Travel Updates from March

I travel about a third of the year speaking, reading and conducting workshops in cities all over the US as well as other countries. I love to travel—it would be a shame if I didn’t. Those who sponsor my events pay me honoraria so the rest of the year I can write; do volunteer community work, including Tia Chucha’s (neither my wife or I get paid for this); healing practices (linked to my sobriety and community work); and spend time with family, which, of course, is primary.

It’s a great life, although I’ve surmised my family’s glad I’m not always around.

In the past few weeks I’ve been to the San Francisco Bay Area, Northern California, Central Florida, Chicago and other Illinois cities, Ohio, and Michigan. Over the past two or three years, I’ve also been to Japan, Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela (three times), and Peru (twice). I spoke in prisons, juvenile lockups, public schools, universities, conferences, poetry events, and more.

One important visit was to Orlando. In March I spoke at the University of Central Florida as well as Valencia Community College. A gang prevention/intervention conference at UCF included community activists, law enforcement, youth probation officers, school officials, and young people, a few in gangs. This conference addressed imaginative and redemptive strategies to deal with gangs rather than suppression and jails. Around the country people are considering new strategies and models since our jails, juvenile lockups and prisons are dangerously overcrowded (although gang & drug violence has not abated, and they’re now spread around the country).

In Valencia I dealt with a similar topic to a well-attended reading of my poetry, which often turn into town hall meetings. A large contingent of Central Americans came to my talk—they were in the US temporarily to study the gang phenomena here, which has now taken hold in countries like Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic (a couple of these people had heard me speak in Guatemala).

The most amazing aspect of my trip to Orlando, however, was visiting my 15-year-old grandson, Ricardo Rodriguez. The last time I saw him was when he was a year-and-a-half. I was excited and nervous; I understand he was too. We’ve stayed in communication over these years, mostly by email. We’ve also sent him birthday and Christmas presents. When I saw my grandson I could see the Raramuri (my mother’s indigenous ties from Mexico) and the Puerto Rican (from his mother’s side). He looked like his father, my son 32-year-old Ramiro (as most of you know, he’s currently incarcerated in the state of Illinois). Ramiro has never seen his son. Ricky, as we call him, also looked more like his uncles, my two youngest sons Ruben and Luis. Ricky is tall and handsome. He’s also smart, an A-student at a private Christian school.

With the help of his English teacher, I also got the opportunity to speak at Ricky’s school as well as a smaller writers’ group there. What an experience! Having my grandson in the audience during my talk was simply amazing. The students had tons of questions, especially about my former gang and drug life. But also how I overcame these—and about my work today helping youth and others re-imagine and recreate cohesive and imaginative communities.

At the writers’ group about a dozen students read their work, a few of which were written during the session. Others in the group offered encouragement and advice. I mostly listened, but a couple of times I offered my opinions. Ricky’s poem was short, but powerful and creative (he wrote it as we sat there).

Here’s an interesting fact: All four of my kids and four grandkids are great writers.

I had a wonderful time with Ricky and his family. Words can’t even describe.

After Florida, I flew into Chicago to take part in a Poetry Center reading at the School of the Art Institute downtown. Some 400 people showed up, mostly high school students, including a busload from Michigan. The reading went well and the questions were right on, especially from the youth.

From there I drove the next morning (I got up at 4:30 AM) to the Pontiac Prison facility to visit with Ramiro. We had five hours together and as always it was very respectful. My son and I have grown as father and son. It’s a shame this had to happen while he is behind bars. But there are fathers and sons who never breach their pains and distances. I’m honored I’ve been able to do this with Ramiro.

After this I drove further down to the middle of Illinois for a teacher’s reading conference in Springfield. I love talking to teachers—along with librarians they are some of my biggest supporters. They gave me a standing ovation and I met some great people in the schools who recognize the power of language and books for our communities.

After this I drove to Dekalb to stay with my Mexika Native friends, Frank and Lou Blazquez. They have a huge backyard where they built a sweat lodge, guided by their Lakota teacher, Ed Young-Man-Afraid-Of-His-Horses. It was good to see old friends, including the Blazquez kids, Tanee and Frankie (now young adults). They are also leaders in Youth Struggling for Survival. That night we did a Wachuma medicine all-night ceremony with Frank and three young YSS leaders. It was intense and deeply moving.

The next day after I had my time to rest and reflect, I drove another hour or so to Sterling, IL. I visited my 12-year-old granddaughter Amanda Mae Rodriguez. The next day I spoke at Sterling High School’s auditorium to Amanda and her fellow middle school students (their school is across the street). Again, it was so good to know that among the hundreds of students there, so was Amanda.

Amanda is also a fantastic student—the teachers had nothing but praise for her.

I also spoke to the Sterling HS student body—another amazing group of kids. And for two days I did two writing workshops with students and a few teachers in the library. One evening, I also spoke at the Latin American Social Club to about 200 people. Amanda stood next to me holding my books (I said she could sit down, but she wanted to stand there with me). I was so proud to have her there at my side.

Again, like with Ricky, it was sad to say goodby.

