En Lak Ech – You Are the Other Me

Once in 2001 while on a two-week speaking tour of schools, Boys & Girls clubs, colleges, and other venues in the state of Delaware, I heard a strange but familiar language. As I washed clothes at a local Laundromat in Georgetown, I noticed about a dozen dark-skinned indigenous men and women addressing themselves in a tongue I recognized as Mayan. It turned out that several hundred Mayan families from Guatemala had migrated here to work in produce, factory, and service jobs.

The following weekend after a church service, I addressed around 300 of these migrants who were then calling the area around Georgetown their home. In my travels as a writer, lecturer, and poet, I’ve met other Native Mexican and Native Central American migrants, including Nahuatl-speaking people from Puebla, Guerrero, Veracruz, and El Salvador; Mixtecos and Zapotecos from Oaxaca; and Yaquis, Huicholes, and Raramuris from northern and central Mexico. There are in fact millions of native-speaking people (many don’t speak Spanish very well) from south of the border now living and working in the United States.

One organization, EcoMaya Festivals based in Los Angeles, claims there are around two millions Mayans from Mexico and Central America in the greater LA area alone. I don’t have actual numbers, but I would say indigenous people from those countries now outnumber the official Native American population (currently at around 3 million people).

Among many Chicanos (US-born or raised persons of Mexican descent) there has been a long history of consciousness and connection to tribal/native roots. Today you see Aztec dance groups in Pow Wows and other community gatherings; Day of the Dead altars and processions sprouting around the country; and Nahuatl (known as the language the Aztecs and other tribal groups spoke, currently in use by 1.5 million people in Mexico) being taught in schools and community centers.

Many Chicanos have also linked with Native American communities and their ceremonies such as sweat lodges and the Sundance, including with the Lakota, Navajo, Hopis, Chumash, and Pueblos. In the US Southwest, intermarriages and alliances between Chicanos and Native Americans have been going on for generations.

Mayan sayings like En Lak Ech are being used by poets and in greetings – this particular expression means “you are the other me.” Implicit in this is what these native peoples carry over to this country – a fascinating and complicated, yet accessible, way of being, living and relating. Another cosmology.

As for me, I have spent about a dozen years linking to my own Native roots as well as studying and practicing indigenous spiritual traditions from the United States, Mexico, and Central America. My mother has family ties to the Raramuri from southern Chihuahua (also known as “Tarahumaras”). My father comes from a large Nahuatl-speaking area in Guerrero that also had significant numbers of former African slaves and Spanish ranchers. I’ve visited the Copper Canyon region of Chihuahua where some 80,000 Raramuri people still live in relatively traditional ways, using their own languages and customs. My wife Trini and I also helped create sweat lodges in our present home community in the San Fernando Valley – and Tia Chucha’s Café & Bookstore has a large section on indigenous books, including Nahuatl-English dictionaries.

Around 10 years ago, a Navajo medicine man, Anthony Lee, and his wife Delores adopted our family; we’ve been driving to the Navajo Nation for ceremonies ever since. This month, Trini and I travel to Peru with some of our sweat lodge circle to partake in healing ceremonies with Native elders and medicine people.

Despite borders, differences in customs and tongues, we are all connected in more ways than one – there are linguistic ties, for example, between Aztecs, northern Mexican tribes, and US tribes such as the Hopis, Shoshone, Arapaho, and Utes. And according to my Purepecha/Chicano friend, Luis Ruan, there is a linguistic connection between Purepechas of Michoacan, Mexico and Quechua-speaking people in Peru.

Two weeks ago, Trini and I went to see “Apocalypto,” the Mel Gibson film about Mayans in the Yucatan a moment (according to Gibson) before the Spanish conquerors arrived to the so-called New World (in reality most Mayans had abandoned the thousands of structures in culturally advanced urban centers some 600 years before the Spanish ever set eyes on these shores).

Taking into account the license film makers have to change history, mix cultures and times, and generally distort whatever they want, I must say there is a deeply disturbing aspect to what is an otherwise visually-arresting and emotionally-wrenching motion picture.

Whatever authenticity in details Gibson claims he achieved in the film, he continues to promote some historically-destructive “Big Lies” that may be missed by those who aren’t as attuned to the subtexts, the messages beneath the messages, that some of us in this culture have had to deal with to orient and maneuver ourselves into the world.

The first one is about the “savagery” of the pre-Columbian peoples that supposedly required a civilized Christian world to overrun, tame and change them.

In the film, Mayans hunt down innocent villagers, they enslave women, they cut out still beating hearts, and pile hacked up bodies in mass graves. The salvation message got nailed at the end when the film’s protagonist runs to the beach, chased by two enemy warriors. After more than two hours of heart sacrifices, rapes, beheadings, and blood sports, there emerges a pristine image of Europeans coming to shore – a priest is among them holding a cross (we know now they came not for God, but for gold). Without words you feel a sense of relief – it’s about time somebody came to stop these brutal and lost cultures! Sure Gibson portrays the villagers on the periphery as nice, funny, loving (in other words, totally idealized), but at the core, in the main centers of art, life, ritual, and work, everything seemed rotten, ugly, despicable (another idealization).

Here’s the reality: There is no proof that Mayans ever practiced large-scale heart-removing human sacrifice, although they were known for blood-letting rituals. Yes, there were also wars between Native groups, brutality, subjugation, and any other drama and trauma that people have been capable of committing from time immemorial – they are human after all. But nothing about mass graves, mass sacrifices, or slave auctions (seen in the movie as if they were in the Deep South).

