This piece first appeared April 19, 2016 at the L.A. Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/los-angeles-industry%E2%80%94where-past-and-future-collide
Any good craftsman carries his tools.
Years ago they were always at the ready.
In a car. In a knapsack.
Claw hammers, crisscrossed heads,
32 ouncers. Wrenches in all sizes,
sometimes with oil caked on the teeth.
Screwdrivers with multicolored plastic handles
(what needed screwing got screwed).
I had specialty types: Allen wrenches,
torpedo levels, taps, and dies.
A trusty tape measure.
Maybe a chalk line….
In the 1970s, I labored within industrial Los Angeles—in a steel mill, a foundry, a paper mill, a refinery, in construction. I picked up important skills: truck driving, mechanics, welding, carpentry, smeltering, piping, down and dirty. When people think of the city they generally don’t conjure up steel mills or auto plants. The images tend toward Hollywood. Glittering lights. Marquees. Sunset Strip. More like beaches.
Los Angeles is that, but it’s also the country’s largest manufacturing center. Today it leads in aerospace, defense, and the so-called creative economy—movies, music, fashion, design. It has the largest commercial port in the U.S.—the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbors.
I’m now part of that creative economy—the current official poet laureate of the city with books in poetry, children’s books, fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. I became a journalist beginning in 1980 when I worked in East L.A. weekly newspapers. I later worked in a daily newspaper in San Bernardino as well as in news radio in California and Illinois. I’ve also been a freelance writer, fiction writer, essayist, publisher, and poet in Chicago, where I lived for fifteen years, and after I returned to Los Angeles in 2000. I co-founded and help run a cultural space and bookstore called Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center in the northeast San Fernando Valley, now in existence for 15 years.
But in the 1970s I was an unlikely working class hero (I was more likely a working class fool). When union-negotiated consent decrees during that time brought African Americans, Mexicans, Native Americans, and women into the higher-paid skilled jobs, previously dominated by white males, the Bethlehem Steel Plant in Southeast Los Angeles hired me for their “repair gang.” Previous to this I labored in unskilled drudgery. The year was 1974. I had just married my “high school sweetheart,” who received her diploma only two months before the wedding. Less than a year later, we had our son Ramiro. Two years after that, a daughter, Andrea.
Soon after getting hired, I donned my hardhat, safety glasses, steel-toed shoes, mechanic’s uniform, and stared at a mirror. My life seemed to have purpose, direction, longevity. This job consisted of rotating shifts, including “graveyard,” often double shifts (sixteen-hour days), and great pay, particularly with overtime. My bride and I had been living in the South L.A. barrio of Florence. Until then, newly wed poor.
The plant’s nineteenth-century equipment was brought over from back east around World War II, when L.A. also boasted fabrication, assembly, or refinery work in auto, tires, garments, canneries, shipbuilding, aerospace, meatpacking, oil, and more. We had GM and Ford plants, Firestone and Michelin, Boeing and Lockheed. This industry drew workers of all ethnicities from the South, the Midwest, the Northeast, Southwest, and Mexico for what were largely well-paid, mostly union jobs with pensions, health benefits, and a taste of blue-collar stability.
Despite being miles removed from the industrial powerhouses of Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and the like, in Los Angeles you could follow much of this industry from the northeast San Fernando Valley, to the Alameda Corridor north of downtown, down to the Harbor. Whole town with names like Commerce and Industry thrived.
What a time it was! But like most of the “American Dream,” it soon screeched to a halt. Deindustrialization began in the mid-1970s throughout the United States, hitting Los Angeles hard and picking up steam in the 1980s, mostly due to advanced technology, including robotics. Labor saving devices became labor replacing. Major industries also sought cheaper labor markets in the U.S. South, Mexico, Central America, Southeast Asia—impoverished areas with little or no regulation, down to $1 day wages, and low living standards. Then during the first Reagan Administration, the worst recession since the Great Depression exploded in 1981-82 and the unemployment rate went double digits. Only the 2008 recession cut deeper.
Homelessness became a permanent feature of American life.
We all know about the Rust Belt that traversed through states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. Los Angeles may not be considered part of the Rust Belt, but the impact was the same. As plants closed, the two most industrial cities—Los Angeles and Chicago—became known as the “gang capitals” of the world when drugs, guns, and gangs became key to a new, largely illicit, economy.
Mass incarceration, which heightened in the 1990s, turned into it’s own “industry” arising from the crisis. In California alone, the state went from fifteen prisons with 15,000 people in the early 1970s to a height of thirty-four prisons and up to 175,000 prisoners in the 2000’s.
The places I worked in during the height of industrial might in the 1970s went down—Bethlehem Steel in 1981, but also at various times St. Regis Paper Company, National Lead Foundry, Chevron Chemical Refinery, and others. Some 300 big mills and plants gone by the mid-1980s—and with it, any illusion of stability.
I eventually lost my job, my wife, and kids. A life-long struggle to make my way back to my children involved many moves, other marriages, a slew of mistakes. In 1985 I ended up in Chicago, which was also losing its storied industry. Besides writing, reporting, and editing, I conducted writing workshops in prisons, juvenile lockups, schools, homeless shelters. I led arts projects and gang intervention efforts.
Ramiro, unfortunately, who came to live with me at age 13, joined a Chicago gang. Involved with crime and violence, he ended up serving close to 15 years in Illinois prisons. My daughter and I over the years had sporadic periods of closeness and distance. Things shifted, so did my life, mostly now for the better.
Still, I don’t want people to forget the City of Angels as a City of Workers. My decade or so in that industry were extremely meaningful. At the same time, we can’t go back fully to that kind of work. Instead the city, the country, and world is crying out for something new and momentous—aligning our governance, the economy, environment, and culture to the possibilities of the new technology as well as the creative potential in every person, family, and community.
Today I’m reconciled with my oldest children. Ramiro is out of prison and crime free, drug free, and gang free. I’ve been married to my current wife Trini (co-founder of Tia Chucha’s) for almost 30 years. Trini and I also have two children of our own, my youngest sons Ruben and Luis. All my kids are now grown up. We also have five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, with another one on the way, spread between California, Illinois, Vermont, and Florida.
As the world changed, I’ve stayed active in imagining and creating that post- industrial future with healthy and thriving communities for all—truly equitable, truly just, environmentally clean, and in peace. This time around, it’s about thinking, writing, strategizing, teaching, and organizing.
I often met other travelers, their tools in tow,
and I’d say: “Go ahead, take my stereo and TV.
Take my car. Take my toys of leisure.
Just leave the tools.”
Nowadays, I don’t haul these mechanical implements.
But I still make sure to carry the tools
of my trade: words and ideas,
the kind no one can take away.
So there may not be any work today,
but when there is, I’ll be ready.
I got my tools.
Celebrate National Poetry Month with "Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles"
Below is the introduction by Luis J. Rodriguez to the newly released L.A.-area poetry anthology “Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles,” featuring 160 poets and published by Tia Chucha Press, where Luis, the city’s Poet Laureate, has been founding editor for 27 years. The book is now available through Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center & Bookstore (www.tiachucha.org) in the San Fernando Valley and other book outlets. This anthology is a great testament to the diverse voices and variety of verse of this great city. This piece first appeared March 23, 2016 in the L.A. Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/celebrate-national-poetry-month-coiled-serpent-poets-arising
…Fire in the village
An energy storm in gathering light
Fire in the village
Changing night a cloud’s going to lift
Fire in the village
Liberty is shining in a new world’s soul
Fire in the village
The little people listen with a fancy step
Fire in the village
The little people can’t help but dance
Fire in the village…
For me, Los Angeles is smoldering, deeply poetic, expansively settled, with rebellion beneath the normalcy, which has un chingo to do with our collective and personal spiritual awakenings, creative birthings, political schooling—why our lives are in flames.
This city/village has been rumbling for decades, waking up the world every few years with revolutionary ardor—consider the 1965 Watts Rebellion (now 50 years later), the 1970 Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War (the so-called East L.A. riots), and the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising after the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King beating—and numerous civil disturbances in between. Close to 100 people killed in these battles and a billion dollars in damage in the 1992 riots alone (with millions more in other conflagrations).
This city has had more civil unrests than any other U.S. city in the past 100 years. L.A. is “shaky town” after all, but this has more to do with social and economic tremors and movements than earthquakes.
Why the title? The coiled serpent is connected to the earth, but also ready to spring, to strike, to defend or to protect. This image appears in various forms in mythologies and walls throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, India, and America. In pre-conquest times, Quetzalcoatl—the Precious Serpent—served as a personification of earth-bound wisdom, the arts and eldership in so-called Meso-America, one of seven “cradles of civilization” that also includes China, Nigeria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and Peru.
As I write this, mostly black and brown people in L.A. are being driven off older urban areas. Witness the gentrification of Echo Park, Highland Park, Pico-Union, Venice, sections of South Central. There’s a big 1930 Art Deco building on Broadway downtown where in the early 1980s I rented a space for $60 a month. Today this building has million dollar lofts.
