Sunday, July 08, 2007

Memories of Roque Dalton

By Nina Serrano

I first met Roque Dalton in Havana in July of 1968. He claimed he was a descendant of an outlaw, and he turned me into a writer and a poet.

I was in Havana working on a documentary film about Fidel with my then-husband, Saul Landau, and our two children, Greg, age 13 and Valerie, age 10. It was our second trip there as a family. I researched Cuban photo and film archives and filled in as the sound person. Making a film about Fidel involved a tremendous amount of waiting and therefore free time.

Living in a hotel with maid and laundry service, as well as restaurant meals, liberated my life from domestic duties. I met remarkable people including Estella Bravo who worked at Casa de Las Americas, the hub of Cuban and international leftist life with publications, exhibits, and conferences. Estella recruited me as a volunteer to help her catalogue American folk and protest music at “Casa.”

I was walking down the hall of Casa de Las Americas, when a man popped out of one of the rooms, following me and quickly catching up. He introduced himself and said his name was Roque Dalton, a Salvadoran poet. He’d been in a meeting of male poets and they noticed me go by. So, he was sent to see who I was. Until then, I thought of poets as a very serious bunch. Now, I saw that clearly they indulged in the favorite Cuban pastime of the era- girl watching.

I commented that in my country, the United States, the Dalton Gang members were legendary folk heroes, like Jesse James.

“Yes,” he said.” I am related to them.”

We walked back to my hotel for lunch, He was very witty, and we laughed with every step under hot sun and palms trees, passing the Caribbean splashing against the malecon, dodging cars, and entering the limply air-conditioned Habana Libre Hotel.

It was the year when the entire island was gearing up for a campaign to produce a record-breaking ten million tons of sugar cane harvest. The previous year had been the year of the “Heroic Guerrilla.” referring to recently killed Che Guevara, whose picture hung every where. Sacrifice abounded. Schools, work centers, and whole families dedicated themselves to volunteer sugar cane cutting. The “Diez millones van” campaign ultimately reaped only six million tons. However, it set new norms in socialist participation and volunteerism and promoted the Guevara concept of the “New human being,” one who worked enthusiastically for the common good.

Roque joined my family for lunch and immediately we were all laughing. He told us that he and his wife, and three boys had only recently moved from this hotel and were now installed in a Havana apartment, mentioning that his sons missed the use of the pool. As we moved down the cafeteria line, we continued talking about his connections to the Dalton gang. I was enthralled and suggested we write a television play of the story together using Brechtian theater ideas.

“Television?” he scoffed, “As a poet and polemicist, I worship at the altar of the novel.”

“But television reaches the masses,” I countered. “And Cubans with only two dull channels to watch deserve better. It will set a model for intellectuals to bring their skills and talents to the people.“

He agreed and after lunch, we went across the street to ICR, the Cuban broadcasting system and arranged with Abraham Masiques, that we would come back in ten days with a completed script for “The Daltons Ride South.” If it passed muster with the political assessor, it would be videoed in their studio.

Every morning, Roque arrived with his sons, Roque, Juan Jose, and Jorge, carrying their bathing suits. The kids would go down to the pool and then come up to play Monopoly, while we worked. We sat at a big table that we periodically cleared throughout the day for room service family meals and snacks.

Roque sat at my Olivetti typewriter, since the script had to be in Spanish, while I handed him precious sheets of carbon paper. Cuba had severe shortages of everything. We often resorted to the dictionary and pantomime to work out linguistic problems between us, as we were neither totally fluent in the other’s language.

On the appointed day, we arrived with a completed script at the TV station. There were a few annoying rewrites demanded by the assessor, but we were too thrilled to protest. A production team hastily formed; slides produced, music composed, shots plotted, costumes assembled, and rehearsals scheduled.

One night after a rehearsal, Roque and I were walking back to the hotel around the lively La Rampa night-life, when plain-clothes police surrounded the crowd. He grabbed my arm: “Follow me, I am expert in escaping police.” He deftly led us back to safety, although several people were arrested that night. We thought the raid was part of the campaign against homosexuals.

Roque said he had escaped from Salvadoran jails five times, once through the divine intervention of an earthquake. When the prison wall collapsed, he walked out on to a waiting municipal bus and then out its side door onto another bus.

He told me he’d written a prose piece about being threatened by the CIA saying that they would kill him, and then spread the word that he was a CIA agent. He would die disgraced, as a traitor. As I listened deeply, I vowed to myself that if such a terrible event were to happen, I would help tell the world that Roque was honest and good.

He told me he’d written a prose piece about being threatened by the CIA saying that they would kill him, and then spread the word that he was a CIA agent. He would die disgraced, as a traitor. As I listened deeply, I vowed to myself that if such a terrible event were to happen, I would help tell the world that Roque was honest and good.

We mounted our television drama in four days. The rehearsal time was so short that when the camera went into a close-up of a talking decapitated head, the actress froze. She’d forgotten her lines because of the quick turn-around time to learn them. She stared out on the screen in real terror – which was quite effective really – but Roque and I were dying because our precious words were lost.