From Sterling, I drove back to Chicago—meeting with old friends. This included former Chicago gang member James Lilly, who’s now wheelchair bound from a gang-related shooting at 15. He’s also a world-class wheelchair racer and has an important film about his life and work called “Pushin’ Forward” – you can find out more at http://www.fanlight.com/catalog/films/463_pf.php.

From Chicago I came home for a short spell—back to family (which is always great), Tia Chucha’s, Young Warriors, the Community Engagement Advisory Committee of the LA City Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence & Youth Development, writing poems, essays, stories; and tons of regular mail and emails.

As they say, it’s all good.

c/s
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For Trini with Love

Twenty years ago I did one of the best things I've ever done in my life—I married Maria Trinidad Cardenas. She is my best friend, mother of my two youngest sons, spiritual companion, and fellow founder of Tia Chucha's (and fellow revolutionary for truly encompassing and imaginative social change in this country).

In twenty years we've grown tremendously, having gone through much struggle, pain, sacrifice, and losses. But we also achieved healing, knowledge, wisdom, and mature love. The two most wonderful contributions we made to this world was having and raising our boys: Ruben Joaquin, who turns 20 this year, and Luis Jacinto, who turns 14. I say with much bias and fact—they are the two best boys any parents can have.

I attribute this to the sober fathering I eventually learned to apply with these young men. But mostly it was because of Trini's mothering melded with the most amazing stability and tenderness. In truth this also took much struggle to grasp—Trini like many parents was insecure, fearful, capable of many mistakes (like me). But with an awakened awareness, learned sharing and caring, Trini and I prevailed.

Presently, Ruben is an accomplished musician (he was part of the Inner Spark summer program at Cal Arts in Valencia, CA two summers ago) and a full-time Mission Community College student. He graduated a year early from City of Angels High School, part of LA Unified School District's Independent Studies Options program (where I spoke at their graduation ceremony).

Luis is a mostly A-student at Valley Alternative School in the San Fernando Valley. He's also a wonderful artist and cartoonist. He is applying with a portfolio to a prestigious LA County arts high school. This is very competitive, and Luis is aware he may not be accepted. But he told Trini and I that he wanted to try. That's all we've ever asked of him—“always do your best, even if you don't get what you aim for.” In time, his dreams will come true.

When Trini and I married in Kenosha, Wisconsin those 20 years ago, we both harbored uncertainty about a future and many concerns about each other. We had both been hurt in love and life (I was married and divorced twice before with two other children; Trini had also been married and divorced before). I was 33 years old; Trini was 34 (I always joke how she robbed the cradle when she married me).

I was also drinking, which I had done along with drugs since I was 12 years old. But my life was making a major turn at the time of our marriage: My oldest son Ramiro (then 13) was coming from LA to live with Trini and I in Chicago (my daughter, Andrea, joined us a couple of years later). Trini was also three months pregnant with Ruben—the major catalyst (and our love, of course) for the marriage). By then I also had earnestly accelerated my poetry/writing life, taking part in the growing Chicago poetry scene that eventually led to my helping found the Guild Complex Literary & Arts Center, Tia Chucha Press, the Chicago Poetry Festival, Prism Writers Workshops, and more.

Our first years as married couple were extremely difficult—with a very resentful teenager, a new baby, my absences due to work (I worked two to three jobs, wrote when I could, and attended poetry events), and increased problems with my drinking. I won't go into all of this here, but in time I learned to sober up (I've been clean now for more than 15 years), be a better father to Ramiro and Andrea, and, in time, for Ruben.

In 1994, a year after my biggest book, Always Running, got published and a year after my recovery, we had Luis. I was already active in work with gang and nongang youth due to Ramiro's gang involvement. I helped start Youth Struggling for Survival, the Increase the Peace Network, and the Humboldt Park Teen Reach as a result.

However, one of the most devastating losses (we also lost a few young men & women I helped mentor in the Chicago gang wars during this time) was the imprisonment of Ramiro for 28 years in Illinois's Department of Corrections.

By 2000, Trini and I were ready to return to LA—Trini grew up in Pacoima; I grew up in South Central and the East LA areas. We made sure Ramiro understood and accepted our decision (he did). After selling our house in Logan Square, packing and sending our stuff off in a large tractor-trailer through a moving company, the family took a train with Ruben and Luis back to the old Pacoima neighborhood where Trini had grown up.

In 2001, we bought a house and moved to San Fernando, a couple of miles from Trini's childhood home. We also began work on creating a cafe, bookstore, performance space, and arts workshop center that became known as Tia Chucha's Cafe & Centro Cultural. Later Andrea and her daughter Catalina came to move in with us as well (for which I was most grateful).

The rest is history as they say.

But for now let me say—we've had a difficult time as partners, as husband-and-wife, as parents. But I've never known anyone who has withstood all this and grown like Trini. I'm awestruck by her fortitude and perseverance. She has taught me much about change, focus and love. Today we still work together at Tia Chucha's (it's now Tia Chucha's Bookstore & Cultural Center). We're still actively engaged in revolutionary education and organizing. And we are both healers and water pourers for the San Fernando Sweat Lodge after years of training and ceremonies in the Lakota, Navajo and Mexika traditions (also some ten years ago Trini was adopted by Navajo medicine man Anthony Lee and his wife Delores).

