This post first appeared as a weblog on April 29, 2015 in the Los Angeles Public Library website: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/praise-chicano-poetry.
Chicano/a poets have emerged as major literary figures in the United States with the recent appointments of Juan Felipe Herrera as California Poet Laureate (although he just finished his two-year term) and Alberto Rios as first poet Laureate of Arizona. We also have Alejandro Murguia of San Francisco, Laurie Ann Guerrero of San Antonio, and yours truly of Los Angeles as poet laureates of our respective cities.
We’ve risen out of the shadows, also against erasure (including Arizona Republicans banning Chicano books, among others, and their efforts to destroy Chicano Studies). And we’re doing this with style, with new juxtapositions of words and images—with mastery. Highly marginalized within the vast field of U.S. letters, our place at the heart of U.S. literature can no longer be denied.
Our books are studied in English and Chicano/Latino studies classes across the country (when they’re not being challenged, cut or diminished). And we’re being scrutinized and anthologized in a number of institutions in Mexico, Japan, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.
My own readings and talks abroad have included the Sarajevo Poetry Festival, the first Slam Poetry Tour in Europe, and festivals and venues in London, Manchester, Paris, Milan, Rome, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Lima, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Taxco, Oaxaca, Toronto, Montreal, Berlin, Stuttgart, Heidelberg, and the Netherlands.
Chicano poetry is an important branch of the great poetic traditions flowing from across the country—along with African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, LGBT writers, and more. Yet you wouldn’t know this when literature curriculums insist the only writers that matter are white, male, straight.
We all belong. We all matter.
Chicano poetry has existed since the U.S. government invaded Mexico in the 1840s, and grew tremendously during the Mexican Revolutionary period of 1910 to 1930 (those years included other upheavals in Mexico, like the Cristero Rebellion, resulting in more than a million people killed and a million refugees when Mexico only had 15 million people, about the size of Guatemala today).
The explosion of Chicano poetry first hit in the 1960s at the same time that better-known African American poets like Haki R. Madhubuti (then known as Don L. Lee), Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, and others wrote and performed a new poetry of protest (as well as Puerto Ricans such as Pedro Pietri, Miguel Algarin, and Miguel Piñero).
The first major exponents of Chicano verse were male: Ricardo Sanchez, Raul Salinas, Tino Villanueva, Lalo Delgado, Alurista, and the “Godfather of Chicano Poetry,” Jose Montoya. The most famous poem of the time, however, was credited to a leading Chicano movement leader, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales: “Yo Soy Joaquin/I am Joaquin.” Here’s an excerpt:
I am Joaquín,
Who bleeds in many ways.
My back of Indian slavery
Was stripped crimson
From the whips of masters
Who would lose their blood so pure
When revolution made them pay,
Standing against the walls of retribution.
Blood has flowed from me on every battlefield between
campesino, hacendado, slave and master and revolution…
Like the poem, Chicanos pushed back their heritage beyond the Spanish conquest and its consequent clash of heritages, tongues and histories throughout the Western Hemisphere. Chicanos challenged historians who tried to categorize U.S. residents of Mexican descent with the Spanish missions and explorations. Chicanos are mostly rooted in Mexika, Mayan, Huichol, Tarahumara, Purepecha, Yaqui, Mixteco, Zapoteca, Otomi, and other tribal cultures that managed to survive a loss of 95 percent or more of their people during the Spanish colonial period. The Valley of Mexico, for example, went from an estimated 25 million native population to 2.5 million within 50 years of Cortez’ landing.
In California, native peoples intermingled with the mostly natives of Sonora (the settlers also included blacks and at least one Filipino) during the Spanish settlement of Los Angeles. In fact, the city, founded in 1781, had a native from Sonora as its first mayor. But again, each group is seen separately, and too often in lower prestige than the massive Anglo influx (“Anglo” being a misnomer for any “white” regardless whether they came from England or not).
Chicana poets were finally accessible in the 1980s with the publications of works from Gloria Anzaldua, Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, Pat Mora, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cherrie Moraga, and others. Here’s a section of verse from Sandra Cisneros:
Before you became a cloud, you were an ocean, roiled and
murmuring like a mouth. You were the shadow of a cloud
crossing over a field of tulips. You were the tears of a
man who cried into a plaid handkerchief. You were a sky
without a hat. Your heart puffed and flowered like sheets
drying on a line…
Of course, Chicano/a writers also ventured into novels, short stories, essays, journalism, and children’s books. These include personal friends like Denise Chavez, Victor Villaseñor, Dagoberto Gilb, Benjamin Saenz, and Helena Viramontes. I too wrote in multiple genres, mirroring what writers did around the world (the U.S. academies and major publishers tended to push writers into a single genre).
By the first decade of the 2000s, Chicano poets/writers included Francisco Alarcon, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Luis Alberto Urrea, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Reyna Grande, Daniel Olivas, Alex Espinosa, Ruben Martinez, and others.
We are also seeing in the past twenty years or so, the rise of Central American poets and writers (also from war and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and other countries). Most notably Claribel Alegria, William Archila, Leticia Hernandez-Linares, and Hector Tobar.
Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Colombians, and other Latinos in the U.S. continue to add their stories and voices. The Dominican American Junot Diaz and the Cuban American Oscar Hijuelos are the only Latinos to win Pulitzer prizes in literature so far (other Latinos have won in drama, poetry, and journalism). We’ve been finalists or winners of National Book Awards or National Book Critics Circle Awards, among other recognition.