What’s missing in Gibson’s vision (he’s a known archconservative Catholic) is the fact that the Mayans, like the Aztecs (properly known as Mexikas), the Incas, and others like them were sophisticated, cultivated, spiritually-driven, and intellectually-grounded. At one point in the film, the people act as if they had never seen an eclipse, to be manipulated by blood-thirsty priests and rulers. Yet these cultures had achieved amazing astronomical advances, including devising some of the world’s most accurate calendar systems. The Mayans had a complex writing system, complicated mathematics, wondrous architecture, and advanced achievements in art, botany, zoology, and tools. They also developed sophisticated economic and political systems. They saw no separation between sciences and their spirituality – almost all their practices were tied to natural processes, energies, and events.

You wouldn’t know that from watching “Apocalypto” – or from hearing about or reading most popular accounts of pre-Columbian societies. This is precisely what Gibson is banking on – the public’s conception of what they don’t know or think they know about these people. Gibson, like many others before him, has filled in the missing narrative: Mayans, like other native peoples, were extremely violent and ungodly – they deserved to be destroyed.

Even LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan on December 8, 2006 wrote, “Given that penchant [for violence], it was only a matter of time until [Gibson] would find his way to a civilization that enthusiastically practiced human sacrifice.”

This is simply not true. That “Big Lie” was first expounded by Hernan Cortez and his Spanish invaders to justify the wanton destruction of the orderly and clean Mexika city of Mexiko-Tenochtitlan. Supposedly with a flint knife, priests were able to rapidly remove the heart while the victims watched it throbbing in the priest’s hand. In one account, thousands were thus slain in one day. Yet even today with modern tools, it takes around 15 to 20 minutes to open up the sternum and the surrounding tissues to reach the heart. But we’re supposed to believe a few priests could do this to hundreds, even thousands, in a few hours.

There is a very strong indigenous and academic movement in Mexico against large scale human sacrifice by any of the major indigenous cultures. They contend that most Western scholars studying these matters are wrong – except from a mythological viewpoint, since there is a strong mythological basis for sacrifice. But this is different than actual systematic human sacrifice. Supposedly sacrifices among the Maya involved Cenotes: deep water wells. Some may have occurred following ritual ball games. If they did exist, however, it was done ritually, not among captives or slaves, but among leaders, honored people, warriors in "flowery wars" (among the Mexikas), and considered an honored thing – you would reach the highest levels of the 13 heavens.

But again, most of this is mythology – very little evidence of this except in some skewed materials. For example, the finding of actual human blood on stones in the Templo Mayor in Mexico City, which scholars readily concluded was due to human sacrifices. It may have been blood letting or a result of mass slaughter during the seize of Tenochtitlan. There is nothing about heart sacrifices in any of the codices before the Spanish arrived. There are around 20 Meso-American codices in the world. Only three are pre-Columbian. The rest were done under the order and guidance of Spanish priests. Here human sacrifice, especially heart sacrifice, is greatly illustrated.

The first accounts ever of human heart sacrifice appeared in a letter from Cortez to the Spanish crown. Then there was a major account from one of Cortez's soldiers, Bernal Diaz de Castillo. Gibson is going beyond even the worse of these claims with “Apocalypto.” He even reportedly changed an image in one of the murals where a ruler is extending his hand in a gesture – Gibson had someone paint a heart there (this shows up in one of the scenes).

The Spanish used human sacrifice to justify their destruction. Even the Cathedral and other buildings were built from the very stones of Tenochtitlan’s pyramids. They killed off millions of Natives through war, slavery, and stake burnings (for those who refused to convert to Christianity). Many more were killed from the diseases the conquerors brought with them, such as small pox.

In fact, within 50 years of the Spanish arrival to the Valley of Mexico, the native population went from 25 million people to 2.5 million people. David E. Stannard in his classic 1992 Book, “American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World” (NYC: Oxford University Press) estimates that 95 to 98 percent of the people in the hemisphere perished by swords, guns, famine, slavery, conversion, and, most significantly, illness.

Whatever “human sacrifice” has been fantasized about the indigenous people of this land, the real human sacrifice that occurred after the European invasion is the most monstrous, still resonating hundreds of years later in our own damaged topography of land, culture, ideas, and interests. Remember that Guatemala Mayans were systematically killed, an estimated 140,000, including women and children, during the 36-year Civil War that ended in 1996 (where real mass graves of broken bodies existed).

Yet we are still here, us brown-red people. We are the two to five percent that survived, and are now revitalizing the political and social landscapes of Bolivia, Ecuador, Central America, Mexico (then as now, the country with more native peoples than any other), and parts of the United States and Canada.

Everything is now turned on its head – the brown-skinned native-rooted people among the Mexican and Central American migrants to the US, with roots to these lands as deep as anyone’s, are now the “foreigners,” “strangers,” and “illegals.” However, they also carry a new world view that is about balance (supposedly Gibson “real” message), cooperation, and restoration. There is much we can learn from these teachers who themselves are students of nature, relationships, the stars.

This cosmology is summarized in En Lak Ech, “you are the other me.” We are all related, all life, all being, all things, linked and unified and important. If only an amazing filmmaker could truly grasp the significance of this and find a means to portray it in such a vitally important public space. Instead, Gibson re-portrays the old lies to suit and benefit a worn-out and dangerous religious ideology.

Native people may have had their issues, conflicts, and mistakes, but they were sovereign, earth-connected, and free: Shame on Gibson for trying to correct the present roller coaster madness of war, ecological damage, and disaffection at the expense of the very people whose blood and bones became a major underpinning of this so-called civilization.
Read more

The Immigration Issue Revisited

In the last month, I received these responses to a blog piece I posted on May 4, 2006 called “Unfounded Fears Drive Anti-Immigrant Movement.” While most responses to my blog have been positive, from time to time I like to post the negative reactions. It’s important to see the level of dialogue on this (at times very low). Any typos or grammatical errors I’ve left in the letters. I also have my responses at the end of each letter.

