Chicago -- A City I'll Always Love

I come to Chicago frequently -- using my visits to my old hometown to see my son Ramiro in an Illinois prison facility, two of my grandchildren when I can, and many friends, comrades, and fellow poets and activists.

I lived in Chicago for 15 years, in Humboldt Park, Wicker Park, and Logan Square. Chicago was the birtplace of Tia Chucha Press, which has grown into a bookstore, cafe, performance space, art gallery, and workshop center in LA. It's also where I helped found the Guild Complex, one of the Midwest's leading literary and art institutions, and Youth Struggling for Survival, a youth-adult mentoring/community building organization that is still very active (as a result I have ties and years of work in Pilsen, Little Village, Uptown, Rogers Park, Aurora, and other communities in and around the city). In this capacity, I also helped create the Humboldt Park Teen Reach program in collaboration with BUILD and other youth intervention and prevention organizations.

From October 1-7, I did talks at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, Chicago State University (including to students from Hubbard High School), and an all day training at the Omni Youth Services in Buffalo Grove (that involved many youth workers, teachers, counselors, probation officers, and police).

I also had a wonderful visit with Ramiro, who's now at one of the Pontiac prison facilities (an hour and a half outside of Chicago). He's seems healthy, strong, and determined to do well after finishing ten years of his 28 year prison sentence (he can get out in half the time, 14 years, which is his goal).

One important visit was with YSS members and leaders, including Frank Blazquez, his wife Lou, and their children Tanee and Frankie. I was also glad to see YSS members Chris Dino, Chek-it, Mathilda, Alma, and others. Alma is now running the Urban Roots program for the Social Justice School of the new Little Village High School on 31st and Kostner in the Little Village barrio of Chicago (the largest Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, a thriving, active, and vibrant place despite its relative poverty and long-standing gang culture).

The Little Village High School was created two years ago at a cost of $68 million, apparently the costliest school in Chicago history. It resulted from a 19-day hunger strike that Alma and many parents, youth, and leaders carried out in demand of a new school, a new educational process, and real social change.

The school is a marvel to witness. Most of the students are Mexican, although a significant number are African American (about 20 percent). It is divided into four distinct schools. Each school area is divided by a park-like area with small earthen pyramids as homage to the Mexican Aztec and Mayan structures. They have two gyms, a swimming pool (I understand this is the only one in the Chicago school system), dance studios, a full theater, art & technological centers, a growing library, and more. Alma, who has been doing Aztec dance for years, is also conducting the danza classes at the school. There is also an amazing structure in the middle of the school that is built like an old indigenous sun dial, with 19 seconds of every day held in silence in commemoration of the 19 day hunger strike.

I was honored to be given a tour of the school and to know that YSS and some of the leaders I helped mentor were at the heart of the struggle to build the school, and to help sustain its innovative and visionary structure and educational process. It's an example of self-determination, self-realization, and true community responsibility to better the environment -- as unjust and inadequate as it can be -- for everyone in that community. We can all learn from this vital struggle, particularly as a concrete correction to the current sterile school environments that are choking the spirit and educational capacity of teachers and students in many of our schools today.
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My Response to Emails Against my Opinion Piece on "English Only"

The following includes email responses to an opinion piece I wrote this month on English Only and the movement to declare English as the National language. It was sent out to various newspapers around the country by the Progressive Media Project (a version of it appeared in the September issue of The Progressive magazine). Newspapers that published the piece include the Dayton Daily News (Ohio), the Monterey Herald (California), the Providence Journal (Rhode Island), the Winona Daily News (Minnesota), among others. My previous blog post featured one of the articles. Following each email, I give my own response.

May I ask you what nationality you are and have you always lived in the United States? I read your article in today's Winona Daily News and I find it very objectionable. I am a citizen, 75 years old, born and raised in America. Now am I to learn 329 languages as you state in your article that are spoken in the United States so I can communicate with them? I read an article by an immigrant (and I don't recall her name, but it was in the Parade magazine that comes in the Sunday papers) that people coming to the US should learn English because if you are in trouble, whether it be medical, law or whatever, if you cannot speak the language how can we help you? Now does not that make sense? I am not against immigration only illegal immigration. My church has sponsored immigrants and the last ones from Bosnia I saw to it that they got to English classes every day so that they could communicate with people, get a job, etc. School districts have to hire extra teachers to teach English because parents refuse to speak English in their homes. This has put a strain on hundreds if not thousands of school districts to tackle this problem. What about health facilities, hospitals? Are they to hire people to speak every language so they can help people? You have to get real and use some common sense which it seems many people do not have any more. There is nothing wrong with speaking your native tongue but English should be also used in the home, etc. I am of Norwegian descent but they learned and had their children learn and use English as the common language. They had the right attitude.

Luis J. Rodriguez’s response:

Thank you for writing me about my article that appeared in your local newspaper. You wanted to know my nationality. I was born and raised in the United States. I speak perfect English and Spanish (I also know a little bit of Nahuatl, Raramuri, and Navajo). However, it appears you read the wrong article. For example, I did not say that everyone should learn 329 languages. I said that everyone should learn English. It is our common language. It links us. It has much merit even on its own terms. Most immigrants I know, regardless of the country they came from, agree with that. I even cited a survey of Latinos that showed the majority also believe they should learn English. As far as I know, there is no organized movement to change English as our common, unifying language. My problem is with the real, large and growing movement to make English a “national” language, which is linked to having English Only legislation in more than a dozen states. Having English as a common language and having English Only are two different things.

You said there is nothing wrong with “speaking your native tongue, but English should also be used in the home.” Fine. But English Only is the opposite of this – it implies there IS something wrong with speaking another tongue. My point is that we should all speak English (I’ve spent my life learning and writing English as a poet, journalist, fiction writer, and speaker). But, if anyone wants to speak his or her native tongue why not? People all over the world do this. This is not an attitude problem – people are quite adaptable, be they Norwegian or Guatemalan. Most people are willing to learn English. But we should not impose by law, by practice or prejudice any suppression of other languages or cultures. That’s my point. It’s what this country is supposed to be about – not English Only. I have seen how English Only laws actually suppress other languages. These are facts, and I can cite tons of stories of how this works. That’s what I’m against. And that’s common sense.