Gentrification, anti-gang injunctions, police violence directed at the poor and working class residents, pushing out the homeless—they are all linked to whether this city, like the state and country, will only benefit the relatively few well-off and powerful rather than those in need.
These social conflicts have an objective foundation: Los Angeles is one of the richest cities in the United States and one of the poorest. What lies beneath all the seething are the social and economic gaps. This is also expressed as gaps in the collective imagination.
This poetry collection addresses the natural and unnatural condition of our city in the first 15 years of the new century: Inequalities of income and race, how peace can blossom in a time of perpetual war, the escalation of police killings, and climate peril. These poems are “flower and song”— in xochitl in cuicatl—as the Mexica natives of Mexico would say, stanzas that point the way out of social and personal dilemma by simply being, persisting, even in the in-between spaces, the undefined areas, in the complexities of poetic and mournful pondering of squandered possibilities.
Still we celebrate the native and the immigrant (and so-called immigrants who are actually natives), the queer and straight, women and men, young and old, humanity in all its colors, voices, and fluidity. This book could have been hundreds of pages. The limitations of publishing forced us to select one to two poems per poet. We want to publish the best of the poems submitted, not so much for literary acrobatics, but for any wonderment and twists a verse may spring upon a reader.
The backdrop to this collection is a society rent with class, racial, gender, and sexual discord; the foreground is imaginative renderings without limits, without fear. In skilled hands, such poems re-shape the idiom and push our minds to enlarge so they can hold the images. All contribute to the beauty, good, and truth that arise from the ruins, the rages, the desperation beneath every breath. This is about the poet’s veracity in challenging “sacred cows”: capitalism; the immense powers that control wealth, production, the media; even God and other “precious” things.
How in crisis poems are dreamt, born, fashioned. The world can judge how far these poets have taken this. There is art in the trying.
Currently, I’m Poet Laureate of this contentious, vital, and imaginative city. Over the decades I’ve read poetry at hundreds of schools, libraries, colleges, universities, graduations, festivals, book fests, juvenile lockups, prisons, bookstores, housing projects, and homeless shelters. I’ve heard a 14-year-old youth at the Nidorf Juvenile Hall (the largest juvenile lockup in North America) read poetry during a behind-barbed-wire poetry event—at the time he faced 135 years in prison. I’ve read poetry with the Homeless Writers Coalition at the El Paso Bar on Main Street (now gone as gentrification encroaches on Skid Row, the largest homeless enclave in the U.S.). I’ve recited a Nahuatl (a key indigenous tongue of Mexico and Central America) poem at the Hammer Museum to draw attention to the world’s “Endangered Languages.” I read poems at the Watts Jazz Festival under the shadow of the Watts Towers with my formerly incarcerated son Ramiro (we lived in Florence and Watts when Ramiro was a baby). I’ve done months of writing workshops at a Maximum Security yard in Lancaster Prison, the only state prison in L.A. County (although L.A.-area prisoners are 60 percent of the state prison system). I’ve taken part in a Charles Bukowski Festival in San Pedro and in honor of Wanda Coleman at Leimert Park. Read with John Densmore of the Doors at Hollywood’s Montalban Theater and did a one-man poetry-play at the John Anson Ford Theater, directed by the renowned “Funkahuatl,” Rubén Guevara. I’ve read at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA and USC to “Celebrating Words” festivals in the barrios of Sylmar and Pacoima; from the Spanish-language “LeaLA!” book fair in downtown to the “Farce of July” festivals by Xicano Records & Films in Boyle Heights and East L.A. I’ve even recited love poems with my wife Trini at the Malibu Poetry Series… so many events, too numerous to recall.
From the embattlements, I can see generative ideas, strategies, forms of organization, and meaningful expression toward a fuller, cooperative and creatively active society. We can now envision healthy, thriving, and culturally alive communities for all. And we should embolden ourselves for the long haul struggles until this becomes reality. So here we go, poetry that captures a city, a dreamscape, the shape of land and culture… from its underbelly and from among the unseen and unheard. These are artistic weapons in the social battles upturning what America is today and what it can be—toward a grander sense of belonging and inheritance.
This book is dedicated to the irrepressible African American poet Wanda Coleman, a fiery soul who also embraced and guided many young poets, myself included, a rather raw and hungry writer when we first met some 35 years ago. To John Trudell, the Native American warrior-poet and personal teacher, with whom I spent many hours talking, learning, sharing at his Santa Monica abode soon after I returned from Chicago in 2000. And to my friend and fellow Chicano wordsmith and activist, the much-beloved Francisco X. Alarcon, whose poetry drew from deep in the earth and the bones. All three have passed on, but not their dreams for our humanity, their words, their indelible imprints on countless lives.
The aim again for all of us is to be truly alive, blood flowing, consciously awake, despite death everywhere and our culture stuck in a dying time of archaic ideas, moribund infrastructures, and spirit-crushing forms of control. Poetry takes this challenging time and intertwines it with the relentlessly new, the promise that is yet to be, the impossible become possible.
This blogpost first appeared on March 2, 2016 on the Los Angeles Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/why-children-should-not-be-treated-adults-crimes
Walk with the young, America;
be young, again, America,
among the defiant and awake,
solid in their dreams.
Be the revolution in the marrow
where passions, ideals, fervors,
purpose and courage,
are not just qualities
people had in history books,
but what we have to possess everyday,
any time repression, injustice,
fear, and greed
gather like night riders
preparing to gallop
through our living rooms.
For over 35 years, I’ve done talks, readings, and/or writing and healing workshops in prisons and juvenile lockups throughout the country. In California I’ve been to juvenile halls and probations camps up and down the state as well as adult prisons like San Quentin, Soledad, Folsom, Lancaster, and Chino. These are some of my best audiences, with powerful insights, poetry, and stories arising from men and women whom most of society has written off.
I can’t and won’t dismiss any prisoner’s capacity to dream, to renew themselves, to restore and transform their lives and that of their communities.. Every human being needs to be given a chance to live, to grow, providing they are armed with adequate tools, education, drug and mental treatment, and other resources. Providing they enter a space that embraces this and their personal gifts. Only recently has rehabilitation become an integral part of prison life. For decades it was not. And even now it’s not enough.
Across the past decades, I witnessed the increasing inhumanity of courts handing out longer and longer sentences, the enactment of three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws, gang and gun enhancements, gang injunctions, and removing indeterminate sentences.
As we added more laws, we made more lawlessness.
In the early 1970s, California had some 15,000 prisoners in 15 prisons. Now with 34 prisons, at its height the population went upwards of 175,000. The current state prison budget of $10 billion is more than the entire budget of the University of California system.
Under the political climate of “tough on crime,” I saw viable programs get eliminated all over the United States, including educational ones. My oldest son Ramiro was one of those who suffered for such cuts when he served almost 15 years in Illinois prisons (he’s now been out for six years and is nonetheless gang-free, gang-free, and drug-free—mostly due to his own heroic efforts).
Still, one of the most detrimental of such laws has been the trying of youth as adults, even children as young as 10.
Not long ago, I took part in a poetry reading at the Barry Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, five minutes from my home and now the largest juvenile lockup in North America. I was invited to speak, sponsored by the Inside Out writing program. Many juvenile wards read their poetry, including a baby-faced Mexican-Guatemalan of 14 years. His mother and grandmother were in the audience, pride on their faces.
Although I never ask why these youth are behind bars, in this instance a staff member wanted me to know—this particular young man was facing 135 years in prison. This to me, in the so-called free and democratic United States of America, is unacceptable.
Here or anywhere.
A new book I’ve recently “blurbed” for publication later this year is a meticulously researched argument against such laws and practices. Written by prison drama facilitator Jean Trounstine, “Boy with a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice” (IG Publications, New York) retells the harrowing true story of a poor white youth, Karter Kane Reed, who at 16 was arrested for murder. Tried as an adult, he received a life sentence, with the possibility of parole after 15 years. Reed, after 20 years behind bars, became one of a few who sued the Massachusetts Parole Board to win his freedom.
This fall, in California, there may be more than one initiative to reform the state’s bloated and largely failed prison system. Governor Jerry Brown has proposed an initiative to end determinate sentences, something he championed in his first round of governor during the 1970s. The Governor now recognizes the danger of such sentences that don’t allow for early release due to good behavior or proven rehabilitation. Nonviolent felons will now have the possibility of parole hearings and early releases. I support any such changes, anything that begins to tear away at the punishment-driven mass incarceration of mostly poor and working class people, disproportionately from communities of color.
We must also do all we can to reverse adult sentences for youth criminals. Why do we treat youths as adults in crimes when they are not treated that way in anything else? In every young person, even with horrendous mistakes, is the seed of a new world, of the future, as we often point out, but mostly fail to live up to.