I stumbled upon your site and your views of illegal immigrants and those who are against them being here. There are extremists on both sides of this issue that is true. There are the Mexicans filled with hate and disdain for our country and our language and our culture and they just want to take for themselves and have no interest in assimilating into our culture. There are Mexicans who think we STOLE the southern states from them which is preposterous because we paid a hefty sum during the Guadalupe Hidalgo treaty for those parts of the US now known as California, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. There are just as many racists on the side of illegal aliens as there are in the groups fighting them.

In the middle you have regular Americans who see illegal aliens with barely a high school education coming into our country and taking unskilled jobs as if Americans won't do them. Who did those jobs before? Robots? What Americans won't do is live in houses like dogs with 20 people sharing the same home. Americans cannot afford the wages paid to illegals because they pay taxes and they like to live ONE family to a home. Americans don't want Mexicans in their neighborhood living 20 people to a home. This is a stretch on the services for that neighborhood which expects a single family per home and now there are 20 people's waste going into the sewers and 20 people are using electricity and on and on.

Our government already has laws in place that says it is ILLEGAL to cross our borders without permission and enter this country. There is a reason we have immigration laws and that is the right of ANY country, including Mexico. Mexico has stricter immigration laws than the US. Why is it that the US gets criticized for trying to enforce their own immigration laws? How you distort this picture so. This is all regular Americans want and a LOT of us want that. A LOT of us are not extremists. A LOT of us are fed up having to press "1" for English. This looks a lot more like an invasion to us because "your people" refuse to assimilate and learn our language and abide by our laws.

The crime rate among illegal aliens is 2.5 times higher than it is for average Americans. So I think the fear that people have over unknown people flooding into our country is a very well-founded fear. Furthermore, lots of enemies of the US are taking advantage of the sieve of a border we have to the south and planting sleeper cells into our country. So stop trying to make this about discrimination or demonizing of illegals. The facts speak for themselves and the majority of Americans are waking up to this threat and getting active. And that is going to mean a LOT more Hazletons and Farmer's Branches and Escondidos that pass bans on hiring illegals. And then your precious illegals will
have to go home.

If our government passes Amnesty for the millions of illegal criminals who are here, there will be a second American Revolution. Believe it. That is my two cents to you Mr Rodriguez.

Sincerely,

Angry American Citizen


There are many ways to expound one’s views. One of them is to amass facts, or just statements as if they were facts, and call that an argument. The root basis of the word “argue,” however, demands clarity, to demonstrate, from the word arg – “to shine, be white, bright, clear” (from www.etymoline.com). Proof and evidence is important for this exchange. Mr. Angry American Citizen you make statements that cannot be supported by evidence. You say, “There are the Mexicans filled with hate and disdain for our country and our language and our culture and they just want to take for themselves and have no interest in assimilating into our culture. There are Mexicans who think we STOLE the southern states from them which is preposterous because we paid a hefty sum during the Guadalupe Hidalgo treaty for those parts of the US now known as California, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. There are just as many racists on the side of illegal aliens as there are in the groups fighting them.”

Yes, I’m sure there are Mexicans who have hate and disdain and refuse to assimilate. But most Mexicans in this country (and I’ve lived with them all my life) do not. Yes, there are Mexicans who think the US stole land from Mexico, although this happens to be a historical fact – read about James Polk and the Mexico-US war. The US had no legal or moral basis to invade or take ANY land from Mexico. The Slaveocracy in the US was pushing for more land to spread cotton beyond the Southern states (remember “Manifest Destiny” – a racist doctrine if ever there was one). Texas was the first annexation (it later became a slave state). Mexico did not recognize the annexation – it didn’t have to, it was their land.

The US invasion from 1946 to 1948 led to13,000 US troops killed (most by yellow fever; about 1,700 died in combat). While some 25,000 Mexican troops were killed, more civilians were believed killed, although not counted. Mexico didn’t have the military power, funds, nor government (it was racked with deep divisions) to stop the invasion (this sounds like the US invasion of Iraq, a 12th rate military power, when “shock & awe” was initiated in early 2003). For example, the Mexican army had outdated British weapons from the Napoleonic wars; the US had the most advanced rifles manufactured at the time.

The Treaty of Guadalupe on February 2, 1848 gave the US undisputed control of Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming. That’s about 500,000 square miles. Mexico received US$18,250,000. This amounts to .02 cents a square mile (a rip off, even for those times). Sixty percent of Mexico’s resources were lost in that war; in fact, if Mexico had continued to maintain those resources, today it would be the world’s largest oil producer.

A month before the end of the war, Polk was criticized in a US House of Representatives amendment for “a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States.” I can go on and on – with such personages as Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Thoreau opposing the war (that’s the basis for the money). This all, by the way, sounds so close to what’s happening today with the war in Iraq.

I wanted to start with that since you brought it up. Now let’s get back to immigration and Mexico. Mexicans have been coming here in large numbers since the 1910-1929 Mexican Revolution (and other rebellions during that time). I can get into the details of this struggle as well, but suffice it to say that it had became a genocide by the Mexican government (supported by US manufacturing and government interests) against indigenous people and the poor, who were the majority of the country. My father’s village was destroyed in Guerrero by federal troops while my great-grandmother and grandmother on my mother’s side had to leave their Raramuri native homeland in southern Chihuahua as refugees.

A million people were believed killed in that struggle; another million migrated to the US. Those people and their descendents built homes, railroads, roads, bridges, and picked our produce ever since. They have fought in every war, mostly heroically in the 20th and 21st centuries. During World War II, those of Mexican descent garnered more Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group. They learned English, worked hard, and by the 1960s (due to their heroic participation in Civil Rights for decades) entered colleges and universities in significant numbers.

