My Best Friend in LA -- Tony Hernandez -- May Be Gone. Send Prayers

Dear friends and supporters:

For the past eight days, we've been dealing with the possible death of my best friend in LA, Tony Hernandez. Last Thursday, Tony called our mutual friend, Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist and long-time colleague in the work I've done with Mosaic Multicultural Foundation's men's conferences. In fact, Jacob from Mosaic was the first to call me. Tony has been part of our week-long events at the Woodland Camp in Mendocino for a few years.

The content of the phone call to Jack was that Tony had swallowed a lethal number of sleeping pills and was going to die. He wanted to give messages to his girlfriend Caroline, his daughter Zoe, and myself that he's "done," he's ready to go. According to Jack, his voice sounded peaceful. Jack's daughter found the message on the phone machine and even called Tony back. By then he was apparently mostly incoherent, saying he'd taken more pills, and then he hung up. More calls failed to get any answers.

Jack contacted 911, which took a while since he's in the Bay Area and Tony lived in LA. Finally, I understand, paramedics went to Tony's house, as did Caroline, but he was not to be found. His Toyota pick up truck was also missing.

Since then Caroline and others have tried to trace any activity on the phone, his bank account, credit cards, and email address. But nothing. Since that phone call there has been no indication that Tony is using any of these. This does indicate he is probably gone. Police now have a missing person's report and we hope they will do what they can to find Tony's truck. We're concerned now that he may have gone to the desert or some secluded area to die, and his body is sitting out there.

Of course, a few family members and friends still harbor the idea he may still be alive. But Tony was a genuine and serious person. He wouldn't play games. He's been suicidal for a long time--I've known him for ten years and he's been this way since I've known him.

Tony was a heavily tattooed Mayan-descended young man from the indigenous lands of southern Mexico and Guatemala. He grew up in the barrios of Orange County, got involved with gangs and heroin. He was once shot and also spent seventeen years in prison and juvenile lockups. His heroin addiction lasted more than twenty years, but he's had sporadic relapses over the past ten years since we met. He's been part of NA meetings, sweat lodge healing circles, Buddhist circles, and has gone to rehabilitation.

Tony first heard of me by reading my book "Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA" in prison. He's a voracious reader, but the book really impacted him. I wrote Tony briefly when he was incarcerated. After getting released about ten years ago, I met Tony through our mutual friend Luis Ruan. I liked him from the start--he was intelligent, articulate, and generous. He was funny, sharp, and he and I talked the same language, drawing from the same dark well that many vatos from the streets and pintos carry with them.

Over ten years, Luis, myself and others helped mentor Tony into a good life--with a wonderful girlfriend, Caroline, and through the cultural space my wife Trini and I helped create, Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural. Tony had been with Tia Chucha's since the beginning, always volunteering his time and helping. In fact, the most recent things he did was helped build a new wall for our supplies and to help us move boxes, deli cases and shelves from our old space to the new space.

Tony and I had plans -- for media interviews, talks to kids, work at my home, for more help at Tia Chucha's. I'm working on a documentary film that Tony was going to be instrumental in. I wanted to have Tony around for many, many years to come. But despite his well-loved side, full of personality and energy, he also had a complicated dark unmoveable part of him--a part nobody could seem to reach.

The closest I remember reaching him was when he joined five of us from the San Fernando Sweat Lodge Circle to Peru about three years ago for a spiritual journey. He loved Peru--the people, the sounds, the ceremonies. The Quechua people connected well to his Mayan roots. Our hope was that he could join us for a future trip.

I think one of the painful things has been Tony's layoff from construction work that he liked very much. Not many people would hire felons like Tony. The construction work kept him busy but also gave him invaluable skills. Times are hard, as everyone knows, and I believe the layoffs and lack of work for people like Tony contributed to him wanting to check out. I know many people who feel the same way.

Again, we don't have definite proof he's gone and we pray that we find his body so we can know for sure. But we're all feeling the absence. In my heart, I sense he's in the other world. I sense he's spirit now.

I will miss my friend very much. I know he may be in a better place, at peace, but I will still feel his loss for the rest of my life. Such a big-hearted and beautiful person always leaves big holes in the world, in our hearts, and I will have one for Tony that will not be easily filled.

