California Prison Hunger Strike
[caption id="attachment_783" align="alignleft" width="396" caption="Poster by artist Rini Templeton. Design by dignidadrebelde.com"][/caption] Prisoners in a third of California prisons have been on a hunger strike to protest solitary confinement rules and other inhumane treatment. The protest began on July 1 when prisoners in the Pelican Bay Secured Housing Unit (SHU) began refusing meals. The protesting prisoners grew in number to include other institutions, apparently becoming most active in Pelican Bay, Corcoran State Prison, and the California Correctional Institute at Tehachapi. There are upwards of 6,000 people on strike (numbers vary according to different media reports). At least 2,000 are on medical watch. Unfortunately, the state’s Department of Corrections has denied journalists access to the striking prisoners, undermining the free flow of information to really know what’s going on. One official statement claimed gang leaders were behind the strike—SHUs were created to undermine and stop prison gang violence on various yards and cellblocks by targeting so-called “shot callers.” But this statement doesn’t address the confinement in the various SHUs that isolate prisoners behind tiny cells for around 23 hours a day, with only one hour a day allowed in a small area with high concrete walls. This doesn’t explain the growing number of prisoners in general population also taking part. California has increased its prison population from 15,000 in fifteen prisons during the early 1970s to around 160,000 in thirty-three prisons today (there are also several thousand prisoners shipped outside the state to private institutions). While state officials largely separated prisoners by race and so-called prison gangs, in three decades street gang violence, drug sales, and crime has escalated throughout the state, but also across the country. The number one gang problem in the United States is the growing number of California-based gangs, particularly from Los Angeles, that have now taken hold in almost every state in the union. In three decades gang associations like Crips and Bloods, Surenos and Nortenos, 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha as well as Hell’s Angels and other Bikers, Skinheads and Aryans, among others, have spread exponentially. In twenty years this has become global when California gangs, largely through massive deportations, became scattered throughout Mexico, Central America, and places like Cambodia and Armenia. In effect, this policy of isolation, inhumanity, and more cellblocks hasn’t reduced crime or gang violence—it has only made things worse and penetrated international borders. I support the main demands of the striking prisoners and ask that others do so as well. Most prisoners are incarcerated from drug-related charges in a war on drugs that has not stopped drugs yet continues to siphon billions of our tax dollars. There is also a 70 percent return rate for most parolees, who often lack job and life skills to pull themselves out of the crime-and-drug matrix that now covers most poor areas. The fact is the present overcrowded and inhumane treatment of California prisoners—including with three-strikes-and-you’re-out sentencing, trying juveniles as adults, and so-called gang enhancements—has only made our lives more dangerous, not less. The California prison system is in need of fundamental and humane transformation. The striking prisoners’ nonviolent protest demonstrates this is a serious and long-range thinking action. We need to heed the voices against any injustices, regardless of where they come from. These prisoners are often our fathers, sons, brothers, sisters, mothers, daughters, and neighbors. c/s [NOTE: You can download a free copy of Rini Templeton's Prisoner Solidarity Poster by clicking here.]
Father's Day 2011
For the first time in almost fifteen years, I will be celebrating Father's Day with my oldest son Ramiro out of a cellblock. He was released last summer from prison following thirteen-and-a-half years from his last conviction (he's also had almost two years in prison with two other convictions). I must say how proud I am of Ramiro--he's now out of gangs and crime, and working hard to stay decent, strong, and socially active in a positive way. Friday was also Ramiro's 36th birthday. Here is a link to a piece I wrote for Fox News Latino on this (although, incredibly, they spelled my name wrong!) I also want to give my love and thanks to my other children--my daughter Andrea, 34, my sons Ruben, 22, and Chito (he turns 17 later this month). They are the greatest joys any father can have. So far they've also given me four fantastic grandchildren--Ricardo, Anastasia, Amanda, and Catalina. I love them all. I'm blessed this Father's Day to be stronger and healthier than last year, with such a wonderful family. c/s
An Ode to "The Boss"
[caption id="attachment_774" align="alignleft" width="432" caption="Photograph by Mark Seliger"][/caption] [This piece was written for another publication in November of 2010 about the then newly-released Bruce Springsteen CDs: "The Promise: The Los Sessions, Darkness on the Edge of Town." Unfortunately, the essay was not used and I now present it to my blog readers in its original form.] There was a time when I didn’t care for Bruce Springsteen’s music—when he first appeared on the national scene, when he took the covers of Newsweek and Time, when there seemed to be a clamor about this Rock and Roll phenom. At the time, I was into soul, funk, R&B, including the Chicano forays into these genres from East LA, Texas, Detroit, where Mexican migrants landed for work and life, many generations by then, adding their own twists and nuances. I was into ghetto/barrio soul. Then one day in 1980, I was with my compadre, Tony Prince, in San Francisco and we decided to see “No Nukes,” a documentary of various acts at Madison Square Garden, including Bruce and the E Street Band. Tony went on about how great Bruce was. "Yeah, sure," I muttered. But there in the movie theater, I first saw and felt what everyone was talking about. Bruce debuted “The River” in the film and it knocked me out. That robust voice, harmonica lament, stinging guitar, Bruce jumping from one end of the stage to another, sliding, kneeling, shouting out words of love, regret, pain, and liberation. Tony and I were two of those working class fools Bruce wrote about. I had married my sweetheart when she was just two months out of high school; three-and-a-half years later, with two small kids, we were done. While I was in gangs and a drug user in my youth, giving this up by the time I turned 19, most of my friends had died in violent acts or drug overdoses, or bound to prisons and/or the factories. Since a teenager, I also labored in construction, as a truck driver, a bus driver, a smelter worker, a maintenance mechanic in a refinery, and four years in a steel mill. I had barely left this life by months when I saw Bruce’s performance on the screen. At the time I was preparing to become a writer, part of the Summer Program for Minority Journalists