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

In the Sierra Madre...

A close friend of mine, Jeff Biggers, has written a fascinating book, "In the Sierra Madre," published this fall by the University of Illinois Press. The Sierra Madre in Mexico is one of the world's best known mountain ranges; books and movies have been written about it, most famously by B. Traven ("The Treasure of the Sierra Madre").

Jeff spent a year on the western side of the Mother Range (the Sierra Madre Occidental) where some 80,000 Raramuri (Tarahumara) indigenous people live in the stark, craggy, and pine-infested canyons known as La Barranca de Cobre (The Copper Canyon). He was there with Carla Paciotto, his long-time girlfriend, and now wife, who was studying bilingual processes with the Mexican educational system and the Raramuri.

This book is a well-written, engaging, and respectful account of that year in Jeff's life. Many explorers, mostly from Europe and the US, including luminaries like Carl Lumholz, Antonin Artaud, and others, have written extensively about their time here for more than 100 years. Jeff's contribution to this literature should stand as a compelling modern-time update.

I first met Jeff through my friend Priscilla Aydelott when he directed the Flagstaff Literary Festival. Priscilla first brought me into the Navajo rez to talk to students, activists, teachers, and spiritual guides in 1996. At first, I spent most of my time in the Monument Valley area and surrounding communities. I've been coming to the rez every year since, including now with my teacher/elder Anthony Lee and his family in Lukachukai.

Then in 1999, after Jeff and Carla had already spent a good period of time among the Raramuri, I went down there to find my indigenous roots. My mother's family is from Chihuahua. Her mother and grandmother were Raramuri women who left the Sierra Tarahumara during the Mexican revolution and ended up in Chihuahua City. I still have a photo of my great-grandmother in a Raramuri-style long print dress, taken in the 1920s.

I wanted to see if I could find out more or less where my grandmother and great-grandmother had come from. I felt compelled to connect to this part of my history and ancestral waters.

Jeff and Carla were the perfect hosts for my ten days in the Sierra Tarahumara; Erik Bitsui, a Navajo friend of both Jeff and I, also went along. They introduced us to some important Raramuri teachers, musicians, poets, and friends. We walked for hours in the 7,000 to 9,000 foot canyons. I received a hand-made chapareke, an ancient Raramuri stringed instrument, by one of the few masters still playing it. We even slept in one of the caves. Some of these encounters appear in Jeff's book.

The Raramuri, who are normally reticient to strangers (whom they call chabochis) began to embraced me when I told them I was looking for my roots. One woman said, rather sadly, "that's good -- for those Raramuri who have left, hardly anyone ever comes back."

I visited the cave dwellings of many of these people, as well as their log and stone huts near the isolated and sparse corn fields that most live by (without government support, in many cases they are literally starving).

I hope to write about this experience in the future. But for now, you'll get wonderful background material, a kind of cultural travelogue, and literary/historical lessons about the region in Jeff's book.

The most moving story of my trip involved an old couple, hidden far into the canyons. One man began to see a resemblance in my face (darkened by hours in the sun) to a family he thought might be related to my grandmother and great-grandmother.

We drove a long time, in a four-wheel drive vehicle Jeff owned, to this wood-log house. The old man and woman who lived there greeted us in Raramuri. Inside their home, they offered us seats. Through an interpreter (the couple did not speak Spanish), they heard my story about looking for "family." They might have thought I was homeless. Just the same, the old woman looked at me, with a sweet smile, and said, "we'll be his family." Those words brought me to tears.

I recommend anyone in the LA area to visit with Jeff Biggers this Thursday, October 26 at 6:30 PM at Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural, the bookstore/cafe/cultural center I helped created in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. For more info go to our website at www.tiachucha.com or call 818-362-7060.

You will be in for a great story of witness and change among the Raramuris.
Read more

The Indigenous is Strong in Mexico

Despite years of genocide (in some cases, 95 percent of indigenous people perished within 50 years of the Spanish conquest), the indigenous values, traditions, tongues, and people are strong and growing stronger in Mexico.

