Community building requires community healing. And what does that look like?

"Staying ‘home’ and not venturing out from our own group comes from woundedness, and stagnates our growth. To bridge means loosening our borders, not closing off to others….To bridge is to attempt community, and for that we must risk being open to personal, political, and spiritual intimacy, to risk being wounded."- Gloria Anzaldua

"Quedarse en la casa'' y no aventurarse fuera de nuestro propio grupo viene donde estamos heridos y proviene nuestro crecimiento. Para hacer puentes signifa que abriemos mas de nuestras fronteras y que no cierremos a otros… Para hacer puentes es intentar comunidad, y para eso tenemos que corre el riesgo de ser abierto a personal, político y espiritual intimidad, a correr el riesgo de ser heridos. "
Gloria Anzaldua

Everybody is waiting for the movement to happen ! And we dont realize we are the movement. Its me and you coming together and having some honest and maybe painful truthtelling between us. But there is probably some beautiful thing we will create together as a result. I want to speak to each person in my community.Let's get the party going.

Todo el mundo está esperando a que el movimiento a ocurrir! Y nosotros no darse cuenta de que somos el movimiento. Comienza la communidad cuando usted y yo tienemos algunos conversaciones doloroso pero verdarosos . Pero es probable que algunos bellos cosas que es probablemente vamos a crear juntos . Quiero hablar con cada person en mi communidad.Vamos a comienzar esta fiesta !

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Queering the Movimiento-Gregg Barrios's Theater of the Repressed, Recovered, and Revolutionized

By B.V. Olguín

When bleached-blond Danny De La Paz rollerbladed onto a minimalist stage at Our Lady of the Lake University on August 13, 2005, wearing a glass tiara, a muscle T-shirt, and tight, bulging shorts while Brian Adams’ campy anthem “Heaven” played in the background, you knew this wasn’t gonna be just another Chicano gangbanger story.

The actor who debuted as the ill-fated cholo Chuco in the classic gang saga Boulevard Nights, and later played a fratricidal Mexican Mafia assassin in American Me, is all grown up and out of the closet in Gregg Barrios’s play I-DJ Mofomixmaster.

De La Paz opened the one-night stand with an adaptation from Hamlet:
“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.”
With a perfectly delivered comic pause and femme aside, he deadpans: “Weren’t you expecting Shakesqueer?”

This seemingly dissonant appropriation of the Bard’s classic work of existential angst to explore the 1970s Los Angeles dance-club scene enables a provocative queering of Chicano identity and even British literary history.

“After all, Hamlet is a play within a play,” De La Paz’s character reminds us. “How queer is that?!”

Barrios’s Shakespeare gloss provided an unexpectedly good staging device for a drama about an aging DJ who recalls how his search for validation as a Chicano on West Coast airways coincided with his coming out. The storyline is simple yet profound: A young gay Chicano wants to proclaim his existence by joining the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and ’70s — el Movimiento — but his fellow Chicano activists respond by paraphrasing Eldridge Cleaver’s outrageous party line, that the only position for a woman or a fag in our movement is the lateral position.

The play documents a burgeoning love between the DJ and his neophyte (played by South San Antonio high-school student Jimmy Villa), who resist the binary logic of the axiom that to be Queer means not to be Chicano. After the romance is broken up by a different type of gangbanging — a viscerally disturbing rape scene — the play’s action unravels into a dark yet illuminating exploration of Chicano ontology. I-DJ is nothing less than a Chicano re-staging of Plato’s Symposium: The mascara-wearing Chicano DJ played by De La Paz does a lip-sync of Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way” while offering metaphysical meditations on the intersections of love, art, Chicano identity, and the ecstatic nature of true knowledge.

This theatrical dialogue with the highly masculine culture of the barrios of the Southwest, and the multiple communities within and beyond — whites, queers of all races, Chicano nationalists — is Gregg Barrios’s signature style in an oeuvre that spans six decades, five genres, and thousands of literary publications and journalism bylines. Barrios has made an art out of creating unlikely fusions and uncovering unexpected influences, collaborations, and liaisons.

Yet the adage that a genius is always unappreciated in his own backyard seems to hold true for Barrios. While I-DJ was published in 2007 in the 15th-anniversary double issue of the venerable Ollantay theater magazine, an expanded re-staging of this play still has not found a home despite the playwright’s success at attracting a Hollywood actor to play the lead role.
Until recently, the same was true of Barrios’s other theatrical works, even as his poetry received early recognition with the 1982 publication of his first collection, Puro Rollo. Prior to his recent hit play, Rancho Pancho (reviewed in the Current’s September 10-16, 2008 issue), Barrios had resigned himself to interstitial anonymity.

“I guess it must be my message,” he said in a recent interview. “Because it doesn’t fit neatly into any pre-established categories, few people want to stage my work. It’s too Chicano for the white venues, not Chicano enough for the Chicano venues, too queer for straight ones, not queer enough for the queer spaces, and just too much of this and not enough of that for everyone else.”

He may be right. Barrios’s work lies at the intersection of so many traditions, political perspectives, and identities it is hard to position it squarely within any single one. Yet Barrios isn’t exactly correct when he complains about a “brownout” and “closeting of Chicano theater” in San Antonio; he has produced two other plays locally, one of which was developed in a short-lived collaboration with the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Gateway Grant. But one thing is certain: You either love Barrios’s work for its eclectic cultural fusions and unexpected storylines, or you hate it precisely because of these features.