Even when major U.S. publishing houses failed to publish Chicano and other Latino writers, the writers kept working, including with our own presses (such as Arte Publico, Bilingual Review, Cinco Puntos, Tia Chucha Press, and others). Finally the big houses began to court Chicanos and other U.S. Latino writers, not just Latino writers from other countries. My own works have been with Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins as well as Curbstone Press, Lee & Low, Tia Chucha Press, and Seven Stories.
I’m honored then to shed some light on the grand tradition of Chicano/a writing in this country. For anyone interested, the current and past Chicano/a poet laureates and others will come together in San Francisco for the “International Flor y Canto Literary Festival,” May 14-15 at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, 2868 Mission Street. Check the Internet for times (I’m reading Friday, May 15 after 7 pm).
This is all a testament to our growth as important U.S. writers despite the odds, hurdles and barriers. We will persist. Moreover, we will endure for generations to come. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, future Chicano/a writers will justify us.
This blogpost first appeared on the Los Angeles Public Library website on Friday, March 27, 2015: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/celebrate-national-poetry-month-support-your-local-poets
As the new Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, I’m excited about National Poetry Month, which every year falls on April. This April, I will be visiting libraries and schools as well as take part in the largest gathering of writers and teachers of writing in the country—the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference to be held this year from April 8 to 11 in Minneapolis MN.
One thing that people may not be aware is that Los Angeles is a voracious book town. In 2012, the Christian Science Monitor declared that L.A. is the “most book crazy” of any U.S. city, with more people buying books and the greatest number of bookstores than cities like New York City, Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and San Francisco.
Greater Los Angeles also has wonderful small to medium literary presses, including Kaya Press out of USC (East and South Asian writers), Writ Large, and the renowned Red Hen out of Pasadena, among others. In addition, the L.A. area has important independent bookstores and literary centers still standing—including Vroman’s, Book Soup, Skylight, the Last Bookstore, Eso Won, Beyond Baroque, Libros Schmibros, and the bookstore and cultural space I helped create, Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in Sylmar.
In fact, I also founded and continue to edit one of L.A.’s internationally respected small presses, Tia Chucha Press, which began in Chicago 26 years ago (it’s been the publishing wing of Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center since 2005). While I published my first book with TCP, since then I’ve only published other poets, by now around 50 (also anthologies and a CD). First from the vibrant Chicago poetry slam scene, where the slams originated, then major U.S. poets such as National Book Award winner Terrance Hayes; President Obama inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander; International Poetry Slam Champion Patricia Smith; Japanese American writer Kyoko Mori; Cuban American Virgil Suarez; and veteran Chicano poet Richard Sanchez.
We are truly cross-cultural, known for our line of fantastic African American poets, but also Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Jamaican Americans, LGBT, Irish Americans, Italian Americans… you name it. This year we are introducing the work of Native American poet Deborah A. Miranda (“Raised by Humans”) and Salvadoran American Leticia Hernandez-Linares (“Mucha Muchacha/Too Much Girl”).
I’m mentioning this because I want to encourage lovers of poetry to buy books by TCP and similar presses. The presses and bookstores above and others like them need continual support from individuals, but also colleges, universities, high schools, and libraries. While the canonical poets like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos William, and Alan Ginsberg are taught and pushed all over the place (I personally love those poets), there are strong contemporary poets that should be appreciated and celebrated today.
From southern California alone, TCP has published wordsmiths like Peter J. Harris, Luivette Resto, Melinda Palacio, and Chiwan Choi. They need to be known among those who love great literature; their books should grace the shelves of bookstores and libraries everywhere.
At this year’s AWP, a number of L.A. small presses will have a booth honoring writers like these. And in 2016, Los Angeles will host the AWP conference at the Convention Center. I, among others, plan to make an indelible impression about L.A.’s presses and writers on the thousands of attendees who will converge in our great city next year.
We don’t have to wait until a poet is dead to value their work. Living poets, including many new and young voices, are here, now. I’m working with the current Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, 17, who will have a book out soon. And I’ll help Urban Word with the selection of the new Youth Poet Laureate this summer. Extraordinary performance poet Matt Sedillo and I will also do workshops on “The Political and the Personal in Poetry” in surrounding communities. And I will be doing events with John Densmore of the Doors, the East L.A. band Quetzal, the amazing Get Lit Players poetry group, Street Poets, and Revolutionary Poets Brigade, among others, as the year progresses.
And to truly represent our city’s literary life, Tia Chucha Press is working on an anthology of L.A. area poets called “The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles.” You can get more information about this at the TCP page of www.tiachucha.org. The deadline is July 1, 2015.
As the assassinated Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton once wrote, “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.”
When Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural non-profit component was established in July of 2003--to enhance the amazing work, presentations, workshops, and artists arising out of Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural, LLC--the then working board (Angelica Loa Perez, Victor Mendoza, and Luis J. Rodriguez, with Michael Centeno as our first director) created the following philosophical statement on August 13, 2003. This served as a guiding document for our present and future work. Twelve years later, the document still stands. I've included this statement below to share the important thoughts, ideas and cosmologies that have informed and guided this invaluable cultural space in the Northeast San Fernando Valley:
Mission: Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural is a not-for-profit learning and cultural arts center. We support and promote the continued growth, development and holistic learning of our community through the many powerful means of the arts. The Centro provides a positive space for people to activate what we all share as human beings: The capacity to create, to imagine and to express ourselves in an effort to improve the quality of life for our community.