Mexico has more traditional, full-blooded indigenous people than any other country in the Americas. While there are more indigenous people percentage wise in countries like Guatemala and Bolivia, the sheer numbers of reportedly traditional indigenous people in Mexico outnumber the numbers of natives in those countries. In Mexico, it's between 10 to 20 million people. This is about 10 to 20 percent of the 100 million people who populate the country. Yet, I contend that most Mexicans are still indigenous.

While it's true that mestizaje occurred in the more then 500 years since Cortez first entered Mexico, this has largely occurred in the major cities. Most Mexicans still have the brown faces, eyes, and hair of their indigenous ancestors.

Here's an interesting statistic -- reportedly there were 60 percent full-blooded indigenous people at the start of Mexico's struggle for independence from Spain (1810-1821). Many Spanish stopped coming in large numbers after that. But by the 1910 Mexican Revolution, there were 40 percent indigenous people -- even with no more major Spanish populations to draw from. Today it's estimated to be 10 percent indigenous people.

The fact of the matter is, most mestizaje happened between native peoples from various tribes. It was more about the process of becoming Mexicanos, not so much mestizos.

Yes, it's true that there are many people of all races in Mexico -- whites not only from Spain but from Ireland, Germany, France, and the US. There were also Arabs, particularly after the break up of the Ottoman Empire, as well as Filipinos and Malaysians who came in the tens of thousands (especially when Spain controlled those areas). Japanese and Chinese also emigrated here. And there were apparently more African slaves brought into Mexico than there were Spanish settlers (around 300,000 to 150,000 at the height of their numbers).

I understand there has been a long history of mixing of races and cultures.

But none of this obliterated or even involved the majority of indigenous people. The de-Indianization of Mexico is mostly due to the removal of people from their lands, their traditions, and languages (which can be called mexicanization). Still, today there are some 240 languages and their variants spoken in Mexico.

The indigenous is still strong -- and deep -- whether one claims to be native or not.

When I was in Mexico from October 7 to 12 for Mexico City's Sixth Book Fair (Feria del Libro) this was most evident in the people in the main plaza or zocalo. Native people shared their wares on most corners, some in native dress. Many Mexicans have been learning the Mexika (Aztec) dances, held every day and evening in the zocalo since 1978.

I was also there when 10,000 mostly indigenous people from Oaxaca (Mixtecos, Zapotecas, and other tribes) marched into the capital in protest of voter fraud and extreme repression from the PAN-PRI united government in this southern state -- one of the most indigenous in all of Mexico.

I was also able to visit the Templo Mayor, discovered in 1978 during the burrowing for the Metro subway system. This and other ruins have been found beneath parts of the central city. The Spanish conquerors had destroyed almost all remnants of the Mexika/Aztec culture, even using stone bricks from their temples to build the Cathedral and other buildings. Many colonial homes and structures were built on top of the old Mexika temples and other structures.

Now many of these ruins are being excavated.

Just a week or two before I arrived, Mexican archaelogists discovered one of the largest Mexika monoliths ever, next to the Templo Mayor. Found on October 2, the rectagular monolith measures 13 feet on its largest side (the renowned circular Mexika Calendar monolith, found in 1790, has a diameter of 12 feet).

The Secretary of Culture of the Federal District of Mexico City, Raquel Sosa, invited me and other Feria del Libro participants, to a special tour of the Templo Mayor, with talks from the main Templo engineer and the director of the Templo Mayor museum. We were able to actually stand on the temple floor, something tourists and other guest don't get to do (there is a catwalk that goes around the temple floor where they can view the remaining walls and artifacts).

They also took us to the excavation area of the most recently discovered monolith, although we couldn't see it since it was covered as protection from the humidity, rain, and debris as they continued to carefully remove it from its resting place.

It was an extreme honor for me to witness this.

The indigenous is important for me because of my own indigenous roots from Mexico.

I also have strong ties to Mexika/Mayan and other indigenous groups in the US, as well, of course, with Native Americans. Every year for around ten years, my wife Trini and I (often with my two youngest boys, my daughter, granddaughter, and members of our sweat lodge circle in the San Fernando Valley ) go to the Navajo Reservation near the Chuskas mountains in a small rez town called Lukachukai. Our family was adopted by Medicine man and elder Anthony Lee and his family. We go for ceremonies and to visit our adopted brothers and sisters as well as Anthony and his wife, Delores. We made this visit again this past September.