at the University of California, Berkeley, and on the side, a poet. I connected with Bruce. In the music of the time, only he seemed to sing about this world I knew, the fast-moving cars, the smoking towers in the rearview mirror, and languid embraces in lover’s lanes or poor people’s watering holes. Bruce didn’t seem to be about any one genre, in my eyes he transcended rock and roll, which was largely white, loud or glam, punk or pop, but far removed from what moved me. He was the modern working class troubadour, the voice of the people whose blood and sweat built this nation. He didn’t hit you over the head with this. But that spirit was in his love paeans as much as his odes to the marginalized, pushed out, to those who felt the urge to run away, to move on, to find where true grace and power may yet reside. \I was also fortunate to meet Bruce not long after the Bethlehem Steel Mill closed in Southeast LA and the US Steelworkers Local 1845 created the largest food pantry in the country, feeding up to 6,000 families a week, mostly Mexican/Chicano. In 1984, Bruce had released “Born in the USA,” and on tour he often connected with rust-belt union halls and community organizations dealing with the growing unemployment during the Reagan Administration, the worse since the Great Depression. The Local Hall also held theater and writing workshops among the unemployed steelworkers, which later became part of the “Lady Beth” performances, with real steelworkers as actors and its own national tour. Bruce donated money to the pantry and workshops. One day, he showed up at the union hall, with the LA Times in tow. I was sitting there and said I had a poem that I wanted to dedicate to Bruce called “Bethlehem No More.” I read it and everybody became quiet, including Bruce. After I was done he broke the silence by saying, “only you could have written that poem.” My favorite song of Bruce’s at the time was “Downbound Train.” The lyrics spoke my story, my hurts, angers and hungers.
I had a job, I had a girl I had something going, mister, in this world. I got laid off down at the lumber yard. Our love went bad, times got hard. Now I work down at the carwash Where all it ever does is rain. Don't you feel like you're a rider on a downbound train. She just said "Joe I gotta go We had it once, we ain't got it any more." She packed her bags, left me behind. She bought a ticket on the Central Line. Nights as I sleep, I hear that whistle whining, I feel her kiss in the misty rain, And I feel like I'm a rider on a downbound train. Last night I heard your voice. You were crying, crying, you were so alone. You said your love had never died. You were waiting for me at home. Put on my jacket, I ran through the woods, I ran till I thought my chest would explode. There in the clearing, beyond the highway, In the moonlight, our wedding house shone. I rushed through the yard, I burst through the front door, My head pounding hard, up the stairs I climbed. The room was dark, our bed was empty, Then I heard that long whistle whine. And I dropped to my knees, hung my head and cried. Now I swing a sledge hammer on a railroad gang, Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain. Now don't it feel like you're a rider on a downbound train.Quintessential Bruce. I first saw him in concert at LA’s Sports Arena, where he invited us former steelworkers to sit at a table, talk to patrons, and carry donation buckets into the crowd. I was enveloped by the magic Bruce and his band brought to the stage. His fans were generous, heeding Bruce’s words to support Local 1845’s food pantry. I remember one of the old timers standing next to me, now since passed on, who remarked, “I’ve never felt as proud being a steelworker as I do now.” Only Bruce could do that. Twenty-six years later, Bruce has new double-CD recordings called “The Promise: The Lost Sessions, Darkness on the Edge of Town.” I hear the echoes of those songs of the 1980s, although these were a collection of unreleased songs in-between 1975’s “Born to Run” and 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (actually part of the “Darkness” recording sessions). Yet you can capture the fundamentals of what would later become “Hungry Heart,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Glory Days,” and “Born in the USA.” It’s great to hear what didn’t make it at the time, although I envision the possible hits that would have come out of these recordings. “Because the Night,” made into a 1978 hit by Patti Smith, would have cemented a top ten spot on the charts for Bruce, I’m sure of it. But none of this really matters. What matters is that these songs have now seen the light of day, that they can finally be enjoyed, that an empty chapter in the progression of Bruce’s style and interests in close to forty years of recordings has now been filled. And this ex-steelworker, formerly lost, confused, who was once wrong about Bruce’s music, this dreamer caught in the pearls of a young woman’s eyes, the dark around starlit skies, and rider of street machines—I once owned a lowered ’54 Chevy Bel-Air—couldn’t be happier. Bruce’s songs have become the soundtrack of my life’s trajectories. Even now, they electrify one’s core, they touch the calluses and creases of a working man’s battered heart, even now, in these hard times, as jobs become obsolete in a world of robotics and outsourced labor, where a new world may now be imagined and created, these songs teach us to “never surrender,” for “desire is hunger, is the fire I breath, love is the banquet on which we feed...and they can’t hurt us now, they can’t hurt us now…” (from “Because the Night” by Bruce Springsteen). c/s
In Praise of Gil Scott Heron
[ I wanted to share this obituary for poet, singer, activist Gil Scott Heron with my readers. It was written by Los Angeles artist, Mark Vallen, and originally posted on his Art For A Change web log.] [caption id="attachment_766" align="alignleft" width="360" caption="Gil Scott Heron, 1971"][/caption] Gil Scott Heron died on May 27, 2011 at the age of 62. Some obituaries have referred to him as “The Founding Father of Rap”, but as the BBC put it in their coverage of Heron’s passing, “He was quick to reject some of the more grandiose epithets such as the ‘Godfather of rap.’” I think it proper to refer to Heron as a griot. In the traditions of West Africa, a griot is an itinerant musician and storyteller who keeps alive a people’s history through song and poetry. That was certainly Heron’s role in life, and his works had an enormous influence on my generation. In explaining his artistry, he once said; “For the longest kind of a time, I have felt that people who said that they did not care anything about politics or were not interested in it were making a political statement in and of itself. The new poetry that evolved in our society, concerned the fact that folks wanted to use both words that people could understand, and well as talk about ideas that people could understand.” I shared Heron’s belief that art, in no small sense, sprang from an awareness of the world, and his music was the iconic soundtrack