Every mistake can be a new style; every trouble can make for a healthy and whole life. Instead of “scared straight,” we should try cared straight.
Trounstine points out that every year in the U.S. around a quarter of a million youth are tried, sentenced, or imprisoned as adults. I also witnessed the increasing number of troubled youth being thrown away, abused, and in too many cases, prepared as higher-end criminals, all at taxpayers’ expense. Read Trounstine’s book and take action.
Anybody can change. Anybody can be saved. It’s time our laws and justice systems aligned to this moral and biological fact
This piece first appeared on January 21, 2016 on the Los Angeles Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/city-angels-city-poets
On historic Central Avenue near East 45th Street, the Vernon Branch Public Library looks like a jail—tall fences surround the circa 1915 building and a fenced walkway leads up to the doorway. Like the surrounding neighborhood, the library appears worn, beaten down. It’s situated on the edge of the high-crime Central-Alameda reporting area of L.A.P.D.’s Newton District—in the six-month period ending November 22 there were 249 violent crimes with an average 145.7 crimes per 10,000 residents.
Yet, once inside its doors, the library is alive with children, parents, teachers, and some of the most engaged librarians you’ll ever meet. Inside is an oasis of books, computers, CDs, DVDs, and more books.
Last April, I conducted a writing workshop there with 30 mostly middle-school-aged Mexican, Salvadoran, and African American children. I displayed the culturally rich poetry collections from Tia Chucha Press, which I founded almost 27 years ago, and several of my own works. I read a poem. And I had the children put pencil to paper, including from a prompt about being in a forest, perhaps light-years away from their environment, yet even from their imagination, the children wrote strong, descriptive, and emotion-laden words.
Books. Poetry. Healing.
This workshop was a highlight of my first year as the city’s second Poet Laureate, chosen by Mayor Eric Garcetti in the fall of 2014. From January 1 to December 31, 2015, I’ve read poetry, lectured, and/or facilitated workshops in more than 100 venues in the Los Angeles area, to around 13,500 people, including libraries, schools, book fests, community festivals, graduations, and more. Millions more were reached through English and Spanish language media.
These amazing events included the Celebrating Words Festival in Pacoima; LeaLA! Spanish-language Book Festival downtown; the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC; a “Black Lives Matter” reading in Silver Lake; at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights; Little Tokyo’s and Encino-Tarzana’s library branches, among others; the Charles Bukowsky Festival in San Pedro; honoring the late great L.A. poet Wanda Coleman at Leimert Park; workshops and readings for Urban Word, including helping select the new Youth Poet Laureate; a Hip Hop educational conference at the Hammer Museum; Get Lit Players’s Poetic Convergence at the Skirball Museum; and reading poetry with my son Ramiro at the Watts Towers Jazz Festival (Ramiro and I were residents of Florence and Watts when he was a toddler).
This City of Angels is indeed a city of poets.
And these poets do more than just sing the city fantastic. Many draw attention to the social gaps, the poverty, the police killings, the deteriorating schools, mass incarceration, climate change, homelessness. They are bards of beauty and bounty, even when these are lacking. And they often point out viable ways out. Poetry is the essential soul talk we rarely find in this society, where most words are to inform, instruct, or to sell you something.
Last summer I began soliciting poetry from the L.A. area for what may be the largest, most comprehensive anthology of its kind, slated for March 2016, entitled “Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles.” Three editors from Tia Chucha Press shifted through almost 400 submissions to feature 160 poets. I’ve written the introduction. The anthology is dedicated to the irrepressible Watts poet, Wanda Coleman, and Native American poet and activist, John Trudell, both who passed on, leaving a legacy of language, lunacy, and love.
Next year, I’ll continue doing events, of course, as well as write monthly blog posts for the L.A. Public Library website. But mostly I’ll be promoting the “Coiled Serpent” anthology, proof that in hard or good times, poetry is the “news” we don’t get on TV, that invites us to think, feel, and often act in the most meaningful and lasting manner, that can help liberate the creative and imaginative capacities for an equitable, just, and clean world for all.
Below is one of at least two poems to Los Angeles I’ll have written before my two-year tenure as Poet Laureate ends. My thanks to everyone who helped make 2015 a wonderful year for poetry.
Love Poem to Los Angeles
To say I love Los Angeles is to say
I love its shadows and nightlights,
its meandering streets,
the stretch of sunset-colored beaches.
It’s to say I love the squawking wild parrots,
the palm trees that fail to topple in robust winds,
that within a half hour of L.A.’s center
you can cavort in snow, deserts, mountains, beaches.
This is a multi-layered city,
unceremoniously built on hills,
Flying into Burbank airport in the day,
you observe gradations of trees and earth.
A “city” seems to be an afterthought,
skyscrapers popping up from the greenery,
guarded by the mighty San Gabriels.
Layers of history reach deep,
run red, scarring the soul of the city,
a land where Chinese were lynched,
Mexican resistance fighters hounded,
workers and immigrants exploited,
Japanese removed to concentration camps,
blacks forced from farmlands in the South,
then segregated, diminished.
Here also are blessed native lands,
where first peoples like the Tataviam and Tongva
bonded with nature’s gifts;
people of peace, deep stature, loving hands.
Yet for all my love
I also abhor the “poison” time,
starting with Spanish settlers, the Missions,
where 80 percent of natives
who lived and worked in them died,
to the ruthless murder of Indians
during and after the Gold Rush,
the worst slaughter of tribes in the country.
From all manner of uprisings,
a city of acceptance began to emerge.
This is “riot city” after all
—more civil disturbances in Los Angeles
in the past 100 years
than any other city.
To truly love L.A. you have to see it
with different eyes,
beyond the fantasy-induced Hollywood spectacles.
“El Lay” is also known
for the most violent street gangs,
the largest Skid Row,
the greatest number of poor.
Yet I loved L.A.
even during heroin-induced nods
or running down rain-soaked alleys or getting shot at.
Even when I slept in abandoned cars,
alongside the “concrete” river,
and during all-night movie showings
in downtown art deco theaters.
The city beckoned as I tried to escape
the prison-like grip of its shallowness,
sun-soaked image, suburban quiet,
hiding the murderous heart
that can beat at its center.
L.A. is also lovers’ embraces,
the most magnificent lies,
the largest commercial ports,
a sound that hybridized
black, Mexican as well as Asian
and white migrant cultures.
You wouldn’t have musicians like
Ritchie Valens, The Doors, War,
Los Lobos, Charles Wright &
the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band,
Hiroshima, Motley Crue, NWA, or Quetzal
without Los Angeles.
Or John Fante, Chester Himes, Charles Bukowski,
Marisela Norte, and Wanda Coleman as its jester poets.
I love L.A., I can’t forget its smells,
I love to make love in L.A.,
it’s a great city, a city without a handle,
the world’s most mixed metropolis,
of intolerance and divisions,
how I love it, how I hate it,
can’t stay away,
city of hungers, city of angers,
Ruben Salazar, Rodney King,
I’d like to kick its face in,
bone city, dried blood on walls,
wildfires, taunting dove wails,
car fumes and oil derricks,
with every industry possible
and still a “one-industry town,”
lined by those majestic palm trees
and like its people
with solid roots, supple trunks,
This homage to Native American poet and activist John Trudell originally appeared on December 14, 2015 at the L.A. Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/grandmothers-talking-my-time-and-teachings-john-trudell
We hear what you say
One Earth one Mother
One does not sell the Earth
The people walk upon
We are the land
How do we sell our Mother
How do we sell the stars
How do we sell the air…
Poet and activist John Trudell expressed in words and actions, in music and movies, the plight, fight and lasting permanence of the Native American experience in the United States. In his public talks, John delved into indigenous history and cosmology, which have long been dismissed, misunderstood, and attacked. John Trudell did this with clarity, dignity, and ferocity.
This past week, on December 8, 2015, this warrior poet, life-long revolutionary, personal teacher, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather passed on after a long bout with cancer. He was sixty-nine.
I met John not long after my family and I returned from Chicago in 2000 when he lived in a small apartment in Santa Monica. In 2001, my wife Trini and I helped create Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center & Bookstore in Sylmar. Soon after our doors opened, John blessed our space with his presence and packed the house. He talked, read poetry, and talked some more. He cast a spell with great lucidity of natural things, a deep sense of justice, and what it means to be truly human. He didn’t leave anybody off the hook—the racists, the colonialists, the corporations, the climate destroyers, the powerful and rich. He also introduced subtle and multidimensional concepts.
John, a Santee Dakota born in Nebraska, had several CDs over the years with various musicians, including a band called Bad Dog. I saw them perform at the Whisky A-Go Go a couple of times, once when Angelina Jolie introduced them. I was also in a Culver City studio when John and Bad Dog recorded one of their last albums.
