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.

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Alfred Arteaga -- R.I.P.

I just got the sad news that my friend -- and amazing Chicano poet -- Alfred Arteaga passed away this week. Several weeks ago, he was in LA and we had coffee at the "House of Brews" in San Fernando. He seemed in good spirits. I know he's had health problems for some time and was working hard to stay strong and alive. I send many prayers and condolences to his family and countless friends.

I was also privileged to publish Alfred's last poetry collection, "Frozen Accident," through Tia Chucha Press in the fall of 2006. I've known of Alfred's work for years. He invited me to speak to his class at the University of California, Berkeley about ten years ago and I remember his graciousness and openness. I also was able to secure a writers' fellowship for him after reading poems he did in Spanish that I thought were outstanding. I'm glad it turned out to be Alfred's work--he's truly an innovative and accomplished poet, a poet of the continent, the land, this earth.

When I published "Frozen Accident" it was one of two manuscripts that year that I really wanted to do. Tia Chucha Press gets around 200 manuscripts a year. I pick the handful that stand out, then I read those over and over (or as many times as I need to) to decide the two that will get published. I have to turn down many amazing manuscripts in the process. But I also end up picking the two that most resonated, continued to surprise and overwhelm me even after many readings. Alfred's work kept growing in layers and meaning.

Cherrie Moraga called this book one "for poets only, that is for all of us who hunger to contemplate within and beyond the pre/scribed chronologies of our lives."

In addition, Juan Felipe Herrera said, "Arteaga tells a story the way a Mexican wrestler makes words fly from the canvas; he breaks them and then with an agile, almost ballerinia-like step, he destroys their structures."

Obviously, I don't just publish my friends. Most of Tia Chucha Press books are of poets I never knew personally. And I have many friend poets who send me manuscripts I don't deem ready for publication. But every once in a while I have a poet-friend with a most wonderful manuscript. I'll publish that--the poet, not the friend. Like Alfred, who stands in my view as a poet of this millennium.

Alfred needs more recognition and many lifetimes of readers. Please order "Frozen Accident" and any of his poetry collections from any book outlet you choose. To order "Frozen Accident" from our distributor, contact 1-800-621-2736.

Que descanses en paz, hermano.

Motion by Alfred Arteaga

Heart beat is never twice
river, the image font
a dream wood of liquid
form in the site of dead

souls, the lyrics follow blood
points, life edge words
shape to melody, to beat

of heart like flight of the small.
I am not the man who was.
I, Nezahualcoyotl, take
flight in the graphite river,

change place for life,
leave for an island and beyond.
Run cholo run, flee
the red reach and night.
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Gang Injunction Approved for Sylmar/San Fernando in Southern California

As expected, and despite opposition from a number of community leaders, a gang injunction against the San Fer gang has been imposed by the courts on a nine-and-a-half square mile area of the Northeast San Fernando Valley, encompassing most of Sylmar, a northwest portion of Pacoima and all of San Fernando City (most of the rest of Pacoima has already been under a gang injunction for years against the Pacoima Flats, Projects Boys, and other Pacoima gangs).

This is reportedly the largest gang injunction area in Los Angeles

Already, young Latino men I know -- not in gangs -- have been stopped, arrested, and in one case almost photographed (to be part of a statewide gang data base). This last case was stopped when the young man's parents became involved and demanded their son not be photographed or placed on this data base. Finding that this young man had no gang ties, he was eventually released.

As I predicted, many youth not in San Fer, but also alleged San Fer members not involved in crimes, will be harassed and even arrested. Our juvenile facilities, jails and prisons are teeming with youth who shouldn't be there -- a gang injunction makes illegal what is otherwise legal activity: association, using a cell phone, or having tattoos. Now alleged gang members will find themselves going to jail for things that are not criminal.

If you make more laws, you make more lawless.

My work, and the work of many gang intervention workers, is to keep these young people out of the criminal justice system. Our work now has become twice as hard as these injunctions -- and other laws down the pike like the Runner Initiative slated for vote in November -- end up placing poor and often neglected youth behind bars faster and longer.

