Literacy as Life and the Basis for Real Personal Power and Freedom

Every year for five years I've taken part in the Feria del Libro--Los Angeles' largest children's book festival. The Feria began in Roosevelt High School, one of East LA's most famous schools (and the most populated high school in the United States). Tia Chucha's, the bookstore/cultural center I helped create, has also had tables there with books, including bilingual books, for children and the community.

This year, just like last year, the Feria del Libro was held at LA's City Hall downtown. More than 30,000 people attended. Several streets were blocked off and many more booths now graced the book fair. In addition there were two stages for performers, authors, speakers, and music. I was able to read poetry and talk in one of the stages--and I was given the privilege of introducing one of my favorite bands (and one of LA's best exponents of the "LA Sound"), Quetzal.

Also this year, Guatemalan Human Rights Activist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, was the featured author. I had the privilege of being on a panel with Rigoberto Menchu to discuss literacy in both local and global terms.

Right away Ms. Menchu brought in the indigenous cosmology of her Mayan heritage. When I spoke, I connected with this, using greetings from the Raramuri people of Southern Chihuahua, one of my heritages, and then proceeding to talk about literacy as the confidence and competence people need to be truly active in any area or field they want to be.

To me literacy is real freedom. If one can't read (or can't read beyond the much lower standards of a 7th grade education that "No Child Behind" is pushing), one is imprisoned to be a consumer/worker with little mobility beyond the daily survival grind at the peripherery of a global capitalist economy.

We need more than this. We being the poorest, most neglected, and often repressed working class of this country. At the heart of this working class are African Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, Native Americans, and poor Asian Americans. But the majority of this class is made up of Whites (including those who have been in this country for several generations). Literacy is a key out of this box, this so-called station of life that many of us have been forced into from birth, through schools, and a myriad of economic, social, and cultural pressures.

As a young person, I wanted to go beyond that place I was supposed to stay at--mostly unenlightened, confused, and stressed just to make ends meet (like my parents, other family members, and the majority of people I deal with every day). After an intense gang and drug life, then working for several years in industry (construction, factories, foundries, mills, refineries), I eventually became a writer in my mid-twenties. It was a difficult road to take--nobody in my family or immediate community were able to support or help me (although I did have some encouragement, mostly I got funny looks or outright admonishments about getting "real jobs").

During my panel talk, I mentioned one man who sacrificed his time to help me become a journalist/writer. His name was Mr. Takagi, a Japanese American night school teacher at East LA College. I attended classes there in journalism, creative writing, and speech. Since night classes were primarily made up of working people, many students dropped out before they could finish. Unfortunately, the second session of Mr. Takagi's class had only one student show up--me.

Mr. Takagi told me he had to drop the whole class since there weren't enough students to keep it going. He must have seen the disappointment in my eyes, because soon after he turned to me and said he'd come back every week if I would also come back every week. I accepted his challenge. So every week that semester, I showed up, and Mr. Takagi was there. He gave me assignments, I wrote various pieces, and I knew he was even tired and would prefer being home. But he stayed true to this word.

I recall once Mr. Takagi falling asleep as I read one of my pieces. My heart went out to him--as his must have gone out to me. I finished the class and passed. Mr. Takagi even recommended me for the Summer Program for Minority Journalist at UC Berkeley, which I eventually took part in becoming an alumni in 1980 (I received a journalist certificate and became valedictorian). It changed my life--I've been a professional writer (and speaker) ever since.

I'm honored to have met and talked with Rigoberta Menchu. She understood and appreciated this story about Mr. Takagi (as did the audience). It's important to recognize and even name our mentors, those willing to step out of their own lives for a short time to help someone else.

The Feria del Libro ia a great accomplishment. I honor all the founders (particularly my friend Maria Casillas), board members, staff, volunteers, and funders for helping keep literacy alive in LA. And I also want to say a word of thanks to Mr. Takagi, wherever he may be. Your trust in me helped me trust myself. Gracias my friend.
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"Burning Embers"--by Anastasia Horkay

Well the Rodriguez family writing legacy continues--my father and grandfather were both writers sometime in their lives. And all my four kids and four grand-kids so far have proven to be good at putting down on paper their thoughts, feelings, stories. Below is a poem by my 13-year-old grand-daughter, Anastasia Horkay. Anastasia lives just outside of Chicago with her mother, Laura, and her three half-brothers: Dakari, Joshua and Raiden. She's a fantastic student and a wonderful young lady; I'm very proud of her. I hope you all like her poem.

