Time for New & Decent Border Policy

I recently read how workers from Mexico and Central America were brought into the Gulf States region to help clean up the mess and rebuild much of the damage from Hurricane Katrina. They were going to get very little pay, but they came. I also read how many of these workers were being shafted—employers leaving town just before payday, that kind of thing.

This has happened for decades to Mexican and other workers from poor and war-torn countries—there is real despicable and thieving exploitation going on in this country. It’s about time it was seen for what it was and rooted out.

Mexicans and Central Americans face what I call a “maddening ambivalence.” Jobs on this side of the border, truly what no American worker would do (or any worker should do), have been enticing millions to risk their homes, their families, and their lives. Thousands have already lost their lives on the border over the past twenty years just trying to get here (one of the most dangerous border regions in the world).

The vast majority don’t want to leave their beautiful lands and pueblos. But there are no jobs or agriculture left. They have to. Here are a few facts to ponder: Los Angeles has a GNP greater than all of Mexico. And the ten million Mexican Nationals working in the United States (undocumented as well as those with papers) make more money than the close to 100 million people still in Mexico.

Here’s another fact: Besides keeping many US communities strong (by their labor, but also their high levels of participation in local economies), they send billions of dollars to Mexico to build roads, schools, hospitals, farms, and housing to improve things for the families left behind.

Yet, these people are constantly under attack—by racists, the migra/police, as well as street thugs. They are often put down, humiliated, and yelled at. They are often beaten, robbed, and killed.

A few years ago in the Northeast San Fernando Valley (where I now live), an American woman ran over a Mexican national several times, cursing him for being in the street, and then taking off (she was later arrested, declared mentally ill, and let go). I sat in on one court case where a US-born gang member shot two undocumented teenagers, killing a 15-year-old girl and crippling a 16-year-old boy. I befriended the boy who was paralyzed from the neck down. Officials tried to deport him even as he lay in a hospital bed, unable to move, drink, or eat on his own. If they’d taken him to the border he would have died (considering that Mexico does not have the level of care he needed). I wrote about this case and soon a Catholic relief group and others took it upon themselves to help the kid—including convincing authorities to keep him in this country, and to provide the extraordinary care he needed (he was going to have a terribly diminished life as it was).

I remember another case in Illinois, where an American man kicked the life out of a Mexican national teenager who had just crashed into his car. The man was uninjured, but the boy was on the ground bleeding. The boy died.

These are some dramatic examples of stories I’ve heard all over the country—Mexicans and Central Americans (and Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and other Latinos) are now everywhere; over the past 20 years, they have spread out across most states. They are not just relegated to the US Southwest or Northeast regions. I’ve been to places like Georgia, Idaho, and Nebraska with growing Latino populations. I spent ten weeks in North Carolina in early 2000 following a 600 percent rise in the Latino population there (working in highly toxic and difficult conditions in poultry farms, tobacco fields, sweat shops, and domestic labor).

I once talked to some 300 mostly Mayan Guatemalan migrants at a church in Delaware (I remember washing clothes at a nearby Laundromat and hearing the beautiful lilt of a Mayan tongue).

These people are at the bottom of the labor rungs. They are entering our schools and filling our jails. They are now under scrutiny by Minutemen-like groups on the border and by right-wing newscasters like Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly.

A maddening ambivalence—an economy that needs such workers for jobs that don’t pay enough to survive on, then treating them as if they were dirt once they get here.

It would be one thing if this was just a matter of white people. I was once on a TV talk show in LA. In the green room was a Chinese immigrant woman with a strong accent who had come to talk about why we need to get rid of the “Mexican illegals.” Another time, for a story I was researching, I interviewed a number of Chicano heavily tattooed and unemployed gang members in one of East LA’s large housing projects. Most of their families were on welfare and they were living among some of the poorest residents in LA County. However, when asked what the number one problem they faced, one of them said forcibly, “it’s the damn Mexicans—we need to get rid of them!”

A maddening ambivalence—we know that recently arrived Mexicans have the lowest crime rates (in places where the majority is recent arrivals), pay taxes (sales and even work taxes), and work long hours without complaint. In cities like LA, where there are too many sterile and uninviting neighborhoods, they still walk the streets, sell their food and fruit bars in carts, fix up homes, and clean up streets. An Anglo man who recently contacted me said he loved living in his East LA apartment (probably the only white person on the block) because of the life, laughter, and joy the Mexicans exude (again, unlike the self-contained suburban housing developments, gated communities, and gentrified homes that growing numbers of Americans are occupying).