Tony was a deeply honest and feeling person. He recoiled at the pervasive dishonesty and bullshit around him and the world. Many of us have learned to negotiate this madness and still keep our hearts intact, but for Tony his heart was too big and the world didn't seem big enough to welcome such a generous and open person.

I pray Tony is at peace, safe, in the arms of the Creator. If he's alive and just needs to get away--something I doubt very much--I also wish him well. Either way, Tony seems to be gone from our lives. Please send prayers for Tony, his family, particularly his daughter Zoe, for Caroline, and all his friends at Tia Chucha's, the San Fernando Sweat Lodge Circle as well the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation.

We love you, Tony.

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Journalism and Trauma: How the Truth and Trauma Meet

This past Friday, I took part in an highly engaging conference at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism's office at Harvard University called "Aftermath: Journalism, Storytelling, and the Impact of Violence and Tragedy." Journalists from various publications and media outlets were present, including the few I met from National Public Radio, Time Magazine, the Associated Press, among others. Many are or have been war correspondents, including for the present Persian Gulf wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Academics, trauma specialists, professors, students, and activists were also in attendance. The first day of the two-day event took about ten hours for all the panels and presentations to finish.

Columnist/novelist Pete Hamill did one of the morning presentations he called "The Republic of Trauma." From war, to natural disasters, to urban violence, Mr. Hamill has been there. Panels during the day included correspondents who covered wars in the Balkans, Cambodia, Colombia, Iraq, inner-city America, and disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

I was on a panel called "Documenting Violence: Investigating, Narrating and Challenging its Root." The moderator was Margarita Martinez, a freelance filmmaker and journalist from Colombia. The panelists included Julia Reynolds, a criminal justice reporter for the Monterey County Herald in Monterey, CA. She has spent many years on the crime beat and also produced a documentary film called "Nuestra Familia/Our Family" about barrio gangs in Salinas, CA. Also present was Rachel Dissell, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer--she presented an extraordinary case of a young teenage Latina girl who was shot in the face by an enraged boyfriend. A clip of the girl, named Johanna, reading a poem to the perpetrator at his hearing was deeply moving. My friend and collaborator on research, study, and articles concerning the rise of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in El Salvador from 1993 to 1996, Donna DeCesare, presented photos of a two-week writing/painting project she did with imprisoned women in Colombia. A long-time international and award-winning photo journalist, she is also Professor of Documentary Photography at the University of Texas, Austin.

I did my presentation on how to regenerate from trauma and the importance of journalists staying around to cover the healing process when trauma has affected people and communities. I drew my experiences from the thirty years I've had working with street gangs and other troubled youth, prisoners, the homeless, and disaffected all over the country -- but also in Mexico, Central America, South American, Europe and Japan. I also used the example of Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore as an institution that uses the arts, inner creativity, and imagination in renewing community.

I had to leave the next day so I missed another round of panels and talks, including from my friend and Tia Chucha Press author, Patricia Smith, who last year was nominated for the National Book Award for her poetry collection on New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina.

When I was there at the Walter Lippman House, where the Nieman Foundation is housed, I sat in the Robert C. Maynard Suite, named in honor of the late African American journalist, editor and publisher (former owner of the Oakland Tribune). Mr. Maynard was also a mentor of mine. I took part in the 1980 Summer Program for Minority Journalists at UC Berkeley when Mr. Maynard was the director. I was pleased they decided to honor his legacy.

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Youth Promise Act -- A Real Step in the Right Direction

When it comes to juvenile justice, almost all politicians tend to "outbid" themselves in the amount of time and criminal enhancements that could be added to a juvenile offender's sentence. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) is the politician who won't go this way. He has sponsored the Youth Promise Act, which is based on prevention and intervention programs that cities and states can create in collaboration with schools, nonprofits, community centers, parents, faith-based organizations, and young people themselves. Funding will only go to evidence-based and provable programs that actually lower gang violence, crime, and the "cradle to prison" pipeline we currently have in this country. It does NOT support suppression or more prison time or sending children into adult courts or three-strikes-and-you're-out type measures.

It's a bill that for once I can actually support and advocate.

