Minneapolis Project. Transformational moments when life takes a turn.

monarchbutterfly-caterpillar-001

At 18  moved into  apartment over Grays Drugs Store that Bob Dylan had lived in and got a job in Dinkytown at Sammy Ds.. Mama D had this great community reputation. Police would come in and eat for free. She would have free meals twice a year and people would line up around the block. People didn’t know she …

I just thank god I was able to have the vision at that time, to know that I needed to get away. There were a series of events that happened during my 8th grade year. I got introduced to crack and how you could make money off of it. I got introduced to guns. The gang life had really turned up in south Minneapolis. Some high-ranking gang showed up…

It was a weekend. Someone knocked on the door. We didn’t  know we had the right not to answer. … There weren’t close relationships within the apartment complex for people to tell us: “If ICE comes don’t open your doors.” My dad opened the door…

The fourth precinct occupation rearranged our life — the things we did to make sure the family was safe. My son would follow me to make sure I got home safely. There was a lot of toying around with our different phones. I’m sure my phone was tapped. Many people’s phones were tapped. But it was a positive experience. People came together from a place of hurt and stood for justice. It was an indescribable feeling. I think about it a lot; how exhausted people can be. Many put in way more time than me —out there for days and nights. I was able to come and go. Go to work, come back. There were times I didn’t go to work….

 

We were in an evangelical church talking to the congregation — a Know Your Rights forum put together by UnidosNow. We were following an agenda. An idea came to me out of the blue. I saw a group of young kids and I said ‘Pastor, can we bring the children forward? Can we pray for them? Because from this congregation we are going to have the next President, Senator, Congressman, Doctor, Lawyer.

People began shouting “Amen’! and “Praise the Lord!” …

I wrote a poem, Asking For It,  that went not exactly viral, but bacterial. It has had over 800,000 views. I think it can be hard to talk about sexual violence using humor…

I wanted to be a nutritionist. I applied to work in dietary at the hospital. I could say the hospital was profiling me way back then. I don’t know. They put me in pediatrics.

As it turned out, I was so good in pediatrics that the doctors said they wanted me to work with them in the treatment room. I didn’t know a darn thing! …

The city has changed since I first came. I used to walked along 2nd Avenue — that area where the Guthrie Theater is now. It was mostly youth of color who hung out and lived there. Now it is ….

I was at a big Movement for New Society meeting and someone said “Alright— the lesbians have to caucus.” Every single woman but me got up and left! I was like “Oh my gosh! All my friends are lesbians!” It was suddenly a possibility. A really …

I went to an all Black college in Mississippi — Alcorn College. It was affordable for poor people. I was studying Home Economics. Oscar Howard, in Minneapolis, was working for Tuskegee, recruiting people for their food service program. He convinced me to transfer. At Tuskegee you could go to school one semester and work the next — paid Internships. I did one internship in a hospital in a small town near Miami, Florida and one in Minneapolis. I preferred Florida but …

When I came back from Chiapas in 1998 and I worked on Lake Street , the whole landscape had changed! There were so many Latinos! In the 1990s there was a bubble of jobs here and people flocked to Minnesota. Then the bubble burst and people …

Our migration to Minneapolis started with my Uncle Dale. My family has always been musical. My uncle was in all kinds of Country Western and Country Western Blues bands. Sometime in the ’70s he got a gig in Minneapolis at an old bar right on Nicollet Ave. He came back and said, “Its AMAZING there! There’s the American Indian Movement, incredible bands… I’m moving, I’m getting out of the prairie for awhile…”
One by one…

I became popular in California. I was from Minnesota. I was different. Interesting. It made me outgoing. It allowed me to be an individual — to formulate my own thought processes. On the other hand, as a kid in California there were no…

At age 18 I had my first daughter Jasmine. That is when my life took a 360 degree shift. I became a single mother . I knew that the border life was not what I wanted for my baby. I…

In 2012 I was watching the news. I heard a conversation about a young Black kid,Trayvon Martin who was killed that by that guy — George Zimmerman.  I …

One summer night when we were sitting outside and our kids were playing, one woman said, “I wish we could just order some pizzas.” We knew we couldn’t afford that. As we started talking about getting together some grilled cheese sandwiches for the kids, another woman said, “Watch my kids for a little bit” She came back a half hour later with money for pizza. She had …

I first met my wife at Tuskegee, but she didn’t know nothing about me then. Coincidentally she came to Minneapolis to do an internship for the Industrial Catering company. I was working on the top of a roof …

 

I worked alone at the bar, but I was supposed to have a lunch break and a free meal as part of my contract. The manager said “You can eat at the bar between customers.” I said “No. I need a break. You give me my free sit-down meal or I will have pickets out on the sidewalk.”

I had never been to a union meeting. The only thing …

Poetry 101 with Cary Waterman. I took the class so I would have more to talk about with this playwright/poet …8

I had an “inner city” internship in college in 1970. We went to a big meeting in North Minneapolis. It could have been organized by The Way — …

I wasn’t good at school. I could do the tests really well but I could not sit still in class. I ended up getting myself in trouble. My friends and I were stealing cars in the neighborhood. The first time I got caught they took me to the JDC but because I looked older they put me in with the adults…

My coworkers were working class conservative white men. There was one guy there who was kinda radical and he turned me on to Democracy Now. …

 

As a teenager I hated Northeast Minneapolis. It seemed redneck. Old. I got a job in downtown Minneapolis working at the yogurt bar at Daytons in 1985. It felt like an opening to the rest of the world. Music also taught me about the wider world. My Dad was a record collector. He listened to everything. I learned about Central America and Afghanistan listening to Washington Bullets by The Clash. Sun City …,

One of the things I enjoyed most about the trip to India was being with other kids who looked liked me and had my American experiences. They knew what a double cheeseburger was. We could talk about Dunkin Doughnuts….

I went to Calcutta, where my orphanage (INH) was….

After Ferguson, three things happened.

1) I began viewing everything through a racial lens. It was like pulling a middle block on a Jenga tower. All the other blocks began falling at once.