As Trini wrote to me today, “It's been a rocky and wonderful twenty years. I'm so glad we haven't given up on each other when the going got rough. Our boys and you are so worth all the question marks leading to now.”

Yes, questions marks. They are always around us. And I've come to realize, most of them get answered by what we do, what we say, and what we create in our journeys to find true love, parenthood, community, and even social justice. Tlazhokamati, Trini. Gracias, thanks.

I know I have much more life to live, but I've already achieved many, many of my dreams and hopes. And for this—for my dearest Trini—I'm eternally grateful.

c/s
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The Power of Youth, Their Voices & Community

The Koures Youth Symposium, held February 20-24, 2008, brought some 25 young people and 20 adults to Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA to create poetry, dance and song around Native American and African stories interpreted by mythologist and storyteller Michael Meade. Meade created the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation of Seattle, WA (which sponsored the symposium) some 20 years ago to address the growing issues of uncertainty and chaos in the world with the creative power of story, poetry, song, dance, rituals, and intense & meaningful dialogue. It’s how we bring together the broken pieces of community with authenticity and imagination.

The participants included homeless youth from Seattle; Black and Latino gang members from Los Angeles; white students from rural Wisconsin; Mexika (Aztec) singers & dancers, poets and activists from the Bay Area, and others. The staff included psychologists, an African drummer & dance teacher, poets, and Chi Gong practitioners. I served as teacher/poet with Michael Meade, who based this event on his own study of ancient stories and their connection to modern times. Meade has been doing these kinds of events around the country for several years under the aegis of “Voices of Youth, Voices of Community,” which I’ve been privileged to help as a poet in Boyle Heights/East LA and other communities.

Essentially, young people in various stages of trouble and transformation were helped in creating their own unique verse, in their own voices (with some assistance in shaping and editing their work) for four days in the woods. They also learned African dance from Duncan Allard, a practitioner in the Shona tribal traditions of Zimbabwe, various songs from indigenous Africa and Mexico, and aspects of stage presence.

A few of the young people were quite active in poetry, even performance and Hip Hop. But most had never written poems before. Most had never had to connect words with feelings, with ideas, with pain, with joy, with community. By the fifth day we had the whole group make a public presentation at the Brava Theater in the Mission district of San Francisco. Some 200 people showed up to hear original poems – all were truly amazing – Meade’s stories; Mexika, African & Brazilian songs; and an incredible warrior dance from Zimbabwe. I also read a poem and did what we call a “harangue” on the power of language shaping for healing as well as personal and social development.

It was a movingly powerful event that at one point had everyone in the audience on their feet.

This symposium started me on a new round of trips that will also have me in Florida, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan by the end of March. The exhaustive work at Koures also turned out energizing, carrying me through a number of talks in schools, prisons, juvenile lock ups, universities, conferences, and other venues.

For one, I didn’t leave Northern California following the Brava Theater presentation. I ended up in the Sacramento area to do two workshops/talks at the New Folsom Prison (Maximum Security B and A yards). I was supposed to address a long-standing writers’ group out of C Yard, who knew about my work and were expecting my visit. But several stabbings in that yard over the previous two weeks had them locked down. I ended up in B Yard, another Max yard, which had no writers’ group. Still some 40 men showed up to hear me read poetry and talk. In the end the men requested to have their own writers’ group, which I hope does happen. I also talked to a smaller group of prisoners in A Yard before returning back to the Bay Area. As always in the talks/readings in prisons, we had a wonderful time dealing with some vital issues.

Through Intersections for the Arts and Writers Corps, I ended up in a juvenile lock up just south of San Francisco addressing several young men—another powerful time with young people that most of our society has written off. I also took part in an event at Intersection for the Arts in the Mission that included readings by youth in the Writers Corps program. The next day I was at the Mission Public Library where I read and spoke to a standing-room only group. Then the following day I went to the Alameda County Juvenile Hall (now totally renovated into an electronics prison-liked institution) and the San Francisco County Juvenile Guidance Center in a maximum unit. Again, I have to thank Amy Cheney of the Right to Read program and all the staff and teachers who arranged for this. The young people were respectful and attentive, and they were also sharp and incisive in their questions and remarks. They do not deserve to be written off, regardless of what they’ve done. Punishment as the essential form of “rehabilitation” in juvenile facilities and prisons has only made resentment and rage the main response from the youth and prisoners instead of redemption. Yes, we need consequences, but a major aspect of these should be helping these young men and women with their own healing, including linking to vital internal and external sources for change, passion, and positive contributions to community.

In spite of the inane punishment-driven institutions we send our most troubled men and women, as I said, there are heroic people in those institutions trying to make some important impact with little to work with. I’m honored they think of me from time to time to help in this work.

I'd like to end this with a poem from one of the Koures Youth Symposium participants, Rose Conley, who wrote this during the five days of our deliberations. It's called "A True Story About Poetry":

A homeless man in London sat on the ground and on the ground he spread a blanket and on the blanket he spread brightly colored envelopes. Walking by, I asked him what they were. “Poems,” he said in English. “How much?” I asked in American. He shrugged across the Atlantic and I trickled down a few pound coins on to his blanket, made my selection, and turned back towards the West End. As I walked, I read. The poem was called, “I Bring You Oranges.”