It's all a matter of perspective

Gregg Barrios was born in Victoria, Texas, on Halloween 1945, and his first contact with the arts was at home. His father, Gregorio Barrios Sr., was a photographer and film projectionist in Victoria in the 1950s and ’60s. His photography recently was published in a father-and-son pairing in Dagobert Gilb’s bilingual multimedia text, Hecho en Tejas: An Anthology of Texas Mexican Literature.
Barrios recalls how his father taught him about the most important element in all literary and visual arts: perspective.
“My father’s studio was next to the downtown bus station, which naturally attracted sojourners from the lower strata of society because it is the most economical way to travel,” he said. “There were bums, prostitutes, hustlers, quick-change artists, pachucos and street toughs, unemployed workers, and just ordinary working-class folks of all races trying to get from one place to another in their daily grind of survival.”
Barrios recalls how “[I] peeked into my father’s dark room once and found photos he had developed of naked men and women ... My father had become something of a fixer, as people would come to him for help with all sorts of problems and activities, legal and not-so-legal. I saw it all from my own little perch in the corner. This was my introduction to the world, from the margins and the bottom up.”
This early exposure to society’s outcasts lead to a lifelong quest for communion with the masses, but Barrios claims his poetry, theater, and journalism have always avoided a condescending or exoticist view. Rather, he seeks to understand and accurately represent his subjects as their ally, as one “who shares similar pains as well as broader joie de vivre.”
It’s also telling that Barrios’s first book review, written when he was a 16-year-old high-school student, was of The Gay Place, Billy Lee Brammer’s thinly veiled roman à clef of Lyndon Johnson’s reign in Pink Dome. His selection is revealing for his innocent belief that as a Chicano in early ’60s South Texas he could pontificate on any topic or author of his choosing. Apparently, no one ever got around to telling Barrios that he could not claim a place in the center and the margins simultaneously, so he just did it.
Having witnessed the fate of the masses excluded from educational opportunities by the cruelly efficient calculations of a capitalist economy, Barrios took a gamble on the Air Force so he could use the G.I. Bill to fund his education. Even though the word “Vietnam” was becoming commonplace, he enlisted in 1962 and for three years served as a combat medic in the 859th Medical Group. Luckily for Barrios, he was stationed at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin — with occasional temporary-duty assignments to pick up severely wounded soldiers from hospitals in Germany. This allowed him to attend class at the University of Texas at Austin as a part-time student.
During his time in Austin, Barrios was involved in the underground newspaper The Rag, infamous for its irreverent political commentary and cultural critiques. He also co-founded the Cinema 40 Film Club, for which he is recognized in Esquire magazine film critic Dwight Macdonald’s 1969 memoir, On Movies:
“While I was in Texas I caught up on my movies, avant-garde and rear-guard ... I was able to see for the first time some films by Warhol and Anger, both programs being put on by Cinema 40, a film club operated with great enterprise by a senior named Gregory Barrios.”
Like most film buffs of the era, Barrios eventually made a pilgrimage to Andy Warhol’s notorious Manhattan Factory. Under Warhol’s tutelage, in 1967 Barrios made his own experimental film, titled BONY (Boys of New York). Shot in both black-and-white and color with a 16-millimeter Roloflex Camera, Barrios’s film captures a day in the life of the Warhol “superstars” — the poet Gerard Melanga and Rene Ricard (the poet and art critic who “discovered” Jean Michel Basquiat) — during which they meet Leonard Cohen and Vogue model Ivy Nicholson.
BONY is archived at UCLA and is included on Chon Noriega’s list of 100 Best Chicano Films. Barrios has since shown his films in San Antonio and elsewhere, paired with an excerpt of Warhol’s epic 25-hour, four-channel projection **** (Four Stars), which Warhol gave Barrios with the express challenge to put it to new use by showing it in different settings. Gemini Ink hosted one of these collaborative screenings in 2003.
Barrios eventually earned a degree in English and accepted his first teaching job in Crystal City in 1970, where his art found new purpose: el Movimiento!
¡Dale gas, carnal!
Like its contemporary, the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, Chicano Movement art took a combative tone predicated on opposition to racist white capitalist American society. Barrios took his characteristic interstitial approach, positioning himself within the Movimiento and the effort to complicate models of culture and identity that would later come to fruition in works by Chicana Renaissance writers in the 1980s such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga.
He even anticipated the post-Movimiento hybrid poetics that filmmakers, writers, and critics as diverse as Jimmy Mendiola, Marisela Norte, and Alfred Arteaga have shown to be a hallmark of the New Latino Aesthetic. Georges Bizet’s classic 19th-century opera Carmen was transformed in Barrios’s 1975 rendition, which he conspicuously titled, Carmen: A Chicano Rock Opera. It was co-directed by Ruth Zarate and performed by his Crystal City High School student cast.