However, Mexico continued to have massive economic and social crises. The PRI held power in Mexico for more than 70 years – one author called it “the perfect dictatorship.” In the 1960s and 1970s, opposition leaders were killed and jailed in the hundreds (part of Mexico’s “dirty war” that is still being talked about today). Yet, Mexicans in the US continued to work hard, to pay taxes (yes, they pay taxes), become citizens (which my father and mother did), and die in US wars.

However, during the great depression, a massive roundup of Mexicans led to around a million being deported, including US citizens to Mexico. Such repatriations happened in other times as well. Mexicans because of discrimination (do I have to document that as well – there’s enough evidence of this if you care to look into it) were still in the worse schools, worse housing, and worse jobs. During hard times, US government sponsored quest workers’ programs (often called Bracero programs) brought even more Mexicans.

In the social arena, Mexicans fought alongside African Americans, Native Americans, Women, and Whites for the rights of everyone, for peace, against poverty, and for social justice. Nobody gave anybody anything – everything was fought for, even bled for, some even died for this.

Now, after several waves of Mexican migration to the US, mostly because of declining economic situations in Mexico (the roots of which also involve US corporations, Mexican government corruption, and the North American Free Trade Act of 1994), there is another move to declare these people as the problem to our current economic and social ills. Again, more walls are being proposed to divide the two countries, cities are not allowing undocumented people to rent, work or shop in their communities (that’s discrimination pure and simple), and unfounded fears are drilled into our collective minds.

As the US faces its own economic crises (and the war drains more tax dollars as well as lives), Mexicans become the scapegoats again. What’s new?

Is it racist for me to demand a humane and meaningful immigration policy?

Extremists aside (we can agree they exist on all sides), this is about what’s just, imaginative, and fair. As for what Mexico does with its immigration policy, what does that have to do with what I'm saying – as you can see, I’m critical of Mexico’s government and economic policies as well. This is about people – not criminals, not parasites, not “illegals,” but real people with real needs.

The real suffering of Americans is not coming from Mexicans – the War in Iraq is draining around $10 billion a month. It’s already surpassed the cost of the Vietnam War. There are also large businesses willing to pay Mexicans hardly anything, and forcing some of them into hovels with 20 people (no, most Mexicans don't love to live like this). Target the corporations, making billions off their backs. They are the ones determining the pay and conditions of work. Americans should have these jobs (but they are not being sought, and most would not accept such conditions). The point is businesses who rely on cheap labor (in the US as well as places like Mexico, Honduras, Vietnam, and other places) won’t be fair and equitable. They are more than willing to keep Americans out of the turkey farms, produce farms, service jobs, and sweat shops to have Mexican and other cheap labor.

Don’t blame the Mexicans. Blame the system that has created these conditions that hurt US citizens as well as Mexicans without documents. We waste energy, relationships, our own sense of decency, as well as any progress, when we turn against each other.

***

I just read your article. Your logic is twisted and as I would expect you bring out the tired, old race card. I've lived in Las Vegas since 1979 and have met many fine Mexican people, polite, English speaking, hard working, generous and overall the ideal American citizen.

The fact is we cannot handle 3,000,000, THREE MILLION people entering the country illegally every year. It is a tragedy that will be America's undoing. I love this country and don't want it to be another Mexico. I greet people I meet with a smile no matter who they are but lately my smile is received with glares of hate from hispanics. This invasion and my stance to preserve my American way of life is making me hated by hordes of people that don't even belong here and their supporters.

I've have struggled greatly to get where I am, even dug graves with a pick and shovel in my younger years for next to no money. After a life time of effort, with the American dream almost within my grasp I am about to see it yanked out from under my feet.

Please stop with the racism ploy, nobody is buying anymore, it's been worn out from misuse. I love experiencing different cultures but I don't want them shoved down my throat.

I have NO idea how you can justify 30 million people with no identity being here, it's a plague of biblical proportions!


I’m sorry, but I didn’t bring in the “Race Card.” It showed up among the Minutemen who amassed on the border with signs attacking Mexicans and people speaking Spanish; in some cases, there was unfurling of Nazi flags. It came from radio and TV talk show hosts, and on internet sites (look it up – you’ll see what I mean). I agree – “race” as a concept is a waste of time, divisive, and totally ridiculous. But when it pops up, it has to be challenged. I don’t hate so-called Caucasions, nor do I believe in any superior race or nation. But that’s what’s coming down the pike. Because you seem to be in denial of this does not mean it’s doesn’t exist.

The fact you even decried 30 million people with “no identity” being in the US as a plague is indicative of your own misinformation. There are around 12 million undocumented people in the US, not 30 million. While most of them are from Mexico, many come from Central America, South America, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa, the Mid- East, and even Europe (and don’t forget the Canadians who come and go pretty much as they please).

Where did the 30 million come from? Well it happens to be the number often given for how many people of Mexican descent are in this country. However, most of them have been here for generations, are US citizens, pay taxes, and even send their sons and daughters to war. Do you mean this is a plague? If so, this is racist.

The fact is Mexicans coming here do not make it another Mexico. They have been doing this for more than 150 years (and for tens of thousands of years as indigenous people). They contribute positively to US culture, economy, and life. As you say, most are fine, generous, hard-working and ideal citizens. So what if US culture changes because of them – that’s what US culture has always done. We wouldn’t have cowboy culture, lowrider cars, burritos, and salsa (it’s all part of US culture) if it weren’t for Mexicans (every group has contributed equally important aspects that we all enjoy in one form or another).

If we want to stop poor people (and that is who’s coming, not an invading army) from migrating to the US, we have to help end poverty in the world. Instead, we send out US products, US factories, McDonald’s, Wal-Marts, our “way of life,” and there a corresponding increase in poverty (yes, governments and business interests in the poor countries also contribute). And when things don’t work out our way, we send in the military. Listen, we are the number one military power in the world – this is something we should never use irresponsibly and only to help the world. In Iraq, for example, we’ve only created a holy mess.

