We Belong Because We Belong

Again, on April 10, the human rights struggle for immigrants in this country made history—with concerted nation-wide marches, vigils, work stoppages, and other events that involved tens of thousands of people, including more than 500,000 in Washington DC.

Overall, these past few weeks have seen millions of people demand the basic rights and decent life that should be the lot of any person living and working in the United States, regardless of their immigrant status.

They have taken a stand against the second-class status that has been bestowed on close to 12 million people just because they don’t have proper documentation. With the passage of anti-immigrant HR 4437 last December in the House of Representatives, and an intense debate in the Senate with their own worse-and-worser versions of immigration bills, people are saying they must be heard.

Somehow the voices and interests of these leaders, activists and participants don’t seem to be on any of the congressional agendas. What do they want? They want a fair, adequate, and quick legalization process for any undocumented person (including full and unconditional amnesty for the 12 million undocumented among us). They want a fair and humane way for future migrants from Mexico, Central America, and other poor countries to contribute and become active in the economic, social, and cultural life of this country. And they want a livable and fair wage for their hard work—instead of the slave-wages they presently get.

What else? How about speaking their languages and honoring their traditions—and still become Americans. Everyone agrees that learning English, and understanding and abiding by federal and state laws, are important. Nobody is contesting that. But this doesn’t have to mean they should forget their original tongues, value systems, or spiritual practices (whatever they may be, since they are extremely diverse).

These demonstrators are saying they want to be “American” without having to homogenize into an Anglo/racist version of what a so-called American is supposed to be.

When people say assimilate (which is a natural process that nobody has to dictate), they also get the idea this means becoming “Anglo.” Who needs that? This isn’t even better than the cultures most people come from.

Sure if anyone want to be “Anglicized” (by the way, this is a misnomer—most Europeans in this country aren’t even from England) all power to them. But Latinos, Asians, other Europeans, Arabs, Africans, Indians, and more bring with them rich tongues, intelligences, traditions, and flavors. This is America—not the corny “white” people ideal that some people seem to think it is.

The fact is much of what makes “America” has roots in all cultures and traditions.

For example, we take cowboys for granted—some even call them the “American” archetype. Yet it was the Mexican vaqueros who served as model and teachers of the cowboy style and culture.

We say Rock and Roll is the quintessential US export, although it has roots in Africa (which is the main thread running through Jazz, Blues, Soul, and Hip Hop—all-American music if you ask me).

People here go crazy for martial arts (including the mixed-martial arts battles in the Ultimate Fighter), yet its roots are Asian.

And we use American English that includes thousands of words from Jewish/Hebrew, Irish (not Anglo), German, Russian, Asia, African, and other traditions.

I even read that there are around 300 words from the Nahuatl language (from the so-called Aztec people of Mexico), including avocado, tomato, jaguar, maize, taco, and chocolate.

Place names like Chicago, Minnesota, Miami, Wisconsin, Utah, Texas—I can go on and on—have origins in our Native peoples. Other names like Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Colorado, California, Florida, San Francisco (again there are too many to name here) have Spanish origins. Such great American cultures like Cajuns have roots in French, Spanish, Native, and African people.

Most South talk and accents are Scottish-Irish and African. Most of our original laws comes from Native (mostly from the Iroquis Confederacy), Greek, and British sources.

We can’t go by a day without saying or hearing okay, amigo, oy vey, putz, Toyota, geshundeit—all words from outside what’s considered “Anglo.”

From Mexicans/Chicanos, we can say that cholos, lowriders, and burritos are as American as Apple Pie.

As the demonstrators have been saying—We are America.

Yes, we can have a common language, common laws, common interests, and aims. But why do we have to give up our long-standing roots and traditions (they will change naturally anyway, has they have for hundreds of years)?

Already, we have a multi-tiered economy that brings more conflicts and suffering than any cultural differences we may have. Concentrating on changing that would be more important and meaningful than arguing about whether anyone is for hot dogs, enchiladas, or mofongo.
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Marches, Demonstrations... What Now?

This week, historic walkouts across the country in support of immigrant rights--read human rights--dominated the news, Congress, and most conversations. This morning, I was on "Democracy Now," hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales (Pacifica Radio), along with Yasmin Chavez, a junior from Montebello High School who led student walkouts in her community. On the phone was Montesuma Esparza, producer of the HBO film, "Walk Out," which premiered on March 18.

It wasn't planned this way, but then again, this was no accident neither. The "Walk Out" film, directed by Edward James Olmos, is about the 1968 Chicano "Blowouts" when thousands of students, teachers, parents, and activists walked out of schools in the East LA area. Until this week, this was the largest walkout of middle school and high school students in the United States.

