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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Democracy is Alive and Well in Venezuela

Most TV pundits and opinion pieces in the US savored the loss of Hugo Chavez's Reform during the national Venezuelan election on December 2. The Reform package, which consisted of 69 amendments to the country's constitution, was narrowly defeated 51 percent to 49 percent. Chavez graciously accepted the loss, saying he would not contest the results despite the close election. This is the same Chavez that has been called a Dictator, his Reform touted as major steps toward Dictatorship and Chavez's plan to be President for Life.

These kinds of statements were utterly defeated on December 2.

Even though the National Assembly accepted and contributed to the Reform, the matter was brought to the whole country to decide. The election was held on a Sunday to make it easier for people to vote (unlike in the US where elections are held on Tuesday when most people are working). While only half of the 16 million registered voters took part in the election, a low turnout by Venezuelan standards, it is still much more than in US national elections that generally involve only around 25 percent of eligible voters.

In addition, US pundits decried Chavez's government and paths for change, but his process is still much more democratic than what we have here. For example, there is no electoral college in Venezuela that can reverse the popular vote like it can in the US (remember Gore's victory over Bush in the 2000 popular vote, but his loss in the electoral college when the 9-member Supreme Court certified Florida's crooked election).

Also, Chavez brought his Reform to the public -- contrast this with how the US Patriot Act was decided by Congress in cahoots with the Executive Branch. US voters had no say-so about this act, which has proven to be one of the most unconstitutional and draconian this country has ever produced.

No, I think the election was proof that Democracy is Alive and Well in Venezuela. And let's remember--the people were not voting for Chavez as President for Life. The Reform only asked that those who do run for president can do so indefinitely (including Chavez). The people would still need to elect them. This is a big difference over "President for Life."

Venezuela is in a difficult revolutionary process. It is still moving faster toward social and economic justice than most countries in the hemisphere. But it is also deeply divided, which the US has exacerbated through its varied media/propaganda and clandestine/military destabilization efforts.

Hovering over this process, like in most of Latin America, is the economic might, military prowess and political machinations of the United States government. Remember, the US government was involved in the overthrows of democratically-elected reform governments like Arbenz in Guatemala and Allende in Chile? (and others around the world). From our previous acts and positions, we have no right to judge.

I truly hope the Venezuelan people--especially the poor and working class that are virtually abandoned in most countries--can forge a society and government worthy of their ideals, courage, history, and needs.

With or without Chavez.

For now, the Bush Administration should stand back and stop putting down a process that is wholly more democratic than most countries in the world, including the United States. As far as I can see, the election was a victory for the Bolivarian Revolution because it proved a process of change was still up to the people to decide.
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The Personal Healing of Age-old Plant Medicine in Peru

From Venezuela, after spending 10 days there for the Feria Internacional del Libro (International Book Fair) in Caracas, I went directly to Peru where I hooked up with my old friend and fellow Mexika healer Tekpaltzin (Frank Blazquez) of DeKalb, IL. This was on November 18.

I flew into Lima and the next day I took another flight into the Amazon jungle to a sleepy and tropical place called Puerto Maldonado near the Bolivia/Brazil borders. At the airport I received a vaccination shot for Yellow Fever that's supposed to last 10 years. I got a certificate for this and then went to meet Frank.

Frank had already spent a few days in Puerto Maldonado before I arrived. I got there in almost 100-degree shirt-clinging weather. He introduced me to a Quechua-speaking medicine man from the jungle named Panduro. Maestro Panduro does many amazing ceremonies, but he's known as one of the few who are considered real masters of the healing powers in the Ayahuaska plant, which comes from these jungles and has been used to heal for tens of thousand of years.

For more than ten years, I have been doing indigenous medicinal ceremonies with peyote. It turns out both the Raramuri (my mother's tribal roots) and the Huichol (my wife Trini's) peoples of Mexico have been doing peyote ceremonies for tens of thousands of years. The peyote ceremonies I took part in were under the expert guidance of a Navajo medicine man from Lukachukai, AZ named Anthony Lee. His family also adopted my wife Trini, and subsequently the whole family, and we've been back to the Navajo rez every year since then for all-night prayer meetings, sweats, and other ceremonies.

Once with the help of Tekpaltzin, I consumed Huachuma, also from Peru (and also known as the San Pedro cactus). But Ayahuasca comes from plants. Maestro Panduro explained how the preparation also includes the Chacruna plant, another healing plant from the Amazon.

Being in the Amazon, it turns out, is the best place to take Ayahuasca. I first tried Ayahuasca last year in Qosqo (Cuzco) and Lima when Trini and I (and three other members of our San Fernando Valley sweat lodge circle) did healing work with Aeli Ronin of Lima and Maestra Dona (Dona is an indigenous woman from Iquitos, Peru, also in the Amazon).

This was a very strong and healing experience, but I always felt I needed something more. This time I needed to do this in the jungle with one of the best known masters of Ayahuasca use. Frank arranged this after he had already undergone some intense experiences with Maestro Panduro a few years ago.

We stayed in a couple of small and cheap hostels in Puerto Maldonado, which turned out to an amazingly alive and compact city in the Madre de Dios department. At the first hostel, we were directly across the street from the main marketplace, full of people, products, noises, and smells. Motor scooters and three-wheeled motored vehicles were everywhere, the main way for people to get around. For one sole, which is about 30 cents, you can get a ride almost anywhere in town in a motorbike or three-wheeled motored vehicles (these were the "taxis" around here).

