Yesterday at around 10 am, I lost one of my teacher/elders among the Dine people (the Navajo). John C. Smith passed on at the San Juan Regional Hospital in Farmington, New Mexico. He was 85.
Mr. Smith was a Hataalii (Medicine Man) as well as a Native American Church/ABNDN Roadman, Historian, Educator, Philosopher, Herbalist, and Elder Statesman. He was of the Ma’iideeshgiizhnii (Coyote Pass Clan) and born for the Dziltl’ahnii (Mountain Cove). Mr. Smith was also a spokesperson and advocate for the Dine Hataalii Association, Inc.
For almost twenty years, I’ve been doing ceremonies, including peyote prayer meetings and sweat baths, with the Dine near the Chuska Mountains on the Arizona side of Dine Bikeyah (Navajo Nation). Medicine man Anthony Lee and his wife Delores of Lukachukai have taken in my whole family – and even adopted my wife Trini in an adult adoption ceremony, which many traditional Navajo do (and they treat these adopted children as their own).
These ceremonies have been one of the most vital aspects of my sobriety that I’ve now carried for twenty years after 27 years of drugs and alcohol (in the Rez, peyote medicine, which is not a drug, although this is the impression usually given by non-natives, is the number one way to deal with the high rates of alcoholism).
Anthony introduced us to John C. Smith, who was almost always at our ceremonies – with songs, with chants, with powerful prayers. Even though I only know a couple of Navajo words, I always felt his spirit, his intense devotion to medicine and ceremony, and was moved when tears would fall. He was a man unafraid to express the range of human emotions, generous and inviting. He was also extremely funny. His jokes, his laughter, were contagious. He knew English and Spanish, with some problems, but he mostly communicated in Dine.
John liked the Chicano Natives that would come to connect to Dine traditions (Trini and I, as well as our two young sons, my daughter, two brother-in-laws, nephews, and many friends, including Louie Ruan who was the first one to bring me to Lukachukai). It has taken a long time, but many traditional peoples have accepted Chicanos as fellow natives, even though most Chicanos, Mexicans and Central Americans have lost direct tribal ties.
It is also true that Chicanos/Mexicans have been responsible for much suffering of the Dine. When this land was part of Spain more than 200 years ago, and part of Mexico more than 100 years ago, ruling governments (during the Mexican period, the country was run by light-skinned mostly Spanish criollos) used other Mexican native peoples (like Yaquis, Chichimecas, Huicholes, and more) to hunt down and kill Navajos, Apaches and others. The old divide-and-conquer has brought much animosity between the large number of Chicanos/Mexicans and other native peoples.
At the same time, our common heritages are now being explored and many inroads have been made to bring Chicanos and Native Americans together. I have done talks to many Dine, Apache, Pueblo and Tohono O’odham youth in reservations and schools. With large numbers of tribal peoples from Mexico and Central America coming to the United States, the issue of us coming together is imperative. There are now three million Mayan people from Mexico and Guatemala in the U.S. (more than the total Native American population) – and millions more such as Mexicas (Nahuatl-speaking people), Mixtecos, Zapotecos, Purepechas, Pibils, and others.
As well Chicanos have been now trained and fully sanctioned as Mexica Danzantes (so-called Aztec ceremonial dancers) and are now a major number in most Sun Dances in Lakota reservations and others across the United States.
John C. Smith will be remembered as one who worked hard to bring our peoples together, although he did this as a Dine, using the complex Dine cosmologies to teach, the wondrous Dine tongue to sing and pray. Anthony and John also taught us how Mexicans – like the Hopi – have been incorporated into the tribe with their own clans. The Navajo know how to adapt and incorporate the world and peoples around them.
I hope what John C. Smith has done resonates throughout all the Native world, regardless of borders that have blinded us to our common heritages, histories and values. We can no longer afford to be divided.
Today I celebrate twenty years of sobriety. My new birth date since the last time I drank in 1993 has been June 30. What a long painful and wondrous road this has been. I never imagined how intense this process would be. First I had to deal with seven years, from ages 12 to 19, when I was on drugs, alcohol, “huffing,” and also heroin. The latter finally getting its grips on me when I thought I’d never end up like the tecatos I knew in the barrio – usually in the alleys, chantes (“shooting” shanties) or hobo junctions along the railroad tracks.