It's easy now to end up in jail -- it's harder to find treatment, help, jobs, schooling, viable alternatives to street life.

The sad thing was that at the Sylmar Neighborhood Council's Town Hall Meeting where I was on a panel opposing the proposed gang injunction, the majority of the people in attendance seemed to be older white residents. This community is mostly Latino with many recent immigrants. Sylmar High School is 95 percent Latino. Yet this community was hardly represented although it's their kids that will be most affected. There didn't seem to be any Spanish-language meetings or even translations considered to include them. Most of the whites in the audience appeared to be for the gang injunction (not all since I talked to some who opposed the injunction, and, of course, there were a number of Latinos for the injunction).

Still the racist nature of these laws is a thick as the smog in LA.

We need to keep our kids out of the juvenile lockups, jails and prisons. The way to do this is to provide jobs, training, meaningful education, creative/artistic opportunities, spiritual connections, and real caring community. Instead gang injunctions under the guise of "safety" fill our communities, even one like where I live, the so-called Huntington Estates, a nice, quiet, tree-lined section of San Fernando that is now under the San Fer gang injunction.

Once gang injunctions were allowed, they spread and even well-off mostly non-gang communities are included.

The city has promised prevention and intervention programs for youth. These are few and minimal (and the biggest chuck, about $30 million, must be decided by voters in November) while the police get billions of dollars. We've become a closed and scared society.

I know we can turn these youth around. I know we can get most of them out of the line of fire. I know we can find more meaningful and healthy alternatives to gangs. But these ideas, programs, and strategies are discarded for the ones that should be of last resort, like a gang injunction.

Just like we go to war and spend close to $10 billion a day in Iraq and Afghanistan to "stop terror" (creating more terror and better-organized "terrorists" in the process), we are going to war with our youth--usually the poorest, most pushed out, and in this case, mostly immigrant Latino youth.

I will be working with other community groups to track the effects of this injunction, which has no end date nor any exit plan for those caught under its net. Hopefully we can find a way to defeat this injunction, but also for other cities to learn not go to this way. In other communities where gang injunctions have been approved, gangs don't die or stop. They actually get squeezed out at so that we see them in other parts of the county, state, country, and even other countries (LA-based gangs have now become a big problem throughout the US, in Mexico, Central America, and even far-flung places like Cambodia and Armenia). Also these so-called gang members get better organized -- in juvenile lockup and prisons they go through "GANG 101" training. They return back to their communities, or even other communities, better organized, armed, and deadly.

You can't stop gang warfare with gang warfare.

We keep making the same mistakes and falling for the same traps. Even a local newspaper in San Fernando declared that a judge "puts halt to violent gang activity with injunction." This is simply a lie. Gang injunctions don't stop violent gang activity--they just spread it around.

I'll keep my readers posted from time to time on the outcomes from this gang injunction. One telling sign tonight--a police helicopter shining their lights a couple of streets from my house. Oh, yes, LA pioneered the "Ghetto Bird." But this part of San Fernando has had little or no crime for decades. Now, as part of the gang injunction "safety" zone, we're being treated like any other poor ghetto or barrio community (which shouldn't happen there neither).

Like I said, once you let this monster in, it keeps growing.
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Stop the New Gang Injunction in the Sylmar-San Fernando Communities

I live in a relatively quiet and safe neighborhood in an area of San Fernando City known for some time as Huntington Estates. The prices of homes around here went up to $750,000 during the height of the real estate boom -- now they are down to $350,000 and below (I've seen some homes marked down to the $150,000 range). San Fernando is a 2.5 square mile city with about 25,000 residents. For years it was mostly white - today it is almost entirely Latino. Recently this city along with a large section of LA city next to us known as Sylmar has been designated for a court-ordered gang injunction against the San Fer gang.

Gang injunctions began in the LA area in the early 1980s, with the first highly publicized one involving the Playboy Gangster Crips in 1987. Other cities have had gang injunctions throughout California, with similar injunction-type laws sprouting up in cities around the country.