Barrios even anticipated John Sayles’ 1984 The Brother From Another Planet with his own 1976 sci-fi play, Stranger in a Strange Land. His 1977 reprise of Andrew Webber’s Evita, which includes a post-mortem cameo by Che Guevara, an icon of the Chicano Movement, was also recast as a Chicano rock opera. The production was covered by the San Antonio Express in a May 24, 1977, feature by Ben King Jr., who quotes the young Barrios:
“We are trying to show there’s more in Crystal City than the politics. We’re trying to reinforce our culture ... Our goal is to show the Chicano has the ability to express himself in several ways, besides politics.”
Barrios was responding to national and international attention to the grueling grassroots battle by the Raza Unida Party against the oppressive local government. He was attempting to restore some sense of normalcy for his students in the aftermath of the famous student “blowouts” (as student boycotts of classes were known), while at the same time using culture as the site for consciousness-raising.
But in Cristal, as the city came to be known, politics infused everything, as was dramatically illustrated in another struggle: the infamous “gas crisis” of 1977. The “gas crisis” was directly related to the oil embargo of the 1970s, but specifically refers to the conflict between the Lo-Vaca Gathering Company (a private utility vendor) and the new, all-Chicano Crystal City Council. The Council, attempting to respond to its new mandate to represent its poor constituency, rejected the new higher price the company demanded for gas. The city insisted on a lower rate enshrined in its previous contract. With the support of a Texas Supreme Court ruling, the company eventually cut off all natural gas supplies to Crystal City for more than a decade.
Prior to the gas cut-off, Barrios and other educators and artists traveled the country to publicize the struggle and drum up support. Barrios spoke to the Coalition for Economic Survival in Los Angeles as a guest of liberal politico Tom Hayden, whose wife at the time — Jane Fonda — donated a shipment of solar panels to Crystal City to help the citizens survive the brutally cold winter of 1977. Barrios was invited as a non-member guest to address the Communist Party National Convention in Santa Monica, where he received a standing ovation after his speech about the popular revolt against monopoly capitalism. Angela Davis, then a prominent member of the CP, subsequently wrote a short preface to the 1977 published version of Barrios’s play about the struggle, Dale Gas Cristal!
In the spirit of the era, Barrios also staged a play about another outlaw — the infamous San Antonio gangster Fred Gomez Carrasco. To call the play “controversial” is an understatement. Drawing from Teatro Campesino’s agitprop theater form known as the Acto, the actors in ¡Carrasco! — the same Crystal City High School Students of his other plays — provocatively kidnap Governor Dolph Briscoe and Lady Bird Johnson in response to the allegation that the Texas Rangers executed Carrasco during his violent 1974 prison-break attempt.
Barrios continued his work as an educator, literary provocateur, and journalist after accepting a new teaching position in Los Angeles, where he lived from 1982 to 1999. He retired from teaching in 1999 and relocated to San Antonio, where he began a new teaching career, while continuing his journalism first with the San Antonio Express-News as the book editor, then as editorial-page editor for the Spanish-language Rumbo. He retired anew to focus on his own creative writing, but continues to be involved in journalism as a watchdog and regular contributor to the Current and other publications.
“Gregg is both a creative force in his own right — witness his body of dramatic work — and an observant journalist and critic interested in the work of others and the personalities and driving forces behind their work,” wrote Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News and Barrios’s former boss, via email. “He also lets us know when we fall short in our own coverage. We don’t always agree with him, but oftentimes he is right and we are better for it.”
With Barrios, you either love him or hate him. But you can’t deny his presence and provocations.
Coloring the canon
True to his simultaneous insider-outsider status, Barrios doesn’t respect zero-sum cultural propositions, but this doesn’t mean he won’t air dirty laundry. And Barrios is fond of chisme and a good off-color joke, especially if he can make a play out of it.
His provocatively titled Dark Horse/Pale Rider, which premiered at the San Pedro Playhouse Cellar Theater, immediately alludes to the theme of miscegenation. It focuses on Texas writer Katherine Anne Porter’s interest in, um, Mexican rural themes, as critics have called it. Barrios dug deeper in archives to find evidence of Porter’s predilection for mounting dark brown studs, then using them in her celebrated stories.
The play received mixed reviews, with some vocal Chicano educators asking why Barrios “wasted an opportunity” by writing about a white writer. “Don’t we already have enough of that shit?” quipped one educator who requested anonymity.
These critics miss the point, however: Barrios’s work uncovers the Chicano presence in the Eurocentric canon. He was much more successful at rendering this issue in Rancho Pancho. An unusual amount of copy has been devoted to this play in newspapers from San Antonio to New Orleans to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the play has run to overwhelming acclaim.