Statement: We are dedicated to the full and complete social, spiritual and cultural growth of persons, families and communities in the Northeast San Fernando Valley and beyond. We base our work on the concept that a complete human being is a complete artist. Through arts and creativity, we can meaningfully address issues of fear, violence, addiction, rage, uncertainty, and social instability that are rampant in our communities. Creativity is the best way out of chaos and perennial crisis. Everyone is inherently blessed with gifts, attributes and capacities. People don’t come into this world as empty vessels where knowledge must be poured into them. They already have destinies and purposes intrinsic to their natures. Our job as teachers and mentors is to draw out and help activate these gifts so that each person can live out the life they are meant to live.
We base ourselves on the indigenous world outlooks that include the following realities: All things are connected. We are all relatives – including all people and all aspects of nature. We must cooperate and commit to the betterment of all people. If our society makes sure people’s basic needs are met – food, shelter, and clothing – but also their needs to be active, artistic, expressive and caring, we will have true peace and true justice. There are hungers and angers that have to be properly addressed. We also know that the world and universe are connected from the macro to the micro levels and back. Everything we need to survive, live and thrive exists in nature. Nature is both external and internal. We must be balanced in our thinking, actions and interactions. Whatever heals us can also kill us. Balance is the law of nature that makes sure we are healed and protected; when we are imbalanced, we move away from these possibilities.
There are various elements in our bodies, our psyches and in the world that must be addressed by community, the arts and collective rituals. The key elements are: Fire, which represents passion, vision, clarity and ancestors; water which represents healing, reconciliation, grief and fluidity; earth which represents welcoming, acknowledgment, grounding, stability and nurturing; minerals (rocks and such) which represent stories, poetry, music, and the languages of life and learning; and nature that includes the trees, plants, and air which represents change in all things.
All human beings have the same elements inside of them. Fire is represented by the heat of our bodies (98 degrees – we’re burning up) and the heart; water is represented by our blood and tears (we are also 70 percent water, same as the earth); earth is presented by our skin and embracing natures; minerals are in our bones, carrying the stories of our human and ancestral life; nature is in our hair and our lungs (the trees of the body with air and the branches of our lungs interacting so we can live). All is energized and dependent on Spirit.
These are the five elements that also correspond to the five senses, our five fingers, our five openings in the body, and so on. Among the Mexika, as in the Calendario, there were five creations that in turn kept flowing in continuum with the fifth creation representing movement (Ollin) just like the fifth element nature represents change. We also are governed by the supreme generating principle of the universe – Ometeotl, or the two complements of male and female energies that also correspond to all opposites vital to life and struggle and change: light and dark, up and down, in and out, and so on. We cannot have one without the other – all males have female qualities, all females have male qualities, we need both energies consciously and unconsciously to have true birth, growth, decay, and new birth – the process of all organization, form, art, and life.
The growth of life is in a spiral, not in a straight line or in cycles that go back to original forms. All things mature, develop, grow and die (or change), but on a higher level. Part of the past is taken into the future, part of it is sublated. New forms, new organizations, new entities are thus born. All life is birth, growth, death and rebirth. All modern science – whether it’s called dialectics, the transitions from quantity to quality, the unity and strife of opposites, the negation of the negation, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, E=MC2, string theory – has been the modern world crawling and clawing to grapple with what the ancient indigenous mind already understood.
This does not mean human kind should return to lower technological levels in our quest to root ourselves in that mind. We have this knowledge in our bones, in our DNA, in our collective unconscious, brought to life in rituals, ceremonies, prayers, language and the arts. We are seeing that the presently highly advanced technological levels afford us a spiracle conclusion of an old issue – the alignment of the ancient indigenous mindset with the modern technological advancements.
This alignment will require a revolution of mind, body, organization, economics, distribution, forms of governance, and relationships – as part of our evolutionary growth as human beings. This is not just a good idea; it’s part of reality and nature. We are in an epoch of revolution – necessary and tumultuous. Aligning our consciousness to these objective factors in society will also allow our spirits to live in accord with the rhythms, elements and direction of nature. That is the lesson of all mythologies, stories, ways of knowledge, including so-called religious beliefs, which have been mutated and misapplied due to political, social and economic pressures, in particular, over the last 5,000 years of so-called modern civilization. We must bring back the essence of most spiritual expression without the shredded garbs, lies, distortions and narrow aims put on them over those years.
Humankind’s goal should be to bring the internal powers, faculties and capacities of each human being into accord with the great energies, renewing sources and paths in our common relationships and in our natural/cosmological reality.
Of course, Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural is bound by the Western-oriented, U.S. created laws and legalities of present-day capitalist oriented not-for-profit organizations. We aim to abide by these laws while also expanding our knowledge, relationships and movement to what the past and the future demand of us – to incorporate the ancient indigenous mind and wisdom within the present actualities of modern life and culture so that every person, every family and every community can live deeply rooted, meaningful and purposeful lives.
To find out more about Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore, and to donate, please go to www.tiachucha.org
My second blogpost for the Los Angeles Public Library website is reprinted below:
“Well, write poetry, for God’s sake, it’s the only thing that matters.”
That statement, by a U.S. poet known for highly stylized poems, who’s own views moved from Unitarian to Republican, may appear odd, contrived, out of touch. I can’t say Cummings’ words are entirely true. How can poetry be all that matters? Most poets wouldn’t say that. Even good teachers can’t claim their students are all that matter. Or a master mechanic wouldn’t say that of cars.
Yet it’s a declaration we need to seriously consider, especially in our culture where poetry is relegated to the margins, to a “weird” art, as a rarely compensated or honored practice outside of a small, and often contentious, group of people.
Today we have to ask: Does poetry matter at all?
It’s hard to assign worth when there is a hierarchy of “values” hanging over our heads determined not by nature or science, but powerful men. I’m not talking about family values or cool traits. I’m talking net worth. The bottom line—“if it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense.”