You couldn't be more wrong in your assertion that the US shouldn't be concerned about the infiltration of the Spanish language into our culture. You make the case for English only in your own article. You state "Some say the United States is the third-largest Spanish speaking country in the world" This is precisely the point. We are NOT a Spanish language country, we are English speaking. Our country was founded by people who spoke English and were of English descent. Our Constitution doesn't come in two languages, it's ENGLISH only! Anyone who comes here legally is welcome. However once here, you must assimilate into the English-speaking culture of the United States. We are a country of immigrants, LEGAL ones that once here might speak their native tongue at home but outside the home learned English and adapted to the U.S. culture. It doesn't work the other way around. I also don't recall Italian, German and other immigrants demanding their language be used in our schools, their language be used on commercial packaging etc. Illegal immigrants, mainly from Mexico have invaded our country and now demand we adapt to them. This is wrong and if it continues it will eventually cause the complete destruction of the greatest country in the world. I personally will continue to support and work for English only legislation.

Luis J, Rodriguez’s response:

Thank you for writing me about my opinion piece that appeared in your local newspaper. However, I never said people should not use English (please re-read my article). I said English is our common, unifying language. Everyone should learn it. And while this is true, we are also the third largest Spanish-speaking country and have 329 languages, including 150 native languages, in our midst. Why can’t these two realities live side-by-side? It’s not either/or. I value English (I was born and raised in this country). But I also value Spanish (which my parents used as I grew up). I even know a few Native words. This is all good.

For your information, the first bilingual education schools were for German immigrants – they also suffered, as did other non-English speaking people, from attacks by those who wanted to impose English on them. This is wrong. We who are in this country are more than willing to adapt. But don’t devalue or suppress our other tongues and cultures. We are all “America.” Much of what is “American” culture comes from Natives, Africans, Germans, Irish, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Japanese, and Mexicans. We are adapting to a culture that has adapted from other peoples. That’s fine. I’m against laws that want to impose English and a mono-culture.

I also have to say, we are not all a nation of immigrants. I have Raramuri native blood (from my mother’s side), and Nahua, Spanish, and African blood on my father’s side. Native people’s were already here for tens of thousand of years; Africans were brought here as slaves. In fact, what the Mexican “invasion” is about is mostly native peoples on migrant treks they’ve been on for centuries upon centuries. Even Spanish is a foreign tongue to us (although I speak it well). There are 240 natives languages and their variants in Mexico. Many Mexicans coming across are indigenous people like Mixtecos, Yaquis, Huicholes, and Mayans (there are an estimated 2 million Mayans from Mexico and Central America in the US, almost as much as Native Americans). So the word “immigrant” doesn’t quite convey the reality of this situation.

Still, we are free to be united and to be together in this country, and to have a common language, interests, and aims. We don’t need laws to do that. Let’s keep it that way.

I just read your article "’English Only’ Campaigns Aren't Aimed at Bringing Unity, but Imposing Supremacy." As you say "HOGWASH". Who are you trying to kid? If immigrants want to come to the U.S. so bad, they should be willing to read and write our language, not the other way around. Why should OUR teachers have to learn their language since that would never happen if we immigrated to their country. Americans are paying out BILLIONS for their health care, etc, while our American poor are left behind. I also noticed your name was Rodriguez, so naturally, you obviously feel it is ok if they do not learn our language. It should become a necessity if they plan to stay here. If they do not want to learn our language to be able to speak or write, let them go back to the Country that they came from and then they can speak any language they want. Thank you for letting me vent my feelings and I am sure the feeling of MANY, MANY Americans.

Luis J. Rodriguez’s response:

Thank you for responding to my article in your local newspaper. However, you must have read the wrong article. I stated that everyone should learn to read and write English. I have spent my life making English my practice as a writer of ten books, including poetry, children’s literature, novels, short stories, nonfiction, and more. What I did say, however, is that we should also speak Spanish, Lakota, Filipino, Chinese, or whatever... if that’s one's interest. These other languages should not be suppressed. “English Only” means just that – that only English should be used.

I think everyone is already using English to speak to each other, and are more than willing to learn English if they don’t. We don’t need Congress to make laws for this – or any states to impose “English Only.” I have seen how this tends to devalue and suppress other languages and cultures (I cited one example in my article; I can give you hundreds more). When I first went to school, speaking only Spanish, I was swatted and otherwise punished. While this may no longer be the case in most schools, English Only schools today force people to speak English, or else (instead of helping them learn and accept English as part of their new life, without having to give up any other language to obtain it).

And if you have issues with billions of dollars for health care for the undocumented, maybe you can focus on the insurance companies, the health industry, and their cronies in the government who have made health care so costly for most people. Immigrants aren’t responsible for that. Health care for people without documents makes sense since any unwanted illnesses and diseases they get hurts all of us. If you’re concerned about the poor, fight for all the poor – with or without papers. The reason most people migrate to this country is that they are poor people to begin with. Taking up the interests of the poor, across borders, regardless of nationality, would help ALL the poor.

