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:


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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State of Confusion

President Bush gave his State of the Union last night. And I can’t help but think—man, are we in trouble?

The headlines focused on Bush’s statement that the American people are “addicted to oil.” Come on. We’re not addicted to oil. That’s the main energy option we’ve been given. By oil companies. By a government catering to oil companies. By Bush.

It’s as if we were thrust a bottle of rum since we were born, and later told we’ve become alcoholics. How many environmentalists, scientists, and social activists have fought and argued for generations to remove the oil bottle out of our mouths? Remember that former presidential candidate Ralph Nader was a pioneer in raising the failure of oil dependency to a national debate. Has Bush become Nader? For all the rigged elections and millions spent, we should have elected Nader; he’d do a better job at the necessary recovery program we’re going to need.

That’s the problem. We’re told that we’re addicted to oil, but there was no plan for our sobriety. Given permanent tax breaks to the country’s wealthy is supposed to do what? Save us from our dependency to oil? Come on.

Our country is a joke now. But we have to take it back. I was just in Venezuela, where a revolutionary process is being carried out. I know Hugo Chavez is being demonized in the media and by the government. But I heard him speak for more than two hours. I thought I would fall asleep. Instead I was engaged and moved. He drew quotes from literature, the Bible, common folk, and had big ideas on the economy, the people, the poor, and more; he even sang a song (in tune mind you). You couldn't even compare the two speeches between Bush and Chavez.

Why is our country so low-level, mistrustful, and a joke? Venezuela is a poor and chaotic place, yet there they have some notions of justice and equity—and plans to carry them out.

Where's ours?
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From the Poor to the Poor

La Vega is one of the poorest districts in the overcrowded poor hillside barrios in Caracas. On the drive there, you see stalls of people selling food and any other items of any value in the "informal" economy that sustains most of the world's poor. Garbage is spread everywhere. Makeshift housing of tin roofs seem to squirm up the mountainsides.

On Sunday, January 29, I was able to tour the district with members of the revolutionary government in Venezuela. Our main goal was to visit one of the communal housing areas where new schools, a new and clean market, a free medical unit, and a computer center have been built. The people in the communal house greeted the various members of the tour, which included Brazilians, Bolivians, Argentinians, US citizens, and others. They were so hospitable and eager to share the benefits they attribute to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Still, as one of the organizers said, "these benefits are not just a result of Hugo Chavez and the government; they are a result of the people getting organized and demanding that our needs are met."

I met two Cuban doctors and a nurse who lived 24 hours in a small structure to provide medical care to the community. One doctor, Osvaldo, has been in Venezuela for three years. He said the medical care is free to the community, not just the poor. "Anyone who comes here for health care, whether they are poor, middle-class or rich, will get it. It's for everyone," Osvaldo said.

We also talked to a family of Colombian refugees who fled the war and poverty of their country. They have now been in Venezuela for some 25 years. They are some of the strongest supporters of what the revolutionary government has provided to the people there. "We have seen the changes," the grandmother of the family said. "I was here when Venezuela had a repression and unresponsive government. Now we are being helped and provided for. I wish something like this could happen in Colombia."

In a couple of days, I return to the United States, renewed by this experience in the World Social Forum and in Venezuela to heighten our struggles for the well-being of the people in my country as well. The US is a country, despite its vast resources and power, that does not have healthcare for close to 40 million people; where 80 million are listed as below the poverty level; and where three million are imprisoned mostly for just being poor.

Almost all the Venezuelans I talked to were eager to hear about what Americans thought of their country and about Hugo Chavez. Unfortunately, little is known about Chavez or the revolutionary process in Venezuela--and what is often put out is misinformation and even lies. I hope to help break the blackout on the news of the poor, whether they be in the US or in other parts of the world. The coming together of our struggles, across national boundaries, language and racial differences, and even politics is more real now with the common objectives of ending poverty, misery, and war in the world once and for all.

That's quite a goal, almost impossible as some may say. But those are the ones worth fighting for.
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Is Unity Possible for Social Justice in the World? In the United States?

Carlos, Mario, and Cesar are three of the young Venezuelans who've been helping some of the US delegates during our stay. There were many others, men and women, who've made sure we were safe, our belongings protected, and that we received proper directions for wherever we were going. It's always hard to manuever around in a foreign land, especially in a large and crowded city like Caracas. A few of our party have already had their cameras and wallets stolen. At one point, I was walking with another companion late at night to my hotel in a dark section of town when one of our Venezuelan hosts stopped in a taxi to make sure we were okay. We were only a couple of blocks from our destination, but this was most appreciated.

These young Venezuelans, dedicated to the growing revolution in their country, made sure we were welcomed and taken care of. With no pay (they were mostly volunteers). No tips. Nothing but thanks and un abrazo (a hug).

Yesterday, January 27, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addressed participants to the World Social Forum at one of the stadiums where apparently performers like N'Sync play when they're in the country. The place was packed with people, signs, and mucho animo (much spirit). Countries like Bolivia, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, and others were well represented. Our delegates from the Poor People's Economic and Human Rights Campaign of the United States were also in attendance. To signify the importance of our group, the Venezuelan government made sure six of us (including yours truly) were seated in the front roll in the center part of the stadium reserved for special guests. Among the dignitaries at the podium on either side of President Chavez was Cindy Sheehan, the US mother who lost her son in the Iraqi War and who has helped further propel the growing movement in the US to stop the war.