If that’s the case, poetry should cease to exist.
Many of us are among a disparate class of “po’ poets.” Yet the art persists; like a genetically evolved organism, it adapts. Poetry is strong among the young, the displaced and overlooked. It sprouts in movements like the “free verse” movement, the imagists, the confessionals, the Beats, the 60s movement of black and brown poets, the formalists, Hip Hop, slam poetry, and more.
Poetry in its varied forms of presentation is growing in MFA programs; thriving at open mics in cafes, bookstores, storefronts, schools, libraries, bars. And there are presses, hanging by thin threads, I admit, that only publish poetry.
Despite the constraints, poetry continues to be, as British poet Matthew Arnold once stated, “simply the most beautiful, impressive, and widely effective mode of saying things, and hence its importance.”
Recently I took part with several poets of all colors in reading poems by black writers in response to “Black Lives Matter.” Similar readings have been held around the country to speak out against the disproportionate number of unarmed black people killed by police. Appropriately the organizer read names of those recently killed, including Latinos and others. I read a poem by Henry Dumas, a black fiction writer and poet, who in 1968, at age 33, with two small children at home, was killed by a transit police officer at a Harlem train stop. His “crime”: jumping a turnstile (in a case of “mistaken identity”). All his books were published posthumously.
What a powerful event this was, at “The Sweat Spot” in Silver Lake, with every emotion evoked, singed by diverse voices, and a catharsis driven by a commonality of interest.
Poetry is not easily monetized, industrialized and exploited—hence its lack of “importance” in our modern culture. But its “value” goes beyond the mundane or profit-oriented. Poetry is a way to impressively carry ideas and emotions, which in turn is a way to impact and change this world.
And as long as the world needs changing, we’ll need poetry.
As my friend, the mythologist Michael Meade writes, “It is easy to feel lost and betrayed in a world of increasing alienation, where greed, injustice, and dull materialism obscure the underlying dream of life. There is a path the soul would have us take and a unique way of seeing the world it would have us awaken to. There is a music and rhythm in the body and a song in the soul; both an inner vitality and an instinctive connection to the divine that is the inborn source of great imagination and creativity.”
Poetry is how one establishes a pattern in one’s life, away from and opposed to the inauthentic patterns imposed by others, by norms, by societal value systems. It’s a way—as all artistic practices are—to see life through the lens of our innate dream, our inner impulses.
The “giants” in our world—big institutions, big wealth, big media, big politics (fueled by big wealth)—seem daunting to take on. But poetry can be a David with multiple slingshots: precise imagery, clear ideas, a strong narrative, in the finest sequence of words.
Looking at it this way, I recall times when I was in dark spaces, lost, pissed off, tired as hell. Poetry then came and claimed me. An art, a practice, a passion can do that. When that happens, you may realize the lifelines, the healing powers, are inside of you.
And this is when poetry means everything.
The LA Public Library has posted my first blogpost as the city's new Poet Laureate: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/poet-laureate-poet-illiterate-what
Here it is reprinted below:
When I received the call last September from Mayor Eric Garcetti that I’d been chosen as the new Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, I had to keep this quiet until the official announcement in October. However, I did mention this to a few people, most of whom looked at me with a smile and confused expression.
“What’s a ‘poet laureate’?” one asked.
My so-called best friend wisecracked, “Did you say ‘poet illiterate’?”
I knew then I was in trouble.
Okay, I’m only the city’s second poet laureate, following the brief tenure of L.A.’s wonderful poet, Eloise Klein Healy. Still it’s about time this term became a household name. In fact, the U.S. now has more poet laureates than ever before, around 45 in cities big and small. There are poet laureates for states, communities, small towns, and Native American reservations (Luci Tapahonso is the first Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation). In the L.A. area, there are poet laureates in Sunland-Tujunga, Altadena, among other communities. And sponsored by New York City-based Urban Word, there is a Youth Poet Laureate, 16-year-old Amanda Gorman (we read together at Beyond Baroque on February 28).
California’s Poet Laureates have included my friends Al Young, Carol Muske-Dukes, and Juan Felipe Herrera. Also San Francisco has had a poetry mentor of mine, Jack Hirschman, as well as an old friend, Alejandro Murguia, as poet laureates.
And we can’t forget that Charles Wright is currently the U.S. Poet Laureate, a position held by a leading U.S. poet since 1937. The present title, however, wasn’t authorized until an Act of Congress in 1985—they were known as “Consultants in Poetry” before then.
The Poet Laureate tradition is long—poet laureates were first recognized in Italy during the 14th century. Ben Johnson became England’s first poet laureate in 1616, although the first “official” poet laureate, John Dryden, received his appointment in 1668. In ancient Greece, a laurel or crown was given to honor poets and heroes. Such honors were bestowed to the best poets of the time—and those who could best chronicle in verse their times.
Yet for me the tradition goes farther back to African griots, other oral storytellers from around the world, and to the massive cities and temples of the Mayans and Mexikas (the misnamed Aztecs), whose so-called rulers were known as Huey Tlatoani—Great Speaker.
With this grand legacy, Danielle Brazell, LA City’s Department of Cultural Affairs’ General Manager, and John Szabo, our City Librarian, also gave me license “to make this position what you want.”