We talked about the meaning behind the current civil demonstrations, including thousands of students walking out of schools in LA, Phoenix, Sacramento, Detroit, Denver, and other cities. Most importantly was the 38-year connection made between Montesuma, who helped organize the "Blowouts," getting arrested in 1968, and this young woman from Montebello (who attended a Chicano youth leadership conference this past weekend that also featured 1968 walkout leaders like Sal Castro).

Other veterans from 1968 include LA Mayor Antonio Villaragoisa, State Senator Gil Cedillo, radio personality Luis R. Torres, and countless others. We didn't lose it with our activism (the media and so-called politicians claimed, then as now, that we would be losers for walking out of school). The point is many of us from those times have continued on to become skillful, relevant, and alive.

This is leadership engendering leadership, across the years and generations with deep and lasting links.

My first political act at age 13 began in 1968. I walked out with a handful of other students from South San Gabriel's Garvey Intermediate School in solidarity with the greater East LA walkouts. I took part in Chicano Youth Leadership Conferences that eventually helped create the Brown Berets and the United Mexican American Students (that later transformed into MeCha: Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan).

At age 16, I participated in and got arrested during the Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War, which was eventually attacked by sheriff's deputies, culminating in a so-called riot that destroyed millions of dollars of property and the deaths of several people, including Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar.

Although I had dropped out of school by then, and had became active in gangs and drugs, the movement provided me with revolutionary ideas, tactics, and a new imagination about my life and my community. I eventually returned to high school, taking part in a Chicano student organization, fighting for Chicano Studies and representation on the school board as well as the school's decision-making process.

As a senior, I helped lead three walkouts for Chicano rights and dignity. I wrote plays and poems. I also danced Aztec/Mexika dances and painted several community murals.

Paula Crisostomo, the student leader in 1968 who is the main character in the HBO "Walk Out" film, worked at my high school, helping mentor us young activists and leaders in that rough year of 1972.

In time, I found purpose and meaning in organizing, studying revolutionary texts outside of the school curriculum, and meeting other revolutionary leaders. This eventually helped me remove myself from the violent and paralyzing street life--including seven years of drug use since the age of 12.

At age 18, while I faced a six-year prison sentence, leading members of my community rallied on my behalf, writing letters and convincing a judge to give me a lesser charge and sentence (which I served in the LA County Jail, then as now, one of the worse jails in the country). When I got out of jail, I made a vow--never to do a criminal act that would jeopardize my ability to be a well-rounded and disciplined revolutionary thinker, writer, and leader.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I found a movement and a cause. This also helped shape my creative spirit that took the form of murals, dance, music, photography, but most importantly, writing.

Watching these young people, and hearing the voice of someone like Yasmin Chavez, I felt emotional and proud. Close to 40 years have amassed between the time of "Walk Out" and this week's actions. But it felt as if it were only yesterday, when the words, the ideas, the rhythms, and the dreams filled the blood and awoke my soul to a life that now I know I was destined to live.

Some schools have locked out students. Many administrators are demanding that students return to schools and "get their education." Police in places like Santa Ana, have attacked and beaten up protestors. Everything now is about closing the imaginations, the purposeful possibilities, and the hopes of these students.

We have to keep the momentum going, but on a higher level. Now it's time for real teachings, real strategies, for vision and direction to come out of all this activity. The fact is these walkouts are education.

It's time to teach and realize a new kind of leader. The youth are hungry to be involved, to change things, to better this world. Real knowledge of where the world has been, where it's going, and how to organize to get it there must now be the order of the day.

I will do my part. I call on all veteranos, OGs, revolutionaries, and thinkers to help make this happen. Not by telling the youth what to do (they have great ideas and energy already), but by helping forge the kind of unity, political savvy, and imagination needed to bring about humane and encompassing policies on our rights and our continual contributions to this country and world.

In time, these youth should be the future Montesumas, the future writers, the future Mayors of cities, the real rulers of this land. Let's help prepare the way.
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March for Our Lives

I was 13 years old in 1968 when the East LA School Blowouts happened (which the current HBO movie, "Walk Out" is based on). Several thousand students, teachers, parents, and supporters stepped out of their schools, confronting police, a confused media, and general indifference (I heard from one young person that she never heard about the "Blowouts" until the HBO film first aired on March 17, although she grew up in LA).

I also walked out of my middle school in 1968, although it was only a handful of us. It became my first political act that would soon become a lifetime of political acts.

Then starting last Friday, thousands of students walked out of LA-area schools (and around the country--I heard from one student activist in Phoenix) against the anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner Bill that passed the House of Representatives in December, and is presently being debated in the Senate. From 500,000 to two million people demonstrated in downtown LA on Saturday--the largest demonstration in the city's history. More demonstrations on Sunday, including one in honor of Cesar Chavez, led to some 40,000 students walking out of schools throughout Southern California on Monday--but also thousands more in the Bay Area and schools from the Midwest to North Carolina.