I let all this go against great odds, against my own impulses, after getting politically engaged through the radical wing of the Chicano Movement, linking me to the larger working class, anti-war and civil rights struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I liked being on drugs, especially heroin, but I had convinced myself of the one thing I dreaded most in being in a gang, on drugs and violent – I was never going to own my life if I continued toward these pulls and webs. La Vida Loca – the Crazy Life – was a chain I enjoined to my soul and my mind. I had to let this go.
Political consciousness helps one to become self-aware, especially with the demands to be learned, skilled in words and ideas, and in convincing a world not to act the way it had been accustomed to act. I wanted to be true to myself, a difficult thing for an addict who never is. But, unfortunately, I didn’t give up on addiction—I just turned it toward the bottle, which I was good in imbibing, maintaining for a good while, and for the most part functioning, although after many years I reached a point I only thought about the bars, the women, the smoky rooms, the way tequila and rum germinated inside me, mutating my cells, my brain, my values.
Finally, when I was losing my teenage son to drugs and gangs, when I almost lost my present wife Trini, the last big love of my life, and possibly my daughter and two younger boys, I awoke to sobriety. More liked slapped into it. A year before this I had finished my memoir “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” This proved to be a powerfully healing thing. Then I found a Chicago-based recovery program that spoke to my needs, soul hungers and angers. I quit drinking the same year that “Always Running” hit the literary world like a hammer. Although I had one final terrible relapse during a poetry tour in Europe, apparently almost dying from what recovery people said was most likely alcohol poisoning (although I refused medical attention).
I kept myself sober ever since, even when I switched to Native American and Native Mexican spiritual practices, even when my oldest son ended up in worse trouble, eventually getting a long prison term, even when the family moved back to L.A. from Chicago, then trying to create a community-based cultural center and bookstore while writing more books, more poems, stories, children’s books, and a novel as well as traveling to speak, teach, and read. Even when my mother died, my best friends were taken from me (also heroin, cocaine, and alcohol heads at one time or another, two died by suicide), when I underwent some deep betrayals, and I raged and raged.
I’m still here. My body is worn – bad liver, diabetes, hypertensive, high cholesterol, eye retina tears, slipped discs in my back, kidney and gallstone attacks… but I’m still unbelievably better than if I kept drinking. I’ve made it so far. And my son Ramiro is now out of prison after a total of 15 years behind bars. He’s also crime free, gang free and drug free. In addition, my wife Trini and I celebrated 25 years of marriage this year. And my daughter is doing well, presently pregnant with my fifth grandchild, while my youngest boys are in wonderful straits – one just finished a year at the University of California, Riverside, and the other going to UCLA in the fall.
Twenty years. I have many more years to go – more books to write, more talks, more peace and healing work, more community activism, more revolutionary teachings and writings, even perhaps a political campaign or two (last year I was the Justice Party’s vice presidential candidate). And, of course, many more years as a husband, father and grandfather.
I thank the Creator, my community, my family. Nothing could be done in a vacuum, disconnected, or by following the dreaded internal pressures to give up. My biggest battle was with myself. I now have strict loyalties and principles (for fear if I fudge any of these, I’ll fall back). I’m ready for the next twenty – a new adventure, giving back more than receiving, teaching more than doing, and extending my love for family and community to the world.
Twenty years – and I’m still bleeding blossoms, perspiring poems, and an undeterred warrior of peace and justice wherever I go.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 22, 2013
Contact: Steve Vigil: 718.710.2567
Alex Sanchez: 213.383.7484
Books Donated to Salvadoran Prisons to Support an Unprecedented Yearlong
LOS ANGELES, CA – The Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (TAGSPPES) is pleased to announce a donation of some 150 books to thirteen Salvadoran prisons as part of TAGSPPES’s support of the peace truce that has been in effect since March of 2012, resulting in a 40 to 60 percent drop in violence between El Salvador’s largest street gangs: Mara Salvatrucha-13 and 18th Street.