This past week, Congressman Scott has been in Los Angeles visiting neglected communities such as Watts and the Pico Union area--meeting leaders in groups like Homies Unidos, CRUSH, and Homeboy Industries. On Thursday, the LA City Council's Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence & Youth Development, headed by Councilmember Tony Cardenas, conducted a public hearing on the Youth Promise Act with Congressmen Scott at the City Council chambers downtown. About 300 people showed up, broadcast live by Channel 35.

I was fortunate to be allowed to speak for five minutes on the value of arts, literacy, culture, and spiritual engagement in any work with gang prevention and intervention. Also with me at the table was Fidel Rodriguez of the Spreading Seeds program at Homeboy Industires and two of the youth who are benefiting from their participation.

We also heard testimony from leaders, young people, and others who have been in this work for years, even decades, and the value of real resources to the front end of this issue, and not just the back end (more police and prisons).

The film makers of the new documentary, "Crips & Bloods: Made in America," including the director, Stacy Peralta, were honored at the hearing for this important historical document.

The next day, Friday, the LA City Council voted to endorse the Youth Promise Act--the first major city to do so. I'm proud that our city had the foresight to back this bill.

That evening, I also attended a fund raiser for Congressman Scott at the home of Tom Hayden. Members of the film industry, juvenile justice struggles, foundations, and the progressive community -- as well as gang intervention leaders -- took part in a lively exchange with Councilmember Tony Cardenas and Congressman Scott.

I urge all of my blog readers to contact your Congressman or Congresswoman to support full passage of the Youth Promise Bill. We are in an environment where this is now possible. Let's keep pushing for what's truly needed in our communities. As long time urban peace advocate Aqeel Bashears of Maximum Force said last night, "we're not just talking about gang intervention, but community intervention." Gangs are not an isolated phenomena. They exist in an environment of poverty, lack of jobs, training, educational opportunities, and an absence of creative/innovative programming and real arts/spiritual engagement.

Also, on Friday, I was fortunate to speak to about 300 teachers in the EduAlliance Conference in Long Beach. I was the morning's keynote speaker. And I also made a presentation later that morning on "Hearts & Hands: Creating Community in Troubled Times." We had a great time -- talking about renewing the school environment and to positively impact the lives of young people by helping draw out the gifts, passions, talents, and innate energies that children and youth already bring to the classroom.

I spoke against Standardized Testing, Zero Tolerance, Direct Instruction, and all the ridiculous actions of the past ten years (mostly during the Bush Administration) that has led to teacher burn out, more dropouts, and truly less "educated" young people. We need real imagination and true collaboration between teachers, students, and parents with the same goal: to help shape whole, healthy and meaning relationships with our youth.

Speaking of which, last Tuesday I also spoke to the T-House (Technology House) Freshman at Sylmar High School during their annual parent/student gathering. Led by teacher Mauricio Regalado, this program has been instrumental in raising the grade point average and discipline levels of previously disenchanted and disengaged youth. Some 300 people were present. They offered Mexican food and a Mariachi group before the presentations. I announced that Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore is coming back to the Sylmar community by March 1, and there was much applause.

I'm honored to be included in these efforts and to see our students strive beyond all expectations.

There are ways to get our students alive and active without punishment, intolerance or compliance to outside, unworkable notions and programs. We know what works. The last ten years has seen a decline in our schools and we can turn this around. Tia Chucha's is offering to help in collaboration with the schools, parents, students, and others. Please read my blog for more updates on Tia Chucha's Grand Opening, hours, events, and more.

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Poetry in the Blood

My grand-daughter Catalina Raquel Adragna is twelve years old and an amazing young woman--she's an A student, a good athlete, and now, I've recently found out, she's a budding poet. She put together a handmade book of her poems for a school assignment. And last night, with several other students in the seventh grade, she presented a poem as part of Chandler School's 13th Annual "A Night of Words to Warm One's Soul"--Poetry & Coffee house.

Fifty four students took part by reading one poem each. There were also interludes with two pianists, a guitarist, two ballet dancers, and a folk singer with guitar. With coffee, cookies, and cake, it felt like a Poetry Lounge & Cafe. I must say I was impressed with all the poets--some of them read like pros. And many of the poems had strong images, anecdotes, language.

Of course, I was very proud when Catalina got up to read her poem, called "The Private Forest." It's about the backyard flower garden at the home of her Saturday art teacher, David Moen. Here are a few lines: There is a place I go on Saturdays / Where leaves spring out from chairs / The trees look as if they are protecting the flowers / Where the bugs and butterflies fly / The cats' meow and swipe their paws / Along the cool pond...