Yet, Mexicans and other Latinos are now the target of some of the most hateful racist speech and actions I’ve ever seen. Officially, the government has terrorized immigrant communities in raids, including against so-called immigrant street gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha, Sur Trese, Latin Kings, and others (these, by the way, were created in the United States—they did not originate in Mexico or Central America).

A new electronically-enhanced fence is being proposed along the US-Mexico border. And more US vigilantes (even California Governor Swarzenegger has invited them) are making plans to continue their anti-immigrant vigils on the border.

This is wrong. It’s divisive. And it’s against the best of this country’s ideals and values.

Because of the border—a contrived and man-made construct with a history in conquest, slavery, and exploitation—people are losing the sense God gave them.

Since I moved back to LA five years ago, I’ve been told four times to “go back to where I came from” (I was born in the United States of Mexican parents). This was mostly from whites who as a people have only been on this continent 500 years. My brown skin and those of many Mexicans and Central Americans indicate our indigenous roots—we’ve been on these lands for tens of thousands of years. But look how the border has turned things on its head—the brown-red people are now the “foreigners, aliens, and illegals.”

I’ve even been to Native American conferences (my native roots are Mexika and Raramuri) where I looked more native than most of the people in attendance. Although Native Americans are generally inviting to me, I’ve also been told (mostly by blue-eyed Indians) that I didn’t belong there. The border comes along and now Mexicans are not native? We have the largest traditional and full-blooded native populations in all of the Americas (there are 240 native languages still in existence there). And most Mexicans who don’t know their tribal roots because of conquest and colonialism have more indigenous blood than most US natives (not to discount the large numbers of Africans or Asians that have also been brought to Mexico).

In the LA area, there are now an estimated two million Mayans (who don’t even speak good Spanish, let alone English) from Mexico and Guatemala. This is slightly less than the two-and-a-half million Native Americans that exist in the United States (most of them mixed blood). And this does not count the millions of Mixtecos, Zapotecas, Yaquis, Purepechas, Huicholes, Raramuris, Coras, Pipils, and other tribes who have made the long trek from their ancient traditional lands.

Don’t tell me they are “immigrants.” They don’t even fit in any census box (they’re not Hispanics—neither are most of us with roots in Mexico and Central America).

We need to imagine a better immigration and border policy, one that is humane, decent, and not detrimental to Americans or Mexicans. Somehow, politicians don’t seem able to reach such imaginative levels. It’s about the vast resources and abundance inherent in the land, the people, and in a highly technolized economy.

But too often all we see is scarcity, competition, and our own narrow interests. This is only inherent in capitalism. It’s time we imagined another way to go.

The present alternative—hate, cheap pay, corporations pitting one set of workers against another, lives hurt and lost—is totally unacceptable. It’s also costlier in lives, money, and our own human integrity. I know we can do better.
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More Annoyed Than Frightened

“I did not really know what would happen. I didn’t feel especially frightened. I felt more annoyed than frightened.”—Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks was given an honorable ceremony (including a viewing of her casket in Washington D.C., usually reserved for statesmen and military personnel) following her death on October 24, 2005. This is much deserved for her courageous stand against segregation and Jim Crow. The South and most of this country changed for the better following the valiant efforts of Rosa and the many other countless, and often unnamed, boycott leaders and participants during the 1950s and 1960s. We remember Rosa Park—and we should. But many fought this battle and won. It’s their blood, sweat, and tears we should also remember.

When I first heard news of Rosa’s death, I was waiting in the WOR-AM radio station late that Monday night in Manhattan for in-studio interview with Joey Reynolds. Later on the air, Joey, a long-time friend of justice and equality, mentioned Rosa’s name and his voice cracked. I, too, felt the emotion of knowing such a significant person of our time had passed on.

For many of us—African American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Native American, and poor white, progressive and revolutionary—for anyone who loved the dignity and vitality of this struggle, Rosa Parks will forever stand for the righteous acts of defiance that we must continue against class power, official racism, and economic & cultural depravity in our country.

Yes, much has changed; yes, we have a long way to go.

This past weekend, I took my 17-year-old son Ruben and his girlfriend Katrina to ride the subway from North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley to LA’s Union Station downtown. I wanted them to see a part of Los Angeles that most people don’t see—or even know exists.

From the Union Station, we went through Chinatown with its many shops, restaurants, and people. From there we walked down to Broadway, past First Street and further south where we hanged out in the crowded sidewalks and side streets where Mexicans and Central Americans shop, talk, eat, hang out, and just enjoy their day.

We walked through part of the Garment District, reminder of any major city in Latin America where people sold their wares. Then we walked further east to the edges of Skid Row—the country’s largest enclave of homeless people (the LA area now has more homeless people than any other U.S. city).

