay from straight, powerful from the powerless.
We are a divided country, in a “disunited states” of America, one that is constantly at odds. Riddled with social, income, and other gaps. I’m proposing another way to re-integrate ourselves, a way to become more integral as a people, to make sure all basic needs and rights as human beings are met, and a way that will allow us to unite around the essentials, have liberty around the nonessentials, and to be caring, connected, and cooperative in everything else.
We as Native Peoples have an obligation to provide such knowledge and imaginations to the world. My Dine teachers call this at’e—it is. Being whole in the face of immense fracturing.
As a Chicano, my own native roots come from the vast Chihuahua desert, before it was divided into two countries and various states. Before there were any borders. A time when we all spoke a variance of what scholars call the Ute-Aztecan language group, that encompasses tribes on both sides of the border such as the Raramuri, Yaqui, Huichol, as well as the Hopi, Shoshone, Paiute, and Tohono O’odham.
My mother was born in Chihuahua City from a Raramuri woman and a mixed Mexican man. Her grandmother and mother left the Copper Canyon—La Barranca de Cobre—section of the Sierra Tarahumara during the Mexican Revolution, walking for miles during a time when whole villages, and what some people didn’t know, small tribes were being destroyed by federal troops.
My father is from a part of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero with many Nahuatl-speaking peoples but also former African slaves. When my dad’s village of birth was destroyed, his mother carried him as a baby in swaddling on the back of a burro just before federales attacked.
I have Native roots from both areas. Yet there’s a blue-eyed grandfather in my lineage. A recent DNA test shows I’m almost half Native; around 60 percent from people of color, including from Africa; while the rest is a fantastic mix of European cultures. As I’ve written before, I have the whole world inside me.
At’e—it is what it is.
However, for over twenty years I’ve cleaved closer to my native roots when I decided to sober up after having been on drugs for seven years as a youth, including heroin, and then drinking for twenty years on top of that.
I gravitated to the Mexika traditions of Mexico, which is taught and honored in almost every major Chicano community in the United States. I also had teachers among the Lakota from Pine Ridge, where I helped bring contingents of Chicano, Puerto Rican, and African American gang members. I’ve done ceremonies there, as well as in and around Illinois and the Midwest.
In 1997, I began to go to the Navajo Nation for ceremonies and teachings, as well as work with youth and families there. I learned the medicine way from a Dine roadman, Anthony Lee, and his wife Delores of Lukachukai, Arizona, who soon adopted my wife Trini, who has Huichol roots from Jalisco, Mexico.
We’ve gone back there almost every year. My other teachers include Macuiltochtli and Tlacaelel of Mexico; Julio Revolorio of Guatemala; Panduro, Quechua traditional practitioner from the rainforest of Peru; Ed Young Man Afraid of His Horse from Pine Ridge; and Huitzi and Meztli, a Nahuatl-speaking couple who once ran our Mexikayotl and Nahuatl classes at Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural—the cultural space and bookstore that Trini and I helped create fifteen years ago in the northeast San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles.
Trini and I were also among the founders of the Pacoima and San Fernando sweat lodges. Trini now runs the Hummingbird Women’s Lodge of Sylmar, CA. I also help with the Lincoln Heights sweat lodge, working with friend and teacher, with Purepecha roots from Michoacan, Mexico, Luis Ruan. We often have tattooed face former gang members and prisoners in this lodge, now on healing paths.
Here is what I say we need today and in the future, drawing from these varied but linked traditions and teachings, which I believe are more relevant than ever before—these are not to be written off as “archaic” and “quaint” traditions that no longer apply.
There are four key connections we need as human beings.
First is the connection to our own genius, our own unique internal designs, patterns, “dreams” we were born with. This is where callings come from, the great passions of our life, and eventually the character to carry what we need to live the life we were intended to live. This comes from deep soul work, but also proper initiation, healthy and solid community and family, and quality of struggle so we can give “life” to life.
The second key connection is to nature, so we can align to the laws, rhythms, and energies all around us—from ground, trees, sun, clouds, moon, air, animals, and more. In the past 5,000 years of so-called civilization, we’ve become largely estranged from nature, its abundance and potent powers. With massive manufacturing, mining, and such we’ve created a precarious world for most of us. We have false scarcity in our economies. Nature is our greatest teacher if we pay attention, honor its parameters and possibilities, and always allow nature to regenerate and give back.
The third connection is to each other. In the Bible, Jesus said to treat others as one wants to be treated. That means even with disagreements, different belief systems, customs, sexual orientations, and languages. We learn to respect each other as part of the greater human family. We learn to give and care, instead of take and detach. There are too many predatory relationships, even in families, but also in nations, religions, institutions, and corporations. Dignity for oneself also means allowing other people’s dignities to remain intact. No superiority or inferiority. No valuation systems based on who has money, certain skin color, or the “right” sexuality or gender. Everyone belongs. Everyone is valued.