That morning I almost drove into a couple of hundred students from Sylmar High School as they walked down Hubbard Blvd to San Fernando Road in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. I stopped, honked, and placed my fist in the air. Truckers and others did the same. The students were noisy, but peaceful, displaying a massive Mexican flag (US flags were also quite evident in most of these demonstrations). Later my wife Trini and I caught up with them further along their walk.

By Tuesday, school officials were "locking down" schools (students who come in, won't be allowed to leave until the end of the day). It's no coincidence schools in urban core communities were using prison terms to describe their tactics. For many students, schools are a prison. One adminstrator said the students needed to return to school for their "education." Yet, I see some fantastic education going on in the civil demonstrations and actions the students were taking.

Today, as in 1968, I support these marches. We have seen so many bold infractions and felonies against our future with war (defended by lies), corruption (not just the most recent with Abramoff and DeLay, but the billions stolen by Enron, World Com, Halliburton, and others, all friends of the present White House administration), and civil liberties (Patriot Acts, wiretappings, and torture in US-controlled prisons around the world).

People have to stand up. They must also strategize, think of the next step, reshape the vision, reinvigorate more people, and truly bring about real change.

We need it. The world needs it. In my life--slightly more than 50 years--I've seen the detrimental affects of capitalism, its wars, its divisions, its tactics, and the dense indifferences that result from this.

I'm honored to know our youth, and many of the veteran warriors from the 1960s through the 1980s, are coming together and demanding an end to the direction and motion of this country. Everything the Republicans (and their lame cronies in the Democrats) do now only gets worse for us and worse for them. They don't know how to do anything else.

We can show them there are other ideas. Other ways to go. Where peace, cooperation, community, incorporation, and true security really comes from. At crucial times in history, it's been shown that the people know better than their "leaders."
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Immigrant Rights are Human Rights

HR 4437, the anti-immigrant law the House of Representatives passed in December (and which comes up for vote in the Senate on March 27) is a rotten piece of legislation that would place the United States in violation of basic human rights. Here’s why:

HR 4437 will impose jail time for over 12 million undocumented immigrants (where are we going to get the money for all these jails? The US is already the world’s largest jailer). It allows local police and the U.S. military to serve as immigration agents. It allocates hundreds of millions of dollars to build an enormous wall across our southern border. It will also make it a felony for anyone—be they churches, charities, employers, and even family members—to assist undocumented people. At the same time, there are no provisions in HR 4437 for undocumented immigrants to apply for green cards or to become citizens.

Already a prison in Texas has been created to accommodate 7,000, mostly Mexican, undocumented criminal offenders.

Instead of becoming the land of equality, opportunity, and reaching out, we’re becoming the backward, mean-spirited, and divided land that millions of Americans spent more than half of the last century fighting to change.

These laws are the revenge of the right-wing conservative and pro-capitalist rich and powerful who have wanted to destroy the gains of the 1960s ever since the freedom marches, protests, uprisings, and laws came down on the old Jim Crow and Segregation Black Codes of the South (and the de facto segregation and discrimination in the North).

We must not allow these rights to be taken away. Moreover, we must continue to expand our rights for all people—including the right to live healthy and solid lives. While people themselves have to prepare, get the skills, and do the work to achieve those things, government can help move the resources and social energy to make sure nothing gets in their way.

Right now, the Old Guard is back with a vengeance. In the guise of neo-conservatism, they have brought back war to our doorstep (again sacrificing our children for the sake of markets and power as in Vietnam), neglect (look at the Katrina debacle), corruption (Tom Delay, Abramoff, and others), and fear (every other word from Bush and his cronies builds on fear).

We’ve been through this—perhaps with different characters and nuances—many times before. We must now move forward toward our interests for peace, cooperation, and security like we did thirty years ago—only with a vision that incorporates the future, technology, new ideas, and new strategies.

We need to stop HR 4437. But we also need to lay the basis for the human and civil rights of everyone, regardless of their papers, regardless of their economic standing.

If Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, we need to dream even harder. Fight and organize even harder. And get the maturity and intelligence to not be taken off track and into complacency ever again. Many of the leaders of the 1960s and 1970s were killed, drugged, imprisoned, or rendered impotent. It’s the people themselves who must insure the future of us all.
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The Politics of Redemption

Governor Schwarzenegger on Thursday decided to parole convicted-murderer-turned-priest, James Tramel, after some twenty years in prison. This is good news. This is a step in the right direction. Tramel, 38, who was convicted of participating in the stabbing death of a homeless man in 1985, was a Christian and deacon before becoming well known as the first ordained Episcopal priest behind bars.

Many people fought for his release, and rightly so.

But now this begs the question: Why is Schwarzenegger, or any government official, determining who is reformed and who is not, who dies—as in the case of Tookie Williams—and who gets to be free?