I was homeless in downtown LA one summer in my teens—living on the street, using heroin, sleeping in alleys, alcoves, all-night movie theaters, and churches (in the days when they used to leave their doors opened). During the day the public library was my main sanctuary. Over the years, long after I had stabilized myself with jobs, writing, political work, and family, I revisited these streets in my work among the homeless here and in Chicago, doing poetry workshops and readings, in the 1980s and 1990s.

That Sunday when we walked through Skid Row there were still vestiges of tents and carton boxes on the sidewalks (many more pop up as you go deeper into the Row). From where we walked, Los Angeles and 5th streets, the world became darker and foreboding. I saw a lot more Mexicans and Central Americans on the sidewalks than I had seen before (although the majority of the homeless on Skid Row are still African Americans).

One row of tents and boxes was along a parking lot fence, shadowed by the skyscrapers with banks, offices, condominiums, and oil companies. Ruben and Katrina quickly grasped the dramatic contrast—which makes this US-bred poverty sometimes feel worse than in places like Calcutta.

I admired how these smart and beautiful young people also had the heart to understand that this reality should not exist in our city, our state, our country (or in the world, for that matter).

This image of extreme wealth and extreme poverty helped bring home the sobering lesson—a lesson Ruben and Katrina would probably not get in most schools—that we have to do more today to bring true justice, peace, and sanity to the world. This doesn’t mean that Rosa Parks lived and died in vain. Hardly. She was one of the shining beacons that carried many revolutionaries and activists through decades of struggle.

I told Ruben and Katrina not to be frightened of Skid Row. But, as Rosa said, they weren’t frightened as much as annoyed. It’s time more of us got annoyed enough to strategize, organize, create (sing, do poems, dance, make music, and more) to help remove the façade of freedom and equality that covers the face of this country.

Beneath the root is our real humanity, our real heart, our real consciousness to truly make right what Rosa Parks began to do when she refused to sit on the back of that bus fifty years ago.

Let’s keep the fight going—although we may as well be smarter, wiser, more imaginative, passion-filled, with vision and deeper language. That’s the best way to truly honor Rosa Parks.
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Taking a Bite of the Big Apple

I just returned from an extremely productive trip to New York City. Wet and cold, I still got around in my favorite subway system (I’m partial to subways—I’ve ridden them all over the United States, Mexico City, and Europe). I was also on the Larry Davidson Cable TV show “Writers on the Vine” in Long Island, and radios shows such as WPAT-FM with Gene Heinmeyer, WOR-AM with Joey Reynolds, and Sirius Satellite Radio with Dave Marsh. At the high rise offices of Sirius Satellite Radio, I got to see the construction of Howard Stern’s new studio for his move there in January.

Dave Marsh, an old friend and editor of Rock & Rap Confidential , one of the first publications that ever published my work, also played host to my visit, including moderating a rich dialogue on health care at the American Federation of Musicians Hall, Local 802, in Manhattan. A potent group of people showed up, including local labor leaders like Joe Delia of Local 802 and Susan Borenstein of the AFL-CIO; jazz trumpeter Jimmy Owens; actors Mark Weber, Tim Dowlin, and Rocco Rasanio; James Bernard, co-founder of The Source magazine and labor organizer; Susan Brennan, poet and organizer for Acts of Art; among others.

The lack of decent and affordable health care in this country is becoming the cutting edge issue of our day. Joann Lundy of the Physicians for a National Health Plan also attended with information on the importance of a single payer health plan for every person in the country. Why not? People are dying (and we’re spending more on taxes and out of our pockets) with the so-called system we have now.

The present health care system’s primary purpose is to keep a multi-billion dollar insurance and health industry profitable—while increasingly more Americans are being pushed out of paid health care plans.

We deserve the best health care possible—we’ve all worked hard for it and have fought for it with the lives of our sons and daughters. We can’t keep maintaining a society where health care, decent housing, good schools, and other basic needs are available only to those who can afford it. The rich and powerful must not dictate our policies and values.

I also did a wonderful workshop at the Bowery Poetry Club, run by my old friend Bob Holman, as part of their Study Abroad on the Bowery program. Another friend, and Chicago transplant, Tara Betts, an amazing poet in her own right, is now working there and she did an amazing job putting these workshops together.

With the help of some friends in the New York City public library system (and writer friends like Patricia Spears Jones), I also got to talk to a group of alternative school students in East Harlem’s Aguilar Branch on 110th Street. We had a wonderful time—their questions were thoughtful and engaging.

It reminded me of the trip I had to the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Detention Center in Cleveland earlier in October—where I spoke to about 300 young men and women awaiting trials for various crimes. They were also attentive, respectful, and full of questions. These have become some of my favorite audiences.

