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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Another World is Possible

The ride from the main airport in Venezuela to the capital city of Caracas took close to three hours, normally a half hour ride, due to bridge construction that complicated the accommodation of some 300,000 visitors to the World Social Forum here (with the slogan "Another World is Possible"). The re-routing took our bus through mountainous and heavily trafficked roads laden with shacks and poor people selling food and refreshments as traffic moved like molasses. Venezuela, as most Latin American countries, is extremely poor. Before you get to the main center of Caracas, you have to pass the poor dwellings, built as if on top of one another, in the outskirts.

Yet, Venezuela is in a revolutionary process, as the young members of the Frente Francisco de Miranda say, to remove poverty, erase illiteracy, and help become a beacon for social equitable change in the hemisphere.

I came as a delegate of the Poor Peoples Economic and Human Rights Campaign from the United States, representing leaders among the homeless, migrant workers, inner-city poor, Native American reservations, and in the battles of health care, decent housing, education, and dignity in the richest country of the world. The irony of bringing US leaders among the poor is not lost on me as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the government-owned oil industry have made numerous offers to get gas and heating oil to the poorest sectors of the US.

I also came as a writer for the various magazines and radio outlets I freelance for. This, as you can see, is not a contradiction. I can be part of a movement and I can also bring out the voices, stories, truths of this vitally engaging conference, its mission, and diverse participants.

There is a US Tent where many groups, including PPEHRC, will hold panels, reading, and press conference. On Thursday night, January 26, at 7 PM, I will do a poetry reading and lead a talk on the major issues facing the poor in the US.

My first night in Caracas involved trying to find a place to stay (some of our party ended up sleeping under the US tent in the cold). I was able to hook up an $18 (which translates into 40,000 Bolivars) in a rundown section of the city (few amenities and lots of cockroaches). I didnt mind since Ive slept in park benches, in caves, and hammocks in Mexico and other countries Ive visited.

The highlight of my first evening was an impromptu talking circle with members of the PPEHRC delegation (which included a cross section of US activists) and the youth leaders of the Frente Francisco De Miranda, presently active in the re-election this year of Hugo Chavez and the continued growth of the Venezuelan Revolution.

The country seems to be united on the need to end poverty and have the world come here to witness as well as to voice the intricacies and complexities of this process. I was particularly impressed with the intelligence, spirit, and selfless efforts of the Frente to make sure the US delegation was taken care of, protected, fed, and talked to.

There are some people I met who had bad things to say about Mr. Chavez and the whole revolution, including the hotel proprietor who, when he found out we were part of the World Social Forum, threw four of our company out of the hotel (thus their night in the open), despite our pleas and willingness to accommodate them. He said he had to follow "rules of business." We said, damn the rules, people shouldnt be forced to walk the streets at night looking for places to stay, especially guests of the country. Fortunately, most Venezuelans were hospitable and self-sacrificing, particularly to the needs of the many foreigners in their country.

Today, I hope to make some connections as well as interviews to leaders in the US delegation, the Venezuelan Revolution, and among the many visitors from around the world.
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Alma Delia Gamez -- 1959-2006

This past month, on January 8, a good friend of mine -- I am Godfather to her daughters -- passed away from complications due to stomach cancer. Alma Delia Gamez was only 46 years old. Yet she had been a fighter for the rights of migrant workers, the working class, and other oppressed peoples all her life. Her mother, Trini Gamez, has been a community leader in the Hereford, Texas community (and the Texas panhandle and other parts of the Southwest) for decades.

Delia became involved with the Texas Farmworkers Union as a teenager. In 1979, Delia moved to Chicago and became active with the Illinois Migrant Council. She later became an organizer in the highly diverse, mostly immigrant Chicago community of Rogers Park. In 1996, she returned to Texas where she remained active until the final stages of her illness.

She leaves two wonderful daughters, Janelle and Micaela, now young women and activists in their own right. I also recall how Delia helped my son, Ramiro, and daughter, Andrea, when they were both troubled teens in Chicago during the early 1990s. Ramiro, who's now 30 and incarcerated in Logan Prison in Illinois, wrote this about Delia:

It truly saddens me to learn that Delia has passed away. When hearing of this, the many memories I shared with her flashed before my eyes. My sister and I had an opportunity to be part of her life when we were in the Rogers Park Youth Congress. Delia had brought together many youth and elders to help form this organization when she was working with the Jewish Council for Urban Affairs. It was a great experience. The meetings at her house were great events. Eveyone there were like family. There was music, poetry, laughter, and lots of food (for me, that was my favorite part!). Delia had a loving heart and compassionate spirit. Especially when it came to her girls, Janelle and Micaela. She loved them so much and tried to keep them involved in all the positive things she was doing.