for my life as a politically engaged artist throughout the 1970’s and beyond. I first heard Gil Scott Heron in 1970, when he released his debut album, A New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, a searing piece of vinyl that castigated American consumerism, racism, and pseudo revolutionaries. The album contained Whitey on the moon, a poem set to music that brought attention to the contradictions of spending vast amounts of money on the space race while social and racial inequality festered in America’s urban slums. But the album’s real gem was The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a raging spoken word piece set to conga drums that damned America’s commercial media and advertising empires and the somnolent effect they have over a confused population… “The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people. You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl. The revolution will not go better with Coke. The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath. The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat. The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised. The revolution will be no re-run brothers; The revolution will be live.” The Revolution Will Not Be Televised became anthemic in a way, its truth immediately grasped by all those who imagined a different type of society, this is still true today. The song’s title has entered the English lexicon, defining the chasm between real social events and the fallacious spectacles broadcast by capitalist mass communications. As Heron himself put it in an 1990s era interview; “The first change that takes place is in your mind, you have to change your mind before you can change the way you live and the way you move. So when we said that the revolution will not be televised, we were saying that the thing that’s going to change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film, it will be something that you see and all of a sudden you realize - ‘I’m on the wrong page’, or ‘I’m on the right page but I’m on the wrong note, and I’ve got to get in sync with everyone else to understand what’s happening in this country.’” After his 1970 debut album I enthusiastically followed Heron’s artist output, which matured dramatically. But it was his 1975 album, First Minute of a New Day, that really got my attention. The jazz and blues oriented masterwork was a collaboration with longtime musical associate Brian Jackson. It heralded the African Liberation struggle then blazing in our collective consciousness with an infusion of African rhythms and instruments held in a jazz and blues structure. The record included the song Winter In America. Winter In America was a devastatingly melancholy ode to the true condition of the United States. The song addressed the entropy many were sensing at the time; Nixon’s Watergate debacle was in the news but there was no resolution, America’s war on Vietnam was being lost and would totally collapse in ‘75; the powerful Black Liberation, student, and antiwar movements were dwindling. “And I see the robins perched in barren treetops, watching last-ditch racists marching across the floor, but just like the peace sign that vanished in our dreams, never had a chance to grow.” Oddly enough, Heron’s elegy seems all too relevant to our current situation. First Minute of a New Day also contained the evocative Guerilla, and We Beg Your Pardon America, a scathing indictment that lambasted the pardoning of Nixon by Gerald R. Ford - the only U.S. president recognized by official circles not to have been elected. For many of us, the righteousness expressed in Heron’s spoken word piece would be the only semblance of justice to come out of the Watergate fiasco. The album also contained the song, Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman, a still relevant warning to those who believe that a political superhero will come to our rescue. If First Minute of a New Day put us in touch with the African Liberation Movement, then the 1976 From South Africa To South Carolina spurred us all into action. The album contained Johannesburg, a call to actively support the freedom fighters then battling the vile racist South African apartheid regime. “Well I hate it when the blood starts flowin’, but I’m glad to see resistance growin’.” Listening to that song for the first time I knew I would become actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement; some years later when distributing my Free South Africa poster at demonstrations against apartheid rule, protestors chanted a refrain from Heron’s song; “What’s the word - Johannesburg!” (a video of Heron’s live performance of Johannesburg can be viewed on the BBC’s website). There are many other brilliant musical diatribes from Heron that are etched upon my mind, his caustic Jose Campos Torres (1979), the anti-nuclear Shut Em Down (1980), the anti-Reagan Re-Ron (1983). Heron’s discography is much too extensive to list here, and I have not even mentioned his most recent recordings; those unfamiliar with his output are urged to take a closer look. His best works will no doubt become eternal, and it is difficult to imagine that there will ever be another Gil Scott Heron - yet times demand that other singer/songwriters step forward to play the role of griot. #### Recommended citation: Mark Vallen, "In Praise of Gil Scott Heron" (www.art-for-a-change.com/blog/2011/05/in-praise-of-gil-scott-heron.html - May 28, 2011). This article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
Celebrating Words, Celebrating Life
Two major events happened on Saturday, May 21 (and none of them had to do with the end of the world). My oldest grandson, Ricardo Rodriguez, age 18, graduated from high school, Forest Lake Christian Academy of the Orlando, Florida area, this past Saturday. I couldn’t attend, but my spirit was with him every step of the way. I’m so proud of Ricky, as we call him. He’s intelligent, artistic, and passionate. He plans to attend college and major in graphic arts. He’s spiritually grounded and a blessing to the world. I love you Ricky. Also on Saturday, Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore, held it’s 6th Annual Celebrating Words Festival (Written, Performed, and Sung), co-sponsored by the LA City Department of Cultural Affairs with support from local businesses, markets, politicians, and many others (MeCha, AB-540/Mission College, Jackson Browne Guacamole Fund, LA City Councilmember Richard Alarcon, Ralphs, Fresh & Easy, Xokolatl Café, The Home Depot, LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, State Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, LA City Councilmember Tony Cardenas, State Senator Alex Padilla, U.S. Congressman Howard Berman, Tenoch Printing, and more). Most important was the community who showed up and took part —families, poets, writers, artists, vendors, activists, musicians, regular folk, and danzantes (various danza groups took part in the opening ceremony with our resident Mexika danza group, Temachtia Quetzacoatl). Held for the third year at Mission Community College in Sylmar, CA, we