However, the noise of dogs barking, roosters, and early-morning preparations for the marketplace got Frank and I up earlier than we wanted. We found another hostel for about $13 a night (the first one was about $8 a night) in a more quieter section of town and decided to move.

We met Panduro's wife, his 11-year-old son, and other family members. Panduro, 55, also has an older daughter and son who are both out of the house. Panduro does most of his ceremonies in the large front room of his house built specifically for this.

After showing us around and eating at some fantastic local spots (although we were on a red-meatless/dairyless diet), we prepared for the first night of my ceremony. Frank had already gone through a night of Ayahuasca healing before I arrived.

I won't go into the details of this ceremony. It may come up in poems or other writing, or not at all. But I will say this--the ceremony was intense, difficult, painful, but also most healing. I got a dosage similar to those given in the pueblo. Apparently a number of US groups come down here for Ayahuasca ceremonies, but they are most often introduced to this on a much milder level.

What I went through was what the old veterans of these ceremonies have been doing for years. The first night was wild and amazing. The next night was supposed to help bring some loose ends together and a measure of closure. But it turned out to be more intense than the first.

Not only that but because of the trouble that Maestro Panduro saw me in, he brought me another large dosage of the medicine later in the evening. I went through quite an experience. As much as I wanted to back off, to run away, to just let this go, I didn't let on that I would even consider this. I took all the medicine Panduro felt I needed and carried out his instructions. I didn't come all this way just play around or to lose heart.

Of course, the fact my 32-year-old son Ramiro is behind bars in a state prison in Illinois also helped me stay strong for whatever the medicine felt I needed. Many prayers went out his way.

In addition, I've had a particularly hard year in 2007 -- the year of my last 52-year cycle under the Mexika calendar. Tia Chucha's Bookstore & Cultural Center was forced to move out of its space early in the year--a massive project that we're still reeling from (fortunately, we're in a new location with our programming in full force). I also had to see my mother placed into a home for Alzheimer's patients, one of the most painful things I had to see happen. I also suffered through an ass-kicking attack of gall stones (that sent me to the emergency room) and several weeks of pain due to slipped disks in my back that had me unable to get out of bed for a while.

Also, my 30-year-old daughter Andrea and my 11-year-old grand-daughter, Catalina, moved away from the house after being with us for six years--although this was the right thing to happen as Andrea finds her independent way in her career and as a single mother (we'll always be there for her).

But, man, do I miss them.

I withstood all this, including some hard times with Trini. And in the end, I feel much stronger, more centered, and ready to take my writing, my health, Tia Chucha's work, my family's situation, and community work to new and higher levels.

The medicine is still in me--it'll be with me for the rest of my days, intertwined with my DNA. I'm not sure if or when I'll need to do another ceremony in the Amazon. But for now I'm taking what I've already undergone as far as I can -- to maintain my sobriety, but also for a re-generative push into new layers of what I must do in my life, for my family, for my art, for our community, and in this world.

We're at the ends of times. We're also at the beginnings of something new and vital. The world is unraveling, but we must also get a hold of the new threads the future is handing us, and with awareness of self with awakened & initiated souls to help re-imagine and re-weave the world.
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Healing -- a Crucial Aspect of Any Revolution

Tomi is a 30-year-old reggae singer/poet from Nigeria/Jamaica who has been living and working in Venezuela for a year. His friend Johnny is a tall English-speaking reggae performer from the Caribbean island of Dominica. They both support Hugo Chavez and the Reform, although they were not born or raised in Venezuela. But they have witnessed an amazing revolutionary process, full of pitfalls and problems, yet steadingly moving toward greater power and justice for the country's vast poor and disenfranchised.

Venezuela, we should remember, is an oil-rich country that also has some deep poverty. In Caracas, home to more than 3 million people, the hills are dotted with the makeshift housing of the poor exactly like those of the favelas in Brazil (although in Venezuela they are called "ranchitos").

However, as Tomi points out, the rich for decades used the oil as a kind of ATM--they pulled out profits from this resource for their own enrichment. Now that the Bolivarian Socialist government has taken over the oil industry, the poor people for the first time received electricity (something that caused an uproar among the upper classes); they have free and comprehensive health care right in their neighborhoods; they have free access to technology and computers, including the Internet, again in their neighborhoods; there are now 50,000 cooperatives in existence, most created over the last three years, and the highest number of cooperatives in the world; and people have in Hugo Chavez an African/Native man who is working on placing more power in their hands--a people made up mostly of African, Native and Spanish descent.

I'm not quoting from propaganda pieces--I've seen this with my own eyes.

The majority of the opposition to Chavez and the Reform comes from the richest communities. They are mostly the white Spanish-descended landlords, owners of industries, and financiers who continue to live well in the country. What you see in Venezuela is class struggle. I call things as I see them, and this may surprise many who read this. But history is much at play in Venezuela, which has its own history of how power and wealth got accumulated into the hands of a small grouping of people, and denied from the vast majority.

The US government decries Chavez and calls his government a dictatorship. However, Chavez was freely elected. His government continues to present to the governing assembly and to the people its proposals for their approval. In fact, the Reform is being campaigned for--the election is slated for December 2 and people will have a choice. If they don't want the Reform, they can vote against it. If the majority wins, this will be the law of the land. That's democracy.

In the Opinion section of the LA Times, Saturday, November 24, 2007, William Ratliff, who is supposed to be a learned intellectual, a research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland and at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, claims that the 69 constitutional amendments in the Reform will most likely pass, and that the Venezuelans are fools for doing this.