Poetry seems to be in the bones and blood of my four children and four grandchildren. They are all great writers. I'm proud that Catalina is continuing this legacy. Poetry saved my life. I don't know if any of them will be actual poets for life--but, just the same, having poetry in their lives is what's important.

Here's one of Catalina's poems she wrote for my wife, Trini (her Grandma Trini):

She's been there my whole life,
Bringing culture and comfort to this oversized family.
She's a hummingbird,
Small and fragile on the outside,
But strong and witty on the inside.
She makes my grandpa smile,
And everything she touches turns to gold
When she's sad the world seems to cry,
But her joy make the sun rise
She advertises and pushes memories of ancestors
into the world,
She might not be part of my blood,
But she's part of my heart in this oversized family.

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Twenty Years of Publishing Quality Poetry from Around the Country

I have been a small press publisher for twenty years. With Tia Chucha Press, distributed to the trade by Northwestern University Press, we've created books by some of the best cross-cultural young and veteran poets in the country. Our roster includes well-known writers such as Diane Glancy, Kyoko Mori, Terrance Hayes, A.Van Jordan, Patricia Smith, Alfred Arteaga, Tony Fitzpatrick, Richard Vargas, and others. We were the first publishers of David Hernandez, Gale Renee Walden, Andres Rodriguez, Cin Salach, Lisa Buscani, Patricia Spears Jones, Linda Susan Jackson, and ariel robello. We've also published chapbooks and a CD--around 50 books over the past two decades.

Last month, one of TCP's authors, Elizabeth Alexander, read the inaugural poem for President Barack Obama--only the fourth inaugural poet in US history.

This press eventually helped the conception of Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore, the nonprofit arts workshop, cultural space, and bookstore in the Northeast San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. Tia Chucha's Centro in more than seven years has become a beloved cultural space, Open Mic venue, and community literacy center--we will be in a new space in a new building in the Sylmar community by March 1. A Grand Opening is set for March 28. Please go to for more information.

Yesterday, we had our first 20th anniversary event at Tia Chucha's Centro with TCP authors Susan D. Anderson and Luivette Resto. Around thirty people, including youth, came to hear Susan and Luivette read poetry and celebrate the power of small press publishing in this country. Their books, "Nostalgia for a Trumpet" and "Unfinished Portrait," respectively, are now available for sale.

We hope to have other TCP anniversary events this year, including in Chicago, the birthplace of Tia Chucha Press.

Small presses are where many of this country's best writers, particularly poets, first began. They have names like Manic D, Red Hen, Coffee House, , Slipstream, Curbstone, Seeing Eye--from chapbook makers to publishers of books that rival an imprint at a big publishing house.

Tia Chucha Press is one of these that has continuously published quality poetry books, beautifully designed (by Jane Brunette who has designed our books for twenty years). We plan to keep publishing, even in these hard times, even when many high-end institutions and publishers are abandoning the arts and literature. We will keep the banner high that in hard times, as in any times, the arts, poetry, song, dance, theater, and music keeps the economy, society and the cultural realm alive and meaningful.

Please celebrate with us by buying Tia Chucha Press books--or any books by a small press--whenever you visit an independent bookstore or Barnes & Noble or You never know when the next Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Sandra Cisneros--or Elizabeth Alexander--may turn up.

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New Energy, New Ideas--a Way Out of Crisis

The capitalist system is coming undone. But it will try to hang on as much as it can--driven by the most bare-faced profit motive. It's greed that greases the cogs and wheels of this system. And the Republic Party, and more than a few Democrats, are trying to surround President Obama with as much obstacles and challenges so that the Government works for them, meeting their profit interests--and not for the interests of the majority of people who need decent work, housing, health care, school, and more.

The issue of government as always been not about big or little government, nor even that government works, but for whom does it work for.

I would venture to say this is looking more and more like real class conflict. I also have to say President Obama is caught in the middle. He's fighting for change, which is on the side of the most Americans. But he's also needing to appease some extremely old and powerful forces.

