Healing Work and Public Art with Gangs and in Prisons

I returned to Chicago last week to do a workshop and a keynote speech at the "Stronger Roots, Stronger Branches" conference (September 27-28) of violence prevention/intervention professionals at the Wyndham O'Hare Hotel in Rosemont, Illinois. Leading practitioners involved with troubled youth, gang peace, and prevention/intervention programs from all over the state took part. Friends of mine from Chicago--including Freddy Calixto of BUILD, Myrna Torres of Gad's Hill, and Frank and Lou Blazquez of Youth Struggling for Survival, among others--attended and also helped shape the conference. I also saw my old friend, Steven Guerra, who was once director of Illinois's Prevention First and Jane Addams Hull House (among other jobs); he's now Deputy Chief of Staff for Social Services in the office of Illinois Governor Rod R. Blagojevich.

The conference addressed the holistic, comprehensive, and spiritual-based practices that must now be addressed in truly stopping gang and other violence in our mostly poor and working class urban core and rural communities. Workshops included indigenous practices, mentoring, and restorative justice. I feel that the work I helped shaped many years ago when I lived in Chicago, including helping found Youth Struggling for Survival and the Increase the Peace Collaborative, is now reaching new heights and audiences. Some of what was said at the conference would have been unheard of a few years ago--it's clear to me that the time has come for a new paradigm, new visions, and new root-based strategies in helping curb violence in our economically and socially neglected communities.

The power is in our hands--this is the same message we must give to young people, regardless of their mistakes, crimes and traumas. We must stop the enshrining of the worse aspects in our communities, with prisons but also deficit-based programming, and replace them with projects, programs and organizations that draw on the very gifts, talents, intelligences, and capacities that young people and the rest of the community already possess.

The Friday night of the last day of the conference, a sweat lodge ceremony (Inipi in the Lakota language) was held in Dekalb, IL, about an hour's drive from Chicago, at the home of Frank Tekpalzin Blazquez and his wife Lou Xochimeh Blazquez. Led by Lakota teacher/elder Ed Young Man Afraid of His Horses, from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, several members of YSS, other organizations, and conference participants took part--a few for the first time. It was an amazing ceremony. Ed surprised everyone, including Frank, by offering a brother-adoption ceremony. Frank is now a spiritual brother to Ed. The sweat lodge, as most people who read my blog know, is also used in the Northeast San Fernnado Valley with gang youth, people on recovery, and battered women. My wife Trini, myself, and our brother-in-law Hector Herrera pour water for this lodge, which has become well known throughout the LA area, but also among Native peoples in the US, Mexico and Central America (where the sweat lodge is known as temescal).

On Saturday, September 29, I also spoke at Northern Illinois University's Latino Resource Center to an engaged group of young people, parents, professors, and others about gangs, mentoring, street peace, and relationships. Frank, Lou and Ed also showed up, which helped some of the audience members link up with YSS and the sweat lodge. One of the youth mentors that helped pull this dinner and talk together is a YSS member.

On Sunday, I visited with my 12-year-old grand-daughter, Amanda May Rodriguez, who lives in Sterling, IL, a couple of hours outside of Chicago. She's grown into a smart and beautiful young lady. It was great to see her--I had not seen her in a couple of years; my hope is that we can do this every time I come into the area. I went with my former wife Camila and her husband, Alvin. We have grown together as friends and always try to unite our energies for the benefit of my two grown children (Ramiro and Andrea, who are 32 and 30 respectively) and our four grand-children.

That evening, I had dinner with my friend James Lilly, his wife Nora, and their two young sons. James is a former Chicago gang member who was shot and paralyzed when he was 15 years old. He's now in his mid-30s and is known as one of the leading wheelchair racers in the world. He participants in marathons and other races all over the country--and has taken part and even won the grueling Alaska wheelchair race that covers more than 240 miles.

Film maker Izumi Tanaka of Los Angeles has made an amazing film of Jame's life called "Pushin' Forward" that I recommend for anyone needing an inspiring story to share with troubled youth, including gang members. James has overcome extremely difficult odds to become an athlete, a popular speaker to kids in schools, and a wonderful father.

To get a copy of this film, please go to:
http://www.fanlight.com/catalog/films/463_pf.php

On Monday, I traveled to Pontiac, Illinois to again visit with my son Ramiro, who's incarcerated there. He is doing very well--trying to stay out of trouble, working (he's a janitor in the prison's psych ward), and preparing for a parole release in three-and-a-half more years (he's already done ten-and-a-half years of his 28-year prison sentence; he can get out in half the time with good time).

He's also doing a mechanic's correspondence course and trying to stay in touch with his children. That evening, I had a nice dinner and visit with another grand-daughter, Anastasia Horkay, who lives in Morton Grove, IL--she's one of two teenage grand-children I have, if you can imagine that.