If a right-wing conservative politician is in power, it appears they will make decisions about granting freedom based on their own politics and even race—releasing a white, conservative Christian, for example.

Tookie Williams was African American, a former Crip leader, and a non-Christian who had reformed and began to write and speak out against gang violence. He also had many supporters, even famous ones. A movie was made on his life. He wrote books. Yet Schwarzenegger, in his statement denying Tookie his life, implicated Williams’ politics and his supposed “lack of remorse” (largely because Williams would not accept guilt for crimes he has always maintained he didn’t do).

Politics killed this man. Politics freed another man. This, by the way, is California history. It’s US history. It has nothing to do with right and wrong, real redemption or fake redemption, remorse or lack of remorse. In many people’s eyes (not the right people, apparently), Tookie Williams did about as much as any man in his circumstances to turn his life around. So did Tramel. Only one went one way and the other went another way. And being that race and class are always at the heart of most major decisions in this country, this also prevailed.

Such a system must not continue. Fairness, objectivity, judging a person on a true measure of what is change and not change is sorely needed here. However, let’s not fool ourselves—such things don’t exist in the current political environment. Taking this reality in account, people should not die just because they don’t correspond politically, culturally, economically, or racially as those in power.

Remember, the last two men executed in California were African American and Native American. These men were convicted of murdering people outside their race and culture. The next person to die was Latino, also found guilty of killing someone other than Latino. So far, he has been spared due to a federal court’s ruling on the cruel and unusual punishment surrounding lethal injections (a doctor was supposed to make sure the prisoner would die without pain, but a qualified physician couldn’t be found who would do this).

Unfortunately, the state may still find a way to kill this guy.

Simply put, it’s time to stop. It’s great that Tramel has been released. Many more men should probably be given the same opportunity. I doubt that will be the case. Most of the men in California prisons are Latino, Black, and poor white. They happen to be nothing like Schwarzenegger. Nothing like those in power.
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Mexika New Year 2006: Year of Xikome Tochtli

More than ten years ago, not long after I began my sobriety from seven years of drugs and 20 years of drinking, I became active in indigenous ceremonies, teachings, and communities, both Native Mexican and Native American. I did sweat lodge ceremonies and other indigenous sacred rites in California, Arizona, New Mexico, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Chicago, eventually involving my wife Trini; my sons Ramiro, Ruben, Luis, and daughter, Andrea (and even a couple of my grandchildren).

I took part in a kalpulli (a spiritual house in the Nahuatl/Mexika traditions) called Kalpulli Yetlenazi Tolteka Trece (including with the Frank and Lou Blazquez family, a strong Xicano family born and raised in Chicago). Frank was also a recovering drug and alcohol addict; together we helped bring the spirit of balance, truth, love, and community to the work we were doing with gang and nongang youth in the not-for-profit organization I helped found, Youth Struggling for Survival.

Around nine years ago, my Xicano friend Luis Ruan (of Purepecha indigenous descent from Michoacan, Mexico) began introducing me to the Dine Roadman and Elder, Anthony Lee, his wife Delores, and their wonderful children, in Lukachukai, Arizona. Every year we did prayer meetings and sweat ceremonies there, honored by the presence of many Dine/Navajo men and women, teachers and medicine people. In short time, Anthony Lee adopted Trini (and consequently the whole family) in a wonderful ceremony--they have been our spiritual family ever since.

I also had my son Ruben, when he was 12 years old, undergo a rite of passage ceremony under the guidance of Anthony Lee. We both received ceremonial names in the Dine language.

Soon after my family moved to the Northeast San Fernando Valley in the summer of 2000, Luis Ruan, Trini, myself, and a circle of Xicano men and women here created two sweat lodges--one in the Pacoima barrio in the back of Trini's old family home (she grew up there); and one behind a sober-living home called Casa Rivas in San Fernando. In the past years, we've grown to include many former addicts, gang members, and troubled youth, but also just fantastic men and women who have incorporated their roots and cosmologies into the complexities of the modern world (as guides to get through this world with dignity, valor, beauty, and coherency). Although we no longer have the Pacoima sweat, we continue to grow and do our ceremonies with the sweat at Casa Rivas.

Years before I moved back to LA from Chicago in 2000, I also received a Mexika name through the Kalpulli Yetlenazi based on the Mexika Sun Stone, known as the Tonalamatl. My name involved a correspondence with my date of birth in the Gregorian calendar to the much more efficient and still accurate Tonalamatl. The name given to me by our Mexika elders there was Xikome Tochtli. This translates into Seven Rabbit.

On March 12, the Mexika New Year begins. Based on the Mexika Calendar, we are entering the year of Xikome Tochtli, my namesake. All over Aztlan, sunrise ceremonies, danza events, sweats, and other commemoration will be going on that weekend of March 12.