I read an article by Luis J. Rodriguez in the 1 Sep edition of the Dayton Daily News. Mr. Rodriquez states that what unites us as a country is not the language that we speak but the ideals we hold dear and that ‘English Only’ campaigns are designed not to bring unity but to suppress other languages. Later, he clearly contradicts himself by saying that the ability to speak Spanish is becoming a necessity in today’s America and that we all might as well face up to it. If having a single common language is not necessary to unite us as a country, then why is it a necessity for me to speak Spanish as well as English? In fact, this statement by Mr. Rodriquez is precisely the reason for ‘English Only’ campaigns. He does not make a similar statement about Japanese, Chinese, German and all the other languages that are quite commonly spoken in many areas throughout the United States. In fact, Mr. Rodriquez’s position is the one that would appear to suppress all other languages, except Spanish, elevating it to the same level of usage as English. Could he envision this as merely an interim goal? I agree that people should be allowed to learn and speak socially in whatever language they prefer and the more languages a person is able to learn and speak, the better off they will be. However, for a society to administratively function in a reasonable manner, as a minimum the United States clearly needs a single common language for conducting its essential business activities, including all aspects of our Federal, State and Local governments, our court systems, our insurance and health care systems, our financial institutions, licensing bureaus, contracting, energy, utilities, etc. That language has always been English. If the use of Spanish is allowed to achieve a legally preferable or acceptable status (equal right) in conducting these activities, they will become confusing, overlapping, more time consuming, perhaps dangerous and in some cases inoperable. This is in addition to the added expense of developing documents and performing tasks in duplication. This would certainly suppress rather than elevate all the other languages. Even without such legal status, it appears the current ability of many people to speak only Spanish when conducting or involved in such activities is already having this undesirable and expensive impact. Surely, this creates wedges of misunderstanding between us rather than uniting us. Perhaps the time to revisit the choice of English as the single common uniting language of the United States is when the majority of United States citizens speak Spanish socially as their first language and it makes sense to change the official language from English to Spanish, and the way things are heading, that may not be too far off. Still, the Chinese segment of our population is also growing rapidly, so who knows who may be in the majority in the future.

Luis J. Rodriguez’s response:

Thank you for your letter. I appreciate your effort to convey your thoughts. However, I have to clarify a few points. English IS our unifying language. It’s the common language we all must know and share. However, this is not what this country is about – it’s peripheral to the real value of being here. What unites us, all of us, people of all races, colors, religions, and creeds, is the promise that everyone will be taken into account, that people can express themselves freely (with all the responsibilities this entails), and that access to whatever is needed to live full and complete lives will be available (and not subject to poverty, race, or immigrant status). It’s that promise that brings so many to these shores. We should celebrate this. This is not something we should horde, or only allow for a select few. However, for many places in this country, this promise is being betrayed. English Only is one of those detrimental things that we should move away from – in the more than two dozen states that have English Only laws, languages, cultures, and “otherness” tend to be suppressed. That’s wrong. English Only means just that – only English.

We should have a common language – English is it. But we should also be able to speak any other language if we so choose. I’m not saying that anyone should learn any other language—I did not say that Spanish at this time should be given equal status to English. Yet it would be helpful and quite smart (many Americans are already doing this) to learn Spanish, but it should not be made law or mandatory. In fact some Americans are learning Mandarin as well. There’s even a charter school in a predominantly Mexican LA community that teaches English, Spanish, Nahuatl (linked to the Aztecs), and Mandarin. Nothing wrong with that. That’s my point. Everyone should learn English. And if you want, pick up a Chinese dialect. Why not? But that’s a choice. English is fine, but why do we need laws to suppress other tongues?

First of all, your article refers to "the hysteria over Spanish-speaking people in the U.S." This is a ridiculous way to start the article. Due to the nature of my profession I encounter many people from all over the country on a daily basis and have not met a single person has a problem with anyone speaking their native language. That is not the reason for the idea of designating English as our country's official language. It is a problem when English-speaking children are falling behind in their education because schools must cater to demands that everything be presented in many native languages as well as English. Why should a non-English speaking citizen be permitted to take to take a written driving test in a language other English? Aren't most street and traffic signs using English? If I immigrated to France I would expect to learn French and learn it fast. The same goes for any country I visit. If there is a language barrier I know it is due to the fact that I did not properly prepare for my trip. No one I have come across seems to object to native languages being spoken, but a working knowledge of English should be a requirement for citizenship to this country. Therefore you comment the "English Only" campaigns are designed not to bring unity but to suppress other languages..." is inaccurate. And your view that "if we end up with an official language, we may have to reconsider names like Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota..." is inane and has nothing to do with the issue. You state that the ability to speak Spanish is becoming a necessity in today's America. Well, that precisely the reason we need an official language (and that does not mean that additional languages cannot be used in the private sector as I see that as a business decision). Will your opinion change years down the road when we have welcomed more Indian immigrants to this country? Or how would you feel if you lived in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood and your grandchildren had to kill time while public grade school teachers provided much needed language to non-English-speaking students? Finally, your mention of the incident at the airport book stand was ridiculous. A population should not be judged on this observation. This to me was just another example of inflammatory and inaccurate statements in your piece.'s funny to imagine if my great grandparents and the surrounding community of other German immigrants decided they needn't learn English. What an interesting part of Ohio it would be. But you know what? They and their children did learn English. And spoke their dialect of German at social occasions. And the community to this day still has a unique German-American atmosphere is intensely proud of their Germanic heritage.

Luis J. Rodriguez’s response:

Thank you for writing me about my article that appeared in your local newspaper. First, I have to point out that the hysteria is real; it’s not just my opinion. There are people punishing other people for speaking Spanish, yelling at them, and even passing laws that outlaw this (that’s what English Only laws do). There are now cities forcing landlords to get rid of long-time residents (mostly hard-working and law-abiding) to leave if they don’t have proper immigration documents, and where English is imposed in all public offices. There are people protesting schools with signs saying “Learn English or get the hell out!” (By the way, many of those signs were misspelled, like the one that called non-English people “morans” instead of morons.)

For years before bilingual education and civil rights laws that allowed for an acceptance of other languages, people were swatted or otherwise punished for not speaking English, including many native languages that came from this land. I know – when I first went to school in LA speaking only Spanish that’s what happened to me. Non-English speaking kids fell behind in their education because of this – in fact, bilingual education (and dual-language classes) have proven to help non-English speaking students with English and all other subjects. I can cite facts to prove this (it’s not true that having schools present things in other languages hurts their education).