The rest of my time in New York City involved meetings with my agent and editors and good friends (although I did miss a couple of important meetings—just not enough subway trains or time to do it all). All in all, I value my time in the Big Apple whenever I can get there, a city I’ve been visiting for some 25 years now.

I was reminded how I took a leading role in the American Writers Congress in the fall of 1981, sponsored by The Nation magazine and others organizations, that helped create the National Writers Union (where I was an active member for many years). I had come as part of the LA Latino Writers Association, representing East LA and including writers like Helena Viramontes and Manual “Manazar” Gamboa. This gathering eventually helped us gain a national presence in the arts and the media after decades of working and writing in the LA area (and being largely ignored by most publishers and media).

Now Latinos have inroads that never existed before—including the success of one of my publishers, Rayo Books of HarperCollins, headed by my editor and friend, Rene Alegria (with whom I had a short but meaningful talk during my current visit).

As always, Latino writers have a long way to go—but our place in American letters is irreversible. Although some people may try to change this, we’re here to stay.
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New Books, New Cities

Last week, I spoke at two continuation high schools – the Cesar Chavez School in Santa Ana and the Mission School in San Fernando. Wonderful students – the kind some people may think are too much trouble, perhaps not worth dealing with. Yet, the students were respectful, attentive, and smart. It happens that their teachers and administrators are the ones who do give a damn.

One of those schools had close to 400 students; the other around 40. They were mostly Latino. When I was a teenager, and after getting kicked out of two regular schools, I tried to attend a continuation high school in the west San Gabriel Valley. I didn’t last one day – I got into a fight outside the school with a group of barrio rivals.

A few years after Always Running was published, Century Continuation High School in Alhambra invited me to speak. They treated me like an alumni – with a sign that said something like “Welcome Back.” I felt embarrassed since my time there was short.

Something similar happened in El Paso, Texas where I was born although I never lived there (my family lived across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua). When I first got there in the early 1990s to speak and read, they treated me like a native son. Again, it was their big hearts and natural flow of abrazos that made me one of theirs despite my minimal ties (I now have many life-long friends there).

Just a couple of examples at how many wonderful people there are in this world.

Of course, now I go to regular schools, continuation and alternative schools, juvenile detention centers, and youth prison on a regular basis. I’m even on the board of the HeArt Project – which brings art and teachers of art to continuation schools in LA County.

I have a special place in my heart for these kind of institutions.

At the Chavez and Mission schools, I was given the best receptions. We also had the most amazing discussions.

Presently, I’m in Cleveland, Ohio – home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I spoke today at the central library – again, we had the bountiful and comprehensive talks. Tomorrow I visit a juvenile detention center. The topics include my writings, my activism, my talks – but also the most pressing issues of the day.

“Always Running” has now been re-issued by the paperback publishing house, Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster. A new life for a book that has already had more than 20 printings and around 250,000 copies sold. Because of the new edition (it has a new cover, new introduction, and a study guide) I’ve been coming to more schools and juvenile institutions. I’ve spoken on various radio and TV shows from around the country; and few print interviews have also been conducted. The book has had an amazing impact on young people – and with many communities. I’m honored that it continues to do well twelve years after it was first published (by Curbstone Press in 1993).

The timing coincides with the publication of my fourth poetry collection, again with Curbstone, called “My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, 1989-2004.” While I’m doing readings at various LA-area bookstores for “Always Running,” Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural , will sponsor a book release party for the new poetry book on November 5 at around 6 PM. Also on hand will be Mark Vallen, who created an oil painting specifically for the poetry book called “My Nature is Hunger.” Books, prints, and posters will be available for sale.

I’m glad I’ve been able to get a novel, a new poetry book, and the reissue of my memoir done this year (my poetry/music CD, “My Name’s Not Rodriguez,” has also been reissued this year). I have to keep writing – in spite of my intense travel schedule, my work for the bookstore/café/cultural center, time with my family, and my other political/social activities.

It’s young people like those at Chavez and Mission that makes this all worthwhile. The issues in my books, even if fiction, are more complicated and substantial than many books being published today. It may be not be an advantage to have such content, but it is vital. We need more important books, imaginative ideas, and an expanded conversation about where we’re going as a country – and where we need to be.
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Curbstone Press -- A Literary Press for our Times

Curbstone Press has been doing it for 30 years – creating this country’s most progressive, far-sighted, passionate, and vital literature. With the motto, “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone” (taken from one of Roque Dalton’s most well-known poems), Curbstone has published luminaries of the engaged word like Martin Espada, Marnie Mueller, Claribel Alegria, Nguyen Ba Chung, Roberto Sosa, Agness Bushell, Lorraine Lopez, and many others – including an impressive roster of Latino writers from the United States and Latin America.