LA City now has twenty gang injunctions, all of them against gangs in the Black and Brown communities. They also seem to target not the "worse" gangs, necessarily, but those communities slated for gentrification or that happen to be near well-off mostly white communities.

My neighborhood is included in the proposed gang injunction area.

This injunction prohibits San Fer gang members who have been served by the courts for arrests based on acts that most of us can do most of the time - they cannot associate with each other, have cell phones, stay out between 10 PM or 5 AM, and they can be generally stopped and searched (or arrested) by police anytime (and other similar provisions). These prohibitions are directed at acts that are not criminal in themselves, but which would become criminal for those served persons in the gang injunction zone. These persons would also be part of a statewide gang data base system. The determination of a San Fer gang member is not based on previous or even potential criminal acts. It's based on how they dress, any alleged gang tattoos they may have, if they say they are gang member, who they associate with, etc. Again, acts that are not criminal in other circumstances.

Although I'm 54 years old, I have tattoos, wear Aztec/Mayan shirts from time to time, and I associate with known gang members as a gang intervention specialist in these and other streets. I would be prohibited from doing the work I do to help youngsters get out of gangs and drugs within the gang injunction zone. The aim of these injunctions is to isolate and further marginalize so-called gang youth so that even those who seek and want help won't be able to find it.

I'm opposed to this proposed San Fer gang injunction. I stated my case against the injunction as a panelist for the Sylmar Neighborhood Council's Town Hall meeting on the proposed gang injunction on Wednesday, June 18 at Sylmar High School. The other panelists included representatives from the LAPD, the LA City Attorney's office, a community member, a gang expert, and a lawyer with the ACLU. While we had a spirited and informative panel, pro and con, and mostly civil and respectful dialogue (a couple of people from the audience weren't as civil), this may prove to be a moot meeting -- the gang injunction is presented to a judge. All proposed gang injunctions have been approved--with or without community town hall meetings. Real community input is nonexistent and never sought. By all accounts the San Fer gang injunction will be approved.

Once in effect, there is no end date. This area can be under this gang injunction for perpetuity. While there are steps for alleged gang youth to be removed from the police list of served San Fer members, no one of the thousands of youth affected in other gang injunctions have been successfully removed from these lists.

The effectiveness of gang injunctions are often touted for using them. In the sort term there is generally a reduction in gang-related crimes in areas under gang injunctions. But the arrests of local youth and adults escalate -- even people that may not be in a gang. Our jails and prisons are being filled with honor students, ex-gang members, non-gang members, marginal gang members as well as actual heavy-duty gangsters. It's a broad net that ends up putting people behind bars or under strict surveillance although they are not involved in criminal or gang-related acts.

There are already enough laws to put active gang members behind bars -- you cannot kill, steal, extort, threaten, or commit mayhem under present statutes. We don't need to spread the laws so that others not necessarily criminals get pulled in.

Police say San Fer is organized crime. However, they are an old barrio street organization that goes back at least four to five generations. Some have family members -- dads, uncles, brothers, cousins, etc. -- in the gang (they would be prohibited to be around them in public). They include heavily tattooed young men and women as well as those without tattoos. They include criminals as well as people who have never committed a crime. They mostly are involved in "disorganized crime" -- random acts of violence, robbery, beatings, etc. Yet despite the fact that San Fer members have been known to commit murders, this does not mean there are 500 to 900 (the supposed number of San Fer members) gang members pulling triggers. In LA, for example, there were some 350 gang related murders last year. There are, however, some 40,000 to 50,000 alleged gang members. They are not all killing or shooting people.

Obviously, if you kill, beat, or rob people you should be arrested. Police are here to do their job. What I contend is that most people in San Fer, as in other gangs, would leave this life if they had viable meaningful options of 1) jobs 2) training/education 3) drug, alcohol and anger treatment 4) arts/creative outlets 5) organized & safe recreation and sports 6) real mentoring 7) a caring, cohesive and consistent community.