BURNING EMBERS

To touch a burning ember without first burning yourself

would be to be the touch itself,

To stare at the glow of a burning ember

would be to be the glow itself.


To stand the heat of a burning ember

would be to be the heat itself,

To not feel the pain of a burning ember

would be to be the pain itself.


To be inside a burning ember

would be to be the fire itself,

To live inside a burning ember

would be to be in hell itself.


To survive inside a burning ember

would be to be the devil himself,

To withstand the power of a burning ember

would be to be the ember itself.


By Anastasia Horkay
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10 Year Anniversary of the "Making Peace" PBS-TV Series

Ten years ago, John Valadez directed a documentary film for Moira Productions called "Making Peace: Youth Struggling for Survival, Like Father, Like Son." This 30-minute film was part of the "Making Peace" series that included profiles of individuals from across the country who were making a significant impact on peace in our streets and in our country. The series aired nationally on PBS-TV.

I was fortunate to have been chosen as one of the "Making Peace" profiles. The series was also shown to more than 200 community meetings in 1997. In addition, my particular profile was shown in a couple of national peace summits during that time.

The film is available on VHS and DVD from Films for the Humanites and Sciences. Please consider buying it for your school, institution, juvenile facility, or program.

"Making Peace: Youth Struggling for Survival, Like Father, Like Son" deals with the work I did for many years mentoring, guiding, and assisting active Chicago gang members and other youth into more positive, imaginative, and healed lives. I helped start Youth Strugging for Survival in 1994 with 250 youth people and adults at the University of Illinois, Chicago. The organization is still active and doing healing work in Chicago and Aurora, Illinois, and the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Lakota Reservations.

The film also centers on my often rocky relationship with my oldest son, Ramiro Rodriguez, who will be 32 this year. Ramiro joined a Chicago gang when he was 15, which served as a catalyst for the writing of my memoir "Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA" (Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster). Unfortunately, he is presently serving a 28-year prison sentence for three counts of attempted murder in the State of Illinois.

Despite the bars and distance--Ramiro has already done ten years of this time--we have remained close. My son has left the gang life and he's trying to better his situation the best he can; he hopes to be paroled in four more years with time off his sentence for keeping things straight and honest so far.

Meanwhile, I recommend the use of this film with any groups working with gang and other troubled youth. There are no easy answers in this work. For many of us, it's dangerous and heartbreaking. But we continue to walk these streets often without pay or compensation. My experience in over 30 years of doing this is that real caring, honest dialogue, and an intense and broad social struggle for jobs, healthcare, spirituality, meaningful education, and authentic community is the key to address the violence, disaffection, and alienation of our youth.

Also I'm part of a national campaign to prevent gang violence and help youth in the Latino community called 2Cooltura . Please check this out and get more information on books, resources, organizations, and strategies to help bring peace and dignity to our families and streets.
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Thanks to the "Front Page" Family and KJLH Radio

All good things must come to an end. Today, I ended my week of guest hosting on the Front Page talk show with Dominique Di Prima on KJLH-102.3 FM. It was a wonderful experience. According to Dominique, I was the first Latino guest host on the show. I commend her and KJLH for having me and allowing me this opportunity to speak on some crucial issues confronting both the African American and Mexican/Latino community.

Yesterday, I was able to address key concerns about Black & Brown unity—including the value of working together when the interests of our communities converge. It’s not about unity for unity’s sake. We have common issues of poverty, bad schools, bad police relations, gangs, domestic abuse, disproportionate health problems, and disproportionate rates in prisons. We cannot move fully forward in these areas unless we forge important strategic aims and actions mutually beneficial to both communities.

It must be a principled and purposeful unity, not a makeshift or superficial one.