Of my ten published works, five were done by Curbstone Press (including three poetry books, a children’s book, and a memoir). That’s why this weekend I was around the Willimantic, Connecticut area for the 30th Anniversary of the press, with events at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT; Eastern Connecticut State University; the University of Connecticut at Storrs; and the Willimantic public schools, and other venues.

Highlighting the celebration was a fiesta at ECSU on Sunday that included a reading of some 25 Curbstone writers (who with great restraint, out of respect more than anything else, more or less stayed within the two-minute reading limit per poet – almost unheard of in poetry readings). Curbstone founders – and the heart and soul of the press – are Alexander “Sandy” Taylor and his long-time partner, Judith Doyle. Sandy told the group that Judy knows everything there is to know about publishing, and he knows the rest.

Together they’ve sustained a strikingly revolutionary press in a time when progressive institutions, bookstores, and organizations seem to be pushed to the wayside (in Los Angeles. we recently lost one of the most important socially-vital bookstores with the closing of the Midnight Special).

Special honors that day went to Breyten Breytenbach, one of South Africa’s most important authors; Sam Hamill, well-known poet, translator, and editor – and the spark behind the International Poets against the War movement; Lucy Anne Hurston, niece of Zora Neale Hurston, who recently published an impressive study of her aunt’s life and work; and Robert Meeropol, son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and head of the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

I had the pleasure of having dinner with Sam Hamill Saturday evening. He is presently working on a November 5 global action of Poets against the War during President Bush’s visit to Argentina to meet with heads of state of most countries in the Americas. I told him Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural would love to do a reading that day as part of this international mobilization. Mr. Hamill is one of this county’s most important voices for poetry as a sane, peaceful and just response to the present world’s dangers and uncertainties. He is someone who has sacrificed much to keep poetry at the heart of what matters in this country.

The next three days, I’ll be doing talks, readings, and writing workshops at Windham High School – which I have done before, since at least 1991 when Curbstone Press published my poetry collection, The Concrete River.

This month, Curbstone, along with Rattle Magazine, produced my latest book, My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, 1989-2004. With meaning and purpose, big ideas and poetic vision, blood and song, Sandy and Judy have battled book by book, event by event, to bring great literature to the world.

I’m deeply honored to be part of Sandy’s and Judy’s great endeavor – to be a life-time Curbstonista.
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Responsibility and Accountability

President Bush on Tuesday, September 13, took responsibility for part of the second disaster – the lack of a timely and comprehensive federal response to the first disaster of Hurricane Katrina. I’m glad to see this. More politicians and bureaucrats should stand up and be held accountable.

Unfortunately, accountability may be the missing ingredient in this batch of cookies. If Bush is responsible, he should also take the consequences. People died that didn’t have to die as a direct result of the late and erratic rescue efforts. Not only was Bush on vacation as word of Katrina’s impending landfall was declared, so was Vice-President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfield, and Secretary of State Rice (how dumb is it to have the administration’s major decision makers out at the same time). And none apparently cut short their vacations – except after public and media pressure became too uncomfortable to ignore.

Proprietors of a residential nursing home for the elderly have been arrested for possible negligent homicide in the deaths of close to 40 people. Okay. But far greater negligence can be firmly placed at the feet of Bush and his cronies. This was nothing short of negligent homicide – considering they had full warning and enough images of dead, stranded, and desperate people to get them to move (which they did, although still in exasperating spurts, and after it was too late).

If we are to be truly free and truly honest, legal proceedings should begin at once in this matter. Why even President Clinton was raked through the coals, including in a costly impeachment trial, for a far lesser – even if stupid and incomprehensible – misuse of power.

Public interest lawyers – not just those out to get the ‘money” – should do their duty to file the proper papers and begin this process. The Congress should step up to the level of the ire of most Americans and carry out their own impeachment proceedings.

How many more lies and levels of incompetence can we tolerate?

Serious lessons cannot be learned without a serious demand. The government must never again drop the ball when it comes to taking care of the poor, the weakened, and the needy. This is not a call for a dependent social welfare society. This is the legitimate call for the government to work tirelessly for all of the people, not just the rich and powerful.

Any other administration – Republican or Democrat – should be put on notice: We will not tolerate lame excuses and tired platitudes when it comes to a viable plan to use all available resources to save everyone when disaster strikes (including a complete preparedness before they occur). Moreover, we may as well include the daily disasters due to economic shifts and social policies that have made more people poor, with fewer options and resources, and not much means to pull out of the mire.