This has become a renewing source for me, there with the Navajos, who call themselves the Dine. But, as Anthony has always told us, this was not meant to make "Navajos" out of us. It has, however, helped us get closer to our own indigenous roots and traditions from Mexico. We are all related, as the Lakota say. Especially since migrations between North American natives, Mexican natives, and South American natives had been going on for tens of thousands of years.

Borders came along (most through conquests) and have divided us. We go into Navajoland as people without borders, who recognize our ancestral roots and ties, and still find a spiritual connection to these ancient people and ancient lands.

So for me, Mexico is going back to the motherland. Being born in the US and having US citizenship doesn't change that. It doesn't mean divided allegences -- that's the fears of the narrow minded and unimaginative. I have ties to these lands, both in the US and Mexico, as long as anyone's. That doesn't make me better than anyone else. Nor does this give me any special privileges. It does mean that I belong here. I'm no stranger. No "foreigner." No "illegal." I'm home.
Read more

Death of an Indigenous Elder

Don Luis Martinez was a local mechanic in the Chicago barrio of Pilsen for many years. A hard-working man with long ties in the community and in Mexico, he was also more than that -- he was en elder in the Mexikayotl native traditions of Mexico. Around ten years ago, he gave me my Mexika/Nahuatl name, Xikome Tochtli, in a beautiful ceremony in my back yard -- with my family and the Blazquez family (all four of whom also received their names that day) and a few friends.

Today, after a painful bout with cancer, Don Luis Martinez (also known as Macuilxochitl) passed on to the ancestors. I received the email with this news from Frank Blazquez (Tekpaltzin) about an hour ago.

I will also cherish his work, his teachings, and the gift he bestowed on me. Xikome Tochtli means Seven Rabbit (Siete Conejo). It comes from a reading of the Mexika Sun Stone Calendario (the so-called Aztec Sun Stone), which is very accurate and still used today in parts of the US and Mexico.

This year also happens to be the year of Xikome Tochtli (also spelled as Chicome Tochtli) in the Mexika calendar.

I'm honored to have integrated myself to my ancestral roots -- I'm Mexika/Raramuri -- and to have had such teachers and fellow sojourners on my own spiritual path.

This has helped me stay sober, continue to be a decent father and husband, and to give back to my community with Tia Chucha's Bookstore, Cafe & Cultural Center, which has workshops in all the arts, including Aztec Dance, a bookstore, cafe, cyber cafe, and performance space. My wife Trini and I also belong to a Sweat Lodge circle in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, and we go to ceremonies every year on the Navajo Rez. And these ways have helped me with my talks, readings, and workshops around the US, Latin America, Europe (and, in November, Asia) that I've done for around 25 years.

Thank you, Don Luis -- may your spirit find its eternal peace and resting place. My prayers go with you on your journey.

Ometeotl
Read more

Response to my blog post

I received this email as a response to my blog post "Chicano to Chilango." I will post some of these responses from time to time so people can see the level and extent of dialogue we're having -- most of it is good. But dialogue is dialogue, good or bad. I'm glad there are responses.

Dear Luis,

just read your blog, and I find it surprising that you still rather live here where you are so, oh, oppressed. Maybe you should move to the mexico you love so much. As you know, they love pochos over there.

I guarantee you one day English will be the official language here, just as Spanish is in Mexico--not nahuatl, otomi or any other indian shit. Spanish.


My friend,

I'm sorry you feel that way. I actually live here for many good reasons, but also because it's best to fight oppression where it stems from -- still I don't let it stop me from achieving any of my goals (I'm a renowned writer, a home owner, a business owner -- things I achieved through my own efforts).

As for Mexico, they don't treat me as a pocho. I still speak good Spanish and I know the people and the land. I also have family ties there. No borders, remember?

And I speak a few words in indigenous tongues.