To help with the vitality and importance of these celebrations, I include here the wise and studied words of my friend and fellow Mexika warrior-teacher, Michael Heralda, who has taken his Aztec Stories around the country and beyond the borders:

Have you ever asked yourself “how can I incorporate some of the ancient traditional practices of my ancestors into my daily life?” Well, with the coming of the Mexica New Year and its preceding Nemotemi day’s (5 days of reflection) fast approaching you have an opportunity to start that reconnection is ways that are easy to follow and maintain.

Traditionally, the 5 days that precede the New Year ceremony are dedicated to days of self reflection, contemplation, rumination, meditation and prayer. During these 5 quiet days important decisions were postponed, participants practised abstinance, and old items were also cast out and/or broken – a symbolic and ceremonial action designed to represent the end of one cycle and the beginning of another.

Do you have personal items (things) that have gone past their usefulness? If so, make some time to sit down (with them) and recall what they represent to you, how were they used and what memories, fond or sad, are associated with them? Did you learn things from them? Did they advance your life in a positive or negative way? It is not as important to recall only the good memories, but also those that became markers in your life – good or bad. It is because of these associations that we learn and advance. If your personal belongings have served their purpose and usefulness, then these may be good candidates to discard or break (it is not necessary to discard more than one object, only those or one that needs replacing). Remember, our ancestors understood that by giving away something important it made room for something else (maybe more important) to take its place.

“Fasting” is also another symbolic action we can take as a means of acknowledging the end of one cycle and the beginning of another – we cleanse our bodies to prepare for the new cycle and new year. Maybe you might consider not eating the foods that are harmful to your body (you know what I am referring to) and focus on eating the 7 warrior foods of our ancestors:

Corn
Beans
Squash
Chili
Nopal
Chia/sage
Amaranth

These 7 foods chemically interact with your body to supply all the nutrients you need to be strong and healthy – they are the foods of the great Mexica Warriors!

In addition, try adding some Spirulina to your (food) dishes and then finish off your healthy meal with a piece of (what else) CHOCOLATE!

If you don’t know all of the foods listed above then do your research. This is a part of re-educating yourself to the beauty of the Nahuatl/Mexica culture. A good book I recommend with regards to learning about a number of the foods listed above is titled “Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas gave the World” there is a great essay about the origins and importance of Amaranth/Huauhtli (in the Nahuatl language) and other inportant indigenous foods.

Want more guidance or a recommended plan with regards to a beautiful culinary indigenous experience? Start tomorrow (Tuesday, March 7th) with a simple but nutritious meal consisting primarily of Corn and Beans. Then everyday after that add one (or more) of the remaining 5 warrior foods to your healthy indigenous meal (of corn and beans) on through Sunday when by then you will have eaten all 7 of the Warrior foods and you will have arrived at the Mexica New Year.

One last action to consider is doing a sweat (bath) - a TEMEZKAL in the Nahuatl language. Some people prefer to do this at the beginning of the New Year while others during, or preceding, the Nemotemi days. This form of purification is not only healthy for you to do periodically but will also allow you time to relax and contemplate.

Reflect, contemplate, ruminate, meditate, and pray during these important ceremonial days. These simple recommendations will work with your body, mind, and spirit in a re-awakening process that will draw you closer to your indigenous roots. Embrace who you are and where you come from. In return this acceptance and embracing of your culture will guide you to where you need to be.

Many people around the world will be acknowledging and celebrating the Mexica New Year on Saturday and Sunday, March 11th/12th. To learn more about the Mexica New Year, its meaning and importance, plan on attending one of the many celebrations planned in a community near you and ask questions from those who have this knowledge to share. Remember that coming together as a group (Tloke Nahuake - Together and United) to honor something is very important. As a group we create a very powerful energy field that affects all that exists. In addition, honoring something on a singular and personal level is also powerful medicine. However you decide to honor and celebrate this very important event do it with your heart.

Mexica Tiahui! Onward Mexica!
Michael Heralda
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Returning to Roots

A person's life can often be measured by their returns. People go out into the world, have adventures, trials, tribulations, initiations. Most, however, don't ever come back to original spaces, first contemplations, to various places called home, completing circles. I've been fortunate to have done this many times.

When I left my barrio of South San Gabriel in the west San Gabriel Valley, it took me twenty years to return. Like Odysseus, I had many wondrous but also tragic things happen to me in those intervening 20 years. When I did return, I came back with my recently released memoir, "Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA." I had been contacted by five homeboys and homegirls who wanted me to speak at our old schools, to the youth, many of whom were entering the same gangs we took part in during the late 60s and early 70s. A couple of the homeboys had lost their own children (one, a former heroin addict and friend of mine, lost two sons to the gang warfare that continues to this day).