Eight years later, I found myself in a room full of strangers, spreading out my blanket. Looking around, everyone had their blanket spread out, and we browsed, dropping pound coins and making our selections. My blanket was the emptiest, and I didn’t have much to share, and the other people had piles of envelopes stacked like strata in front of them and they had brought their lives and their letters and their drumbeats and their heartbeats and their mouths and their necks. I didn’t have much, so I brought them oranges, and I fed them oranges while they fed me their poems.
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Community-Based Gang Intervention Model

After almost a year of ongoing meetings, writing, researching, debating, and fine-tuning, the Community Engagement Advisory Committee (CEAC) -- made up of gang intervention specialists, peace advocates, community leaders, and researchers -- of LA City's Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence & Youth Development, finished its ground-breaking Community-based Gang Intervention Model.

On February 13, the Ad Hoc committee, headed by City Councilman Tony Cardenas, presented this model for approval of the 15-member LA City Council. In an historic vote, the council voted unanimously to approve this model. This is a major victory, however, more must be done to implement such a model across LA's vast poor and working class communities where most gangs are located.

Although gang violence has gone down tremendously since the heyday of the 1980s and 1990s (one fact I came across claims that around 10,000 young people were killed in the LA area by gangs from 1980-2000), LA is still known as the "Gang Capital of the World." Police say there are 700 gangs and 40,000 gang members in LA, not counting the larger LA County area with several hundred more gangs and thousands more gang youth.

It's a real problems deserving of real and serious attention. For example, communities in East LA and South Central LA (now called South LA) have murder rates among African Americans and Latinos as high or higher than the murder rates in South Africa or El Salvador (both these countries have the world's highest murder rates).

However, for several decades, police suppression of gangs has been the main response from the city. These include gang injunctions where whole neighborhoods are put "under arrest" (people have strict curfews and can't interract, even if they'r related, can't have cell phones, baseball bats, and such). They include "three strikes and you're out" where convicted felons can be given 25-to-life prison sentences even for non-violent crimes. They include tearing down of whole housing projects, such as East LA's Aliso Village, which at one time was the largest housing projects west of the Mississippi. They include trying 14 years old as adults, giving kids 50 years and longer sentences (one 14-year-old received a death sentence for an incident in which no one was hurt).

This has only served to squeeze poor communities of color, forcing whole families to move into surrounding areas as well as across the country -- and taking the LA gangs and lifestyle everywhere. Today the biggest gang problem in the US involves LA-based gang structures like Sur Trece, 18th Street, Crips, Bloods, and MS-13, among others.

And we've created the largest prison system in the world, with 175,000 prisoners in close to 35 prisons, in California (thirty years ago the state had 15,000 prisoners in around 15 prisons).

Also US immigration authorities have been targeting immigrant gang youth, particularly after the LA Rebellion of 1992, but also since 1996 when convicted undocumented immigrants could be automatically deported. Since 1996, some 700,000 convicted undocumented felons have been deported, most of them to Mexico and Central America. Today LA-based gangs have become active in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (and recruiting among the poor and war-traumatized youth of those countries), but also Cambodia and Armenia.

CEAC's solutions are to stop this squeezing of our communuities ("concidently" opening up large inner-city areas to high-end development and gentrification) and to provide real resources of jobs, education, skills training, tattoo removal, and re-entry programs for prisoners/juvenile offenders. We want to make gang intervention a well-funed alternative to suppression, with teams of trained gang intervention workers able to move quickly among the gang hot spots. We also have included another prong to provide adequate wrap-around services to youth who need it.

In addition, the CEAC included important aspects of arts & culture (for creative, imaginative and culturally-engaged lives), faith-based/spiritual components, and more to help establish whole and healthy communities that can nurture whole and healthy people, particulary among our youth.

We believe gang intervention must be community-based, driven and led by community, not the police or politicians. Of course, the police, schools, city officials, city departments, and such should be integral to any urban peace plan. We welcome all members of the community to take positive and active steps to curtail the violence that is destroying families and communities.

c/s
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Another Friend Passes Over -- RIP raulrsalinas

Raul R. Salinas--also written as raulrsalinas--was an immense inspiration and mentor in my life and writing. Not only was he one of the veterans of Chicano poetry, he was known among the Beats, Jazz poets, and as a leading poet of the prison life after spending 11 years in state and federal prisons in California, Texas, Illinois, and Kentucky. He died today at age 73.

I knew Raul for many years. We took part in Native sweat ceremonies with Barrios Unidos in California; we read poetry together in various events, including in San Anto, Tejaztlan. He also founded La Resistencia Bookstore in Austin, serving as an example to me when I later helped create Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore in the San Fernando Valley section of LA.

One time we found ourselves in hotel rooms next to each other. I walked out into the balcony and saw Raul on his balcony looking into the Texas sky as I was doing. We shared moments about heroin addictions, jails, poetry, but also the Native spirituality we both shared. A couple of times he told me that his favorite poem of mine was "Tombstone Poets," about two heroin-addict poets in East LA.