We have to address the roots of gangs and social crime -- not just keep hacking at the branches. Gangs arise out of poverty and also the entrenched racial and class bias in our society. We have to deal with the deepening economic crisis that is forcing people out of their jobs, their homes, their families. Arresting ourselves out of these issues can never work. We cannot keep asking the police to address what are social, economic and cultural concerns.

Any short-term drop in gangs is undermined by the squeezing of these communities so that the poor (and gangs among) end up in other counties, states, and even countries. Already LA gangs have spread to the outlying areas of Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, and Ventura counties. The biggest rise of gangs around the country is of LA-based gangs (such Sur Trece, 18th Street, and MS-13, including, of course, Crips and Bloods). And because of deportations of convicted undocumented people, including many in gangs, there are now LA-based gangs all over Mexico, Central America, and parts of Cambodia and Armenia.

The fact is, in the long run, gangs in LA have not gone down. Despite gang injunctions, trying juveniles as adults, gang enhancements, and three-strike-and-you're-out laws, we still have many gangs in LA (known as the "gang capital of the world"). We only end up with more of our people in prisons -- already there are 575,000 people in California that are in prisons, jails, parole, or probation. Too many of our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives are being removed from their families and communities.

The only solution is to address the root causes of the poverty, the economic displacement, the lack of adequate schools and institutions. We can't keep blaming young people for doing wrong when any other decent option is cut off from them.

I will continue to address this and others similar issues throughout the city, the country, and abroad (my recent trips include to Guatemala, Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, and Japan). We have to find the imagination and abundance with our resources, families, and communities to save and help our youth, not write them off and discard them. It's possible. And it's imperative.
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LA School Battles Leads to the Resignation of 15 teachers at Jordan High School in Watts

I lived in the Watts area when my family first moved to Los Angeles in 1956 from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (I was two years old). In fact, present-day Locke High School was built in one of the houses I stayed at, my sister Seni's, on 111th Street. I entered elementary school at 109th Street School although I spoke no English (and suffered for it with swats and other punishments). We spent a year in Reseda, but then ended up back in Watts after our family went bankrupt and lost most of our possessions. At age 9 we moved to the East LA area communities of Monterey Park and South San Gabriel, later settling into San Gabriel when my father, who had finally got a long-term job, bought a house there. Those who've read Always Running know that's where I got involved in gangs, drugs and jail.

But Watts remained important for me. The Watts Rebellion of 1965 stirred revolutionary fervor around the country, but also in me. I eventually found my way back. Fisrt, I moved to the housing projects of San Pedro then to East LA (City Terrace and Boyle Heights) soon after I left San Gabriel and the gang life at around 18. I married my first wife Camila at the Guadalupe Church on Hazard in East LA when I was 20. After first moving to the Florence neighborhood in South LA and then spending a year in Pasadena organizing Mecha students, working with striking bus drivers, and helping create an equal rights organization, Camila and I then moved to Watts with our new family. Ramiro, my oldest son who's now 33, was one year old then. We moved in-between the Jordan Downs and Imperial Courts housing projects on 109th Street and Mona.

My daughter Andrea was born during our time there--at Gardena Hospital through the Watts Health Clinic on 103rd Street. I was often unemployed in those days, once we were on welfare, and when I did work it was in construction and industry. I left Watts in 1978 when Camila and I broke up--we both ended up in different parts of East LA. I pretty much stayed in East LA (except for short stints in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Bernardino, Huntington Park, and Highland Park) until I moved to Chicago in 1985.

Still, despite my other abodes and distances, Watts is still important. I've spoken there often in schools and community events over the years. I often do tours of out-of-towners through East LA and South Central, including Watts (these include friends from New York or other states as well as film makers and writers from Italy, Japan, Brazil, and New Zealand).

Recently Jordan High School in Watts -- where I've spoken at a few times -- became a big story when a Salvadoran-American teacher named Karen Salazar was fired for using LA Unified School District (LAUSD) approved text "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." This book was one that helped me become a reader and eventually actively involved some 40 years ago. It's a shame that anyone in positions of authority would be threatened for the use of this literary classic.