I’ve had a lifetime of working in this area. Including from living in South Central LA as a child, then working on police abuse actions with people like Michael Zinzun, may he rest in peace, to the coalition for Harold Washington for Mayor in Chicago (I lived there from 1985 until 2000), and the work I've currently done for many years with gang intervention/prevention and street peace, particularly in Chicago and LA.

Even now, as we move to bring developmental and policy changes in the poor working class community of Pacoima in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, which has a large Mexican/Latino population and a significant African American population, I’m involved in a Community Benefits Agreement process with the old Price Pfister Brass Foundry site that is slated to become a new mall/park/community gathering place. I’m also working through Tia Chucha’s Bookstore and Cultural Center to bring in more diverse aesthetics to our current workshop, events, and cultural expressions with African Americans as well as other communities.

Today, we had Marqueese Dawson Hawkins of the Community Coalition in studio to speak on the Coalition’s work in South Los Angeles concerning the lack of clean and adequate grocery stores (many that came in after the 1992 Civil Unrest have now left), school exit exams, and more. The Coalition has had an organic Black and Brown organizing process since its inception.

Historically Mexicans and Central Americans (who are mostly of indigenous descent) and African Americans have a long history of slavery, peonage, colonialism, and capitalist exploitation. We have more in common as far as working for the advancement of economic, social, and cultural well being than differences. I understand that there is a lot of ignorance, prejudice, and fear in both communities about each other. I have condemned the racially-based attacks against Blacks by Latinos in Los Angeles and elsewhere, and whenever this happens to Latinos from Blacks. There is already enough hate in this world—I personally don’t want to contribute any more or do anything to perpetuate it.

In addition, Mexicans have African ties from when the Spanish first brought African slaves to Mexico in the 1500s. The Native population of Mexico was greatly and quickly decimated by wars, hunger, tortures, and disease. The Valley of Mexico—the most populous area in the hemisphere before the Spanish arrived—had an estimated 25 million inhabitants when Cortez and his conquistadors first set foot there in 1519. In 50 years, only 2.5 million survived. In fact, most of the continent lost from 80 to 95 percent of their populations shortly after the Europeans came. The Spanish numbers reached a height of 150,000 during the colonial period; African slaves were believed to number around 300,000. In addition, some 100,000 Malaysians (from the Spanish colonies of the Philippines and other Asian areas) were also brought in.

In fact, Mexico had the first recorded African slave uprising in the Americas in 1546. Later rebellious slaves established the first free African pueblo in the Western Hemisphere in 1609. It was called Yanga, located in the present-day state of Vera Cruz, Mexico.

A leader of the Mexican war of independence from Spain in 1820 was Vicente Ramon Guerrero—an African-Mexican. He also became Mexico’s second president (Benito Juarez, of Zapoteca Indian, became the first full-blooded native president in the 1860s). And then Mexico eventually lost Texas and later half of its national territory in the US invasion of 1848 after Mexico refused to return runaway slaves to US slave masters after Mexico had abolished slavery in the 1820s.

Still, with all this history, the remaining native population of Mexico is the main root and source of the Mexican character and makeup. Today there are 240 native languages in Mexico. Many of the newer so-called immigrants are coming from highly Native areas of central and southern Mexico, including tribal members of Mayans, Huicholes, Raramuri, Yaquis, Mixtecos, Zapotecas, and more. There are an estimated 2 million full-blooded Mayans in the US, almost as many as the whole Native American population (believed to number 3 million, with a majority of mixed blood). Many of these tribal peoples don’t even speak Spanish, let alone English.

Now things have turned on their heads. Now the brown-red indigenous peoples of these lands, with connections here that go back tens of thousands of years, have become the “foreigners,” “immigrants” and “illegals”—mostly by people of European descent who have only been in the US areas a little more than 300 years. This is how man-made and superficial borders, created by conquerors, colonialists and capitalists, have now determined who we are, our relationships, and who we unite with and who we fight with.