2) For a few weeks in Ferguson the media shined a light on White Supremacy so that other White people I interacted with could see. I had ammunition when I talked to them. Not everyone understood, but at least we shared a set of facts.

3) …

Because of the Zapatista Movement, I saw many…

I was invited to attend a Critical Resistance conference in September 2009. Their goal is a complete dismantling of the prison industrial complex. I was in a session with individuals talking about their difficulties in getting jobs with a record. It was really hard for me because I had a criminal record and I was pardoned and I didn’t have those problems. It was an important weekend for me. I met people from Minnesota who were active on the North side. During the key note address, Angela Davis asked all who had been incarcerated to stand. At that point only a few member of my family and close friends knew..,

Me and a couple others organized Second Chance Day on the Hill. No budget. We just said hey, lets do this. We brought 900 ex-offenders to the rotunda. Most of them had never been in the capital. Some of those guys thought you had to …

Ferguson happened around that time. My eyes were glued to the TV for days. I thought about this young individual who made a mistake – made a poor decision – but did not deserve the action that unfolded. Looking up on the screen, I realized that person could have of been me. I know when I was young I made stupid mistakes… For the first time in my life, I found out what some of the American population thought about me as an African American. While I had always heard those negative viewpoints, I never thought ….

When I first started teaching classes I would have 30-40 kids. In one class there was only one non-white student — a Somali kid. I was new to teaching. I remember the students smirking and snickering to each other as I tried to teach racial formation theory. First I got really angry. I lectured to them, asserting my authority. I know that’s a privilege. My female colleagues tell me it is always a struggle for them to maintain authority, especially when teaching controversial stuff.

I didn’t realize my students ….

A few months in, there was a notice about a union meeting in the union newspaper. At the bottom it said people who do not go will be fined. My friend showed me the article. He had highlighted the last line in yellow. I..,

Here in the U.S., I hear a lot of people say that we need a revolution. I always tell them that I have been through a revolution—the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

I was involved in the student protests when I started college. There was a lot of unity as the revolutionary struggle developed: All the organizations–religious, communist, socialist and lots of others—united to make the revolution happen. It was through the revolutionary struggle that I learned about how the U.S. was involved in installing the Shah. I grew up in the relatively comfortable middle class; I was shocked to learn that many people in my country didn’t have water or electricity.

After the Revolution everyone promised to stay united, ….

 

After that bad relationship I really didn’t know who I was. I had no idea of my value as a person. Being a nanny was rehabilitating to my soul and self. Those little girls — they gave me a reason to get up. I learned to love them more than myself. It was out in Burnsville – far enough so my friends didn’t come out and visit. I had  ..,

I was dressing up to go to work, learning new skills and getting good feedback. It felt good. Until one day, they told me I was fired for “lying on the job application about my criminal record.”

But I didn’t lie….

 

 

One time that I felt a sense of community at South High School is when I participated in a Black Lives Matter walkout. We walked in the middle of the street from South to Martin Luther King Park …

Teresa Ortiz. Mapping Injustice from Tlatelolco to Lake Street; Mapping a Mother’s Heart.

 

 

… We requested permission to interview Zapatista women. At first I was overwhelmed by the project. My mentor said “You need a map. You are all over the place. Decide where you want to go and what you want to learn.”…

 

Mexico City Student Movement, 1968.

We are entering the first world! Things are so cool now, because we are going to have the Olympics. That was the government facade when I entered college at the National University in Mexico City (UNAM) in 1968. But in reality, things were pretty bad. The one party system — the PRI — had been in power for fifty years.

There was very little dissent in Mexico in the 1950s, but by the time I went to college, teachers, railroad workers, farm workers and oil workers had begun to engage in strikes. It was really an exciting time. There had been a couple student marches downtown and the police beat people up. There was a lot of discontent.

The Mexican Student Movement had started when I enrolled as a freshman in June 1968. I came from a middle class background, but it did not take me long to become aware and active. In July the Student Movement erupted. On September 19th the army took over the University to quell the protests. The Olympics were set to start in mid-October and the government wanted the student movement subdued before the whole world came to Mexico City. The army held the University until September 30.

On October 1st, student leaders held a meeting and decided to call a mass demonstration for the next day — the famous rally in Tlatelolco — held at the Plaza of Three Cultures. I went. It was huge. It was not just students. There were whole families there. Kids. The army started shooting from the balconies of buildings. I and my friend ended up in a basement apartment until 9pm. It was really scary. I got a taxi and went home. My friend stayed there because his sister lived in one of the apartments.

When I got home and watched the news it was full of lies! They said students were fighting one another. At 2AM I got a call from my best friend’s mother asking if I knew where he was. Finally she found out he was in jail. He was there for about a week. He told me later that he was running, trying to get into a church. He fell on top of a young girl. They arrested him. They filled trucks with people and took them to jail. The leadership of the movement were incarcerated.

Hundreds of students were killed that day.

After that there were no classes. The University closed. There was also no movement. It just ended it. It was so depressing.

In 1969 the University was reopened. I went back. I had an internship in a high school that had been taken over by the students. The University wanted to reincorporate them into the system so they sent students to be teachers. It was wild and crazy. I taught ethics and aesthetics (I was a philosophy major) and English. I was also a tour guide at the University. Tourists would come and I would explain the meaning of the murals at the University.

I was “paid” for that work with an opportunity to come to the University of Minnesota — part of a group of Mexican students who came up in the Summer of 1969.

Border Crossing 1969 – 1999

I met Luther ‘Tomas’ Johnson in Minnesota and we ended up getting married. He came back with me to Mexico while I applied for a U.S. visa. It took 18 months. We came back in the 1973 — Watergate scandal time. It was difficult to find a job here. We painted houses, my husband and I, for a long time, and then started a little business selling artisan products from Mexico and Central America. We would spend the winter in Mexico.

We got a farm in Southwest Minnesota, six miles from the South Dakota border, lived in a cabin without indoor plumbing. I got my degree from South Dakota State University, teaching Spanish and English. I had never lived in a rural area. It was always windy, no shade — but the prairie was so beautiful. It was new to me.

My son Gabe was born there. It was a difficult birth. He was premature. Then we had Aaron and Carmen.