I also hooked up with my friend Zorayda Ortiz, a rugby player and revolutionary activist in Chicago's Pilsen barrio. Tuesday morning, I spoke at Telpochcalli School, a specialized school in the Little Village neighborhood (the largest Mexican community in the Midwest). I spoke to eight graders who had intelligent questions and comments.

I left for Philadelphia on Tuesday, October 2 to attend the Arts in Criminal Justice National Conference sponsored by the city's uniquely potent Mural Arts Program, led by Jane Golden and a wonderful staff of organizers and artists.

I took part in a panel with an old friend, Judith Tannenbaum, who has been doing arts/writing workhshops in various institutions, including San Quentin's Death Row. I was also the keynote speaker for dinner on Wednesday night, where I received a wonderful response from the audience. It was great to see a number of old friends in the arts in prisons movement from the Bay Area, San Diego, Hartford, CT, Chicago, and other areas (I've done workshops and talks in prisons and juvenile facilities for more than 25 years). I also met other fantastic teachers and activists in this field, which is growing.

The next day, we were all invited to Graterford Maximum Security Prison more than an hour away. I met a number of prisoners and community people who took part in the Healing Walls project that brought victims of crime and offenders together in dialogue and in art. A documentary about this process called Healing Walls is also currently in production--we saw a version of it at the conference. This is another film that people should look out for and get. It's quite inspirational. At the prison a panel with prisoners and community members was held, and another talk with Restorative Justice pioneer and advocate Howard Zehr was held in the gym (along with lunch). I was given respectable recognition by the organizers and the prisoners during my visit there--a TV crew even came in and interviewed me and others during our visit. A number of the prisoners had read my book and came up to talk.

I returned back to LA a little jet-lagged, but also energized by the great visits I had in Chicago and Philadelphia.
Read more

A Busy Season for Talks, Dialogues, and Community Engagement

My fall schedule of events began last week--this season being one of my busiest. I spoke at San Francisco State University and at Cal State, Dominguez Hills over the past few days. Next week I'm in Chicago and Philadelphia.

But before I address these events, I want to relate about the Community Engagement Advisory Committee's report to the LA City's Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence and Youth Development that was made on September 13. Headed by City Councilman Tony Cardenas (my wife Trini's youngest brother), the Ad Hoc committee has been supporting the Community Engagement Advisory Committee's work to create a truly viable and comprehensive street peace plan and gang intervention model. I believe we have it--at least one of the best I've ever seen.

Several members of the Community Engagement Advisory Committee, including yours truly, spoke on the various aspects of a new gang intervention model and levels of gang intervention work we came up with. The most powerful words came from young people, Black and Brown, in South Central LA working with the Youth Justice Coalition. I will say that the councilpersons present--including Cardenas and Janice Hahn--were open and receptive to our words and report.

I've been part of this committee since April after LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unveiled his "Gang Reduction Strategy." While we all welcomed this development, we also felt his plan needed a lot of work. Councilman Cardenas charged the Community Engagement Advisory Committee--made up of gang intervention specialists, academics, community leaders, and others--to re-examine what the city can do to create real urban peace and help bring meaningful gang intervention work center stage to any violence reduction plan (based on the vital report of the Advancement Project that called for a concerted and adequately-supported prevention/intervention approach to the violence instead of what LA is known for--police-led suppression and more suppresion).

We wanted to make sure this plan and model were not only effective, meaningful and long-standing, but also imaginative, visionary, clear, and filled with hope. I'll post the new plans on my website soon for anyone to access. I'm honored to have worked with the various persons and organizations--including activists from the Mexican/Central American, African American, Asian, and White communities--who took part. Most important was the Black and Brown unity (the vast majority of gangs and gang violence are in the Latino and African American communities) that was temporarily created precisely by working on the common issues, traumas and inequities that connect both communties in a way that is healing, regenerative and respectful to all.

For example, South Central LA by itself has the same homicide rate as that of the world's most dangerous countries in Africa and Central America. The murder rate of Latino males in LA is even higher, although the murder rate of African American males is twice that of Latino males. We are in deep trouble here unless we come up with a truly empowering, inclusive and resource-laden response. It appears suppression led or dominated gang violence reduction plans have only made this situation worse.

Since our reporting meeting to the Ad Hoc committee on Gang Violence and Youth Development (we will continue our work--it's not finished yet), I'm talking about this work and model wherever I can. On September 19, I traveled to the Bay Area to address the Safe Communities Reentry Council's 2nd Annual Reentry Summit ("Working Together to Support San Franciscans After Incarceration") at San Francisco State University. Hosted by San Francisco County Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and including remarks by SF County Supervisor Ross MirKarimi and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, I was able to bring up the essence of our work to great applause and support. The main thing is that here in California we all have to do more to stop the largest prison system in the nation (currently holding 176,000 prisoners) from growing even larger, and the ongoing gang violence claiming many of our best and brightest.