I can honestly say I'm a better person having known Delia. I learned a lot from her. She helped me to see that I had the potential to be a leader and the willingness to help others, even when it came to helping my "enemies." Delia was devoted and dedicated in helping the youth. And even when she moved back to Texas, I know that devotion and dedication stayed in her heart, that her revolutionary spirit filled her soul. She was a mother to us all.

I'm sorry I couldn't be there by Delia's side during her sickness. But I know she will stay by mine to help guide me, enlighten me, and to help me stay strong in being a better father to my children. I know her spirit will always be with me.

Mexika Tiahui,

Ramiro
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Writing for Life

Over the years, I've been interviewed about various aspects of my life, including my writing life. Here I share one group of questions with you all as we begin the new year. Writing not just for work or for fun, but for life.

What kind of writer are you?

I write in various genres – poetry, children’s books, novels, stories, journalism, essays, memoir, and now screenplays. I try to bring craft and rigorous work to my writing, but also an emotional center. It’s an odd combination of discipline and follow-through with levels of don’t-give-a-shit madness. At the root of my work is a revolutionary soul. I want to transform myself, my community, my world. Words as hammer, words as feather. I know I’m in the right space when I write and it scares the hell out of me.

Why do you write?

Why do I write? To heal. To dance (words as drum). To wake up something beastly as well as some beauty (women are beauty – even if they don’t look too hot; men can carry beauty if they do their art well). I write to stay alive. I feel the most whole when I’m in a deep state of transcendental writing. Writing then is my practice, my career, my life line. I learned this when I was in jail, on heroin and other drugs, drinking, and suicidal. Turning to my art, I found what could save me. My writing always carries the wounds of my life, and it’s the gift these wounds have to offer.

What made you want to be a writer?

I first wrote while in jail and juvenile hall as a teenager. Something about telling my story overcame me. I felt the need to voice these experiences, these traumas, the depths of what I saw and where I had come to. I began a life of “crime” at seven. At age nine, my family fought all the time and once my oldest sister stabbed her husband. At ten my best friend was killed after we broke into an elementary school. At 11, I joined a gang. At 12 I started using drugs – huffing, dropping pills, then heroin. At 13, I began getting arrested for stealing, fighting, disturbing the peace. At 15 I dropped out of high school and got kicked out of the house. At 16 I was put into an adult facility following the so-called East LA Riot. At 17, I was arrested for attempted murder in which four people were shot. At 18, I faced a six-year prison sentence for fighting with police officers, I was hooked on heroin and by then 25 of my friends had been killed. I needed to tell why. I needed to express the pains, the sorrows, the hates as well as the glories of this reality. After I left “the life” at around 19 years (including getting clean of heroin “cold turkey”), I worked in industry – I became a welder, pipe fitter, mechanic, carpenter, smelter, and a steel mill worker. Again, so many stories accumulated in me. The pressure of the stories was so great, that by age 25, after seven years of drug addictions and seven years in industry, I decided to become a writer – working in weekly and daily newspapers, in radio, as a freelance journalist, and a poet. It’s the stories, damn, the stories. I went to school at night, took part in writing workshops and circles, and began this writing life that I’ve done seriously now for more than 25 years.

What advice would you give to a fellow writer who was just starting out?

Writing is a practice, a passion, hard work, a business, a dream, and the most frustrating thing in the world. A writer must withstand all of this. Oh, yes, sometimes there’s money and sometimes there’s recognition. But that’s only sometimes. If you can’t help writing, then write. Write all the time. And always read. Despite my pathologies and rages, I loved to read. In the streets. When I was homeless. In jail. I never stopped reading. And, of course, I still read in this calm family home environment. Reading has been the one constant. Beyond that you must never give up. Persistence is the true test of shamans and madmen. Do it no matter what. No matter what obstacles and sacrifices exists. It shows in the work. Those who breathe in and exhale words, who can’t live without them, can’t help but write life-affirming work (no matter how dark). You write even when it seems the world says no. In every no, there’s curled up a universe of yeses. The only art that matters is the art that is not supposed to be there.
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