We moved to St. Paul after I got my degree. We wanted the kids to go to Spanish immersion school there. I started teaching Spanish at Anoka senior high school and Tesseract, but then we found out about a position at the Center for Global Education at Augsburg. My husband and I got the job. We lived in Guatemala for about five years, 1990-95 conducting political travel seminars and semester programs for Augsburg students, teaching about the civil war, U.S. complicity and grassroots resistance movements. It was an amazing job. You get to know a country really well when you work with political and community organizations, and teach their realities to visitors. The kids went to school in Guatemala.

In 1995 we decided we wanted to go to Chiapas, Mexico, to be a part of what was happening there — the Zapatista movement standing up against NAFTA. The Center of Global Ed would not move us there, so we quit our jobs and moved to San Cristobal. I became involved in a women’s literacy project and got a grant to write a book about the Zapatistas woman organizers. We started an organization — Cloudforest Initiatives — which would support development projects — artisans and fair trade coffee. We also did delegations, political tours. The kids finished middle school there and started high school.

I conducted interviews for the book in 1997. I had a year to complete them. I wanted to know how people organized. My mentor, Mercedes Olivera, was an anthropologist from Mexico, in charge of the women’s literacy project. We requested permission to interview Zapatista women. At first I was overwhelmed by the project. My mentor said “You need a map. You are all over the place. Decide where you want to go and what you want to learn.”

She facilitated one of the first interviews I did in a community called Emiliano Zapata, (named after the Mexican Revolutionary) in the jungle very close to Guatemala. I met a woman who set the stage for what the book was about. She told me that for years they were farmworkers and had horrible lives. Then in the 1960s the government began “giving” indigenous people plots of land in the rainforest. The government thought this was a great way to dispose of the problem of landless peasants. She and her family literally walked across the Chiapas Highlands to the jungle and were one of the first families to obtain this land — to colonize the rain forest. Her husband was an agrarian leader negotiating with government offices to get land for a community of families — using the communal ejido system. They started organizing cooperatives, lending institutions.
All the books I read about this said it was like a garden of Eden. They were organized way before the Zapatistas. That became the point of my first chapter.

When we were living in San Cristobal we started hearing about paramilitaries made up of community members supported by the military attacking their neighbors who had joined or sympathized with the Zapatistas. I was able to interview people from northern Chiapas who had been evicted from their villages, who were now in the capital of Chiapas. These paramilitaries were stealing coffee from cooperatives. People forced from their homes were fleeing to the mountains. On December 22, 1997 there was a massacre of men, women and children by paramilitaries. I interviewed someone from that region and a Catechist who went to rescue survivors. Those were my last interviews — documenting that horrible event.

It took me several years to finish writing the book.

We were invited by a community — Magdalenas — not far from San Cristobal, in the highlands to facilitate the creation of an iron works cooperative. This artisanal iron work was common in San Cristobal, but it had always been made by urban non-indigenous people. Indians were not allowed to do it. Now they do it all the time.

The Magdalenas community was mixed politically. We met with the entire Zapatista half of the community. We presented our proposal and then they said, “Now you have to go out.” They voted “Si” and invited us back in. We trained four guys, they trained other people. Pretty soon we began to get funding for a clinic and a place for them to do their artisan work. And coffee cooperatives, sold in the U.S. as fair trade.

Our time in Chiapas was really good for all of us, but it was also very hard. Tomas and I separated. The boys came to Minnesota with their father to finish school. Later on I came with Carmen. All of them finished high school here. Carmen finished as quickly as she could and went to college in L.A. and then went back to Mexico.

Calle Lago

When I came back I started to work with the Resource Center of the Americas doing a project called Centro de Derecho Laborales — Center for Workers Rights with Jorge Flores. I was there for about five years, until the Resource Center closed. It was an exciting job — an exciting time. Minneapolis was a totally different place.

I remember in 1969 thinking I was the only person here with dark hair and eyes. I had very few Latino friends. In the 1980s I was in a group. Gilberto Vasquez Valle and Rafael Varela were in that group. Just a few of us. I met a few people while supporting the hunger strikers at the St. Paul Cathedral after the Jesuits were killed in El Salvador in 1989. Roy Bourgeois, Rene Hurtado, Jorge Flores and Jorge Montesinos. Those are the people I knew. A handful of people.

When I came back and I worked on Lake Street in 1998, the whole landscape had changed! There were so many Latinos! In the 1990s there was a bubble of jobs here and people flocked to Minnesota. Then the bubble burst and people could not afford to go back. In Mexico meanwhile — in 1994, immediately after NAFTA — people started losing their jobs. The government started disinvesting in agriculture, cutting social services, not spending money on infrastructure, so of course, people started leaving.

At the Resource Center, Derechos Laborales I had plenty of work. We had many volunteers, students mostly. We had an open door. We trained volunteers to do intake. Anyone could come who had a work issue. If they came with other needs we helped them find support elsewhere. I was shocked at the stories I heard from our clients. Stories of racism, wage theft.

Looking back I think, the way CTUL is doing the work is brilliant, because we didn’t organize workers. We were helping them one by one. Very time consuming. We would call the employer and say “Juan Perez hasn’t been paid for two months.” Next step was to go to court. Small claims court. It was easy to get in. We would win. Many times the employer would just pay.

I remember one case — this woman came to the office. She was working at a laundromat, with those big irons. She burned her arm. Her employer said just put this cream on. It got infected. So first I took her to the clinic. Then we filled out forms for workers compensation and sent it to the employer…. The employer wanted to avoid workers comp and just settle. We told her that is not how the law works. People think they can get away with murder!

We got a grant to teach a course that simultaneously taught English and worker’s rights. We also started working with a group of women trying to start their own cleaning company. Later on we became involved in immigration reform issues.

Even after the Resource Center stopped getting funding we continued to get financial support from various foundations. The day I found that the Resource Center had closed we had just hired a new organizer, new teachers. I had to call them back and say, we are not going to do it.

That was a tough time. All of the sudden I had no job.