The program was very well received, though at the reception party, we sat in a corner on the floor with tears of disappointment. We had anticipated the production like a Hollywood cowboy movie, quick moving with lively action. But, the Cuban TV acting at that time was exaggerated, and the editing style was very slow.

Immediately after, I rushed into the filming of Fidel and his entourage on a jeep caravan across the island. Roque too had pressing deadlines to meet from Cuban publishers. He was to write an answer to the Regis Debray’s book on Cuba at Fidel’s personal request. He was also proof reading the printer’s copy for his new poetry anthology.

When I left for California, we arranged to stay in touch through letters and invented a code for collect calls. My children loved a TV animation program called “Rocky and Bullwinkle.“ He would phone and say his call was from “The Flying Squirrel,” which was the cartoon character “Rocky’s ” persona.

A year later in 1969, our family returned to Cuba to screen the Fidel film and begin researching for a fiction film about the Salvador Allende election in Chile. If Allende won, it would be a non-violent democratic revolution. This fostered even more discussions between Roque and me, about armed struggle and if it was the only path to revolution.

The “Fidel” documentary was lauded. We watched the first human being land on the moon. Our Cuba stay was short, only two weeks. Roque was frequently tied up with mysterious meetings. I worried about him, because it was rumored that he was involved with a Salvadoran guerrilla grouping. When I asked him about it, he said he could not discuss it, which I respected. We began a continuous dialogue about violence and terrorism. I was afraid of them. He felt it was unfortunate, but that sometimes for the sake of a greater good, they were necessary.

Some people described his group to me as “adventurist” and “Maoist.” Those were frequent charges in Havana in those days, against any non-Communist Party leftist group. The Mao influence was popular that year world-wide. Even the Black Panthers at a San Francisco rally had waved Mao’s little “Red Book.”

I visited Roque’s apartment and was happy to finally meet his wife, Aida. On one of his visits to our hotel, he saw a copy of a San Francisco alternative newspaper, “The San Francisco Good Times” with its flamboyant graphics and high spirits. The only words in it he could readily understand were the headlines: Los Siete De La Raza.”

“Who are they?” he asked.

“They are a group of Salvadoran immigrant youth, who are accused of killing a San Francisco policeman. Their defense has become a rallying point for organizing the Latino barrio, in the way the Black Panthers have done in nearby Oakland and the Young Lords in New York City.

“When you go home,” he said, “you work with them.”

I promised I would, and I did। That is how I became a poet.

Returning to San Francisco, I continued to worry about Roque. Our conversations replayed in my head. Emboldened by having written the video play, I wrote a poem about my concern for his safety and his life, The editors of the “Good Times” splashed it on the front page, and it was published as “To R. Before leaving to Fight in Unknown Terrain.” Thus I became a poet.

To R. Before Going to Fight in Unknown Terrain 1969

Mass media I adore you.
With a whisper in the microphone
I touch the mass belly against mine
like on a rush hour bus
but with no sweat and no embarrassment.
“Don’t die,” I whispered, in person.
Only the air and revolutionary slogans hung between us.
“When I die I’ll wear a big smile.”
And with his finger drew a clown’s smile
on his Indian face.
“Don’t die!” the whisper beneath the call to battle.
My love of man in conflict
with my love for this man.

Women die too.
They let go their tight grip on breath and sigh,
and sigh to die
They say that Tanya died before Che.
I saw her die in a Hollywood movie.
Her blood floated in the river.
I stand in the street in Havana.
There are puddles here
but few consumer goods to float in them.
Here the blood is stirred by the sacrifice of smiles
to armed struggle
A phrase and an act.
They leave one day and they are dead.
“Death to the known order. Birth to the unknown.”
Blood. Blood. Blood.
The warmth of it between the thighs
soothes the channel
The baby fights and tears.

I stand by a puddle in Havana
a woman full of blood
not yet spilled.
Can I spill blood by my own volition?
Now, it flows from me by a call of the moon.
The moon…
A woman mopping her balcony
spills water from her bucket
On my hair, my breasts
and into the puddle.
The question is answered.


When I contacted the Los Siete de La Raza Defense Committee in San Francisco, they dismissed me as an “artist type.” They sent me to work with Roberto Vargas, a Nicaraguan born poet living in the Mission District, San Francisco’s barrio.

“Roberto Vargas has a crazy idea about organizing a fundraising poetry reading.”

Scribbling poems on café napkins and backs of envelopes, I was by now, obsessed with words. But, I had never participated in a poetry reading, though I had heard many Cuban poets like Pablo Armando Fernandez and Nicolas Guillen read in Havana. I’d even heard the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, when I was a teenager in New York City. In San Francisco, in the 60’s, I’d listened to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, and Alan Ginzburg read, as well as the Soviet poet, Yevtechenko.

Roberto invited me to participate in the poetry reading, and I read my poem to Roque। Writing poems and reading in community poetry readings became a vital part of my life. I met the other poets and joined Editorial Pocho Che, a Latino poetry publishing collective, that used stapled mimeographed or Xerox, or any means necessary, to publish broadsides and booklets. I reported regularly on the “Los Siete” trials for the San Francisco Good times.