estimated some 600 people came in and out all day long. It was a nice sunny day with all forecasts of heavy clouds and possible rain not happening. Our stage was alive, hosted by our longtime friends Felicia Montes and Lalow. We had Cuban and other Hip Hop (Las Krudas Cubensi, Ixkimilli), Dance (Temachtia Quetzacoatl and Zadonu), Spoken Word (Sean Hill, Luis M. Rodriguez, Eyerie Zenzele, and others), Stories (Michael Heralda/Aztec Stories), Music (Mike De La Rocha, Hijos de la Tierra, and the much beloved band La Santa Cecilia), among some other great acts. This year for the first time, we had author reading panels, organized by the novelist Reyna Grande, that included topics on comic books, children’s literature, crime/mystery novels, women’s stories, writing for TV and film, and issues like the intersection of reality & fiction and how to get published. Authors/artists included Javier Hernandez, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Naomi Hirahara, Dr. Ana Nogales, David Bueno-Hill, Melinda Palacio, Dani Dixon, Crista Flanagan, Philip Victor Colon, Leslie Schwartz, Susan Straight, and many other amazing people. For the first time we also had a Children’s/Teen Reading Tent with the likes of Antonio Sacre, Laura Lacamara, Rene Colato Lainez, James Luna, and others. And our vendors included artists like Lalo Garcia and Rick Ortega, hand-made jewelry and other art from Arte Las Guayabas, Urban Xic, Mexica Blign and Torodetupac, Voces Indigenas, Arte de la Tierra, and many more. Organizations that were represented included Young Warriors (with founder Mayra Zaragoza), Buen Pastor Mural Project, San Fernando Valley Green Party, Bikesanos del Valle, Pacoima Beautiful, Self Help Graphics, and El Nido Family Source Center. And, of course, we had books—with our regular booth from Tia Chucha’s and other sellers in and around the area. I have to say how strong the community spirit was. Like every year, there were no fights, no hassles, no harsh words. Kids, teens, adults, and the elderly were all enjoying themselves and having a good time. Some people brought coolers and picnicked on the grass. The staff and security of Mission Community College were supportive and took care of us very well. We were also making the most of life—the world didn’t end. But our job is to keep the world going anyway, not wait like captured souls with baited breath for our material containers to disappear (and supposedly free our souls). People who spend their days just contemplating the end of the world miss the vital messages of the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, the great writings of Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, or Black Elk—to celebrate Creation/Creator, celebrate our earth and the abundance it can provide us, and to celebrate each other, our relations, with respect and dignity. Our souls are already free—we just have make sure that what we do can lead us to the great dances, great songs, great words, and a truly abundant world aligned with the immense possibilities in nature and in spirit. The world may end—and we can live every day with fullness in case it does. But we can’t act as if our true glory is beyond us. Our life is here now, to be lived the way it was meant to be live, including in compassion. The way our elders, ancestors, teachers, and collective wisdom have prepared us to do. If we do go to the other side—the way any of us imagine this other side to be—why not go there truly alive, in profundity and wholeness? So in Celebrating Words we also celebrated life. Words to keep our lives going, our world in step, our thoughts and hearts active to what really matters. I thank all the staff and volunteers of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural (Trini, Karina, Stacy, and Luz), and the Celebrating Words organizing Committee (in particular the committee’s chair, Osbaldo Velasquez) for all they did to make “Celebrating Words” another fountain of the immense dreams we all have for community, for peace, for truly creative personal and social engagement. c/s
A Country of Contrasts
So far my work in Buenos Aires and surroundings has proven to be fruitful, exciting, and rich with dialogue. The incomparable Sol Rubio, the US Embassy’s Cultural Affairs Specialist, joined me on all my trips, driven by another embassy employee, Oscar, who explained to me much about the Buenos Aires cultural, climate, and attitude. The morning of May 10, Sol and Oscar came to my hotel to bring me to another juvenile detention center called “Manuel Rocca.” I did a talk and writing workshop with young men aged 16 to 17. They also had questions they had prepared after seeing information on my work. Later that day, I visited another detention center, “Manuel Belgrano,” where older youth, ages 18-21, asked questions and took part in writing exercises. Sol also took me to the Café La Biela in the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires (people such as Juan Borges used to hang out there). Apparently in the 1970s, the café was bombed during resistance to the military dictators of the time. Neal Murata, the embassy’s program officer, also joined us for some of the talks and exercises. An evening before, he took me to a “parillada,” where Argentine meats (famous the world over) were served in large quantities. I don’t eat red meat so I only had a few slices with chimichirri sauce and a salad. I made an exception for this and a little bit of desert, but this was definitely on the “no-no” side of my diet (when I told my sons Ruben and Luis about my dinner with Neal during a Skype call, they promptly scolded me). But Neal is a good friend (we met when I did similar talks, workshops, and readings in Chihuahua, Mexico in early 2010). Neal understood and I will now have to stay on a regimen of no red meat, no sugar, no salt (with plenty of vegetables, whole grains, fruit, water, sleep, and exercise) or I won’t hear the end of this from my boys. In the evening, Sol and I (accompanied by an embassy videographer/photographer named Jorge as well as the embassy’s information officer Shannon Farrell) took a plane from Buenos Aires to the northern Argentine city of Resistencia in the northeast province of Chaco. It was a nice hour-and-a-half plane ride since, for once, I was seated in first class. The city of 275,000 people proved to be most interesting—it’s apparently the sculpture capital of the country: Various wood and metal sculptures by local artists could be seen in parks and roadways. We stayed in a hotel with its own casino (something I also don’t do). The next day, I talked to several classes of elementary school children. I read from my Spanish-language illustrated children’s book, “La llaman America,” about an undocumented indigenous girl from Oaxaca, Mexico in a poor Chicago barrio. This went over very well. Later that day, I spoke to older children (ages 16-17) at another public school about the important role art can play in their communities. The poor areas of Resistencia included many indigenous families. Addressing the work I do with indigenous people from Mexico