I taught for a while at a middle school, but by that time I was too far away from that. I didn’t like it. I started working part time at CLUES. It eventually became a full time job. I love it. I have been doing it for six years. I began working with CLUES in St Paul, but soon moved to their Minneapolis site which is much bigger.

This whole area from Hiawatha to Uptown is Latino. It is also becoming Somali which is exciting. I am getting more Somali students, learning English. Things are changing constantly.

The spirit of survival and resilience among my students is amazing. There are those success stories that keep me going. I have a class “English for Employment” — helping people create goals and then achieve them, go to college, whatever steps they need to take. Education issues are complex. I have students who were displaced by war in Central America who never went to school until now. They come here and they are trying to learn English and they don’t know how to read or write in Spanish. Or Somali students who spent years in refugee camps. Some times the success story is learning how to read and write, as an adult, in a second language.

I am so happy about the $15 an hour campaign. That would make a huge difference for the people I work with.

Palabristas

I started writing poetry in Guatemala.* I wrote in English – as a way to getting away from the war. In Chiapas I began writing in Spanish. When I was at the Resource Center, Emmanuel Ortiz invited me to perform with the Palabristas. That is how we started. We are still around. Some have left. Some are famous now. We have invited young people. I also helped found the Calibanes — Latin Americans in the Cities writing in Spanish. I was invited to do a program at Intermedia Arts, working with young people.

I used to write fiction. In recent years — more poetry. This years have been taking a class with David Mura at the Loft, writing short stories, and I’m working on a memoir of the 1960s in Mexico. I am really committed to my writing now.

Gabriel

I have three kids. When it was just the two boys I thought: “can two people be so different – night and day!” Then I had Carmen — three opposite paths! But they are also very similar. Gabriel and Aaron political activists for social justice; Carmen and Aaron, talented artists; all three of them have wonderful hearts.

Gabe was, is, my first born. It was a difficult birth. He almost didn’t make it. He was in intensive care for three months and then he came home and started growing! He was developmentally delayed. We wanted to bring him up like the other kids — mostly because he was like “I am just here, like you.” Growing up on a farm, in the Twin Cities, in Guatemala and Chiapas — my three kids have that eclectic upbringing in common. It taught them each to be their own person.

Gabriel always had it tough. He never complained about it. Sometimes he was bullied. It didn’t stop him from working and learning. School was hard for him. Especially in San Cristobal he went to study at a rural school, but it closed. He ended up volunteering at the Women’s organization where I worked.

In Minneapolis he went to Century College, working and going to school. He got run over by a car and ended up in the hospital a few days. He got a job at a hotel and became involved in the union. He never stopped.

He went to live with his brother in Illinois, because he was having trouble here.That is when he started complaining about headaches. It was a couple years after the car accident. He went to a clinic. They sent him to the hospital for an MRI and found a tumor. His brother brought him to the University of Minnesota hospital and he was operated on immediately. He had to have two operations because when you operate on the brain you have to be very careful. You can’t do everything at once.

He was not doing too well for a while. Chemo. Radiation. For about a year. But then he started doing recovering! He tried to get a job, but he had a hard time keeping it. Worked at Goodwill. Lost that job. Then he started getting sick again. We went to Naperville for special radiation treatment that made him a really crazy. But he never complained. He was just up all night long, listening to music.

I get a little annoyed when people complain. I think, “Well yeah — you should have seen my son — he didn’t complain!”

He always wanted to go to Cuba, so two years ago he went. The three kids and I spent the Christmas in Yucatan, and afterward Aaron and Gabe went to Cuba from Cancun. That was his special trip.

1498901_693233357825_991514658_o

Carmen, Teresa and Gabe

When he came back he got worse and worse. He started losing a lot of weight, being tired, disoriented sometimes. He died January 17, 2015.

He had so many friends. He knew EVERYBODY. When he was three years old we would go to a restaurant and he would disappear. We would find him talking to the staff in the kitchen. Or we would go to a concert and he would be up there dancing with the performers. He was like that. He had friends in Guatemala, Chiapas, here, everywhere in the world. He would tell me about his friend in Chicago and how he was going to go see her. I thought he was making it up but he wasn’t. Everyone was his best friend. “My very best friend” he would say. I would say “How many best friends can you have?”

He was deeply committed to a better world. He couldn’t understand why anyone would not spend all of his time as an activist, because it was so important. Of course he grew up with this — but it was him. Gabriel would be at five different events in a day. He didn’t drive but he would get there. He was human. He would drive me crazy sometimes. He was a really special person.
I feel so lucky to have had him as my son. I miss him like crazy. Everything reminds me of him. I learned so much from him about enjoying every moment of my life.
Sometime’s I think, “Why did it happen?” I wish he was still here. He’s not.

I feel so very honored that I was with him when he died. I was holding his hand, talking with him. I looked up and it was like he was sleeping peacefully. I see young men getting killed and I think how lucky I am that he died the way he did. Because it could have been him. He was everywhere. He was proud to be a person a color. He was in solidarity with so many social justice issues.

I do get annoyed with people don’t support Black Lives Matter. These are our children who are being killed!

I am so blessed to have two other wonderful children. Carmen and Aaron are so committed to what their art, to helping people, to making this a nicer world.

I am so proud of my children. All three of them.

_____________________________________

13043378_1034469969972844_6508722271919115649_n

Lucila Dominguez of CTUL, Teresa and Aaron.