When I returned to Havana in 1974 with my daughter Valerie, now 16, we met Roque Jr. by chance, the first night at the hotel. He told me that his father was in Viet Nam and was expected back in May. That May, Roque jr. came to our new house by the Havana Zoo to deliver a letter for me from Roque Sr. and perhaps in hopes of finding Valerie.

Roque’s handwritten letter said that he was a war correspondent in Vietnam and told of the perils of warfare in a very humorous way. He included his funny little cartoon drawing. It reminded me of one I had received from a friend, in my teens, who had been forced into the navy during the Korean/US war. A few days after I received the letter from Korea, my friend’s parents phoned to tell me he had been killed.

Roque’s letter reassured me he would see me soon in Havana.

What I did not know then was that Roque was not in Viet Nam as a war correspondent, but rather was in El Salvador as a guerrilla fighter, as a murdered guerrilla fighter. I looked forward to seeing him, but he was already dead when I read the letter, written months earlier.

We left Havana in the fall of 1975. Soon after, in San Francisco, I read of his death in the international edition of the Cuban newspaper, “Gramna”. Though deeply grieved, I took the article as a signal to honor Roque’s name, so that the infamous CIA threat of smearing him would not happen.

I told my friends, Daniel del Solar, and Alejandro Murguia, who had been co-editing the new bi-lingual literary magazine “Tin Tan,” published by Editorial Pocho Che in San Francisco। We created a flyer and poster, which included the Gramna obituary. Countless community people helped to post it on every corner of the Mission district. Of special help were the Sandinistas who by then had their newspaper, La Gaceta Sandinista, headquarters on 22nd and Valencia Streets. We dedicated community events to Roque’s memory and created a small insert about him for our magazine A few years later, Alejandro Murguia and other San Francisco poets, like Jack Hirschman formed the Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade.

Today, over thirty years after his death, we still do not know the whole story of his death. I join with his family, friends, and supporters in asking for the daylighting of the terrible and treacherous truth about horrible events leading to his murder by some of his fellow comrades in arms. I hope that day comes in my life-time. Roque was a great friend, co-worker, father, and renown writer and poet. I still miss him.

Copyright Nina Serrano 2007 Please do not publish (paper or electronic media) without permission of the author. Thank you.

* * * *

Some notes for Roque Dalton somewhere in East Oakland

– arnoldo garcía

1. All photographs were digitally reproduced by Arnoldo García, taken from the covers of an album recording of Roque Dalton reading his own poems and others doing dramatic readings and putting music also to his poems. The album says that the Dalton poems were recorded in 1969 for Casa de Las Americas in Havana, Cuba.

The LP is titled “Roque Dalton” and was produced by the “Brigada Cultural Roque Dalton, Mexico, Agosto de 1981.” All photographs in the LP were contributed by Mexican poet, Fayad Jamís and all are undated. In order of appearance of photos accompanying Nina Serrano’s “Memories of Roque Dalton,” (unless otherwise noted, the descriptions are all Arnoldo García’s!).

* Roque Dalton being greeted by a large crowd of supporters after being released from a Salvadoran jail. He has his arms around who appears to be his son and another person.

* Photograph of Roque Dalton as a child, dedicated to Fayad Jamís, scribbling: “Para Fayad/ este niño, de/ cara al sol/ salvadoreño, que/ con el tiempo aprendió/ a ponerse furioso/ Roque.” [For Fayad, this child, who face to the Salvadoran sun, who with time learned to become furious, Roque]

* Undated photograph of Roque Dalton in a library.

* Photograph of Roque Dalton published in a newspaper, with barely legible caption that read: “SE HALLABA AISLADO – El Br. Roque Dalton García se hallaba aislado de los demás reos en la Penitenciaria Central. – (Foto de López Moreno). [HE FOUND HIMSELF ISOLATED – Br. Roque Dalton García was isolated from the rest of the prisoners at the Central Penitenciary. – (Photograph by López Moreno).

* “Roque Antonio Dalton García Fotografía original extraída del prontuario de la policía salvadoreña” [Roque Antonio Dalton García Original photograph taken from the files of the Salvadoran police.]

* Undated photograph of Roque Dalton. He looks more like a philosophy professor somewhere in Paris, than a guerrilla fighter and revolutionary; maybe in exile. Dalton has a slight paunch! Before he returned to El Salvador, he supposedly had plastic surgery because his face was well-known to the Salvadoran dictatorship and police.

* Roque Dalton with a young Vietnamese “pioneer,” presented with flowers indicating he was an honored and welcomed guest in North Vietnam.

* Close up of Dalton in first picture, after being freed from prison, with his arm around his son.

2. Roque Dalton is a model for poets, writers and other cultural workers who want to use their talents to organize for social progressive changes. How do you remain true to your art, your artistic or aesthetic integrity without succumbing to politics, without bending your poetics to fit a line, and at the same time participate in the rank and file of a movement bent on overthrowing a violent and repressive dictatorship? Roque Dalton showed us one way and did it. He could have stayed in Cuba or in some other socialist country, writing and researching problems and challenges of revolution, art and liberation movements. Instead he decided to join one of the guerrilla organizations in El Salvador and work through the problems of revolutionary unity on top of his revolutionary writing by participating in the clandestine organizing taking place in El Salvador. In part inspired by the 1959 Cuban revolution and the then Vietnamese national liberation movement against U.S. intervention and collaborationist regime, many activists decided that the armed struggle was the way to bring about revolution.