There has to be a way for US people and the Mexican people to unite and cooperate to make things fair, peaceful, and equitable for everyone. The fears seem to be driving the humanity out of most people. I’m asking for us to be morally and humanely aware and active around this issues – why is this “racist”?

***

You are so slanted, it is hard to figure out how you don't slide out of bed at night! Get some brains, and start writing INFORMED articles and not racist ones!

What can I say – I’m not supposed to say when something’s “racist,” but people can call me racist all day long. What’s a racist? Someone who believes in a superior race. I don’t even believe in “race.” There are no biological or spiritual foundations for race. However, it does have a basis in history, power, economy, and competition. That is what’s driving the “race card” – poor people, of all colors, cultures, tongues, and cultures, competing for the decreasing number of jobs and other means of survival. Race comes in to divide the people at the bottom. It may affect people all the way to the top, but even the most powerful realize that “race” is really not important. President Bush is no friend of labor or poor people. However, he makes sure he has a Secretary of State who’s Black and an Attorney General who’s Mexican. They just have to be his stooges.

Mexicans are dealt with racism because we are mostly of indigenous heritage (not for being “Spanish,” or so-called Hispanics, since they’re mostly white). This, by the way, makes us a part of this land as much as anyone. Our ancestors have been here for tens of thousands of years. But with the present social climate, now the brown-skinned indigenous people are the “strangers” and “foreigners.” Today there are two million Mayan people from Mexico and Central America living and working in the United States. There are Mixtecos, Zapotecos, Huicholes, Yaquis, Purepechas, and Raramuris among the so-called “illegals.” Many of them speak their own indigenous tongues, not even Spanish. They are related to our beloved “Native Americans” (beloved except when they dare to have casinos, stand up for themselves, or try to break out of their reservations). Even those Mexicans (and most Central Americans) who don’t know their tribal names, languages, or traditions are mostly indigenous.

Now this fact doesn’t make Mexicans better than any one else, nor of a separate race. What this says is they have immense ancestral, historical, cultural, and spiritual ties to these lands.

This is why we have to revisit, re-vision, and re-imagine all our immigration laws and policies. That’s what I’m calling for – not a knee-jerk reaction to build walls (at a cost of billions of tax payers’ dollars), to jail people, split up families, or to exclude them.

What’s racist about that?

***

How generous are you going to be with the United States of American when the freedom-hating Muslims start taking over? Then you'll understand how the Patiotic American Citizens (white, brown, black, etc...) feel NOW with the invasion and takeover by Mexico, NOT MEXICANS, BUT MEXICO!!!! There's a difference. If you can't understand the difference, you don't deserve to be in the United States of America!!

Muslims taking over? Mexico invading the US? What world are you in, my friend? Muslims are not a threat to the US. They make up a large, responsible, and totally valid faith system. You seem to be linking a whole people to the acts of a very few. That’s patriotic – to lose your mind! These are very important issues that will require some serious information, outreach, ideas, and resolutions. Hysteria just puts you outside the key debates.

Since I understand the difference between sane reactions and insane ones, I’ll stay in this country, thank you.

It’s interesting that these responses seem to peg me as an outsider. I’m born and raised in the United States. I am a renowned writer, organizer, business person, homeowner, family man, and law-abiding person. I also travel extensively and can see many of these issues from a long lens as well as a close one. This should not be at issue. However, I do have ideas that are not just falling in line. I do challenge myself and others to look deeper into the pressing concerns in all our lives. While I welcome any response, including the inane ones, I still challenge all of us to a higher level of dialogue, sharing, and solutions. Simple conclusions to complicated realities will not suffice. Look where it has already taken us.

Somebody mentioned another American revolution. Fine, let’s talk about the imaginative and real parameters of such a prospect, one that truly brings equitable, cooperative, and abundant change in this country, and the world. A real revolution – not just a fight.
Read more

Back Home from Tokyo

My visit to Japan ended too soon. On the last night, I had a wonderful dinner with many of my new friends at the Bird Cafe, hosted by Nobuyuki Kamara, the cafe's owner and a great cook. I also met Ray Sandoval, a Chicano/Japanese guitarist orginally from Tucson, Arizona, who has been in Japan studying. He came with his girlfriend, Atika Shubert, a reporter for CNN. Ray's music has been sold in Japan, by Barrio Gold/Music Camp Entertainment, bringing a Chicano smoothness and Mexican soul close to his Japanese roots. I also want to thank Ray for taking the time to have coffee with me, and for the great conversation, the next morning.

There is, of course, so much more to see and enjoy in Tokyo. I barely scratched the surface. On the way to the Tokyo/Narita airport with Shin Miyata, I began to take in the vastness of this city as we crossed a massive bridge. I truly hope this is not my last visit here -- something I will have to work on in the near future.

My family came for me at LAX after a close to 10-hour flight. It was great to be back in LA, where I am at home, and to see my wife Trini, my daughter Andrea, my son Luis, and my granddaughter Catalina (my son Ruben was working that morning -- but we hung out later in the day).

Again, I came home to tons of work -- writing deadlines, hundreds of emails, a box of regular mail, and preparation for more trips. And the funding and outreach work I do for Tia Chucha's Cafe & Centro Cultural.

Still it's a good life -- for which I am truly grateful. I wouldn't trade it for the world.
Read more

Ari Gato -- Thank You, Japan

I am getting close to ending my amazing trip to Japan -- two more days and I'm gone. And, as you can imagine, part of me is already feeling the sadness of departing.

I'm staying in an intense and lively neighborhood called Shinjuku. I've walked around this area and enjoyed some amazing Japanese restaurants. Besides my investigations into the Chicano-Japan connection (including Chicano music shows, LA-style car shows, and Cholo-style stores), I've met truly wonderful and lovely people.