To find out more about this history, the racial/cultural make up of Mexico, and the African American/Mexican/Native connections, please look up the following publications:

Occupied America by Rudy Acuna
Anything but Mexican by Rudy Acuna
The Fifth Sun by James Russell
The American Holocaust by David Stannard
1491 by Charles Mann
Cycles of Conquest by Edward Spicer
Indian Givers by Jack Weatherford

This is a beginning list. There are so many great books and articles that spell out our common historical, cultural and strategic ties. On the World Wide Web, there are now many sites and informational links. It’s important for all of us to be armed with knowledge, books, history, and stories as we move forward to better all of our communities.

I also recommend, to those who are interested, to visit the website of Xispas Magazine; I am a co-founder and now editor of this online Chicano magazine. You can check it out at www.xispas.com.

A’ho.
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On"Front Page" Today

This morning on the “Front Page” talk show, KJLH-102.3 FM, we took part in a lively discussion with many call-ins about the packed, standing-room only meeting of the Police Commission on Tuesday.

I’m guest-hosting the show this week with Dominique Di Prima. Our guest today was Charlene Muhammad, who also works at KJLH and writes for “Final Call” newspaper, among others.

Ms. Muhammad said many people from various LA communities—mostly African American and Mexican/Central American, but also whites, Native Americans, and Asians—came to hear Police Chief William Bratton denounce the attack by riot-gear laden police who fired “foam rubber bullets” and beat people with batons, including several broadcast journalists (officials still claim there may have been a legitimate basis for this, but I can’t imagine any legitimate reason to attack a park full of families, children, and peaceful demonstrators).

Most people at the meeting were angry at the police. Many speakers apparently also demanded that the Police Commission not renew Chief Bratton’s contract (I also read in the LA Times that a few anti-immigrant advocates attended the meeting and demonstrated outside, including the Minuteman Project, in support of the police action).

Already media reports say the number of those injured in the melee is now more than twice than was previously reported. And that police claims that “anarchist” agitators may have started the trouble may be incorrect—anarchists have fallen in number in the LA area, and the ones who are still active have denied any involvement.

So far, Chief Bratton has demoted two lead officers and is investigating the 60 officers involved. But judging by those at the meeting, and our callers this morning, there is a growing public outcry for him to be removed as chief in light of this attack.

It’s important to note, as we did this morning, that LA has had a long history with beatings, shootings, and attacks against the Black and Brown community. The 1965 Watts Rebellion was sparked by a police attack on Marquette Fry. The East LA Chicano Moratorium against the Viet Nam War in 1970 became a “riot” after police attacked a peaceful crowd. The 1992 LA Rebellion—the worse civil unrest in more than a century—was sparked by the acquittal of LAPD officers involved in the beating of Ronnie King. There is now an extremely long list of people killed by police, including unharmed grandmothers, homeless people, 13-year-old boys, even a baby in the arms of her father, and more. Most are African American and Mexican/Central American.

Yes, we need new leadership in the LAPD. But we also need to change the very culture of this entrenched institution that regardless of who’s chief maintains hostilities with the poor and vulnerable Black and Brown communities of the city.

Today, we said that police are human. That many of them have families. And that the pressures on them are tremendous and unhealthy. I know many good police officers. I have a niece that’s a police officer—I wouldn’t want her hurt (I also wouldn’t want her to hurt anybody). Most police officers need help—meaningful compensation, health care, but also counseling, drug/alcohol treatment, and training on community relationships and what to do under crisis.

We all agreed on that.

But we also agreed that they need to be held accountable for their actions. Not only that they get demoted, but charged with a crime when they beat, shoot, or kill people without cause (or for false causes, as it often happens).

A caller also evoked the memory of Michael Zinzun, rest in peace, who led the struggle against police abuse for 30 years, including the important call for a community review board. I worked with Michael in a number of demonstrations many years ago. This is now the time to renew this effort--to get the community active in insuring the police do their job without hurting or attacking our communities (unless it's true as many of us have long suspected that this is their "job").
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Real Cool & Coherent Talk Radio

It’s been a great time so far—guest hosting with Dominique Di Prima on the “Front Page” radio talk show on KJLH-102.3 FM. We’re on the air from 4:30 AM until 6 AM. I’ve been wondering who in world could possibly be up that morning. We’ve gotten many calls from people who are up, on their way to work, coming back from work, or just having a hard time sleeping. I mean people with sharp, coherent and poignant points to make that early in the morning. It’s been great.