For sure, I’ll be working closely with the vast Public Library system, the Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Mayor’s Office. I’ve already met with L.A. County’s Human Resources Department. I’ll be part of this year’s “Big Read” book events, celebrating the novel “Into the Beautiful North” by Chicano writer Luis Alberto Urrea with an inaugural push at City Hall on March 25. The annual “Celebrating Words” outdoor literacy & arts festival, to take place in Pacoima, will honor the Poet Laureate and the Big Read on June 6 (organized by Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and sponsored by the Department of Cultural Affairs and California Arts Council, among others). We’ll also take part in LeaLA! (Read LA), the Spanish-language book fair from May 15 to 17.
Since January 1, I have already read a poem in Nahuatl (language of the Mexikas and spoken by more than 2 million indigenous people in Mexico and Central America) for the “Endangered Languages” event at the Hammer Museum; wrote two sonnets and a free verse poem for the People’s State of the Union presentation at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City; talked to students whose parents are in prison for POPS (Pain in the Prison System) at Venice High School; read at the Alivio Open Mic in Bell CA; submitted a “Love Poem to L.A.” to key publications; spoke at Claremont College of Theology; had media interviews with Los Angeles Magazine, LA Daily News, KCET-TV, Univision, Telemundo, MundoFox, TV Azteca, KPPC-FM…and more.
Where do we go from here?
I say everywhere. The schools. The various colorful and flavorful neighborhoods. Tapping into this city’s reservoir of rich languages and traditions. Working with youth poetry groups like Get Lit Players, Street Poets, and Say Word. Visiting and taking part in as many Open Mics as I can, including Tia Chucha’s Open Mic held every Friday night (www.tiachucha.org). Create poetry videos. Perhaps anthologies of youth and other writings.
I’m also inviting any of you to send me ideas. Write me at LuisPoetLaureate@gmail.com. Let’s make poetry a revolutionary and healing act. Let’s make poetry an everyday, every occasion, thing. Let’s sing our lives, our traumas and our triumphs, with the powerful means of words, images, voices, our hearts and minds.
This paper by Luis J. Rodriguez was presented at the Second California Network for Revolutionary Change Conference at the XL Public House in Salinas CA to two dozen revolutionaries, community leaders, activists, writers, artists, and more from throughout the state.
The Story of Our Day: Moving Our Imaginations to the Immense Revolutionary Potential in America
“The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree.”
—Henry David Thoreau
“To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But, for man, the root is man himself.”
“You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming”—Pablo Neruda
Every age has its story, the mythology of the day if you will, that actually corresponds to real processes, real motive forces, and can typify where we need to go. This paper is trying to get at revolution from another angle, one that maintains the content of our science, based on intense study and experiences, and utilizes the powerful means of the imagination and the arts.
Let me say plainly, the arts are not a peripheral or nice thing to do as we endeavor to shape and bring about a truly just and encompassing world. In fact as society moves toward a more creative/inventive stage in history—based on the digital modes of production among other things—the arts become key to our core, enlivened by this statement: To become a complete human being is to become a complete artist.
We need a society that aligns all its resources, technology and wealth to this aim, where every human being is healthy in body, mind and spirit, and is able to draw on their gifts, passions and propensities to contribute and make their mark in this world.
Governance streamlined to the full and comprehensive benefit of everyone.
For now let’s summarize where we’re at today: We are living in uncertain times. Everything is in crisis—economies, politics, families, work, structures, ideologies, and even religions. The past is tearing apart the present. The present appears to be on skates, speeding downhill with no brakes. And the future looms with a challenge—can we make the adequate societal choices, move from a scarcity world into one of abundance, bringing harmony to crucial relationships that can regenerate life, relationships key to nature, our personal natures, and each other?
Can we have healthy and strong people in a healthy and strong earth?
The Left in today’s shifting realities
It’s evident to me that the global “Left,” whatever arose from progressive, revolutionary thought and organization in the last century, is also floundering. If everything is in crisis, so are organizations that claim the mantle of revolution. This makes sense and is quite necessary. Much of the Left acts as if they are immune to this fact.
Revolutionary organizations must change or die—change the form to save the content. The content, however, is shifting as the economic base of society shifts. The revolutionaries and activists that are succeeding know where we’re going, and then how to invigorate a new way of getting there.
The next phase of human development is integrality, the conscious structural transformations that integrate truth, beauty, and whatever is decent in this world (call this the proper unity of science, art and morality). This can only be unleashed when the foundations of society are no longer based on class-rule, private property, exploitation.
This level of wellness must include that everyone have their own authority, their own minds and hearts, and be allowed to tap into their own inexhaustible capacities.
All of this is unequivocally incompatible with global capitalism. Therefore the predicament we face is this—can humanity continue to progress while under the stranglehold of the current economic and political system whose driving force is maximum profits?
The simple answer: We can’t.
The juncture in human development
For the first time, humanity is faced with the evolutionary growth of our planet that is not just contingent on organic biological changes (following Darwin’s Law of Natural Selection), where external pressures force corresponding internal alterations so that life can persist. Today the conscious human participation of aligned ideas, plans, technologies, and governance must be brought to bear, or we fail to continue as a species.
We are in a time of a true awakening, a time to know, instead of believe; to think, instead of react; to imagine greater instead of staying caught in the outmoded class-based matrix that includes such illusions as borders, mortgages, the wage system, hierarchical power, and even money.
Certainly this is a weighty proposition, full of risks, with seemingly insurmountable obstacles and no evident guideposts. This is largely because we are entering a “pathless path.” We’ve been here before, but at the same time we have never been at this exact point as human beings. What we’ve learned over the millenniums about social interaction, natural and cosmic alignments, the primacy of objective/material life, the powerful impact of a connected spiritual life, and our own bodies and brains, will definitely help. Social knowledge up to the present, including any sophisticated revolutionary theories, can be our guide.