I also said that English is our common language and everyone should learn it. I even cited a recent survey of Latino immigrants that showed the majority were more than willing to learn English. There is no organized or active movement against English in this country. What I’m against is the movement for English Only that suppresses other languages. And if you immigrated to France, you’d have to learn French, of course, but also English (and maybe another language or two). Most people in Europe speak more than one language, in particular English (I go to Europe and other countries on a regular basis, and this is generally the case). We happen to be one country, supposedly highly developed, where speaking more than one language is a growing problem. People in Mexico, Japan, and other countries have English courses as part of any major educational program.

And to address another of your points: I’ve lived in predominantly Chinese language schools in the East San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles (with the largest number of Asian people in the United States) and it never was a problem being among them. They were learning English and speaking Chinese. I knew English and also spoke Spanish. It seemed to work fine. Once the imposition of one language over others happens, however, that’s when the problems arise.

As for the anecdote at the airport, I didn’t make this up. It’s not a judgment against anyone but narrow-minded bigots. This should be brought out and seen for what it is. It’s not against “white” people or others who are not bigots (most “whites” I know aren’t). That statement is not ridiculous or inaccurate – that incident actually happened and it’s indicative of what we have to struggle against.

Finally, what you said about the German population in your part of Ohio is fine. I’m fighting for the same thing for Mexicans, Natives, and other peoples. Yes, learn English (it’s already happening – I’ve lived in immigrant communities for 52 years, believe me). But we should also maintain aspects of our cultures, languages, expressions, and aspirations if we want to. In time, these aspects have shaped and re-shaped what this country is about – which is not a monolith, nor should it be. We can have the common things, particularly our ideals and interests, and still have our differences. We can unite on the essential things, and be free to do what we want around the non-essential things. That’s my point (by the way, if English Only means what it says, Minnesota, Chicago, and other place names like Los Angeles would have to change—English Only laws only allow English in publicly- funded institutions. Again, that’s my point: Keep English as our common and mutually shared language AND stop any efforts to make English the only allowable language in our schools, courts, and government bodies).
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Opinion piece on English Only

The following opinion piece appeared in various publications around the country through the Progressive Media Project, including the Providence Journal, Monterey Herald, Dayton Daily News, the Winona Daily News,among others. I've included the one that was posted by the Providence Journal. My next post will include some of the emails I received, and my responses to these.

Luis J. Rodriguez: Celebrate U.S. Spanish-speaking
Friday, September 1, 2006

THE HYSTERIA over Spanish-speaking people in the United States must stop. Already more than two dozen states have variants of "English-Only" laws. In one such state, North Carolina, I visited a classroom where a teacher had to sneak Spanish words onto a chalkboard so that her mostly Spanish-speaking students could learn. A student served as lookout to make sure no administrator happened by.

What's going on here?

Okay, I'll try to be generous. Some fear that today's immigrants don't want to learn English, or that American culture will be watered down and eventually destroyed, or that other tongues and cultures will break up what unites us as a nation.

Hogwash. (Not the Queen's English, I'm afraid.)

First of all, where are the hordes opposing English to warrant any of this?

From living in predominantly Spanish-speaking communities all my life, I can testify that most immigrants want to learn English.

My own family arrived from Mexico in the mid-1950s. In a generation, English became the dominant idiom, which is generally true for most Mexicans and other non-English-speaking people in this country. Latino immigrants are more likely to insist on English than native-born Latinos, according to surveys by the Pew Hispanic Center. And close to 60 percent of Latinos questioned say immigrants should learn English to stay in this country. Learning English is apparently not the problem.

Nor is diluting the culture -- unless, by culture, people exclude all the contributions made by people who didn't learn English as their first language. America is made up of many tongues, many heritages, many voices. The organic coming together of cultures and languages is what America is all about, and we don't need laws to do this, thank you very much.

We enjoy rock 'n' roll, martial arts, cowboys and chewing gum, all with roots outside Anglo culture (e.g., African, Asian, Spanish and American Indian, respectively). Hey, if we end up with an official language, we may have to reconsider place names like Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, California, Florida or San Diego. All of these have Indian or Spanish-language origins.

And if unity is the issue, well, what unites us as a country is not the language that we speak but the ideals that we hold dear: democracy, civil liberties, separation of powers, the self-evident truth that all people are created equal.

The "English-Only" campaigns are designed not to bring unity but to suppress other languages -- particularly Spanish -- and impose the supremacy of English on our tongues.

I, for one, love the English language. I've spent years trying to master it. But I'm also for having Spanish, Japanese, Hmong, Navajo and Nahuatl (still spoken by millions of people in Mexico and Central America) wherever these may apply. The U.S. Census estimates there are 329 languages spoken here, 154 of which are indigenous. Other reports claim the United States is currently the third-largest Spanish-speaking country.

That is not something to be ashamed of or worried about. It's something to celebrate. The ability to speak Spanish is becoming a necessity in today's America. We all might as well face up to that.

Plus, isn't it better to know more than one language? Many other countries put us to shame in this regard.

"English-Only" laws hark back to a time when Spanish-speaking or Indian-speaking children in the Southwest were forbidden to use words other than English (even if they knew no other words). As a result, they were forbidden to speak in this country that reveres free speech.

A friend of mine once told me how she was looking at one of my books while standing near an airport bookstand. Two American males nearby perused the name on the book, whereupon one of them remarked, "That's the problem with bilingual education. They learn a little English and now they want to write books."

Yes, and you know what? I didn't have to lose my Spanish to do so.

Luis J. Rodriguez has written 10 books of poetry, children's literature, fiction, nonfiction and memoir. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project.
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9/11 -- Five Years Later

After five years, what does the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennslyvania still signify to us in the United States? That's the question being asked all over the country in the next two days. I had an opportunity to discuss this very issue for a roundtable taping of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

Although it was taped last Friday, a condensed version of this talk will air on Monday, September 11 on PBS stations nationwide. Please check your local listings and local PBS stations for air times.

I hope my feelings and thoughts were adequately conveyed and not edited too much, although I understand the constraints. It was a lively discussion and I value the chance to be part of any such dialogue. In this country, we need more of these talks -- not just with like-minded people (although this has its merits), but with those we don't agree with.