Remember, this is the administration that flubbed the 9/11 attack – ignoring good intelligence and taking up the bad. This is the same gang that lied to justify a costly and deadly war against Iraq – which, it turns out, was never part of the terrorist attacks and had no weapons of mass destruction (the main reasons given for sacrificing many of our sons and daughters, and countless Iraqi citizens, to invade).

Remember, this is the same administration that has made poverty more prevalent than at any time since the 1950s. That has gutted our schools and destroyed teaching morale to the detriment of our children, especially those in the inner city and poor rural communities. And that has made a mockery of environmental protections.

This is the administration that for the first time in our history helped place the words “voter fraud,” “torture,” and “criminal negligence” next to news items about the United States of America (even if many of us have long known such things have long existed here).

We may not be prepared as a nation to carry out our full responsibilities during this crisis, but at least it must be brought to the table. Those in power – not just the inane bureaucrats like former FEMA director Michael Brown – should be held accountable and removed.

That’s what any decent society would do. Let’s see how decent and thorough we can become as we try to get to the business of good, honest, and fair governance.
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Time for Straight Talk, Straight Answers

“Don’t play the blame game.” That’s the Republicans new mantra. That’s their way of sidetracking the obvious complicity of the Bush Administration in this government’s abysmal response to Hurricane Katrina’s destructive swathe through the Gulf Coast.

Bush has even called for a major investigation – which wastes more tax dollars, since no one has the decency to stand up and say they made mistakes. The government would rather waste time, energy, and money (ours, not theirs) to see if those mistakes can be unearthed by those who weren’t even there, or buried under the mountain of information that is generated in such investigations (remember the 9/11 report, which articulated clear negligence on the part of US intelligence agencies and the Bush Administration, although no one faced prosecution or serious accountability).

The American people, however, know what happened (remember Lincoln’s adage – “you can fool all the people some of the time, you can fool some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time”).

We know that FEMA was cut 44 percent from its proposed budget earlier this year. We know that millions in levee repairs in New Orleans were routed to the Iraq War and other Bush priorities (for example, an island of 50 people in Alaska received more than $500 million to construct a bridge, although these people already have ferries to transport them).

We know that federal officials denied or failed to respond to assistance from other cities and relief agencies (Chicago, for example, had truckloads of food, supplies, equipment, and manpower ready to go, but were not given the okay). We know that people were routed into the Superdome and the Convention Center without a plan to get them supplies, facilities, or protection (there were reports of suicides, people beaten and killed, a child raped and murdered, babies with slit throats, and more – although most of these have yet to be substantiated).

We know that Bush – after weeks of vacation – attended photo-op events in Southern California during the worse of the storm’s assault – and Condoleeza Rice was seen shopping in New York City during her vacation until called back to Washington DC after about a week (only to make a statement that the Bush Administration did not hate black people, as if this alone can assuage the reality of what we saw).

We know that countries like Venezuela and Cuba – long attacked by the government and the media as enemies of “American freedom” – were prepared to send doctors, oil, equipment, and funds, yet the Bush Administration has still not allowed this to happen (although people on the Gulf Coast badly need doctors – people died after the storm because of lack of doctors).

I can go on and on – we can get these stories and more on the daily reports from news sources (some reporters have awakened and righteously challenged the government’s inept response and tired excuses).

We don’t need any more investigations – unless it’s to seriously lay bare what actually happened, where the flaws existed, who’s responsible, and what affirmative steps will be taken to guarantee this will never happen again.

Something the people of the Gulf Coast and the rest of the country have long deserved. A straight story. True accountability. Real changes.

Yeah, right.

While stories of looting, rapes, and beatings were oft repeated (under such distress, some people go crazy, some decide that people’s lives are more important than property, and, some – mind you, this was still a minority – just don’t give a damn), other stories told of heroic acts: a six-year-old leading six other children younger than him (including a baby in his arms), all holding hands, among evacuees lost after rescue teams placed them on a highway; a man who used a leaking aluminum boat to save 200 people; how others, including strangers, united in teams at a second-floor of a school to get food and supplies until they could be saved; how millions of people, probably without much means themselves, offered their homes, their cars, their time, and money to immediately help those in the disaster zones; how cooperation, caring, and real planning can and has always worked when most needed.

Take Cuba again – last year Hurricane Ivan threatened to destroy a major portion of the country and kill tens of thousands. Through careful planning and social cooperation, 1.5 million people were evacuated to higher ground. No lives were lost when Ivan finally hit.

We deserve at least this much – with much more resources at our disposal.