Oki Kiyota, the editor of Subaru magazine, and Yoshi Koshikawa, head of the English Department at Meiji University, invited me to lunch and for an interview. Subaru is one of Japan's leading literary publications. Last year, they published a translation of my short story "Las Chicas Chuecas" from my short story collection, The Republic of East LA.

I was also interviewed by Kenichi Eguchi, a writer for Barfout! magazine (he also translated my story for Subaru). In addition, I was interviewed for Lowrider Magazine in Japan, including by Teruyuki Matsushima, Vice Editor in Chief -- my work, especially Always Running, is known among some literary as well as Chicano/Lowrider circles in this vastly interesting country.

Yesterday, I toured different sections of Tokyo with my Chicana friend (originally from Peru, she grew up Chicana in Oakland and spent a short time in Mexico City), Favianna Rodriguez. We traveled by subway during a Japanese holiday honoring labor (the trains weren't as crowded as normal). We also got a chance to visit a massive and ancient Buddhist Temple in Asakusa.

Shuzo Saito, an English Literature professor who specializes in Chicano writers, joined us later in the day. We visited Omote-sando where throngs of people filled the sidewalks for shopping and enjoying their day off. We also visited a crowded park and stadium. And we had a wonderful lunch at a fantastic restaurant specializing in fruit dishes.

I want to thank in particular Shin Miyata, proprietor of Barrio Gold/Music Camp Entertainment, and the main focus of my magazine piece. His work is vital and so valued -- connecting Chicano music to Japanese audiences. Through him, I was able to take part in the Quetzal/dGomez promotional tour, and to visit lowrider groups and a Chicano/Hip Hop retail shop called Nicety (run by Rikiya Kando) in Machida-shi in Tokyo and Wannabe's (owned by Masayuki Tachibana, managed by Kousake Sakata) in Chiba-shi in Chiba-ken. He also arranged a great radio interview on Power 046-FM in Yamato-shi in Kanawaga-ken that addressed issues of Chicano culture and consciousness, hosted by Masahiro "Cholo" Wada.

I also want to thank Shin's staff, including Emilio Sayrock Nishino, Miho Nagaya, and Miho Okamoto, for being so helpful and welcoming. All of them took me to a funky Mexican restaurant called, appropriately, Junkadelic. The food was great, however, and this coming from an expert on these matters. The guacamole and salsa were fresh and tasty.

Later, I merenqued and rhumbaed at the Cafe Latino for a short time in the mostly foreigner club hangout district known as Roppongi. The next day, we had more talks and I conducted more interviews for my piece. That evening we ate at a leading Japanese restaurant in Omote-sando.

I'm sorry if I missed thanking others whose names I can't remember and who also went out of their way to make my trip here as comfortable and as productive as possible. I thank you all, including "Masa," Masayuki of Wannabe's, who picked me up from the airport, and the rest of the Wannabe's crew -- ari gato.

Also Sound Base in Ichihara-shi in Chiba-ken, Tower Records/Shibuya, and the Bird Cafe in Shimokitazawa, Setagaya-ku in Tokyo for hosting Quetzal, Martha, David, Laura, and myself for a couple of nights of music and poetry readings (and the amazing contribution of Tex Nakamura to our sets).

The next couple of days I'll be spending finishing interviews and doing more research. I also hope to see more sights.
Read more

Tokyo -- A Vast City of Lights and Dreams

Tokyo is the world's largest city. It's intense. I got a chance to visit Shibuya, the "Times Square" of Tokyo. At night the place blazes with lights. There are people everywhere. Amazing traditional Japanese restaurants can be found anywhere (of course, Wendy's and Starbucks abound as well).

The people are orderly, polite, and respectful. They are also ultra-modern and quite aware of themselves and the world. I feel privileged to be here. Besides my Japanese contacts here, a Chicana friend from the San Francisco Bay Area, Favianna Rodriguez, is also here. A well-known artist, Favianna has visited Japan many times.

I hope to get to know more of this fascinating city and other parts of Japan until I return home on November 26.

Unfortunately, my friends Quetzal Flores and Martha Gonzales, as well as David Gomez, have already left. I had a great couple of days with them, having joined them at the end of their promotional jaunt here for Barrio Gold Records.

While I had to deal with a cold and jet lag, I'm doing much better now (there's a 15 hour time difference between Tokyo and Los Angeles). I'm eager to get around and know more about this great culture and country.
Read more

The Chicano-Japanese Connection

I landed in Tokyo on Saturday, November 18, after a 13-hour flight from Chicago. I'm here to investigate an amazing Japanese connection to LA Chicano culture (including music, particularly from East LA, lowrider cars, cholo style clothing, and more).

This will be part of a reporting piece I'm doing for a major west coast publication. I'm visiting various communities in and around Tokyo that have enjoyed the LA-bred Chicano style. I've also been able to join with a promotional tour with the founding members of the East LA band, Quetzal. They are Quetzal Flores and his wife, Martha Gonzalez. With them is DJ D-Gomez of Monte Carlo '76. They've done concerts at various venues and at a Tower Records store (no longer owned by Tower Records). There has also been some media interviews. At two of the gigs, a member of the legendary LA band, War, also played with Quetzal, Martha, and D-Gomez -- Tex Nakamura, one of the best harmonica players in the world.

Since we all know each other, and have much respect for what we do, they also asked that I read a few poems and say a few words during their sets. They played beneath my words with traditional instruments such as the cajon and the jarana (based on the Son Jarocho musical tradition of Veracruz, Mexico).

It's been an honor to be here and to witness this great collaboration of Mexican/Chicano soul and the wonderful welcome by many Japanese. The next few days, I'll be interviewing several important people linked to this Chicano-Japan connection.
Read more

The Stories That Save Us

Reston, Virginia is like many Washington DC-area communities. It has many immigrants from around the world who’ve come here for a better life, to work, to provide for their families, many of whom are still in their countries of origin. I’m in Reston at the invitation of my friend Leila Gordon of the Reston Community Center – an Egyptian-American, Leila has brought me here many times to work with kids at the Langston Hughes Middle School and the South Lakes High School.