Rehabilitation in prisons and juvenile facilities must be a reality for all institutions (although there are some good programs and people involved in prisons and juvenile facilties that are making a positive difference--I know a number of them--much of so-called rehabilitation is lip service or non-existent). And we need viable and ongoing re-entry programs for those coming out of these institutions. We must not throw away or abandon our young men and women who have made mistakes and had to be incarcerated. They will either come out as changed, wise, and positive contributors to our communities, or (as we see today) hardened criminals and offenders trained in prisons to be better at crime and violence than before they came in (without real rehabilitation and re-entry programs, we're paying for this out of tax payers' dollars).

I also had a wonderful poetry reading on September 20 at California State University, Dominguez Hills (in the southern LA area). The place was packed--who knows how many showed up but it looked to be from 300 to 500 people. Poetry is a harder thing to win people over to, considering that there are few poetry events in universities these days. But everyone there was attentive and totally into the reading. I even sold all my books and most of the CDs I had brought with me.

Expanding our ideas of what is truly responsible (and responsive) urban peace is vitally crucial today. As I've said, I'm helping spread the word about our work in LA as widely as I can--as an evangelist for peace, social justice, and truly liberating policies and programming (and in the long-run, for a cooperative, all-encompassing and truly healing and revolutionary social compact).
Read more

Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War: August 29, 1970

It will be thirty seven years August 29 after the Chicano Moratorium against the Viet Nam War was first held in East Los Angeles -- at the time the largest anti-war demonstration in a community of color in the country. Some 30,000 people came from all over Los Angeles, the Southwest, and other parts of the country to proclaim, "Ya Basta"--that's enough. It also became the scene of one of the worse police abuse cases in the country when LA County sheriff's deputies attacked the mostly peaceful crowd at Laguna Park, enacting hundreds of arrests, causing hundreds of injuries, and resulting in at least three dead. One of those killed was Chicano reporter Ruben Salazar -- the only national media voice Chicanos had at the time.

This was as significant as the murders of anti-war protestors by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio and Jackson State University in South Carolina earlier that year of 1970.

I was sixteen years old at the time. I was a gang member, a heroin (and other drugs) user, and quite lost. Still I took part in the march and protest. This demonstration awakened me to the vital struggle for justice, peace, and the possibilities of a new society, something I had only glimpsed at but never really understood. I didn't expect to be taken in by this--I had only come to party. Soon I got swept up in the chants, the songs, the ardor for revolutionary change.

I was also one of the cholos arrested early on in the so-called riot that ensued. Hundreds were arrested, but the cholos (at the time, cholo meant Chicano gang member) were separated from the others, held in different facilities, and held for much longer than other protestors. Eventually I was placed into two adult jails (even though I was a juvenile), including the murderer's row of the old Hall of Justice jail in downtown LA. I had a cell next to Charles Manson. The reason: we were threatened with possible charges in the murders of those who died in the rioting. Of course, they really couldn't charge us for this. But the punishment was what they were after. I was placed in a cell with two murderers -- one of whom put a razor blade to my neck. But I stood up to them, as I had learned to do from my many years in the streets (since the age of seven I had been stealing, and since 11, I had been in a gang), and I survived. I was even involved in a lightweight cellblock disturbance when we heard that Ruben Salazar had been killed.

I was eventually released -- but I was never the same after this. It took me another two to three years, but I eventually left the gang, the drugs, and the jails to dedicate myself to revolutionary study, organizing, and action. In a few more years, I committed myself to becoming a writer. I've learned a lot since then, but the initial spark of my own purposeful life had been during the Chicano Moratorium.

This year, more than 35 years later, we are still at war. This year we must protest the US role in Iraq and Afghanistan -- we are not winning anything over there, but we are losing many of our men and women (and many more civilians).

Tomorrow we must protest these wars. We have not stopped terrorism -- in fact, terrorism around the world has increased since we first invaded Iraq. We cannot win a war against terror with more terror. That's a lesson we seem to have not learned in more than thirty years. There are many ways to protest -- the Internet is one of those places. If the streets still call you then join with others as much as you can against these wars that only really benefit the rich and powerful among us (it's the working class poor, of all colors, who are dying in Iraq).

Use poetry, song, dance, film, and story. But do something. In concert with others. With millions. With dignity. With creativity. And with all the moral authority we can muster. No more dead for Bush/Cheney or the ruling class of thieves they represent. Ya Basta!
Read more

Francisco Chavez -- R.I.P.

