The calling came to me while I languished
in my room, while I whittled away my youth
in jail cells and damp barrio fields.
It brought me to life, out of captivity,
in a street-scarred and tattooed place
I called body.
Until then I waited silently,
a deafening clamor in my head,
voiceless to all around,
hidden from America's eyes,
a brown boy without a name.
I would sing into a solitary
tape recorder, music never to be heard.
I would write my thoughts
in scrambled English;
I would take photos in my mind
—plan out new parks, bushy green, concrete free,
new places to play and think.
Waiting. Then it came. The calling.
It brought me out of my room.
It forced me to escape night captors
in street prisons.
It called me to war, to be writer,
to be scientist and march with the soldiers
It called me from the shadows, out of the wreckage
of my barrio—from among those
who did not exist.
I waited all of 16 years for this time.
Somehow, unexpected, I was called.
That poem was first written when I was 16 years old and jailed during the Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War. The date was August 29, 1970. Some 30,000 people took part in the largest anti-war protest in a community of color at the time.
After law enforcement officers attacked a mostly peaceful crowd, a riot ensued, leading to millions of dollars in damage and the deaths of three persons, including Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar. Hundreds were arrested. I recall several of us being Maced while handcuffed in an L.A. County Sheriff’s bus. Others beaten.
However, after releasing most people within hours, five of us “cholos,” Chicano gang youth, were not released. Instead, sheriff’s deputies held us in the murderer’s row of the Hall of Justice Jail in downtown Los Angeles (which was illegal—you’re supposed to be 18 and over). I had a cell next to Charles Manson. The first night I was there, two murderers put a razor blade to my neck. I stood up to them, showing no fear, although I was scared to death. Deputies threatened us with charges in the riot killings. I was lost for several days while my parents tried to find me in juvenile hall and other facilities.
But, charges were never filed. Deputies woke me up in the wee hours and released me without a word. Their apparent plan to make scapegoats of us “gang bangers” backfired when Chicano activists produced photos and film of police beating and shooting people, including of the Silver Dollar Bar on Whittier Boulevard where Salazar was killed.
These activists preceded the video age by 40 years.
This incident, nonetheless, pushed me into a new trajectory of life—from a rageful, heroin-using, high school dropout to a conscious, active, revolutionary writer, thinker and organizer.
Despite my personal battle with drugs, losing 25 friends by the age of 18, and other arrests for attempted murder and later for trying to stop police officers from beating a handcuffed young woman while they held her on the ground, I returned to school, obtained my high school diploma, painted eight murals, worked with gang and nongang youth, wrote articles, plays and poems, and led school walkouts for social change.
I went two steps forward, one step back, but soon I found my footing. By age 20, around the time I held my first son after his birth, I became crime free, drug free and gang free.
Today I have 15 books in all genres, including a memoir, “Always Running,” that has sold close to half a million copies and is one of the most checked out books—and one of the most stolen—in the LA public library system.
And last October, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti chose me as the city’s Poet Laureate.
What happened? How is this kind of change possible? Can it happen to others?
This is the journey from trauma to transformation—and my example is what can happen to millions of troubled young people so they move from violence, crime and addictions to centered and vibrant lives.
I have five steps in one’s personal passage to leave the paralyzing affects of pathological and addictive behavior.
Get help. Find a healthy and sustainable community. If you can’t find one, create one. These communities can be temporary, which they often are, or long-range. There are many already out there—from churches, AA, social justice organizations, therapy circles, cultural centers, schools… I can go on and on.
Find your art, your passions, your innate purpose—to live out the story written on your soul the day you were born. My poem “The Calling” directly addresses this issue—about living the life you were meant to live, not one imposed on you or one you feel you must live for others.