They are no fools. They are one of the most intelligent, engaged and feisty electorate you'll ever find (I truly don't believe Mr. Ratliff has gone down there to find out). They want change, and for now Chavez represents that change.

Ratliff says, "the vote will be bad not only for Venezuela but for the rest of Latin America." Why? Isn't that what democracy is all about? If there are truly open elections that's good for Latin America where such elections in the past have been fraudulent, violent and un-democratic (especially in countries that the US government has backed). Ratliff also calls this a "populist dictatorship." A contradiction in terms. If the majority of people want it that's their choice. And their right.

Ratliff also misrepresents the Reform. He says the new amendments would allow Hugo Chavez to be "president for life." In fact, it would allow him and any other candidate to run indefinitely, but the people will still have to choose their president. He calls the probable support of the Reform on December 2 "self destructive voting." You mean like the last two presidential elections in which George Bush won. That is definitely self-destructive. In fact, the US democratic process is one of the most cumbership, complicated, money-driven, and wholly undemocratic in the world. Maybe Venezuela can show the world how it's done.

For this Reform is not just an election. It's part of a revolution.

Now, for me, any real revolution is about healing. It has to heal centuries of injustices, including against the indigenous and African peoples, and decades of control of the major industry and resources by a small number of families. It has to heal the exploitation of the poor and the uneducated. It has to open the schools, the factories, the housing, and the land's bounty to ALL the people. This is what the rich opposition is against--they want this control for themselves.

Tomi and Johnny are two of the many people in Venezuela who see the light at the end of the tunnel. In the past, any people who tried to find their own revolutionary path--such as Cuba, Nicaragua or Chile under Salvador Allende--have been targeted, attacked and blockaded by the United States government. The US government ended up overthrowing progressive governments (with no elections) in Guatemala, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and other countries. Is it possibe the US will do the same in Venezuela?

Progressives, revolutionaries, activists, and lovers of justice & peace must organize against any such actions by the US government. But more importantly, we must envision and organize for a world in which real healing, real cultural expression and real dignified work, housing and life can be had by all, including in our own class-burdened society.

That's what is at stake in Venezuela. Let the people decide, the people who will actually be most affected by this process. The US can't even guarantee real democracy and justice within it's own borders, let alone in the world. It can't even tell the truth about what's going on.

Most Americans may be scared, pulled around by inaccurate information, and lied to. But the truth will out--I've seen Venezuela. And there is something truly alive and promising there. I've also seen the poor countries of Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, and Peru. And I'm here to tell you--Venezuela is better off going its own way, away from US capitalist interests and control, away from the rich and greedy in Venezuela who'd love the US to dictate what happens in that country. These rich and greedy don't want full democracy--they want the phony democracy in which money and power rules.

Healing, however, is a deep and long process. Let it go where it has to go. What's the alternative but civil unrest, massacres, death squads, and increased poverty that the US contributed in places like Central America. No more. Venezuela must go its own way.
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The United States--Is Revolution Possible?

For the third time in a year and a half, I've come to Venezuela to take part in important international encounters and festivals: I was part of the World Social Forum in Caracas in the spring of 2006 and the International Poetry Festival in the fall of the same year. Now I'm an invited guest to the 3rd Caracas International Book Festival, slated for November 8 until November 18. Interestingly, I'm part of a several-day forum and dialogue--the central theme of the festival--posing the question: Is Revolution possible in the United States?

Venezuela has been in a revolutionary process for some time, personified in the country's president, Hugo Chavez, who has been duly vilified in the US mass media--in lock step with the US state department. The country is largely behind Mr. Chavez, but there is a strong opposition--even Caracas' five municipalities are split three to two for Chavez. Most of the opposition are made up of the more well-off Venezuelans, many with ties to US corporations. Students protests against Chavez have largely been from the well-off private institutions. They are protesting the election in December to change the Venezuelan constitution called "the Reform." While many Venezuelans I talked to seem to support the Reform and Chavez, there are also legitimate concerns. The opposition, however, is against the Reform in total. Their protests are essentially "No to Reform."

Venezuela, like all of Latin America, is undergoing deep revolutionary changes, something all revolutionaries must welcome in a time when US Empire has sucked the life juices out of most 3rd world economies and has carried out illegal and costly wars--in lives and in dollars--in Iraq and Afghanistan (and many other sovereign states over the past 150 years). The world needs deep and lasting social change--with deep-rooted imagination and encompassing the great capacity of the world's poor to envision and shape their own futures.

Other Americans in the US forums (there have been five distinct panels and discussions) include Ward Churchill, Amiri and Amina Baraka, William Blum, Tufara LaShelle Waller (the Highlander Organization in Tennessee), Antonio Gonzalez (the Southwest Voters Registration Project), Jimmy Massey (the Irag Veterans Against the War), Hector Pesquera (of Puerto Rico), and many others that, unfortunately, I can't name all here. I will say that some of the invited Americans include those currently residing in Venezuela--Charles Hardy, Eva Golinger, Chris Carlson, Dada Maheshvarananda, and others.

The discussions and debates were serious, informative, feisty at times, and important. A few actually said there can never be revolution in the US--it is too dulled by consumerism and privilege. Others claimed revolution is possible, although no one claimed it would be emminent.