I even went to "rival" territories, although warned that the battles between my old neighborhood and their so-called enemies were still going on. But they weren't my "enemies" anymore--I had to go and talk to these children and youth as well.

Of course, those talks were rich, powerful, and very respectful. I never felt in danger. I hope someday to return again to that area, by the efforts of teachers and some old friends who still see the need to raise some important issues of poverty, war, gangs, and a meaningful life.

Recently, in mid-February, I returned to another one of my old haunts--the San Pedro section of Los Angeles. San Pedro is part of the world's fifth largest harbor (Los Angeles-Long Beach, the largest in North America). I lived there at age 19 for two months in the old section of the Rancho San Pedro Housing Projects. I had just left the gang life a year before and had barely let go hard drugs, including heroin (which I gave up "cold turkey" with help from friends).

I was in San Pedro gathering myself in revolution: studying Marxist theory and taking part in collective study about society, the world, the present, and the future. I jogged every morning, part of my personal recovery routine, and visited the local San Pedro Library to read books and do research. It was an intense period, with intense study and equally intense activity (running off leaflets all night long for morning factory distributions, speaking at community meetings, bringing new people to study circles).

It was the only way to counteract an intense street/gang life.

I remember walking around those old harbor streets, with the bars, the fish stores, the modest homes, and markets. There was the old Warner Grand Theater, holding around 1,900 seats, built in the amazing Deco style of the 1920s. There was Pacific Boulevard and Gaffey Street. I recall the old canneries (and Joe Biff's bar, where many cannery workers hung out), the shipyards, including Todd's and Bethlehem, and the many warehouses, small bucket shops, and brightly-lit refineries.

The LA Harbor was very industrialized; still is, but not like in the mid-1970s.

On February 15 of this year, I spent a whole day back in San Pedro. I spoke to two large school assemblies at San Pedro High School, whose students were enraptured with my words, many of whom asked thoughtful questions. I met with leaders in the community, including those working in gang prevention (the Harbor has many old gang structures, mostly in the Chicano/Mexicano communities). I ended up on a cable TV show where a density of issues came to the fore. I hung out with old friends Dave Arian (director of the Harry Bridges Institute) and Diane Middleton (who runs the Middleton Foundation, funding important community organizations throughout the city, including film workshops at Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural).

And that evening, with my name in the marquee lights, I spoke to about 350 people at the old Warner Grand Theater--talk about completing circles. It was a great response, full of enthusiastic dialogue, and people lined up around one side of the theater for me to sign books.

It felt good to come back here and have such a tremendous response (of course, I was a working class youth, working in industry, the first time I was in San Pedro -- now I'm a well-known author with ten books to my name and a wonderful bookstore/cultural center in the San Fernando Valley).

Like Odysseus, I came home. I've done this many times. And each time, I've come with gifts, experiences, knowledges, and a spirit that can help enhance the places I once left behind.

Perhaps now, I won't take so long in returning to the Harbor. I have many friends and supporters there. It was another important example of returning to some of my roots.
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Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural: Four Years and Going

To celebrate means to solemnize, to commemorate, but it also has connection with accelerate, which means to speed up. To celebrate is to brake something in motion, as in “holding fast,” as a time to stop the speed of the world and pay attention, acknowledge and honor a moment, a place, a person, a people, or a thing.

Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural started more than four years ago in the working class community of Sylmar, CA—one of many communities in the mostly Mexican/Central American populated Northeast San Fernando Valley. Founded by my wife Trini; my brother-in-law, Enrique Sanchez; and myself we have been going strong ever since, with barely a moment of rest, of long reflection or of “holding fast.” By celebrating our birth and our continued existence, we held the breath of our being to honor the community, the staff, resident artists and groups, the volunteers, and all those who have stepped up with their art, their ideas, their labor, and creativity to make Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural the amazing cultural/political/social and spiritual gathering place it has become.

Around 200 to 300 people made their way to Tia Chucha’s on the evening of February 18. We started with several dances by Cuauhtemachtotecayotl, our resident Aztec Dance group, and blessings from our indigenous spiritual guide in the Northeast Valley, Hector Herrera. We had poetry, primarily through the performance of Poets of the Round Table, including Mike the Poet, the Bus Stop Prophet, Phillharmonic, and Blackbird. We had the Nahuatl-chanting voices of XochitlQuetzalli, whose songs in the indigenous tongue of the Mexika people awoke something ancient and deep in all of us. We had a spirited performance by the conscious Mexika Hip Hop group, El Vuh.

We also had an amazing performance of Son Jarocho music (originally of Veracruz, Mexico) with members of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural’s Son Jarocho workshop (taught by Master musician Cesar Castro, formerly of the Son Jarocho group Mono Blanco) as well as Son del Centro (of Santa Ana, CA) and others. We had a local band from Pacoima (a major poor barrio in the Northeast San Fernando Valley) called Hijos de la Tierra that played amazing Mexican and South American traditional songs (and, man, did we dance).