However, I contend we also have to figure out new ways through this.
In 2011, some forty activists, thinkers and artists established the Network for Revolutionary Change in Chicago to draw out, teach and engender another generation of visionary and practical leaders to respond powerfully to the unraveling economic and political realities. We also needed to take part in and push forward a growing revolutionary tide in the United States. At the time, up to 250,000 people marched regularly in Madison, Wisconsin, and the Occupy movement was establishing itself on Wall Street and beyond. Our goal was to unite the scattered movements, regardless of their ideologies or political bents, into a powerful conscious social force to realign the prevailing system of production, distribution and rule.
In other words, against capitalism itself, while at the same time not fall into the traps of the old Left. As we can see, this is quite a dance, one with many missteps and stumbling.
To reiterate, the once heroic and amazingly responsive Left in the United States is in shambles. This is characterized by destructive infighting, big egos, self-sabotage (even if we take into account agents and disrupters). The result is a deepening disconnection. In relation to this, the majority of the Left has fallen into two major pitfalls: Sectarianism or “tailism.” Many on the Left are so “correct” they can’t muddy themselves in real practical activity OR they get lured and caught up in rudderless activities, forgetting to lend strategic direction from within.
Huge gaps now exist between the ideological thinkers and those leaders flowering organically from the social struggles. Despite our best efforts, the Network is also caught in this dilemma. Still I’m convinced we can—with creative thinking and appropriate actions—move forward through the opportunity the crisis presents.
The stories to guide us
How to proceed? What stories can possibly carry the vigor and character of what must be done?
First, it’s evident the “racial” story cannot hold as firmly as before. Neither can the “there-are-no-classes” story or the concept of the trickle-down “generosity” of the capitalist class. I can go on and on. Even if many of these narratives still gather steam that train is largely coming to a halt.
Second, it’s important to note that churches, unions, community organizations, nonprofits, trailer parks, and other similar “spaces,” often not considered part of the revolutionary process, also have the potential for new ways of thinking, organizing and winning. As a Network we have to go beyond preconceptions and consider the very real, although hard to fathom, possibilities that our participants may also come from the NRA, militias, evangelicals, and more.
For sure we’ll have to influence and win over millions of Christians. Even with deep indoctrination (not the case for all, mind you) they are also being pushed into the crossroads with the rest of us. You cannot have revolution in this country without Christians at the heart of it.
Nonetheless we can start with the currently pissed off and moving—the undeterred women, youth, immigrants, LGBT communities, communities of color, the artists, the unemployed, students, and more who are in some way the least vested in keeping capitalism going. They run the gamut from class conscious to variably socially conscious. They number in the millions.
What story, strategies or plans can possibly pull together such a diverse spectrum of the U.S. population? We can start by clarifying the unity-in-diversity needed for real revolution. This requires we reach out beyond the obvious differences to the common issues connecting these people—poverty, peace, environmental health, and social justice.
And we must clarify how inseparable these issues are—we cannot have environmental and social justice as long as there is poverty, and no peace without environmental and social justice.
This is why our stories can also draw from the long-held U.S. ideals of fairness, equity, common good, and more—by making sure our future is aligned to Nature and its laws, and by being class conscious, philosophically mature, global in content, and unable to be taken off track.
The learning process
How do we learn? For sure, we can’t be afraid of mistakes. We are following a historical trajectory, but also standing on new ground. Fear of mistakes is tantamount to fear of growth. Yet, learn and learn we must. Doing the same thing over and over again with little or no results only places us among the insane. The point is to make mistakes in the right direction, toward more inclusive and widening nets, instead of mistakes in the direction of subterfuge, disguise, not being “found out” to avoid scrutiny by the state at any costs, essentially being “safe” at the expense of making history.
Since we can’t totally avoid dangers in this work, let’s be in the right “danger.” Yet this isn’t a call for provocative, heavy-handed or cage-rattling tactics, or to be naïve about the power of the state. This is a call to be bold, think big, while maintaining vision and artfulness.
Proper adaptations come from having firm and deep roots. And adapt we must. Our gauge should be the revolutionizing practice of the working class—the more developed and united they become the better we know our influence and strength. Any self-respecting revolutionary has no other measure. Either our ideas are grasped by a significant number of people, prepared to carry out corresponding organizing and actions, or we have not done what we set out to do.
No more disconnections, no more schizophrenic divisions between “leaders” and “followers,” teachings and practice, authoritative people and so-called non-authoritative people, theory and reality, a “mass” medium and a “class-conscious” one.
To repeat, the value of arts in revolution is more paramount than ever. Again we need stories, which are also schools, but also other sense-and-spirit activating mediums. Stealth is how to do battle “under the radar,” so to speak, without drawing unwanted attention, yet effectively spreading ideas through the powers of the pen, the paintbrush, the drum, the dance… as well as the Internet, smart phones, on apps and podcasts.
Subtlety is the art of refinement: How to draw on flowing language, aesthetic qualities, and resonating concepts. This is battle without doing battle.
Still the war is upon us
Of course, we should prepare for actual battles. We can’t doubt the ruling class will respond as they always have—with violence, fear and deflection. They are doing so as we speak. The growing militarization of the police, where the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have come home, is their answer to increasing poverty and growing discontent.
The police juggernaut strikes hardest at the Achilles heel of U.S capitalism, the African American people, who are disproportionately targeted by police and mass incarceration. But the long-range aim is all of us. That’s why “Black Lives Matter.” No argument there. But the move is for us is declare all lives are sacred, uniting with the African American mass response as well as connecting the dots. That’s one crucial reason why the Salinas police murders need more widespread attention and support. Not one more death at the hands of police, regardless of race, sexual orientation or mental state. The fractured responses in the long run will hurt us.