Jordan's administration apparently thought Ms. Salazar's teachings were too "Afro-Centric." Very strange indeed, considering the school is mostly Mexican/Central American and African American (the media decries conflicts between Black and Brown, yet here's one of unity). Reportedly school officials have "observed" Ms. Salazar's class more than fifteen times in the past year. The principal, Steven Strachen, has been allegedly intimidating, humiliating and attempting to control teachers, students AND parents. He reportedly used unauthorized funds for metal detectors at the school entrances. He has apparently also segregated some classes by gender without parental approval. But his real notoriety is apparently due to establishing Jordan High School as the Number One school for suspensions in LAUSD -- more than 900 suspension days were handed out to students in one school year alone.

And at a recent protest with students, teachers, and parents, Mr. Strachan had six police cars in front of the school to intimate the protesters. The Watts Student Union is challenging Mr. Strachan and his heavy-handed policies directed to students of color. In addition, some 15 teachers have apparently requested transfers or plan to resign after this school year due to issues related to Mr. Strachan's policies.

Please check out the following video on the Internet: http://youtube.com/watch?v=vE8cOJ4bKGO

Letters of support for Ms. Salazar and other teachers such as well-known LA poet Mark Gonzales should be sent to Jordan High School, 2265 E. 103rd Street, LA, CA 90002. Calls can also be made to (323) 568-4100 or the LAUSD District 7 office at (323) 242-1300. In addition, send emails to LAUSD Board Member Richard Vladovic at [email protected].
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Reaching Out Across the Land

As many of you know who read my blog, I like writing about my many trips to universities, schools, prisons, juvenile lockups, churches, reading events, etc. that I’ve done around the country and elsewhere. These bring me to various communities that somehow find essential connecting points with my story, my books, and my ideas. In March I also visited Ohio State University at Columbus and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Again, the audiences were strong and very supportive. I held my ongoing “town hall” meetings, often sprinkled with poetry by myself and from other poets I love.

These talks included visits to community schools and at least one juvenile detention center. Again, audiences are receptive to hear a vital story that also has vision, insight (and hindsight), and with enough threads to tie into their own lives. At the juvenile facilities, I find some of the most open and attentive audiences—many of them are where I was when I was a teenager. Many have a chance to turn their lives around. If I can plant a seed, I hope they will hang on to something pertinent to keep them alive, healthy, and eventually whole. These kinds of things—like teaching—doesn’t always have immediate outcomes. Sometimes you think the kid who is bored, disruptive and not listening won’t get the message. I often get surprised when it’s these kinds of young people who come to me later to say how what I had to say helped me overcome some hard ordeals. So it’s always worth the chance to talk to any young person—in public or private schools, in colleges, universities, or juvenile lockups and prisons. We’re all just planting seeds.

One of my recent trips involved being a final judge for the Poetry Out Loud recitation contests that culminated in Washington DC on August 29. This national competition is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Reportedly some 20,000 high school students from all over the US participated in local contests that chose state champions. These students in turn competed with one another to the semi-finals where 12 finalists were decided. In the finals, this number whittled down to five. The top winner would get a $20,000 scholarship; the second place winner a $10,000 scholarship; the third place winner a $5,000 scholarship; and the last of the twelve would get $1,000 scholarships (the schools of the top 12 students would also get $500 to buy books).

Judging with me this year were Garrison Keillor of the Prairie Home Companion radio broadcasts; Pulitzer prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey; award-winning novelist Leslie Schwartz; Poetry Daily website co-founder Don Selby; and last year’s Poetry Out Loud winner, Amanda Fernandez.

The students were amazing in their presence, memory, and understanding of the sense and meaning of the poems—which included pieces by Tony Hoagland, Nikki Giovanni, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, among others.

In the end Shawntay A. Henry of the US Virgin Island took the top prize. Second place was Sophia Elena Soberon of Oregon.

It was an honor to take part and celebrate the memorization and recitation of some of America’s great poems.