Francisco Chavez was a fighter for justice, for indigenous cultures and traditions, and a youth advocate who mentored and assisted many troubled youth in Los Angeles and Chicago, among other areas. A Chicano of Yaqui indigenous descent, his life had taken many complicated turns, including fighting in the civil war of Nicaragua as one of the many Chicanos who fought with Sandinistas there. For years afterwards, he brought medicines, foods, clothing, and other necessities to assist the many homeless and poor people of that country. On Tuesday, August 14, Francisco passed on to the ancestors after more than a decade of pain from liver damage due to Hepatitis C. He was 55 years old.

Francisco was also a friend of mine. We worked side by side in Chicago when I did active work among gang and nongang youth in the barrios of Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Little Village, Uptown, and other communities in the 1990s. We began the Increase the Peace Network with other gang intervention and urban peace agencies including BUILD, the YMCA Street Intervention Project, Alternatives/Youth Net, Mothers Against Gang Violence, the Community Renewal Society, among others. Francisco became director of Latino Youth, an alternative high school in the Little Village neighborhood, and hooked us up with the street peace efforts of Barrios Unidos, based in Santa Cruz, CA. He helped bring the sweat lodge and other indigenous ceremonies to our work that brought to bear a badly needed spiritual component to this important life-transforming work.

I will also remember Francisco for being there when my oldest son Ramiro was incarcerated in 1997 on three counts of attempted murder. Almost every Thursday for a year and a half, Francisco visited my son, helping him with the ordeal of the charges and his detention in an electronically-advanced maximum security facility of the Cook County Jail. Francisco was there for many of my son's court cases. And when Ramiro was finally convicted to 28 years, Francisco stood by with him and his many friends and family.

Francisco--who grew up in the Primera Flats neighborhood of Boyle Heights in LA's Eastside--returned to LA and became director of Impacto Youth Services. He hired many former gang members and youth leaders to help young men and women turn their lives around. Along with my friend Louie Ruan, he helped bring the first Indigenous Youth Conference to Boyle Heights with native peoples from East LA (Chicanos and others), the Navajo and Lakota reservations, and from Canada's indigenous reserves.

However, his health worsened with problems related to his liver (including complications from a transplant).

I will always respect Francisco for his commitment to the struggle for peace and justice and how he stood by my son during the hour of his greatest need. A special memorial will be held this Saturday, August 25 at 5 PM at the Sacred Circle Center, 7648 Greenleaf Avenue, Whittier, CA 90602.

Que descanses en paz, carnal.
Read more

A Victory for Community Arts at the Ford Amphitheatre

The day started out badly--we had two flat tires on the mini-van that carried our books and other boxes for Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural's benefit event at the 1,200-seat Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood. There was also a major accident on the 101 freeway just where the Ford Theatres are located that caused a back up for around 12 hours (the accident involved the death of an off-duty police officer and a 13-car pileup). Still, last Sunday, July 29, we managed to pull off an amazing fundraiser. Everything eventually fell into place and, despite the traffic issues, we had what looked like an almost full house. All the acts came through like champs and then some (we had two encores for the bands Upground and Tierra, both of whom had people rocking in their seats or dancing in the aisles).

Our host was the incomparable Ernie G., one of LA's rising young Latino comedians. He was right on, and for his 15-minute monologue he had everyone in stitches. We also featured Tia Chucha's own Aztec Danza group, Temachtia Quetzacoatl, which opened the event. We had the agit-prop comedy theater of the world famous Culture Clash (they were fantastic). We also had the conscious indigenous Hip Hop of Xela, formerly of Chihuatl Tonalli (Woman's Energy), and El Vuh ("The Book" in Mayan). And besides the amazing Chicano Ska sounds of Upground and the Old School Chicano R&B sounds of Tierra, we had Ollin perform an exciting and innovative set combining Mexican, Irish, German, Japanese, African, and who-knows-what-else music that wowed everyone. I also read a poem after Trini and I greeted the audience. And we had a special performance from Tia Chucha's long-time friend John Densmore (of the Doors), who did poetry with another drummer that truly brought home the meaning of Art and Culture as the path to peace, unity, and deep understanding.

It was a victorious evening for community-based and neighborhood-rooted cultural spaces and independent bookstores. Lately in Los Angeles--but also around the country--we have lost many formerly venerable bookstores and cultural venues to big development, gentrification and high rents. In February, Tia Chucha's was forced to move from the space we had for five years after the landlords practically tripled our rent to make room for a multi-million laundromat. But we decided not to give up--we are now in a temporary location in Lake View Terrace (sponsoring music workshops, Aztec Dance, Mexikayotl indigenous thought, Open Mics, author readings, and more). And we are working diligently to find and establsh an even bigger, better and permanent Tia Chucha's.