It's important that the American people become more aware of the issues, the root causes, the real basis of the crisis so that we can assist any real change that Obama will try to implement. Government will have to be for the people. It cannot be an instrument of the large corporations and their lobbyists. Something I've seen Obama try to rectify lately.

Many people may lose hope as we continue on, but it's going to be a difficult and long process. I see Obama trying to set an end to the Iraq war, to get the major lobbyists restricted, to begin the universal health care ball rolling, to also fight for an economic stimulus for jobs. And already, the barricades are being put up by the Republicans and the corporate interests.

We have to keep organizing, writing letters, editorials, and more to keep the pressure on--we want real change. We have to keep organizing ourselves if this change is going to happen or not happen.

Organizing effectively for change should be part of this whole concept of "change." Otherwise it's lip service again.

That's my thoughts for today. I also want to announce that Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural continues this week painting, putting up walls, and other preparation in our new space at the Sylmar Plaza on Hubbard & Gladstone in Sylmar. A number of volunteers have already given of their time. Once the new site has all the walls painted and the floor done, we will pack and begin moving from our current space. This will happen in February.

However, we continue with programming at our current space until this Saturday, January 31. This is when we have the last event at the current Tia Chucha's: The 20th Anniversary of Tia Chucha Press reading with Susan D. Anderson, Luivette Resto, and yours truly, Luis Rodriguez. The event starts at 2 PM. Please get more information at

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A New Age--The Ground is Definitely Shifting

Like most Americans, and millions around the world, I was moved by the inauguration of President Barack Obama on January 20. I had never seen an inauguration on TV or otherwise of any president until then. This is one inauguration I had to see, clinging on to Obama's words as well as listening closely to the other speakers and presentations.

Rick Warren's invocation fell flat. Aretha Franklin shook the rafters (even if it was outside). And Reverend Lowry hit a few high points at the end of this benediction. The musical interlude was also wonderful.

I'm also glad to hear Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander, a friend and Tia Chucha Press poet, although her coming on right after Obama's speech was a mistake. People were already leaving. And her poem, which was low-key and contemplative, did not go well among the two million or so people who had come for rousing, uplifting, moving language. I can appreciate Elizabeth's words. But language has power and passion. The poem needed crescendos, lows and highs, deep thought as well as fiery images. However, afterwards I read a critique or two about her reading that weren't very kind. That's unfortunate. I feel Elizabeth did her job well, wrote her way, and tried to bring some simple images, natural rhythm and somber tone to the proceedings. It was fine, despite the many who felt she missed the mark. Her words were important, especially after Obama's declarations and hard-hitting manifesto.

Still, overall, it was truly a new beginning for this country, this world. President Obama made use of the words "New Age" more than once, and this is a recognition that we are indeed in a new time, a new epoch... a new age. We've been here before, but it is also a qualitatively new experience as well. He also said the ground was shifting beneath us. This is actually right. It's time for us to align our consciousness and plans to what the earth has been telling us for a long time--live in balance, take care of everyone, and take care of this earth.

What does this really mean? President Obama is putting forward some powerful ideas and programs. The economic stimulus plan, for example, does include getting people back to work, but mostly to rebuild our country, while also perhaps having them work according to their capacities to be creative, artistic, innovative. Many Republicans, who represent some of the bigger corporations and banks that have been stiffing us all these years, oppose his plan because for the most part these corporations and financial institutions can't profit from this stimulus plan--unlike the billions of dollars in bailouts, which only went to secure more profitability and has not shown any marked improvement in the economy.

Yes, Obama has quite a road ahead of him. But it's really our road. We all have to be active in insuring it's the right one. There are still many old guard politicians that are probably waiting for Obama to fail so they can get back on track to removing all barriers to unregulated profits. I know Obama is walking a tight rope, and in some cases is leaning toward the capitalist interests against those of the common people. But we need to also keep the pressure on. Obama cannot change this country without us.

What I'd say is that we should target the economic/social system that has taken us into this mess, not Obama. I'm convinced if Obama fails it will be because the intractable interests in the system won't change. These include those very real forces for war, free markets, and profitability at the expense of the majority of Americans and people of the world.

During the day, we had sixty students from a new high school in Hollywood come visit our current Tia Chucha's space to hear me talk, ask questions, buy books, and eat tamales. The teacher, Anji Williams, had been trying to bring these students to Tia Chucha's for some time. The students asked very good questions and were very respectful. These field trips have been going on for some time, about two a month during the school year. Obama's presidency was also a point to discuss with the students.