And we honored our staff (Alicia, Esperanza, Joaquin, Melissa, Ray, Vanessa) and the women’s natural healing group, the Huehuetlatolli Xochitl Tonan Foundation, for providing natural juices as well as the various businesses, including the Chiropractor’s and the Dental Group businesses in our strip mall for donations of money and raffle items.

Most of all, I wanted to honor Trini Rodriguez, my wife and companion, and our family (my daughter Andrea, my granddaughter Catalina, and my sons, Ruben and Luis) for helping make Tia Chucha’s an organic, ancestral home of learning and expression.

Some of the important people who graced our place that evening included John Densmore of the Doors, Charles Wright (of the Charles Wright Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band), Alex Sanchez of Homies Unidos, Fabian Montez of Homeboy Industries, Enrique Perez of Inner-City Struggle, David Sandoval of Cal State LA, Councilman Alex Padilla (who also honored us with a proclamation from the City of Los Angeles), Mari Riddle of the Liberty Hill Foundation, and many others (forgive me for not being able to name you all) who came by to celebrate with us.

It was a sweet and wonderful time, full of great words and blessings, great song and spirit.

While Tia Chucha’s Café,and its not-for-profit sister organization, Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural, is open to everyone of all races, nationalities, tongues, and artistic practices, we also make sure to focus and honor our roots in the indigenous peoples of this land, the first peoples, the original peoples, from one end of the hemisphere to the other.

I want to express my most heartfelt thanks to the incredibly creative community in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, but also throughout the LA area, who have visited our space; bought books and artwork; learned from our workshops; attended our theater, music, author, comedy, forums, and film events; and who have enjoyed our specialty coffee drinks or tamales. Tlazhokamati, gracias, thank you.
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War or Our Children--The Choice We Face

"There will be peace when we begin to love our children more than we hate our enemies."

This is from a Lebanese citizen in the New York Times, quoted by Barbara Coloroso in her 1994 book "Kids Are Worth It: Giving Your Child the Gift of Inner Discipline" (Avon Books, NYC).

The statement struck me as I pondered the budget President Bush proposed last week--several trillion dollars (it's a fantasy number we can't even fathom), mostly for defense, with deep cuts in social services and tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

We are cutting programs that will help our kids. Millions of US children today don't have access to health care. Millions go to bed hungry. Millions are seeing resources, books, and playgrounds being cut from their schools.

Why? Because we have to feed this monster we created, this military/defense industry that is wrapped up in a war we have no logical or rationale basis to be in (the arrogant claim that Iraq is better off with us than without us is nonsensical and bordering on the criminal). Why? Because the people who run this country will make sure their friends, the largest corporate interests, will get as much as they can from the public trough. Why? Because power, empire, enrichment, and revenge are dictating our policies--not the long-range, wholesome, and healthy development of kids.

The new budget even has plans to sell thousands of federally protected land to make up for the losses in resources for poor rural communities (this is being considered the largest sell of public property since Theodore Roosevelt created the National Park Service at the turn of the last century).

Yes, the US has enemies. Yes, they are capable of much damage and destruction. Yes, we should cooperate with the world in comprehensive plans and ideas to address this. But now it's mostly us (it's a sham to keep calling the troops in Iraq "coalition forces"), filled with hate and fear, and willing to sacrifice our own children to "win at all cost."

We won't win, trust me on this. And we'll sacrifice our future generations in trying.

It's time for new ideas, new strategies, new wisdom, and new leadership. One that puts our children (and at the same time, the children of the world) foremost and center.

We can't afford to do otherwise. Trust me.
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Lies, Truth, and Memoir

Like most people, I've been following the James Frey fiasco about the lies and exaggerations in his bestselling book, A Million Little Pieces. Here are my thoughts:

It's a shame this situation happened. I think gaining the trust of a reading public is vitally important. It's already unfortunate that most people don't trust most words being thrown at them--from ads, to newspapers, religious personalities, to politicians. They all claim to have "the truth," although we know this is not always the case.

A writer on the other hand has to stand on truth. For one thing we're not beholden to anything else but the truth. We don't have to please a church, a government, or even any political or social trend. The truth at all costs.

The problem with Frey and his alleged memoir, from all that I've read and from his own "Note to the Reader" (that apparently will be part of subsequent printings of the book) is that he doesn't seem to thoroughly understand the depth of his lies in the guise of a memoir.

Although it's a relatively new genre, the memoir does have integrity and purpose. It's memory with unique and important insights through the prism of a singular, albeit subjective, experience and personal history that is often told in dramatic, literary, and readable style. Nothing in there says you can lie.