Renowned musician and activist John Densmore, drummer for the Doors, has donated the funds for the majority of these books. The book coordinator is Alex Sanchez, director of Homies Unidos, a gang intervention program in the Central American communities of Los Angeles and in El Salvador. Prisons will receive Spanish-language versions of “Tattoos of the Heart” by Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, and “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” by Luis J. Rodriguez, co-founder of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore in the San Fernando Valley. A few English-language versions of both books will also be sent. The City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, under the guidance of HRC president Paule Cruz Takash, as well as Luis J. Rodriguez donated some of the books.
TAGSPPES was created in April of 2012 to assess, advise and assist the current peace process, coordinated by Monsignor Fabio Colindres and former Salvadoran congressman Raul Mijango. In July of 2012, eleven members of TAGSPPES spent seven days in El Salvador – visiting prisons, including one for women and a juvenile lockup, as well as government offices, schools, non-governmental agencies, and factories. Their report from October of 2012 is available to the media.
In addition talks and report backs about the gang peace have been held in Los Angeles along with the showing of the Salvadoran gang film “Fruits of War” as well as cities such as Boulder/Denver, Seattle, Chicago, upstate New York, San Francisco, Oakland, and Washington D.C., among others.
It’s sad to have blogs with names of people I’ve loved or admired who have passed on. But I must recognize some important people in my life who’ve recently died. First is Los Angeles teacher Sal Castro, who passed on April 15 after a bout with cancer. He was 79.
Sal was a leader in the 1968 East Los Angeles “Blowouts” – one of the largest protests for education in the United States at the time. Schools in L.A.’s vast eastside – such as Lincoln, Garfield, Roosevelt, and middle schools like Hollenbeck, among others – had walkouts to protest discrimination and low education resources for Chicano students. Numbers ranged from 10,000 to 30,000 people involved, students, parents, teachers, and community members alike.
The 2006 HBO movie “Walkout” dramatized the incident, directed by Edward James Olmos and produced by Moctezuma Esparza, a student leader of the protests in 1968. Actor Michael Pena played Castro in the film (and other actors played other leaders and friends of mine such as Bobby Verdugo, Carlos Montes, Harry Gamboa, and the amazing Paula Crisostomo – the movie was based on her story… she was a mentor of mine in high school).
I was 13 in 1968 and walked out of my San Gabriel Valley middle school known as Garvey Intermediate School in the Richard Garvey School District, the district adjacent to the East Los Angeles schools. Although I was a troubled kid, in a gang, using drugs, and not doing well in school, when I heard about the protest this fired up my imagination – it took a while, but this opened a door to social justice and change that became a life-long avocation.
Although only five of us walked out of Garvey School – and promptly suspended – I did later participate in a Chicano Leadership Conference that Sal Castro helped organize to train the next generation of leaders. Sal probably wouldn’t have recognized me from among the many Chicano students listening to his talks and those of other leaders (although usually in cholo attire, I was relatively shy and withdrawn at the time). But I soon took part in study groups, collective actions, and by age 20 left entirely all gang and drug involvement to pursue a revolutionary life.
Sal was part of this transformation, planting a seed that has stayed with me all these years.
I also want to remember Johnny Godinez, “El Huero” from the Arizona Maravilla barrio (one of a dozen barrios in the Maravilla district of East Los Angeles). For years he was a leader in gang intervention in Los Angeles, employed by SEA (Soledad Enrichment Action). He also worked with me and forty other peace warriors, advocates and researchers in the “Effective Community-Based Gang Intervention Model” approved by L.A.’s city council in 2008 and used in cities across the U.S. (I also introduced this model to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; El Salvador; Guatemala; Argentina; and England). Johnny and I have sat on many peace panels, circles and coalitions over the past ten years. He died of a heart attack and will be sorely missed.
And today I read that Richie Havens died on April 22, 2013 – the African American folk singer and guitarist played a large musical role in the civil rights and anti-war struggles of the 1960s. He combined a unique singing and playing style with the powerful folk music tradition. He became famous after opening for the 1969 Woodstock Festival. I did not know him well, but I had the privilege of reading poetry with Richie Havens playing in the background at the Nurorican Café in New York City in the early 1980s. With me were poets like Kimiko Hahn and Miguel Algarin. He was gracious and kind to us poets as we admired the poetry he brought to his lyrics, his singing and guitar.