I'm convinced we in the United States have more in common as far as issues, ideas, and values than not. I'm also convinced that right now, we are extremely divided. Our leaders and policymakers aren't helping -- they are as polarized as never before. We are at war, yet a significant number of people here don't want to be in a war that in effect has made terrorism more cohesive and stronger (and killed tens of thousands of civilians and close to 3,000 of our own troops) without any positive results. We are seeing a widening gap between the most powerful & rich people of the land and the poorest & least empowered. We are rent not just by idealogies, but class (the fundamental division in our land), race, immigrant status, and more.

I hope you all can watch this show and somehow, somewhere, get more involved in the badly-needed dialogues we need to have as a country about terrorism, war, the economy, our visions, our present, and future. I will do what I can to take part in these, and to facilitate these, as much as I can.
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The Momentum Continues...

To all my blogger friends: I want to report some relatively good developments in regards to Tia Chucha’s Café & Centro Cultural.

Soon after our five-year lease ended on September 1, Tia Chucha's rent doubled. Most any other community-based business would fold under such a hit – something that happens to small businesses every day.

Faced with this prospect, we considered moving the café/bookstore into the much smaller Centro workshop space next door, drastically curtailing our activities and business. We even got the news that the landlords wanted to bring in a high-tech Laundromat service. Of course, I’m thinking this community of mostly working class Latino families needs another Laundromat or 99 cent store or fast food outlet like a heart attack.

As I’ve often stated, there was no bookstores, movie houses, or cultural centers until Tia Chucha's opened its doors in late 2001. This is for an area in the Northeast San Fernando Valley of around 450,000 people (about the size of Oakland). Tia Chucha’s is a breath of fresh air; a need, not a business; a dream of community empowerment, not a profit-driven commercial enterprise.

Over the past five years, we spent tens of thousands of dollars to create this space and to keep it going. Most of this came from my family – with two mortgages and thousands in monthly subsidies.

However, we also received fantastic support from the community; they donated regularly at our request. We also got support for our music, art, writing, theater, film, sculpture workshops and author readings, theater shows, festivals, and musical events from the Liberty Hill Foundation, the LA City Department of Cultural Affairs, the Not Just Us Foundation, The Attias Family Foundation, the Center for Cultural Innovation, Toyota Sales, the Solidago Foundation, Youth Can Service, the Border Book Festival (Denise Chavez and John Randall), Councilman Alex Padilla, and even donations from well-known personalities like Bruce Springsteen, John Densmore of the Doors, Dave Marsh of Rock & Rap Confidential, among other individuals (thank you all).

And over the years, we had some of the best people possible staffing the bookstore, café, and workshop center (thanks to Joaquin, Alicia, Ray, Melissa, Vanessa, Silverio, Mike, Wendy, Yesenia, Carmen, Luz, Esperanza, Yuri, Nani, Marisol, Joe, and Nancy). Many volunteers kept our workshops going, including our board (Angelica Loa, Victor Mendoza, and yours truly) and resident artists like Cuauh Temach Totecayotl (Azteca dancers), Alejandro LaBorde, Juan Pueblo, Cesar Castro and the Son Jarocho workshop, Jovenes Nobles, Young Womyn’s Circle, Hazze Hip Hop Dream Center, Elusive Minds Films, Teatro Chusma, EARTH Theater Company, Tonantzin del Valle Women’s Natural Healing Circle, OmeAcatl and the Mexika/Nahuatl classes, Tres Chingazos Theater Collective, LA Commons, and many more.

Others like Enrique Sanchez, Freddy Chavez, Andres Bustamante, Dan Henrickson, Luis Ochoa, Juan Ochoa, Big Joe Hurt, Alfredo Hidalgo, and others (I can’t name them all, sorry) freely gave of their time and skills to help whenever we needed it.

And my wife Trini put her heart and soul in this space, managing the café/bookstore with lots of love and no pay.

We created this vital cultural space not to make gain for my family or any particular individual, but to fill this community with something beautiful, spiritual, visionary, and engaging. In five years, the community has embraced us, including helping us make a turn financially this year. The rent increase was potentially a terrible setback.

However, the good news is that after several talks with our landlords, we’ve reached an agreement that will keep Tia Chucha’s going – at least until we move into a newer permanent facility in the near future (more on this later).

While we will go ahead and pay the doubled rent, we'll give up the workshop center next door that we also rented (we'll continue many of our workshops at the cafe/bookstore). And the landlords have decided to donate $1,000 a month to our not-for-profit Centro.

I think after the landlords sat down at our space, and after talking heart-to-heart with Trini and myself, they got convinced of the immense value of trying to keep this place here. While they may still bring a Laundromat, they will try to help us stay here until we get a larger place. I have to thank them for opening up their hearts and doing what they can to help – I know the banks that hold their mortgages are putting pressure so they obtain a certain amount of rent per square foot. It’s just the realities of capitalist commerce (this cannot be dismissed out of hand when one is dealing in these situations).

In addition, we are now formally pursuing turning over Tia Chucha's Bookstore & Café (presently owned by a private Limited Liability Company) to the not-for-profit Centro, which has had its 501 (c)3 status for two years now.

And, with the help of the LA City Community Redevelopment Agency, we are in talks to create a new, much larger, space for Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center (with the bookstore and café as a legitimate means for the center to meet its non-profit arts/community mission, goals and objectives) in a new development in Pacoima – where Trini spent her formative years.

More on this later as we continue to negotiate our way through this (or any other possible development).

So while we’ve had many obstacles, and face many more to come, we've learned every defeat or possible defeat has renewal, power, and medicine in it -- the stories, the songs, the poetry, the dance, the performances, and voices can be our beacons to light our way. In the end, it’s authentic, self-energized, and whole communities that we want to see created and sustained as we struggle to make art/poetry/song/dance/theater central to our culture again (with good coffee and tamales on the side).