The premise again is both simple and profound: Barrios posits that Tennessee Williams pimped his Mexican-American lover’s life to create characters and storylines. The bombshell is Barrios’s claim, backed up by reams of archival documents, photos, and interviews, that Williams’ archetypal character Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire is modeled on Pancho Gonzalez, with whom Tennessee had a similarly turbulent relationship.
Sandra Cisneros, perhaps San Antonio’s most famous writer and a personal friend of Barrios, suggested the title he eventually used for the play. She was ecstatic at the opening night of Rancho Pancho last month.
“His play is such a pleasure for those of us educated — and indoctrinated — in English Departments to revere the canon as just a white male thing,” said Cisneros. “He gives us new reasons to love the canon because we now know we have always been part of it.”
Despite this celebratory reception among Latina/o writers who know the sting of academic exclusion first hand, an important question remains: What are the ideological implications of a Chicano writer claiming inclusion in an American literary canon built in part on the U.S. imperialist takeover of Mexican territory?
In his groundbreaking 1971 manifesto, Calibán, renowned Cuban cultural critic Roberto Fernandez Retamar aptly notes that literary canons are extensions of political power. He uses the villain of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest as a third-world hero and archetype to rhetorically propose that students in the Americas could do without the European and White American canons if this continues to require the effacement of Mesoamerican, Black, Mestizo and populist canons of the rest of the Americas.
Again, Barrios, a student of Martí as much as Melville, rejects the binary:
“My perspective is that it is a both/and situation.”
He proves his point in his next two plays, Hard Candy, and a restructured and expanded ¡Carrasco!, which he currently is polishing for initial readings in San Antonio next year.
Hard Candy memorializes burlesque performer Candy Barr, who was born Juanita Dale Slusher in 1935 in Edna, Texas. She worked for Jack Ruby in his club in Texas, and later was mobster Mickey Cohen’s lover. (She expands JFK conspiracy theories by claiming to have seen Ruby with Lee Harvey Oswald at her home two weeks before Ruby shot Oswald.)
In an extension of the “prostitute with a heart of gold” storyline, Barrios’s focus is on Slusher’s life outside her status as a “kept woman” of the mob — as the author of a poetry collection, A Gentle Mind ... Confused (Dulce Press, 1972) and a humanist. Slusher transcended boundaries and taboos. She maintained life-long friendships with Barrios as well as Mexican American outlaws such as prison poet Ricardo Sánchez.
“She was the first really public sexual outlaw, a star of a porn film and an iconoclast and bohemian. Were she alive today,” Barrios maintains, “she’d be celebrated very much like the early Madonna was revered and reviled.”
Barrios’s reprise of Carrasco’s violent rise and fall is less about the man and more about the struggle to give meaning to a community that was in such dire straights it lionized him as a social bandit fighting evil racist whites with his pistol in his hand, similar to 19th-century heroes like Jacinto Treviño, who are still celebrated in the popular ballads known as corridos.
Barrios’s play also is informed by his access to the Carrasco diary, which he translated. He has yet to find a publisher. One renowned Texas publisher politely rejected the piece with a note stating, “Gregg, we are awaiting a great work from you. However, Carrasco does little to make our people look good.”
The enigmatic book-selling sage of San Antonio
While some theater critics are predicting Rancho Pancho will eventually find its way into the off-Broadway circuit where real theater still is being produced on occasion, Barrios is less concerned with fame than with the wonderful world of books and film.
Rosemary Catacalos, executive director of literary organization Gemini Ink, where Barrios has taught classes on writing book reviews and plays, testifies to Barrios’s role as a bibliophile.
“Gregg’s ability to speak to so many diverse aspects of writing makes him a journeyman, in the old sense of being a well-rounded craftsman,” says Catacalos.
Barrios’s work also has made its way into the academy. His early articles on Chicano film are credited with recovering San Antonio film pioneer Efrain Gutierrez as the very first Chicano filmmaker. He has devoted a considerable amount of time, effort, and money to collecting vintage film posters and the films they advertise, signed first-edition books from authors all over the world, and of course, Chicano texts.
After restarting and retiring anew from his teaching and journalism careers, Barrios has finally found what he calls “my dream job”: he works as a part-time bookseller at a local chain bookstore, where he can be found in the literature section.
On a recent weekday afternoon, standing between the stacks, he was asked what is the role of the artist in society. As usual, he resisted an easy answer. Instead, he recommended a book by Vaclav Havel, another by Gabriel García Márquez, another by Carlos Fuentes, and then another by his all-time-favorite Chicano sexual-outlaw author, John Rechy (City of Night). And so on.
He does this four or five days a week, recommending title after title until his shift is over, and it is time for him to drive home. A recent heart attack gave him a new sense of urgency to bring closure to his lingering projects, but he continues to sneak in a new idea every now and then. “I’ll probably die dreaming of the outlines of another play,” he says with a wry smile. •