That afternoon, some of us at Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural, our staff and a few key volunteers, went to the new space we've just obtained at the Sylmar Plaza to do some prayers and blessings before we start the work of painting and preparing the space. We hope to be fully moved in and ready for business on March 1. Please go to to get more information. This will include a Grand Opening date. If you can, sign up for our email blasts and, if at all possible, donate whatever you can on our Pay Pal account. This would be most appreciated.

Later that evening at our current Tia Chucha's site, we showed highlights of Obama's speech and inauguration to the community and had a rich dialogue about Obama's presidency, the power of real change, and what we have to do as people to keep forcing the change inspite of many obstacles or barriers.

We had young and old, Mexican/Central American, African American and European American. We had our Mexikayotl classes there--it's usually their night and they were gracious to let us have this talk. A Nahuatl-speaker from Mexico also attended. At the same time, I was on the air with Kimberly King and Michael Dacher of KPFK's "Beautiful Struggle" radio program to discuss Obama and the issues surrounding change.

To summarize what we ended up talking about, I'm re-printing part of an email that my friend, and LAUSD teacher, Sean Leys sent me after the talks, which he attended. With his permission. You can see the level of conversation, especially the dynamic between the younger people and the older people. It was something to see how respectful and attentive everyone was to each other. Here's Sean's words:

For a week I've been consciously trying to lower my expectations of Obama's speech today. Still, part of me just wouldn't stop believing that he truly is a progressive and that once elected, he will reveal himself a little more fully, that he will push boldly into his first 100 days, taking full advantage of the most profound mandate since the Reagan revolution. But I knew that was too much to hope for so I tried not to hope, despite the slogan and the posters and bumper stickers. Still, after hearing his speech today a couple of times, reading it, speaking about it with colleagues and students, I was disappointed. I mean, REALLY disappointed. I began to get depressed about it. Fortunately, one of my mentors, author Luis Rodriguez and his wife Trini were having an open dialogue about it at their cultural center, Tia Chucha's. I had already prepared myself for the disappointment and I knew I could count on Trini and Luis and the elders they would bring together to help me see this in a healthier way. I was right. I'd like to share what I took away from the discussion.

There were a dozen or two people there, all ages and ethnicities, just as I had hoped. We watched the speech, complete with its celebration of westward expansion, attack on communism, affirmation of free market capitalism, veiled threats against Hamas, and call for a return to traditional American values like patriotism. At the end, every one younger than me looked totally disheartened and everyone older looked excited. Some even clapped. I was glad. I knew I was going to receive a new way of looking at the day.

The conversation was rich. Several times I or one of the younger attendees would throw out a reason for our frustration, and one at a time, these frustrations were countered by the elders with a way to look at the situation that we had not seen. The logic went something like this. What is happening in America and the world right now is much larger than Obama. There is a movement, a tide, rising for change and Obama is riding it. Whether or not he is truly a part of it or he is simply using it is of less importance than the fact that it is so powerful that only by tapping into it was he able to become president. This explains how, when talking to students about today's speech, they completely miss its essentially conservative message. They see only the tide that he is riding. In addition to the tide, we are also experiencing what Luis described as a "falling away of the veils." The veil that hid the exploitation of nature has fallen away as we confront the reality of peak oil and climate change. The veil that hid the exploitation of working people by finance institutions has fallen away as we confront the reality of the financial crisis. And now, the veil that hides the complexity of ethnicity has fallen away as America confronts the reality of a biracial president.

As for whether or not Obama is a closet progressive, a case was made that he is. One elder, I didn't get his name but he reminded me of the old Black Panthers I met living and working in Watts, told a story of meeting Obama when he was at Occidental College. He told about how Obama once came down to a place called the Inner City Cultural Center and was radical enough in his Afrocentrism that the elder who was telling us the story thought Barak probably wasn't his given name, that he was probably named John or something but wanted to be called Barak because it better fit his political identity.

