Latest update on my mother and recent events

Yesterday, my daughter Andrea and I went to the Orange County hospital where my mother is in critical condition. Since my last blogpost, mom has now contracted pneumonia. Since Friday she has been on a respirator, antibiotics and morphine. Since Friday, she has not opened her eyes.

We stood around her bed as she lay with her head up, unaware and unconscious, 40 percent of her breathing done with the machine. My sister Ana was there as were my brother Joe and his wife Diana. Their daughters Clara and Emily, and grandson Lincoln, were in the waiting room since there's a limit on who can be in the room with my mom.

We talked around our lives with our mother, how in the last few years she seemed to be sweeter, although she's forgetting more and more due to Alzheimer's.

My mother's had a rough life, with roots in the Raramuri people of southern Chihuahua, that during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1929) lost two daughters, my grandmother and great-grandmother, who walked out of the Copper Canyon, home of the world's largest number of cave dwellers after Afghanistan, where the Raramuri (often called Tarahumara) ended up after escaping the Spanish swords in the early days of the conquest. My great grand-mother and grandmother walked away from starvation and genocide (the Mexican Revolution saw the death of a million people, and the creation of a million refugees, when the country had 15 million people, including the destruction of Native and peasant villages including smaller tribes).

My great-grandmother and grandmother were re-named (till this day nobody knows their indigenous names) to Manuela and Ana when they got to a church shelter in Chihuahua City. In 1925, my mother was born in that city. My grandfather, Monico, was a railroad worker who had to carry rifles and guns on the trains to protect from bandits and later federal troops trying to stop rebels from using the trains. Monico apparently defended Pancho Villa. From history, Mexican rebels were the first to use trains to carry families and supplies, airplanes for bomb raids, and trenches in warfare (all these were used extensively in World War I).

After the revolution, Monico stayed on with the railroads, but also apparently played trumpet and at times ended up in Los Angeles sitting in with Mexican and jazz bands in the 1940s. The family eventually landed in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, on the border, where my mother lived in deep poverty with Grandma Ana, two brothers, Rodolfo and Kiko, and a sister, Chila. One thing I recall my mother telling us involved my grandfather's drunkenness. How mean and ugly he'd get. How he'd yell at Grandma Ana and even drag her around the house by her hair. My mother, the youngest of the kids, learned to curse him out as the only thing that would stop him from going after her. She'd throw out the most amazing Mexican swear names.

Names that as kids she often used against us.

My mother was also mean growing up, especially in the beatings we'd get from her on a regular basis. We landed in LA as immigrants when I was two years old with my dad, Alfonso, my mother, and Joe, Ana and myself (my youngest sister, Gloria, was born in East LA two years later). We lived in Watts/South Central and we were often evicted from apartments and homes due to not paying rent or gas bills (which also meant taking many a cold bath). My dad tried to work--in a dog food factory, a paint factory, in construction, selling pots and pans, Bibles, and chicharrones (Mexican-style pork rinds), but he was often out of work.

We eventually landed in the East LA area, mostly South San Gabriel/San Gabriel, and my dad finally got a job as a laboratory custodian. In time we bought a wood-frame two-bedroom house that over the years got stuccoed, another bathroom added on, and even much later another smaller house in the back.

But it was always a struggle, like all working class families, in particular recent immigrants. I now know the frustration my mother had trying to make ends meet with four kids and a husband, unfortunately, who was emotionally disconnected to her and his children. My dad also had four other children from other women who often interacted with us (except one sister who died as an infant and a brother who stayed in Mexico and we never knew growing up). Seni and Alberto were the two half siblings we had more ties with.

We talked about how hard it was to get our father to see us, understand us, relate to us. My mother also had hormonal problems, which we didn't understand. She'd be nice one moment, than a raving lunatic the next. Years later she had her thyroid removed and this alleviated some of the madness (unfortunately, we were long gone from the house by then).

I don't want to blame my mother or father for what happened to me, because I made these decisions and I take responsibility for them. But I started my street life early, at age 7, joining a gang at 11 and beginning to use drugs and alcohol at age 12. While I became a violent gang member and then a heroin addict, I did turn this around by age 20 when I turned to revolutionary politics and action that eventually allowed me to imagine a life as writer, speaker, organizer, and family man -- something I eventually realized. But all the while I had seven years of drug use and twenty years of drinking to get through before I finally sobered up 15 years ago.

My brother and sister talked about the alcoholism, how they coped, which we had to all find a way (although my sister Ana said she never got into drinking). We lost our dad in 1992--a sad story in itself--but we've had our mother ever since. And despite some 20 years of estrangement with her, in the year 2000, when I brought my present wife Trini and two young boys back to LA from Chicago, I finally reconciled with my mother and the rest of the family. Besides Andrea and Ramiro, my oldest children, they got to know and appreciate my youngest boys, Ruben and Luis.

So there we were this past Sunday, seeing this brave and troubled woman, our mother, who we love very much despite past hurts and issues, looking so vulnerable and almost not there in the intensive care unit of the hospital. It's possible she'll get better, but her age and all she's been through makes this very difficult. Meantime, Ana tried to hold my mother's hand. Joe and I looked at mom every once in a while. Diana and Andrea stood by us.

I'm still praying she'll get through this. Anything is possible. But for now, prayers are all we can give.

We also got the news that Ana was laid off from her job the other day due to the financial crisis. She's only had this job for nine months. She's 53 years old, a rough time to be without a job, with a house mortgage. We're praying for her as well.