Tapping into the rhythms of revolution
Reaching people by stories means they plug into revolutionary politics and activities by connecting to their own stories, regardless of ideologies or beliefs. This is different than using ideology as the main way to plug in people since this requires that they only do so by accepting one major “idea.” One way. One connection. Extremely limiting.
Monotony is rooted in the concept “one tone,” which is tiresome and repetitive. We need to speak, write, and move in many “tones,” reaching through a spectrum of ideas, sentiments, hopes, to move in many rhythms.
To expand on this we need to master the “art” of revolution—how we speak, write, teach, and organize is all driven by the artful competence in each of us. It has to be complex, pleasing, and able to delve into deep emotions. Use aesthetic arrest enough to get people to stop and think. Yet authentic and heart-felt enough to reach millions.
Art is the nexus of science and imagination.
Let’s carry forth the rich and invaluable knowledge, concepts, history and content of revolutionaries everywhere, but do this with new forms, new language, new means of participation.
As others have said better than me, we need to reframe the dialogue, fully challenge the official stories as well as the scarcity thinking and living framed by the fear-driven precepts of this ruling class, its political parties and mass media.
This is not an attempt to move toward “the middle,” which Democrats and Republicans are always doing, not changing positions but their “message” so they can attract the majority of U.S. voters. Or to be “populist,” sacrificing the long-range for short-range acceptance. We must be generative, far-reaching, cutting edge while not straying from the foundations of this greatest of all causes—removing the last shackles on human minds, labor, sexuality, visions, and capacities.
For us reforms push forward revolution and revolution completes all reforms.
To borrow from John Lennon: Imagine a world free of banks, corporations, landed aristocrats, wars and poverty; imagine a world free of injustice, hunger, homelessness, and despair. And envision what kind of world is truly possible, already being born as we gather, already pulsing beneath the skin of its workers, the poor, the pushed out; already seeded in their hearts, in their songs, in their best dreams for America and the world.
And then imagine the Network for Revolutionary Change as indispensable for this to happen—from dream to vision to reality.
For several weeks now two incidents have sparked outrage in two countries that are often described in separate news reports. They are, however, inexorably linked.
The incidents: The police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014; and the killing of six students as well as the abductions and apparent murders of 43 students around September 26 in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico.
I’ve been closely following both stories. The responsible parties are similar—government forces acting to maintain a status quo where the poor and the dark skinned—the historically disempowered—are kept compliant and terrorized.
Deadly force by police in the United States is carried out more often against the poor and working class of all ethnicities, but at a higher rate for African Americans. The Washington Post on November 25 reported that one study found blacks from 2010 to 2012 were 21 times more likely than whites to be killed by police. In Los Angeles County alone, according to the November 27, 2014 edition of the Los Angeles Times, 590 people were killed by various county law enforcement agencies from January 1, 2000 and August 31, 2014. Latinos made up 50 percent of the victims while 27 percent were black—although blacks make up only 10 percent of the county’s population.
The national and local outrage is justified as the numbers of police officers who get exonerated continues unchecked. The apparent manipulation of the grand jury system by Missouri prosecutor Bob McCullough in the Michael Brown shooting follows the pattern of not holding police accountable. Even U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia says the grand jury process appeared to be turned on its head with improprieties like having police officer Darren Wilson testify or presenting exculpatory evidence, as if McCullough were trying the case, which is not the job of a grand jury.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people have been protesting in Mexico City and in Guerrero state against the disappearances and murders of Ayotzinapa’s students in Iguala. So far bodies have been found in mass graves, and a bag of body remains were removed from a nearby lake. The mayor and his wife as well as police chief fled, but were eventually found and arrested. Guerrero’s state governor has resigned. But more may still happen as there is pressure for Mexico’s president Enrique Pena Nieto to step down.
So far 100,000 Mexicans have been killed and another 25,000 have disappeared since late 2006 when former president Felipe Calderon began a failed drug “war”—with pressure and funds from the U.S. government. The Mexican people are fed up with alleged government ties to drug cartels and other criminal enterprises. Many of those killed were at the hands of police or troops.
This is at a time when the poverty rate in Mexico has been over 50 percent and the gap between the wealthy and poor has widened. A similar process is underway in the United States.
The growing militarization of police in both countries is directed at those people lost in the income inequality gap, frustrated with lack of jobs, home foreclosures, or increasing barriers to education and quality healthcare. This is to control a growing class of “have nots,” the 99 percent.
We are facing the same enemy in the U.S. and in Mexico. This enemy is an economic, political and cultural system, not just a few government officials or capitalists. It is a system to keep people exploited, without power, and vulnerable. It’s time for us—the poor, the laboring classes, both employed and unemployed, regardless of skin color—to come together in our own interests. The protests are expressing our resistance. Now we have to build momentum toward a new system of social relations that aligns our advanced technology to meet our needs. This can only happen when real power and society’s wealth are in our hands.
Iguala and Ferguson are twin features of this struggle.
Salinas, California may be as far removed from Ferguson, Missouri as a city can get. Salinas is known best for John Steinbeck, lettuce, and Cesar Chavez jailed during conflicts between the United Farm Workers Union and growers.
What Salinas has in common with Ferguson and other communities are deeply significant: Poverty amid an area with extravagant wealth, race discrimination, and violence. And there is a disturbing trend of police murders involving unarmed residents—in Salinas five since March of this year.
