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.
This poem first appeared June 18, 2016 on the L.A. Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/poem-new-dream
In the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub massacre, Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016
Hate becomes death becomes hate.
The world unravels in fear.
Columbine: 13 students and a teacher gone.
Sandy Hook: 20 children and 6 adults murdered.
Charleston, North Carolina: 9 black churchgoers killed.
San Bernardino: 14 men and women destroyed.
Orlando, Florida: 50 patrons of a LGBTQ nightclub slaughtered.
Hate that shouts without a voice,
that uses bullets to speak,
that has a finality to its grief,
that can’t see because this rage has no eyes…
Hate in Wounded Knee, 1890: 300 Native men, women, children wiped out.
Ludlow, Colorado, 1914: National Guard and John D. Rockefeller’s company guards
kill some 25 men, women, and children during coal miners’ strike.
Tulsa Oklahoma, 1921: Upwards of 300 black residents slaughtered by whites
In 1919 alone, hundreds killed in more than 300 riots against blacks.
Some 4,000 blacks lynched from 1860 to 1950.
Around 700 Mexicans in roughly the same years.
Millions erased bringing Africans to America….
In the first 15 years of the 21st century, police killed unarmed black residents
in Ferguson, Baltimore, Oakland, New York, Los Angeles…
Salinas police killed 5 unarmed Mexican and Salvadoran farmworkers in 2014.
Black lives matter because when they stop being killed, we’re all free.
Hate against the raped women (1 in 5 women raped in the United States),
killing women’s choices for their bodies, killing and killing and killing.
Oklahoma City: 168 blown to pieces.
Twin Towers, New York: 2,752 massacred.
6 millions Jews destroyed in the Holocaust.
When right becomes hate, it loses its right.
When walls are the response
—or invasions, drone attacks, torture, perpetual war…
Ask Hitler. Ask Mussolini. Ask Pinochet.
Ask the 75,000 killed during the 1980s in El Salvador,
or 100,000 Mayan villagers in Guatemala,
or the hundreds of protesting students in Tlatelolco, Mexico.
90 percent of Native peoples dead within 50 years of European invasion.
I recall Malcolm teaching that in the ghetto we’re seeing
“the hate that hate produced.”
I’ve seen this in the barrio.
In the reservation.
In the trailer park.
Self-hate is also hate.
It’s in suicides of LGBTQ youth hounded to death.
When an interviewer insinuated to Muhammad Ali that he learned
to hate white people from being a Muslim, Ali said,
“I learned to hate white people from white people.”
When Gays and Trans folk get beaten, stabbed, shot, just for being what they
can’t help but be, hate is the normality of our existence, the fabric in our tapestry,
the fetid air we breathe.
White. Black. Brown. Women. Men.
Christians. Buddhists. Muslims. Hindu. Natives. Nonbelievers.
And transitional beings.
More than 200,000 annihilated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Hate is in the blood.
Guns don’t hate. But those who want guns in all our hands do.
When 6,800 people died since 1998 trying to cross the Mexico-U.S. border.
And 164,000 killed, with 30,00 missing, since 2006 in Mexican drug wars.
When hate says we can’t reach out across all walls,
then tear down those walls.
Poverty is hate. Prison is hate. Families without homes…
Hate. Hate. Hate.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. got assassinated
—and John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, Ruben Salazar,
Rudy Lozano, Harvey Milk, John Lennon…
Hate sang its sanguine song.
When 15,000 young people in the barrios and ghettos of Los Angeles
died from gang violence from 1980 to 2000.
When Chicago sees hundreds of mostly black and brown youth destroyed
every year for forty years.
When the murder capitals of the world are Detroit, New Orleans, San Pedro Sula,
Ciudad Juarez, Johannesburg… hate capitalizes.
When refugees of hate now have Syrian faces, Afghani faces, Iraqi faces,
Honduran faces, poor faces…
That’s hate. Self hate. The hate that hate produced.
Hate is an industry. Hate makes some people rich. Capitalism is hate.
The answer to hate is not hate. Justified by hateful Gods in people’s minds.
When even love is a reason to be killed, then hate is the heart gone mad.
As prayers shroud the dead, guns sales rise, and defense budgets take up
the majority of our tax dollars (even if most days we forget we’re at war).
Violence sells movies, books, music.
And the violent, victims and perpetrators alike,
fills jails and mental institutions.
When in every poor neighborhood you can buy guns all you want,
but you can’t buy a book?
We need people to be Queer. Unique. Different. To make us more human.
When access to love, peace, connections, hearts, brains, and books becomes
Then revolution is the only way to go. An armed revolution, yes, but not of guns.
Armed with art, connections, hearts, brains, books, and a multiplicity of
Imagine… imagine… imagine.
We reweave the unraveling cloth of our lives with dreams, not screams.
So love becomes life becomes love.
This piece first appeared May 21, 2016 on the L.A. Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/%E2%80%9Cpoet-motion%E2%80%9D%E2%80%94north-carolina-and-transgender-justice
North Carolina has some of the most diverse terrain of any state—from the Great Smoky Mountains, which includes the Blue Ridge peaks of the massive Appalachian mountain range, to the Outer Banks on the Atlantic coast. The state is rich in bio-diversity, history, and people. North Carolina was home to the first English settlement and is one of the original 13 colonies. The Cherokee are among the state’s first peoples. Although many Cherokees were removed during President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 (catapulting the infamous “Trail of Tears”), the tribe maintains a reservation here. The state’s biggest city, Charlotte, is a financial center. And Raleigh-Durham is known as the Triangle, encompassing higher-learning research institutes like Duke University, North Carolina State University, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Tobacco is big here—as are turkey farms, textiles, furniture, processing plants, and more. The state had slave plantations but also a divided legislature during the U.S. Civil War. The state joined the confederacy later than other southern states and only after the attack on Fort Sumter, signaling the start of war that eventually took 40,000 North Carolinian lives.