Dalton lived in the period of Third World armed movements leading revolutions to overthrow dictatorships and colonial regimes. Dalton was part of vision that statically believed that armed struggle would lead to revolution. He belonged to organizations and parties that later, after decades and many debates, martyrs, victims of their own political feuds and bloodshed, formed the FMLN, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, which believed that the successful struggle for national liberation would lead to a socialist-working class revolution in El Salvador.

Che Guevara who also was THE inspiration for many a Salvadoran revolutionary and revolutionaries everywhere also lead the way through example. 1968, the year Nina Serrano met Dalton, was the “Year of the Heroic Guerrilla.” Che had been murdered by CIA-led Bolivian Rangers after being captured one Octorber 8, 1967. In a poem, Dalton defended the Guevarist guerrilla movements, pointing out the major differences between that the armed struggle that Che organized and the peaceful socialist revolution lead by the Chilean President Salvador Allende. He wrote in the poem that in Che’s experiment, which was being attacked on all sides for adventurism, putting the revolution in danger wrecklessly, that maybe 40-50 people died for Che’s belief. Whereas in Allende’s revolutionary experiment, as peaceful as it was at the ballot box, lead to the death of thousands and millions displaced and exiled.


Dalton’s introduction to revolutionary Marxism was quite abrupt and probably unexpected. When he was studying in Chile at the Catholic University, Dalton went to interview the renown Mexican muralist and painter, David Alfaro Siqueiros, for his school paper. Siqueiros asked him if he had ever studied Marxism; when Dalton replied no, Siqueiros grabbed him by the shirt collar and threw him out saying that anyone who had never studied Marxism was an ignoramus and had no culture. After that Dalton got on the path to revolutionary theory, later becoming a full-blown Marxist Leninist of sorts, even writing a whole book of poems, Un libro rojo para Lenin, polemicizing for guerrilla and armed struggle heavily quoting Lenin, the Russian Bolshevik leader that is still full of insights and revelations of how revolutionary movements and words are linked across continents, nationalities and working classes throughout history.

Roque Dalton was born in San Salvador, El Salvador on May 14, 1935. He attended Jesuit schools then studied law, social sciences and anthropology in various universities in El Salvador, Mexico and Chile. He organized various literary and intellectual circles starting in 1956 and in 1956, 1958 and 1959 he won the Central American Poetry Prize awarded by the University of El Salvador.

Dalton was jailed various times in El Salvador for his revolutionary politics and is even sentenced to death in 1960, escaping the firing squad after the dictator, José María Lemus, is overthrown only four days before the execution date. He escaped more than once from prison and lived in exile in Guatemala, Mexico, Eastern Europe and Cuba. In 1962 and 1963 he won honorable mention for the coveted Casa de Las Americas Award and in 1969 won the Award in poetry for his Taberna y otros lugares (The Tavern and Other Places). Dalton was also a member of the Casas board of directors. He toured and wrote about his visit to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of Korea. Although he went to North Vietnam and North Korea as a writer, he returned a trained guerrilla fighter.

As a result of a political dispute and polemic that was settled violently, Roque Dalton was executed by members of his own political movement on May 10, 1975, just four days shy of his fortieth birthday.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

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The B Word (part 2)

By Arnoldo García

Freedom does not ask for a visa.
Justice doesn't need a passport.

Human rights are our only borders, our only country, our only security, our only nationality.

Human rights is the color of our skin, the pleasure of our bodies, the place where class does not matter, where class begins and begins to end, where clean air, water and soil conspire with us, where the natural world takes over and we take our place in the web of life called time, space, cosmos, universe, the Milky Way, la Vía Lactea.

In community and through communities, can our words and actions for a different, more just, fair world not only make sense but also stand up and start walking.

Everyone is a border brother, a border sister; you carry the U.S.-Mexico border wherever you go. The border follows us wherever we go:

There's the 1492 border, the mother of all borders that we know.

Racial slavery began in 1492, when a small group of white men thought they could own the world and whoever lived there by declaring it so, by declaring it theirs.

There's the landing of the Plymouth Rock border. Malcolm X was right: "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on of us."

There's the 1776 border; the 1848 border; the 1865 border; the 1880 Chinese Exclusion border; the 1890 Wounded Knee border; the 1905 border of not-so Gentleman's Agreement border to keep Japanese and Asians out.

The 1905, 1910, 1917 revolutionary borders when czars everywhere were overthrown and Bolsheviks, Zapatistas and Villistas called for new human borders everywhere

The 1492 border showed up again as World War I. The 1929 crash border that brought us World War II crushed humanity with hunger and desperation of their borders; the 1936 Spanish Civil War border that called for internationalists to cross and double-cross all borders. The 1939 border of running over everyone and everything with tanks, storm troopers, blitzkriegs and concentration camps for our border brothers and sisters. The Soviet Union and the U.S.A. had their own brand of forced laborers, braceros are braceros regardless of who's in charge of the border.