My presentation covered the various key aspects that indicate a growing and deepening revolutionary crisis in the US. For example there's the growing gap between the wealthiest Americans and the poorest (today one percent of the population controls a fifth of the country's wealth, which is as bad as it's ever been since the 1920s). In addition there are more than 40 million people living below the poverty line (this is the official numbers; I'm sure it's far worse). There are 45 million people without health care. There are 4 million Americans in jails, prisons, parole or probation (the majority are African Americans or Latinos). And there is a growing credit and housing crisis, with the average American carrying more than $18,000 in debt, which is driving more people, including many whites, into the poverty levels.

In LA alone poverty grew 17 percent between 2002 and 2005; some 500,000 households can't get enough to eat or have limited acccess to nutritious food (Susannah Rosenblatt, LA Times, September 23, 2007).

The present crises, however, are predicated on an important development of world historical significance: the transition from industrial production to electronics/digital production that we've undergone most heatedly within the past 30 year. Globalization is an essential aspect of this development--it's capitalism in the age of electronics.

There is already, then, a revolution in the productive forces of society laying the basis for a political/social revolution. What people need in the US is an orientation of this and the class forces at play, a clarity of the objective realities we face--with a vision of where to go and a strategy of how to get there. That's the job of revolutionaries. Something that is also in the early stages of developing.

Is revolution possible in the US? Yes. Will it happen tomorrow? No. The United States is a large, multi-layered and complicated society. It is also the heart of empire and war in the world. Social revolution is possible, but it will entail serious, long-range and fully engaging efforts on the part of revolutionaries in relation to the maturing objective conditions.

Of course, Latin America will not wait for the US revolution to transpire. Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Mexico and other countries are already in various stages of their own revolutionary developments. There are, of course, key links that must be forged between the revolutionary process in the US and that of Latin America.

The fact is we are already linked. Globalization has brought the continent, and most of the world, that much clsoer. Each country's revolutionaries must do the vital and essential work with the very forms of struggle that history has handed us in the diverse regions of this truly revolutionary continent.

This dialogue, therefore, is far from over. We've only scratched at the surface. I'm honored to be part of this important international debate. I know that what happens in the US is vital for the whole world. An imaginative, democratic, worker-rooted, and visionary process in the US would be necessary if we are to success. It must also include all Americans--all races, all sectors--especially the growing number of Americans most effected by the unfolding systematic crises within capitalism. Still, while the discussions are good the reality of what lies ahead is more complex.

I will report more on my trip and the parameters of this discussion in future blogs, including what I perceive to be the root and essence of these complexities.
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The Peten Jungle--the Cradle of Mayan Civilization

Guatemala's Peten jungle is a thick rainforest with spider and howler monkeys, jaguars, racoon-type mammals, several-inch long spiders & tarantulas, and multi-colored plumed birds bordered by the countries of Mexico and Belize. Before leaving Guatemala after a number of presentations, community & prison visits and media events on the growing issue of gang violence, Fabian Montes & Pascual Torres, both of Homeboy Industries, and I decided to take a plane from Guatemala City to the Flores Airport in the Peten Jungle at the edge of Lake Peten Itza. We needed a few days to relax and to visit some sacred sites.

Our hotel was a clean and well-landscaped place about a half-hour from Flores in the community of El Remate. We could see the lake from our windows and from the dining hall. The day we walked to the lake, a Mayan woman was washing clothes by hand on rocks at the lake's edge; one morning, we saw horses grazing.

A full moon greeted us the first night, a good sign. The next day, we ventured another half hour to the nearby Tikal Mayan Ruins, considered the largest pre-Columbian ruins ever excavated in the continent. It has various temples, buildings, ball courts, ceremonial centers, and more on several acres of land. There are many other temples and structures, often appearing as hills or mounds, that continue to be buried beneath the jungle--perhaps thousands.

Interestingly, Mayan elders and shaman still do ceremonies and prayers at Tikal. A number of contemporary Mayan altars are clearly marked. The place also has tourists from throughout Guatemala and other Central American countries, but also from the US and Europe. Tikal is located in a national park that is well-taken care of. The ruins were discovered in 1848 and were a major spiritual and commercial center for some 1500 years, several hundred years before the Spanish conquest. The people of Mexico's Teotihuacan--called the Toltecs, or "the artists/people of knowledge"--had taken over Tikal for a while, adding to the cultural vitality of the site.

There are 34 distinct buildings and sites in the park. It's like Disneyland in the way the roads are marked with signs telling you where each site is located. We were told a person would need seven hours or so to see everything. We spent about four hours and saw amazing structures, including the world-famous Grand Jaquar Temple, some 147 feet high in the Grand Plaza overlooking an ancient ball court with a smaller but equally impressive temple (Temple II or Temple of the Masks) directly across the large courtyard at 124 feet.

We also visited Temple V that had one side still in the jungle and the other side excavated to show steps and carvings. Most impressive to me was the tallest temple at Tikal, called Temple IV, which went up through the jungle's canopy some 236 feet. Wooden steep steps were built at the side of the temple so people could climb to the very top (at their own risk). I wasn't sure I'd make it, but I saw old people and young kids climbing up and down. I had to try.

It was quite an ordeal, but all three of us took the steps up to the very top of what is considered the tallest pyramid in the world. At the top a woman told me, "don't worry--it's worth it." Once I got my bearings at the end of the wooden stairs, I could finally see what all the fuss was about. The temple stood above the jungle. You could see the amazing foliage over the land, but also various other temples rising above the canopy. It was quite a sight, and definitely worth the trouble (although not if one fell).