Altar de Muertos by Teresa Ortiz

Corazón de los Cielos, Corazón de la Tierra
Corazón de las Aguas, Corazón de los Vientos
Bendícenos

Orange… pink… yellow… rojo… yosh!
Shinning circles of color cover the heaven, competing with the sun
November is the windiest month in the Guatemalan mountains and the round barriletes
Take off with extraordinary force,
Peleándose unos con otros por llegar más rápido,
To reach the souls up above,
To remind the spirits to come down to party with us
Children run up and down the hill, holding tight to the kite strings,
Looking up the sky, bumping into each other,
Tripping with rocks and bushes in their race,
Trying not to fall on the gravestones,
Not to step on the food lay out on grassy plains, on tombs
While their parents are eating, and drinking,
And having a merry good time and sharing it all with the souls
Of those already gone
Come our loved ones, come to celebrate!
With music and canciones,
With posh
Baskets and baskets of bread have been baked for you today
Candles are lit to bring warmth to your dead spirits
Copal smoke reaches the heavens, calling you to come down to play with us
El cementerio in San Antonio Aguascalientes is having una gran fiesta
Crowded with the living and the spirits of the dead
Every cementerio in Guatemala is sharing with their dead
So many visitors are coming today!
Thousands and thousands of people were assassinated in Guatemala
Four hundred villages disappeared from the Heart of the Earth
Corazón de los Pueblos, Corazón de la Gente
Recuérdalos
So we may never, ever forget
In San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas, México,
Across the border to the north (or west)
There are weekly funeral processions in front of my door
They walk slowly, solemnly, dressed in black behind their dead
Hay tantos muertos en Chiapas todo el tiempo,
Y en Oaxaca, en Veracruz, en Guerrero, en México,
En Juárez, en la frontera, en el desierto de Arizona…
En las calles de las ciudades de los Estados Unidos…
Hay tantos muertos every day
So many muertos de la pobreza,
So many muertos de la violencia
But come November, people celebrate,
The market is busy with shoppers
Buying candles, incense, flor de muerto
Tamales de chipilin, gourds elotes, calabazas
La plaza está llena de fiesta, mil colores decorada, con los altares de los niños
People spending three days and three nights con sus muertos en el panteón municipal
Every cementerio in Mexico is sharing with their dead
So many visitors are coming today!

In Acteal, a village in Chiapas,
Where forty five people were massacred while praying, while fasting for peace
The Dia de Muertos celebration takes place outdoors, on a mountaintop
Overlooking the shrine where the martyrs lay
The procession has arrived with the sacred carved tortuga for the altar
And the coro is singing “Bienvenidos, Bienvenidos”
Sounding even sweeter when they sing it in Tzotzil
We all pray to the heavens with our feet during the mass
To remember, to never ever forget
Tcha, ah tcha, ah tcha, ah tcha…
A home altar for our parents and grandparents
Para los tíos, para el primo, y para mi hermano
Don’t forget the cigars and chocolates for Papi Mingo
Don’t forget the fancy earrings for mama
Bring the pictures de los abuelitos
No te olvides de poner una veladora con la Virgen
Did you buy the flowers y el pan de muertos?
A la tía le gustan las uvas, don’t forget
Y las calaveritas de azúcar with their names
On the table over here, we lay the offerings
For the ones who passed away
We start with yosh in the middle
Azul cielo, verde campo
With a candle, with a cross, with a tree of open branches
We go round and round and round
Like the circle of life, like the circle of death
Yellow corn to the east, and black corn to the west
White corn to the north, and red corn to the south
We fill the circle with beans and squashes and orchids and cocoa seeds
With salt and oil and refrescos and posh
With golden flowers, zempuazuchil, all around
And then we pray:
Corazón de los Pueblos, Corazón de la Gente
For we have rejected the killings
For we have rejected the violence
We honor our dead
Corazón de la Vida, Corazón de las Almas
Acompáñanos
Come to us and celebrate
Que es Día de Muertos
Everywhere!

Gilberto Vázquez Valle. Mexican Folk Musicologist Finds Poetic Justice in Minneapolis.

 

Gilberto at KFAI - 1

All my education in Mexico was in public schools, and, since I was a teenager, I was conscious of the moral responsibility I had towards working people of my country, who paid for my education. But I have learned … the concept of nationality can be relative. There is another Mexico and another Latin America within the United States. One can be ideologically and morally congruent without having to be in a particular place.

Coming to Minneapolis

I was born in Yurécuaro, in the State of Michoacán, Mexico. When I was 14, my family moved to Guadalajara. I went to college there, at the Facultad de Ciencias Químicas of the Universidad de Guadalajara, which had a relationship with the University of Minnesota. Students and scholars would come up to Minneapolis to do research and to study. I came in the 80s for some research projects and then to go to graduate school. So I was unusual – I wasn’t part of a migrant stream like so many of my relatives. I had nothing of the experience that my uncles or father had.

My father spent chunks of time here in the U.S., starting when I was about four, until I was thirteen. At that time it was easy to come if you were sponsored by relatives, as he was. In Mexico he was a tailor all of his life. In the U.S. he did agricultural work in California until he found more lucrative work in the steel industry in Chicago.

Today — even though I like that city and have relatives there — “Chicago” is a sad word for me. In my childhood it meant my father was going to leave us again.

When I came to Minneapolis, I lived in the Centennial Hall dorm at the U. I felt isolated at first. But soon enough, I found other Spanish speakers at the dorm, mostly Latin American. We’d get together for dinner, taking over two or three tables in the cafeteria. The language drew us together, but that wasn’t the only commonality. There was culture, traditions, history. . . I was surprised at how easy and natural it was to have an immediate link, a strong connection, with other fellow Latin Americans: Chileans, Argentinians, Uruguayans. . . people born and raised thousand of miles away from my hometown. We had many heated political debates about what was going on in Central America in those years, in particular Nicaragua and El Salvador, and especially about the U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America.

I was very critical of the United States government. I felt hypocritical coming and staying in the U.S. to work at the University of Minnesota —a little like José Martí: inside the entrails of the beast. All my education in Mexico was in public schools, and, since I was a teenager, I was conscious of the moral responsibility I had towards the working people of my country who paid for my education. But I also learned — both through my own family history and through simple observation — that the concept of nationality can be relative. There is another Mexico and another Latin America within the United States.

I made myself available to talk to groups about the role of the U.S. in Central America. We would have events at the University — educational forums on what was happening. I wanted to give U.S. students some historical background and a radically different perspective, to get them to question what they heard in the media.

One can be ideologically and morally congruent without having to be in a particular place.