I also want to relate to everyone how in the midst of this, I received the West Algonguin Literary Award from the West Hollywood Book Fair at the Pacific Design Center on Melrose in West Hollywood. I was deeply honored. A busload of students from west San Gabriel Valley -- such as El Monte, La Puente, Industry, etc. also came and I spent a wonderful time signing books, taking photos, and talking to the young people. It was an important acknowledgment, and I'm grateful to the City of West Hollywood and PEN USA as well as everyone involved with the Book Fair for providing me this award.

Unfortunately, I missed the book fair the next day (I've gone since it started about seven years ago) to see my mother. But everyone seemed to understand. I want to give a shout out to Homeboy Industries and Leslie Schwartz who read at the book fair from the writing workshops Leslie has been facilitating with LA-area gang members for a few years now. I was going to read with them, but didn't make it. As I told the audience at the Pacific Design Center, it's time for us to find our voices, our stories, to find the means of expressing them--to live out the stories written on our souls.

c/s
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A prayer for my mother, Maria Estela, and the Nation

Yesterday, Trini and I spent three and a half hours with my mother at a hospital in Orange County. Maria Estela Rodriguez is almost 85 years old and now has Alzheimer's. The other day she was checked into the hospital to have her gall bladder removed--apparently she has been in pain with this for quite some time, but never said nothing. But in the process of preparing her, the doctors found she had an irregular heartbeat. There was a 20 percent chance she would not survive the operation (they had to do it the old fashion way, with surgery, for reasons related to her age and the terrible condition of the gall bladder). My sister Ana (who has been taking care of my mother for many years until last year when we agreed to place her in a home for Alzheimer's patients) called to see if there was consensus from all the siblings on the operation. My brother Joe, my half-sister Seni, and my younger sisters, Ana and Gloria, as well as I, agreed--she cannot be in this pain any longer. We all did prayers for her to be well after the operation, and the doctors proceeded.

While my mother was in deep pain and mostly incoherent, it appears she will be fine. Trini and I held her hand most of the time we were there, visited also by one of Seni's daughters, Aide, who turns out has studied acupuncture, acupressure, other Eastern healing practices, and is apparently a massage therapist. She was very calming and helpful for my mother, who I could tell was not always remembering we were there.

Today should be a much better day for my mom. Again we send prayers every day for her recovery. She is much loved. Since my return to LA in 2000 after 15 years in Chicago, and around 20 years of estrangement, I've reconciled with my mother and most of my family. We don't agree on spiritual matters or politics, but we are family. We have realized that is extremely important in this time of so much fracturing and estrangement.

I've also been keeping up with the news. WAMU, the largest US savings & loan, has just been taken over. The federal bailout plan is a sham. Nobody really knows how to resolve the crisis they got us into in the first place. With deregulated financial institutions going hog wild with our money and our homes, they now are being given $700 Billion bailout. What about accountability? What about laws to protect the rest of us from fraud and manipulation of markets (rife in the past years with housing, among other industries)? The ones who need bailouts are those of us at the bottom or the middle of the economy--the ones who got shafted.

A couple of days ago, John McCain made a dramatic statement that he'd end his campaign so he can "help resolve the financial crisis." He can't resolve it and he knows it--he's a self-admitted idiot when it comes to the economy. This was a political ploy, spin as it's called, that's meant to be more bark than bite. Now he's backed off and is back on the campaign, although the crisis is far from resolved. In fact, even if Congress approves the Bush Administration's plan, it will only stave off the inevitable. The system is broke from the inside out.

I know this crisis can be solved--all crises have solutions in them. But the so-called experts in government and in the financial world won't look at the real solutions. They want to safeguard their profits and positions above all. They really don't care about the rest of us--they're concern that something must be done or we'll all go down is a scare tactic, used so often to get us to approve inane plans and even wars.

The Bush Administration is out of "trust capital." They have lied to much, fear-mongered once too often, for us to keep turning the economy, the military and our constitutional rights to them over and over and over again (although shame on us for letting them do so--perhaps we're all getting political Alzheimer's when it comes to these "solutions").

So while my mother recovers, which I pray she will, I also pray we'll look beyond the "sacred cows" of markets and capitalism to imaginative, cooperative, liberating and abundant means. If not, we'll just go through more and more crises, with more and more people losing the very foundations of their lives, ultimately to benefit a ridiculously few among us.

c/s
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A death on the Metrolink near my home

This morning as Trini and I walked in what is a regular routine for us most mornings, we came across a stopped Metrolink train near the Sylmar/San Fernando station, a 15-minute stroll from our house. As many of you know, in recent years LA has been hit with some horrendous train accidents--11 killed in Glendale, 25 killed in Chatsworth, and 2 just about two weeks ago near downtown. This does not take into account the ones and twos killed in suicides or accidents in intersections with cars.

People were standing around as passengers on the train were left to wait, although they were a short distance from the station. We asked what happened. Across from us, on the side of the track, was the dead body of a man. He looked in his 60s. Apparently, he had stepped into the train's path just five minutes before we got there. It looked like a suicide, although at that point nobody really knew. People said they heard a loud sound as the train hit the man. His shirt was up to his chest and he had terrible marks on his body, and his face had blood. He was dead--as paramedics soon found out, placing a white sheet over him.

Trini and I were saddened, always, when someone goes like this. Again, who knows why, but regardless I said a short prayer for him in my head to commend him to the Creator's benevolent hands. For the rest of us, we have to find out why the LA Metrolink and Metro lines are so dangerous. Of course, if someone wants to die there's not much you can do about that. But the other accidents posed questions of real rail safety for the thousands who use these trains--including my 14-year-old son, Luis, who takes the Metrolink to downtown's Union Station, then a bus, to get to LA County's High School for the Arts on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles in East LA. He makes the return trip every evening.