The Nazi-Fascist borders paled in comparison with the Nagasaki-Hiroshima atomic bomb borders. Capitalism's 1492 borders made full circle when they ended World War II.

The Jim Crow borders, the maquiladora borders, the bracero borders, the military-industrial complexion borders.

The military industrial complexion? Whiteness. For those who think that race, color without class analysis is poor, they have yet to learn that if you aren't color-conscious your class consciousness will be white, Eurocentric, ignoring more than 95% of world history and the movements for liberation, land, justice and humanity. Because when I say border, I am saying Europe, I am uttering Christopher Colombus, I am raising fists against colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, empires, I am speaking in silenced languages, disappeared peoples, destroyed natural worlds,

Color is class; the darker colors the darker and lower you find yourself in the working classes, the poorest are darkest, Indigenous peoples, Africans, mestizos, Asians, Arabs, Muslims, Mexicans, Salvadorans, Mayan, Lakota, Tohono O'odham, Yaqui – when you see us you see the landless, the perennially sub and unemployed, the homeless (but not without a homeland, even if it is the perenially imaginary Aztlan), who have no representative in Congress, have never had one in the White House. Have been thrown off their lands, treated as strangers, as minors incapable of managing their own dreams, experimented on with small gifts of small-pox, poisoned with siflis, cast off, put in reservations, ghettos and migrant labor camps in the U.S.

In Mexico, Meso-America, Canada, France, England, Spain, Nicaragua, Cuba, and elsewhere, the history of the struggles for freedom are inscribed, tattooed, branded, insinuated, instructed, breathing through our pores, in our pigmentation. This is the pigment of our imagination.

For poor and working class whites, their whiteness is aspiration to and sentinel of power and powerlessness to keep the darker brothers and sisters down.

Every border since 1492 has been imposed to quash the natural world and our place in her. Every border has been used to impose a redefinition, a refinement of whiteness.

Tonight I take back their words and erase their presence, erase their violent system of conquest, occupation and spiritual deceit; resurrect the Tainos, the Caribes, the Haitís, the guajiros, they who welcomed lost strangers, fed them, gave them fresh water, nourished them back to health – and lost everything for it.

Tonight let our borders sleep together, gestate, dream, make love together.

My border is my skin, my ancestral skeleton walking across fields and waiting on street corners for work.

Let the cosmos with its biggest bang pull apart the 1492 borders, until they burst in the sixth sun, scattered without redemption or hope. Leave us behind in the MesoCosmos of our borders, our lives to till the stars and regain our place in the natural world ...

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Visual Dialogues (part 1)
Sylvia La at Work

by arnoldo garcia

A work of art, a painting, is never done. The paint may dry, the painter may have passed, but the work of art never stops.

A painting is non-stop talk, fields of color striding back and forth across your pupils, sending molecular shock waves, transmitting across the synapses, sending your other four senses into disarray: Your tongue in a seizure, your nose gasping, your ears waxed literally, your skin curled over skeletons and shadows.

The painting, talking and talking. Your eyes, reacting, responding, flinging your body into the mix.

Everyone takes a turn and tries to out talk the painting. Every encounter with the painting is different; she is a lover for all times, for all lovers.

To Enter a painting, you enter into the visual fields that most people only have access to in their dreaming. A painting is waiting for you to enter, as in a dream you dream and see only aspects of your self. Maybe you can see a painting because you see something about yourself that is not beautiful, good, positive. (As incredible as it seems unlikely, painters only paint what is beaututiful, even it's gross, ugly, war, dark, unperceivable, abstract, disfigured disfigurative, unintellgible -- all however about beauty.)

Forms, content collide, mix as a river collides, mixes in fury with and against the sea. Two liquids, two plastic arts commingle, hybridize, become something new, different:

Photographs, ink, oil, Chinese calligraphy paper with neat squares. Our words, our identities fit, don’t fit, have been remade and the old ways no longer make sense in the new land: this is the work of Sylvia La.

I came to visit Sylvia La at her studio one evening. We talked mostly, sipped on beer. Outside the rain pounded the night, the sidewalked glared under the street-lights.

Her artistic process, the gestation of images, colors, forms, content, drafts and inspirations literally strewn about the three walls, floor and counter-top of her studio space. Palettes with fresh oil paints, various canvasses in different stages of completion, on the floor leaning against the walls, on easels, pinned against the wall alongside photos, ink washes, pencil and charcoal drawings.

Out of chaos, fields of color; her brush filled with mixes. Sylvia paints her family, her Vietnam, the U.S. war against Vietnam, against her, being resolved peacefully, paintingly, by her artwork.

Inside, the aroma of oil paints, sharpened lead pencils and every imaginable and unimaginable combination of paint covered walls and nooks, crannies of a labyrinth of makeshift spaces turned into studios without walls. Works of art facing each other everywhere.

Sylvia showed me how she both mixes paints onto the canvas surface and the sources of her images. I took a series of pictures with the recurring image of hands, hers, to see in the photograph she had enlarged, from immigration/refugee and other types of government-issued identity documents. These are not simple or mirror/photographic reproductions through oil paints. No, all materials are raw materials in the hands of a painter. She transforms them into a organic hybrid painting that tells her story and stories.