I then recalled the many years I had when I was younger, working in factories, construction, in a steel mill, and either leaving the “graveyard” shift or on my way for a morning shift. This was in my 20s, soon after I left the street/gang/drug life. To stabilize myself I did what I had been raised to do—become a working stiff. I used to also be a day laborer—yes, in the days when they weren’t just undocumented guys sitting around Home Depot. In those old days, I’d fill out my coat with newspapers or rags so that I looked sturdy and strong—it’s hard to believe now, but I was unholy thin then. This also kept me warm. Trucks would come down Alameda as we sat around, stream rising from our breaths, waiting for foremen in trucks to choose us for labor in the warehouses, the vegetable stands, the trucking or rail docks.

I let that go for years in my mid-20s to be a writer and organizer. When I moved to Chicago in 1985, I was 30 years old with a small Nissan truck, and only a few haphazardly packed boxes to my name. I also worked in a national revolutionary publication, but to supplement income—and later when I left the newspaper—I worked in typesetting, dropping off magazines to vendors in and around town, in print shops, and for many years as a writer/reporter for an all news radio station, including a long time in graveyard.

So, yes, I've had much experience being around in the early before-dawn hours (not counting my homeless days as a teenager, or the late night shift in a daily newspaper of San Bernardino).

The first day, Dominique had two young men—I say young since now anyone under 45 is a kid to me—who have dedicated their lives to turning troubled youth around: Skip Townsend of 2nd Call (Second Chance of Loving Life) and Ben “Taco” Owens, a mediator in the H.E.L.P.E.R. Alliance Ceasefire Committee. They are part of the few but brave and often beleaguered gang intervention workers who have done more for peace in the city than any other community resource—yes, there’s lots of gang violence in LA, particularly the South and East LA communities, but there would be a lot more if not for these tireless activists, mentors, and mediators.

People called in to agree, to explore, to challenge. One guy got irate at the three of us for daring to care, to mentor, to talk to youth, instead of just putting them away (haven’t we been doing that for years already—and the situation has only gotten worse?). I know what these intervention specialists do works. They are skilled talkers, listeners, and healers because many of them are former gang members, thieves, or drug users who have changed their own lives and have decided to help others do the same.

I thank these two gentlemen for their centered and knowledgeable responses. And the many callers who took us to just over the 6 AM hour.

Today was “Hot Topic” Tuesday. Every Tuesday, Dominique invites any caller to discuss any topic in the news. We had an array of issues—reparations for slavery, Black and Brown conflicts, Don Imus, LAPD attacks on the community, and more. Again people were on the money, even the one or two who were adamant about what I considered wrong ways to see things. But that’s me and that’s them. The key thing is that we can share, argue, learn, and teach.

I'll be doing this all week. I can hardly wait until tomorrow morning.
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May 1--Again, Major Marches for Immigrant Rights Rocked the Country

Last week, on May 1, tens of thousands of people—citizens, legal residents, and undocumented alike—marched in about a dozen cities around the country for immigrant rights. Chicago, my former home town, had a reported 150,000 people marching (last year, they were the first city to take this issue to the streets).

Los Angeles, which last year had around 650,000 to 1 million people in marches, this year didn’t have as many, although rally organizers say 100,000 people came out in two marches: one downtown through Broadway and another one to MacArthur Park.

May Day, the International Day for Labor, has again come alive in the US, home of the original May Day, although long marginalized and often forgotten here. While this year the marches were smaller, they were still significantly large and important.

All these marches—last year millions marched in more than two dozen cities—were the most peaceful, best organized, and effective marches for justice ever seen in the US. They were bigger than the massive marches at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries that led to the 8-hour day and other labor demands, bigger than the amazing marches for civil rights and against the Viet Nam War in the 1960s, and much bigger than the marches against nuclear proliferation in the 1980s and for a healthy green Earth in the 1990s (by the way, all of these issues are still vitally important, still worthy of our interests, our actions, our feet).