B.V. Olguín is a published poet, San Antonio educator, and frequent contributor to the San Antonio Current.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Bridge Conversation on Planning the Revolution over Collards

By Javiera Benavente

This is a conversation between Tufara Waller Muhammad and Javiera Benavente. It is part of “Bridge Conversations: People Who Live and Work in Multiple Worlds,” a series of 19 conversations commissioned by the Center for Civic Participation’s Arts & Democracy Project and the Community Arts Network. These conversations highlight a diverse group of people — including artists, community activists, educators, funders, political leaders and scholars — who are building bridges and creating hybrid and integrated programs, strategies and lives. They illustrate how some of the most creative strategies for positive social change live in the intersections of disciplines, sectors, cultures and generations.
The Highlander Center is a residential popular-education and researchorganization based on a 106-acre farm in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, 25 miles east of Knoxville, Tennessee. Since 1932, Highlander has gathered workers, grassroots leaders, community organizers, educators and researchers to address the most pressing social, environmental and economic problems facing the people of the South. Highlander sponsors educational programs and research into community problems, as well as a residential Workshop Center for social-change organizations and workers active in the South and internationally. Generations of activists have come to Highlander to learn, teach and prepare to participate in struggles for justice. Highlander's work is rooted in the belief that in a truly just and democratic society the policies shaping political and economic life must be informed by equal concern for and participation by all people. Guided by this belief, the Center helps communities that suffer from unfair government policies and big-business practices as they voice their concerns and join with others to form movements for change.
Tufara Waller Muhammad coordinates Highlander's Cultural Program and supports the work of the We Shall Overcome Fund. As a cultural organizer for more than 15 years, Waller Muhammad combines art and activism to help people deepen their relationships with each other, demystify complex problems, nurture and sustain their communities and strengthen their work for justice. Tufara has worked with the Arkansas Equality Network on its "Safe Schools Campaign," with ACORN on housing and Community Reinvestment Act issues, and with the Women's Project on the "Hate-Free Arkansas” campaign and as the lead organizer with the African American Women’s Institute. In 2005, she participated in a leadership training program at the University of Zambia sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, and in 2007 she was part of the planning team for, and the only American participant on, a bus caravan modeled on the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights Movement that started in South Africa and brought 235 poor and working people from nine countries to Kenya for the World Social Forum. Waller Muhammad is an accomplished vocalist who has preformed with Kashmere, an R&B Soul band, and the Essie Neal Blues Band. For three years, she hosted The Sankofa Sessions show on KABF 88.3, a grassroots progressive alternative to the established radio outlets in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her writing has been published in a number of books and journals, including Black Magnolias, Bum Rush The Page: A Def Poetry Jam, and The Writious Literary Magazine; and her visual art works have been exhibited at the Aida Ayers Art Gallery and auctioned at the Women's Project Annual Art Show in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Javiera Benavente is an artist, popular educator and cultural organizer with more than 15 years of experience working with youth, women and Latino/a communities in the United States. She began organizing as a high-school student in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she co-founded SEED (Students Educating Each other about Discrimination), a social-justice education program run by and for young people. Benavente received a B.A. in Latino/a and Latin American Studies and Community Studies at UC Santa Cruz. While at UCSC, she organized for affordable public higher education and against the expansion of the prison industrial complex, and worked with working-class women in Santa Cruz County and Santiago, Chile, to address issues of violence against women in their communities. She credits much of what she knows about organizing to these experiences. A movement-based performance maker and storyteller, Benavente is interested in the relationship between physical movement, intuitive ways of knowing and creative expression. She received her theater training at Double Edge Theatre, where she also worked as an associate artist creating performances, touring and training students. She is currently a cultural organizer with the Arts & Democracy Project at the Center for Civic Participation and a member of Food for Thought Books Collective, a worker-owned bookstore in Amherst, Mass. She is originally from Santiago, Chile and lives in Northampton, Mass.

This essay is based on a telephone conversation Tufara Waller Muhammad and I had in late April 2008. Prior to the conversation, Tufara had shared some concerns with me about participating in this project and I was surprised to learn that she didn’t think she fit into its framework. I met Tufara for the first time in November 2007 during a three-day gathering of artists, activists, organizers and cultural workers who had come together in Jackson, Miss., to talk about different approaches to integrating art and culture with organizing. During the course of gathering, it became clear to me that Tufara had a great deal of insight to share about the value and challenges of being a bridge between sectors, communities and cultures.
As we talked in March, and later in April, I came to understand that for Tufara being a “bridge person” is such an integral part of her work as an organizer, that it was strange to separate it out and examine it as if it were a unique feature of what she does. Tufara also shared her discomfort with being singled out to participate in this project and share her experience and knowledge.
Again, I was surprised. I was excited about this project and it had not occurred to me that the proposition to have this conversation might create discomfort for some people. I believed that this project was valuable and needed to articulate why. What value does a conversation like ours have? What is the value of this series of conversations? What is the value of sharing them publicly?
My response went something like this: I think it is important for us, as organizers, to be transparent about the work that we do, to be explicit about the values and visions we bring to our work, and to share what we are learning along the way. This is especially true if our approach to organizing is facilitative; if it is about bridge building. I believe the only way we can create positive social change is through an open process of reflection, deliberation, action. That is why I think these conversations are important, and that is why I think it is important for us to share publicly what we learn through conversations like these, and identify ourselves as part of the conversation: so that we can find each other. At the same time, I think it is critical that we acknowledge that much, if not all, of what we learn happens in community, with other people, and that this knowledge is collective knowledge. We need to honor the people and communities that have taught us what we know.
With that said, we agreed to have this conversation, though Tufara’s questions remained.