You apparently are limited to English, with no knowledge of Spanish or native idioms. Being that I'm Mexika/Raramuri, being that I'm native, I wouldn't dare call these beautiful languages anything bad. Why close off to the richness of this world?

You apparently love the European tongues more. Hey I can speak English and Spanish, both languages of conquerors and colonialists. So what. I can do that and more.

If the US makes English the official language, fine. It's a wrong decision (this country has done many wrong things). I will continue to stand for what's right (it's also done many right things -- I can tell the difference).

And I don't have to forget what I really am. I can traverse many worlds. You apparently are stuck in one.

Too bad.

You also don't give your name. What are you afraid of? My given name is Luis Rodriguez. My indigenous name is Xikome Tochtli.

I will stand by my words.

Luis
Read more

Chicano to Chilango

For a few days last week, I was a Chilango. This is the term used to designate residents of Mexico City. As a Chicano (a Mexican in the United States), I've been removed from my real and mythical root/source of Mexico most of my life (hampered by imposed/supposed borders). However, when I return to Mexico City, the layers of Mexicanness I've had all these years -- including speaking Spanish and even Nahuatl at times -- surfaces again, and I'm home.

I realize that Chicanos continue to embody these layers -- we start with our indigenous roots, with Aztlan and Anahuac, drawing on the genetic memory in our bones. We also take in the long struggle of Mexicans to create a nation, a people, a country, constantly throwing off conquerors, oppressors, thieves, and exploiters (a struggle that continues til this day).

Even though I lived in the US since the age of two, I'm very close and knowledgeable of all these struggles. As a child, my parents inculcated me with Mexican Spanish and stories of our Raramuri (Tarahumara) indigenous roots -- even as the US schools tried to beat the Spanish out of me (they never did) and tried to obliterate our history and our heritage.

I visited Mexico at age 11 as a "pocho" (a bleached out Mexican), a term used to denigrate those Mexicans who ended up in the United States (regardless of the reason). But I struggled to hang on to my Mexicanismo despite the repression and other pressures to turn away from this in the United States.

As an adult, starting in my late 20s, I revisited Mexico to take part in indigenous uprisings in Oaxaca and campesino takeover of lands and Mixteco native struggles against slavery in Baja California. In the late 1990s, I also made it back to my Raramuri roots in Southern Chihuahua, in the Sierra Tarahumara, even sleeping in caves, along with the more than 80,000 traditional Raramuri natives that my mother's family is descended from.

I also carry the layers of living the highly oppressive environment in the United States -- of being in the "belly of the beast," as the saying goes, in dealing with a material-based, immediate-gratification, consumer-oriented, capitalist economic and social realities we have to endure in the most powerful, richest country in the world.

Even now as the US moves toward Empire (the beginning of the end for the "America" as we know it, as has happened to all empires), I continue to draw from the intense struggles for freedom, equality, cooperation that working class people, African Americans, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans (and other people) have tirelessly waged in this country.

I carry it all. And I feel connected to both Mexico and the United States in those aspirations, dreams, and battles of los de abajo -- the people at "the bottom."
Read more

Mexico City -- A City of Layers, Meanings, Struggles

I landed in Mexico City from Chicago on Saturday, October 7, only the third time I had ever done so in my much-traveled life, even with family members residing here, including a half-brother I only got to know about ten years ago (he was one of the children my father left behind when he came to the United States in 1956 to stay).

I came as an invited participant to the Sixth Annual Mexico City Book Fair (Feria del Libro), held in the central Zocalo of the city, a contested space with Aztec dancers, tourists, indigenous vendors, Lopez-Orador supporters, Zapatista activists, and striking teachers from Oaxaca (not to mention the break-dancers and other street "shows").

From October 6 until October 15, several tents housing books, music, chairs, and speaker systems will have filled up the Zocalo (the main plaza of this massive city). This is apparently the only public book fair in all of Mexico.

Organized by the city's Secretary of Culture, the book fair is also paying homage to two key cities: Los Angeles and Havana. In the Los Angeles pavilion, Tia Chucha's Bookstore & Cafe has been recreated (after we shipped tons of books). Silverio Pelayo, one of our fantastic hired help, will be here until the end of the book fair to hold down the display and sale of books.