The community deserves better. It deserves more. We want to be an example of fighting for the imagination, cultural expression, and truly liberating holistic literacy. We can't just settle for "survival" skills (or barely surviving). We need to truly impact our communities with the fullness of intelligence, creativity, imagination, and skills that is possible when all community members are treated as full and complete human beings.

We want to thank all our supporters, friends, and family who showed up on July 29 (I know we had people from as far away as the Bay Area, maybe even farther). We also want to thank LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslasky and the LA County staff who showed up as well as the LA City Department of Cultural Affairs and the Community Redevelopment Agency (who've also supported us). We want to thank our many funders such as the DCA, CRA, LA County Arts Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, the Panta Rhea Foundation, the Thrill Hill Foundation, Attias Family Foundation, Middleton Foundation, Youth Can Service, the Center for Cultural Innovation, Not Just Us Foundation, Toyota Sales, the Liberty Hill Foundation, the Border Book Festival, among others. In addition, we give thanks to our many individual donors, notably Bruce Springsteen, John Densmore, Dan Attias, the Luis and Trini Rodriguez Family (Andrea, Ruben, Luis, and Catalina), Suzan Erem, Cynthia Cuza, Mel Gilman, Dave Marsh, Denise Chavez, John Randall, the Luis & Trini Rodriguez Family, and many others.

We want to thank our many collaborators, including LA Commons, Northeast Valley Health Corporation, El Centro de Santa Ana, the Council of Venues, Teatro Chusma, Tres Chingazos Theater Collective, the EARTH Theater Company, John Trudell, the many LAUSD and LA County schools who've come for field trips to Tia Chucha's, and more.

A special shout out to our founding partner Enrique Sanchez, and his family, as well as our amazing staff: Melissa Sanvicente, Silverio Pelayo, Arlene Mejorado, Blanca Boche--and our past staff members over the years (too many to name here). Also our numerous volunteers and instructors. You're all the best (including our former program director, Mike Centeno). And we wouldn't be here if not for our hard-working board members and fellow co-founders Angelica Loa and Victor Mendoza (and Tia Chucha Press and all our wonderful authors and volunteers).

Special thanks to Ruben Guevara--our benefit event producer and long-time friend--as well as John Cantu and George Rodriguez for recording the event. We want to thank the Ford staff (tech, sales, office, marketing, books, and more), in particular Community Bridges and the tremendous efforts of Lissette Alvarez.

And we want to thank our many friends in the Pacoima Community Benefits Agreement Partners of the Price Pfister Development project; the Young Warriors (now organizing to create a new model of youth awareness, engagement, and organization in Pacoima); the San Fernando Sweat Lodge Circle; the Council of Venues; Rock & Rap Confidential; Divine Forces Radio (Fidel Rodriguez and all); Imix Bookstore; Homeboy Industries (Father Greg Boyle, Fabian Montez, Pascual Orozco, and others), Homies Unidos (Alex Sanchez and others), the Community Engagement Advisory Committee (of LA City's Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence and Youth Development), and many others.

And, finally, a most heartfelt thanks to the whole San Fernando Valley community, but also from our many friends in East LA, South Central LA, Pico Union, the Westside, the Harbor, San Gabriel Valley, and beyond. We will continue. We will not give up. Tlazhokamati... Muchas Gracias... Thank You.
Read more

A Time for Elders and Youth--A Way out of Gangs

I've been working with a number of young people in the Northeast Valley, led by an 18-year-old former gang member (who only recently left the gang) and a 16-year-old high school student, in helping create a new Youth Center for the Pacoima/Sylmar section of LA. They are working diligently to establish a group called Young Warriors, Inc. Their vision is to obtain a space with a computer lab; job resources; referrals for treatment, tattoo removal, housing, training; among other things. One of their concerns is "Rites of Passage"--helping people become properly initiated and welcomed by community. We plan to help them establish a 501 (c) 3 tax exempt status and to have fundraisers, board development, and staff development to get this process off the ground.

Last Sunday, July 15, these two young people and myself were on Power 106-FM radio's talk show "Knowledge is Power" with Wendy Carrillo. They were strong, intelligent and articulate about the issues facing youth and their solutions. We had good response from callers and evoked a deeper sense of how to work with troubled youth in LA.

I have done this kind of work for many years, particularly with the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation's work with men, including young gang members, and in Chicago with Youth Struggling for Survival, the Increase the Peace Collaborative, and other organizations. The work I've done is to place the power, decision-making, and accountability in the hands of the young people. However, there is a role for adults, mentors, and elders. Our role is as guides, teachers, helping bring resources, structures, and options for what the youth need. However, unlike many "youth programming" going on these days, it's not about adults deciding for youth what they should do.

At Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural we've had a number of field trips from schools all over the LA area, including from Pomona (about 40 miles away). We've even had an alternative school in Oakland come by twice. These youth, including many gang and troubled youth, have always been respectful and participatory. I try to get the schools to help buy books so that as many of these students as possible leave with a book in their hands.

One of the last groups that came recently created an amazing folder with original poems, letters, drawings, and such thanking me and Tia Chucha's for having them come visit. I remember that group well because one of the youths was caught spray painting graffiti just outside our building. A principal of a local elementary school happened by at the same time, and she came into our space ready to pounce on that youth. My wife Trini, in her calm manner, was able to diffuse the situation. The principal wanted to call the police right away. Trini felt there was another way to go--a way we can handle this without having to bring in the police (which seems to be happening a lot lately... even to the point where the police have been called in to handcuff 5-year-olds who were being unruly, something that happened recently in Florida).

In the end, the principal, Trini, the teacher with the field group, and the graffiti artist met and were able to work out a measure of apology and retribution. The young man went with the principal to buy paint and they returned to paint over the young man's markings. He even wrote Tia Chucha's a letter of apology, which I include here:

Dear Luis and Trini Rodriguez,

I am so sorry that I had to bring that type of behavior and drama to your cafe. My intentions were to go there to hear some speaking about the negatives about living a lifestyle like that and I screw myself over by acting like an idiot and committing a felony. I am sorry that I embarrassed myself and my teacher, and I hope you know that I cleaned up the spot where I originally did the graffiti, and decided that the situation on Friday was too close a call for me to risk doing something like that again, so I won't be writing on walls any longer. Once again, I am sorry that it had to happen.


This is what's possible when adults and young people work together, show they really care, and help each other see themselves as stakeholders and owners of their own communities.

Recently, I did an interview at Telemundo (Spanish-language) in LA and was quoted in a couple of articles (including the Washington Post) about a new study by the Justice Policy Institute that said suppression is not working when it comes to reducing gang violence. The study compared the levels of violence in three major cities--LA, Chicago, and New York City. NYC, with much more people, had the lowest crime rates among youth and much lower gang problems. Chicago and LA are known as the most violent gang cities, although most of what policy makers do in those cities is predicated on suppression. NYC has a myriad approach to gangs; they have brought services, jobs, treatment, schooling, and other similar aspects to bear over just police and suppressive tactics.

We've also articulated similar points on the Community Engagement Committee of the Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence and Youth Development for the City of Los Angeles (I happen to be a member of this committee). Our plan, written to challenge and enhance the Mayor's new "Gang Reduction Strategy," calls for meaningful rehabilitation/reentry programs, jobs, treatment, more intervention services, adequate funding, and such. We know that gang violence cannot be properly addressed unless we get to the root of the problem. Presently, many LA schools and youth programs do not even allow alleged gang members to take part, even if they may be the ones who need those services the most and are often the most committed in coming through.

It's time for real elders, mentors, and youth relationships to be established all over the city. Youth need proper Rites of Passage. We can train people about how this works. We can re-weave community all over this vast city. However, we need the backing of policy makers who, unfortunately, want the "immediate" and often superficial results that come with more police and jails (the long-term effects of these only make things worse). I'm glad the Justice Policy Institute is taking this battle head on and that they've included me in their press/media outreach plans. I also want to thank Laura Rodriguez and her students for the colorful, art-filled and word-filled folder they did for Tia Chucha's.
Read more

A Season for Weddings--and other Events

Yes, this is the season for weddings. I've been to three already--for Hector Herrera Jr., my nepthew; Valeria Jiminez, my cousin; and Angelica Loa, my niece. I've also been invited to other weddings that I could unfortunately not attend for various reasons, most notably Tanee Blazquez's wedding in Chicago on July 7 (she's the daughter of my good friends and Mexika Indigenous teachers, Frank and Lou Blazquez).

What's good about family members getting married is that I get to see family I haven't seen in a long time. In Valeria's case, I got to see some family I never knew I had. Valeria is the daughter of my uncle Marcello Jiminez, my mother's youngest half-brother (he's about my age). My aunt Gloria, my mother's youngest half-sister, was also there with her daughter Monica, whom I met for the first time. I also met other cousins I did not know. Also family members from El Paso, Texas/Ciudad Juarez, Mexico made the trip out as well, including my cousin Ninfa, whom I have not seen in 30 years. I got news about my other cousins along the border area of El Paso/Juarez (most are doing well, except for those cousins who have passed away).