The moments I treasure most were the hours we spent at John’s cramped apartment as he related stories, his thinking, his experiences. Together we traversed his early life, the tumultuous history of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the takeover of Alcatraz Island by Native peoples, the infiltration and dismantling of AIM leadership, the F.B.I.-instigated murder of his friend Anna Mae Aquash, on through when his family—pregnant wife Tina, their three children, and Tina’s mother—were killed in a suspicious house fire in February 1979 on Nevada’s Duck Valley Reservation.
That fire happened a day after John had burned an American flag in front of the F.B.I. building in Washington D.C. John said the fire was set, and a private investigator claimed as much, but local authorities never acknowledged this.
John told me how after he returned home to see the devastation, and paid last respects to his family, he walked among the ashes for days. After this he began to write poetry, something he never did before. But Tina did write poems. John said Tina gave him the words.
“They’re called poems,” John related to one interviewer. “But in reality they’re lines given to me to hang on to.”
John then broke out onto the world with chapbooks and albums of his words with music. Supporters included Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. He worked with Native drummer and vocalist Quiltman as well as renowned Kiowa guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. He had roles in the movies “Thunderheart,” starring Val Kilmer and Graham Greene, and “Smoke Signals,” with a screenplay by Sherman Alexie. A documentary of his life by filmmaker Heather Rae, “Trudell,” appeared in 2006 on PBS’s Independent Lens. His last book, Lines from a Mined Mind: The Words of John Trudell, was a poetry collection released in 2008 by Fulcrum Publishing.
John and I worked on a possible autobiography. At the time, I met his then partner, Marcheline Bertrand, Angelina Jolie’s mother, before she passed on in 2007 of cervical and breast cancer. At the Beverly Hills hotel where Marcheline lived, I sat down in the lobby and had a nice talk with this sweet woman. That book was finished and turned over to John. I felt more work needed to be done, but I left this in John’s hand. We never did get back to this. My efforts to reconnect with John went nowhere—and my own life took other turns.
Yet, I remember how the book was going to start—with our grandmothers talking. John’s mother Ricarda was descended from the Tarahumara tribe of southern Chihuahua, Mexico. The story he told was that Ricarda’s mother was kidnapped by a man running away from the Mexican Revolution and ended up in Nebraska. My own grandmother was from the same tribe (also known as the Rarámuri), who left the tribal lands during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1930) with her mother to keep from starving. Somehow our lives intersected from this spiritual prodding. Whether the book ever sees the light of day, I leave in the Creator’s hands. Nonetheless, John’s lessons, his stories, his adventures and mis-adventures, have changed a life—mine.
…The wisdom of Infants and elders
Crying and laughing
Songs in the beginning
Sung in the end…
My Tarahumara grandmother, and John’s Tarahumara grandmother, continued to push my thoughts, my heart, my tongue with the shared word view of all Native peoples. John emphasized the power each human being has, the power the earth has, how we don’t need to be given power—as human beings, we are already energy. Already power. Not authority over others, but with our own geniuses, stories, energies—each person with his or her own authority.
I once had a talk with a European American ex-Marine who insisted that the U.S. Constitution was the most powerful written paper after the Bible. But Native peoples, all indigenous people, regardless of where, didn’t need a paper to give them freedom or rights. We had this just by being born, being human beings, being energy. A written constitution is like a limited warranty—it corrals and restricts our birth right as human beings. Read the U.S. Constitution—it guaranteed rights to white men of property, not women, not Natives, not blacks, not the laboring classes. There have been wars, marches, and civil unrests to spread out the freedoms in that paper—that’s the U.S. historical process.
It’s the Earth that gives us life, not a paper, not the U.S. government. The Earth gives us freedoms, as long as we understand we are only free when we align and abide by the laws of nature, not the laws of men. John says it’s time to think, not believe (“believe” has the word “lie” in it). Think, not just react.
For John, clarity and coherency were paramount.
Presently, to save our climate, the Earth, we need to live as human beings tried to do in the beginning—to have a meaningful and respectful relationship with everything, including stars, animals, air, trees, minerals… and to have a meaningful and respectful relationship with each other. Jesus said substantially the same thing with his two commandments summarizing all previous laws and commandments: Love God above all else (God as Creator and Creation) and treat others as you want to be treated.
Buddha, Mohammed, Black Elk, et al, essentially offered the same wisdom.
Abundance and freedom are built into nature—these are not just for the powerful, the rich, or those with one kind of skin tone, ideology, or from one nation-state. It’s about connection, balance, and the medicine nature and people already possess.
There are no problems or poisons that don’t have solutions or antidotes. For persons, this means we have all we need to match and meet any challenge. Unfortunately, our culture has us “believe” this is not true.
John was determined to draw out these truths whenever he spoke, read poetry, created music, or appeared on film. He made these cosmologies pertinent and vital for our time. He emphasized that Native thoughts and ways of life are not archaic notions or quaint expressions, detached from the present. These are needed more than ever.
Native knowledge, as John would say, is intertwined with our DNA; they are genetic memory. We’ve been blocked by exploitation, oppression, historical trauma, capitalism, and runaway technology from these innate truths. But they don’t go away.
We are living in a time of uncovering and discovering—of revealing the real motive forces of the world, the true “apocalypse” (that’s the old Greek word for “lifting the veil”). This is knowledge that no one owns or controls, which means it’s available for anyone who seeks, that doesn’t require tuition, door fees, or membership in any group.
Over the years, many of my Native elder-teachers have moved on—including John C. Smith of the Dine (Navajo); Ed Young Man Afraid of His Horses (Lakota); Tlacaelel (Mexika); and Macuiltochtli (Mexika). Now another elder-teacher has walked with strength, upright, regardless of health issues here, to the other side. I send prayers, sage smoke, and many beautiful thoughts to John Trudell, his many friends, family, and students.
Listen as the trees sing
In the wind lyrics and melodies
For the spirit senses
Songs of laughter and life
Timeless things in timeless places
Do not be afraid to be strong
Do not be afraid to love
But always remember…
All excerpts of poems from “Lines from a Mined Mind: The Words of John Trudell (2008 Fulcrum Publishing).
This piece appeared November 24, 2015 at the blogpost of L.A. Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez on the LA Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/every-road-should-come-end-place-called-home
Every road should come to this end:
A place called home.
When you don’t have one
the expanse of sky is your roof,
the vacant lots and sidewalks your living room.
Every city, your city.
When you speak, you speak for the country.
In the wrinkled faces and the sun-scarred eyes
mother earth calls us to fury.
Every child without a home
is everyone’s child.
The daily murders go unanswered:
To die of cold in sunny California.
To starve in New York City,
the restaurant capital of the world;
to have no coat on the Broadway of coats.
The crimes pile up as high as the mountains
of grain that are warehoused and stored away
from those who need it.
A mother’s child is taken away for neglect
because she can’t pay rent
and eat at the same time.
Children born of a labor of love are condemned
for the lack of labor.
War veterans crawl through city veins,
once vital, our heroes, now discarded.
Their every road should come to this end.
A place called home.
Most cities, and Los Angeles was one of them, have been criminalizing the homeless, pushing them out of public spaces, harassing them, removing their meager possessions, tossing them away like thrash, and those who resist get jail… or a bullet—as Charly "Africa" Leundeu Keunang did on the streets of Skid Row or Brendan Glenn in Venice, both by police.
Instead of criminalizing the homeless, we should criminalize homelessness. It should be a crime against society for anyone to be without a home. Yet here we are, in the 21st century, as homeless encampments grow in and around our neighborhoods, and RVs and campers find nightly spaces in abandoned streets, and whole families move from living rooms or garages to the streets
What does a poet have to say about this?
Most people don’t expect poets to speak out on such issues. But I’m a living person with my own authority and a resident of this earth. First and foremost. Poetry is how I take care of “business,” the business of ideas, images, stories, this business of speaking out.
As the mayor and city council grapple with homelessness during the holiday season, and predictions of the strongest El Nino effect on record coming down with rains and cold, let me speak on this with a revolutionary poet’s heart.
It’s time to stretch the parameters of our social and economic system, to push it beyond its own restraints, its own contrived scarcities, where the rich get richer and poorer get streets, jail or death. The encampments are not results of “natural” disaster—although such disasters affect them the most. Poverty and its deepest expression, homelessness, are largely the outcome of man-made laws, practices, policies, or lack thereof.
We’re living the “lies” of the system. Mortgages, the wage system, credit, borders, racial inequities, class divisions, profits, are illusions of a society that seem more real than the real. People have died and killed for these illusions. We hang on, for example, to the illusion of homeownership, where banks and other holders of mortgage derivatives really own properties, and many of us are one house note away from losing them.
Borders—man-made, not God-made—and belief systems (again, human interpretations, even if rather elaborate) has led to more wars, deaths and destruction. These are not from nature or whatever you think God is—they’re not from creation or Creator.
They are the fantasies of human beings cloaked to appear real. It’s time the veils were lifted; it’s time for true revelations.