I have been on several panels and readings so far (with a couple more today, October 10). The first one was on Saturday to honor an amazing poetry collection by Natalio Hernandez (published by Conaculta), entitled "Hummingbird of Harmony" (its title, like the rest of the book, is translated into English, Spanish, and Nahuatl, the principal language of indigenous people in the country).

I talked about the importance of taking in all our roots, in particular the fundamental one that unites all Mexicans: the indigenous. And that in LA, many Chicanos, Mexicanos, and Central Americans are reclaiming their traditions, their tongues, and stories. I also got to read a poem in all three tongues. Here's a short sample of the work:

In Tonati

In tonati:
xochitl tlen moyolitia
totlacayotipa
cueponi queman tlanesi;
cochi ipan toyolo
teotlactipa

-----

El Sol

El Sol:
flor que nace
dentro de nosotros
abre sus petalos
al amanecer;
duerme en nuestro corazon
al anochecher

-----

The Sun

The Sun:
A flower that is born
within us,
it opens its petals
at sunrise;
it sleeps in our heart
at nightfall


Also present were the indigenous writer Mardonio Carballo and Mexican theater actor Luisa Huertas, who read many of the poems in all three languages.

I'm staying at the historical Magestic Hotel bordering the Zocalo (I stayed here during one of my earlier visits). It's a colonial structure with amazing tile work. Now owned by Best Western, it has not lost any Mexicanness. On the 7th floor is a terrace (where the restaurant is located) that overlooks the whole plaza.

Many of the invited participants include some of Cuba's most well known writers, important for opening up a dialogue that is blocked at various levels by the United States government.

From Los Angeles, a "motley" crew of artists, writers, and photographers have arrived, including my good friend, Tom Hayden, and a number of well-known Chicanos (some of whom are not from LA), including Harry Gamboa, Lucha Corpi, Ruben Martinez, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, and Luis Valdez.

A wonderful intra-lingual and multi-voiced performance by Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Ruben Martinez ended the evening for me, held at the historical Museum of Mexico City. I'll comment more on the Feria del Libro and other things "Chilango" in future blog posts.
Read more

Never Giving Up -- the James Lilly Story

James Lilly is a world-class wheelchair racer. He has participated in marathons and other races all over the country. He once won the grueling 245-miles or so wheel-chair race in Alaska (the world's most difficult).

Now around 35 years old, James has been in a wheelchair for some 20 years. As a Mexican youth in the streets of the Little Village barrio in Chicago, he gravitated towards gangs and drugs. Kicked out of his home and homeless, he eventually found himself in the middle of a gang-related shoot out. One of his best friends was killed that day; James became paralyzed from the waist down.

I met James through the Japanese American film maker, Izumi Tanaka. More than a year ago, Izumi came to Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural to talk to me about James and the film she was doing on his life. I was very interested. Soon I met James after he came to a talk I did on gang peace at Northwestern University's Law School in Chicago last year.

His spirit was strong, and his presence compelling. Today, he has a family with two young boys. He speaks at schools, conferences, and juvenile facilities.

Earlier this year, Izumi and James came to speak and show a short version of Izumi's film (still in production as I write this) at Tia Chucha's. I also gave them the Luis Rodriguez special tour of South Central and East LA (tours I've done for friends from Italy, Brazil, England, and other places). I showed James and Izumi some of my old stomping grounds in Watts, in Boyle Heights, South San Gabriel, and the City Terrace hills (and to a spot where you can see most of East LA and the downtown skyline).

Last week, James returned the favor. After a wonderful dinner with his wife and boys, James gave me a tour of the Little Village neighborhoods where he lived, participated in gang life, and in Pilsen (another Chicago barrio) where he was shot.

I also visited the outdoors memorial at St. Agnes Church on 27th Street and Central Park where some 90 names have been emblazoned -- names of young people under 25 years who have been killed in these streets since the year 2000.

James survived, but he did more than that. He never gave up on life, on having a wonderful family, and on impacting his community with his talks and with his amazing performances in world-class wheelchair races.

I'm honored to count James as one of my close friends.
Read more