La Raza Student Cultural Center at the University of Minnesota

In the early 90s I met the late Guillermo Rojas, faculty in Chicano Studies, and he asked me if I wanted to be a faculty/technical adviser for La Raza Student Cultural Center. It was going to be something temporary, just to clean up the place (there were accusations of financial mismanagement) and to reorganize it. The activist mission of La Raza’s creators in the 1970s, had disappeared and it was run by a cohort of students from wealthy families —-mostly from Central America —people with whom I would never have had contact in other circumstances. They couldn’t care less about activism and social responsibility. For them, La Raza was a social club.

Also fighting to regain control of La Raza , were a number of mostly Chicano students from throughout the United States —mainly women — determined, courageous, hard­-working, and politically aware. Most of them were of Mexican descendant, frequently first generation Americans and the first ones in their families to get to college. They regained control of La Raza.. and it became a place for community, activism, consciousness and a vibrant cultural center.

When the Zapatista uprising happened in Chiapas, Mexico, on January 1st 1994 (the same day that NAFTA was implemented), we began having educational and political events every week focusing on the uprising and indigenous issues in Mexico and Latin America, the poverty, the discrimination, the cultural genocide still happening. Zapatista Sub­-Comandante Marcos sent communiques through the internet, and we were getting them a day after they were published in Mexico City — which was amazing at the time. La Raza became a sort of unofficial Zapatista resource center in town.

One of the sad parts of that uprising is that many of the issues that the Zapatistas were talking about, Ricardo Flores Magón was talking about in 1908 at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. But on the positive side, there was a new respect and interest in the struggles of the Latin American indigenous peoples and a new understanding of the social and political movements in Mexico and the whole of Latin America. For the first time the word neo-­liberalism was used to understand what was happening on a global level. That was meaningful and refreshing. The Zapatistas had a global view, connecting their uprising to the struggles of workers in Bangladesh, Chicago and elsewhere.

The beauty, poetry and eloquence of the language of the Zapatista communiques also inspired and moved everyone, including myself. I remember reading the communique “¿De qué nos van a perdonar?”, in a coffee shop in Dinkytown and openly crying. Because of the Zapatista Movement, I saw many formerly apolitical young people in La Raza beginning to show an interest in the social and political movements in Latin America — and making connections with patterns of oppression and resistance in the U.S. That was the richest moment of my experience in La Raza —seeing that awakening, not just in others, but in myself.

My activism was focused on the U of M. I was trying to stay behind the scenes, keeping a low profile. At that time, my immigration status was as an international student. I knew my legal status was vulnerable. So I was trying to frame all the events I was involved in as academic. I was invited to speak at some rallies in front of the Federal Building in Minneapolis, and I had to decline.

When the energy around the Zapatista movement diminished, I still continued being involved in La Raza, providing continuity in the organization as students came and went. There were many more first generation Mexican American students, in the late 1990s and their stories of immigrant struggle and resistance inspired me. Even though they spoke English among themselves, they enjoyed speaking Spanish to me. I have a fascination with Spanish language proverbs and know thousands of them. Those young students would come to the office and ask me “so, what’s the proverb of the day?” They enjoyed the wisdom, earthiness, sparkling quality and sense of humor present in the proverbs.

In spite of the age difference, with those young students I had a feeling of prodigal sons reunited.

Youthful obsessions: comic book super heroes and Latin American folk music.

When I was little in Yurécuaro, my hometown, I was so much into comic books that my father went around to all the barber shops and asked them not to let me in because they had comic books there and he thought I was reading way too many of them.

There used to be a system where you could buy comics for a peso or sit on a bench and read them for ten cents. I was so obsessed with the characters and the stories being told, that I got to the point of stealing money from my mother in order to rent them. One day she found me at the rental bench and asked me to come with her immediately. When she saw me pay for 13 comics, she immediately knew who had stolen her money. Back at home, I got such a monumental spanking that, many years after, it still mortified her to the point of tears.

The comic books I read avidly were made in Mexico— “Chanoc”, “La Familia Burrón”, “Kaliman”, “El Payo”, “El Diamante Negro”, “Memín Pinguín”, “Fantomas”, “Tawa”, etc. —even, to my father’s mortification, “Lágrimas, Risas y Amor”. There were also many American comic books, translated, of course, which never got my interest. It wasn’t only that I was indifferent to them: I openly disliked them. Perhaps it was the language: They were probably translated in Spain and the dialogs always felt contrived, silly. So, I was totally oblivious to “Superman”, “Batman”, “Los Cuatro Fantásticos”, etc. There was, however, one of those American characters and comic books for which I’ve always had a soft spot: “El Hombre Araña” (Spiderman).

When I was fourteen I gained a new obsession. We had just moved to Guadalajara, which, at that time, was a town of about 2 million people. Almost immediately I discovered the radio stations, one run by the Department of Fine Arts, the other by the Universidad de Guadalajara, that played some folk music. I’m immensely grateful to both of those stations. They enriched my life beyond measure. The music I heard there for the first time, sounded strange yet familiar. In a primal, visceral way, I knew that it was my own. It was like hearing an ancient tune apparently long forgotten but in actuality always present within me.

By the time I was 18 there were already a few places where Latin American folk music was played live. Some were small venues related to the local Department of Fine Arts the others were “Peñas” (coffee houses) that appeared in Mexico City, Guadalajara and other large cities throughout Mexico. Most of the performing groups were local and non-professional. Through college, I met two brothers and their uncle who, together with two other friends, formed one of those groups: “Los Cachicamos”. They took me with them everywhere they played: Schools, Peñas, labor union halls, music festivals, small villages’ festivities, public plazas. They were really good and played not only folk music from the Andes but also from Argentina and Mexico, which, amazingly, few of the Mexican folk groups at the time played. They even traveled to South America to get music and instruments, and they lent me recordings that were impossible to get in Guadalajara.

From their trip, they brought back several “Charangos,” a string instrument with five double strings (similar to a mandolin) that is fundamental in the Andean music tradition. The back of its box is made from the shell of a small furry armadillo that lives in that region.

My friends got their Charangos directly from a legendary Bolivian charango maker, Sabino Orozco. This man introduced my friends to his son who was chosen to continue the Charango making tradition. His name I can not forget: Clark Kent Orozco.

Bringing Latin American Folk Music to Minneapolis through KFAI radio.