In Sylvia's work, the leap from the raw materials, the sources and stimulations that inform her brushes to what she creates on canvas and other surfaces are a transformation, an examination and critical offering to the human eye.

Her work is part reflection, part kneading, part crushing of what happens to you when you are disrupted and forcibly removed from your roots. You survive, but not just any old way.

I was struck by the parallels of Sylvia's work in progress that I observed that night in her studio to that that Mexicans in the U.S. have endured. We are two peoples, a divided nation, whose each off-shoot develops in the new conditions, independently and co-dependent on the root.

In Vietnam's case, the U.S. war was the culmination of a long struggle over self-determination, that in the end became self-determination through displacement, bomb-craters, agent orange, socialism, the heroic guerrillas, Ho Chi Minh and other contradictions of a victory and a defeat. Those who stayed may not have fared any better than those who left. Both decisions were made under onerous conditions.

A painting is a double movement -- once as art and then as life itself. In Sylvia La's work, painting is another country that divides itself from her painter, her artist and from her viewers.

What is Vietnam to Aztlan, to the U.S. war, to the refugee camps, to the collages, the oils, acvrylics, to who we are?

Where does Vietnam end and the U.S. begin and when does our painting blur, mix, cross-fertilize and create new borders?

Every country that has been pillaged, bombed, looted, massacred -- even those that exist now in reservations or ones that existed for other people who no longer exist in the same way they did thousands of years ago (Aztlan, too), in other words, that were deciminated, disappeared forever.

In Sylvia La's work, her family, her country, her loved ones, her experiences as a transterritorialized nationality, not a divided country but a nation that exists in two nations as a whole, everyone everywhere every place is whole, is united. Refugees are the vanguard if the human community re-placing herself as a result of human conflicts, war, economies, political strife, ideology: Vietnam in the U.S. and the U.S. war against Vietnam still being settled, dis-imagied and Sylvia healing us all, healing herself, her family, her commnity, by putting us back together, in our place, on her canvasses.

And we may all be the better for it.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

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MusicaHumana Blues(MHB) at La Pena in Berkeley, California or Demanding Non-Decorative Culture

Tonight we took East Oakland on the instruments of musicaHumana~Blues to La Pena in Berkeley to open for the Chiapas Support Committee's reportback from the recent New Year Encuentro in Chiapas convened by the beloved Zapatistas.

MHB is a self-made trio of Andrew Kong Knight (violin), Jose Palafox (percussion, cajon peruano), and Arnoldo Garcia (new blogger, guitar and other stringed instruments) performing covers with our own arrangments and original music and songs in the vein of Latin American rhythms, traditions and with liberation lyrics and dreams. MusicaHumana Blues along with headRush crew stalwarts Rosa Gonzalez and Xago, composing el Teatro del FEO, with Daniel Camacho at the canvas, Mari Rose Taruc were the heart of La Carpa del FEO: Fandango in East Oakland tour during March through May l;ast year. We had poets, dancers, Fuga!, Los Nadie, jaraneros from east San Jose (Son del Oriente, now I believe called El Colectivo) play jazz and son jarocho during different points in El FEO tour.

MusicaHumana Blues performed three songs. The program started late. The auditorium was relatively empty at 7:30 pm and they were having technical problems with the projector -- until they went close by to borrow one from a nearby Chiapas Support Committee family. One of the emcees, a woman whose name I don't know, beautifully changed our name to Blues Humana, which I like. Our music as MHB flowers out of blues, rancheras, cumbias, huapangos, son jarocho and huasteco, rumba, huaynos, rock-n-roll, jazz-tinged or jazz-crazed -- in order words a mixtery, a mestizaje, of musics.

We performed "Un hombre se levanta" by the renown Cuban nueva trova composer and singer extraordinaire, Silvio Rodriguez; "Corazan Maldito" by Violeta Parra, who was responsible for giving impetus to the New Song Movement of Latin America after she went into the countryside to record and rescue (literally) music played by Indigenous and farm worker communities, many of these musics ancient in root and the heart of Andean and Chilean cultures; and a rallying song from the 1936 Spanish Civil War, "A la huelga" done in our own inimitable style of rock/cumbia/rumba punked up.

As I was introducing "A la huelga" -- as the last song of our meager set -- describing its context and relevance for the ongoing organizing and discussions in the immigrant rights movement's preparations for the May 1 mobilizations, a proposed economic boycott, someone (an emcee/member of the Chiapas Support Committee) said loudly enough that this was the last song. Unfortunately, I did not hear him (he was stage right), I am deaf on my right side. But everybody else heard him. Not only that but while we were performing they were tryin to fix the glitches that came with setting up the new projector.

This brings us to the title of "demanding non-decorative culture" -- that we were spoken loudly like during our performance (and I can understand the technical problem fixing, even if it meant turning on and off the projector -- I was unaware of all the commotion) was rude and an example of the longstanding attitude of organizers and activists towards cultural work. Both are cultural, except that which we call "cultural work" means the arts, music, painting, poetry, singing, etc. The purveyors of culture are there to entertain, while the serious work of politics is serious, organizing, not flowery, but concrete, etc.