It proved to be one of the highlights of my many trips through this fantastic continent. The Mayan people speak varous dialects across parts of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador (there are also other tribal groupings, including Nahuatl-speaking natives, in those areas as well). They are one of several major indigenous peoples, including the Mexikas (Nahuatl-speaking) and Incas, who have created deeply rooted and complicated societies. They were not only masters of the jungle, nature, and relationships, but also knew about the stars, the earth's cycles, architecture, philosophy, mathmatics (they are credited for inventing the concept of "zero"), plant healing, and so much more.

In fact, the Mayan Calendar (of which the Mexika Sun Calendar is related) is considered the world's most accurate. But it also has another quality: it's a spiritual calendar system that appears to outline the birth, development and expansion of consciousness in the world.

Before we left, Fabian, Pascual and I did a prayer of thanks at a building called the Acropolis South. We made many important friends in Guatemala. It's a country suffering through so much poverty and violence--but I also saw much hope, creativity and energy for positive and lasting encompassing change. We hope to come back, each time helping enhance what is already a vital and important place in this vast continent called America.
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Radio Free Los Angeles: KJLH 102.3 FM

I've had an amazing week as guest host of the "Front Page" with Dominique DiPrima on KJLH, 102.3 FM. I'm honored to be invited again (this is my second time as a weeklong guest host this year) on one of LA's most venerable radio stations--based in Inglewood/South Central LA/Compton communities and owned by the incomparable Stevie Wonder.

I thank Dominique DiPrima for being such a gracious person and having me return to one of LA's leading African American talk shows. We had a fantastic array of guests--including ex-prisoner writers Ronald Winston, Donna Ann Smith-Marshall and Nyerere Jase; financial advisor Joseph Meyer of Meyer & Associates; gang intervention specialists Stan Muhammad and George Avalos of Venice 2000 and Julian Mendoza of Amer-I-Can; and Rev. Jesse Jackson (by phone). The callers were engaged, poignant and often challenging. What a great listener base this show has! And I'm talking early in the morning--the show starts at 4:30 AM and goes to around 6 AM.

Dominique says at least 30,000 people are listening at that time--insomniacs, graveyard workers, early risers, you name it. We also had a lively Hot Topic Tuesday in which listeners and the hosts can discuss any and all topics. We dealt with Black/Brown conflicts, Barack Obama, reparations, the housing crisis, schools, police abuse, gangs, economic empowerment, and more.

And today, Day of the Dead 2007, Dominique and I discussed the value of honoring and respecting our ancestors, those who have passed on and can still be accessed to provide protection, guidance and connection. While Western Culture tends to belittle or make this subject one with dread and fear (Halloween, ghosts, goblins, etc.), most indigenous cultures from Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Mideast, or Europe understand this concept and use the remembrance of those who have passed on for positive long-term and short-term assistance.

Please support KJLH and shows like "Front Page." Go to www.kjlhradio.com for more information.
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"Social Cleansing" -- a Path to Gang Violence?

One of the "solutions" we often heard in Guatemala to the growing gang violence there was "social cleansing." Repeated by officials and common people alike, this literally means what it says: the active and violent removal of alleged gang members, including by murder. In their view, courts and jails are not quick or harsh enough for them. In fact, this has also been true in El Salvador and Honduras. Cases include the vigilante murders of street kids as young as seven years old. Most of the cases, however, involved tattooed teenagers.

In Central America, tattoos for many people represent gang involvement. Of course, those of us in LA know better. When I was involved in gangs in the 1960s and 1970s tattoos were mostly gang affiliated--primarily the Chicano gangs of the time. Not even African American gangs sported tattoos like the Chicanos did, which they had been doing since the Pachuco/Zootsuit days of the 1920s to the 1940s. Chicanos perfected the "fine line" jail-house tattoos that were soon sported by Anglo bikers, prisoners, and even military personnel. In the 1980s and 1990s, Hip Hop artists and sports figures, mostly African American, popularized this style in music videos and movies (as they did other Chicano artistic expressions like lowriding). Well known Chicano street artists like Mr. Cartoon became famous placing ink on people like 50 Cent, Eminem, Cypress Hill, and others.

Now tattoos are used by actors, singers, rich people, jet setters, and coffee house afficionados. It's not a big thing. Meanwhile, Chicanos and other Latinos, including the Central Americans who came to LA in the 1980s escaping war and poverty, continued the extensive use of tattoos. Gang members in LA (and most of the Southwest) are known for tattooing every part of their body -- something that also now includes African Americans, Cambodians, Armenians, Anglos, and others.

"Smile Now, Cry Later," crosses, chains, spider webs, cholas, area codes (like 213 or 818), gang affiliations, placasos (gang nicknames), Aztec and Mayan motifs, song titles, the Virgin of Guadelupe, LA (Dodger style), and such all became popular among gang youth. Anything and everything.

So when the US deported tens of thousands of alleged gang members to Mexico and Central America beginning in 1992 (after the LA Rebellion) and then going strong in 1996 after the changes in immigration law emphasized the deportation of felons and gang members, tattooed youth flooded these countries that for the most part did not sport tattoos for fashion or otherwise.

In El Salvador and Guatemala, the two countries in Central America I've visited since the early 1990s when LA-based gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and Eighteen Street (called Mara 18 in El Salvador) were first introduced, I saw heavily tattooed youth (including on their faces, necks, heads, hands, arms, backs, stomachs, and elsewhere) in prisons and in the streets.