It's the best way for Luis to go, and normally the safest. But this is becoming a big question mark for us.

Suicides tend to mount in times of deep crisis. We are in a crisis in housing, jobs, debt, as well as politically, culturally, and spiritually. Both Republicans and Democrats have responsibility in this, but so too the rest of us. We just got a call from one of Tia Chucha's staff that her brother, 14 years old, has been cutting himself. This is generally a response by young people to a world gone numb. We can't just be negative, sidelined or unresponsive. We have to make a move, any move, although it's better that this move have purpose, meaning and some long lasting outcomes.

People are not really living. Live out your true natures, your stories, the songs in your head, your dreams. Whenever people do this, they won't want war, money, greed, fame, or power (that's the purview of those who have abandoned their real purposes and gifts). Peace comes from inside of us. We're letting some wounded, raging, narrow-minded, superficial and foolish people run things--the government, the banks, industry, the bureaucracies, and even our families.

So I say prayers for everyone. But I also try to make good things happen. Think about that, every day, do something good for others. Do it from your own nature. Your own art. Your own practice. I don't know that man who died today along the train track. But his death has to help the rest of us realize--if you live a full life, you'll help others do the same. Be the change, as they say, be the life, the dream. The hope.

c/s
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Fall comes with much to do, much to harvest

It's been a while since I've been able to post something. I apologize. What's happened is that I'm been working extra hard on a new memoir that I hope will be published in late 2009. I have a major publisher already on board (we've signed a contract). I have until March 2009 to finish the first draft. I've been working diligently on this for a while, but I also had a busy summer with Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore -- two major fundraisers and another Celebrating Words festival, among other things.

I've also been working on a documentary film with my friend Cookie Carosella of Tuff Cookie Productions for about a year now. It's a documentary on solutions to gang violence from former gang members, gang intervention experts, and others with insight on how we can help turn this issue around without relying on prisons and more police. It's not an "anti-gang" film nor will it be exploitative like many current documentaries on gangs. We are presently seeking funds to do more interviews -- we've got amazing interviews already and a poster and some other work done. I truly believe this film -- entitled as "The Long Run: Find Who You Are Meant To Be" -- is what we need at this time.

I'm also honored to announce that I've been selected to receive the 2nd Annual Algonquin West Hollywood Literary Award. The presentation is set for this coming Saturday, September 27, 2008 at the Pacific Design Center, Silver Screen Theater, 8687 Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. The soiree begins at 7 PM and also includes a staged reading with Adrienne Barbeau, Martin Landau, Liz Torres, and others of "A Marvelous Party with Noel Coward," written by Michael Kearns.

The event is part of the West Hollywood Book Fair that will be held the next day, September 28, at West Hollywood Park. It is also a benefit for PEN IN THE CLASSROOM. And there will be free copies of the Chicano classic "Bless Me, Ultima" by Rudy Anaya as part of Big Read West Hollywood. The cost is $20. Please come if you are in the LA area.

Other current projects include talks with producers about a treatment I did, and possible talks with people around two other scripts. I'm also steadily working with others on a new adequate space for Tia Chucha's -- we need one worthy of the many projects, programs, workshops, and events we're capable of organizing. These are all slow going -- we are in hard times. But as I've often said, for writers, artists, activists, and thinkers, times are always hard. We move forward.

Also -- for LA area listeners -- I will return as honorary co-host of the "Front Line" talk show with Dominique Di Prima on KJLH-FM, 102.3 in the wee hours of the morning during the week of October 20 to 24. Please tune in and also try to have your say by calling.

c/s
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Make History--A Step Forward is Better than No Step at All

Much has happened since I returned from the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation’s Men’s Conference in Mendocino, CA in mid-August. First, let me say what a powerful event this was – in attendance were more than 100 men from all walks of life, all races, young and old, with money and without, trying to find a healing place, a dialogue space, a place where one’s story, song, poetry, dance, voice can be seen, acknowledged, respected. Very few efforts can hold such a space. Michael Meade, Mosaic’s founder and key teacher, managed some amazing teachings around initiation, the power of story, the value of imagination, the importance of how we can find the threads of life to create a world where this happens for everyone. It’s to his credit and that of his staff that this event became a success.

Urban organizations like Homeboy Industries, Youth Mentoring Connection, Street Poets, Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural of Los Angeles and BUILD of Chicago brought gang and former gang members to this event—others from cities like St. Louis and Portland were also participating (sorry I can’t name them all). I want to give a special thanks to the lawyers and judges who came and interacted with young men who have often been on the other side of the bench.

As I’ve done for 15 years now, I took part as one of the teachers (besides Meade, we had our regular crew of Jack Kornfield of Spirit Rock and Orland Bishop of Shade Tree Mentoring). My main contribution is poetry—I’ve done poetry workshops for these men every year since I first took part. And like years past, we found deep rage, grief, love, and fellowship in powerful images, metaphors and meters, even among those who had never written a poem in their lives.

For anyone interested in future Mosaic events, please visit their website at www.mosaicvoices.org.

Since then we made history as a country—the Democrats nominated the first African American as a candidate of a major party for President. And the Republicans nominated for only the second time in history a woman to run as a vice-presidential candidate of a major party. Of course, important smaller parties have already breached these barriers. What’s interesting to note is that of the six nominees of three key political parties—Democrats, Republicans and Greens—three are women, two are African American, and one is Latina.

Only John McCain among these looks like the old politics.

We will make history one way or another in this year’s presidential elections.