Nature’s own laws are regenerative, abundant, in a constant weave. Nature is our true “university.” Yes, nature can be destructive—earthquakes, floods, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes. And there are poisons under cover of beauty. Think of mushrooms—the most alluring are often the most dangerous. There is death, but as part of birth and rebirth. The point is nature’s laws can be understood, and with study, trial and error, hard work, and advancing technology, we can work within these laws to fly, to build up to the sky, to fathom the deepest oceans and further reaches of space.
Why can’t we do that with society? Human thinking and shaping is still necessary. It just needs to be aligned with nature’s own limits and parameters. Freedom to do anything is the appreciation of these limitations (you can fly, but you have to work within the laws, limitations and openings, of aerodynamics).
Instead, so-called civilization has established an increasingly complex myriad of paper laws that purposely (these are no accidents) perpetuate fewer and fewer people with more power and wealth, and the rest to developing stages of deprivation. We’re seeing the wide-scale devaluation of life. And what happens when someone is homeless? We often act as if it’s his or her fault. Even mental illness, alcoholism, drug abuse are products of man-made chemicals and profits.
And add to this the human-borne stressors that drive many of us mad and addictive.
Alignment is the next phase of an integrative, whole and healthy world. Everyone talks about integration and health, but few get to the roots of the brokenness as endemic to the system itself—or how the roots of moving away from the fractured and wounded “body” requires alignments between resources and human beings, technology and what’s possible, our dreams and reality.
It’s time to challenge the “sacred” cows of so-called free enterprise (none of this is free) and private property (unlike billionaires who spend millions to convince us otherwise).
Let’s imagine a world where everyone is properly fed, clothed and housed; have the highest levels of education and health (at no cost); and where there are no inequalities between races, classes, genders, cultures, disabilities, or sexual orientations. Let’s imagine a place where music, art, dance, theater, poetry, and creative expression is everywhere, for everyone.
This means not settling for less in the richest country in the world, when we deserve the best our brains, our geniuses and the sweat of our brow can bring forth united with nature and our own natures.
And let’s prepare a new generation of leaders that takes up this challenge to its fullest conclusion—the freeing up of the human condition from the narrow confines of man-made laws and flaws, foibles and dramas, greed and avarice. So every road leads to home, to safety, to peace, and connection.
That’s a poet speaking….
Salinas community leaders welcome intervention expert Luis J. Rodriguez; Vow to target the roots of youth violence….
Over two nights, 40 grassroots leaders met with urban peace activist and author Luis J. Rodriguez. They came from all over Salinas as well as Castroville, Seaside and other Tri-County communities to the first gathering of the Salinas Area Youth Violence Intervention Project.
Salinas, California—On November 9 and 10, 2015, forty community leaders representing over half a dozen organizations from across Salinas met with urban peace activist and author Luis J. Rodriguez. Speaker after speaker at the two sessions blasted the failure of the City of Salinas to address the roots of spiraling violence engulfing our youth.
Leaders of “Peace in the Streets” from Castroville and “Black Lives Matter” from Seaside added strong voices and their own front line experience as Rodriguez urged the creation of an aggressive, community based approach that targets the problem at the roots. “This is systemic,” said Rodriguez, linking gang violence to a failure of the City to provide comprehensive, healthy alternatives to gang violence.
During his three-day trip to Salinas, Rodriguez also met with students and teachers at Everett Alvarez High School where students are reeling from the violent death of one of their own just days earlier. “Let’s face it,” said one teacher, “This city is controlled by agribusiness and the only future they have for our youth is working in the fields, gangs or the school to prison pipeline.” Members of the faculty senate know their students cannot learn if they are continually traumatized…and they are joining the movement to do something about it.
Rodriguez finished up his tour addressing a standing room only crowd at the Victory Mission in Chinatown, where one of the state’s largest homeless encampments exist. Rodriguez drew cheers declaring, “What the homeless have in common with the youth of Salinas is the systematic devaluation of life.”
Finally, Rodriguez vowed his ongoing commitment to support the movement to empower youth and address the violence at its roots.
On a Comprehensive & Rooted Peace and Justice Plan in Salinas—a City in Transition, a City of Hope
By Luis J. Rodriguez
November 16, 2015
There have been 34 murders in Salinas this year, the highest number on record. Salinas is already known as among the four most violent cities in California. And despite millions of dollars in police and suppression—65 percent of the city’s budget is for law enforcement—people in the poorest sections of East Salinas, the former Alisal community with the largest number of Mexicans and Central Americans, are asking, “When will the violence stop?”
There is no simple answer. There is no one answer. Yet, there are answers.
This is my conclusion after spending four days there from November 8-12 to help initiate a community-rooted, community-driven plan to transform the environment that creates and feeds violence and crime. I’ve come to Salinas a dozen times in the past several years, including speaking at high schools, the Steinbeck Center, Hartnell Community College, and various community gatherings about comprehensive community-based gang prevention and intervention. Salinas was also a major stop in my travels up and down the state when I ran for governor in 2014 as a Green Party-endorsed candidate.
City Councilman Jose Castaneda and community leaders invited me to begin a process of such a plan when it appeared that the city would do nothing substantial. While this is a critique of current city actions and inactions, this is also a critique of what has happened throughout California. Suppression to curb violence and crime has established the largest prison system in the world, outside the U.S. federal system, at a cost of $10 billion a year. New laws created more lawless—three strikes and you’re out, trying youth as adults, gang enhancements, and more.
The state went from housing 15,000 prisoners in 15 prisons in the early 1970s to 34 prisons with some 150,000 prisoners (and since the 1980s only one university was built). It costs $62,300 a year to house a prisoner, only $9,100 per student per year in our public schools (2014 California Endowment).
There has also been a squeezing of the poor, primarily black and Latino, with gang injunctions—where whole communities are under arrest, not just individuals—gentrification, and lowered job opportunities with the shift from industrial-based work to digital-driven and service-oriented employment. For some time the concern in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, the most insidious examples, is whether the most valuable land and property will be for the rich only.
The concentration of wealth, culture, arts, and jobs in key areas—and its relative lack in others—has made California the richest state in the union (the world’s eighth largest economy) with the highest poverty rate of any state (around 24 percent), more than the poverty rates of Georgia or Mississippi.
Salinas is a microcosm of what’s happening in the state and across the country, with all the issues of class and racial divide, economic disparity (including the largest homeless encampment between the Bay Area and Los Angeles), and violence.
Salinas is also a city with great imagination, leadership, innovation, and immense possibilities.
What remains to be seen is whether there is the political will to deal with the problem at the roots.
What does this have to do with Salinas?
I have learned much from my intensive and extensive work in urban peace and gang intervention, both in our successes and in our losses. This knowledge can be extremely helpful in Salinas. However, it’s imperative that any plan in Salinas not be the brainchild of any one person. Nor can this be fully applied from cities like Los Angeles or Chicago. Despite key similarities and related economic realities, this plan has to be Salinas-rooted and Salinas-directed, taking into account the local conditions and unique circumstances of Salinas. My job is to assess, advise and assist, wherever possible, but nothing more.
Therefore we have to begin a process that involves the voices, stories, ideas, and experiences of the people of Salinas, in particular from East Salinas where most of the violence exists today. This will take time, although this does not have to take the two years that were required in Los Angeles.
Patient but persistent, we can have a plan submitted to the Salinas City Council soon after the 2015 holidays.
A whole community plan, therefore, needs to have these dynamics in place:
• Multi-pronged, and multi-layered: hardcore, specialized street mediation; truce processes; peace agreement maintenance; crisis intervention; rumor control; creation of “peace” zones with agreements among gangs, businesses, schools, churches, law enforcement. ALSO re-entry, relocation and transition services for former prisoners; safe passages to schools, parks and home; mentoring and training; prison outreach. AND mental health services; job creation and preparation; gender-specific services; LGBT specific services; sex & drug education; independent living and housing; tattoo removal; arts & culture; faith-based and indigenous services. FINALLY community engagement; public policy development; court & legal advocacy and services, and more.
• From trauma to transformation—healing has to be built into the process, including personal, family and community healing. Trauma is both individual and historical (for example, Salinas has a long history of poor, migrant worker communities against large, multi-billion dollar agri-business, as written about in books like those from Nobel Prize winning John Steinbeck). We need talking circles, poetry & art therapy, sweat lodges, faith-based church projects as well as short and long range mental and drug treatment. I’m also for deep brain neurological knowledge, connecting brain to soul to body, that addresses broken brain connections and their repair and healing.
• Arts as powerful means to transform persons and communities: A fully creative and expressive community is a healthy community. Community festivals, book fests, murals, other public art projects, lowrider shows, open mics, dance, theater, publications, music, and more are vital. We need support for neighborhood arts projects—cultural storefronts, independent bookstores, barrio museums, film labs and theaters, computer arts, and training in all manner of creativity.