and Central America in Los Angeles (as well as my own spiritual practices with Native American and Native Mexican traditions) helped me bridge more than a few gaps. The children and teens were enthused, full of intelligent questions. I had to sign many papers (and arms and hands). Sol also donated copies of my books, including children’s books, to the schools. In the evening, at another public school, I met with teachers, administration, parents, social workers, and librarians to address working with troubled youth and the important role of art and literature in community development. Again, the level of engagement, with key questions and comments, made this talk memorable. The following morning, Sol, Jorge, and I took a taxi on what was supposed to be a two-hour drive from Resistencia to the city of Formosa (around 200,000 residents), capital of the province with the same name. This province is on the border with Paraguay and also had many indigenous communities. This was when the unforeseen adventures began. A rain fell all the way along the route. Not even an hour out of Resistencia, the windshield wiper on the driver’s side broke. Although the taxi driver said he was okay to keep going, he really couldn’t see and Sol rightfully suggested we stop and call for another taxi. We got a call in just before we lost cell phone service. At one point, the taxi driver got out to try and fix the windshield wiper, but as soon as he came back inside about a dozen wasp-sized mosquitoes (at least they looked that big to me) entered. I had a time killing them against the glass and between my palms. They were huge, “the size of horses,” as the taxi driver exclaimed. The mosquitoes were also smart—hiding and then coming out to see about sucking our blood. Finally, after about forty minutes, another driver came by in another cab. But after we moved our bags and camera equipment to the new car, the cab got stuck in some thick mud (by then the other driver had taken off). The new driver pulled back and forth with the engine. We offered to help push the car, but he insisted he could handle this (although we were facing oncoming traffic; Jorge and I both worried we’d slam into various big rigs that were streaming down the wet road). It took a while, but we were on the road again. Only in a short time we got stuck in terrible traffic—no cars or trucks were moving. The taxi driver thought it was an accident, but after finally getting to the source of the problem in a snail’s pace, it turned out to be a picket of indigenous people protesting unkept promises by the provincial government. The governor apparently promised the indigenous communities 1,200 new housing units, but in three years allegedly not one had been created. In the flyer we received from the picketers, the indigenous people (who had put tree branches and other debris on the road to stop traffic) also said the local hospitals had no medicines and many indigenous people were without food. They also accused the governor of trying to sell indigenous lands to foreigners. This reminded me of the many indigenous uprisings and protests in Mexico over the past several decades, including in the early 1980s that I covered as an independent journalist in places like Oaxaca and Baja California. We finally got going again, only to end up in another traffic jam (not as slow as the one before). This was due to about three or four big rigs getting stuck in mud in access roads and on the shoulder of the road we were on. Needless to say we were late to our meeting in Formosa with community leaders, teachers, and organizers at the Center for Youth Activities, situated a couple of blocks from the Paraguay border. Yet, the participants patiently waited for us (including a local TV crew) and again I stayed energized for a vibrant discussion with community activists. I must say, no matter what, we had amazing audiences and strong participation in all the talks. I doubt any of these people had ever heard from a Chicano organizer, writer, and speaker (born and raised in the U.S., son of Mexican migrants, who speaks both Spanish and English). But these groups were open to hear my experiences and for them to share theirs—we had similar issues and responses to the community-based work. The flight back that afternoon was from Formosa to Buenos Aires—I again had a first class seat and enjoyed the ride. The next day, I had lunch with U.S. Ambassador to Argentina, Vilma Martinez—a longtime Chicana leader and lawyer (former head of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund). We talked and ate at that famous ambassador’s residence that looked like a museum. Vilma was gracious, open, and we had a great time discussing Chicano politics, the changing U.S. role in the world to share and not to mandate (which I’ve seen more and more with the cultural attaché office), and the generosity and diversity of the Argentine people. My last presentation was that afternoon at the U.S. Embassy’s auditorium; I spoke to U.S. Foreign Service officers and Foreign Service employees from Argentina. The topic was “Literature as a Tool for Community Development.” This was the only event I did in English, and again we explored new ways of organizing, of moving ideas and imagination, and how to bring adequate resources into the hands of the poor, youth, and indigenous communities wherever possible. The key was empowering communities to run themselves, to own their solutions, and to come out more educated and trained without losing their dignity, cultures or values. I have to thank the great role of the cultural attaché office and people like Neal and Sol for making my talks possible—working directly with the most abandoned communities and helping us share the various collaborations and efforts to regenerate new economies, rebuild new communities, and to strengthen individuals, families, communities, schools, youth projects, and more. I leave today, May 15, after two days of having free time, walking around, eating well, exercising, and catching up on tons of work. I leave with a big heart and much love for the Argentine people. c/s
Argentina calls to me