The best memoirs are written by the best writers. Good writing, important for any genre, is one of the best features of a good memoir. James Frey says he wanted his story "to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require." Yes, memoirs can do that. And from all accounts (I haven't read the book), Frey is an engaging and original voice in literature. But you can't lie.

Truth must not only sound and feel like truth. It must be verifiable. By more than one person. By people who don't have anything to do with the book or the writer.

I've written ten books. Only one is a memoir. My other books, all of which I'm fond of, are in children's literature, poetry, nonfiction, and including a short story collection and a novel.

I will venture to say that all my books have truth and stand on truth. But I can only vouch for the memoir and the nonfiction book as being verifiable.

While my fiction and children's books all have truth, they are stories of imagination--I made them up. My poetry is mostly about real events and people, but they are poems. There is license to change the facts as long as I don't alter the truth. You don't have to verify the facts in a poem. Poems follow a different cloud, are on another stream, gather into a deeper ocean. But they have to ring true, be cast in the spell of truth, even if they are not factually accurate.

Social or personal mythology have the same concerns. They are fantastic stories, full of images, events, people, dreams, and voices--yet they have so many ways to enter into the truths of our time, the truths of a people, or even the special, particular truths of one person.

I've been a journalist, off and on, for around twenty-five years. Facts and accuracy are the tools of our trade. But so is story. Only you have to tell the story without changing the facts. In the past few years, highly-publicized cases of people who have made up characters and quotes, and touted this as journalism, have tainted the trust that people should have for journalists.

But there's another basis for the mistrust. Too many journalists are constantly hounding the facts, but they don't always uncover any precious truths (the wholeness of a story, for example). Still I think most journalists today are thorough when it comes to the facts.

Memoir is one of those genres where truth is paramount even if you can't verify the actual conversations (who has a tape recorder during the most dramatic moments in their life?), the actual days and times of events, and even if your memory (again there's insight in a subjective prism, but also faulty recall) gets some facts turned around.

Still, you don't lie. You don't intentionally say something that you know is not verifiably accurate and call that a fact.

In Always Running, I put a statement in the preface, something that James Frey failed to do in A Million Little Pieces, saying that I changed names and some of the facts of the book. I did this to protect the innocent AND the guilty. I was privy to many crimes and rapes and deaths. I wanted to tell the truth of what I saw, experienced, and did without hurting anyone else in the process.

I do have newspaper clippings, school yearbooks, and some documents here and there verifying the shootings, deaths, and crimes. Anyone can go back into my life and verify where I claimed to have lived, about my family, my schooling, my arrests.

But they won't be able to verify my emotions, my thoughts, or what I went through; my conflicts, fears or angers. They have to trust that what I'm saying about these things is true. However, I have to earn that trust. I have to tell the truths and relate verifiable facts so that when I speak on things that can't be verified that trust is solid.

Also, my insights on my life and the gang life that I experienced are only my side of the story. My piece of the puzzle. My way of looking at things (which can't help but be askew). People have to be interested in this or they wouldn't bother with my book.

Yet, if you ask my family, my homeboys, the police, the principal of my last high school, they will most likely have another perspective, another viewpoint, another summation of the same circumstances I describe. Memoir is not all the facts, all the witnesses, all the sides. It's one side. One story. One viewpoint. Mine.

I take responsibility for that aspect of the memoir.

If somebody wants to do a riveting journalistic piece about the gang life in my neighborhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they'd be welcomed. But it would hardly have anything to do with my book (although, I'm sure much will intersect).

Always Running is based on actual events, actual people, and actual facts. Most of it can be verified. But I also altered names and circumstances. I tried not to alter anything to change the truth (although, my memory may not have gotten everything correct). I never tried to lie. I never thought I needed to lie.

In fact, and here you have to trust me on this, I kept many more things out of my memoir than kept in. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction. A litany of murders, rapes, crimes, and interesting characters just wouldn't work. I had to decide what facts I was going to use and what facts I wouldn't use. The truth can be edited.

The most compelling aspect of my book, any book, I hope, is its healing aspect. This could have happened if I wrote a novel. But it's a memoir. The healing had to be through the facts of my young life.

Still, it's a memoir because it's not a lie (even with all the changes and personal quirks and possible unintentional mistakes that may pop up here and there).

I would hope that writers doing memoirs keep all this in mind. Don't lie. Don't lie deliberately. And if you do make changes, just say so.

To summarize: Fiction has truth, although the facts and characters are most likely imagined.

Poetry has truth, although the words are condensed, filled with metaphors, images, emotions, and are unable to tell everything.

Journalism has truth but the facts, the people, and the dialogue have got to be verifiable and undeniably real (you can't change people's words, for example).

Memoir is also truth, based on facts, memory, real experiences, and events, yet it's allowed to have changes of names and events in the keeping of a dramatic, literary work. This does not give one license to lie. A good memoirist, of which there are many, are conscious and responsible to the differences.
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