• Educational opportunities must be expanded. Learning is an ongoing human trait. When this is blocked or derailed, learning continues but in negative ways. Juvenile lockups and prisons are still “universities,” but mostly for enshrining the worse aspects of people and in far too many cases into higher-end criminal enterprises. We often make better criminals by sending our youth to such institutions, all at taxpayer’s expense.
• Schools should expand their doors. Suspensions and expulsions should cease. In-house detention with proper mental/emotional programming and engaging activities is more meaningful. Standards should be removed—most of them in the poor schools purposely keep students at low standards, such as reading at a 7th grade level so they can read ads, commercials, newspapers, but not higher end books and deeper information. The standards can be as high as anyone can reach if the downward push of existing “standards” would be changed. “Zero tolerance” in schools should be modified—we need to tolerate all manner of trouble (trouble often helps make a life with proper guidance, mentorship and teachings). After school programs should be adequately funded and include sports, arts, and more schooling for those who want this.
• Safe social recreation: Recreation means that—to re-create. We need fully funded sports programs in parks and recreation centers for after school hours and on weekends. Boxing, martial arts, running/track, etc. as well as team sports (soccer, football, baseball, volleyball, basketball, hockey, etc.)
• Restorative to transformative justice: Instead of imprisoning or pushing out youth who have stolen, hurt or damaged families and communities, they are given opportunities with the victims and in sight of the whole community to restore, repair and renew the hurt and damage that was done. This should come from their own gifts, talents and propensities. Transformative justice is used to change a person from being broken, fractured, hurt to being whole and healthy. They in turn work to help transform community to become integrated, healthy and thriving.
• Initiation and rites of passages: Gangs use these long-held rites, initiation processes and rituals to draw in and engage the most empty and lost youth. They can do this because community won’t. Young people need recognition and help through various “threshold” times in their lives (around age 7; then in puberty stage from 11 to 13; also the late teens/early twenties). Youth need to go through hard but safe ordeals guided by community that initiates them into their own geniuses, their own destinies, their own stories. Indigenous peoples from around the world incorporated appropriate initiation processes for boys AND girls. Ours can be modernized and relevant, but they also follow age-old concepts and traditions.
• Peace and security zones: In some cases, such zones can be created where agreements are made between gang leaders and members to end violence, drug sales, and crime if agreements are also made with businesses to provide jobs and training; schools to open up facilities for safe & sane activities; churches to have spiritual engagement and circles; and law enforcement to allow safe and peaceful passage. While law enforcement should not drive any community integrated prevention and intervention plan, they should be part of the whole package. It’s not enough to simply “stop the killings,” although again if this happens nobody would oppose it. We also have to bring in resources and opportunities so that trauma, violence and killings have no more fertile ground. For gangs and drugs to not be the most attractive option, youth need to have a strong and meaningful relationship to many options.
Who Is Luis J. Rodriguez?
Why me? Why now? What qualifies me to help Salinas?
I’ve been involved in gang prevention/intervention for forty years ever since I left a gang-and-drug life in my teens in the San Gabriel Valley, just east of Los Angeles. I wrote about this in my best-selling memoir, “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.,” one of the state’s most checked out books in libraries—and one of the most stolen. This book is also read in schools despite being one of the most banned due to its graphic nature (which was necessary in describing such a life). Books saved my life as a youth. Libraries were my refuge even when I was briefly homeless in downtown L.A., on heroin, with a .22 handgun in my possession. I was the weird homie that brought books with me to the barrio. With mentorship, community support, a vision of a new and just world, and clarity on my own role in this, I left crime, drugs and gangs before age 20.
Now my world is filled with books, writing, teaching. I’ve written 15 in all genres—poetry, children’s literature, short stories, a novel, and nonfiction. I helped create a bookstore and cultural center—Tia Chucha’s in the San Fernando Valley—now operating for close to 15 years. And for 35 years, I’ve talked, read and conducted workshops in prisons, juvenile lockups, public & private schools, universities, colleges, libraries, migrant camps, bookstores, festivals, community centers, conferences, and Native American reservations.
I’ve worked on gang peace and intervention with San Gabriel Valley gangs and Boyle Heights/East L.A. gangs, including attending End Barrio Warfare Coalition meetings in the 1970s. In early 1980s I helped found Galeria Ocaso and Barrio Writers Workshops in Echo Park and elsewhere. From 1985-to 2000, I lived in Chicago during its most violent years. I co-founded Youth Struggling for Survival, a gang and non-gang empowerment group; the Increase the Peace Network; and Humboldt Park Teen Reach. I also worked with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the Chicago Teachers Center bringing workshops to homeless shelters, schools, juvenile facilities. I returned to Los Angeles after the 1992 Uprising and assisted truce efforts by Bloods and Crips and Chicano gangs. In 1993, I received a Dorothea Lang-Paul Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies of Duke University to study the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang, mostly made up of Salvadoran refugee youth, and those deported to El Salvador.
I took part in urban peace summits in Santa Cruz, CA; El Paso, Texas; Washington D.C.; Chicago; and Kansas City. In 1996, I helped bring together MS gang youth and their rivals in 18th Street in El Salvador for a conference that included peace agreements among gangs, mayors, police representatives, churches, and non-governmental agencies. Unfortunately, the Salvadoran government, with U.S. government pressure, sabotaged all peace efforts and El Salvador became the most violent country in the world as immigration authorities deported thousands of LA-based gang youth to the poor and war-torn country.
I returned to El Salvador in 2012 when MS and 18th Street, along with other local gangs, began a truce in prisons that soon permeated the country—killings went from 14 a day to 5 a day. I arrived as part of a transnational team from Washington D.C, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London, visiting six adult prisons and one juvenile facility as well as meeting with community leaders, factory owners and government officials on how to spread the peace and bring badly needed resources to the country’s impoverished people. In 2013, I helped present at an Organization of American States (OAS) gathering in 2013 in San Salvador on adequate gang prevention and intervention. As before, the government failed to build on this and peace derailed—today El Salvador is again the world’s most violent country with 30 killings a day in the month of August alone.
I also went to two prisons and several poor communities in Guatemala in two separate trips, including with the YMCA and Homeboy Industries. And I traveled to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico in 2010 when it was the most violent city in the world (with three times the violence of El Salvador and Honduras today, the most violent countries in the world). I spoke in a prison, a juvenile hall, to community groups, and in some of the worse slums imaginable. I also ended up in Argentina, visiting five prisons, the slums surrounding Buenos Aires, and poor provinces of northern Argentina. My work has also taking me to Manchester and London, where I visited crime-ridden Afro-Caribbean communities, and a prison in southern England. I’ve also addressed these issues in Puerto Rico, Peru, Venezuela, Japan, Italy, France, Sarajevo, and throughout Germany.
In addition, I’ve worked with gangs and community groups throughout the United States, including the Bay Area, the Central Valley, San Diego area, Inland Empire, and cities like Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Tucson, Phoenix, El Paso, San Antonio, Houston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, New York, Hartford, New Jersey, throughout North Carolina, and others.
Today Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center & Bookstore serves 15,000 people a year, of all ages, with arts & literacy: mural painting, music, dance, theater, writing, and more, including guiding the Young Warriors project, working with gang and non-gang youth, headed by local youth activist, Mayra Zaragoza.
My articles in this area have appeared in New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, The Nation, The Progressive, Granta Magazine, Fox News Latino, and Huffington Post.
Most importantly, some 40 gang interventionists, peace advocates and researchers, including myself, met every week over a two-year period, without pay, to write the “Community-based Gang Intervention Model” under the auspices of then-Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas. Cardenas, now a U.S. Congressman, has also introduced this plan as a bill in the House of Representatives.
In February of 2008, the L.A. City Council adopted this model. However, the mayor’s office initiated its own plan beginning in 2008—the Gang Reduction & Youth Development Zones, situated in 12 communities with services and under the control of Homeland Security and law enforcement. Many of us in the field felt this was wholly inadequate to the scale of the problem. In the 1990s L.A. had upwards of 2,000 people killed in one year, and hundreds more in other years—one researcher claimed around 15,000 people killed from 1980 to 2000 in the L.A. area.
Still, based on positive youth development (versus reaction to negative youth activities), the violence and crime in L.A. fell significantly. The downward trend can be credited to GRYD in the zones that provided wrap-around services but also to powerful community efforts of groups like Homeboy Industries, Homies Unidos, Communities in Schools, the Violence Prevention Network, Maximum Force, Youth Justice Coalition, Soledad Enrichment Action, Aztecs Rising, Advancement Project, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, and others.
Unfortunately, however, without a thorough and sustainable effort, crime increased in L.A. and our advances become threatened, particularly in the poor Black and Latino communities of South Los Angeles.
What this means for Salinas….