You can imagine the impact they've had on countries not familiar with this kind of style or substance. But also the impact it would have on the tens of thousands of homeless, abandoned and glue-sniffing kids (most of them orphaned by war and poverty). In time, many of these joined MS or 18 Street (many home-grown gangs have also been absorbed by these two gangs).

Today death squads and other vigilantes, as well as police, have unfairly targeted tattooed and US-raised or influenced kids as gang members. Many youth have showed up in hospitals beaten and tortured. Others are brought into morgues with their hands tied behind their backs. And still many more are warehoused in the overflowing prisons--some of the most stark, inhumane and overcrowded places you'd ever want to see.

For example, in 1993, I visited two prisons in El Salvador that housed many gang youth: Mariona (the main prison in San Salvador) and San Vicente de Gotera (interviewing gang youth and officials). And I did the same thing this past week with Fabian Montes and Pascual Torres of Homeboy Industries. We entered two Guatemalan prisons: Centro Preventivo Para Hombres, Zona 18, Sector 11 (a maximum security men's prison with over 1,000 inmates) and Centro Preventivo Para Mujeres, Zona 18, Santa Teresa (a maximum security women's prison with 160 inmates).

In Guatemala there are 19 prisons housing more than 7,000 prisoners. MS and 18 Street are housed in separate facilities. While most of the prisoners in the two places we visited were not in gangs, they did have a cell block solely dedicated to alleged gang members. We were able to go into this cell block, past the locked bars, and hang for a couple of hours with the inmates there.

The gang members were leery of us at first, but as we talked (and I showed them copies of my books in Spanish), they opened up. Fabian, Pascual and I told them about our concerns to bring a new vision and imagination to working with gang youth in Guatemala--including more resources, jobs (getting companies to hire gang members), training, education, and other meaningful & effective means to incorporate these young people, tattooed or not, into the country. Incipient efforts of rehabilitation was being done there--including painting (inmates were working on murals as we talked), religious studies, and silk screen.

In the women's prison, we went through several barred gates to the deepest sections where the most violent and alleged gang women were being held. We saw women learning theater, dance, and religion (Christian). Others were making bags (from plastic-like thread), amazingly beautiful candles, and household cleaning solutions that had odors of fruit, flowers, and even bubblegum.

We spent all day in the two prisons, including talking to the rehabilitation counselors and arts volunteers.

In the end we were able to meet and talk to intelligent, artistic and articulate young people (including with tattoos all over their faces).

Our message to the country--to say no to "social cleansing" and instead focus on social healing. To help bring real jobs, training, understanding and a human face to the issue of gangs in Guatemala. We left the mud-strewn colonias and open-air jail blocks (as well as the community centers, universities, and other places we talked at) with much clarity on the extremely difficult situation that places like Guatemala are facing today. But we also left with the need to help provide whatever experiences we've gained working with gang youth (which I have been doing for 30 years, and Homeboy Industries has done for 20 years).

ALSO--for those who are up and about, I'm on the air this whole week from 4:20 AM until 6 AM on LA's KJLH Radio, 102.3 FM. I'll be guest hosting again (it's truly an honor to be invited back) with "Front Page" host Dominique DiPrima. Please tune in if you can.
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Guatemala--the Time is Now

Guatemala is a country about the size of Tennessee in Central America, surrounded by Belize, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico -- with coasts in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Its name is Mayan -- Coactemalan -- and means "Land of Forests." An estimated 13 million people live in Guatemala. More than half are so-called mestizos (often called "Ladino," mixed indigenous & Spanish or "hispanicized" indigenous). The rest are relatively traditional Mayan tribal groups speaking in more than 20 different languages and dialects. There is also an important Garifuno group on the east coast, descendents of African slaves who were shipwrecked here during the Spanish colonial period.

An amazingly beautiful country, Guatemala has 18 of the world's ecosystems, the largest cloud forest in the world, and 37 volcanoes. It also has a violent and turbulent history. Most recently the country ended 36 years of civil war with peace accords in 1996 after more than 100,000 people were killed (mostly poor and indigenous people) and a million people were forced to leave.

Like the refugees of poverty and war in El Salvador -- and poverty and political upheaval in Mexico and Honduras -- during the 1980s, Guatemalans arrived to the United States in large numbers, landing in barrios of Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, and even in states like Delaware and North Carolina. I know because I've spoken in those areas and found many Guatemalans among new migrants from Mexico, Central America and other Latin American countries (once hearing Quiche Mayan being spoken in a laundromat in a rural part of Delaware).

Unfortunately, in the past 15 years Guatemala has been beset by a terrible increase in violent crime, gangs and drug wars. Presently Central America, including Guatemala, is reportedly a major transportation point for the huge drug cartels of Mexico and Colombia to US drug markets (which continues to be the largest in the world).

The United States, while always a major drug market, became known as the multi-billion dollar drug market it is today during the 1980s (ironically, soon after President Reagan initiated his so-called War on Drugs, which continues failing despite a constant influx of tax dollars). This happened at the same time that most industrial centers of the US lost massive steel, auto, stockyards, and aerospace industries.

The de-industrialization of US inner cities and the vast increase in the drug trade coincided to help create the most violent period in US history. Traditional street gangs--some, like in LA's Chicano communities, have been around since the 1920s--and new crews popped up as the most cohesive organized means to deal drugs (in some cases, becoming the main economic life) in their communities. In LA alone from 1980 to 2000, some 10,000 young people were believed killed in gang and drug violence. In fact, the largest manufacturing cities of the US--LA and Chicago--also had the greatest levels of gang violence.