Find a spiritual path. The key to this is that there are many ways to go. Spirit doesn’t care about the particulars of the form, the church, the belief system. Spirit does care in the essence, to be engaged by what speaks deeply and singularly to you. This is how you access vitality for the physical world, with all its hardships, betrayals, pains, losses, and, yes, even its lures and intoxications. Being spiritually strong is how one maintains a quality of presence wherever you go.
Find a cause bigger than yourself. Personal trauma has sources in society, family, community. A full circle has to be completed: All personal healing and growth are to help you become an impactful, positive and meaningful person in relation to others. There are any causes. Mine were linked to making a better and decent society. I was concerned about ending poverty, fighting for a clean and green environment, for social equity, and for peace at home and abroad. I learned these issues are not separate silos to be achieved in a vacuum. These challenges are tied to the same source—an archaic economic system—and to a common aim—a cooperative and thriving world for all. But I also learned, again, that people had to find the causes that best speak to their heart, their intelligence, their spirit.
Learn to own your life. With addictions and gangs we tend to turn our lives over to other people or things. Over time we mold ourselves around their pull on our psyches—with drugs or alcohol making all needs, one need. They fill in—although superficially and temporarily—the empties in our circumstances, of our families, in our spirits. We stop owning our lives. Once you take back responsibility, with codes and propriety tied to your interests, you become liberated. The goal is to be an autonomous, authoritative and independent person. That’s the best kind of person to intertwine and connect to others. Personal authority is powerful. It allows you not to fall under the authority or pathological complexes of other people or groups. But to also be part of the whole, integral to family and community.
Somehow, someway, I’ve been able to take these steps. And I’ve helped others caught in violence or addictions to do the same over the past forty years. For community, this means proper initiations, rites of passage, mentoring, and imparting of knowledge, culture and skills to our young people.
This works—and I’ve maintained for decades this is cheaper and more effective than any prison system or institutionalization where many of our troubled youth end up—going nowhere, wasting away, alienated, detached, their lives erased, unseen and unheard.
In California alone, we spend more than $43,000 a year to house one inmate—around $252,000 annually for juveniles. This is in a prison system that incarcerates 140,000 people at a cost of $10 billion a year. We can and must do something other than this, something truly transformative and restorative for our youth, or we condemn them to suicide, addictions, lives with no meaning.
As my friend, the renowned mythologist Michael Meade, says, “Most people have heard the old African proverb that ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ Fewer know that the second part of the proverbial statement suggests that if young people are not fully invited into life, they will burn the village down.”
If properly recognized and welcomed, from the heart of violence can come the peacemakers—towards beauty, truth and good.
I call this process “tuning up” the six strings of the guitar that make up who you are—the mental, physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and cultural—to be in accord, to align, to be in harmony.
Of course, all guitars have to be played, to get out of tune. So having the right practices, spiritual and/or artistic, as well as renewing touchstones are necessary to get tuned up again. To return to rhythm and balance. Only, of course, to get off balance and off-note the rest of the time.
That’s life. That’s living. But each time you stop, pay attention, tune up, you sound richer, feel fuller, become wiser in your bones.
I’m ending with a poem that speaks to not accepting the demonization that happens too often to our youth from adults, schools, police, and even parents. It’s an invitation to rise above the limitations in and around us—to the dreams, visions and inexhaustible spirit already in their grasp and to realize their own true selves and a world worthy of all our children.
Piece by piece
They tear at you:
Peeling away layers of being,
Lying about who you are,
Speaking for your dreams.
In the squalor of their eyes
You are an outlaw.
Dressing you in a jacket of lies
—tailor made in steel—
You fit their perfect picture.
Take it off!
Make your own mantle.
Eyeball the death in their gaze.
Say you won’t succumb.
Say you won’t believe them
When they rename you.
Say you won’t accept their codes.
Their colors, their putrid morals.
Here you have a way.
Here you can sing victory.
Here you are not a conquered race,
—the sullen face in a thunderstorm.
Hands/minds, they are carving out
A sanctuary. Use these weapons
Against them. Use your given gifts
—they are not stone.