I’m aware there are many gang prevention/intervention programs already existing and funded in Salinas, including for decades. Those working in these programs are valuable assets, often facing adverse conditions and heroically trying to provide help in any manner possible. They are all invited to be part of this process.My main approach is to look at the whole fabric of the economic, political, cultural, and spiritual components at play, and where the gaps and empties exist. In city after city, I’ve seen piece-meal approaches to violence and crime, although in my view these are “organized inadequacies” unless a whole community approach is envisioned and instituted.
The “I’m saving one starfish” at a time approach is fine, heroic as I’ve said. I’m not against this, obviously, but we need more—and we should not be comfortable just doing this over and over again. We need to save one person as well as create the environment to save all; we need immediate needs and demands met, and we need to leave adequate structures for the long haul.
I can bring in more aspects, but this seems like a good place to start to incorporate proven, evidence-based ideas and practices that the people of Salinas can build on to make a plan with full ownership from all involved. The next process is create the plan and then to obtain full “buy in” from gangs, youth, families, schools, faith-based organizations, non-profits, government agencies, and more.
This plan must not be “pie in the sky,” but it has to be big and encompassing. It also has to be imaginative yet also feasible with a budget that can be met and a process that can pull everyone in. And evaluations and metrics have to be included to measure and gauge progress. Costs are always a problem, but I find that most city, county and state funds are already in place—the problem is they are not allocated in a whole-community and integrated manner.
Proper and full communities are made up of shared agreements. That’s the direction we need to go. We have an arduous path ahead of us. But I’m convinced the people of Salinas are more than a match for the challenges we’ll face if we become imaginative, integrative and keep a vision of both short-term and long-term goals.
I leave you all for now with this: “Unity in essential things; liberty in nonessential things; compassion in all things.”
Luis J. Rodriguez,
Advisor to “Salinas Youth Violence Intervention Project”
The next meeting of the “Salinas Area Youth Violence Intervention Project” will be held December 2, 2015 at 7:00 pm. All community members welcome. Please call 831-2402568 or 510-301-1472.
From the Los Angeles Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/what-latinx-heritage-month-means-me
In the United States, “Latinx Heritage Month” is celebrated from September 15 to October 15. This is a time to recognize and honor Latinx peoples, cultures, issues, contributions, and histories.
Yet this year Latinx Heritage Month is arriving with a backdrop of presidential nomination candidates attacking Latinx migration to this country, calling for billions of dollars more for a thicker wall between Mexico and the United States, the deportation of anyone without documents, and even considering laws to drive out their children who were born here.
For me than, this is more than a celebration. It’s also about getting organized for everyone’s place as dignified human beings.
I am using the term Latinx to cover both male and female genders (Latinos and Latinas), but also the shifting non-binary transgender, transsexual, and other manifestations of our human existence. Unfortunately, a significant section of our society is still kicking and screaming to understand how fluid and marvelous our full humanity really is.
Latinx are no exception. I personally don’t use terms like “Hispanic” and rarely Latino. They only describe the colonial/conquests aspects of history. Since the 60s, I’ve called myself Xicano, U.S. born, politically active and arts engaged, whose parents were born and raised in Mexico. But this term doesn’t resonate with many of my own background.
As for native tribes, I’m Mexika/Raramuri (my father born in a traditionally Nahuatl-speaking area of Guerrero, and my mother from the Raramuri-area of Chihuahua). But, of course, I also have Spanish and whatever African my Guerrero roots draw from (many African slaves were brought into the state; Guerrero was named after the first African-descended president, in 1829, of Mexico).
If this sounds complicated, it is. Latinx cannot be boxed into any old demographic.
I’m also a bona fide United States citizen. Born and raised here. I have a passport. I observe U.S. laws. But I’m no homogenized, non-historical, non-political or non-cultural person. I’m actively involved in environmental justice, social justice, economic justice, and peace in the world as well as home.
These I consider the four pillars of any equitable decent society.
It’s clear to me borders were created for the benefit of a powerful class in this country, as in all countries, mainly to consolidate a home market based on supposed (and imposed) common language, heritage and economy (although global capitalism has made the whole world its “market”).
I see “borders,” “wages,” “mortgages,” “markets,” as well as racial and gender constructs as man-made constrictive deceptions that nonetheless dictate our lives. While most worry sick about jobs and rent and survival, an empire has been built in our name.
Do I love my country? Yes, but I love the world more.
As a poet/artist, I can imagine another society, one aligned properly with nature and its organic bounty; one that guarantees the healthy and full development of every human being and other living things; one that does not have social classes, exploitation, oppression, or anyone feeling less than anyone else.
I get that many Latinx may not agree.
Latinx in the U.S. come from pre-U.S. conquest Mexico, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru, and more. They have roots in highly developed native cultures like the so-called Meso-American area (Olmec, Toltec, Mexika, and Maya) and so-called Inca of South America, two of humanity’s “cradles of civilizations” that also include China, Nigeria, Egypt, Indus Valley, and Mesopotamia.
And to hundreds of other tribes from across borders.
Latinx have European ties due to the Spanish and Portuguese conquests of the continent, which also brought African slavery to our shores. These shores also accommodated Chinese, Japanese and Malaysian migrations (Brazil having the largest Japanese population after Japan). And Filipinos are our “Latinized” brothers and sisters of Asia.
In the United States, we have more history and issues. Latinx have been in every war the U.S. ever fought, including the American Revolution (if you count contributions of Spanish and other Latinx). During World War II, Latinx garnered more Congressional Medals of Honor than any other group. In the Vietnam War, we were disproportionately put on “point” and front lines, along with Native Americans, blacks and poor whites, garnering 22 percent of all casualties when Latinx made up little more than 5 percent of the population.
And I haven’t even touched social classes, rife throughout this continent as in the United States.
Yet without U.S. Latinx there wouldn’t be cowboys, guitars, guacamole, chocolate, rubber balls, gum, hot sauce, salsa music, Latin Jazz, Desi Arnaz, Rita Hayworth, Celia Cruz, Carlos Santana, Sammy Sosa, Jennifer Lopez, Los Lobos, Oscar De La Hoya, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Diaz, Eddie Palmieri, lowriders—or much of the fruits and vegetables on our tables. Despite the differences there is much that does unite us. Latinx are ingrained in the U.S. cultural, economic and political tapestry—and always have been.
The point is any term, including Latinx, is only the “tip of the iceberg.” So much more is beneath every label, every category, every simplified description. Still there should be essential agreements that bind us as a people, orienting us to a future no longer mired in financial crisis, war and uncertainty.
We can agree to dream, envision, strategize, and organize for a country and world worthy of all our gifts, our destinies, and health. What any conscious and caring human being should do.
This means finding commonality with African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and European Americans, the spectrum that makes up “American.” I’m sure we can find vital things to agree with. Why not a peaceful and safe world, a clean and thriving earth, an encompassing and growing economy, a blooming and rich cultural life, and true justice for all?
So this Latinx Heritage Month, we have much to celebrate—and we have substantial short and long-range issues to confront.
Let’s do both.
I’ve been a conscious revolutionary writer, thinker and organizer since 18 when I began to relentlessly remove myself from “La Vida Loca,” the Chicano gang life in an East L.A.-area gang, including drug addiction, violent acts and jail. I’m fortunate to have begun this difficult process at the right time, when my own internal development aligned with the social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
My mentors were among the most radical members of the civil rights, anti-war and labor struggles at the time. They had the vision and knowledge that was powerful enough, encompassing enough, to pull me from the abyss. Nothing spoke to me more than the intense study, strategizing and organizing these revolutionaries brought to my door.
Nobody impacted me as much as Nelson Peery, an African American World War II veteran whom I met when he was almost 50 years old. Originally from Minnesota, Nelson already had thirty years of revolutionary training and experience across the United States and in countries like the Philippines. His 1994 memoir, “Black Fire: The Making of an American Revolutionary” (New Press) is a striking story of the growth and development of what I consider the most advanced U.S., if not global, revolutionary of the past fifty years.
On September 6, 2015, Nelson Peery suffered heart failure in Chicago at the age of 92. I send my deepest condolences to his family, comrades and friends.
When I first met Nelson in Watts, seven years after the 1965 Rebellion, he had gathered around him young, hungry and often angry people from all ethnicities and walks of life, but mostly from the large and fractured working class of the most advanced capitalist country in history, the United States. He pushed a precision in education and action that went against the violence and disorganization of the times. He got us to slow down, study, think and act accordingly.
By the mid-1970s, COINTELPRO had destroyed most organizations in the struggle. Cutbacks in life supportive services rose through Nixon and beyond. In ten years, homelessness became a permanent feature of this capitalism as well as unemployment, financial crises, mass incarceration, wars for power and resources (mostly oil).
The world needed deep and systemic change, not just because it was a good idea, because the objective conditions were ripening for this—making this “a good idea.”