From May 7 to 9, I also spoke in Sonoma County, CA at Rohnert Park Branch Library there and three high schools in Santa Rosa and Petaluma (Cloverdale, Rancho Cotate, and Casa Grande). In addition, I spoke to young men and women incarcerated at the Sonoma County Juvenile Center at Los Guilicos. Again, what amazing audiences—the library turned out quite engaging with a packed house of some 300 people. I held writing workshops in the high schools--the student's writing in a matter of minutes was fantastic. Again, the juvenile detainees were respectful and their questions were right on.

Thanks to all, including the organizers from the Sonoma County Library System—and especially my friends at the Steven Barclay Agency who diligently organize these lectures, readings and workshops. I had time to enjoy lunch with Steven Barclay, Kathryn Barcos and other staff while I was in Sonoma County—their offices are in the old town section of Petaluma. You would be hard-pressed to find a finer group of people.
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Arizona Considers Bill that would Ban Ethnic Studies and Ethnic-based student organizations

The state of Arizona is facing an insidious bill that would outlaw "dissent" and anything that purportedly criticizes "American Values" or "Western Civilization." As part of the state's Homeland Security bill, Arizona Senate Bill 708, State Senator Russell Pierce added language that in his view would end "race-based" curricula and organizations. Organizations such as MeCha (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) or Black Engineers Students would be forced out of Arizona's schools. Pierce in particular targeted "Raza Studies" (which deals with accomplishments, culture and history of Chicanos and other Latinos). Ethnic-based groups and studies like these would be forced to disband -- anything that Pierce says takes tax dollars.

Since Friday, May 2, Latino USA program of the National Public Radio has had interviews and opinions pieces available on line at http://www.latinousa.org/program/index.html. Included is a report on Arizona's Senate Bill 708, an interview with Chicano Studies professor & historian Rudy Acuna, and a radio commentary by your humble servant. Sunday evening, May 4, Latino USA will air these on various NPR outlets around the country. In the LA area this will be at 10 PM on KPCC / 89.3 FM. Please tune in.
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Empowered & Educated Youth ARE the solution to gangs and other street violence

Youth Struggling for Survival began in 1994 with some 200 young people and adults, including in rival gangs, in the city of Chicago – the second largest “gang” city in the US after LA. With very little money, it grew to incorporate youth from a least 12 communities (Northside, Southside and Westside) and suburban cities like Aurora, which for more than a decade had the greatest rise in gang violence in Illinois. YSS has been a youth empowerment group that utilizes rites of passage, the arts, theater, Hip Hop, dance, intense dialogue, organizational training, and more. It also includes a spiritual component without being religious. Mostly this has come from the Native American and Native Mexican traditions. Over the years the group has been largely Mexican, but it has also included Puerto Ricans, Africans Americans, European Americans, and a large number of Filipino American youth.

The native indigenous traditions—such as the sweat lodge, vision quest, medicine ceremonies, the Sun Dance, Aztec Danza, and more—have been part of this work for some time, guided by elders/teachers such as Tekpaltzin and Xochimeh (the Mama and Papa of YSS for many years). The Filipino Americans, for example, who traveled with YSS to the Pine Ridge and other US reservations to learn and partake in ceremonies, also learned more about their Filipino indigenous roots and customs.

I was one of the YSS founders and until I moved to LA with my family in the year 2000 I was active with mostly Mexican and Puerto Rican gang youth from the barrios of Pilsen and Humboldt Park. We helped create the Increase the Peace Network, among other collaborations, and helped raise $180,000 for the Humboldt Park Teen Reach, a collaborative youth prevention/intervention project that is still in existence. In 1997, YSS was part of the “Making Peace” series for PBS-TV. They are also key to the lessons and strategies outlined in my 2001 book “Hearts & Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times” (Seven Stories Press, NYC).

Chicago, however, is still in the throes of intense gang and other violence. This year so far some 40 young people have been killed, including a dozen in front of schools. YSS continues to do the vital healing work it was created to do. Now they are part of the new Little Village Lawndale High School. The communities of Little Village, mostly Mexican, and Lawndale, mostly African American, have been two of the most gang ridden communities in Chicago. Recent tensions between “black and brown” have made this school a target of extra policing and so-called “take the community back” marches (usually organized with police). However, YSS, without fanfare or adequate media attention, continues to bring young people together across gang lines as well as racial divides.