I plan to make history by voting for Barack Obama for President.

The change he’s talking about comes from the people, from the land, from the growing number who have been pushed out of their homes, the many of all races losing their jobs, the millions who have had to live without health care, and the countless households with family members in a war that has taken thousands of lives, yet has not made our world any safer.

Even the Republicans are talking about change. A few years ago, such talk would label you as a fringe left-winger. Now parts of the fringe have moved to the center—not just the issues of people of color and women, but the general idea that we can’t live in the old way anymore.

Is change really going to happen? And, if so, will it be deep enough?

To me, that’s up to the rest of us. Neither Obama nor McCain truly represent substantial, structural or viably imagined change. They both are mavericks among the changeless, but they are still caught within the parameters of a capitalist, market-driven, empire-building, war-obsessed country.

I have no illusions that Obama, for example, will totally save our country and our future.

I do, however, feel I cannot sit on the sidelines and let this moment past. I have to speak out, to take a stand, to be clear on what’s in all our best interests and vote that way.

Right now, with all the limitations any politician has, I’m convinced Barack Obama is the best person for this job. Once he’s president, we must continue to demand the deep, long-range and substantial changes we need to overhaul our economy, to change the political status, and to find a means to have a healthy, regenerative and fossil-fuel free world.

We can’t let the dreams of a wholly different future cloud a decisive step today.

If you feel Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney are better at representing these concerns, than vote for them. I’ve supported both Nader and the Greens in the past—and will probably do so in the future.

But today, for a difference I believe is tangible and worth ushering in, I’m urging everyone to vote for Barack Obama.

Despite the “changes” the Republican Party are now touting, McCain and Sarah Palin are too tied to the old politics of “our country versus the world,” more oil, right-wing religious trends, and decrepit market economics to truly represent actual change (and they will leave the wealthy ruling class intact and even richer than they are now).

Before I leave my blog today, I have to say a prayer for the more than 3,000 people who were killed on September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon. Such trauma will always bring out the best and worse of people. We’ve seen what the worse can be with the Bush Administration’s policies of lies, wars, and greed. The best of us must now come forward and win the day—it’s the most honorable way to commemorate all those who have suffered since terror hit home on 9/11.

c/s
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The Power of Art and Youth

This past Saturday, August 16, Luis Villanueva, a high school student, and the Los Angeles Mural Experiment, an art group he started, had a mural inauguration at Dyer Street Elementary School in the community of Sylmar in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. This mural project is sponsored by the Young Warriors, the arts-based youth empowerment wing of Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural, founded by Mayra Zaragoza and Brian Dessaint. I was also able to speak to the various young artists involved--around 20--as well as their parents, school officials, and others who gathered that beautiful August day to honor the artistic resource we have in our young people.

Tia Chucha's and Young Warriors continue to involve youth, including graffiti artists, in creating artistic works that the community can appreciate, value, and support. The mural encompassed various animals from the deserts and jungles of northern Africa, such as giraffes, tigers and elephants. It was beautifully done for the elementary school students and the surrounding community. Food was then provided for the guests that numbered around 100 people. Luis proved to be an amazing organizer by planning, mobilizing, and inaugurating this project in less than a month's time.

Unfortunately, this community is under a gang injunction zone approved by the courts against the so-called San Fer gang. This has caused many young people to be arbitrarily stopped and searched. Those served under the injunction cannot associate with other alleged gang members, and they are under a strict curfew. If they are seen with two or more people, they can be arrested and the people who they are with can also be served, even if they aren't in a gang.

This is not even done in some of the most repressive countries in the world.

The target of California's gang injunctions, started in LA in the late 1980s, are black and brown alleged gang members (no white or asian gangs have ever been placed under a gang injunction to date). In LA alone there are more than 20 gang injunctions, including the most recent in the Sylmar/San Fernando area (this is also where I live). It's now the largest gang injunction area in the city.

Still Tia Chucha's/Young Warriors, in collaboration with organizations like the LA Mural Experiment, will keep providing meaningful, healthy, imaginative, and community-based options to the most troubled and neglected young people. Gang injunctions are not the answer and never have been.

Two weeks before, I had more than 30 young people, most of them hard-core gang members trying to change their lives, come to San Fernando's Sweat Lodge, located behind a sober-living home. I'm one of the founders and one of the facilitators/water pourers (my wife Trini is another one). They came from Homeboy Industries in downtown LA as well as from Watts (thanks to the efforts of Fidel Rodriguez and Adrian Veliz). Many of the young men and women were heavily tattooed. At one point some of the guys shared the various bullet wounds and scars on their bodies.

They were most Mexican males, but also included a few African Americans and women.

The ceremony was taken seriously, but it was a battle for these young people, most of whom had never been in a sweat ceremony. There was lots of moans, loud prayers, tears, and more as we connected the intensity of the lodge to the intensity and pains of their lives. At one point about nine young people left the lodge in-between rounds. But just before the last round, Hector, a member of our sweat lodge circle who also pours water, sings and plays drums, kept a strong solid beat that helped calm all the participants. I said words of knowledge and prayer over the drum beat to keep the group from fracturing and losing focus. The nine people outside, gathered around to hear and listen and learn. In the last round, they all came back to take part.

It was an amazing ceremony, although it was extremely hard. It was a battle, but the ceremony is meant to symbolize the battle of our life. With much respect, courage, and struggle, these young people fought to be present and to come back. Those that stayed all the way through were the stronger for it.

Getting shot, having friends and family killed (one young girl's mother was recently found murdered in an alley with no idea so far about who did this), being on drugs (in particular crystal meth), just out of jail (a few of the participants had just been released from prison), now found an intense healing and purification space, run by community for community.