Again, it was an honor to meet and see many of these people, some of whom are living in the San Fernando Valley, where I now make my home. It makes me think about how many other family members I may have bumped into without knowing they were related.

Angelica Loa is my niece by marriage, part of the large and wonderful Cardenas clan originally of Pacoima (my wife's parents had 11 children--they in turn have raised many more great kids). I'm glad to be part of this large family--they are active and decent and spiritually engaged. Some of them are part of our Sweat Lodge Circle in San Fernando. For example, we did a beautiful indigenous ceremony for Angelica and her new husband, Enrique Perez, a week before the main wedding date on July 7. It was attended by their friends and closest siblings. It included a sharing circle, a sweat lodge ceremony, and communal pot luck. It was run by Hector Herrera Sr., husband to Trini's sister, Licha; Hector is also one of our water pourers for the Sweat Lodge Circle (he's of Yaqui-Raramuri descent).

For many years--almost 30 years--I was out of communication with my immediate family, including my mother. But seven years ago when Trini and I moved back to LA from Chicago (after I spent 15 years there), I made sure to re-connect with my mother Maria Estela; my brother Joe; my sisters Ana and Gloria; my half-sister Seni; and their kids and grandkids. This is important. Whatever issues we may have had between us doesn't seem to matter. I simply don't have any beefs with anyone in my family anymore. I realize family is important and all the pettiness that sometimes comes between us needs to be put aside to maintain the love and trust we should have as relatives

This has been important for my two youngest sons, Ruben and Luis, who now have many cousins, aunts and uncles to relate to (two of his uncles were there for Ruben when he went through a Navajo rites of passage ceremony at age 12 on the Navajo rez).

While we don't demand that our kids follow our spiritual paths or practices, it's important for them to know them and have them in their lives as guides (or when they should ever need to turn to these ways). These are ancient traditons from both Mexico and North America (and even from Peru, where we've also done some native ceremonies).

I pray that all these young couples stay together with lots of love and to be strong, healthy, spiritually centered, and socially active for as long as they live.

ALSO--I have a couple of events I want to bring to people's attention. One is a reading I'll be doing this Tuesday, July 17 at the Industry Cafe as part of the Organic Soul Movement's Open Mic series (it's also to celebrate the birthday of "The Bus Stop Prophet," Frank Escamilla). Other performers include:

Besskepp of A Mic and Dim Lights
Sarah Cruse
Pocho Joe
Superb of Urbane Culture Lounge
Drew Amavisca of Javelin
Carvell Holloway of Rock A Mole Productions
Joshua Silverstein
Bus Stop Prophet

Plus a never before seen multi-dimensional tribute to John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." The address is: Industry Cafe and Jazz, 6039 Washington Blvd. (four blocks west of La Cienega), Culver City. The time is: 9:30 PM-Midnight. Admission is FREE

AND I'll be reading poetry at a Community Open House for AWARE-LA (Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere, Los Angeles) on Saturday, July 21 from 1 to 3:30 PM at the Shakespeare Festival LA, 1238 W. 1st Street, Los Angeles 90026.

The event is called "Tranformative Alliances: White Anti-Racists & Its Relevance to the Social Justice Community of Los Angeles." It's important that all of us who have common interests and aims--such as eradicating racism and social injustice--come together. I'm honored to be part of this important gathering.
Read more

A Shout Out to Joel Siegel, R.I.P.

I want to give a belated shout out to Joel Siegel, the film critic for ABC's "Good Morning America," who died last week on June 29 at age 63. I only met him once, but I remember his kind words and genuine interest. It was February 1993. I was waiting in ABC's studios in New York City, in the Green Room, to be interviewed by ABC anchor Charlie Gibson. With me was my then 17-year-old son Ramiro (he's 32 now).

My best selling book, Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA had just come out in hardcover by Curbstone Press. We had embarked on a massive touring and promotion campaign--I ended up going to 30 cities in three months. I also appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Sonya Live on CNN," "National Public Radio," and tons of other great TV and radio broadcasts (we also had amazing interviews and reviews in publications like the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, The Face Magazine, the Washington Post, among others).

Anyway, unexpectedly, Mr. Siegel came to the Green Room, seeking me out. He said he'd read my book and wanted to say how powerful it was and how good that someone like me had written it. I thanked him, introduced him to my son, and shook his hand. It was fairly quick, but I felt very good about this. Mr. Siegel didn't have to talk to me. It showed me that some people in the public eye, so-called celebrities, can also be real and kind. Of course, Mr. Gibson was also gracious and asked some good questions to me and my son in studio. When Ramiro and I walked out of the studios, people who had seen the interview on screens (it was filmed live) recognized us immediately.