And fourth, is our connection to the divine. What some people call God, Allah, Jehovah, Great Spirit, Brahman, and many more. The names are diverse. These are not as important as what they purport to represent (although they are important to those who believe in them). What I’m talking about is the universal divine/sacred unleashed when one is most aligned, creative, tapped into their genius, and properly attuned to nature, people, and one’s own nature.
You don’t even have to believe in God. You can be as scientific and secular as possible, yet you can still find the beauty and bounty in all things, all arts, all relationships, all humanity and earth. The divine appears in poems, songs, sculptures, painting, dance, stories, prayers. It shows up anytime, especially in the timeless moments within linear time that touches on an eternal quality of existence. Those not linked to this often feel empty, shallow, disaffected. Again, this may or may not be linked to any faith or church. It’s part of who we are if we properly integrate them into our lives, towards a higher level of wholeness.
I contend that with these four key connections, we can renew and rebuild our families, states, and cultures. These connections go counter to the current global capitalist society that is based on exploitation, oppression, power, and war. We don’t have to choose between “lesser of two evils,” jobs or healthy climate, safety or police killings, between dying of cancer or heart disease—and mostly forced to live meaningless and pointless lives, full of delusions and disappointments.
This is how the indigenous mind, ancestral knowledge, mythic imaginations, can be pertinent, vital, and necessary again, especially in these dark, uncertain, and violent times. This can inspire real hope, transformative relations, real personal and social reckoning.
This blogpost first appeared in the L.A. Public Library website on July 29, 2016: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/what-do-notions-race-or-cultural-superiority-serve
Ideas of racial/cultural purity or superiority are alive and well in the United States. These are oppressive, non-biological, and unnatural concepts, pushed on us like other lies and illusions in our society. This wouldn’t matter much except people believe them. The Atlantic Review in 2007 published the results of the Pew Global Attitudes Survey that showed more than half of U.S. respondents claimed their culture was superior to others, more than respondents in Canada, Spain, Germany, France, Britain, and Sweden about their own cultures.
Another prejudice is expressed with the misnomer “Western Culture.” While this term may not be solely about race, I’ve heard it used to mean “white” or Caucasian without explicitly using those words.
For example, Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King remarked during the recent Republican Convention: “Go back through, history… where are these contributions made by these other categories of people that you are talking about? Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes then asked, “Than white people?” King responded, “Western civilization itself, rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States, and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world.”
Unfortunately, Hayes didn’t challenge King’s assertions. He called them “self-refuting.” But they need to be challenged. For as wrong as King may be, there are whole infrastructures in our country that keep these ideas palpitating. Even presidential nominees espouse them.
Let’s be clear: “Western” culture or civilization is a made-up concept. What we consider Western Culture was not born in a vacuum or developed solely by “white” people. For thousands of years, Europeans appropriated other people’s cultures.
From Africa and the Middle East came three of the world’s great religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The first “cradles of civilization” (where the conditions converged to establish forms of writing, agriculture, architecture, governance, and more) were the Niger River (Nigeria), the Nile Valley (Egypt), Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Mesopotamia), Indus Valley (India), Yellow River (China), Mexico and Central America (Olmecs/Toltecs/Mayas/Aztecs), and the Andes (Incas/Quechuas). None were in Europe.
From South and East Asia came Buddhism, paper, fireworks, oranges, porcelain, fishing reels, suspension bridges, tea, medicine, and much more. From Native peoples of the so-called Americas, who lived here for at least 30,000 years before Europeans arrived, the world obtained corn, tomatoes, chocolate, avocados, potatoes, rubber, gum, hummingbirds, forms of democracy, again herbal healing knowledge, and more. From Africa came musical instruments (guitars, drums, harps), mathematics, astronomy, engineering, medicine, and navigation, to name a few.
The “New World” and Africa also provided gold, silver, diamonds (and other minerals—all stolen) that made Europe a world power. To be accurate, European colonial domination in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia did the same thing.
And in the United States, don’t forget the “contributions” of African-based slave labor along with stolen land from Native Americans and mineral-and-oil rich territory conquered from Mexico. Free labor, free land, oil and minerals to exploit—enough to make any country “great.”
Our “culture,” therefore, is a product of the whole world. For example, if you’ve ever flown a kite, barbecued, surfed, participated in martial arts, become a cowboy, played rock-and-roll, bounced a rubber ball, chewed gum, eaten a chocolate bar, used a compass, witnessed a fireworks display, visited a library, smoked a cigarette, enjoyed a pepper, or drank coffee, then you’ve done things with origins in Africa, South and East Asia, the Middle East, and Native America.
When I grew up, schools and other institutions hounded Mexicans and others to “assimilate” into so-called Anglo culture. In fact, the assimilation expected was to submit to world cultures rendered through the prism, often violent, of U.S. history, laws, politics, etc., including a race-and-class based lens.