This time I’m doing a four-day residency working with ESOL students (English-language learners) in both schools, as well as ESOL adult students from another community center in the area. We are using stories, language, and poetry to get them to express their own histories, traumas, triumphs, dreams, difficulties, and hopes.

I’ve worked so far with astounding young people from countries such as Somalia, El Salvador, Pakistan, Lebanon, Colombia, Honduras, China, Mexico, and more. Although they are all learning English, some very well, they have different levels of language proficiency. I start by telling my own story of being an immigrant kid, of going to schools in LA in the 1960s that used to beat us for speaking Spanish, of being in the streets, in gangs, on drugs, but also how I overcame these to persevere, become an acclaimed writer, and a respected father, husband, and community leader. From the 1970s to today, I helped organize efforts and battles for bilingual education, quality schools, decent housing, resources and jobs for youth, and much more. This story resonates with the most recent arrivals who are undergoing struggles of their own to be heard, to survive, to learn, and to be healthy.

With the adults, I’ve been brought to tears as they painstakingly write and talk in a language they are not familiar with (English) to begin to master this language so they too can express their sentiments, thoughts, and stories. In the adult class we have people from Camaroon, Pakistan, Turkey, El Salvador, Peru, and Belize. There are single mothers who came here with their children, starving with little skills – now they are working, learning English, and planning to further their education.

One woman left her husband in the US, after 21 years of an arranged marriage from her country, when she refused to continue being beaten and to watch her children beaten by this man. Another woman almost drowned along with her children as they braved the deepest parts of the Rio Grande on tires.

One 40-year-old man came across the border, stuffed into a rail car with other Mexicans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans hanging on the sides or roofs. He saw one woman fall and get her legs chopped up by the train (she then put her head onto the path of the train’s wheels to die). He saw fellow travelers have their money taken by polleros (the people who help bring workers across the border, sometimes known as coyotes) and not deliver. He saw bandits beat and rob the defenseless migrants.

He eventually found his way to Virginia. He got a job as a carpenter, received his work permit, and is presently working on his residency; he hopes to become a citizen someday (he has five children in his country of origin that he misses, and plans to visit once all his papers are squared away).

I met people here who want to work, to positively give back, follow the law, and do what they can to be strong, contributing members of this society. Yes, a few came over to this country without papers – what people don’t understand is that the process of getting permission to work or live in the US is one that only allows for a small amount of people compared to the millions who need to do so (the issue of decent, meaningful work in poor countries has to be addressed if we are to have a truly humane immigration policy). One woman has a son who fought in Iraq; many immigrants are willing to give their life for this country (I may not agree with this, but that's a fact). These are people who are assets and will continue to be assets for the betterment and future of the United States.

I hope to get some of the ESOL youth and adults to read with me tonight as part of a performance that ends this residency at the Reston Community Center Theater. I know if this happens, it will be a unforgettable, moving, and enlightening event.
Read more

Words and Music: New Orleans and Cultural Revival

There is much in New Orleans that needs to be fixed – much in the lack of trust in this government, in official help, in the forgetfulness that tends to mar most tragedies. But here people can’t and won’t forget last year’s Katrina hurricane (much of the devastated areas are still in need of repair). They are mostly united around this event – the worst natural disaster in the US in more than 100 years. And there are also many instances of heroism, generosity, and sacrifice. However, as economics and politics will have it, this city like most of the Gulf Coast region, is also divided along class lines (rich and poor), racial lines (a long morbid history in this part of the world), and lines of disconnection.

Fortunately, besides the much-touted revival in the tourist trade, which is important for New Orleans’ economic growth, there is also a revival in the arts: Music, song, dance, poetry, theater, and writing.

I am honored to be part of this year’s Words and Music Festival, sponsored by Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society. Cofounder Rosemary James is a wonderful host. Most interesting is this year’s theme, “The Contributions of Spain and Latin America to US Life & Literature.”

Most people don’t know that Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, was once a Spanish colony. The French Quarter, as my new friend Margarita Bergen (and well-known New Orleans community leader) said during a small tour she gave me and my daughter Andrea (who came here to visit with me for a few days), "should properly be called the `Spanish Quarter'.”

On almost every street corner, the former Spanish names of the streets are laid out below the now French ones. In fact, Margarita says most of the French names came from the Anglo settlers after the US bought the Louisiana Purchase for $12 million in 1803. Although the French (the founders were originally from Canada) founded the port city on the Mississippi and held it for quite some time, the Spanish influence is palpable and strong.

There is even a strong connection to Mexico, land of my forebears (they were not from Spain, but indigenous Mexico). A Mexican brass band visited New Orleans in the 1800s, leading to an important, but often forgotten, influence on the local Creole/African culture. Brass instruments, which came from Europe, were taken up by indigenous musicians in Mexico similar to what happened with former African slaves and free Blacks. New Orleans is known as the birthplace of Jazz – and the Mexican brass band connection to this original cultural expression is one we shouldn’t overlook any longer.

Day of the Dead altar
[ Day of the Dead Altar at the Words and Music Festival in New Orleans ]

The Words and Music writing conference ends tomorrow; I’ll be gone, but I’ve met many great people here. Key personalities in Latino letters such as Ana Castillo, Manuel Ramos, Oscar Hijuelos, Jose Torres Tama, Jose Torres Tama, Mary Helen Lagasse, Jose Cuellar, Gabriela Hernandez, H.G. Carillo, Marie Arana, Loida Maritza Perez, Liliana Valenzuela, Mayra Montero, Chantel Acevedo, Humberto Fontova, and Sergio Troncoso also took part – with master classes, panels, and readings.