This year’s marches, like last year, were peaceful, full of families and working people, with more American flags than any other (there were also flags from countries all over the world, as well as those from Mexico and Central America). However, Los Angeles again led the repression with an astounding unwarranted attack by police on peaceful marchers at MacArthur Park that reached international news outlets when more than half a dozen journalists, including many in the Spanish-language media, were also targeted. Like innocent bystanders, children, and others, some of these journalists were hit with non-lethal foam bullets (that hurt when shot point blank out of a barrel) and batons. Officers also threw around TV cameras and destroyed other broadcast equipment.

You can get more updates and news video by going to “Epicentro America: Central American Diasporic Art” blog at http://epicentroamerica.blogspot.com/. I thank Epicentro America for getting out the truth of what happened.

Both Police Chief Bratton and Mayor Villaraigosa cancelled or cut back on trips to Mexico and Central America to address the police violence. The community has demanded true accountability about what happened, why the LAPD attacked indiscriminately, and why they didn’t follow established protocol about such confrontations created soon after the 2000 Democratic Convention--in which the police also responded violently to various disruptions among protestors.

I was on Divine Forces Radio on KPFK (90.7 FM) on Friday night with Fidel Rodriguez addressing this issue. US Congresswoman Maxine Waters called and said she would organize a conference at the police commission to demand real action. The Honorable Waters has been a long-time advocate for police accountability and social justice. The next day, she hosted a Cinco de Mayo celebration in South Central LA, which has gone on apparently for 14 years without incident. This is true Black & Brown Unity in Action. And I applaud her efforts.

The day after the marches and the LAPD attack, I was in City Hall speaking to the Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence and Youth Development, headed by City Councilman Tony Cardenas. Members of the Community Engagement Advisory Committee to the Ad Hoc Committee all spoke on a new proposed challenges, additions, and enhancements to the Mayor’s “Gang Reduction Strategy” unveiled in mid-April. Our suggestions and proposals are now in the public record. We plan to take this out in public awareness meetings, some media conferences and on the Internet. I hope we can have it posted on the worldwide web for everyone to read—I think it’s one of the most advanced plans for Street Peace and Justice from any city in the US.

My hope is that the City Council will push through most or all of our suggestions, and that the Mayor will enthusiastically embrace this plan, created by long-time, multi-generational leaders in intervention, prevention, arts/culture, and rehabilitation/restorative justice work—which involves far more imaginative, effective, and long-term approaches to the rising gang violence in Los Angeles than the current suppression strategies that have only squeezed our poorest communities, sent more youth and adults to overcrowded and intolerable prisons, and made the gang violence worse.

We have many years, sometimes risking our lives, in helping young people get out of the dangers and destructive aspects of gangs and drugs by providing treatment, jobs, arts/culture, resources, spiritual growth, and one-on-one relationships. My own work also entails rituals, ceremonies, and spiritual & cultural practices to bring out the gifts and positive energy of our youth (and adults) through their own wounds, pains, and empties. Our very troubles are the pathway to creativity, peace, and change.

If you happen to be in the LA area next week – from May 7 until May 11 – please tune in to the “Front Page” Radio Show with Dominique Di Prima on KJLH (102.3 FM). I will be guest host that week from 4:30 AM until 6 AM. I will address issues of gang peace & intervention, Black & Brown unity, police relationships, the importance of creativity and community-based rituals and ceremonies, and more.
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Street Peace and Community Development

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unveiled a plan to curtail gang violence at his State of the City address on April 18, held in the auditorium of a new school, East Valley Senior High in North Hollywood. The place was packed—with media, council members, other politicians, police officers, activists, leaders of the community, and more. I was invited to sit in on his address.

I was also invited to an earlier briefing by the Mayor’s staff on his plan called “City of Los Angeles Gang Reduction Strategy.” I have much to say about this plan, some of which I voiced during the briefing. I’ve also been asked to take part in the Community Engagement Advisory Committee of the Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence and Youth Development, City of Los Angeles (the ad hoc committee is chaired by City Councilman Tony Cardenas).

