Spreading the Word

In early February, I ended up in Paterson, New Jersey, home to both William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, to read at the Poetry Center at the Passaic County Community College. My friend Maria Gillan served as host. I was also being honored for receiving the 2006 Poetry Award for my poetry collection "My Nature is Hunger" (Curbstone Press/Rattle Editions); I read with many of the other honorable winners. It was a cold couple of days there--although they had little snow in the Northeast up until then, they were actually at the beginnings of an intense cold spell.

I also read and talked to several groups of students at the HARP Academy, located in downtown Paterson. Like many urban core communities, Paterson has its share of gangs, drugs, domestic violence, and poverty. I've gone here a few times, reading at schools like the well-known Eastside High School (the movie "Lean on Me" was about this school) and Kennedy High, another school with tremendous needs and great students and teachers.

I even had a couple of friends from New York drive into Paterson to see me: Tara Betts (another Chicago poet who now lives in Brooklyn) and Rich Villar, of the Bronx and now working with Accentos Community Center.

I've always have a great time in Paterson and count a number of its residents as good friends. For all my West Coast and Midwest credentials, I also have a respectable following in the Northeast area (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire). My 1993 memoir, Always Running, is used in many of the schools there. I've read in high schools, prisons, juveniles facilities, universities, colleges, and done lots of radio, TV and print media interviews in those states (in Spanish and English). I've even been caught in blizzards there.

Last week, I ended up on the other coast--in wonderful warm and clear San Diego (this has to be one of the best cities in the country). I had the fortune of speaking to juvenile offenders at the Rancho de Campo juvenile probation camp. The boys were great--respectful with lots of strong questions and comments. And the staff seemed quite open and supportive.

I also spoke to more than 400 community people who showed up at the Copley Auditorium in Balboa Park. We had middle school students to the elderly, gang and nongang youth, and a most vibrant and engaging program. People lined up to two microphones to air their concerns and ask questions. Pre-teen young people also got up to express themselves--they were intelligent and thought-provoking.

The next day, I addressed a group of lawyers who were part of a National Association of Juvenile Criminal Defense Lawyers' Seminar in downtown San Diego. We had a strong discussion about immigrants and gangs, including the truth about Central American gangs, which have recently been getting tons of bad media and political attention. I wanted to provide the source and context for who these gangs are, how they originated, and what is going on today with the so-called invasion of gangs from Mexico and Central America to the US (this is highly exaggerated, mostly by federal law enforcement and immigration authorities).

Many myths were dispelled and a more accurate assessment of immigrants and gangs was outlined. I have also served as an expert witness in a number of deportation cases involving so-called gang youth to Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The level of misinformation that is out there about immigrant gangs, and US-based gangs in Mexico and Central America is astounding. It's time to set the record straight. I will do my part--having studied Mexican/Central American gang youth since 1993 (and since 1983 having visited Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua). And with decades of experience among Mexican, Chicano, Puerto Rican, African American, Native American, and Asian gangs, I can give some essential history and characteristics of these gangs and their root basis: poverty, disaffection, and deep social, political, ecnonomic, and spiritual marginalization.

To find out more about my work in this area, please read my 2001 nonfiction book "Hearts & Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times" (Seven Stories Press, New York City)--or try to find past articles I've done at the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, New York Times, The Nation, the Progressive, US News & World Report, Utne magazine, and more.

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