My favorite of his was his most famous: "Un Trip Through the Mind Jail," a classic of Chicano poetry (actually of any poetry, anywhere). This text appeared in the 1960s and opened up the imaginations and language adventures of vatos like me.

Please go to his website at www.raulrsalinas.com to find out more about his work, his importance in US and world letters, and about La Resistencia.

A true revolutionary, poet of the people, human rights advocate, Native spiritual leader, and a great friend, I will miss Raul very much. I will also honor his life and work by continuing his struggles for the dignity and rights of all people, but in particular the Native peoples of this land, this country, this continent -- this world.

Tlazhokamati y tiahui.

c/s


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On the Road Again...

I'm getting ready to embark on a number of trips outside of town. I'll be in New Jersey this coming Monday, February 11. I return after a few days, and then I go to San Francisco for two weeks – to be part of the Mosaic Foundation's Koures Youth Symposium in Santa Rosa, CA (Tia Chucha's Young Warriors is bringing to young leaders as well), which culminates in a public event at the Brava Theater in the Mission district of San Francisco on February 24. I will also take part in programs sponsored by Intersection for the Arts and the Mission Public Library. In addition, I'll be visiting New Folsom prison near Sacramento, a youth detention facility in the Bay Area, and the juvenile halls of San Francisco and Alameda counties. You can get more information on my events page of my website: LuisJRodriguez.com

Then in March I will be visiting universities, high schools, poetry centers, elementary schools, and more in Florida, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. I'll be gone through the end of the month. In addition, I have some local schools – primarily those coming to Tia Chucha's for field trips (we have about two a month during the spring).

Traveling about a third of the year, I'm able to sustain my family and to help with Tia Chucha's – it also allows my wife Trini to devote more than 40 hours a week to Tia Chucha's without pay, but also for me to write, accomplish my commitments to Tia Chucha's, other community work, and, most importantly, to spend time with my family.

Recently, I spoke at the New Roads School in Santa Monica, invited by a good friend in a seminal rock & roll bad of the 1960s (I'll keep his name private for now), whose son goes to this school. With a roomful of students, we had a great discussion about gangs, drugs, how to overcome obstacles, the arts, and life in general. I also went to a Creative Writing class of another friend, Mel Donalson, at Cal State University, Los Angeles, where I got to speak about writing in different genres, the fiction dynamic, and my own writing process.

I also had an amazing time at Wilson High School in El Sereno/East LA where I spoke to several assemblies of students. On the walls in the auditorium, the students had placed posters and artwork with scenes from my book “Always Running.” Several young people even got up to read poetry and essays -- and there was two girls who announced that they stopped doing drugs after reading my book. I was very moved.

For Martin Luther King's Jr. birthday commemoration, I co-hosted with Elaine Swann a concert at Golden Hall in San Diego, CA with the incomparable Odetta, and various local singers, dancers, poets, and speakers. Some 600 people came.

I also did three events at the Getty Museum at the Getty Center around the fantastic photo exhibit by one of Mexico's leading photographers, Graciela Iturbide (the exhibit ends April 13, 2008). Her work captures the images of mostly indigenous people of Mexico, including the Tehuanas of Juchitan, Oaxaca (Zapoteca indigenous people), a place close to my heart when in the early 1980s I took part in uprisings against the Mexican government including when farmers, workers, students, and indigenous communities took over the city hall and demanded equal representation. It was quite a time – they were quite a people.

Graciela spent many years among them and these photos are internationally acclaimed. She also spent a couple of days in East LA and was one of the few Mexican photographers to capture the Cholo cultural phenomena of Chicanos in the 1980s – mostly women, many of whom were born deaf after a particularly powerful epidemic hit East LA's Mexican community in the 1960s.

I ended up speaking to a group of college and university professors as well as teachers at the Getty earlier in January. Then at the end of that month, I spoke to a group of students, black and brown, from Locke High School in Watts (the school was actually built on top of where my oldest sister once lived, and where I stayed a couple of summers when I was a kid).

This exhibit also allowed the Getty Museum to organize a panel of Chicano artists and writers to discuss art, Chicano life, and the Cholo culture, among other things, in the context of Iturbide's work. Visual artists Ernesto de la Loza and Alma Lopez as well as novelist Yxta Maya Murray were on the panel that I moderated to a fairly packed house on January 27. Powerful ideas, visions, and even critiques (in particular about museums, the Getty included) were on the table. However, we also affirmed our Chicano realities and the diverse means these are expressed in Chicano art, especially over the past 40 years. It turned out to be a rich and powerful discussion, including with the audience. I thank the Getty for inviting us to have this exchange.

Finally, I want to draw everyone's attention to an important upcoming event with the theme of “Common Roots, Common Dreams: A Celebration of the Commonality of Black and Mexican Culture & History.” With all the recent media attention on Black & Brown conflicts, this is in honor of what actually unites us and the reality that African Americans and Mexicans are more united than divided. Sponsored by Rock A Mole Festivals, CDs & Films, the event will be held Sunday, February 17 from 6 to 10 PM at Industry Cafe & Jazz, 6039 Washington Blvd. in the heart of the Arts District of Culver City. Food, beer and wine will be available.