Tomorrow, August 18, I go to the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation's Men's Conference called "Holding the Thread of Life," a mentoring retreat with Michael Meade, Jack Cornfield, Orland Bishop and myself as teachers. We'll be in the Redwood Forest surrounding Mendocino, CA. I've been doing these with Mosaic now for more than 15 years. This coming week -- it lasts about six days -- we'll have mentors, mentees, therapists, teachers, organizers, as well as gang youth and other young people. Homeboy Industries, Youth Mentoring Connection, Street Poets, Tia Chucha's are some of the organizations bringing youth.

There are way to help gangs, those on drugs, and the most abused and neglected young people. Prisons, juvenile halls and jails only deliver these youth to the mouth of the lion. We can do lasting and vital inner-core work with these young people, but we are often lacking as a society the political will, funds, other resources, and the community awareness to do so. We'll do it anyway, but many more youth are being pushed into the web of the prison/criminal world (at taxpayers' expense).

I will do my part to help change the culture in this country about how best to deal with trouble, young people, and our fractured communities. The mural project, the sweat lodge, the men's conferences, Tia Chucha's arts programming, and organizations like Homeboy Industries and the Mosaic Foundation are all part of the change that brings lasting and long-range healing, peace, and health to all our communities.

We will maintain ourselves as the example while we continue to fight against the laws, injunctions and upcoming propositions like Proposition 6--the Runner Initiative--that will do more to harm our youth in the poorest communities than any such proposition to date (and California has had some doozies).

More on this and other initiatives in future blog posts.

c/s
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Tia Chucha's 2nd Annual Benefit Event -- an Amazing Evening of Music, Poetry, Aztec Dance, Hip Hop, Comedy & More

All I can say is a great big thank you to Angelinos from all over the LA area -- Chicanos, Mexicanos, Centro Americanos, but also African Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and European Americans -- who came out on a hot August evening on Sunday to help Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural, the nonprofit cultural space and bookstore that I helped create in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. Talk about celebrating community and culture!

Like last year, we packed the house at the venerable John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood--despite the fact that UB-40 was playing at the Hollywood Bowl nearby (we could hear the applause and yells from the Bowl from where we were sitting). All the talent showed up on time and came through like the professionals they are.

And we had quite a line up--Tia Chucha's own Aztec Danza group, Temachtia Quetzacoatl, opened the event with their strong energy and spirit. Ernie G, one of LA's leading comedians and a barrio homeboy (a strong supporter of Tia Chucha's) again MCed (and also presented some hilarious lines). He introduced my wife Trini and I as co-founders of the original Tia Chucha's in Sylmar. Trini articulated some important thoughts including that we can't just depend on what we inherit, but that we must consider what we can create. It's the essence of Tia Chucha's philosophy, symbolized by our tag line (which also came from Trini): Where Art and Minds Meet -- for a Change.

I read a couple of poems, including a new one to my youngest sons, Ruben and Luis (who were also in the audience), called "Moonlight to Water."

This was followed by amazing sacred songs by long-time LA performer and community activist Nobuko Miyamoto. Then we had the sketch political comedy of Opening People's Minds and the conscious Mexika Hip Hop style of Olmeca. The next act had everyone on their feet (or swooning): Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. He's the Godfather of LA Funk, the creator of songs like "Express Yourself" and "Love Land" ("Express Yourself" has been in more than 30 commercials, more than 30 movie soundtracks, and has been heavily sampled by Rap artists over the years). Mr. Wright has some 50 years in the music business, and he still can rock and sing with the best of them.

East LA's best young band, Upground, came up next (they were here last year and came back by popular demand). They did bilingual Chicano ska, funk and cumbias. People danced in the aisles.

We didn't just end there. Cheech Marin, of the world renowned Cheech & Chong comedy duo, came up with a guitar and some funny stories. Both young and old laughed and remembered as he eventually led to his famous rendition of "Born in East LA" (borrowed with respect from Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA").

At the end, even Trini and I got up on the mike and sang the chorus over and over again, Although I've lived in East LA for 15 years, including where I first married, where my oldest kids first went to school, and where I first got into writing as a career, I was born in El Paso, Texas. And Trini was born in the Mexican migrant stream town of Martinez, CA (and later settled into the Northeast San Fernando Valley barrio of Pacoima). But we sang our little hearts out. "Born in East LA," is a metaphor about why East LA is so central to Chicano culture and history.

At some point, we were all born in East LA.

Tia Chucha's has had quite a summer so far of benefit events, music/art/writing/dance/theater workshops, Open Mic nights, literacy festivals, youth programming, and more.

Today many independent bookstores, cultural spaces, and art galleries are being forced to close with high rents, high-end developments, and the vagaries of the marketplace. Early last year, Tia Chucha's was forced to move out of our Sylmar space when our landlords practically tripled our rent. We moved into a smaller space in Lake View Terrace to keep the momentum going.

In the LA area alone we may be losing Self Help Graphics, Avenue 50 Studio, Acres of Books, and lately Antigua Cafe was forced to move. In the past few years we've seen the closing of the Midnight Special Bookstore, Luna Sol Cafe, Bohemias Books, 33 & a 1/3 Books, Carlota's Passion Art Gallery, Dutton's Bookstore, Under the Bridge Bookstore, and others.

Tia Chucha's benefit is a big step toward keeping our space alive -- with the goal of finding a bigger and better permanent or semi-permanent space in a year or two. But it's also about safeguarding and expanding neighborhood arts, cultural spaces, workshops spaces, art galleries, and the ever vital independent bookstores.