The highly publicized murder by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, leading to ongoing civil disturbances, is worthy of community outrage—and meaningful government action. Yet few if any commentators have linked Brown’s death with those that may involve Latinos, as in Salinas, or whites, as in Fullerton, CA.
Blacks in this country have faced a horrendous history of violence by law enforcement. During the 1960s many civil upheavals were sparked by police attacks on unarmed black men or women. The 1992 Los Angeles Uprising blew up after a jury acquitted four Los Angeles Police Department officers in the beating of Rodney King.
Yet historically Mexicans and Puerto Ricans have also been on the same end of the police stick. And there are an increasing number of poor whites that are feeling the disdain of power in uniform. Examples include the homeless, such as James Boyd of Albuquerque, shot in the back by police, and Kelly Thomas, beaten to death by officers in Orange County.
If we don’t connect the dots, the police murders in Salinas—that involved Mexicans and Salvadorans—may seem removed, rarities, unimportant.
Most of the poor and Spanish-speaking population lives in East Salinas, on the “wrong side” of the 101 Freeway. On the west end are predominately better-off communities. Some people call this divide the “lettuce” curtain. From March through July of this year, police killed four East Salinas residents who had no weapons, save work tools like a leafing knife, shears, or a common cell phone. One young woman videotaped officers with guns drawn against one of those residents; the man appeared scared, disoriented, trying to walk away before an officer shot him. The victims were Angel Ruiz, Osman Hernandez, Carlos Mejia-Gomez, and Frank Alvarado.
They were human beings, worthy of life, respect and remembering. Their families deserve compassion and justice.
Unfortunately, last month Salinas police reportedly tasered and tussled with an allegedly drug-induced Jaime Garcia, 35, before he succumbed. Official reports say prior health conditions and drugs may have led to his death. Yet an hour after Garcia perished, his core body temperature was reportedly 104.9 degrees, possibly caused by the combination of drugs, health issues and electric shock.
Over the years I’ve gone to Salinas several times, talking in schools, colleges and community centers, addressing gang violence and community healing. I’ve spoken and done poetry readings at nearby Soledad Prison. When I ran for governor as a Green Party candidate leading up to the June 2014 primary elections, Salinas impressed me with its leaders and organizers willing to challenge the status quo. I even marched with around 4,000 people last May to protest the police killings.
During the campaign, I also visited the sites where 13-year-old Andy Lopez of Santa Rosa, CA had been killed by a sheriff’s officer, and where Alex Nieto, 28, was slain by police on San Francisco’s Bernal Hill, next to a neighborhood I once stayed in.
Now I lend my voice, and forty years of expertise in urban peace, gang intervention and police-community relations, to see an end to police terror and mass incarceration. This is necessary for true community political and economic empowerment.
The country is in intense turmoil around the militarization of police in the midst of deepening income inequality. All the deaths at the hands of law enforcement must be reckoned with. In this reckoning, we cannot forget those who fell in Salinas, California.
“It is in our self interest to wake up, speaking for ourselves from our own authority”
These words came from L.A.-based community, arts and women’s healing activist Trini Rodriguez during the California Network for Revolutionary Change gathering she co-chaired on October 18. With around thirty leaders, thinkers, students, teachers, writers, labor organizers, politicians, poets, indigenous speakers, and artists, the meeting was held in the Salinas barrio of Alisal (East Salinas), one of the most violent, poor and educationally challenged communities. It is also a community on the rise, especially after police killed four residents since March of this year.
Earlier this year some 4,000 people marched across Salinas to protest the murders of these unarmed people (except for work tools or a “cell phone”), including three farm workers and a young man who had been trying to get his life together after being paroled.
Shadowed by the media coverage of the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, these deaths in Salinas are nonetheless tightly linked to a militarized police presence among the poor and working class across the U.S.
The Cal-NRC meeting drew from the hundreds of supporters who stepped up after the Luis J. Rodriguez campaign for governor. Many who could not be there sent greetings and well wishes, interested in the continuing connections.
Frank Alvarado Sr., father of one of the persons police recently killed, spoke for the first time. He said, “I’m glad to be here—it’s time we organized for justice... for my son, for the whole community.”
This network aims to fill in the gaps facing those individuals, independent organizations, nonprofits, churches, labor groups, community centers, and artist collectives responding to the deepening economic and political crisis in the country. We need a network from which the practical and conscious leaders can interact, dialogue, strategize, learn, teach, and provide technical assistance when needed as more and more people lose jobs, homes, healthcare, educational resources—and are subject to mass incarceration, poisoned environment, police terror.
“We don’t need to replicate or duplicate other efforts,” said Anthony Prince, community lawyer and co-convener. “We are not just about creating a coalition or a support group for other struggles, although these aspects may be included.”
In essence, the NRC plans to be the connective tissue between the scattered and isolated persons and groups who understand there must be deep systemic and comprehensive change in how the economy is organized and the country is governed. Increasing numbers of people are aware how governance and industry is predicated to protect and uphold the private property demands of the 1 percent—the wealthy capitalists, corporations and financiers ruling this country.
It’s time, as Trini says, to assert our own authority, to rule ourselves, in our interests, for the benefit of everyone.
Present at the gathering were Latinos (Mexican, Central American, Colombian), African Americans, Asians, whites, LGBT, indigenous, disabled, elderly, young, middle-aged, and more—representative of California’s embattled populations.
As Triqui native man from Oaxaca said, “Somos completo ya” (we are now complete).”
Please go to www.canetworkforrevolutionarychange.org to keep up on our future gathering and organizing efforts. Please donate and lend your name to this growing unity-in-diversity organization.