(reprinted from The Guardian, August 26, 2013) Martin Luther King's movement was a wake up call for Latinos By Luis J. Rodriguez On 28 August 1963, I lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles County. That day, Martin Luther King Jr spoke the prophetic words of his "I have a dream" speech (pdf) on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC during the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom". I was 9 years old, a withdrawn brown-skinned Chicano kid. Older street kids had been bullying me since they saw me playing dolls with my next-door neighbor, a girl my age who didn't think twice about this. Yes, I was sensitive – in my head most of the time, with no friends. I was harassed for being "homo", although I had no idea what this meant. I was gay-bashed, although I have never been gay. But the feminine aspects of my maleness were strong in my imagination, in words and stories. Yet in the poor barrios where I grew up, this sensitivity could be dangerous. The bullies one day beat on me, causing a fracture in my jaw. It didn't break but I never got this fixed. When my jaw healed, it jutted out, where even today I only have three teeth that meet. I looked ugly. If I was lonely before, now I was a pariah. Girls called me "monkey". When I joined a gang at 11, the "homies" embraced my most damaged feature. After this I was known as "Chin". Now it was cool to be ugly. And my rage turned into a frenzy of violence and drug use – shooting people, stealing, knifings and, finally, heroin addiction. Then at 16, almost exactly seven years after King's speech on 29 August 1970, I took part in the largest protest against the Vietnam War in a community of color of the time – the Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War. About 30,000 people marched and rallied in East Los Angeles, the US community with the most Mexicans. I was arrested, beaten and held longer than most of the hundreds of arrestees who were let go after a few hours. Sheriff's deputies locked up a half dozen of us gang youth – known as "cholos" – for days in the Hall of Justice Jail section called "murderer's row". Deputies threatened to charge us with the murders of those killed in the subsequent riots, including that of Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar. I faced death threats, including having razor blades to my neck by cellmates. I was in a cell next to Charles Manson. Yet I stood up for myself – I would never again be bullied by anyone. Charges were never filed and I was released. Now my first staggered steps to a life of revolutionary thinking, writing and organizing had begun. Despite other arrests by age 19, I left "the crazy life". King's words reverberated in my head; I've been fighting for freedom and social equity ever since. Fifty years ago, Dr King stated how we were all owed "a promissory note ... a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white (I add every other color, gender, creed, and sexual orientation under the sun) would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". But as King pointed out, the "bank of justice" seems to have insufficient funds. I'm convinced that race, although key to any social transformations, should not be the barrier to the badly needed changes in our economy and politics – the ending of a social system where big money, big banks, big corporations control the laws, most of the property, the environmental decline and the majority of what we are taught and what we see as news. True justice is now about our pocketbooks, about a clean and healthy environment, about an open and free democratic process. It's about ending class inequities and the chains that bind us. King's dream – the dream of millions – must also have a vision and true organic expression. It must be newly expressed in poems, songs, dance, music as well as strategy. Imagine that – jobs and freedom for everyone. After 50 years, I still accept that challenge.
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