So then, why the conservative speech? Because, to quote de Tocqueville, "in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve." He is reflecting back to America who we are as a nation. Perhaps in this speech he is reflecting our lowest common denominator, but it is what it is. Also, it is significant that in this speech he reiterates his call for national service. As president he will be accountable to different degrees to the monied interests that back him AND the grassroots voters. I believe that his background as a community organizer, consistent with my experience as a community based teacher, leads him to believe that there is no better way to radicalize people than to put them to work in solidarity with oppressed people. His call for service is also a call for voters to become more progressive.

So then, what now? It was suggested that we do NOT attack Obama. Rather, point out the old power brokers that surround him and remind people that the old guard is what restrains him. Point out that it is the lack of a clear ideology that keeps this rising tide from demanding more revolutionary change. Yes, Obama was disturbingly silent on the issues of immigration and gay rights, but he will surely be sympathetic to grassroots demands for progress on these fronts if the demands are popular and clearly articulated. To expect much more from a national politician is to misunderstand the limits of national politics.

By the end of the conversation, there was consensus. No one was saying that we should "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," but rather that real change comes from community organizing and that Obama is open to being accountable to that organizing. So the real work is back on us. There is a risk that people's faith in Obama, that the cult of personality that grows around him, will turn into cynicism as he fails to live up to the hype. But when his inevitable failures to produce real change from the top down become obvious, we must think of that as one more veil coming down, and that with our work, it will be seen for what it is: one more call for us, as a planet, to seek real and lasting truths beyond these veils. That real change will never come from leaders, it will come from all of us being human, humble, and in heartfelt solidarity with each other.

We have much work to do. This level of involvement is revolutionary and unprecedented. And, as I say, there will be many people, forces, and interests trying to hold us back. Let's keep our eyes on what's really behind our misery, and where the hope lies. As I said to one young person, even in a dry land, in a desert, we have to find ways to plant some seed, to nurture some flowering.

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Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore has a new home!

Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore now has a new home! As of March 2009, we will be located at the Sylmar Plaza off the 210 Freeway on Hubbard, just past the Dennys, and down the street from Mission College. We plan a grand opening on March 31 and will inform all the community about our move.

It's been a long and hard road to get here.

As many of you know, Tia Chucha's Centro was pushed out of our original Sylmar, CA space after five years when the landlords tripled our rent to make room for a high-end Laundromat. This was a terrible setback to our space that was the only art gallery, cultural space, and bookstore for the Northeast San Fernando Valley -- which consists of many communities and some 450,000 people (about the size of Oakland). In March of 2007, we rented a smaller, cheaper, but highly isolated space in Lake View Terrace, where we have continued our amazing programming, events, and workshops, but without a cafe and without the audiences we used to enjoy.

In the process, my wife Trini and I lost tens of thousands of dollars of investment in the cafe, performance space, workshop center, art gallery, and bookstore. We had to destroy the coffee bar, amazing walls, flooring and such--as well as store all our cafe equipment, signs, books, shelving and more. Then we had a hard time getting a new space in a major development in Pacoima. Again the plaza where we were slated to possibly have a space was derailed after Costco and Best Buy got into the picture. We applaud the jobs these companies would bring, which for Pacoima is a major issue. But we also fought to have a cultural space as well as those jobs so that the quality of life of this community would enhance, not just the economic (one does not need to be pitted against the other). But politics in these communities is one of scarcity, not abundance, and the community was forced to choose between the two. We were practically walked out the door on that development.

Then the storage place where we had tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, files, shelves, books, signage, and more was broken into three times. We lost everything of value. Again, a terrible setback since we will not be able to replace these at this time.

Any of this would have destroyed other spaces and independent bookstores. The main thing is we never gave up.

We continued to get individual donations and support from such notables as Bruce Springsteen, John Densmore of the Doors, Cheech Marin, Richard Foos, Lou Adler, Dave Marsh, Adrienne Rich, Jack Kornfield, and others. We worked hard on grants and received much-appreciated funding from LA City's Department of Cultural Affairs, California Arts Council, LA County Arts Commission, Community Redevelopment Agency, the Center for Cultural Innovations, the Panta Rhea Foundation, the Attias Family Foundation, the Middleton Foundation, the City of San Fernando, the Annenberg Foundation, and more.