Que en paz descansen.
I was recently asked questions from one of my many connections in schools. Here are my answers -- it's about a new way of seeing work with gangs, incarcerated youth, and the loss of meaning in our time.
What do you believe is/are the main cause/s of youth violence?
There are historical, social and personal traumas in the lives of our youth. Also our culture is becoming devoid of meaning. Presently everything is in crisis -- including politics, the economy, and even spiritual matters. The disconnections are deep. Many youth feel numb, but others lash out (both are aspects of enragement). Parenting is losing its potency as well as schooling, mentoring and elders. We have to renew ways to see and respond to young people – with respect, meaning, and teachings, to reconnect in deep and powerful ways. Youth violence by the way is less than adult violence. How do young people learn their violence? Mostly from adults. The same government that wants to control assault weapons has drones killing civilians (and directed at us). There wouldn’t be assault weapons in our streets if not for government and business complicity somewhere along the line.The hypocrisies are increasing as the wellbeing of most people decline.
Do you feel there is a correlation between class and youth violence? What about race and youth violence?
Poverty is one of the biggest factors of trauma and neglect that also begets violence. Poverty itself is violence against people who have little or no power, against the working classes and the disenfranchised. Poverty numbs and enrages. Many youth may not know this intellectually but they feel the class differences. They know some people are rich and powerful, and they are not. They know most of this is due to injustice– social resources are not distributed equitably, and not because the rich and powerful are more valuable or more deserving. Of course well-off youth are also neglected, fed material things, and many times dispirited. This is why many go crazy in their gated community -- while the poor waste their lives in real prisons. Race is the historical means to control and disunite the working class in the U.S. and now most of the world. The violence of poverty strikes people of color particularly hard, linked to race or migration status. Racism is also violence.
When talking with incarcerated juveniles, what is the main message you aim to give them?
My main aim is to provide both the social and personal aspects of their liberation – even behind actual bars, but also in the metaphoric prisons of living this society. These liberations are linked to imagination, creativity, the arts. When young people find their own authority –their own passions, capacities, dreams, and story – they can begin to challenge with all their faculties the chains that have bound them to an archaic capitalist economic social order not of their making. Everything should be questioned, challenged, and/or renewed by every new generation. Being properly independent and authoritative means they are also properly interdependent and connected. Both are necessary. The “prisons” of their lives also include addictions, compulsions, rages, fears,and violence. They are wrapped up in the web of “the crazy life.” They need to start learning to own their own life – and not turn it over to others, to gangs, to drugs, to destructive impulses. I do much of this by telling my story.
In your experience, are most convicted juveniles willing to give up violence and be rehabilitated/helped? Are there resources available for them?
The vast majority of young prisoners can and will change their lives, but there are little or no resources or rehabilitation for this in most institutions. This is no accident. There are vested economic interests to keep youth lost, angry, criminal, and caged. When properly guided, mentored, taught, and trained (including to deal with their most destructive webs) they can become the next generation of peace warriors. This is the work I’ve done and witnessed for forty years. Late teens and early to mid-twenties is a major threshold time in anyone’s life – doors appear to open and possibilities open up. In particular the brain finally finds its shape by the late 20s. This is called attunement, a time to “tune” the harp of a person’s body. All society, all institutions, all therapies, and programs should be geared to this attunement process. While anyone can change anytime in their lives (indeed changes occur constantly even if imperceptibly), the “threshold times” (there are five major ones in a person's life) are key.
What kind of conditions do juveniles have to face inside the juvenile facilities and adult facilities?
Mostly I see institutional abuse, isolation being one ofthem. Another being placing blame on the perpetrators (when they are also victims). And the rest of us not taking responsibility for how a young person ended up in such places in the first place – ended up with a gun in their hand, with drugs in their system, and fodder for any kind of war, including in gangs. Most of this is environmental, interacting negatively with the biological (the complex interaction of nature and nurture are constant in all development). Beyond that I’ve seen or known of actual physical, sexual, mental, and spiritual abuse in such institutions. Youth are vulnerable and we make them more vulnerable, more accessible to other perpetrators and abuse. Punishment to remove the perfectly legitimate responses to an abusing, violent, narrow-ended world does not work. It becomes abuse on top of abuse.