Again, thanks to the LA County Arts Commission, the Ford Theatres, the LA City Department of Cultural Affairs, all our donors and other funders, our amazing staff, board members, and volunteers, and all of Los Angeles--these are some great audiences. As a poet I agree with Walt Whitman--great poets need great audiences. This is true for other artists and truly community-based cultural institutions as well.

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The Wonder of Stevie

Again this year I was fortunate to be on Stevie Wonder's radio show on KJLH-FM 102.3, the station Stevie owns and operates in the City of Inglewood. I've always admired Stevie's music, creativity, and community commitment. He's a man who gives to the betterment of all our lives.

I was invited to sit in on his show after my mornings this week as guest host of the "Front Page" talk show with Dominigue Di Prima (I've been guest host about three times over a couple of years, thanks to Dominique's gracious invitations).

I'll be back tomorrow morning from 4:30 AM until 6 AM.

Today, however, I got to sing solo over the air (with some technical improvements to my voice) one of my favorite songs of all time: Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." Stevie played on keyboards and I belted out as best I could (trust me, it's nothing nice).

Everyone at the station were encouraging and kind (I'm sure they knew I sounded like a horse with a bad cold--but nobody said nothing about it, so thank you).

Of course, I'm deeply honored to have this moment. It may never be heard again anywhere but for a few minutes I sang while Stevie Wonder played on Keyboards (and Marvin's Gaye's music played in the background).

What a dream come true. I mentioned this to my daughter Andrea and she knew how much I've loved Stevie's songs and his long-time participation in social compassion and true justice (way before she was born, and she's 31 years old).

Thank you, Stevie, and all of KJLH's staff and listening community.

This week on the Front Page we dealt with a number of important issues, including the recent killings of young black men in Inglewood by police and the growing campaign of Mr. Barack Obama for President.

I've been a supporter of Barack Obama for some time. It's clear to me there has never been a more visionary and connected presidential candidate (and I've been around for some time). Is Obama the perfect candidate? Will he resolve all the major economic and social ills of this land? Can he truly present a real alternative to the system of politics & economics we are being strangled by?

No one man can do this. We have to be active in this campaign, not just to make sure he's elected but so we can maintain active ties to the vision of transformation, peace & equality that's inherent in his position.

Capitalism is a massive and intricate system that will require massive social participation by most people, especially those who are conscious and hungry for deep change, if it is to be transformed into a just and equitable society for all. Any and all of these events, these campaigns, these actions can be steps toward this if we all work together -- beyond race, nationality, sexual orientation, or skin color -- and push forward our class and human interests.

We are on the brink of a major economic breakdown, but also as the earth intensifies in earthquakes, hurricanes, global warming. We have to awaken and be active, to cohere and strategize toward a world that ensures the healthy and full development of everyone as the best way to have this for oneself.

Today we also talked about Michelle Obama and the hard time she's had to be adequately seen, understood and appreciated as an independent, intelligent and dignified African American woman. The attacks by the right-wing media against her and her husband are pandering to the worse of the American people (claiming she's too "ghetto," linked to urban terrorism, and on the other side, too "privileged" and "out of touch" -- Obama's "bitter half"). We can't let such racist and shallow ideas permeate the dialogue and campaign.

We also heard from Dr. Gail Wyatt, a renowned clinical psychologist with a number of important books on sexuality, woman, and the Black experience. She requested this morning's segment on Michelle Obama that was highlighted by an interview Dominique conducted with the potential First Lady last December -- one of the best interviews I had ever heard with Michelle Obama.

This has to be one of the richest resources for truly intense and inteligent community conversation in all of LA radio. I'm truly grateful to be given this space to air my ideas, poems, and interests.

I also want to remind everyone that on August 3, this Sunday, from 7 to 9 PM, Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural, Inc, will be holding its 2nd Annual Benefit Event at the Ford Amphitheater in Hollywood. Like last year we expect a packed house and a great time for everyone -- with Cheech Marin and friends; Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band; our own Azteca Danza group, Temachtia Quetzacoatl; conscious Hip Hop performer Olmeca; songs and performance by Nobuko Miyamoto; the political comedy of Opening People's Minds; the amazing Chicano Ska/sounds of Upground; poetry by Luis Rodriguez; and again hosted by Chicano comedian, Ernie G. You don't want to miss this!

Tickets are $30, and $12 for students and children.

Go to www.FordTheatres.org or www.tiachucha.com for tickets. You can also call the Ford Theater at 323-461-3673 or Tia Chucha's at 818-896-1479. Let's celebrate together.

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Tia Chucha's Tardeada & Silent Auction: A good time had by all

Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural held its first major Tardeada & Silent Auction at the home of our long-time friend, John Densmore of the Doors, on Sunday, July 20. It was amazingly bright and warm with a nice ocean breeze all day. Tia Chucha's development director (and organizer of our fundraisers) Ruben Guevara worked hard on this event for several weeks—including spending most of Saturday and Sunday morning getting things set up and ready. Ruben, for those who don't know, was part of Ruben & the Jets with Frank Zappa in the early 1970s and founder of the band "Con Safos" in the 1980s.

Ruben is also an amazing producer of benefits and shows. For the tardeada, he had help from Tia Chucha's staff: my wife (and our operations manager), Trini; our program coordinator, Frank Escamilla; our publicity/outreach person, Arlene Mejorado; and our new music workshops coordinator, Karina Ceja. I also want to acknowledge a number of volunteers (such as Walter Little, Maria Moncada, and others I apologize for not remembering), including Tia Chucha board members Dolores Villanueva, Julie Chavez Harmon, Carla Bykowski, Michael De La Rocha, Ron M. Daniels, Mary Archibald, Angelica Loa, and Victor Mendoza.