Capitalism is at the root of the madness we’re seeing: Where police are forced to shoot and ward off looters, and letting food rot, instead of opening up the stores and handing them to the people who need it. Where those with means were allowed to leave New Orleans, leaving those who didn’t have means to fend for themselves. Where buses that have been used to transport tens of thousands to Houston’s Astrodome and other locations were unavailable for the poor before the storm hit. And where close to $60 billion dollars has been allocated so far by the government, when only millions were required to prepare New Orleans and most of the Gulf Coast for the inevitable hurricanes everyone predicted.

Yes, now the government, corporations, cities, other countries, relief agencies, churches, and people with very little to begin with, are providing aid in an amazing outpouring of immense magnitude.

But what about before the storms hit? Before another 9/11? When people most need the help not to be poor, neglected, and abandoned?

It’s time to ask the truly hard questions. It’s time to clarify the possible and powerful ways to go beyond the needs of a few rich capitalists who dictate who lives and dies in this country. The fact is – most of those people didn’t have to die. The fact is it’s within our power to do something about it. The fact is capitalism is the biggest block to true human freedom, protection, and well-being on earth. If we learn anything at all, we should learn that we, the people, organized, conscious, and imaginative, can do better.
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Every Hour of Every Day

Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of much of the Gulf Coast, particularly in New Orleans, is heart-rending and too tragic for words. My prayers go out to all the people of this great city, and cities like Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi and other stricken areas.

To help, I’ve donated the profits of my poetry/music CD, “My Name’s Not Rodriguez,” from sales at CD Baby.com to relief efforts. Other efforts on my part will also be considered.

I was supposed to be in New Orleans in November – a trip I’m sure will not happen. Of course, the scope of the disaster renders such a concern to dust. The people, the people, they are what matters – and we need to do more to make sure they are safe, healthy, and given adequate resources to rebuild.

However, I have to emphatically say – much of this tragedy could have been averted, something we’ve learned from far too many other “natural” disasters.

The chaos, floating bodies, lack of facilities, looting, stranded people, and more is not just the result of Mother Nature. Government bodies, while also doing some heroic labors, also failed.

One example: People were told to evacuate before Katrina hit New Orleans (it had already tore up parts of Florida). Apparently close to 80 percent of the people in that city did. However, many who were left behind were those who couldn’t leave: They were the poorest, those without cars or money for gas, buses or trains. The majority of these people were African Americans. They are the main ones crammed into the Superdome and the Convention Center, most of the dead and the homeless.

Yes, many of them have been “looting,” some even shooting at rescuers. But let me tell you, if food, medical supplies, water, toilets, and other necessities become nonexistent, I’d probably do the same (besides most of the people in New Orleans are not “looting”).

In the long run, who cares about Wal-Mart or the other stores being broken into? How can we give more priority to inanimate products than people who are dying, starving, and becoming more desperate by the hour? I saw rescue efforts abandoned by law enforcement and National Guard personnel to “stop the looters.” Who’s giving the message that products and things are more important than people?

Unfortunately, we are.

There were even instances of photo captions on the Internet and newspapers of black people said to be ‘looting” while white people doing the same thing were said to be “finding.” Come on!

It’s like the US military making sure the oilfields and corporate offices were secured in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq while museums and whole neighborhoods were allowed to be destroyed and/or looted. We protect the capitalism system at all costs – even at the costs of our lives and our rational minds.

Here are some questions: Why didn’t the government evacuate the poor people knowing that Katrina was going to devastate New Orleans (this was common knowledge way before the hurricane hit)? It would have averted the madness we’re seeing today – and the death.

Why did the government drastically cut FEMA and other disaster relief programs in states across the country, but, in particularly, around the Gulf Coast where engineers and others have known hurricanes could devastate the area at any time? The levees that broke in New Orleans were no surprise to those who have been warning about this for decades.

Why did President Bush wait almost three days before responding to the disaster that was unfolding on every TV, radio, and newspaper around the country? Then when he did, he even had to admit the results were sporadic and inadequate.

I’ll tell you why: Because Republicans and their Democrat cronies made policy decisions and budget cuts – even in the face of expert warning – to fuel a disastrous war and to maintain the narrow interests of their corporate-sponsors.

Someone has to be held accountable.

Nature is nature – it is bountiful and destructive. Human beings are human beings – we can do courageous, amazing things with technology, our hearts, and our minds, yet we can also fly in the face of reality and destroy each other more efficiently than nature itself can do.

In the end the poor pay the price (look at what happened when the Tsunami hit Southeast Asia). These aren’t just God-driven disasters; these are also within the purview of policy makers and so-called leaders. Don’t blame God for that – blame the people who decided war and profits were more important than the well-being of all the people.

Unfortunately, they make these decisions every hour of every day.
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In Honor of Two Great Peace Warriors

This is to honor two important and generous men: Elegba Earl and Joe Ranft. They were good friends of mine. They were also active in peace and the struggle for men to heal, become fuller in life, and to help transform this world into a more just and healthy one.