Below is an email message from YSS leader Sandra Sosa, whose brother Rudy was recently shot while working as a gang intervention worker in Little Village (Rudy survived and is recovering). Here are her words:

A few days ago, students broke out in fights, fueled by that all-to-familiar historic "racial divide" hidden behind the "gang agenda." Yesterday, as we took our groups to march downtown [for immigrant rights on May Day], other students came into the school, guns discovered, and down the street another group of students were stopped by a car of older guys loaded with bats and were threatened. Our Little Village Lawndale High School has been targeted as a "hot spot" under the Mayor's eyes and it seems like everyone is just waiting for things to crumble. Anyway, YSS is very alive and present in that school and doing what we can while we can...whether or not the school administration believes in us, or not. So, I wrote this piece below [to] share with the administration the beauty of our work...

Black and Brown Hold it Down at Little Village Lawndale High School:

Youth. Violence. Non-violence. Peace. Peaceful Protests. Marches. Agendas. Politicians. "Security." Homeland Security. For your security. Police officials. Administrators. School. School Shootings. "Gangs." "Gang bangers." Stop. Stop the “this.” Stop the “that.” Etc, etc, etc.

These words are used today like the new slang, like the "hip" slang of committees and coalitions. These words are used everyday and heard everyday by everybody that wants to say something or at least sound like they are saying something...meaningful, that is. But in the shuffle of all these good ideas and handshakes, we are losing our youth to handcuffs and heartache. We nod our heads in disappointment and disapproval and turn around and go back to our 9-5's and go home to relive the day through the bombardment of reality shows and media misfits misfeeding our intellect and damaging our spirits with image after image of our flesh and blood sacrificed on the streets all over the world. Only the few that have survived these times stay the course and tread on through the mess of their everyday lives.

Little Village Lawndale High School was 'born out of struggle" so that the students would not have to struggle to get their education. So that the students would not have to worry about walking out of their house to school. And now we are witnessing the dire cry of our youth who have learned not to work together, to carry this society's hatred and prejudices onto each other at the risk of losing their very own livelihood, if not their own lives.

But today, LVLHS students have responded and have awakened. Where months ago, some of these most influential young minds and hearts would have been the first to incite, encourage, and react to such incidents like yesterday's, these young individuals have come through a powerful process of rediscovering themselves and digging deep into their souls to challenge their very worst enemy: themselves. Today, Black & Brown held it down as we eliminated barriers and barrios by coming together in the most sacred way that our ancestors from around the world have taught us: by talking and listening with the heart. Today, we laid our weapons down (harsh words and prejudices) and embraced our universal struggle here, alive and present, in our communities.

On this beautiful day, under the warmth of the Sun, our warriors (male and female) came together in spirit and have begun the healing process in this rite of passage through life. Hearts were opened enough to let each other in to lean on, to rest on, to share with, to call out, and to breath in. It was simply powerful. Where adults may have had second thoughts, these young men and women did not hesitate to allow themselves to begin this much needed process.

At the end of the circle, we left understanding one another a little bit more than yesterday and ready to support each other a lot more on tomorrow. We walked away feeling human knowing that we are all struggling to survive; after all, WE ARE ALL RELATED.

A-ho Mitakuye Oyasin
(all my relations)

(live in balance)

Ce Yolotl
(one heart)

Sandra Sosa
YSS-Urban Roots
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Tia Chucha Press -- One of this country's much admired poetry press

It's been my honor for close to 20 years to publish some of the best poetry among people of color (Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Natives, but also including European Americans -- their skin has color, too). Tia Chucha Press is small, but we put quality work, blood, sweat, tears, and lots of love into each book. We began in Chicago in 1989 with the publication of my first book, "Poems across the Pavement." Since then I've only published other poets. In 1991, we were part of the Guild Complex, a literary arts institution I helped create. In 2005, we moved Tia Chucha Press to the San Fernando Valley as part of our non-profit Tia Chucha's Bookstore & Centro Cultural.