Song and chants honoring revolutionaries such as Simon Bolivar, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Evo Morales, the Zapatistas of Mexico, Lula of Brazil, and others were heard in preparation of the President's talk. When finally Mr. Chavez came to the podium, introduced by a leading priest from revolutionary Brazil, the audience was rapt (with interruptions of chants and applause). Chavez spoke for two to three hours. I don't know exactly because despite the time (and I may be a good case for adult ADD), I did not tire nor miss what he had to say. Chavez, in the tradition of Latin American poets, intellectuals, and political leaders, wove in history, famous quotes, the Bible, indigenous values, and political and philosphical discourse, while maintaining an engaging and lively tone.

Chavez stood firm against the policies of US President Bush, against war, against media distortions and manipulations, and against the growing marginalization of the poor in the world. He declared his roots in socialism and cooperation, going back to the first peoples on the continent, the Native peoples, as response to the wealth and power that capitalism places in the hands of a few. He spoke about Africa and its links to the Venezuelan people, but also in most of the Caribbean, and how the poor and forgotten are now gaining voice and power throughout that continent as well. He spoke about his friendship with revolutionary Cuba, still under the sword of a US-led blockade, and how Cuba, despite this, has sent doctors, engineers and others to help the Venezuelan revolutionary process (moreover, Cuba has invited Venezuelans to study medicine, social planning, and other important subjects).

Chavez welcomed representatives from France, the Phillipines, and other countries who have also supported the Venezuelan struggle. But he also spoke strongly in support of the people in the US, in support of those who are also suffering under the policies of Bush and US Empire. He called Ms. Sheehan a hero for her valiant efforts to challenge Bush. And he recognized the growing movement of the poor in the US as vital to hemispheric and global social justice and peace.

While it may not appear likely that real unity can exist in the world, or in the United States for that matter, for these causes and struggles, that night, with so many different faces, so many distinct tongues, so many races and religions (one group had a sign that read "Jesus Christ, the First Revolutionary"), unity was possible. Unity was reality. That unity in deed, in the word, and in the spirit could be realized for all.

I know the difficulties and sacrifices such unity will entail, but that night my bones sang and my heart rejoiced in the idea, the spirit, and the imagination that such unity will eventually uproot the present US-government led, capitalist-rooted, war, lies, and misery.

And in people like Carlos, Mario, and Cesar, I know the seed of this unity has already been planted and even blossomed.
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The Poor and the World Social Forum

When Cheri Honkala spoke about the woman in Tennessee with a debilitating disease who lost her health care from the state when 300,000 people were removed from TennCare, her voice cracked and she brought home the tremendous toll that poverty and government neglect can have on a person, on families, on whole communities. Cheri is head of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign. This week around 100 members of PPEHRC are in Caracas, Venezuela as delegates to the World Social Forum.

Cheri's words joined those of migrant workers, families who have had their children taken away by the government because they were poor, a mother who lost a son in the War on Iraq, and disabled Iraqi war veterans against the war. These people came here to voice the often misunderstood or misrepresented story of being poor in the richest, most powerful country in the world.

At a press conference on Thursday, January 26, across from the US Tent near the Museum of Bellas Artes in Caracas, the mostly Spanish-language media heard one heart-felt story after another of homelessness, government neglect, repression, imprisonment (the US has more prisoners than any other country in the world), and lack of media coverage that the poor in the US face every day.

The Venezuelan press seemed most eager to understand this phenomena of poverty in the US, news of which rarely comes their way from US media outlets. It was also clear that most Americans don't get an accurate account of the Venezuelan revolutionary process, nor the immense leadership of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in helping make "another world possible."

Presently, Chavez is being demonized in much of the US press as a murderous dictator (he hasn't murdered anybody, and he was elected in nationwide elections). We don't get the news about the tremendous support Chavez has among the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten.

One purpose behind the Poor People's Campaign's presence here is to defeat the lies about US poor (mostly by the media not talking about them) and the lies about the Venezuelan poor (again, by keeping this away from media attention). If an exchange of truths about our two countries is the main thing we achieve, it would have been worth all the work, funds, travails, and tears in making sure the US poor had a presence in the World Social Forum.

Later that night, I did a poetry reading and talk in Spanish and English to about 250 people at the US tent. The lights blew out and I had a hard time reading my text, but it was still a spirited and well-received event. It is important to make sure poetry becomes part of these types of gatherings. For beside the poverty of material things and the necessities of life, the poor everywhere face a poverty of spirit, of hopes, of imagination.

The World Social Forum is about creating and emphasizing a politics of imagination, of hope, of spirit--as well as meeting the material and health needs of all people. It's about establishing foundations for a healthy and balanced earth, for healthy and balanced people, across borders, languages, races, religions, and political affiliations.

As globalization (capitalism in the age of electronics) spreads from one nation to another, bringing more misery, war, and poverty, there is a growing response that is also global in nature for peace, justice, equity, and a dignifed life for every human being. From the indigenous groups that came here from every part of the hemisphere to the people fighting for health care in Ohio, whatever differences exist between the poor is nothing compared to what we have in common--hunger and the need to create effective organization and policies in our international efforts to eradicate poverty once and for all.
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