In Minneapolis my Latin American friends were often surprised that I knew old folk songs from their countries. They would give me names of genres, groups and performers they thought would interest me. They would also give me tapes. My collection grew.

KFAI, the local community radio station, was one of the first stations I heard in the U.S.  I also listened to obsessively to the classical music station of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). The whole concept of a public community radio station struck me as both beautiful and powerful.

One Saturday morning, a couple of weeks or so after I had arrived to the U.S, while listening to KFAI, I  heard “Las Mañanitas,” the traditional Mexican celebratory song used in Birthdays and Saint Days. I was moved to the point of tears. I had discovered Willy Dominguez’ show, “Sábados Alegres” —one of the longest running shows at KFAI, that plays Tex-­Mex music. Soon afterwards I discovered the Latin American music program run by Rafael Varela, from Uruguay, as well as shows centered on American folk music (which was one of my “discoveries” upon coming to this country).

After a few years volunteering and subbing at the Station, I applied for and got my own radio program, “Encuentro” —now airing Thursday nights 8­-10 pm. The show aired first on July 29, 2007; so I have been doing my program for nine years! I explore the cultural history and traditions of our continent, and to tell that story, folk music is fundamental.

I put in six hours every week just preparing the show. Sometimes more. My program is never improvised; it always has a defined order and structure, a theme or themes to explore for the day. I believe that to improvise implies that I don’t take it seriously and that would be a disservice to my community, to the station, to the listeners, to myself. I usually explore a composer, a genre of music, a country in particular, or certain themes or historical events that can be talked about or explained through music, like “The Music of Liberation Theology” and “The Music from the Life and Times of Frida Kahlo”.

I think I would never be able to find space on a commercial Latino radio station for my program. Those stations are all about business, commercial interests and commercial music. My program, proudly, doesn’t fit that model at all. At first I was disappointed that the people calling in to my program were mostly White, or not from the Latino communities. I would have been happier hearing from Latin American communities from South Minneapolis, and youth like those I worked with in La Raza. It was with them that I witnessed first-­hand, the power and inextinguishable relevance of language, history, culture and traditions.

Changes in Latino Minneapolis in the 1990s

Before the mid 1990s, if I wanted to buy a hint of home I had to go to West St. Paul and the options were very limited. It was rare to hear somebody speaking Spanish in the bus or in the street .

Lake Street had historically, been a sort of entry zone for immigrants in town. In the 1990s it was the front line, the border where demographic changes were most visible and tangible. Small Latino restaurants, stores and bakery shops started opening up there, seemingly out of nowhere. Latino communities revitalized that area, not only Lake Street but that whole part of South Minneapolis.

Visiting some of those Mexican and Latino stores on Lake Street was a lesson for me in the perseverance of memory and traditions. I found the same brand of laundry detergent (“Roma”) and bar soap (“Zote”) that Mexican working class families have used for generations; I found healing herbs and teas that, in Mexico are available only in a special store or market. I saw “leche de burra” soap — a product I heard about from countryside people from my parents’ generation, but never actually saw until the late 1990s, along Lake Street in Minneapolis!

And the food!

Food is a living manifestation of memory and tradition. It is also a noble, fundamental thread that, along with language and music, provides some the most immediate and visceral links between immigrants and their country of birth, their family history, their ancestral memories. Food is also a savior. Selling cooked food is frequently how a struggling family can get back on its feet; a means available to immigrant families to aspire to a measure of economic independence and one of the precious few venues available to them for upward mobility.

The traditional Mexican “refresco” (bottled soft drink) “Jarritos” —especially the tamarind flavor is easier to find in Minneapolis (you can even find it in Cub foods!) than in Mexico, where, in conventional stores, the only “refrescos” you can get are Coke, Pepsi and such. I see a measure of poetic justice in this.

Living in Seward/Surviving Assaults/ Growing  impoverishment in Minneapolis 

I don’t know how to drive. I walk, I bike and I use the bus. These observations, below, are the perspective of one who has been riding the bus and walking in the city for more than 20 years now.

When I first moved out of the dorm, I lived in Marcy Holmes near the University Campus — a fairly transient neighborhood. Then I moved to Seward, also near to Campus, where I have been ever since. I really like living in Seward, even though I have had some bad experiences. I was assaulted twice. Because of those incidents I have become much more watchful and alert of my surroundings.

I do not think these assaults necessarily reflect Seward. It is just part of living in an urban place, within the inner city, especially when you walk alone at night. Both times, those who assaulted me were Native American youth. That is only incidental— a reflection of other underlying factors, among them the growing impoverishment in Minneapolis and the ever-growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots throughout the U.S.

When I first came to Minneapolis I wrote home saying that everyone here seemed to be well­-off. But I have seen a noticeable and continuing growth in poverty since then — more homeless people, for instance.

I see it on the bus and in the streets: Everything from more clothes and shoes that are not appropriate for the weather or that don’t fit, to obvious signs of poor health, especially in people’s teeth. This might be considered only anecdotal evidence but the fact is that data and statistics confirm it.

I have noticed an increase in the body language of sadness. In the early 1990s I used to travel by bus to go to Madison, Wisconsin. For me it was fun and convenient, but I saw that those who traveled by bus seemed to always be sad and down on their luck. Now I see the same sadness every day in the city buses and in the streets.

I also see more conflict, more tension. Twenty years ago or so, it was the sort of conflict that normally happens within a crowded urban space. Now I see more signs of confrontation —in racial, social and economic terms.

Of course, there has always been some grumbling about immigrants. But the resentment now seems to be greater, more openly belligerent and confrontational. Two examples that have happened recently:
— In downtown Minneapolis there were two East African youth waiting for the bus. An African-American guy stopped by, just to cuss at them, to say he hated Somalis. When he left the girl said to me, “They are always hating us.” I told her “He is probably struggling —maybe he doesn’t have a job.” She said “You know, I didn’t see it that way…. but… this happens to us all the time.”
— A Native American man, complained loudly to the whole bus about how the immigrants have come and taken all the jobs, the resources.