Talk about your experience being a bridge between sectors, communities and cultures.
Every organizer should be using art and culture as a strategy to help people build bridges. I come from a school of Southern organizing where the organizers need to be invisible and the focus is placed on the people we work for. Sometimes this creates conflict with the art world because artists want to be in the spotlight.
This is why I’ve questioned whether or not this conversation is even appropriate.
I think what you are talking about has a lot to do with organizers following the leadership of the people they are working with and playing a facilitative role, rather than a leadership role. I think this is the work of bridge building. While this can create conflict with some artists who are invested in getting a certain kind of recognition for their work, you are still committed to integrating art and culture into your work as an organizer. This isn’t the case with many organizers. Why do think that is?
Sometimes people don’t (use art) because they feel intimidated. Even if they don’t mean to, sometimes artists make it seem like art is something that people can’t do themselves, that there are skills that you need. It’s complicated because if you create situations where organizers and people can (be artistic) themselves without being dependent on a professional artist, then artists work themselves out of a job.
That is a very interesting point — that some artists who work in communities hold on to their power as artists for fear that if they pass it on, they will no longer be needed. I think this is very similar to a dynamic that happens with social-service providers and organizers who, while they come at the work from very different places, make a living by virtue of the fact that injustice exists in the world. Sometimes, we hold onto the power we gain by being gatekeepers between communities and outside resources and, in the process, we perpetuate some of the very injustices that we want to dismantle. Because if we create a world in which injustice doesn’t exist, we won’t be necessary anymore, we will also be out of a job and then what will we do? I think it is really tricky when this work of creating social change becomes our livelihood. It is not always easy to navigate the sometimes competing interests of the movement and our own individual needs.
What do artists need to know about working with organizers and communities?
I have formal training in different (artistic) genres and have operated solely as an artist. I’ve toured as an artist. But I identify myself as an organizer and because I’ve done both, I realize that there are certain things that people need in order to work effectively.
Artists need to learn about the community. Three-week short-term residencies are ineffective because they don’t give folks the time to build relationships. There is no such thing as microwave relationships. Artists need to get in there with the community, they need to get in and work with the community on an issue, get dirty with them, share a meal with them so that then a bridge can be built with them. This work is about long- term collaboration.
Some artists doing community-based work are only interested in doing research, learning and taking from the community rather than giving something back to the community. This kind of work doesn’t inspire people and it’s just as bad as global conglomerates like Wal-Mart taking from the community and not giving back anything that is of any real value to the community. I only work with artists who have a political analysis and clear intentions.
[Tufara explained to me that her work as an organizer is primarily about bringing people together. When community members ask her to help them address an issue or set of issues, the first step is to put together a team of people that can work with the community. These people can come from within the community or outside the community. Either way, there is a balance that needs to be present and Tufara has an equation for working this out.]
She explains:
As an organizer, the hardest part of my work is thinking about who I’m going to bring together in a room. Something happens organically there. The magic is about who you put in the room. Once you get the right people together, you let it go. You’ve done your job. You go on and build the next bridge. It becomes the people’s project.
The equation needs to include an organizer, an educator (popular or formal), a person of faith and an artist. Within this equation, you need to try to make sure you have a young person and an old person, so that it’s intergenerational. The team can include more than four people, but it needs to be balanced in terms of power. Artists are an important part of this equation, but they need to have a political analysis because we are building a movement here, we are trying to change the world.
If you are working on environmental-justice issues, for example, everyone needs to understand the issues, the community and its values and culture. You might work with an artist from the community but you might also partner with an artist from outside the community who has experience working with similar issues. For example, you can bring in a White artist from a mining community in West Virginia to work with Black folks in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. Perhaps the community in the deep South is not used to working with White people, so you bring a White artist who has experience working with Black people. This is not just about artists presenting their work (to the community), this is about (the artist) being the connector, the bridge. Everyone in the equation needs to be willing to be a bridge, which is a long and in-depth process that takes time. A lot of artists don’t want to work in this deep way.
While I agree that some artists are not interested in making the long-term investment that this way of working requires, I also believe that many organizers aren’t willing to make this kind of investment either. I think that this is one of the barriers to organizers working with artists. The truth is that art, deep and resonant art, takes time to make, and if you are going to make it in community, with community, it takes even longer, and if you are going to align this art with an organizing campaign, then you have your work cut out for you. So, I think this is why some organizers shy away from working with artists in any deep and meaningful way, because it is a long and complex process.
I come from a long organizing tradition that includes the Ella Baker Schools, and people like Hollis Watkins and Bernice Johnson Reagon, among others, where art and culture have always been a part of organizing. When I started working outside the South, the thing that freaked me out was organizing with no cultural or artistic component. I didn’t realize that it didn’t happen everywhere until I left the South. For me, the cultural piece is integral to organizing but for some people it is frivolous.
I think that a disconnect happened with the industry of professional organizing. Before that, folks organized out of necessity.
And art and culture were a part of that because people often came together at the end of long days of hard work and it was essential to have food, music, dance, something for people to enjoy and that gave them physical, emotional and spiritual sustenance. Organizing doesn’t do that alone.
When organizing became people’s jobs, this shifted. When someone else determines the bridges that you build, when it is a directive from the organization you work for, rather than an organic need emerging from the community you work with— this is corporate organizing and it doesn’t work. You try to fit people and relationships into a specific timeline — like we have control over time, or over the way people connect, like we control when trees bloom. This organizing, I feel, is not holistic. It burns people out because it doesn’t allow people to grow and heal and develop together as a group.
This makes so much sense to me and I think it is a large part of why I have moved away from being a full-time organizer. When I had organizing jobs I often felt beholden to outside forces that had little to do with the needs and desires of the people and communities I was working with. Maintaining financial support for the work without compromising its integrity was a constant struggle and it often left me feeling empty.
That’s why I’m trying to integrate my work as an artist, organizer and, most recently, as a collective member of Food For Thought Books, a worker-owned bookstore. This way I can bring all the resources I have to addressing the issues that affect my multiple communities.
Sometimes money stifles people; we think if we don’t have it we can’t do the necessary work. But, we need to remember that we are building something bigger than this capitalist system. We are building a new world and a new way of thinking.
What advice would you give other folks interested in this holistic approach to organizing that includes art and culture?
When you come from the outside of the community you want to work in, you need to cultivate the ground, give people time, and make sure that people are ready to move with you. It is important to know the community you are working with, to know their reality, to be invited in by some members of the community. If some of the people in the group are looking for help outside their community, you know they are ready to move.
It is important to survey what already exists in a community before you get there. There may be an artist there that you can work with. Once you have identified the people in the equation, conversations have to happen among these people before you bring more folks together. Do they share the same values? Do they want to do the same things? If a part of the equation is missing in the community, who can they bring in from the outside?
What can be done to institutionalize what folks know about integrating art and culture with organizing?
The political education work that Alternate ROOTS does and the cultural organizing workshop that took place at the Mississippi Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement Gathering are important parts of institutionalizing this work. It helps people see that this as a useful methodology, that we are not just a bunch of hippies who want to dance in the middle of the room, even though some of us are and that is necessary.
There is a great skit that Kathie deNobriga and Nayo Watkins would do about artists working in communities. In the skit, Kathie would play a community artist coming into a community from the outside and Nayo would play a member of the community. Kathie, the artist, would tell the people about a beautiful exercise that she wanted them to do. In response, Nayo would say, “But we don’t have any street lights and the kids keep getting run over.”
It is really important for community artists to be knowledgeable enough about the local community and their issues in order to be able to inspire people in a way that is related to what is affecting them right then and there. Artists need to be shape shifters who can realize when something isn’t working and be able to shift their agenda in order to address the immediate needs of the community.
When people are hungry, it is hard for them to focus on “expressing themselves." So, maybe what you need to do is take the art and make it about the children and the darkness, and show it to the city council, and dedicate it to the kids who got run over. Maybe you need to shift your agenda and meet people where they are at.
You need to know what is going on in a community; you need to be invited in by the community, and you need to take the time to sit down and eat with the community, because the revolution is going to be planned over collards, it is going to be planned over food. That is how our people get together.
Original CAN/API publication: June 2008