This is a free event – Rock A Mole (rhymes with guacamole) festivals generally are. I'll be one of the hosts, and will do a poetry collaboration with one of LA's best performance poets, BessKepp. Also on hand will be new music with “Ten East” jazz band and a traditional Mexican band, “La Santa Cecilia;” a short play, “The First Embrace” that will depict Mexico's embrace of fugitive slaves despite enormous pressure from the US during the mid-1800s; a beat box chorus with both break dancers and traditional Mexican dancers; the world premiere of a new poem by Mike the Poet celebrating the ongoing synergy between Black and Mexican culture; and a killer house band with Fre Ballesteros (my favorite saxophone player in LA) of the Boxing Gandhis on sax, Michael Suicer of the Ray Charles Orchestra on drums, Boudro of the Gladys Knight band on bass, and G Mack of Polyester Players (who's played with the likes of Mary J. Blige) on guitar (singing will be one of my favorite singers in the city, and the creator of the music for my CD “My Name's Not Rodriguez,” Ernie Perez – musical director is Carvell Holloway, who also did the great trumpet solos on my CD).

To top it off some of the best African American and Mexican/Chicano poets and rappers will be performing, including TamaraBlue, Metaphysics, Sarah Cruse, Busstop Prophet, Ant Black, and Redemption (Redencion of Guanajuato, Mexico), among others. For more information, go to [email protected]

Don't miss this!
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Hand Made Art Books of My Poetry

I've been honored to have four limited edition and signed hand-made artist books -- as well several broadsides -- of my poems published with a lot of love from the Pajaro, California-based C&C Press. The artists, Sher Zabaszkiewicz and Matt Cohen, created C&C Press to recapture the beauty, subtlety, grace, and craftmanship that hand-made artist books have embodied over the ages.

As the artists in the C&C Press' website say, "We began to realize that the artist's book operates best when a synergy is struck amongst its parts, creating a harmonious interrelationship between text, image, structure and design. That realization has forever change the way that we look at art and the artist's book."

Since 2005, Sher and Matt have published amazing collector's artist books of my work, numbered and signed, including "Seven," "Two Women/Dos Mujeres," "Making Medicine," and several broadsides of poetry and sayings. They operate out of a 2,100 square foot building housing a family business owned by Matt's parents. The space, some 30 minutes south of Santa Cruz, CA, includes a platemaking machine, foundry and wood type, various shears, drying racks, and more.

Sher and Matt have used materials like old T-shirts of mine to create the paper--which is also hand made--for these projects. They have travelled across the country to various university libraries, book fairs, and other institutions selling these amazing artists books at collector's prices.

In 2005, we had the first exhibit and presentation of their work at Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore. We hope to have another event featuring the latest artist's book of mine, "Making Medicine." In the future I will present them with more unpublished poems to complement their unique and powerful masterpieces.

To find out more about what Sher and Matt do, please go to their website at www.candcpress.com. They are working with other writers and artists on various projects as well. Please consider ordering these amazing books for your collections.
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"Witnessing Whiteness" -- A New Book by Shelly Tochluk

My friend, Shelly Tochluk, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of the Elementary Education Department at Mount St. Mary's College near downtown LA where she trains teachers in the LA area. She has been active for years bringing consciousness of racism and race issues to various communities. She now has a book that attempts to address "whiteness" in the US with testimony by various cross-cultural leaders, activists and artists, male and female.

She's also on the leadership team of AWARE-LA -- Alliance of White Antiracists Everywhere-Los Angeles.

Shelly's book is "Witnessing Whiteness: First Steps Toward an Antiracist Practice and Culture," published by Rowman & Littlefield. Here's what Shelly has to say about this important book:

"Witnessing Whiteness" invites people, especially those of European ancestry, to consider their relationship to white privilege and the lingering shadows of racism. In an easy to read style, this book helps people understand why race is still a relevant issue, how race influences white people’s daily lives, and how to develop the beginnings of an antiracist practice.

This book includes personal testimony from well-respected cultural workers across race, such as Luis Rodriguez (author of Always Running), to offer dialogue that illustrates how whiteness embeds itself in our psyche, lingers through continued social conditioning, and affects cross-race interactions. This book is accessible and intended for all people, but speaks directly to educators and trainers at various levels.

For more information, visit the book website: www.witnessingwhiteness.com


Shelly's book release celebration is scheduled for February 23, 2008 from 5 to 9 PM. The evening will include poetry, dialogue, and exploration of the steps toward an antiracist practice and culture. It will be held at The Donahue Center, Mount St. Mary's College, 10 Chester Place, Los Angeles, CA 90007.

On March 2, 2008, Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore will be hosting a book reading and talk for "Witnessing Whiteness." Call 818-898-1479 for more information.
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Alexander Taylor -- A Man of the Engaged & Purposeful Life

My friend, mentor, teacher, second father--and to whom I owe much of my publishing life--Alexander "Sandy" Taylor passed away this morning after suffering a stroke a couple of days ago. He was the cofounder and publisher with his wife, Judith Doyle, of Curbstone Press--in my view the most important press for literature that matters in the United States. Sandy was 76.