Tlazhokamati (thank you, in Nahuatl).
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The Renewing Power of Words -- and of Men's Lives

I apologize to all my blogger friends for not writing something for more than two weeks. Although I’m busy all the time, I love communicating my thoughts and activities through my blog posts, knowing there is an appreciative and growing readership among you. Thank you all for being out there for me and my work.

My absence was largely due to my participation in two major conferences – The Macondo Writers Workshop in San Antonio from August 6 to August 13. And my annual job as a teacher at the Mosaic Foundation’s Men’s Conference at the Woodlands Camp in Mendocino, CA. from August 14 to August 20.

The Macondo Writers Worshop is a unique, remarkable, and giving community of writers, founded by my friend and fellow poet/story teller Sandra Cisneros. This year it was based at Our Lady of the Lake University, which helped with dorms and meetings rooms (bed & breakfast establishments, hotels, and other spaces were also utilized). This year, I was one of the workshop facilitators (I had eight writers for four days of workshops). I also was the featured reader at the Jump Start Theater’s annual Macondo event that featured a theme of “Suavecito” -- with a lowrider club (thanks to La Familia) and their “ranflas,” aerosol spray art, and lowrider bikes hanging from the ceiling.

A special performance from the resident Jump Start Theater group of my anti-war poems “Nightfall: Poems to Ponder in Times of Uncertainty and War” blew me away – I was practically in tears hearing back my words from the myriad voices involved in the performance. It was also an honor to be accompanied by Chicano actor Jesse Borrego, who read a poem by the late Trinidad Sanchez; Levi Romero of Albuquerque, New Mexico, reading his street/barrio/lowrider poems; and the powerful presence of Sandra Cisneros, reading an excerpt from her recent novel, Caramelo. It was a packed house that later expanded into a party (I danced a good part of the night away, assisted by the knowledge I can enjoy myself without the booze).

I hope to return to Macondo as a teacher, as a participant, or just to write as much as I can. The community is generous and filled with Sandra’s loving spirit and her vision of community engagement through the arts (I also thank Sandra for lending me her friend Reza, originally from Iran and a former Olympic wrestler, for a massage and vital advice on nutrition and exercise – I sure needed this).

I flew from San Antonio to Oakland on August 13, where I hooked up with my compadre Tony Prince – best friend and fellow revolutionary. He is a lawyer, working for a large public employee union. I’m also godfather to his two daughters (he’s godfather to my oldest son, Ramiro). Ramiro still calls him Nino Tony. As usual we talked about life, politics, spirit, writing, change, and almost all topics under the sun. As usual we practically resolved the world’s problems. Unfortunately, we end up going our separate ways, back to the realities in which our ideas and issues must find ground and meaning (or get crushed).

Tony drove me the almost four hours from Berkeley, where he lives, up the coast to Mendocino. For the first time, I found myself showing up early to this men’s gathering – only one other person was there. I have been doing these events for twelve years as a teacher, under the invitation of renowned mythologist and storyteller, Michael Meade, founder and visionary behind Mosaic. The organization is well known for intense soul-work and community building among the disaffected, abandoned, traumatized, and forgotten members of our society. This includes vital interactions with indigenous communities, barrio/ghetto youth, homeless youth, refugees (from Sudan and other countries), and prisoners.

The men’s conference is one of the few renewing touchstones in my life – despite the struggles, teachings, heartaches, rages, and sorrows involved. Last year, we lost two of our participants when their car fell into the Navarro River on their way to the conference (Elegba “Legs” Earl and Joe Ranft: may they rest in peace). There was much work to be done to cleanse and coalesce from this tragedy.

This year’s conference was called “Seeking Spirit, Making Soul: The Road of Wounds and Gifts.” The main five teachers in these events were together at once for this one – something we had not done in years. Besides myself, the teachers were Michael Meade, Orland Bishop (community healer and spiritual practitioner), Malidome Some (an initiated West African elder/shaman), and Jack Kornfield (one of the leading American Buddhists, founder of Spirit Rock in the Bay Area). I must say this was a privilege for all of us – working together to deepen the conversations about men’s rage as well as race, class, war, gender conficts, and more.

So much of this week’s efforts involved healing and regeneration. Despite some uncertain, heated, and fractured moments, this year’s group of men (around 100 took part) were wonderfully able to cohere and hold the space, including for three young men who had lost a friend through gang violence a couple of weeks ago; another young man who held his friend as he died from gunshot wounds; and a father whose three-year-old daughter had unexpectedly died in his arms after an illness. Other trauma and life-long pain entered this space, one of a few nationally that adequately and deeply attempts to get to the heart of the matter surrounding these issues. In the end, we left with much song, story, dance, and poetry (I do poetry workshops at these events every year). And we also left with a fierce fellowship of men, filled with substance, myths, ideas, art, ritual, and healing paths.

The event also served to highlight the publication of Michael Meade’s book The Water of Life: Initiation and the Tempering of the Soul, published by GreenFire Press, an imprint of the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation. Please order this through the Mosaic website (

I came back home -- back to family, Tia Chucha’s, my writing, and tons of other work (including 1,000 emails) -- ready to engage, fully energized and awakened to the crucially necessary work we must do in community for deep social/spiritual/cultural/personal transformations.
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The Language that Saves Us

In San Fernando de Apure, a fairly large city in the rural state of Apure in the middle of Venezuela, around 100 people showed up to a uniquely powerful poetry reading sponsored by CENAL (Centro Nacional del Libro—National Center of the Book), a project of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Venezuelan government.

Local poets read, including a cowboy-hat wearing, white dressed 11-year-old girl with dimples (she did a wonderful performance, or “declamación,” of a patriotic poem with guitar accompaniment). Another poet was an 80-year-old man who read his own fantastically-executed work. In addition, two invited poets of the Third World Poetry Festival of Venezuela also took part: Puerto Rico’s Carman Valle and myself, your humble servant.