My daughter Andrea was also a great help (thanks m'ija).

About 80 people showed up to bid on amazing Chicano art and photography by artists like Chaz Bojorquez, Man One, Carlos Almaraz, Wayne Alaniz Healy, Raoul De La Sota, Brandy Maya Healy, Richard Durado, Elsa Flores Almaraz, John Valadez, Andres Montoya, Margaret Garcia, Leo Limon, Yreina Cervantez, George Rodriguez, Harry Gamboa, Joel “Rage” Garcia, William Loya, Linda Arreola, Reyes Rodriguez, Sonia Romero, Oscar Magallanes, Shizu Saldamando, Herbert Siguenza, and Raul Caracoza.

We also had a brand new acoustic guitar signed by Los Lobos; a hand-made art book of “Making Medicine” by Luis Rodriguez from C&C Press; a personalized hat, shoes and other items from Chaz Bojorguez; the "Lion King" character with Cheech's signature; and other rare and creative items.

Our hosts were John Densmore and Cheech Marin, both of whom greeted the guests and spoke about the power of arts in our lives. Ruben did his famous poem, "Con Safos" with John's drumming to the side of him (the performance kicked ass). I got a chance to speak about how the arts is the best way for a person to enter into their own depths, their own lives, while also being the best way to enter into the world. I know that the arts can save lives—it saved mine many years ago when I was a gang member and drug addict. And I've witnessed the arts change lives for more than 30 years as an activist and writer for social justice, equity, and a cooperative world (as well as a gang intervention specialist in Chicago, LA, other parts of the US, Mexico, and Central America).

We also had a moving presentation by the founders of Young Warriors, now a youth empowerment project of Tia Chucha's: Mayra Zaragoza, 17, and Brian Dessaint, 19.

Many of the guests included producers from Sony Pictures and the TV show “Law & Order.” A CEO of one of LA's leading health services organization was there (and bidded on many items--gracias) as well as musicians like Jackson Browne. We had a good cross-section of progressive Westside people and people from East LA and the Northeast Valley (LA's largest communities of Mexican/Central American descent).

My friends Cookie Carosella of Tuff Cookie Productions and John Padilla of the Variety Boys & Girls Club in Boyle Heights were also present (Cookie made a good presentation about the documentary film we are working on called “The Long Run: Finding the Life You Were Meant to Live,” which discusses LA gangs and solutions to stopping gang violence in our city, not just the problems).

Also present were a mother and son from Denmark (very enthused about the art) and my friend Horst Tonn, a professor of American Studies at the University of Tuebingen in southern Germany (I stayed there a few years ago, doing talks and readings--Horst has also amassed a strong collection of Chicano books and films at the university).

In the end we raised more than $25,000. Even with cuts to artists and expenses that we still need to make we did quite well. We want to continue being a presence and destination for progressive donors and lovers of Chicano art wherever they may be.

In these days as we lose buildings housing venerable institutions like Self-Help Graphics in East LA, Tia Chucha's wants to be an example that the arts can thrive as a well-oiled nonprofit organization, community empowerment gathering place, major bookstore, and center of healing social change. We wouldn't exist if not for Self Help Graphics and other community-based arts organizations. We have the duty to make it, even in these hard economic times (it's always been hard for artists, que no?).

I want to thank the staff, the board, the volunteers, the artists, our amazing hosts John and Cheech, and the many guests who came and also bidded for being part of this dynamic and growing community arts phenomena named for my favorite aunt (and renown “crazy relative”), Tia Chucha.

We now move forward to Tia Chucha's annual benefit event at the Ford Amphitheater in Hollywood on August 3. Cheech and John will perform (with friends) as well as Hip Hop sensation Olmeca; political comedy performance group, Opening People's Minds; singer/performer Nobuko Miyamoto; Chicano ska-funk band, Upground; our own Danza Azteca group, Temachtia Quetzacoatl; and the fantastic “old” and “new” school funk of Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. This event is hosted by Chicano comedian and friend of Tia Chucha's, Ernie G.

I will also be there to read poems with my wonderful companion, Trini Rodriguez.

Please get tickets by going to www.tiachucha.com or to www.FordTheatres.org.

Ay nos vemos!

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East LA's Venerable Self Help Graphics Arts Center to Close in Six Months

Self Help Graphics has been an East LA institution for more than 30 years. A few days ago, word got out that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which holds the deed to SHG's building, sold the structure to a private developer. SHG has six months to move out.

Self Help Graphics is situated in a large 1920s-era building with arts workspaces, a performance space, art gallery, and print shop on the corner of Cesar Chavez and Gage avenues. Its outside facade is covered in colorful mosaic; a mural is located across the street. For years it was the home of the city's largest Day of the Dead celebration, among other art shows, performances, readings, musical events, theater, and more.

I've performed my poetry there many times, including having a packed community event with my then 17-year-old son after "Always Running" first got published and with a "Voices of Youth" event featuring poetry by neighborhood children and teenagers from Homeboy Industries, sponsored by the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation.

My roots to SHG, however, go back to the late 1970s. I found a local Chicano writers' organization in Highland Park called LA Latino Writers Association (LALWA), headed up then by Victor M. Valle. I was in my mid-20s, hungry for life, art, a new beginning, and connection to other writers. I worked in various industrial and construction jobs, garnering skills like mechanics, carpentry, welding, pipefitting, and such. But my passion was poetry, odd as this may seem.