Nelson in forty years since our first meeting, through various incarnations including the League of Revolutionaries for a New America (LRNA), helped create perhaps the most significant multicultural organizations among the radical Left. The leadership has been majority women, people of color and working class. He formulated important concepts that enhanced the thinking of modern-day revolutionary scientists, including how the relatively recent digital revolution was the most meaningful in the U.S. since chattel slavery was outlawed in the 1860s—and as important as the industrial revolution of the same time.
I was proud to be among these intense and strategic leaders.
However, those who knew Nelson and me know we had an unfortunate falling out some five years ago. It would be dishonest, and a dishonor to Nelson, even at his death, to totally lionize him. Nelson was my greatest teacher, and a second-father to me. He was also a source of great disappointment.
Nelson was a multi-dimensional human being with many faults. To be fair he was like the rest of us. Broken in particular ways. Yet when Nelson was right, in his element, few were his equals.
For me, personally and politically, I leave all this behind. There is much unfinished business to do. For one, this is a time to unite the revolutionaries—from every facet of society, presently scattered and easily isolated. The most principled position now is to move forward. Stay true to revolution, the objective basis of which keeps growing. Stay learned, patient, connected, with clarity of vision and short -and long-range strategic aims.
As Nelson once wrote, it’s time to “build a revolutionary organization worthy of the American people… ”
This task is still before us. And I’m convinced meeting this challenge is the best way to honor Nelson Peery.
This piece was a blog post by Luis J. Rodriguez on June 23, 2015 as L.A.'s Poet Laureate for the LA Public Library's website. Here's link: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/trauma-transformation
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.
Until then I waited silently,
a deafening clamor in my head,
voiceless to all around,
hidden from America's eyes,
a brown boy without a name.
I would sing into a solitary
tape recorder, music never to be heard.
I would write my thoughts
in scrambled English;
I would take photos in my mind
—plan out new parks, bushy green, concrete free,
new places to play and think.
Waiting. Then it came. The calling.
It brought me out of my room.
It forced me to escape night captors
in street prisons.
It called me to war, to be writer,
to be scientist and march with the soldiers
It called me from the shadows, out of the wreckage
of my barrio—from among those
who did not exist.
I waited all of 16 years for this time.
Somehow, unexpected, I was called.
That poem was first written when I was 16 years old and jailed during the Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War. The date was August 29, 1970. Some 30,000 people took part in the largest anti-war protest in a community of color at the time.
After law enforcement officers attacked a mostly peaceful crowd, a riot ensued, leading to millions of dollars in damage and the deaths of three persons, including Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar. Hundreds were arrested. I recall several of us being Maced while handcuffed in an L.A. County Sheriff’s bus. Others beaten.
However, after releasing most people within hours, five of us “cholos,” Chicano gang youth, were not released. Instead, sheriff’s deputies held us in the murderer’s row of the Hall of Justice Jail in downtown Los Angeles (which was illegal—you’re supposed to be 18 and over). I had a cell next to Charles Manson. The first night I was there, two murderers put a razor blade to my neck. I stood up to them, showing no fear, although I was scared to death. Deputies threatened us with charges in the riot killings. I was lost for several days while my parents tried to find me in juvenile hall and other facilities
But, charges were never filed. Deputies woke me up in the wee hours and released me without a word. Their apparent plan to make scapegoats of us “gang bangers” backfired when Chicano activists produced photos and film of police beating and shooting people, including of the Silver Dollar Bar on Whittier Boulevard where Salazar was killed.
These activists preceded the video age by 40 years.
This incident, nonetheless, pushed me into a new trajectory of life—from a rageful, heroin-using, high school dropout to a conscious, active, revolutionary writer, thinker and organizer.
Despite my personal battle with drugs, losing 25 friends by the age of 18, and other arrests for attempted murder and later for trying to stop police officers from beating a handcuffed young woman while they held her on the ground, I returned to school, obtained my high school diploma, painted eight murals, worked with gang and nongang youth, wrote articles, plays and poems, and led school walkouts for social change.
I went two steps forward, one step back, but soon I found my footing. By age 20, around the time I held my first son after his birth, I became crime free, drug free and gang free.
Today I have 15 books in all genres, including a memoir, “Always Running,” that has sold close to half a million copies and is one of the most checked out books—and one of the most stolen—in the LA public library system.
And last October, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti chose me as the city’s Poet Laureate.
What happened? How is this kind of change possible? Can it happen to others?
This is the journey from trauma to transformation—and my example is what can happen to millions of troubled young people so they move from violence, crime and addictions to centered and vibrant lives.
I have five steps in one’s personal passage to leave the paralyzing affects of pathological and addictive behavior.
Get help. Find a healthy and sustainable community. If you can’t find one, create one. These communities can be temporary, which they often are, or long-range. There are many already out there—from churches, AA, social justice organizations, therapy circles, cultural centers, schools… I can go on and on.
Find your art, your passions, your innate purpose—to live out the story written on your soul the day you were born. My poem “The Calling” directly addresses this issue—about living the life you were meant to live, not one imposed on you or one you feel you must live for others.
Find a spiritual path. The key to this is that there are many ways to go. Spirit doesn’t care about the particulars of the form, the church, the belief system. Spirit does care in the essence, to be engaged by what speaks deeply and singularly to you. This is how you access vitality for the physical world, with all its hardships, betrayals, pains, losses, and, yes, even its lures and intoxications. Being spiritually strong is how one maintains a quality of presence wherever you go.
Find a cause bigger than yourself. Personal trauma has sources in society, family, community. A full circle has to be completed: All personal healing and growth are to help you become an impactful, positive and meaningful person in relation to others. There are any causes. Mine were linked to making a better and decent society. I was concerned about ending poverty, fighting for a clean and green environment, for social equity, and for peace at home and abroad. I learned these issues are not separate silos to be achieved in a vacuum. These challenges are tied to the same source—an archiac economic system—and to a common aim—a cooperative and thriving world for all. But I also learned, again, that people had to find the causes that best speak to their heart, their intelligence, their spirit.
Learn to own your life. With addictions and gangs we tend to turn our lives over to other people or things. Over time we mold ourselves around their pull on our psyches—with drugs or alcohol making all needs, one need. They fill in—although superficially and temporarily—the empties in our circumstances, of our families, in our spirits. We stop owning our lives. Once you take back responsibility, with codes and propreity tied to your interests, you become liberated. The goal is to be an autonomous, authoritive and independent person. That’s the best kind of person to intertwine and connect to others. Personal authority is powerful. It allows you not to fall under the authority or pathological complexes of other people or groups. But to also be part of the whole, integral to family and community.
Somehow, someway, I’ve been able to take these steps. And I’ve helped others caught in violence or addictions to do the same over the past forty years. For community, this means proper initiations, rites of passage, mentoring, and imparting of knowledge, culture and skills to our young people.
This works—and I’ve maintained for decades this is cheaper and more effective than any prison system or institutionalization where many of our troubled youth end up—going nowhere, wasting away, alienated, detached, their lives erased, unseen and unheard.
In California alone, we spend more than $43,000 a year to house one inmate—around $252,000 annually for juveniles. This is in a prison system that incarcerates 140,000 people at a cost of $10 billion a year. We can and must do something other than this, something truly transformative and restorative for our youth, or we condemn them to suicide, addictions, lives with no meaning.
As my friend, the reknown mythologist Michael Meade, says, “Most people have heard the old African proverb that ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ Fewer know that the second part of the proverbial statement suggests that if young people are not fully invited into life, they will burn the village down.”
If properly recognized and welcomed, from the heart of violence can come the peacemakers—towards beauty, truth and good.
I call this process “tuning up” the six strings of the guitar that make up who you are—the mental, physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and cultural—to be in accord, to align, to be in harmony.
Of course, all guitars have to be played, to get out of tune. So having the right practices, spiritual and/or artistic, as well as renewing touchstones are necessary to get tuned up again. To return to rhythm and balance. Only, of course, to get off balance and off-note the rest of the time.
That’s life. That’s living. But each time you stop, pay attention, tune up, you sound richer, feel fuller, become wiser in your bones.
I’m ending with a poem that speaks to not accepting the demonization that happens too often to our youth from adults, schools, police, and even parents. It’s an invitation to rise above the limitations in and around us—to the dreams, visions and inexaustible spirit already in their grasp and to realize their own true selves and a world worthy of all our children.
Piece by piece
They tear at you:
Peeling away layers of being,
Lying about who you are,
Speaking for your dreams.
In the squalor of their eyes
You are an outlaw.
Dressing you in a jacket of lies
—tailor made in steel—
You fit their perfect picture.
Take it off!
Make your own mantle.
Question the interrogators.
Eyeball the death in their gaze.
Say you won’t succumb.
Say you won’t believe them
When they rename you.
Say you won’t accept their codes.
Their colors, their putrid morals.
Here you have a way.
Here you can sing victory.
Here you are not a conquered race,
—the sullen face in a thunderstorm.
Hands/minds, they are carving out
A sanctuary. Use these weapons
Against them. Use your given gifts
—they are not stone.