This was part of a national tour of 28 poets who came from diverse countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Oceana, the Caribbean, North America, and South America to participate in the festival. Twenty two of Venezuela’s 24 states were included in this “invasion” of poets. I also read in the “llanero” (open plains area of mostly agricultural farming and ranching) state of Guárico. In the state capital of San Juan de Los Morros, Libyan poet Idris Tayeb, who had once been imprisoned for 10 years because of his writings, joined with me. A fantastic Venezuelan poet, Antonio Trujillo, also took part. In addition, we heard from local poets, which is a great thing to do so that the community is vested and connected to the international poetry community.

Although we were late in starting due to technical difficulties (all non-Spanish poems had been translated and were being projected on a screen at the same time a poet read in his or her native language), red-T-shirted youth from the local Cultural Mission stood on each side of us and applauded as Idris, Antonio, and I walked up to the open-air lecture stage. Some people were there since 4:30 PM, although we didn’t start until 7:30 PM (it was supposed to start at 6 PM). The majority in the audience stayed all the way until about 10:30 PM when the whole program finished. Their fortitude and love of language was astounding. I couldn’t believe any people would have the patience to stay this long for poetry (we can learn much about this in the United States).

My festival guide, Robinson Velasco, 26, continued to be a most helpful and trusting companion to have on these trips. We took several buses, first three hours, then four hours, and then a particularly brutal 8-hour ride from San Fernando de Apure to Caracas (with a half-working air conditioner, no restrooms, and tons of babies). We stayed in small cockroach-infested hotel rooms (without hot water in one case) in mosquito-laden territory. But we also met wonderful people, local residents, who showed us around their town, fed us the most wonderful foods (including local versions of “arepas” and “chanapas”), and never failed to have a smile and a kind word.

Back in Caracas (and to our Hilton hotel suites, free meals, and pool), other presentations followed, including an amazing closing event at the Teatro Teresa Carreño featuring North Americans poets from the US and Mexico (including Jack Hirschman, Allison Hedge Cooke, Sam Hamill, Jorge Cocom Pech, Maria Baranda, and, again, yours truly).

We also all took part in media interviews, mostly in the hotel’s lobby, but sometimes outside in the streets of Caracas with food and artisan vendors in the background. We appeared in the pages of newspapers, on the radio, and on national and local TV broadcasts.

Again, in the closing event, some 2,000 people showed up (all the readings were free). Books were sold, including classics books from around the world and Venezuela, and contemporary works of poets in the country and other parts of the world. The revolutionary work of the new Bolivariano government (led by Hugo Chavez Frias) includes the expansion of books, literacy, ideas, and creativity.

I saw many wonderful construction projects, including roads, health care facilities, computer centers, schools, and housing, much of it fueled by oil (Venezuela is one of the world’s largest oil producers). The country’s oil reserves had been used for years by a small elite class of rich people; now it’s being used to feed, clothe, house, and change the culture of the poor in the country. However, for me, one of the most impressive labors of any revolutionary society is that of drawing on the creativity, gifts, talents, passions, energies, and ideas of the people themselves to rebuild, renew, and reinvigorate the whole country.

Poetry then is a revolutionary tool, an armament of positive and healing change, as a language that will help pull the people up from the despairing and debilitating consequences of capitalist-driven poverty, fear, hunger, and ignorance. As one Venezuelan poet said, poetry is not just of those who write it. It belongs to the people. It belongs to the revolution. It belongs to the future.
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The World Poetry Festival in Caracas, Venezuela

I'm most honored to be an invited poet to the 3rd World Poetry Festival in Caracas, Venezuela from July 17 to July 23, 2006. I arrived at Caracas Airport on Saturday, July 15 without a hitch. This was in contrast to my visit to Caracas this past January when I took part in the World Social Forum. Then there were problems with a downed bridge, late pickups, hours to get to the capital, confused schedules, and on my way out, spending a restless night in the airport trying to sleep in a plastic lawn chair until the next day when my flight was slated to leave.

This time, I was warmly greeted by members of the poetry festival's staff, including my own personal guide, a knowledgeable and friendly young man named Robinson Velasco. A new road had already been constructed that brought us into the capital of some 8 million people in almost no time. I met other poetry staff and volunteers, was given a nice room in the Hilton in the center of the city, and provided with breakfast, lunch, and dinner at no cost.

The magnitutude of this event dawned on me when I was told that there are less than a handful of world poetry festivals anywhere. Medellin, Colombia has perhaps one of the world´s largest (and, apparently, the largest in the Americas). The Caracas festival has grown in three years with more poets, more audiences, more financial and logistical support. The 28 invited poets came from Asia, Africa, South America, North America, the Caribbean, the Mideast, Europe, and Australia.

They included Hu Lanlan of China, Carman Valle of Puerto Rico, Tendo Taijin of Japan, Ali Al-Shalah of Iraq, Jorge Cocom Pech of Mexico, Nicole Cage-Florentini of Martinique, Tobias Burghardt of Germany, Francois Miguot of France, and Mike Ladd of Australia. Many were also from Venezuela including Miguel Marquez and Laura Antillano.

Four Americans were invited: Sam Hamill (founder of Copper Canyon Press and the amazing Poets Against the War), Allison Hedge Coke (well-known Native American poet), Jack Hirschman (the Poet Laureate of San Francisco and one of the most revolutionary voices in US letters), and yours truly. What a privilege to be linked to all these great poets!

On Monday, July 17, we were welcomed by the Venezuelan Minister of Culture, Francisco Sesto Novas, at a reception at the national library. We were also treated to a tour of the rare books section of the library, the pride of this relatively poor Latin American country that has now seen a great rise in literacy among the people. The government has recently published 500,000 copies of "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo to go with the millions of other classics that are given free to the public. Their publishing imprint, El Perro y La Rana (The Dog and the Frog) is named after an indigenous symbol, connecting to the strong indigenous, African, and Spanish roots of the people. This is part of the Hugo Chavez government´s effort to expand the revolutionary process into all areas of the country (the way it has brought health care, new housing, schools, and computer centers free and accessible to millions of previously neglected populations).