Knowing you are against the sentencing of juveniles toLife Without Parole, could you explain your thoughts on the subject and most important reasons for being so?
No life should be wasted, pushed out or forgotten. LWOP is another death sentence – only the slow and grating one. Those with LWOP are removed from contribution, from full love, from family, from children, from the beauties of the world. This is another kind of death. Healing needs to be the key aspect of institutionalizing anyone, not pushing them into deeper folds of inhumanity. LWOP should be declared unconstitutional – a cruel and unusual punishment.
What alternatives are there to juveniles and LWOP? What do you believe works best?
The vast majority of troubled youth can be removed for a short time – perhaps three years for most major crimes and no longer than seven years for the worse. This is of course assuming real resources/rehabilitation are brought to bear. Youth don’t need arbitrary long sentences, but “enough” time to gather themselves, get attuned, get reconnected, and set on a path of their passions. Use these experiences as real initiations that in turn lead to fuller lives and a restoring of their place in family, community, work, art,and life.
How did your experience through the juvenile justice system effect you long term? To who and/or what do you credit your life turnaround?
I was detained since age 13 for fighting, disturbing the peace, and stealing. I ended up in various jails in the greater East L.A. area– the East L.A. sheriff’s substation, the Monterey Park jail, the San Gabriel jail, the Norwalk sheriff’s substation, and others. At 15, I was held for stabbing someone but released when the person stabbed (he lived) refused to identify me. At 16 I was placed in the adult section of murderer’s row in the old Hall of Justice Jail in downtown L.A. I had a cell next to Charles Manson. They were threatening to charge five of us “cholo” gang members for the murders of three people during a major riot. Even though I was lost there for five days and nights, they eventually let me go without charges. I was in juvenile hall twice for arrests, but never adjudicated, although once at 17 for attempted murder when four people were shot (again, the victims refused to identify me). These experiences only taught me to be a better criminal and addict, more violent and “untouchable” (how fear turns into stone). Then at age18, I got jumped by police and sent to the county jail, facing a minimum of six years in the state pen for fighting with police officers. This time I faced a crossroads. I was hooked on heroin, 25 of my friends had been killed by then,and I had no family or homies visiting. The only person who showed up was a youth counselor/activist who became my guide and mentor. Prior to this, however, I had begun to paint murals, go back for schooling, and become active in social change. This mentor got people to write letters on my behalf and show up in court. This was largely unheard of. A judge then gave me a break – perhaps the biggest of my life. He refused to try me for the felonies (although police clamored for this) and gave me time served in the county jail for “drunk and disorderly” and “resisting arrest.” During my time in jail, I began my first heroin withdrawals and refused to get more active in the higher echelons of barrio gang life. I left those bars committed to social justice – and I’ve never done any more time for criminal acts. I have, however, gone to prisons throughout California, the U.S., Mexico, Central and South America, and Europe, for more than thirty years– my way of giving back by doing writing workshops, readings, and talks. I’ve been active in prison reform, gang peace, and prevention/intervention as well. Unfortunately, my oldest son got involved in gangs and ended up doing 15 years in state prisons, a way of how the madness called me back by claiming one of my own.
If you were to rework the juvenile justice system, what would be the first thing you would do?
The choices are not brutal punishment OR country clubs. People should see the juvenile justice system as an initiatory experience that can turn their life around – this should be difficult and require hard work. But the premise is: Every trouble and every lost road can be a doorway to more knowledge, more soul, and onto a hero’s journey. Use mythology, stories, song, dance, writing, theater, music, even digital arts, to draw from the inexhaustible and abundant reservoir of the imagination we all carry. To teach young people the direction and innate nature of their actions, decisions, and indecisions. Punishment is not even in the equation. Such institutions should be restorative and transformative. Change is one absolute aspect of human nature, yet we act as if things stand still. Being angry and hungry are natural to all of us. We just need to give it eyes, direction, and meaning so that the real angers and real hungers (not just of the body, but of the mind and spirit) can be taken to their completion. I call this process “Hearts & Hands,” not “scared straight” but “cared straight.” Using caring and proper emotional connection (the heart) from community along with skills, teachings, and "holding the ground" (the hands) to re-imagine and recreate even stronger community.