Although a segregated southern state, in 1960 the first national sit-in for integration occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina.
By the new millennium, an interesting development appeared—a 600 percent rise in Mexicans and other Latinos in North Carolina, leading to tensions between whites, blacks, and the mostly brown migrants. Jobs once held by poor whites and blacks were now going to cheaper labor made up of Mexicans, Central Americans, and South Americans. While a few communities embraced the new make up, others were up in arms. This is where I come in.
A North Carolina literary consortium, spearheaded by the North Carolina Arts Council, invited me to do the largest writer’s residency in the state’s history called “Word Wide.” I spent 10 weeks in North Carolina during the winter and spring of the year 2000, traveling from one end of the state to the other—I was a “poet in motion.” I spoke, read poetry, or conducted writing workshops in prisons, juvenile lockups, public & private schools, universities, colleges, migrant camps, churches, libraries, manufacturing plants, conferences, and at the Cherokee Reservation—from seventeen to twenty-four events a week.
The audiences were Latino, but also black, white, and Native American. I spoke English and Spanish, although as an “English Only” state, I couldn’t speak Spanish in public schools (even with Spanish-speaking children). California is also an official English language state, but I’ve spoken Spanish in many California schools—a matter of application.
In Siler City, the ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke held a rally against Mexican migration not long before I was scheduled to visit. Some 400 people reportedly showed up (although allegedly 100 of them were shipped in by Duke). He called Mexicans and other Latinos “undesirable.” When I ended up there, most of the community embraced me and wanted to be clear—they had nothing to do with David Duke.
I made many friends in North Carolina. I know my talks helped many suppressed communities, particularly among Latino migrants, prisoners, Natives. But I’ve only made sporadic visits since 2000.
Then in March of this year, North Carolina hit national news when Governor Pat McCrory signed HB2, nullifying LGBTQ-inclusive ordinances like one enacted earlier in Charlotte, and forbidding cities and counties from enacting new ones. The law also forbids transgender people from using restrooms, locker rooms, and other single-sex facilities in government buildings, including public schools, which match their gender identity. Right away, personalities like Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Native American writer Sherman Alexie, and others cancelled events in the state to protest. The Los Angeles City Council approved a resolution in April, signed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, to ban official travel to North Carolina for nonessential business. I applaud these efforts.
Now the U.S. Justice Department has filed a civil rights lawsuit against HB2, while North Carolina lawmakers came up with their own lawsuit against the Justice Department (all echoes of 1960s civil rights battles).
In mid-April I traveled to Appalachian University in Boone, North Carolina. Here’s why: It was organized a while back so I could speak to the university community, but more importantly, to around 170 middle-school at-risk youth, many of them Latino, who have been repressed for years but also face growing gang violence. This is mostly what I do in my travels—address the poorest, often most troubled, young people. I tell my story, often with my poems, about having been in the streets, in a gang, on drugs, and in jail in my youth, and how I overcame the madness with arts, books, writing, political education, strong mentoring, and a powerful sense of social justice. My memoir, “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.,” as well as my poetry books, are used with these young people. I felt compelled to reach out to them. But I was also mindful of the state’s discriminatory actions. I had to find a way to bring these two together—a delicate, artful challenge.
While at Appalachian, I made sure to publicly oppose HB2. Many university students were active in protests against the law, protests that have spread to campuses across the state. I also will not accept any other invites to North Carolina as long as HB2 exists. I’ve added Mississippi and Alabama, who have enacted similar laws. The youth were glad to hear from me, but also understood my position.
I am a poet in motion, and I’ve much to say about discrimination and repression against people of color, the poor, the dispossessed, including against women and LGBTQ communities. I also make clear the underlying class nature of our society in which 1 percent own most of the wealth and power, and the rest are scrambling to get by. We all belong. We all have value. And I will be an outspoken poet on these and other issues all my life.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent letter by an Appalachian University student:
I’ve never been so touched and inspired by a visiting writer, and even now, almost a week later, I still feel the utmost respect for you. I bought your book Always Running at your speech, and I can barely put it down! I have to because exams are coming up, but if I had my choice, I’d sit and read it all the way through. You have a beautiful writing style, and from the very first page, I was invested in you and your life. I absolutely love the way you insert certain Spanish phrases and words—I’m ecstatic when I recognize and understand them (I’ve been taking Spanish for two years).
Thank you so much for coming and speaking on our campus. I can’t express how grateful I am to hear someone with a voice loud enough to be heard take up for people who have been, and still are being, oppressed and discriminated against. Hearing you take up for the LGBT community meant so much to me, and it made me feel seen and cared for. A majority of my teachers, and even my family and friends who know about the passing of the bill and my sexual identity, have said nothing about the bill and haven’t seemed to express any kind of resentment towards it either. So, I really can’t tell you how important it is to me that someone as successful and experienced as you came and discussed it as one of the first things you said to all of us. I also want to tell you how much I respect you for your activism and involvement. My teacher showed us a video of you in our class, and it really struck me how you’ve mentored youths and encouraged them to go to college and pursue an education rather than just settling for what’s expected of them.
Your support of the Black Lives Matter campaign and everything involving racial minorities and racial discrimination is so important to our society and the kind of country that we are living in. In your speech, you said that you went to a poetry reading that changed your life, and I want you to know that going to your reading changed mine.
We move forward.
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).