When I landed in Buenos Aires in the morning of Cinco de Mayo (I had flown ten hours all night from Dallas/Fort Worth), the weather was inviting, warm, clear skies. The city opened up as I drove with my friend Neal Murata, who works for the US Embassy here, and my new friend Sol Rubio, the embassy’s cultural affairs specialist, who helped organize my many talks, workshops, juvenile detention center presentations, and media interviews for the next two weeks. The city of three million (in a greater area that holds some 12 million people) is massive and architecturally striking. The hotel is in one of the best neighborhoods known as Recoleta, next to a famous Cemetery, built by early 18th century monks and that now houses the final resting places of Eva Peron, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and many other well-known Argentine politicians, writers, land owners. I came to take part in the Buenos Aires Book Fair. The United States had a nicely designed section that emphasized electronic books such as Kindle. My published books were displayed along with other classical and contemporary US writers. I did a presentation called “Words That Transform: Literature as a Vehicle of Community Development” that was well attended. This presentation also included a 22-year-old revolutionary Argentine poet who served four years in jail, where he found his destiny in words, and who later created a community-based writing program for slum youth. His name was Cesar Gonzalez, but he went by the pseudonym of Camilo Blajaquis. He provided a strong statement—a young person who thinks is more dangerous than one who robs. Although Cesar and I had not talked prior to our presentation, we seemed to be in sync about the vitality of youth voices and how to work with young people, often in gangs, and although troubled and at-risk, have immense capacities to be leaders, writers, artists, musicians, painters, and more. A raffle later of a number of my books involved several participants at the US booth—it was fun. I met many new fans of my work. I also had interviews by El Clarin, the Voice of America, Radio Cultura, and the Buenos Aires Herald (English-language publication). I attended a reception at the US Ambassador’s residence for the Jewish Federations of North America—the residence was like a museum with several rooms, baroque décor, and large staircase. In the back was a manicured garden, pool, and tennis court. In the next day or so I met other US embassy staff, including Charge d’Affaires Jefferson Brown, Public Affairs Officer Diana Page, and Information Officer Shannon Farrell. The Buenos Aires Book Fair brings 1.2 million people a year, the majority students. I got a chance to walk around and see the large array of books and booths, including from countries like Mexico and Brazil. The next couple of days, I spent in various slum and poor communities in and around Buenos Aires. The slum areas are called “Villas,” which are similar to “Favelas” in Brazil or “Ranchitos” in Caracas (which I also visited when I was in Venezuela a few years back). Some 165,000 people are believed to be living in these slums, often built overnight by migrants from the provinces as well as nearby countries. I spoke to children, ages six to twelve, who also created their own writing projects and books in the housing projects of Mataderos. I also visited the Villa Lugano, where I held a writing workshop with teenagers at a high school youth club. We then drove to the city’s outskirts to visit a slum of many Bolivian, Paraguayan, and other, including indigenous, migrants. A youth center in the middle of scrap homes and roughshod structures also had a small radio station. Three adolescent girls interviewed me, although they only had two weeks of experience at the station. They sounded professional and thorough. The next day, I visited two youth detention centers, “San Martin” and “Luis Agote.” One place held adjudicated juveniles ages 14 to 16; the other consisted of jailed youth ages 17 to 18. The workshops were great, mostly because of the talks we had. I brought copies in Spanish of my book “Always Running” (La Vida Loca), “No Tiene Que Ser Asi” (my bilingual and illustrated children’s book),” and “La Republica de East LA” (my short story collection.” I also had a copy of the photography book by Joseph Rodriguez of East L.A. gang youth called “Eastside Stories” (this turned out to be very popular among the participants). In addition, the US embassy donated copies of my books for whatever libraries existed in the detention centers, schools, and slum areas we visited. The similarities of my experiences more than forty years ago in gangs, on drugs, and going in and out of jails in the barrios of Los Angeles allowed for great dialogue. But I also left the young people with the message of following their own passions, art, imaginations, and to become whole, healthy, and safe, even in an unhealthy and unsafe environment. I also emphasized the preparation these youths needed through education and organization to help change those environments through fundamental and long-range developments. My stories and a poem or two proved very useful. The next day, May 9, I visited one of the most infamous public housing projects in the province of Buenos Aires. It was called Ejercito de los Andes, but was renamed “Fuerte Apache” (Fort Apache) after the violent New York Bronx precinct, memorialized in books in movies. The district was created in the months prior to the 1978 World Soccer Cup (hosted by Argentina that year) by the military dictators of the time to house thousands of poor residents displaced from the Buenos Aires villas. The aim was to improve the city’s image to foreign visitors. The area now consists of 26 blocks housing around 100,000 people. It is considered one of the most dangerous communities in South America—the night before we showed up bullets were fired into a group from one of the high-rise slum apartments. Green-uniformed Border Patrol officers guard Fuerte Apache. I did a talk and workshop with elementary school-aged children as well as parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders. The writings these youth and adults created were wonderful. The director of Public School Number 3, Javier Canepa, with his staff, created a great learning environment. We also did a media walk around the slums with TV and newspaper cameras. I got to go in and out of some rough spaces, although everybody in the projects proved to be amiable and open, even with many curious faces surrounding us. I went to a sacred spot, an altar to a famous robber (who apparently robbed from the rich and gave to the poor) that the local residents consider a saint. There was also massive murals on two blocks of housing for the internationally renowned Argentine soccer player Carlos Alberto Tevez. Tevez grew up in these violent housing developments and these murals were a way to honor Fuerte Apache’s most famous son. All the people we talked to were inquisitive and interested in what I had to say. Later that evening, we ended up in one of the most violent Buenos Aires neighborhoods called El Palomar, where Cesar Gonzalez (the poet Camilo Blajaquis) held ongoing writing workshops with local youth, ages 15 to 25. We discussed the value of writing, art, music, and social change, and then everyone wrote several of their thoughts, including about a youth festival held the week before—the first one ever held in Palomar with youth from more than one Villa, although no violence or fights were reported. More than one of the teenage girls in the workshops or hanging around held small babies, something I’ve seen often in the ghettos and barrios of the United States. (Tomorrow I’ll report on my other workshops and trips in Argentina). c/s
Now let’s come home
