Song and Poetry Behind the Walls

Last Thursday I was a guest to witness a special production by members of BRAG (Balanced Reentry Activity Group) they called “Reciprocity,” which involved song, music, theater, spoken word, poetry, and wise words from men who know about hard-earned wisdom. This event was held behind the walls of the old Soledad State Correctional Facility in the Salinas Valley. Invited by Nane Alejandrez of Barrios Unidos of Santa Cruz, CA, I was also able to say a few words and to recite my poem “Piece by Piece.” In fact, a few of the men remembered me when I was last there, around fifteen years ago, speaking and reading poetry one day, all day, to hundreds of incarcerated brothers (I’ve been doing talks, readings, and workshops in prisons for thirty years). On Thursday there were around 400 prisoners, mostly lifers, in attendance at the gym. I told them about the Mayan concept of In Lak Ech—you are the other me; I’m the other you. I also related something I had, unfortunately, just heard that morning—the shooting death of Luis Moreno the night before. Luis had attended a Mosaic Foundation Men’s Conference a few years back, which I’ve been a part of for sixteen years. He was a decent young man working at Homeboy Industries, who we tried to mentor away from the madness of gang and drug life. Unfortunately, like so many of these young leaders, his life was cut short much too soon. May you rest in peace, Luis! The men groaned collectively at the news of Luis’ murder. But they knew—these losses are part of the work we do to help young people save themselves. Of course, more kids are helped, changed, many finally getting on their passion road, their destiny journey, that violence, drugs, and prison have taken off track. It’s a testament to Father Greg Boyle and the teachers/mentors/staff (many of them former gang members) of Homeboy Industries who continue this work despite the losses. The men at Soledad appreciated the efforts we all do—including, of course, Barrios Unidos—to help keep more youngsters from ending up where they’ve ended up. BRAG’s songs, poems, and theater production were all about redemption, change, and helping others. As one inmate, Papa John, said from the podium, “don’t ever look down at a man unless you mean to pick him up.” “You may have started out doing wrong,” Papa John preached. “But you can all finish strong.” The fact that the men were multiracial—mostly African American and Chicano, with Native and white brothers—belies the pronouncements that California state prisoners can’t be united. In their brokenness, in healing, in their dreams of a better world, even behind bars, for themselves and their families, they have come together. That evening I also had the privilege of speaking at Si Se Puede, a residential sober-living home for the recently paroled (many are also sentenced by judges to take part) in Watsonville, CA. In attendance were around twenty-five young men, with additional residents from a couple of other homes, including youth and women. We first dined—to some great refin cooked by residents—with Jorge Sanchez, who manages Si Se Puede’s residential space and programs. Then we met the newly appointed mayor of Watsonville, Daniel Dodge, who also happens to be a long-time Chicano activist—and an indigenous spiritual practitioner and Sun Dancer (I’ve done sweat ceremonies with the brother). Can you imagine—a Sun Dancer as mayor of Watsonville! Later that evening, we were honored to have Dr. Loco (of Dr. Loco’s Rocking Jalapeno Band—in his “other life” he’s professor/scholar Jose Cuellar) play an indigenous frog-shaped flute and then perform an old Mexican waltz on the tenor saxophone. Nane also spoke and brought up Sarah and Angie, staff members from Barrios Unidos, who briefly talked about their experiences with BU (which, like Homeboy Industries in LA, provides jobs, counseling, culture, schooling to gang youth, ex-prisoners, and more). Daniel Dodge said a few words and also introduced me, and again I was honored. That evening we had the young people nodding, smiling, a couple in tears, as we talked about the changes we’ve all had to make against drugs, alcohol, gangs. And how this is part of the changes endemic to the shifts in ages we’re all currently living under—precipitating changes in the cosmos, the earth, community, and family. To help create a healthy, abundant, and properly aligned world, we also have to live as healthy, abundantly, and as aligned as possible. I thank Nane and Barrios Unidos, the men of BRAG (and the men in the audience), Soledad Prison’s warden and staff, as well as the staff and residents of Si Se Puede (and the other residential programs) that made that whole day special and wondrous for me. It makes what I do all worthwhile. c/s

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