Since 1975 Curbstone Press, out of Willimantic, Connecticut, has published the amazing works of socially engaged poets, fiction writers, translators, and memoirists such as Martin Espada, James Scully, Claribel Alegria, Jack Hirschman, Carla Trujillo, Thuy Dinh, Sam Hamill, Carolyn Forche, Daisy Zamora, Truung Vu, Sarah Menefee, Tino Villanueva, Gionconda Belli, Ernesto Cardenal, Arturo Arias... and many other emerging and veteran voices in the frontlines of ideas and words of revolutionary meaning, purpose & expression.

They introduced amazing new Latino and Latina writers in their Miguel Marmol Literary Prize--including Mary Helen Largasse--that otherwise may have been forgotten.

The press built its reputation on publishing those writers that other publishers saw as too political, too risky, too experimental, too unknown--yet Curbstone never skimped on quality work or less than stellar writing. Many vital voices from Latin America and Vietnam, among other countries, found a home here.

And somehow they also made a home for the writings of an unconfident and unschooled former gang member and former drug-and-alcohol addict--and a long-time community activist, revolutionary and thinker--named Luis J. Rodriguez.

Yes, if it wasn't for Sandy and Judy, I would not have been read or known. I truly believe this. They published my first non-self published work, "The Concrete River" (I had published my first poetry collection under my own press, Tia Chucha Press). This book has had several printings and has passed the 10,000 copies sold mark--a rare occurrence for poetry in the US. They've also published two other poetry books, including my latest "My Nature is Hunger." And they took a chance on my first children's book, "America is Her Name" in English and Spanish versions. Curbstone is currently working on another children's book based on the character from that book, America Solis.

However, the most important book of mine they supported with publishing--and with the most amazing marketing plan any writer can hope for--was "Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA." I gave this book to Sandy in 1992 after my oldest son Ramiro had joined a Chicago gang the year before. I struggled hard to earn my son's respect (I did not raise him), but there was too much resentment and pain between us. I thought of writing a true-life account of my own involvement in gangs and drugs some 20 years before as a means to help Ramiro--but also the thousands of young people of all races and communities caught in the web of gang life.

Sandy didn't hesitate. The book was a massive unknown. But somehow he trusted my ability to tell this complicated and difficult story--the first of a Chicano gang member's life from a participant's viewpoint (although Chicano barrio street gangs had been in existence since the turn of the 20th century, and were some of the largest and most violent in the United States).

Curbstone had also obtained a couple of large grants to develop big-publishing type marketing strategies for a small press. When the book got published in January of 1993, I embarked on a whirl-wind book tour that took three months and involved 30 cities all over the US. I also made a huge risky decision--to quit all my work (I had three jobs at the time in typesetting and in radio) and concentrate on making this book a success. Most importantly, a year before Los Angeles had erupted in flames in the worse civil uprising since the 1960s after the acquittal of police officers in the beating of an African American man, Rodney King. Many authorities blamed the destruction on LA gangs--both African American and Latino. This was an important factor contributing to the attention "Always Running" received.

Besides readings in schools, conferences, community centers, boxing clubs, prisons, juvenile halls, and more, I also appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Good Morning, America," CNN's "Talk Live" and "Sonya Live," National Public Radio (including "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross), KABC's Talk Radio, among others. Articles on my book and life showed up in "Entertainment Weekly," London's "The Face," New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, Hartford Courant, and many more.

Sandy and I estimated that with TV, print, radio, and personal appearances we may have reached some 70 million people in those three months. In addition, by then several big-time New York City based publishers began vying for the paperback rights to the book. Curbstone put the services of its board members and friends to help us achieve an amazing book deal--the money went into the six figures--with Touchstone Press/Simon & Schuster that published "Always Running" in English and Spanish versions beginning in early 2004.

That book, now in more than 20 printings, is used in schools, colleges, universities, prisons, and other institutions throughout the US and parts of Latin America. In 2004, Sandy helped me obtain a new contract with Touchstone for the 10-year anniversary of the book (with a new cover and a new introduction). And just prior to the Writer's Guild strike in Hollywood, I was in the process of talking to independent film makers on a possible feature film based on the book--something that Sandy was also instrumental in helping shape.

He also always had a loving embrace and word for my son Ramiro--even now that Ramiro, who's 32, is presently incarcerated in an Illinois State prison for three counts of attempted murder. And Sandy was most patient and kind with one of my other sons, Ruben, who at 4 years old went went me to part of my book tour--especially when Ruben got chicken pox and we had to be holed up in a hotel for seven days (Ruben is now 19 and doing well along with my daughter Andrea, 30, and my youngest son, Luis, 13).

I consider Sandy one of the great ones. He was a second father to me--something I've been blessed with after my own turbulent and emotionally void relationship with my own father (who died in 1992, before "Always Running" came out). Sandy reached out, advised me, taught me, and always, always had time to talk to me. Something my real father never did. I don't want to get into how important this is in my life, but I will say this--I know Sandy's generosity and caring extended to many other writers over many years, who felt his gentle but steady hand on their shoulders pushing them forward, investing and sacrificing so that voices like ours can be heard, appreciated, honored.