Yesterday, the United States killed Osama bin Laden. This is a time to rejoice and to remember those on 9/11 who died at the hands of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But we are still in Iraq, Afghanistan, and also in Libya, at the cost of billions of dollars a day. The loss of 3,000 on 9/11 has been exceeded in ten years with 20,000 US casualties (around 5,000 dead) and tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis, many of them civilians, who have perished due to our mislaid policies and military actions. Bin Laden reached power and notoriety because of the US, and it was right for the US to get rid of him. But let’s not forgot the immense pain and suffering we’ve done in our name, with badly needed tax dollars, to get to this point. It’s now time to heal, to generate, to build, to provide living resources and not take more lives. Osama bin Laden is dead. The Wicked Witch is Dead. Now let’s come home. I also wanted to convey the wonderful and energized audiences I’ve encountered in talks and readings since the beginning of this year, including South San Francisco, Richmond, CA; Washington D.C.; Silver Spring, Maryland; Maravilla/East L.A.; Chicago; Buffalo Grove, IL; Ypsilanti, MI; San Luis Obispo, CA; Albuquerque; Omaha; Des Moines, WA, (just outside of Seattle); and at Sonoma State University in northern California. I’ve had audiences of around 100 to 500. We also had town hall meetings, great dialogues, with teachers, librarians, parents, youth, students, law enforcement officers, politicians, gang intervention experts, urban peace advocates, community organizers, and more. I’ve spoke at an L.A. County Probation and Prison Reentry Conference, two gang peace conferences, a writers conference, a Black and Brown Male Summit, and to several schools—including schools, about once a month now, that have made field trips to Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. The hunger for knowledge, ideas, poetry, positive alternatives, for real choices and real challenges, is across the board. I see revolutionary upsurges—I was in Madison, WI in March during one of the biggest pro-collective bargaining rights rallies in the recent spate of rallies there. The voices and poster signs often went beyond collective bargaining to address joblessness, the losing of homes, the falling down of educational process, and the weakening of our financial and economic foundations. People are beginning to imagine another way to live, to relate, to thrive. I was also honored to host the great Sandra Cisneros at Tia Chucha’s this past Saturday. She was gracious, funny, smart, and read new works. The line for the book signing went around the corner. Gracias, mi amiga. And I want to remind everyone that on May 21st, Tia Chucha’s will sponsor our Sixth Annual Celebrating Words Festival (Written, Performed, and Sung), co-sponsored by the LA City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. Go to www.tiachucha.com to find out about our great lineup on stage, the many booths and vendors, and the amazing authors who will take part in panels and readings. The festival is the only outdoor literacy and performance festival in the San Fernando Valley and will be held from 1 to 7 pm at Mission Community College in Sylmar, CA. In two days I leave for Argentina to take part in the Buenos Aires Book Fair, but also to visit poor barrios, with gang youth, in community, and more. I will take my message—pro-youth, pro-community, pro-empowerment, pro-peace, pro-families, pro-cooperation, and on and on—beyond borders. These are global problems and concerns, and much of this will require a global response. I anticipate great audiences there as well. c/s
Arizona Teacher's Letter is Sleepy Lagoon All Over Again
[ The following opinion piece by Luis J. Rodriguez was originally published by Fox News Latino on March 28, 2011. ]
"When the Spaniards conquered Mexico they found an organized society composed of many tribes of Indians ruled over by the Aztecs who were given over to human sacrifice…. This disregard for human life has always been universal throughout the Americas among the Indian population, which of course is well known to everyone."These vicious sentiments were written in 1942 by Edward Duran Ayres of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office after the indictment of close to twenty Mexican American teenagers during the so-called Sleepy Lagoon murder case. Sixteen were convicted on various charges related to the murder of one person in early 1943. Later that summer U.S. sailors, aided by police and white citizens, attacked mostly Mexican youth in the “Zoot Suit Riots” of Los Angeles. Now flash forward to March 2011 in the Arizona state capitol, where Republican state senator Lori Klein read a letter written by Anthony Hill, a substitute teacher in the Phoenix area, that had this line: “I have found that substitute teaching in these areas most of the Hispanic students do not want to be educated but rather be gang members and gangsters.” Almost seventy years later, politicians, supposedly representing the white majority, are still attacking their darker-skinned brothers and sisters during war, chaos, or economic uncertainty. They are spreading fear by lies and innuendo to turn Americans away from tackling the very real joblessness and home foreclosures spreading across the land (and afflicting people, regardless of race). As a child I was punished in school for speaking Spanish. I read textbooks where Mexicans were nonexistent or only mentioned as bloodthirsty people—although in reality Aztecs, who are really called Mexicas, had the most beautiful orderly cities with gardens, astounding architecture, and menageries along with deep ties to nature, mathematics, and cosmology. And despite the Zoot Suit Riots, Mexican Americans fought heroically during World War II, garnering more congressional medals of honor than any other ethnic group. They’ve played leading roles in wars in Korea and Vietnam as well as other military engagements, including the most recent ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. For more than 150 years their labors have helped build whole industries, including in agriculture, railroads, steel, auto, garments, canneries, construction, and more. Once again, politicians are spreading hate at a time of war and financial distress, and once again Mexicans and other Latinos respond by giving their all to this country, including their most precious sons and daughters. Of course, soon after Lori Klein read her letter, the school district where Mr. Hill briefly taught refuted his observations and State Senator Steve Gallardo stated, “(Hispanics) do not have dreams of being gang members… These are good kids.” In fact, in my work among the most gang-ridden neighborhoods in this country and elsewhere I’ve found that the majority of youth are not in gangs. And those that are usually join them when they are poor in material matters as well as cultural and spiritual ones. How long do we have to keep saying this, defending our place in this country and in its history? I’m convinced we can solve the economic mess we’re in by drawing on our common hopes, common aims, and common energies—and not at the expense of the most vulnerable or easily targeted among us. What have we learned in all this time but that hate only begets hate, and in the end everyone loses.