At our first meeting the next day in City Hall, I was able to bring out more specifics about what I think a city plan for gang violence reduction should consist of. One good thing is the make up of the Community Engagement Advisory Committee—amazing leaders in gang intervention, research, and street peace were present, including Bo Taylor, Alex Sanchez, Tom Hayden, Fidel Rodriguez, and others. We went to work right away—not necessarily to attack the Mayor’s plan (although we had our misgivings), but to provide insight, perspective, and generations of street knowledge that we felt we are capable of doing. We all agree—we want to significantly curtail the violence taking a toll on our youth, our families, and communities.

I won’t get into the particulars of our points since we still working on them. I will say that our main concerns consisted of insuring that community-driven prevention and intervention become the main driving force of the plan and not suppression. Up until now, law enforcement efforts have led most gang violence reduction work in the city. While we need police to enforce the law—they must be a vital component of any street peace initiative—they should be part of a whole package, not the leading aspect.

Much of the Mayor’s plan is good and badly needed. I applaud his efforts to be comprehensive, to focus funding on prevention/intervention, and inclusive. Yet even the language in the plan is problematic. While issues of rhetoric and wording seem to be without substance, the fact is words carry content. I would love to see a plan called “Street Peace and Community Development Initiative.” It’s best to be about something, not just against something. It’s also important not to couch what we do with military terminology—like Gang Reduction Strategy.

I've worked with gang and nongang youth for more than 30 years. I've helped mentor many youth out of the destructive aspects of violence, drugs, and suicide. However, I'm not "anti-gang." If I were, I'd never be able to get near the young people I most want to reach. Our language should be positive and inclusive, not negative and divisive.

That’s just to start. I think we in the Community Engagement Advisory Committee can contribute amazing ideas, imagination, and resources to a city-wide street peace initiative. I hope we will be taken seriously as we work to broaden, enhance, and make more effective the Mayor’s plan.

Community is made up of shared agreements. We need to truly dialogue with representatives of all the community to make this plan truly work. We all want peace and public safety. It’s a matter of how we go there—just hacking at the branches, or going deep into the roots of why gangs, violence, and crime exists.

The city is rife with poverty, high rents and housing costs, bad police-community relations, ineffective schools, and more. These are some of the real sources of gangs and community fracturing.

Suppression tactics—including “gang injunctions,” “gang enhancements,” and targeted policing of the poorest most vulnerable communities—tend to squeeze many people out of these communities, including those who can best bring peace and safety to the community.

Unfortunately, this “squeezing” has also led to the spread of LA-based gangs (while LA is still known as the “gang capital” of the country). Presently, LA-based gangs are all over the US (I do talks across the country, and I’ve seen how this has become the biggest “gang” issue facing other states today). LA-based gangs have also been exported to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and even Cambodia and Armenia, due to aggressive deportation policies concerning gang youth over the past 15 years.

Whatever plan we do, we need to keep our communities intact; in fact, they need to be provided adequate economic/social/cultural resources to be stronger.

When we go to war against gangs, we tend to make the problems worse. I’ve seen this happen whenever we go to war against anything—in the 1960s, the War on Poverty only ended up with more poverty; in the 1980s the War on Drugs has only led to more drugs (and to drugs we never had before, like Crack); and now the War on Terror seems to have made our lives more unsafe (with more terror worldwide being recorded than ever before).

It’s the same with our War on Gangs. My contention remains—we cannot stop gang warfare with more warfare.

My hope is that the city, including Mayor’s Villaraigosa’s office, will listen to us and take into account what we bring to the table—generations of actual work in helping make positive changes among youth, gangs, and communities. I welcome the challenge to help make this contentious and fearful city one united with real economic and social justice, hope, change, and peace.
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Remembering Why Libraries are Important

In early April, the Seattle Public Library invited me to speak at the city's Town Hall Auditorium. As is customary, they also had me speak at Ballard High School to an auditorium of some 300 students, and three classes, including the Latino Student group, Proyecto Saber. In addition, I spoke at the Alder School, which involves students in the electronic monitoring program of the Youth Detention Center. At the downtown library, I also addressed about 160 students in various alternative/continuation schools through the Interagency Academy. And I had a wonderful time speaking to a packed house at the South Park Community Center in the mostly Latino community of South Park.