Later that evening, after intense preparations and rehearsal (something many of us poets were not used to, being simple people of paper, pen, and voice), some 2000 people showed up to our gala inaugural event at the Teresa Carreño Theater. 2,000 people! I'm rarely amazed as a poet if I can get me a couple of hundred in the United States (one time I read to six people, four of whom were my family).

The response was tremendous. People sat through two hours of readings, with translations into Spanish of many of the poems projected onto the back wall of the theater. When it was over, hardly anyone had left (the audience included elderly and school children). The applause was enthusiastic, spontaneous, and gracious.

The next day, I did a reading at the Central University of Caracas with Anwar Al-Ghasanni of Iraq (who because of many years of exile was also fluent in Spanish, English, and who knows what other language) and several Venezuelan poets, including my friend Diego Sequera. Again, the response was heartfelt among the 100 or so people who showed up to listen. Press interviews followed at the university and later at the Hilton Hotel. More readings were also scheduled throughout the day.

Tomorrow, I'm scheduled to go to the state of Guarico, about a five-hour drive from Caracas, to read to largly agricultural communities. Other poets will be visiting other states throughout Venezuela so that most people in the country get access to the amazing words, images, ideas, passions, and presence of some of the world´s leading revolutionary poets. Hasta luego!
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Celebrating Words: Written, Performed & Sung

This past June 24, Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural organized the first "Celebrating Words: Written, Performed & Sung" festival in the culturally-neglected neighborhood of Sylmar in the city of Los Angeles. With support from the Youth Policy Institute and LA City Councilman Alex Padilla's Office (and funded by the city's Department of Cultural Affairs), we were able to get a few hundred people to enjoy the poets, spoken word performers, musicians, and bands that played on the stage -- and to see and buy art works, jewelry, T-shirts, books, and tamales from our vendors.

Our sister organization, Tia Chucha's Cafe & Bookstore, had three tables of books, in English and Spanish, to make sure the community had access to literature, words, poetry, and stories to complement the wonderful voices and sounds on stage that included the bands Quetzal, Upground, and Noxdiel. We also had music from Alfredo Hidalgo and Big Joe Hurt, conscious Hip Hop from El Vuh and the Hazze Hip Hop Dream Center, and poetry from D-Lo, Tia Chucha Press author ariel robello, Poets of the Roundtable (Mike the Poet and the Bus Stop Prophet), Tezozomoc, and yours truly.

The whole event was blessed by Tia Chucha's very own Aztec Dance group, Cuauh Temach Totecayotl.

Held in Sylmar Park, I heard comments from a couple of local residents who said they'd live in the area for many years, and never saw such a wonderful celebration at the park. We want to make this an annual event. Already we've received Department of Cultural Affairs' funding for next year.

We are also glad to announce our free Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural's Summer Music Program, partially funded by the Attias Family Foundation and sponsored by the Department of Cultural Affairs Music LA program. This year we will offer workshops in Conga, Piano, Harmonica, DJ/Mixing, Son Jarocho, Folk Guitar, Classical Guitar, Contemporary Guitar, Indigenous Drumming, West African Drumming, and more.

For more information, call (818) 754-2402, write to [email protected], or go to

Support the arts!
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"Express Yourself"

Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band was for me one of the original, funkified, soul-deep bands of the 1960s and 1970s. I loved the urban African American music that hit the airwaves during that time. Earth, Wind & Fire led the pack for me, but they included War, Bloodstone, Maze, Sly & the Family Stone, the Whispers, Parliament, and Charles Wright. The Chicano Funk/Urban sounds emanating from LA, Texas, and the Bay Area around that time mixed right in there, including bands like El Chicano, Malo, Thee Midniters, Sunny & the Sunliners, Azteca, and Tower of Power.

Fortunately, I’ve become friends with Mr. Wright some 30 years after “Do Your Thing,” “Express Yourself,” and “Love Land” brought him international success. He came late last year to Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural at the invitation of our mutual friend, David Sandoval (one of the original producers of Los Lobos). He was there during our last Anniversary event this past February.

On Saturday, June 17, 2006 I was honored to host Charles Wright’s new CD release party at Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural with an amazing band that included original members of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band as well as players for Earth, Wind & Fire and other musicians. In the audience were personalities like Charles McCormick of Bloodstone (“Natural High”) and a member of Sly, Slick & Wicked.

The new CD is called “Finally got it Wright” (Million Dollars Worth of Memories Records), now available at record shops and on the Internet (

Being there at this listening party and hosting this event was a dream come true for this once violent street kid. Music was one of the few sweet aspects of my crazy life then, particularly that era’s R&B. And Charles Wright and the band performed like there was no tomorrow. Playing some of his hits and cuts from previous albums, he also sang a few of the new ones. By the end, when he brought in the bass notes of “Express Yourself,” everybody in the house was on their feet, dancing, swaying, and singing along.

It’s important to note that this was one of the most authentic and original music this country ever produced. It was a time when people talked about important things like love, but also about the state of the world. There was consciousness and action in the streets and in the songs. While many of our youth today do not know much of this history, they hear the sounds in the various sampled records and current movie soundtracks. It’s still part of their world, although I don’t think we’re doing much to preserve the music or the musicians. I want to do my part to do both.

I want to thank Charles Wright, his band, and all those who attended this fantastic CD release party – for making this such a magical night.

Also please be on the lookout for another classic soul/rock/funk night when Chicano radio personality and music impresario Frankie Firme holds a CD release party of the new Ramparts Records release (featuring some of the West Coast, Eastside Sound they’re famous for) at Tia Chucha’s on July 8 from 5 PM until 10 PM. There will be live performances by Pepe Marquez and Anthony Prieto. Called “The Soul of Aztlan Show,” we’ll also feature a documentary by Ramparts owner Hector Gonzales and film maker Jim Velarde on the Ramparts Records phenomena (we’re also going to give yours truly a musical send off as I get ready to attend the World Poetry Festival in Caracas, Venezuela from July 15 until July 24).
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