At the time, I lived in the City Terrace hills just above where Self Help Graphics is located. We soon moved LALWA's operations there. In the early 1980s, the LA Latino Writers Association published ChismeArte magazine (then produced by Guillermo Bejarano and others), organized the Latino Reading Series, and the Barrio Writers Workshops. By 1982, I became director of LA Latino Writers Association, editor of ChismeArte, and a facilitator of the Barrio Writers Workshops. Some of the writers and artists who came through our organization included Roberto Rodriguez (now a nation-wide columnist and author), Helena Viramontes (the acclaimed novelist and short story writer), Marisela Norte (the Poet Laureate of East LA), Naomi Quinonez (a poet and anthology editor), Sybil Venegas (now head of Chicano Studies at East LA College), Barbara Carrasco (an acclaimed Chicana artist), and many more.

Manual "Manazar" Gamboa was involved then (also heading this work and the Concilio de Arte Popular), becoming my friend and mentor--he was the first to take me to Chino Prison to facilitate writing workshops there and other interesting places, something I've been doing now in prisons, juvenile lockups, homeless shelters, migrant camps, schools, and Native American reservations for 30 years.

During this time, I met Sister Karen Boccalero, who founded Self Help Graphics in the early 1970s out of a garage. Sister Karen was an artist as well as an arts administrator who embraced the local artists, bands, poets, photographers, sculptors, and more--including a shy, often drunk, and inexperienced young poet named Luis Rodriguez. She created a thriving center of print art, visual art, avant garde, innovative and impeccably unique Chicano creativity. Los Illegals and other early 80s bands played there. Gronk, Willie Herron, Harry Gamboa, Frank Romero, Eloy Torres, Miquel Amescua, Yreina Cervantez, Leo Limon, Chaz Bojorquez, Peter Tovar, Patssi Valdez, and many others made art, did workshops, and established East LA as a world-class center of the arts (known more outside the US--in the US. East LA has mostly been depicted as a poor working class and immigrant Mexican community without much to offer except violence and noise. SHG proved there was more to this community, particularly when it came to creative capacity).

For about six months, Sister Karen gave me a small office facing Chavez Avenue (it was known as Brooklyn Avenue then) from which I managed the funds and operations of LALWA and its magazine. Who else would do this? Who else would invest in unknown, but committed individuals, to take a chance on art and literature that nobody else would bother with?

I honor Sister Karen for her bravery, dedication, and ongoing support. In the long run it paid off--like I said, several of our writers are now renown. Chicano artists and musicians that began at SHG are now showing in major galleries, public spaces, and even the entertainment industry. The majority of the artists displayed in the LA County Museum of the Art's exhibit of the private collection of actor/comedian Cheech Marin, presently being shown, began at Self Helf Graphics.

As I said, my own success had seeds there. Now I have 13 books, most of which are acclaimed, including the best-selling "Always Running." I also now helped create a bookstore and cultural center in the Northeast San Fernando Valley called Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural, Inc. that would not exist today if it weren't for Sister Karen and Self Help Graphics.

Sister Karen, unfortunately, passed away in 1997. Many of her students and fellow artists took up SHG's mantle and continued the work, even at great odds. The LA Times today (July 10, 2008) made it appear that everything went down hill after Sister Karen's passing. As always, when a founder of an institution goes much of what that person helped establish may go awry. But the artists, administrative staff, and board have done a great job trying to keep things going. Yes, mistakes were made. Yes, funding was hard to come by, and, yes, more should have been done. But what was done is substantial.

There is a rumor that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is selling the building to pay off multi-million dollar lawsuits related to the priest-abuse scandal. This would be an awful shame. The Archdiocese is denying this, but still it begs the question--why sell the building under the SHG board's nose and not work with the community in keeping this space open?

Yes, it's true that Self Help Graphics can still exist in another incarnation--it's the spirit, not the building, that must live on (it already is in places like Tia Chucha's). But as everyone knows, obtaining other buildings, especially in this tight economy, with little funding support, would be quite a massive undertaking.

But all things are possible, something Sister Karen instilled in many of us. I say LA city and county officiasl, the artists, the poets, the musicians, and arts organizers should come together and work out a plan, funding sources, and a timeline to keep Self Help Graphics alive -- at the same space or at a comparable or even better space in East LA.

We will also need the will of policy makers, funders, developers, and others to make this happen.

To me one of the most important issues facing the arts today is the increase in closures involving cultural spaces, independent bookstores, theaters, and art galleries. In the Los Angeles area alone, over the last two to three years we've lost Dutton's Bookstore, the Midnight Special Bookstore, Bohemias Books, 33 & 1/3, Luna Sol Cafe, Antigua Cafe, Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural (now in a smaller space with no cafe), Under the Bridge Bookstore, Carla's Passion Art Gallery, and now Self-Help Graphics. We need public policy to safeguard these institutions. They are not considered "money-makers," although they can be successful. They do, however, provide for a quality of life and bring new artist/writers/musicians/performers to the world.

Self Help Graphics is a case in point.

A neighborhood arts policy should include subsidizing rents; help in buying property or in building spaces; tax write offs for developers who include such spaces in their developments; more arts funding for neighborhood arts, including cultural spaces; and more. It should include having all the arts in every school as part of every curriculum with adequate materials, supplies, spaces, and instruments (a friend of mine who teaches band in Compton for a time had classes with students, but no instruments).

Let's make this crisis a catalyst. Let's help make community arts, as exemplified by Sister Karen and Self Help Graphics, a reality all over the LA area.

A community without the arts has no heart.

c/s
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