For two decades El Salvador has been one of the most violent countries in the world, due to intense warfare between its two biggest street gangs—Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and 18th Street (Barrio 18).
The leading cause was the mass deportation of gang youth beginning in 1992 from the streets of Los Angeles, many of whom did not speak Spanish and had little or no families in the country. Since then the official response has been repression—more police and prisons. They’ve included anti-gang policies known as Mano Dura (Firm Hand) and Super Mano Dura. With billions of dollars invested into these policies, including from the United States, the gangs became larger, better organized, and more violent—recruiting from the thousands of homeless, abandoned and war-ravaged youth and children throughout the country.
However, something phenomenal emerged a year ago on March 9 when members from among MS-13 and Barrio 18 forged a peace in one of the country’s largest prisons, spreading to other prisons and the streets. Facilitated by Catholic Monsignor Fabio Colindres as well as former congressman and former guerilla Raul Mijango, gang leaders agreed to end recruitment near schools and to turn in rifles and other weapons to the Organization of American States (OAS) representatives. Most recently they’ve enacted “peace zones” where gangs would not commit crimes or violence.
In a year’s time the peace decreased violence in El Salvador from 40 to 60 percent; by December homicides went from 14 per day until five per day, according to the Center for Democracy in the Americas. The gang leaders did what no repressive plan could do—bring a badly needed respite to a country that has been in some kind of war, including a 12-year civil war, for more than thirty years.
Yet the U.S. government’s Treasury Department in the fall declared MS-13 to be an international criminal enterprise, subject to the seizure of property and assets. And on January 23, 2013, the State Department issued a travel warning to U.S. citizens that placed El Salvador on the same level of security concerns as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Honduras, and Mexico. These actions indicate a dangerous disconnect between what is possible for public safety and our government’s response.
This past July, I took part in an 11-member delegation from the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (TAGSPPES) to assess the situation on the ground, and advise and assist where possible. The delegation included human rights advocates, a psychologist, researchers, and leaders in U.S. gang prevention and intervention programs from New York City, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Washington D.C. area, and London—Chicano, white, African American, Puerto Rican, and Salvadoran.
We talked to government officials in the departments of health, education, and public safety including heads of the country’s prison system. We visited factories that hired gang members as well as schools, nongovernmental agencies, indigenous communities, and six prisons and a juvenile lockup.
Tattooed-faced men and women greeted us from behind razor wire as we were able to see firsthand the miserable conditions they lived under, including in facilities housing women and their children, also locked up in worn cellblocks, often without running water or electricity, in overcrowded cells and lacking decent food and medical attention. They told us that they were not “lost causes” or “without hope.” Many had children of their own—they didn’t want them enmeshed in the same level of violence they grew up with and in many cases participated in.
In September of 2012, TAGSPPES issued a report of our trip that concluded “all stakeholders must take part in a broader peace building process.” In other words, the gang peace must not just benefit gang members, but the whole of society, including establishing the necessary structural changes for real jobs, education, trauma treatment, housing, and humane prison conditions. Due to our efforts, clean potable water is being directed to many prisons. And books are being brought in to start libraries in these institutions with the support of people like musician and activist John Densmore, formerly of the Doors.
The peace building process will entail the backing of the international community as well as businesses, law enforcement, and the general population. Many in the present Salvadoran government agree, including Minister of Security David Munguia Payes and President Mauricio Funes, both of whom have challenged the official U.S. position.
For peace to last, it’s evident this will also require the backing of the U.S. government.
The United States does a major disservice by placing its resources and energies at odds with the immense possibilities brought to the table by gang leaders themselves, who are tired of the violence and now want to contribute positively to the development of their lives and their country.
It’s been proven that the single best path towards peace is when gang leaders turn their lives around, when they commit to raising families, when they dedicate themselves to working and educating themselves; and when they become the leading agents for making peace viable for all. Here’s an idea that now needs traction, something I have seen in my forty years of doing gang peace work in the United States and other countries: Sometimes from the most violent can come the most peaceful.
Give gang leaders a chance to make their own peace.