I think that when I was assaulted those two times, I was a victim of this growing poverty, exacerbated by a massive housing crisis and a recession, and that ever-growing social and economic disparity. Before at least there was a feeling of hope in a not too distant future. Now even that is gone. And people are taking it out on each other.

Disparity and Hope. 

But there’s something else: mounting disparity,  long-­lasting hopelessness, and the closing of venues to upward mobility are by themselves a form of inflicted violence and, as such, it have been detonators for community activism.

In the 1990s there was little evident signs of activism among new Latino immigrants. People went to work, and, on a Saturday afternoon, perhaps to Mercado Central to eat some tacos, menudo or tamales with champurrado. People just stayed in their corner, making as little waves as possible. That has changed significantly in response to the desperate immigration situation, the constant political backlash, lack of upward mobility, and limited, low-paying and frequently exploitive job market for people in our communities. Recent restrictions on driver’s licenses (since 2001), have brought into the streets many immigrants who, because of fear, would never have been active in the political process. People now have the boldness to be directly involved in different stages of political activism, even if it implies taking significant risks, including being deported.

In that sense, I’m hopeful. I see different community organizing efforts going on locally at different levels: grass-roots, faith-based, workers’ centers, etc., and the growing consciousness that comes with these efforts. I particularly admire the work done by CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha) a local workers’ center that is doing amazing organizing with retail cleaning workers.

Something else: These movements also plant a seed for future generations. A tradition of consciousness and community organizing doesn’t happen overnight, it is nurtured and that is what all of these community organizing movements are doing.

One thing immigrants from Mexico  know quite well is that they are very valuable to both the U.S. economy and the Mexican economy. The U.S. economy desperately needs the cheap, vulnerable labor and their remittances are absolutely essential for Mexico. There is power in that.

We saw an assertion of that power on May 1st 2006 when millions of Latino workers and their families throughout the United States rose up and marched through the streets —40,000 here in the Twin Cities — who marched to the State Capitol wearing t-shirts that proclaimed:  “Undocumented and Unafraid”.

May First, the International Workers Day is, of course, rooted in the rich, proud, obscured and ignored, U.S. labor history. It was celebrated in nearly every country in the world except the United States where it originated — until 2006, when the most marginalized exploited immigrants of this nation, rescued it, dignified it, and brought it back to its place of origin. Poetic Justice.

A final thing: I had my own stereotypes when I first came to the U.S. — about the “average” White U.S. person. I did not know there were people here concerned and aware about the policies (both foreign and domestic) of the U.S. government, that there were so many people committed to change things, doing so out of solidarity.

And that’s the key word: Solidarity —not empty, self-gratifying charity, not condescending attitudes, but understanding and solidarity. I meet people all the time, many times young, who are active and committed, to achieve and build a more just economic and political system; people who talk the talk and walk the walk, as the saying goes; not out of empty romanticized notions, but out of solidarity. I think that Minneapolis is special in this way. It has a rich local history of solidarity movements and I constantly see that tradition not only being kept alive but also moved forward.

 

Short-term memory and the fight for Working Families in Minneapolis

 

IMG_0019

I am old enough to have started my work life in Minneapolis at a time when sexual harassment on the job was not a phrase, just an everyday nothing-you-can-do-about-it reality. Gender discrimination in hiring and wages were just how people did business. Racial discrimination was rampant in both the the workplace and in unions. Race and gender discrimination was illegal, (I’m not that old!) but our ability to litigate, as individuals or in class action suits were limited and small businesses were basically untouched.

In other words it was not the good old days. However, for the half-dozen crappy food service jobs I had in the 1970s and 80s,  I always received a schedule – part or full time. Working more or fewer hours was offered as an opportunity to me, not a requirement. So when businesses large and small cry that they can not possibly survive if they give workers a regular schedule they can count on, they are counting on us having short-term memories.

In fact flexible scheduling is an “innovation” of the 1990s,  an outgrowth of  globalization, free trade, and the rise and reification of business education.

I remember one corporate winner-of-the-year I heard on the  radio in the 90s  use the analogy of a boat in the sea  without  allegiance to country or workforce, able to pick up and follow the cheapest labor source. Genius! These were the people that everyone who wanted to make a million overnight, sought to be like, They were the ones in the limelight.

I am also old enough to have started college at a time when there were no temples to business on University campuses overshadowing liberal arts, as they literally do on the University of Minnesota west bank campus.  Inside those new buildings experts in the early 1990s with lots of letters after their names explained the joys of free trade — a happening  post-cold-war innovation.  The  North American Free Trade Agreement, inaugurated on January 1 1994, would be the template for all global and local trade relations.

 

Until a band of indigenous farmers from Chiapas interrupted the celebration on the eve of the inauguration of NAFTA.  The barely armed Zapatistas interrupted the party.  They used the brand new internet to build solidarity across the globe.  Ever since, workers and small-scale farmers have been crossing borders to fight the vagaries of so-called free trade and the boomerang dislocation of workers at home.

If you are a boss, no question, flexibility in scheduling and hiring and firing is good. Which is why it has been adopted by every kind of industry — from hospitals to universities, trucking to restaurants, warehousing to mining. And if you are a worker it sucks. There is no middle ground, just an ocean between the two. The only way workers can make it worth it to an employer to pay decent wages,  provide decent schedules, and time off for sickness and family needs is when workers agitate and labor peace becomes a cheaper way to go.

IMG_0815

In Minneapolis a coalition of groups including CTUL, NOC SEIU and the Minneapolis AFL-CIO and Fight for $15  have been organizing around the Working Families Agenda that includes living wages, regular scheduling, and sick time — conditions that allow us to care for children and elders, build lives and careers.  Such across-the-board legislation would allow those businesses who want to do well by their employees, to thrive, evening out the playing field.

So when businesses in Minneapolis cry out that there is no way for them to survive without flexible scheduling  — a little historical perspective is in order. As for city politicians trying to play both sides, there needs to be a moment of reckoning .  Employers sitting in their flexibility boats are feeding workers to the sharks. Will you send us a lifeboat or not? The voters want to know.

But we aren’t waiting for politicians to act. In the next two weeks workers in Minneapolis are taking action to #reclaimourcity.