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


275 Reasons to Celebrate
1. Margie Gomez 2. Aristeo Gomez (QEPD) 3. Miranda Gomez 4. Ted Gomez 5. Breanna Herrera 6. Cecilia Epstein 7. Michelle Krupkin 8. Denise Douce 9. Debbie Reighn 10. David Kendall 11. Kendra Bochner 12. Liz Belile 13. Lorna Dee Cervantes 14. Patrisia Gonzalez 15. Roberto Rodriguez 16. Richard Loranger 17. Cecilia Gonzalez 18. Donna Hoffman 19. Ginger Webb (John too!) 20. Elaine Wolff 21. Ari Chagoya 22. Chandra Washington 23. Ernest Garcia 24. Sheelah Murthy 25. Patricia Greene 26. Rose Imperato 27. Nicholas Schriber 28. Rene Renteria 29. Raul R. Salinas 30. Radames Ortiz 31. Ray Santisteban 32. Tonantzin Canestaro-Garcia 33. Teresa Taylor 34. Diana Garcia 35. Allyson Lipkin 36. Irma Andrade 37. Andrea “Gaia” Melendez 38. Lydia Armendariz 39 Enrique Cabrera 40. Cesar Hernandez (Dulce too!)41. BC Harrison 42. Jennifer Cardenas 43. Tamara Ford (Stan too!) 44. Frieda Werden 45. Julia Apodaca (Dani too!)4 6. Lourdes Perez 47. Annette D’armata 48. Amanda Plaisance 49. Emily Kenyon 50. Brackin Firecracker 51. Aida Salazar (John too!) 52. Claudia Martinez 53. Maria Elena Fernandez 54. Diana Delgado 55. Cheri Popoff 56. Rod Lindsey 57. Mark Gee 58. Dave Haller 59. Danny Solis 60. Robert Karimi 61. Lisa Gill 62. Sarah West 63. Darryl Cropper 64. Astrid Zometa 65. Leticia Llinares Hernandez 66. Richard Ray Whitman 67. Kathianne Osborne 68. Tony Gilchriest 69. Mitch Rayes 70. Kenn Rodriguez 71. Mary Mier (Ron too!) 72. Eugene Jaceldo (and the other bros. Jaceldo) 73. Mariposa 74. SXIP 75. Andrew Baron 76. Sheila Contreras7 7. Kamala Platt 78. Zeek Kruzich 79. Jordan Green 80. Teresa Marrero 81. Carol Pankratz 82. Kim DeLozier 83. Crystal Dozier 84. Greg Johnson 85. Rose Ann Meredith 86. Shani Abell 87. Jason Eklund 88. Kathy & Dani O’Brien 89. Kat Thornton (Ken too!) 90. Lisa Feather Wheeler 91. Violet Ramirez & family92. Raul Avila 93. Clebo Rainey (Naomi too!) 94. Ricardo Garza 95. Gerald Youngblood 96. Da’Shade Moonbeam 97. Zell Miller 98. Rich Perin99. Vicki Grise 100. Ana Sisnett 101. Bronmin Shumway (Kirk too!) 102. Chris & Tamitha Curiel 103. Karen X 104. Kelsie Torres Pelham (Derek too!) 105. Mitch Torres Parker (Bysshe too!) 106. Gabriela Lomonaco 107. Claudia Acosta 108. Natasha Carrizosa 109. Wendy Vestal 110. Devin Adams (QEPD) 111. Linda Curcio 112. ir’ene lara silva 113. Moises Silva114. Diana Puma 115. Linus Strekfus116. Andrea Griemel117. Eduardo Garza118. Irma Mayorga119. Sandra Cisneros120. Lisa Suarez 121. Rosie Gonzalez 122. Robert Tatum 123. Amalia Ortiz 124. Amelia Montes 125. Marisela Barrera 126. Laura Varela 127. Jane Madrigal 128. Rene Valdez 129. Jackie Cuevas (Jen too!)130. Tony Diaz131. Maria Limon132. Anel Flores133. Vicente Lozano134. Anthony Flores 135. Anthony Douglas 136. AJ Houston 137. Gracey Tune 138. Will Richey 139. Zack Prince 140. Melissa Kane 141. Ruben Salazar 142. Jose Vargas 143. Ronald Shannon Jackson 144. Rajendra Narendra 145. Geetha Patil 146. Andrea Gonzalez 147. Bryce Milligan 148. Tim Cloward149. Jennifer Hill150. Lori Thomson151. Junanne Peck152. Kendall McCook (Ginny too!) 153. Kell Robertson 154. Marcos Flores (Sadanid too!) 155. Dagoberto Gilb 156. Shawn Truitt 157. Arleen Polite 158. Akwasi Evans 159. Mary Krenek 160. Doug Zachary 161. Carl Webb 162. Firesong 163. P.O. W. (Poet on Watch) 164. Peter Ortiz 165. Nailah Sankofa166. Eva Lindsey167. R.V. Adams168. Valerie Bridgman-Davis 169. Phil West170. Tchiya Amet171. Torrence Gettrell172. Pat Payne173. Logan Phillips 174. Liliana Valenzuela175. Shermakaye Bass 176. Luis Tames 177. Ben Olguin 178. Anita Pantin 179. Sherry Milam180. Victoria Zapata Klein 181. Randy Koch 182. Sashua Muniz (where are you?)183. David Moorman184. Amanda Winters 185. Hillary Thomas1 86. Debbie Ursini187. Viola Valdez188. Angelique (Jason too!)189. Yvonne Duque190. Natalia Dominguez191. Rupert Gloria192. Patricia Urbina (Donald too!)193. Lupe Mendez 194. Yolanda Reyes 195. Alvaro Rios 196. Marco Iniguez (Brenda too!)197. Manolo Callahan (Monica too!) 198. Rodney Garza (Dava too!) 199. Eli & Maria (the entire Madmedia crew) 200. Haldun Morgan 201. Jose Ruben de Leon 202. Pilar Rodriguez 203. Laney Yarber 204. Mav McNabb 205. Zoe Pardee 206. Judy Gordon 207. Christina Byrnes 208. m.m. harris 209. Machete 210. J.P. Markarian 211. Cri Rivera 212. Ramsey Sprague 213. Sahai214. Gren215. Rachella Parks Washington 216. Vik Bahl 217. Matt Stringer 218. Samira 219. Susan Libby220. Mary Porter 221. Vicky Meek 222. Babs & Lama Tamang 223. Janne Bryan224. Martha Whitehouse 225. Diane Wood226. Karen Foley227. John Singleton 228. Octavio Solis229. W. Joe Hoppe 230. Norma Cantu 231. Heriberto G 232. Luis J. Rodriguez 233. Kazuko (where are you?) 234. Nadja Hamilton 235. Sylvia Orozco 236. Herlinda Zamora 237. Sonia Santana (Tom too!) 238. Robyn Medina Winnett239. JoAnne Reyes-Boitel240. Maria Solano241. Clint Niosi 242. Rachel Loera 243. Nathan Kite 244. “big” Jerry of Tesuque Village Market 245. Lupe Cedillos 246. Lee Daniel 247. Rick Linklater 248. Bill Daniel 249. Emily (from Headlands Center for the Arts)250. Ron (from UNL-Nebraska)251. Quincy Miller252. Emmet Campos253. Isabella Russell-Ides 254. Al Santangelo (where are you?) 255. Vicki Monks 256. Joe Dale 257. Paul S. Flores258. Marc Pinate259. Brecht Andersch260. Levi Romero261. Pasha Allsup (QEPD)262. David Zamora Casas 263. Sandra & Victor Payan 264. Francisco Aragon 265. Ken Hunt (QEPD) 266. She: Bike/Spoke/Love cast & crew 267. Dunya Dianne McPherson 268. Beatriz Terrazas 269. Michael “MD” Meyer (QEPD)270. Rodrigo Pessoa 271. Layne Calabro272. Lorenzo Thomas (QEPD) 273. Oscar Escalante 274. Michael Nye (Naomi too!) 275. Charles Dreyfus (Lila too!)