No writer can ask for more.

So I will say with all candor--I would not be here as writer, lecturer and editor if it were not for Sandy Taylor. Such debt can never, ever be repaid. Yet Sandy lives on in the people he's touched, cajoled, rallied for, and celebrated. He lives on in his own poetry and translations. He lives on in the wondrous but economically unstable small publishing world that he helped create--where the best of this country still values what matters, and against all odds and economic advise continue to make books that will out live all of us.

I send many prayers and best wishes to Judy Doyle, Curbstone's venerable mother and Sandy's partner. Also to Sandy's family. And most importantly to all the Curbstonistas--staff, board, volunteers, writers, and community leaders who have been enriched by the existence, vision, imagination, and sacrifice of Mr. Alexander Taylor.

Que descanses en paz, mi amigo.
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Prison Life -- Dignity & Fairness in Short Supply

Today my 32-year-old son Ramiro called, as he usually does, to talk from the Pontiac Prison in Pontiac, Illinois. Over the years we've had some important talks about life, the family, his kids, politics, spirituality, and just regular dad-and-son dialogues. After serving 11 years of a 28-year prison sentence for three counts of attempted murder, Ramiro has mostly stabilized his often turbulent emotions. He left the gang life, something that is dangerous to do in a major state prison system like Illinois--which after California and Texas has the largest prison system and a massive gang presence.

He's hoping to get paroled in three years--after 14 years of good time, which under old state law allows my son to possibly get released with half of his time done. We are praying and working hard for this. Ramiro, in particular, has stayed out of trouble as best he can--but he says this is hard for anyone, even those who only want to do their time.

For example, in another prison, Ramiro dedicated himself to learning horticulture and culinary arts in a special program that allowed prisoners to obtain Associated of Arts degrees with a local college. Ramiro received two degrees and a couple of certificates before this program was cut in ongoing efforts to make prisoners' lives as uncomfortable as possible.

Then he worked in various jobs, including on the grounds, and for a time as a teacher's aid, helping teach English to Spanish-speaking prisoners. Ramiro really got much out of this, but then he got transferred.

Now in the Pontiac Prison--which is really two prisons, a maximum ad-seg prison and medium security facility--Ramiro got a job in the ad-seg section of the prison as a janitor. He did this for about a year, and he really got to like it. He says he was one of the hardest workers. Even the prison staff overseeing this work apparenlty liked him. He did his work without complaint and as thorough as possible.

However, recent changes in prison policy have thrown this up in the air. Prisoners must now change jobs every six months, causing a consternation to prisoners who love to work and do their time without any problems--including my son. In Pontiac, the prisoners must also get rid of their denim jackets, which has kept them warm during Illinois' severe winter months. Even more devastating is a new state policy of ending smoking in all prisons. This looks to be more problematic since smoking becomes important to calm down and deal with prison life.

The system apparently plans to implement this on January 1. They know this may cause problems -- which begs the question: Why does the system do things that they know will upset the little bit of peace and order in a prisoner's life? In anticipation of problems, all state prisons will be locked down for about two months beginning in January.

My son called to get a little extra money so he can get stocked up on commissary food and items for the lock down. He's taking it pretty well--for him it's par for the course. The system always comes up with something to disrupt the prisoners' existence, even with things that worked (like education and jobs). Smoking, I understand, is unhealthy, but these other programs helped keep prisoners from coming back.

Yes, prisons have many pathological, maladjusted and sick individuals. But the vast majority are mostly criminals of want--those who are on drugs (addicted in need of real treatment) or committing acts out of desperation (stealing, robberies, cons, etc.). They need trades, schooling, even simple life skills so they can adapt to a relatively healthy life in the free world. This does not happen. As most people know--prison becomes their university for a more sophisticated criminal life, which is paid for by our tax dollars.

People will learn something, even if we deprive them of everything else. We need to provide real and comprehensive rehabilitation and re-entry programs so that most of these prisoners don't end up in the same place over and over again.

My son is doing his time. He made his mistakes and is paying for them. What I question is the way we tend to enshrine these mistakes for a life time. He needs to change, but we must also help in the healing process. Instead, we tend to put more trauma and deprivation over past traumas and deprivations.

So far Ramiro is on track to get out in a few years--and despite whatever barriers, disappointments and obstacles get in the way (and he's had 11 years of them) he's still focused on coming home. I know the key has been our growth as a family that never abandoned him, as too many other families have done to other prisoners.

We're doing our part so that Ramiro comes home, stays out of trouble, becomes a decent father to this kids, and learns to contribute positively to his community and country.

The state needs to do their part as well--considering the public trust they have as a tax-supported entity. I request that the public put pressure on politicians and policy makers to provide a real path out of the criminal life, instead of helping push more and more of mostly poor and neglected young people into the more dense aspects of this life

This only fuels the growing prison industry, one of the most lucrative in the country, for a small class of people at the expense of our children.

c/s
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