To be fair, most peoples of the world have adapted to, assimilated into or appropriated from other peoples—however, few to the extent or levels as Europeans or U.S. European-based peoples have done.
Does this mean that Europeans didn’t contribute anything meaningful? Of course not—Europeans and European-descended peoples in the U.S. and elsewhere have deep formidable imprints in modern technology, industry, science, governance, literature, and art.
Yet, this cannot be an argument for superiority. Only conquests, power dynamics, and wars have sustained such thinking. All of us from whatever culture, ethnicity, or so-called race, have added to the world’s complex development, both good and bad, both wondrous and disastrous.
Again, you wouldn’t know this if you studied official history books or watched TV and movies. Most of these facts and history is skewed. Misrepresented. Thrown on its head.
Recently, my wife Trini and I decided to explore our ancestral DNA. We are living in pioneering times in this field, which has yielded fascinating discoveries and will become more precise as more data becomes available. Current DNA tests through online sites provide only estimates, but quite amazing results nonetheless. We did this not to find any purity or “favored” cultural relationship, but to understand where we came from (at least from the past 1,000 years).
To provide a context, Trini and I both recognize our Native roots—Trini with the Huichol/Mexica tribes of Mexico and me with the Tarahumara/Mexica. In the U.S., we’ve worked with Native Americans (Lakota, Navajo, Chumash, and other tribes), including in spiritual and healing practices. Twenty years ago, Dine elders in the Navajo rez spiritually adopted Trini and, as a consequence, the whole family.
We also identify as working class—that class that must sell its physical or mental labor to survive. We were both born in the United States. And still, we culturally identify as Xicanx, drawing from our Mexican migrant parents, the indigenous, and expanding to include all genders and gender non-conforming members of our community. This simply situates us, providing a framework to distinguish us, not to separate or be classified into notions of superiority or inferiority.
Yet, we know we are culturally and racially mixed—like most Mexicans. A recent genome study in Mexico showed it is one of the most diverse lands on earth. Yet, genetics proved that Mexico has more native roots (at least 60 percent, taking into account all the people) and more African (in one state, Guerrero, the people had 22 percent African descent) than is often recognized. And that Mexico has significant numbers of Europeans (Spanish and otherwise), Middle Easterners, Asians, and more.
Now a summary of our DNA results.
Interestingly, Trini and I have similar ethnic/cultural breakdowns. The biggest chunk of our DNA is Native American (45 percent each). This is native from the whole Western Hemisphere. The tests didn’t break down Native America as well as I know they could. But for now, suffice it to say we have 45 percent DNA tied to all indigenous people of North, Central, and South America.
We also have African DNA—mine was linked to North Africa, Benin-Togo, and Mali. Trini was with Benin-Togo, North Africa, and Africa Southeastern Bantu. This makes sense due to the African presence in Mexico. We also have traces of the Middle East and Asia. With all this, we are each close to 55 to 60 percent with DNA from people of color. As for European strands, we are as diverse as you can imagine: Trini has traces of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Western Europe, Great Britain, European Jewish. Not surprisingly, she is about a quarter from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain/Portugal). But she is also 9 percent from Italy/Greece. I have traces of Western Europe, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, European Jewish, Ireland, and 8 percent from Italy/Greece.
What threw me off is this—I’m only 13 percent from the Iberian Peninsula. I thought it would be more. But the real kicker—I have 13 percent from Great Britain (England/Scotland/Wales). I have no idea where this came from, but there you are.
Trini and I have the world in our DNA. What a wonderful racial and ethnic mix. With our DNA you can see the ongoing powerful impact of global migrant patterns, trades, wars, conquests, and other interactions humans have had over millennia.
Trini and I are also borderless, citizens of the planet, unbounded in many ways. We come from many stories, a culture of stories, a rich tapestry of colors, flavors, tongues, skins, and imaginations. And still, our biggest DNA bloc is Native American. As we stay connected to our indigenous roots, we can also honor the rest of humanity that came together at one time or another so both of us could be born, marry, have children, and help shape the world in the most positive, healing, and liberating ways possible.
The point is—wherever anyone is, wherever they came from, they belong. No one should ever feel estranged or less than others. The earth welcomes all, acknowledges every step regardless of skin color, creed, sexual orientation, or beliefs. Only nation-states and cultural xenophobes say otherwise. It’s time our economy, politics, and governance aligned to this important truth. It’s time the world could be seen as everyone’s home and all its inhabitants—people, animals, plants, trees—as part of a greater earth family. It’s time we allowed ourselves the dignity and respect we all deserve as human beings. Anything less dishonors the sacrifice and dreams of all our ancestors.
As the Lakota say, O’Mitakuye Oyasin—we are all related.