Elegba was one of the five brave Watts residents who walked into rival gang territory to stop the Bloods and Crips gang warfare some 13 years ago. Since then, he participated in a number of organizations like the Community Self-Determination Institute and other peace and justice organizations.

Joe was one of the four founders of Pixar Films, which produced such award-winning films like “Toy Story,” “Nemo,” and “The Incredibles.” He hooked up with a number of the Watts peace warriors and helped bring some of Pixar’s resources to their assistance.

Elegba and Joe met at the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation’s Annual Men’s Conferences in the Woodlands Camp, Mendocino, CA, where I have been a teacher and poet for a decade, along with activists like Michaal Meade, Mosaic’s founder; Jack Kornfield of Spirit Rock; and Orland Bishop of Shade Tree Mentoring in South Central LA.

Elegba and Joe were worlds apart – a black ghetto leader and an upper-middle class white animator. But in the men’s conferences, they shared stories, poems, ideas, emotions, and visions. They became fast friends and peace collaborators.

On Tuesday, August 16, the men were driving to the Mendocino conference with another Watts peace activist, Eric Fryerson. Some 11 miles from their destination, the car they were in became crowded by another vehicle. In trying to move over, they overcorrected a couple of times and then fell about 120 feet down an embankment into the Navarro River. Eric was able to get out. Elegba and Joe didn’t make it.

As you can imagine, we were all devastated when we heard the news. Eric was in the hospital and as soon as his lacerations and other injuries were attended to, he requested to reconnect with our group. We had a hard time continuing, but we knew we had to – Elegba and Joe died trying to get to our gathering. We mostly held a long week-long funeral, but also sustained some intense dialogues, workshops, and a number of morning practices and rituals. I was particularly moved by the men’s quality of listening – they were particularly present for the young people, some from the bloody streets of Boyle Heights/East LA and Watts, who needed to be heard and helped, along with others.

I attended Joe’s funeral in Mill Valley near San Francisco soon after leaving the conference. Tomorrow I’ll be at Elegba’s memorial in South LA.

The work we do to help transform lives must go on. For years, we have helped each other to become better, smarter, more connected and active men. It’s difficult work – we’ve also lost a few of our friends to violence, suicide, diseases, and prison. But the passing of Elegba and Joe hit us particularly hard. I send my deepest condolences to the families, friends, and colleagues of Elegba and Joe.

Be well, my friends, on your journey to the great ancestors. Our prayers will accompany you. But more so, your example will guide us as we carry on the work you both led. All my relations.
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A Hummingbird at Macondo

I’m in San Antonio this week as a “chuparosa” – or hummingbird – in Sandra Cisnero’s Macondo writing workshops. I came to flit about from workshop to workshop, seminar to seminar, taking in the great writing and serious talk about writing that Macondo is known for.

Various classifications of people here include “hormigas,” the worker ant people who get much done for the workshops; “mocosos,” or snot-nosed kids, the first timers at a Macondo workshop; “chismosos,” the gossipers, who have come back from previous Macondo experiences; and “famosos,” well-known guest writers who run workshops and seminars; among others.

I’ve met amazing new writers as well some old friends who’re here to teach, learn, and interact, such as Denise Chavez, Richard Blanco, Tammy Gomez, Amada Irma Perez, and more. I love being among serious writers – I don’t get a chance to be among them on a regular basis most of the time.

I also love being among the young writers – it reminds me of the hunger, openness, and fears I had when I first started out. And with my veteran colleagues – it’s good to share what we’ve learned in the writing world, especially from the “borderland” spaces, struggling at the margins to tell our stories, our truths, our dreams (all books are a dream realizing themselves into the world).

The workshop participants and teachers are of all ages, sexual orientations, and colors: one two-year participant was born and raised in China – there are also Native Americans, African Americans, European Americans, and all kinds of Latinos (Mexican, Central American, Puerto Rican, Cuban y mas).

Sandra started these workshops more than 10 years ago. At one time, she had them at her dinner table. It has since outgrown Sandra’s house and is now held at University of Texas, San Antonio and Our Lady of the Lake University. University dormitories and local bed & breakfasts have collaborated to accommodate the participants.

Muggy days aside, it’s great to be back to this great “Mexican” city. Here being Mexicano/Chicano is in the very earth, generations upon generations. Sandra is a gracious host. It’s been 25 years since I was last in a writing workshop as a participant (I’ve taught many since then). It feels good. I will also do a seminar this week and be part of a gala reading near the end. Here’s to serious writing and serious talk about writing.
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