The challenge is how both cultural work and organizing culture can meet with respect and mutual understanding at the middle and in the middle of poltiical and community struggle, that one without the other means certain debilitating and oft-times mortal weaknesses.

We have to learn to pay attention to a song, a poem or a painting with the same intensity as we listen to a speaker, view a film, dialogue. We cannot expect comprehensive social transformations, progressive, democratic, human rights, radical, community based if we cannot be whole.

You cannot make human revolutions with politics and bread alone. A poem lasts longer than a speech; a painting, a mural (look at the front of La Pena, with Victor Jara's truncated hands, his song unfinished but unending) lasts longer than a politically charged sign or banner, than the resistance movement that gave birth to the mural in the first place. A song can teach more about human conditions and inspire energy, struggle and dreaming than reading a book. This does not mean we do not want to hear speechs, learn how to speak in public and in private, that we shouldn't make signs with slogans and demands, organize movement-building, or that we should not read books with in-depth analyses and broad and deep perspectives. However, we cannot afford to do one without the other.

What we want and struggle for is access to sustainable, socially just, community based cultures and transformations that benefit the poor, the landless, the homeless, working class bums, migrant farmworkers, Indian peoples, women, children, the elderly, the non-English speaking non-U.S.- citizen who can't vote day laborer, and restoring the natural world to its rightful power. We can organize for the type of country we want but only by using both strategies, separate, equal, mushed together, mixted in equal and generous portions. To be healthy and to be sustainable, we have to be whole as individuals, as organizations, institutions and movements, as workers, as non-workers, as communities. This means having politics with culture and culture with politics that listens, is respectful, takes its time, does not go faster than the slowest member of the movement or neighborhood, stays close to the land, the community and thrives in collective dreaming with song, words, with political and non-political analyses, not by bread alone.

When we perform we bring years and years of practice, of investment in quality intruments, practice, listening to ourselves what we're saying with our music. Musicians from the movement usually practice more what they will do in front of an audience or at a mobilization, a march, than most speakers. A song packs metaphors, energy, wisdom, inspiration and fun into three minutes; very rarely can speakers at forums, at events like last night at La Pena, at marches, accomplish such impact in the same amount of time. Speakers usually create impressions, impacts; a good song leaves behind a crater. We want both to be the same but different; not separate, not alone, but in constant conversation, dialogue and cross-fertilization.

The Chiapas Support Committee has to be commended for always inviting MusicaHumana Blues and other performers, musicians to their events. They use film, video, they put the artisan craft of Mayan communities at our reach and bring together people who are community in spite of sometimes feeling like we are not part of a community. sharing a dream, supporting the Zapatistas. expressing solidarity, giving support to Indigenous communities across borders -- which makes as more of a community than less. These aspects of community are strengthened by the mutual interaction of politics and culture. We want a different world, a world where all worlds fit -- as the Zapatistas declared. These means that we have to put culture in front. What lasts longer, what cannot be erased is human community, human culture, human memory. This takes a lot of words, a lot of talking and listening to each other. Songs and poems, paintings expand and deepen the potential of our political movements' desires and demands. We have to start somewhere, respect and listening is a good place to begin the great human revolution needed to save humanity from inhumanity, from itself!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

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We listened to Daniel Camacho talk about his exhibition "Looking for Hope," viewed up close the images. The paintings were some 2' by 5', beautiful earth tone colors, welcoming shades and images of community dancing round the lights, electric and candle light.
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Finding Hope, Finding Community in Art

Tonight a small group of people came together to the opening of an exhibition of paintings by Daniel Camacho, called "Looking for Hope: The Paintings of Daniel Camacho," hanging in the windows of the Cesar E. Chavez Branch Library on East 12th Street, right around the corner from the Fruitvale BART Station.

Daniel Camacho's paintings are rooted in the motifs and images of community. He explained how it is "easier to organize when you have a community." He briefly explained the symbolism behind his work: one painting shows a type of electric light-bulb with a group of people in a circle holding hands in the interior of the buld. Another shows hands and a cascade of candles glowing in shades of darkness of deep blues. Daniel talked about the metaphor of lighting a candle as a symbol of hope and sprituality. This exhibition of his art directs itself explicitly to the violence East Oakland has been suffering over the last twelve months. His art, he said, does not offer a solution or pretends to. His art is a reflection, a type of midfulness I would add, about overcoming and stopping the violence by rebuilding community.

When the community itself is under attack within and without, then the task to to save the community in order to be able to organize more easily for those ideals and goals that art, poetry, culture, human community and the work of Daniel Camacho yearn for, dream, struggle. Daniel Camacho's paintings is more than a tool or a support, his art speaks for itself not only against violence, but more significantly, Daniel's work speaks for and is rooted in community, in collective processes for social change, for an art of the commune, as Mayakovsky would say again tonight from the depths of the 20th century.

There was only one criticism tonight, at the opening reception for "Looking for Hope: The Paintings of Daniel Camacho." It is that Daniel Camacho did sign one single piece of his paintings. He replied: anyone can use the paintings, they are for everyone. Public art at its best.