Every group I spoke to became engaged in the issues and realities of their lives. The youth groups had well-thought out questions. My talks were titled "Expression and Empowerment in Troubled Times" or "Imagining Peace and Community in a Time of Violence and Chaos." I find these kinds of talks bring out a deeper participation into the fundamental concerns of the audiences I generally speak to -- concerns like gangs, violence, poverty, fear, and more.

With imagination and poetic language (I always have poems I read -- either mine or lines of poetry from some of my favorite poets like Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, Theodore Roethke, Rumi, or Aime Cesaire) we attempt to enter a new ground of ideas, dialogue, hope, and community.

I know as a writer I can't just address issues of literature, publishing, or craft. Although these are important, and I'm particularly pleased when students ask me questions touching on such things, I'm also open to talk about life, wounds, gifts, dreams, and ways out of the runts and rants of the world we're in.

Young teen winners of a city-wide poetry contest were also present to read their poems during the main Town Hall presentation. Several weeks before, I had given them the theme of "purpose" for this contest. And the students did some wonderful work exploring purpose and meaning in their lives (the poems were in English and Spanish).

I was particularly taken by the library staff who helped organize all this, including making sure I got to the various events. They included Amy Twito, Jennifer Bisson, Lynn Miller, Theresa Mayer, Ken Gollersrud, and Ana Alvarez (Ana was extremely gracious with her time and in assisting me, for which I am most grateful). They also arranged a nice lunch with library staff members just before I left town.

In addition, I got a chance to meet with my friend Michael Meade, founder of the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, based in Seattle, at the Elliott Bay Bookstore (Thanks also to Elliott Bay for having books for sale at two of my events).

A couple of times, I related to the students how important libraries were in my life. Even when I was in a street gang, on drugs, homeless and in the streets, I found refuge among the books in the libraries of my neigborhood (a box of a building with a few shelves), the central library in downtown LA (where I would hang during the day when I was living in the streets as a teenager), and at Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley, where my father worked as a laboratory custodian and I spent hours in the library until he got off of work (my dad had tried to help me during a most troubling time in my youth by taking me away to a new school nearby, although I only lasted a couple of months there before dropping out).

I did not really begin to grasp English until the third grade. Because I was so shy and quiet, I found my language proficiency in books (and, of course, from watching the three or four channels on our black-and-white TV set). I know that books saved my life: they fired up my imagination, and also helped me develop the love of words and stories. I will always have libraries to thank for this (bookstores were non-existent in my neighborhood -- I did not visit a bookstore until I was in my early 20s).
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Grand Opening of Tia Chucha's New Space -- March 31 from 4 to 8 PM

I'm glad to invite everyone to the grand opening of Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural this Saturday, March 31, from 4 to 8 PM. It will be at the new space that we've finally painted and organized after we were forced to vacate our old store/center in Sylmar (the new location is only 10 minutes away from there).

This will be an easy-going evening of food, poetry, raffles, and presentations by our instructors and some of their students from our various workshops, including Son Jarocho Mexican traditional music, Guitar, African Drumming, DJing, Reiki Healing, Danza Azteca, Mexikayotl Indigenous Cosmology, and more. Books will also be on sale as well as sign-ups for our events and workshops.

Your humble servant will be your host.

We will also be starting our regular schedule for "Noche Bohemias" (guitar, song, and poetry, mostly for our Spanish-speaking community), Open Mic (poetry, Hip Hop, Song for anyone), Film, and more (this schedule will be available on Saturday).

The new space is nice and clean, located at 10258 Foothill Blvd., Lake View Terrace, CA 91340 (on the corner of Foothill and Wheatland, in front of the Number 91 Bustop). Our new phone number is 818-896-1479.

Please join us as we try to re-weave the amazing tapestry of song, dance, words, theater, art, and ideas that temporarily unraveled with our move. However, we have the regenerative power as community to start anew, to continue our important work, and to prepare for better days ahead. You'll love our new space.
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