Our funds are limited (we have received grants, including from the National Endowment for the Arts, and help from donors, but mostly this comes from my own pocket, but this is changing). In fact, I've been chastised a couple of times for not putting money into other literary non-profits or projects. I try, mainly by donating time. The fact is any extra money goes to sustain Tia Chucha Press, Tia Chucha's Bookstore & Cultural Center, our Celebrating Words literacy & art festival, and such. I wish I can do more but these are invaluable investments for arts, music, writing, theater, dance, film, and more (this also includes our Young Warriors youth empowerment project). They need to thrive.

This month--designated as National Poetry Month--we published the wonderful work of Susan D. Anderson. The book is "Nostalgia for a Trumpet: Poems of Memory & History." It was beautifully designed by Jane Brunette, who has designed all but one of our almost 50 books and a CD in these 20 years. Jane is a core part of what makes Tia Chucha Press so acclaimed and well respected in the poetry community.

Susan D. Anderson is a long-time poet, scholar, speaker, organizer, and critic. All our books are distributed by Illinois University Press and can be obtained on amazon.com and major bookstores. Don't forget our other recent publications: "American Jesus" by Richard Vargas; "What Yellow Sounds Like" by Linda Susan Jackson; "Frozen Accident" by Alfred Arteaga; "Femme du Monde" by Patricia Spears Jones; and "My Sweet Unconditional" by ariel robello.

Northwestern University Press/Chicago Distribution Center can be reached at 1-800-621-2736 or http://www.nupress.northwestern.edu.

Also go to www.tiachucha.com to see announcements of other great poetry books and about Tia Chucha Press. I will also be at this weekend's LA Times Festival of Books at UCLA. On Sunday, April 27, at noon I'll be on a panel and at 4 PM I'll read poetry -- please check the schedule for where these will be held. I'll have a few copies of Tia Chucha Press books with me as well.
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Stevie Wonder -- A Musical Treasure

Today I was privileged to be on Stevie Wonder’s radio show on his Los Angeles station, KJLH 102.3 FM. Stevie is an icon of 60s and 70s soul/R&B/funk music – my single favorite music category contending with great jazz, 70s salsa, jumping cumbias, Hip Hop, creative rock, and more. Of course, his music has traversed more than those years through five decades. What an honor to meet one of this country’s most important musical treasures. He was down to earth, funny, and gracious.

I was invited to sit in on Stevie’s show after my guest hosting duties for KJLH’s Front Page talk show with Dominique Di Prima. This morning our guest was Anita L. DeFrantz, a former bronze Olympic medalist who is presently the only African American on the US Olympic Committee’s Board of Directors. She is also President and board member of LA84 Foundation and various others sports organizations. She is a strong advocate of neighborhood sports, seeing sports and healthy competition as part of a cohesive and whole community. Anita DeFrantz also took part in Stevie’s show. She’s a truly self-sacrificing community leader. You can get more information about LA84 Foundation at www.LA84foundation.org.

One thing Stevie and I talked about was the need to sit down with gang youth, and all youth for that matter, and begin to work out strategies and plans for peace. Of course, I contend this must be united with jobs, training, education, arts, sports, treatment, and other resources. But a good start would be sitting on the floor, as Stevie said, and begin talking.

I’ll be back tomorrow morning, Friday, April 25, 2008, to do my last guest hosting show this week on Front Page (remember it’s from 4:30 AM to 6 AM). I’ll address the 2012 Mayan Calendar phenomena – what it is, what it means, and why it’s important for us today. Please listen in if you’re in the LA area.

Also this weekend I’ll be on a panel and do a poetry reading during the annual LA Times Festival of Books at UCLA campus. It’s a great book fair that I’ve been privileged to take part in for many years.

The panel is called “Poetry and Fiction: Writing in Two Genres” and will be held at noon on Sunday, April 27. And I’ll be reading from my book “My Nature is Hunger” and new poems at 4 PM the same day. Book signings will follow. Please check schedules for exact locations.

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