Like most US history, New Orleans has a most complicated and trans-cultural history. This conference helped remind us about how important each aspect of this history is to making New Orleans the city we’ve all learned to respect and love throughout the world.
Read more

New Orleans -- What's Happened Since Katrina?

The face of New Orleans
[ The face of New Orleans - all photos by Ted Qaunt ]

Last week, I spent a couple of wonderful days in Washington DC for a talk and visit with the National Juvenile Defender Center Leadership Summit at the Mayflower Hotel. Among truly amazing and heroic people, including many friends, my visit also included lunch and an interview with the Justice Policy Institute and a tour of the offices of the Hispanic Communications Network and the Self Reliance Foundation, where I am part of their gang violence prevention educational media initiative, “2 Cooltura” (I have done a nationally-distributed opinion piece and a radio interview for them already).

Luis J. Rodriguez in front of what was once someone's home
[ Luis J. Rodriguez in front of what was once someone's home ]

On Saturday, October 28, I flew to New Orleans, where I’m a scheduled participant in “Words and Music: A Literary Feast” from November 1 until November 6, sponsored by Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society. This year’s theme is “The Impact of Hispanic Cultures on US Life and Literature.” Among the quests are Ana Castillo, Jose “Doctor Loco” Cuellar, Gabriela Hernandez, Marie Arana, and many others.

I’m staying at an old colonial place, Hotel Provincial, in the French Quarter.

I came several days early to meet with friends in New Orleans, in particular long-time community leader Ted Quant. On Saturday night, Ted and I attended a jazz concert at the Snug Harbor Jazz Club on Frenchman’s Street, filled with Halloween-costumed partygoers (Bourbon Street looked as packed as Mardi Gras that night). I heard a number of great singers and musicians, including Charmaine Neville (a member of the renowned New Orleans Neville family), who is known as a local hero (she helped her neighbors hold out in a school for several days after the storm, among other things).

Standing in the ruins of New Orleans
[ Standing in the ruins of New Orleans ]

In addition, I was privileged to catch a set with Nicholas Payton, famed local trumpeter and pianist, and his quartet – an amazing show (I’m a long-time jazz fan).

I also wanted time to visit the city, especially the Katrina-devastated 9th Ward. Ted gave me an intimate tour of the flooded areas; Ted lost two homes in the 2005 hurricane (he’s still dealing with their repairs more than a year afterwards).

We went through the most-flooded communities of the city, I felt sorrow at the deep loss of lives, homes, and community. Much of the 9th ward has been razed, but there are still remnants of crumpled homes, rusting cars, mud, and storm debris. You can see that so much more has to be done – yet there is a sense among many community members that the city will not restore these areas. The city is now less than half of its population before Katrina (which was around 450,000). Although African Americans made up close to 70 percent of that population, today it is less than half.

Standing next to a New Orleans memorial to the victims of Katrina
[ Standing next to a New Orleans memorial to the victims of Katrina ]

Many people have returned, of course, to rebuild and make New Orleans their home again. But too many others don’t appear to be returning from the Katrina diaspora that included tens of thousand of people to cities all over the country. After a year, kids are now in new schools, jobs are being held in the new cities, and not much has happened by way of jobs or resources in New Orleans to help them come back.

I was also able to attend a Story Circle with an old friend, John O’Neil, at the Ashe' Cultural Arts Center. An initiative by Ashe' to open up an enriched dialogue on race and change is using John’s amazing ideas and work to help the process.

I have learned that in the midst of great trauma, there are many fantastic efforts to bring about true healing and real restoration and peace. There are also many examples of deep abandonment, mistrust, and uncertainty.
Read more

Lila Downs -- The Voice of a Borderless World

One of the highlights of my visit to Mexico City – besides taking part in the growing dialogue about Mexicans in the US and their vital relationship to Mexicans in Mexico – was a special invitation to attend Lila Downs’ concert at the National Auditorium.

Secretary of State Raquel Sosa and UC Irvine professor Mariana Botey accompanied me. Because of Ms. Sosa’s connections to Mexico City’s Mayor’s office, I was able to get a skybox seat – something I have never done before.

The place was packed, and very enthusiastically behind the Oaxacan/American singer who has transformed Mexican song, including indigenous and Afro-Mestizo numbers, into a style all her own.

I first became aware of Lila’s work around the time I moved back to LA from Chicago in the summer of 2000. When I helped open Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural in December of 2001, Lila’s CDs were the main music we featured in our sound system. I was even able to interview her for the Progressive Magazine and our very own Chicano Internet magazine, Xispas.

But until the Mexico City concert, I had never seen her perform live before.

I was immensely moved at the scale and scope of her vision, at her talent and enormous stage presence. She included in her show a Mariachi, Son Jarocho musicians, a Cumbia band, a Mexican brass band, and more. The music flowed between indigenous Mixteco songs, to tropical big city numbers, to rancheras, to Mexican coastal music influenced by African slaves during the colonial period.

She also performed my favorite from her CDs from when we played them in those early years of Tia Chucha’s – "Arenita Azul."

Her voice is extraordinarily robust and invigorating. She doesn’t just sing, she moves, the dances, she smiles. At some point, I actually came to tears – listening to music my mother used to play at home when I was a youngster. The Mariachi group even played a beautiful rendition of “Mexico Lindo,” the Miguel Aceves Mejia classic that I loved so much growing up.

Something within me always sings of Mexico. When I’m here, among these relatives on “the other side,” I’m reminded of the complexity and vitality of the people, the culture, and the history. It’s still mine, even with a whole life spent in the United States – I just end up carrying it all. It’s in my bones, in my skin, in my heart.

Lila Downs, a Mexican/American in her own right, truly does this for me like no one else. A borderless soul, she also taps into the deep veins of this profoundly layered land.
Read more