About a year ago, after a night-time shift at the library, I sat down to relax with a bottle of Heinecken and started a list of all the good friends and companions and colleagues who've stuck with me and supported me & encouraged me & partied with me & created with me through the decades of my life. I started this list as a sort of meditation, to remind myself of the wonderful gift of friendship that I have had with so many amazing people.

Today, on my birthday (9/30), I am feeling so blessed and lucky to have had all of you in my life.With many of these folks: I've traveled or hiked or biked; shared tables & conversation until the wee hours of the morning; collaborated and performed on stages from Madison to San Francisco; distilled life's lessons and exchanged recipes for survival; and corresponded via chapbooks, mixtapes, cd demos, long philosophical emails, and cut-up collages.

I have spent the night in the homes of 74 of you folks, indulging in your amazing libraries of music and literature, and having curious adventures in your hood.When I broke my left foot in February, some of you mailed me care packages (Jen and Jackie--thanks!); brought over home-cooked meals and wine (Kat & Ken--thanks!); carried me to and from work when I couldn't drive (Ramsey, Lila, Dani O--thanks!).When I emerged from my 2.5 day bedroom closet ordeal in May, many of you emailed and phoned me with messages of concern, love, and disbelief. (I'm still sorting through the impact of that closeted experience--stay tuned for a book, movie, or stage show about this...definitely)

So, on this anniversay day of my birth, I want to say that I love you for caring, and I thank you for being my friend, colleague, and companion. You are my tribe.And finally, cuz I AM a POET--a short poem:

friend power is strong
i have no need for candle
you have lit my path

Tammy Gomez
September 30, 2008