Mexicans, Central Americans, Dominicans and other immigrants (including in smaller numbers from Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Mideast) became integral to the rise of violence--although the media continually made this out to be a largely African American "problem." The fact of the matter is poor Latinos (including many immigrants) and poor whites also took part.

By the end of the 20th century, law enforcement agencies claimed there were 800,000 gang members in the country, most of them in Chicago and LA, and growing by leaps and bounds. In reality, the majority of poor communities, although racked by drugs and crime, were not involved in the drug trade. Many tried to survive by working whatever menial means existed (or creating their own micro-businesses to clean homes, sell food or CDs, and similar endeavors).

Also, by the late 1990s, crime began to come down (actually up and down, but mostly down in comparision to the growth in population). Yet, the media perception persisted in promoting the idea that crime and gangs "ruled" the mostly black and brown urban centers.

Because of this, the US government initiated some of the most draconian laws against gangs and youth, leading to the greatest growth in a prison population in the history of the world. Presently, the US incarcerates more people than any other country. And poor Latinos and African Americans are disproportionately represented in these institutions. California, for example, in the early 1970s had a prison population of 15,000 in nine prisons. Today there are around 175,000 prisoners in 33 prisons, 80 percent of which are prisoners of color.

In addition, Latino immigrants in the past ten years have been deported in vast numbers, including those allegedly in gangs and those convicted of crimes. Immigration prisons now dot much of the US Southwest. Some 700,000 so-called criminals have been deported, mostly to Mexico and Central America (but also Cambodia, Armenia, Dominican Republic, and other countries). This has completely altered the cultural and social life of countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that do not have the resources, capacity or, in many cases, the political will to adequately integrate such an influx of mostly US-raised (and for many, US prison-raised) deportees.

This leads me to my trip to Guatemala. Although there were street gangs in the country before 1996 (mostly called maras in Central America), the influx of US-based (mostly from Los Angeles) gangs like Eighteen Street and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) has become the most talked about concern of the people. Violence attributed to these gangs in Guatemala, like most of Central America, is quite horrific: grenade attacks, machete murders, devastating prison riots. But so has been the response. Presently, vigilante groups and death squads are hunting down and killing the highly tattooed and conspicuous-looking US-based gang members. Police have beaten, arrested, and even killed many so-called gang youth. Even ex-gang members are in danger.

I came to Guatemala as part of an independently organized effort by Homeboy Industries of Los Angeles (one of the leading gang prevention/intervention programs in the US). I was invited by Homeboys' staff members Fabian Montes and Pascual Torres, who have already visited Guatemala and other Central American cities. We came mostly to connect across borders and barriers to help provide a new vision and sense of hope in working with gangs and maras. We did not come to give the people here "the" solutions. In fact, the people of Guatemala are quite capable of providing their own solutions.

In our travels so far, we talked with and heard from various "Centros de Alcance" in extremely poor colonias in Guatemala City -- many of them in tin-roofed shacks along mud roads and sewer creeks. We found former gang members, including many US-raised youth, trying to change their lives in a "reality" show called Desafia Cien (Challenge 100). We visited a plastics factory owned by a far-sighted businessman that includes a non-profit Asociacion Manos Que Te Ayuden (Hands That Help Assocation), which hires former gang members and provides services to them when no one else will.

We spoke on TV and in various print media, including on two radio stations, about what Homeboy Industries does, but also about the need to see the humanity of these youth; what poverty, war and trauma can do to people; and how we should all cooperate to help them heal, find skills and work; and in the long run help them tap into their own innate purposes and gifts so they can contribute positively to their communities and country.

We also spoke to university students and participated in a memorial for a former gang member named Daniel "Panadero" Ochoa who was recently killed in a marketplace, although he was married and worked in his own micro-business.

In Guatemala, like many Central American countries, there are many people accepting "social cleansing" (in effect, the killing of homeless, troubled and gang youth). Many of these are Christians and decent people. The fears and confusions they face are often exploited by political forces.

We hope to reach out to them as well, to help provide a new vision and imagination to integrate and train the displaced youth--many of whom can be the new leaders, business people, fathers, mothers, and teachers in a country in need of these resources.

Guatemalans have so far been receptive, even in their disagreements. This is good--to spread the dialogue and provide a space for such concepts to be aired and related. We will visit a prison today and hope to go to other parts of the country tomorrow and on the weekend.

Meanwhile, we are here with many good prayers, thoughts and enormous respect of Guatemala and its people. The time is now for real change, balance, healing, and peace.
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Off to Guatemala to continue my talks, readings and workshops

Well, I'm on my way to Guatemala in a few hours. I'll be catching a "red-eye" that takes off from LAX at 1 AM. I'm going with Fabian Montes and Pascual Torres, two young men I helped mentor over the years and who are now leading staff members for Homeboy Industries, one of LA's pioneering gang intervention organizations (besides many direct services of jobs, counseling, arts, tattoo removal, treatment, and more they have Homeboy Industries that includes a bakery, T-shirt production, and Homegirl Cafe, among other components).

We'll be in Guatemala until October 28--doing presentations, meeting with community organizers, government officials, non-governmental agencies, and gang youth. Guatemala is one of the three Central American countries most hit with gang violence over the past 15 years. Most of this is due to the mass deportation of LA-based gang members in Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18. The deportations began in earnest after the LA Rebellion of 1992. Then in 1996, a new immigration law opened the flood gates of deporting undocumented immigrants with US-based criminal records, including many gang youth--some 700,000 were deported from the US since then.