Look out for Daniel Camacho's work, hanging on light poles on East 14th (aka "international boulevard"), gracing archway entrances and sidewalks of the plaza between E. 14th and E. 12th, straight across from the Fruitvale BART Station, being carried in marches demanding a new citizenship and jsutice for undocumented immigrants, by organizations fighting racism, community groups supporting the Zapatista Indian communities demands and dreams of self-determination, autonomy and equality for Indian culture and rights everywhere or at public schools and other unexpected but public, community spaces.

"Looking for Hope: The Paintings of Daniel Camacho" can be viewed from today January 30 through February 28, 2007. In Daniel Camacho's paintings you will room for yourself, finding community and hope for all.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

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Looking for Hope: The Paintings of Daniel Camacho

Daniel Camacho is a mobile mural painter and all round community artist. Daniel brought his canvass murals to display at all of the 2006 tour of La Carpa del FEO: Fandango in East Oakland. He presents images of the Zapatistas, working class positive images, deep universal art of the land and her peoples. Daniel believes art does not need slogans, art needs its own unversal politics of liberation and freedom to speak for herself. You'll see Daniel Camacho's artwork being carried proudly, they are art and they are banners, which transcend the historical moment because his artwork acts as a mirror and a hammer shaping reality, to paraphrase Bertold Brecht.

In the weeks before the historic May 1, 2006 mobilizations across the U.S., where cities everywhere, Oakland included, experienced the biggest marches in history. Daniel, a few activists and organizers got together one Satruday and painted a banner, many stencils and signs proclaiming rights, ideas, equality, justice, a new citizenship that includes everyone and using art, spontaneous art because most of us there had never painted. The most exciting part of this preparation of banners and signs was that many passerbys, mainly day laborers, came and picked up brushes and painted like professional artists. Women, elders, youth, artists and activists put together in a matter of hours a beautiful banner and signs that were proudly carried a week or so later in San Francisco and Oakland.

You can see Daniel Camacho's public art hanging from light-poles along East 14th Street (aka International Boulevard in East Oakland). Camacho also put his versatility at work in the the "Placita," or the area in front of the Fruitvale BART Station. Mosaics on the ground, bas-relief on the Fruitvale plaza's entrance poles and now an exhibition of his work at the nearby Cesar E. Chavez Branch Library at 3301 East 12th Street (one block west from the Fruitvale BART station's entrance).

"Looking for Hope: The Paintings of Daniel Camacho" will have an opening reception Tuesday, January 30, from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at the Cesar E. Chavez Library. Come meet the artist, be in good company, art, culture, community, words, poetry. Everything will be ready and everyone should come by after work. Feel the paintings, take home the good vibes and images that speak and color for a different, better world, where there is room for all.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

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Plans & Dreams for a new East Oakland

We are talking again about launching another Carpa del FEO: Fandango in East Oakland later this spring! In 2006 one-hundred and forty eight young men of color -- African Americans, Latinos, Indigenous immigrants -- and others died in violent shootings. The press, those concerned might say: drug-related, turf wars, drive-by's, gang violence, black on black, brown on brown, black on brown, brown on black, brown and black on immigrant.

The 148 deaths are a milestone in the implementation of Reaganonomics, U.S. version of neoliberalism in its 26th anniversary in east Oakland and elsewhere.

The 148 deaths represent 148 families in mourning, in anguish. 148 nieghborhoods with a disappeared neighbor. 148 fathers, sons, uncles, cousins, friends lost forever. And then you multiply 148 by workplaces, stores, schools, churches, businesses, communities and the violence has a crippling impact, a crater of an explosion we must not ignore.

When we began La Carpa del FEO, our goal was to start retaking our neighborhoods, our communities, from those who come from the outside and even from the inside but who do not have our tranquility, our stability, our health and interests in mind. They become land dealers, social speculators, gentrifiers, big-box hearted, displacers, police-mentality leaders passing themselves off as concerned citizens who want the best for the community -- while they line their pockets with money, property and dirty deals.

Instead of offering jobs, they offered 100 new police officers. Instead of offering hope, they gave illegal police stops, racial profiling. Instead of offering safe spaces, they closed down schools. Instead of providing treatment, they offer coercion in jails and prison.

We need cultural centers, plural! We need bowling alleys, after-school art workshops and places where anyone can hang out, talk, hear music, do your homework over tea, coffee, dessert, soft drinks, pleasant and healthy spaces where anyone can spend some time and walk home safely.

So El FEO is planning a new tour. Our goal is not too far away. We have a new mayor in Oakland, Ron V. Dellums, who has given his word that together we can create a a new and hopefilled city.

El FEO stands for a community of communities; where we can be who we are freely, without fear, coercion, intimidation. To do that we have to have courage to be community, to do things together, to talk away our problems and differences. To resort to peaceful dialogue and words first. To resort to music, poetry, hip-hop. son jarocho, huapangos, blues, rock-n-roll, jazz, improvise our way out of the violence, the illnesses, stop treating each other and anyone else as strangers in our own communities and neighborhoods.

In lak es:tu eres mi otro yo: you are my other I