We were able to continue our Music LA workshops in guitar, Son Jarocho Mexican traditional music, Brazilian Martial Arts/Dance Capoeira, Flutes, Drumming, and more. We established our own Danza Azteca group called Temachtia Quetzacoatl. We continued publishing new and powerful poet through Tia Chucha Press, now in its twentieth year. We also produced CDs through Dos Manos Records. And we created the only literacy and arts festival in the Northeast Valley for three years in a row called "Celebrating Words: Written, Performend & Sung" in Sylmar. We also presented weekly Open Mics, regular author readings, film nights, natural health discussions, indigenous Mexicayotl and Nahuatl classes, and community dialogues. We've had musical presentations as well as theater, writing, and other workshops. And about twice a month through the school year, we've had field trips from schools throughout the LA area (a school in Oakland has come twice) where we try to get a book into the hands of every student.

In addition, we had a successful art auction at the home of John Densmore that netted $16,000 for artists and another $13,000 for Tia Chucha's. And for three years now, we've held a benefit event at Hollywood's famous Ford Amphitheater called "Celebrating Community & Culture: Si Se Puede/Yes We Can."

We also expanded our board (after integrating the LLC cafe into the nonprofit Centro) to include leaders from the Chicano, African American, Asian, and European American communities.

Now, finally, we have a beautiful space in a new building to continue this amazing array of programming, publishing, festivals and benefits.

More will be forthcoming about our new space, including new address, phones, and our grand opening. I'll announce it here but you can also go to for more information.

Please support Tia Chucha's and spaces like this. In the LA area, there is Teocintli in Boyle Heights, Casa 101 in Boyle Heights, Nahui Ohlin in Echo Park, Antigua Cafe in Cypress Park, Homegirl Cafe in downtown/Chinatown, Chimes in San Fernando, House of Brews in San Fernando, Mayazteca in West Covina, Imix Bookstore in Eagle Rock.. and others. We all need to be supported with your presence, your art, your financial and moral support.

As far as I'm concerned, there should be places like these in every barrio and neighborhood in the LA area.

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Resistance & Respect II -- An important conference on graff and mural art in Los Angeles

I was disheartened to hear yesterday that Los Angeles is no longer the "Mural Capital" of the world. It was an admiration and respect this city benefited from after the explosion of public art that began in the 1960s--and culminating in the city becoming huge for graffiti writers from around the world through the new millennium.

This fact was stated by world renowned muralist Judy Baca during the "Resistance & Respect II: Current Issues Facing Traditional & Graff Art Muralists" conference, held on Sunday, January 11 at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Little Tokyo. About 200 people showed up for this free panel and discussion that included Ms. Baca, Wayne Alaniz Healy, Yreina D. Cervantez, Chaz Bojorquez, Noni Olabisi, and Man-One--each of whom are pioneers and innovators of the public mural/graff movements over the past forty years.

Elizabeth Morin of LA City's Department of Cultural Affairs (although here representing herself) and yours truly were the moderators.

The powerful documentary "America Tropical" (about the whitewashed mural painted by Mexican great David Alfaro Siquieros in Olvera Street in 1932) was also shown, with the presence and commentary of the original director, Jesus Trevino.

Sponsored by Ruben Guevara and the Arts 4 City Youth organization he founded, this event included an amazing array of talent, ideas, challenges, and concerns. In general, people on the panel and in the audience felt we need to do more to create, restore and preserve public mural projects in the city, instead of the millions of dollars now being used to destroy graffiti, but also, unfortunately, old and vital murals that have been tagged on (and the criminalization of potential public artists).

It's time for action to bring back LA's standing among the world's mural cities. This will require organized events, protests, letter-writing campaigns, and more. I also hope to help create a city-wide policy statement on the safeguarding and protection of neighborhood arts programming, cultural spaces, community cafes, independent bookstores, and murals that are all being driven away, or allowed to be destroyed, in the current environment. This is not a time to close down, do less or cutback, which the city and state are doing to schools and other public value programs. It's a time to be more creative, expansive, and to make art everywhere. My plan is to get this approved by the LA City Council so that such policy becomes implementable throughout the city.

I applaud Ruben, Arts 4 City Youth, all the panelists, the tech guys, and the engaged audience for making this event possible.

I also want to remind people that I'll be on air this week with Dominigue Di Prima as honorary guest host of the "Front Page" talk show on KJLH-FM, 102.3 radio from 4:30 AM to 6 AM.

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