Most of these were sent to Mexico, where many gangs amassed at the border, often returning. Presently, Mexico has many LA-based Sur Trece and 18th Street gang members, among others, in various poor barrios and urban centers. Tens of thousands also ended up in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, recruiting the thousands of homeless, abandoned and glue-sniffing children in those countries who were victims of civil war and poverty. Now there are an estimated 150,000 gang members--mostly MS-13 and M-18--in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

This past week, I was able to visit Bakersfield College in the Kern County city of Bakersfield, an hour and a half up the road from LA. I spoke to students (who packed the Fireside Room) as well as counselors, librarians and community activists in another gathering. Then in the evening some 400 people showed up to a public event at the Bakersfield College auditorium where we talked about poetry, writing, gangs, rehabilitation, social justice, and personal and social change. There were amazing questions and comments in all the groups. People seemed hungry to interract and dialogue--but also to share and learn.

Last Monday, I was part of the "Skin Festival" in the city of Pasadena, CA that included speakers, performances, discussions and more. I spoke at the Pasadena City College's Forum to some 70 people. Again, we had a lively discussion and Q&A. I talked about the various "skins" that people put on just to survive in this culture--just to be seen or unseen, as the case may be.

The week before, I did a keynote speech and book signing at the Washington Library Media Association Annual Conference (mostly school librarians) in Yakima, WA. This was well received--being that librarians are some of my favorite people of all time. I went there after spending some time in San Luis Obispo on California's Central Coast, a wonderful serene and green space of earth (the weather was wonderful). There I did a breakfast talk as part of Cal Poly's Provocative Speakers series and then another talk to students and community. Again, the audiences were very kind, informed and engaged.

And the week before that, I did another event for the Puente Project in East LA College (a kind of alma mater for me), my second time this year. I spoke to 300 students, teachers, high school students, and others. I read mostly from my poetry book, "My Nature is Hunger," and discussed the struggle to become a person of language & poetry in this largely practicality-minded, business-oriented and unpoetic culture.

Speaking of East LA, my wife Trini and I attended East LA's Garfield High School benefit event on October 14 to help raise funds to re-build their historic auditorium that burned down this past spring in a suspicious arson fire. Some 7,000 people piled into the Gibson Amphitheater at Universal City in Hollywood to hear Old School Chicano bands like El Chicano, Tierra, War, Lil' Joe and La Familia, Los Lobos (with Lil' Willie G and members of the classic Thee Midniters band playing some of their hits). Starting off was Garfield's own Upground band that has been knocking people off their feet with their mix of Chicano ska/soul and barrio boogie.

Needless to say, I went through memory lane listening to these bands. War in particular--one of my favorites--I recall in the early 1970s when they did amazing (and raunchy, at least from some members of the audience) sets downtown and other venues. I also saw them live at the Bumpershoot Festival in Seattle a few years back when Lee Oskar was still their harmonica player. And in Japan, I read poetry with Tex Nakamura playing "jarana" and harmonica--he was one of War's best harmonica players--last November.

I also saw Los Lobos play at Seattle those many years ago. In fact, I've seen them play live many times, including at Lincoln Park in East LA and several gigs in Chicago where I used to go backstage to visit with my East LA "carnales" (brothers) during the years I lived there.

It was also amazing to hear Lil' Joe, one of the best Chicano singers from Texas from the 1960s (the other was Sunny Ozuna of Sunny & the Sunliners and "Smile Now, Cry Later" fame).

But I was particularly partial to hearing a few of the old Thee Midniters hits. In the 1960s and 1970s, Thee Midniters were East LA's most popular band. They had hits like "Whittier Boulevard," "Love Special Delivery," "Chicano Power," along with the ballads that made their singer, Lil' Willie G, famous: "Sad Girl," "That's All," and "Are You Angry?," among others.

For us die-hard Chicanos from those days that benefit event for Garfield High was a shot in the arm. I was also Mecha Central organizer of East LA high schools in the early 1970s, linking me to all those schools, including meeting my first wife at Garfield. I've since spoken many times to all the East LA high schools--Garfield, Roosevelt, Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin--and many in the surrounding area (Montebello, Shurr, Century, Vail, Alhambra, among others).

So I had a great time.

If you all can, please get a copy of Bello Magazine, the October issue, which has an article by me on the Japan-Chicano connection through the music producer and promoter Shin Miyata, with side stories on Hector Gonzalez of Rampart Records and the East LA band Quetzal (most of this was based on my trip to Japan last November to see upfront the growing Lowrider/Chicano culture & music scene there). For more information go to www.bellomagazine.com.

And an amazing photo book just came out called "Mugshots: A Celebration of the Journey from Ruin to Redemption," written by Jason Porath, with photos by Jonas Mohr (Real Deal Media). It has the stories and quotes from various former drug addicts/alcoholics/prisoners--including yours truly--who have now turned their lives around and are involved in music, movies, literature, Hip Hop, dance, and more. Included are the stories of Coolio, Danny Trejo, Edward Bunker, Mr. Cartoon, Eric Roberts, Kim Minter, and others.

You can order by going to www.mugshotsthebook.com or calling 1-888-443-1442.

I'll keep you all posted on my travels through Guatemala. Meantime, stay strong, passionate and awake. A new world is possible, but first you have to dream.
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