I’ve been to Venezuela three times in the past ten years – to attend the World Social Forum with the theme of “A New World is Possible,” as an official reader in the Caracas Poetry Festival, and as invited guest and presenter to their amazing book fair that looked at the possibilities of revolution in the United States. Each time I could see a country in the throes of new beginnings, striving for justice for those abandoned by present social and economic conditions.
During those trips I visited outlying areas, met with indigenous people as well as young people including activists, poets, artists, and workers. I went to marketplaces and entered free computer centers and medical facilities in the poorest areas. I also spent time in the slums of Caracas (similar to Brazilian favelas only in Venezuela they are called ranchitos), which had no lighting until their president Hugo Chavez made sure they had access to electricity.
Once I got to meet Chavez briefly, just before he gave a more than two-hour talk at the main sports stadium that held up to 100,000 people. This was hard for me. I’ve been trained in the fast-paced, ADD-inducing, TV flipping realities of modern times. I have a hard time listening to most people for more than five minutes before my mind wanders and my feet get antsy. But I didn’t lose interest. Hugo Chavez spoke mostly extemporaneously, citing the Bible, Karl Marx, poets, and others. He knew facts and history. He was funny, serious, angry, and gracious. He even sang. At the time the U.S. had George W. Bush as president, whom satirists and other political commentators poked fun at due to Bush’s poor command of English, of facts or of history.
And I couldn't imagine Bush singing.
Bush a few times characterized Chavez as a monster, blaming him for turmoil and discord in South America, although most of this was due to U.S. foreign policy decisions and third world capitalist realities. The majority of reporting and comments on Chavez in U.S. media were unflattering and downright slanderous. I always knew U.S. media, except for a few remarkable instances, misrepresented Latin America. Being there in Venezuela, on the ground floor – as I have done over the past thirty years in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru, Puerto Rico, and Argentina – provided a fresh and more nuanced sense of what was really happening.
Yes, Venezuela is still poor (although Chavez in sixteen years cut the poverty rate by half). Slums continue to reach high up into the mountains surrounding the capital. There were also major political splits, although most of this fell into social class backgrounds – for the most part the rich (a small minority) hated Chavez; the poor and working class loved him.
Venezuela is also violent. For years, Caracas was known as one of the three most violent cities in the world. And Chavez had many issues, many holes in his doctrine as well as personality. I can be as critical about persons, parties and policies as anyone. But I also support unconditionally the Venezuelan people and their revolution – even with the back-and-forth, up-and-down nature of social change.
What the Venezuelan people have accomplished is a beacon for this continent – and the world. Venezuela represents hope and possibilities during this period of global electronics-based capitalism, when financial decisions in the office suites of banks and corporations of the U.S. impact more what Latin American countries do than their own elected presidents or legislators.
Chavez stood up against U.S. Empire. He stood up against those who would enrich themselves at the expense of the poor and working classes. He took over oil production and placed much of this income into bettering the country, but also in helping others. Chavez spearheaded a new Bolivarian Revolution, re-igniting the revolutionary spark that Simon Bolivar first lit to get rid of Spanish rule in the Andes region of South America.
Poetry, song, dance, political teachings, and more exploded in Caracas and elsewhere. Having free medical care and computer access – something not available in the richest and most powerful country in the world – is revolution in itself. I walked into one of those clinics, talked to the doctors and medical assistants, and watched as they brought the best medical practices to anyone who walked in the door. People needing help didn’t have to show their finances, their status, or even their passports. Rich or poor, Venezuelan or foreign, with no regard to religion, gender, sexual preference, or race – all were able to get this kind of attention.
Venezuela is a country of contradictions, like most countries of the world. But unlike many others it is moving in an equitable and embracing social economic and political direction. Hugo Chavez didn’t make this happen by himself, but he held the leadership.
Chavez died last week in Cuba from cancer. He was 58, born the same year I was born. I feel connected to his dream and his actions, his striving for more knowledge as well as his practice. Anyone who places a gulf between the two is missing the vital connection of how ideas become a material force. A vision, a plan, and getting things done – that’s Hugo Chavez’s legacy.
I send condolences to the Venezuelan people – who treated me as a brother, fellow poet and revolutionary – for the loss of their president: Hugo Chavez Frias.