A New Poem for Chicago
As most people know, I love to speak, to read poetry, to engage audiences. It’s another aspect of my love of words and stories. Last weekend I drove to San Luis Obispo, a four-hour drive through intense rain. My beautiful wife Trini came with me. We ended up at an Embassy Suites for a gang prevention/intervention conference with around 300 teachers, administrators, counselors, youth workers, probation officers, law enforcement personnel, and others. Three people from Homeboy Industries, including my old friends Fabian Debora and Raul Diaz, also made presentations. The dialogue with this group was rich and powerful. The two weeks from March 4 to March 17 I was in Chicago speaking at schools, including the Rudy Lozano Academy of the Instituto del Progreso Latino in the Pilsen barrio and Telpochcalli grammar school in Little Village. I also did training with the Omni Youth Services in Buffalo Grove, IL, and an interview on the “Eight-Forty-Eight” show of WBEZ-FM radio. In addition, I did an hour-long interview for CAN-TV (public access TV) with my son Ramiro as producer and interviewer (I must say it was one of the best interviews I’ve ever had, and I’ve had hundreds). This should air in April and we also hope to get this on youtube.com and other internet outlets. I also had lunch and dinners with many friends and community activists, and even spent a day-and-a-half near the Iowa border with one of my grandkids, Anastasia, who’s been living there lately with her mother’s family. It was one of my better trips. The main reason I ended up in Chicago this time, however, was to read at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum for the Poetry Foundation, part of their “Poetry Off the Shelf” series. I was also commissioned to do a poem as an alternative label to museum objects (photos, DVD, etc.). I decided to do a poem celebrating Chicago as a destination and a home. I’m aware there are many famous Chicago poems, including by Carl Sandburg. I don’t claim I can ever top or equal these, but still I wanted to add my poetic voice, to contribute to this city that has meant so much to me in my life and for my writing. I can’t say for sure how many people showed up to the reading, but it felt like between 300 and 500 people. It was a solid and engaged group. I read mostly new poems, and in the end I unveiled my new poem. The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum also has placed this poem under glass, which I understand will be there for about a year. I thank Lisa Yun Lee, director of Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and the rest of the staff (as well as my friends at the Poetry Foundation) for offering me this opportunity. Here is my new poem for Chicago:
A Hungry Song in the Shadows When I think about Chicago’s first settlers, migrants, jobseekers, who sought haven or the hope of one, I think about a place fierce with wails, noises in all decibels, tongues from all reaches, and how this is not just a city, but a dream state of brick and chain-link fences, where poetry clatters along with the El train on iron rails, where temples hold every belief and street corners every color, a city that nourishes all palates, holds all thoughts, and still contains the seed of this vital idea: In accord with nature, all is possible. This is a city that steam built. That muscle and sweat solidified into a church of organized labor. Where a swampy onion field in a few generations could become home to the brightest and most jagged skyline, where fossil fuels are holy water and smokestacks and silos remain as soot-stained monuments to industry—from horse-drawn plows, to the foulest stockyards, the roar of combustion engines, the rattle of metal-tipped tools, and smoke-curling big rigs streaming along cluttered expressways and upturned streets. I came to this city on my knees, laden with heartaches, bitter in the shadows, seeking a thousand voices that spoke in one voice, where steel no longer reigned, but where open mics and poetry slams kept the steel in our verses, lamenting a life of work, in a time of no work, and where the inventive and inspiring could finally burst through the cement viaducts and snowy terrains. Now we are artists or we die. From the fractured neighborhoods where bootblacks and news hawking boys once held sway, to this daunting gentrified metropolis of ghosts, toxic waste, and countless poor ripped from their housing projects, three-flat graystones, or trash-lined bungalows, yet nothing can truly uproot the uprooted. The energy for what Chicago can become is buried inside people, in callings, passions, and technologies, but only if this manufactured garden aligns with real nature, no longer limited, finite, fixed on scarcity, but abundant, cooperative, regenerative, like a song across the lakeshore, blooming with lights, music, dance, banners, and words into a cornucopia of potentials, possibilities, even the impossible. It’s an imagination for the intrinsic beauty and bounty in all things. Chicago. Clean. Just. Free. It’s the city we’ve wept and bled to see.c/s