It was my first major foray into big time media. I've done many of these since then. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" being one of the highlights. But I will remember the small but important gesture of Mr. Siegel. I'm sorry he's gone. Decent people like that should be around for a long time. I offer my condolences to Mr. Siegel's family and friends. And a thanks for having met, although briefly, such a nice person.
Read more

A Good and Bad Week

This past week has been both good and bad.

The good part is that my grand-daughter, Anastasia, came to LA to visit us from Chicago. As many of you know, I have four grandchildren--two of them are already teenagers. One if them is Anastasia, an intelligent, beautiful, and strong 13-year-old young lady. It was so great to see her and to spend some time with her. We did the regular touristy things--my daughter Andrea and her daughter, Catalina, one of my other grand kids, and my son Luis took her to Hollywood, Olvera Street, downtown LA; my sons Ruben and Luis (and Katrina, Ruben's girlfriend) took Anastasia to Magic Mountain. She also visited with my family at my sister Ana's house, and with my mother, who's at a rest home for Alzheimer's patients. Anastasia is now with her grand-mother, my first wife Camila, who is taking her around her large East LA family, and to the beach and visits with family and friends in Long Beach, Orange County, and LA.

However, a few days before I picked up Anastasia from the airport, my back gave out on me. I've had recurring issues with several slipped discs over the years, stemming from the many years I worked in industry and construction during my late teens and twenties. The older I've gotten, the worse it has become. But I've been doing fine for several years until one day last week I couldn't get out of bed. As anyone who has gone through this knows, it's extremely painful. I was then forced to walk around in a cane. I went to a chiropractor, and then to a sobadora, which is a Mexican healer who uses massage. The last time my back gave out, a sobador in Pacoima put things back together, and it lasted for quite a while. I don't have insurance, so I have to find other more natural and less costly means to take care of my health.

Although I was hurting, I still had to go to meetings, type on my computer, and other work. I just had to take breaks and change positions from time to time. I even went to a fund raising house meeting for The Gathering, a social justice retreat group founded by Harry Belafonte. My friend Nane Alejandrez of Barrios Unidos invited me to this event, held at the home of one of Gregory Peck's daughters. Also present was Sharon Stone, Michael Farrell, Harry Belafonte's kids, Connie Rice of the Advancement Project, and others. Cane or no cane, I got around, talking to people and passing out postcards for Tia Chucha's benefit event at the Ford Amphitheater on July 29 (go to www.tiachucha.com for more information).

Today I'm feeling a lot better. I've been off my cane for a couple of days. I've had to let go my exercise regimen, which I hate to do since I got a good momentum going with this. But I'll get back on it--a lot more careful when I do, too.

Meanwhile I have a couple more days before Anastasia goes home. We'll miss her. She's a real special human being with so much energy and talent to contribute powerful and positive things to this world. Of course, I'm biased, but it's true.
Read more

"Notes of a Bald Cricket" Premiers at the Ford Little Theatre

It took several rehearsals, revisions, re-assessments, and more revisions, but the staged production of a series of poems dealing with my addictions and recovery, "Notes of a Bald Cricket" premiered on Saturday, June 16 as part of The [Inside] Performances at the Ford Theatres in Hollywood.

Directed by my old friend Ruben "Funkahuatl" Guevara, who also provided the music, I was able to challenge myself, and pick up my own game, in the performance art aspect of my work.

Also on the bill were two amazing Filipina performance poets, Melinda Corazon Foley with "Second Chances," and Alfie Ebojo who did "Love Letter to Los Angeles."

I was impressed by what seemed like almost a full house in the 87-seat theater. A number of friends, including artist Leo Limon; Organic Soul Movement creator Sara Cruse; Rock & Rap Editor Lee Ballinger; "Monte Carlo 76" DJ and musician, David Gomez; and others were in attendance.

I was also pleased to meet actor Annette Bening, wife of Warren Beatty, who came with her teenaged daughter. Her daughter apparently requested to see my production after having known my book, "Always Running," from school. They came up and shook our hands and had nice things to say about our performances.

Afterwards the audience and performers gathered in the plaza area to enjoy refreshments and a Latin Jazz duo. I was also interviewed by a pair of Australian DJs and radio journalists who were in town for a few days on their way to Mexico.

My daughter Andrea showed up and filmed the performance--which was about 35 minutes long and required my total focus on my words and delivery.

Ruben Guevara and I hope to continue to rework this piece for possible staging in other theaters. It's recommended for mature audiences (we had to make this point to a middle school class, whose teacher had called about possibly coming to see the performance). I hope I can bring "Notes of a Bald Cricket" to more performance spaces in the near future.

I also want to thank Agustin Gurza and the LA Times for doing a good piece in the Calendar section highlighting this show.
Read more