A multimedia presentation of his life and his work and its continuing impact.
Notes from Aztlán
In this blog the term “political graffiti” is used in the context of a Harry Gamboa interview. Harry, an influential Chicano essayist, photographer, director and performance artist, once said that some art has strong form or style but has a poor message while other art has a weak technique but a strong message. This statement recalls the importance of graffiti art that, for me, has a strong message rather than adhering to the accepted form.
Political blogs resemble graffiti; they are not always pretty but have strong messages. I have never adhered to saying of art for art’s sake. If what you are writing has a political purpose the message is what is important. That is why I try to concentrate on the message, which I consider more important than commas and semi-colons.
This time around my piece focuses on the state of Chicana/o politics that we often confuse with the Chicana/o movement. It is my belief that Chicana/o politics today are based more on form than substance. Today’s Chicana/o politics do not want to transform society but to relate to the American illusion. In other words, selfies and social forms have replaced the politics of change.
I choose to call this phenomenon the time of political groupie. The word initially referred to a musical group but in the 1960s it was used in a more general sense. It came to refer to a particular kind of female fan who was presumably more interested in relationships with rock stars than in their music. In other words, the rock stars fame rubbed off on them.
The definition, however, becomes sexist if we make it gender specific. The truth be told, there is a thin line between a fan and a groupie. During my youth we would go to boxing matches at the Olympic and often get into arguments and even altercations over a fighter we were following. Like the groupie we belied that the boxer’s fame rubbed off on us.
This phenomenon can be expanded to sports teams. The World Cup reached ridiculous levels as has baseball. I have a former student who feels betrayed by the Dodgers, not because they stole Chavez Ravine, but because they let him down and did not win. He acts as if he were on the field catching the balls and batting .400.
Some political groupies claim to be down with the movement and often living recalling past glories.
Groupies are prominent in the political scene. Some of my good friends have become political groupies. I never fail to be amazed by the number of selfies they take with politicians and old activists such as me. They don’t seem to grasp the fact that just because you take a selfie with someone it does not mean that you participated in their history. Their accomplishments are not theirs but merely building blocks for today.
The truth be told this Chicana/o-Latino Groupie stage makes us all cheerleaders in the Twilight zone. We become groupies because we are living through someone else and taking on their personality and point of view. We become boosters instead of participants. We become spectators instead of agents of change.
We can see this change through our own lives and the changes that have taken place in our faculty, friends and students. Students often ask me how students today differ from those of forty years ago. In any time period those joining MECHA are the most political.
However, there is no denying that the idealism of MECHA has been compromised by a social mission. The group has always partied but that was not its focal point. Today there is more emphasis on getting along with others no matter what their politics.
The age of the political groupie is best typified in what is called Latino or Hispanic politics that do not promote issues but individuals and ourselves. Latino politics thrives on selfies. The truth be told, there has always been an element of this, but it was different.
You may have disagreed with LA City Councilman Richard Alatorre on a particular issue but you always knew if you scratched deep enough you got Garfield High School. He was an eastside kid and remained so through all the storms. That sense of place is missing in those running for office and their cheerleaders today.
A former student of mine Filiberto Gonzalez told me that he was one of the few Latinos active in the political scene that was involved with MECHA. Most had graduated from college without having taken a Chicana/o Studies class or participated in a demonstration. The significance of this is that the politics of change is not part of their epistemology.
The only Mexican/Latino issue that appears to have any traction is immigration – and even there not everyone is on the same page. Latino politics appears to boil down to pro and anti- Obama.
What distinguishes the groupies or selfies from others is self-interest. But I don’t want to get caught up in hyperbole. There are group and individual efforts to change society. Another former student of mine Raquel Roman, the Director at Proyecto Pastoral, is a prime example and represents the best in our community. Her life is one of activism and trying to transform society.
Just like Raquel there are thousands of activists who are altruistic. The Association of Raza Educators (ARE) is at the forefront of educational reform. The struggles in Tucson to defend Mexican American Studies and the work there in defense of the undocumented are other examples.
This Saturday there will be a conference at California State University Long Beach. There is a movement to make Chicana/o studies mandatory in California Public Schools. The leadership is a combination of old timers and grassroots activists who are not part of the selfie generation.
Organizers and supporters point out that the dropout problem is still at an epidemic stage in barrio schools and because of tuition and recruitment priorities the poor are being squeezed out. They also want to reverse the trend toward groupie politics by educating students through a process of identity, skill development and critical thinking.
The movement for CHS in the public schools has been picking up steam as of late. Led by people such as Elías Serna, Johny Ramírez, Selina Rodríguez and others from the Westside, the Santa Monica/ Malibu Unified School District recently created a small Ethnic Studies course/program. In East LA, the Semillas is an alternative K-12 school founded by the leaders of the UCLA Hunger Strike.
In the Pico-Rivera El Rancho School District Jose Lara (José del Barrio) has led the drive to make Mexican American Studies mandatory. And just recently California Latino legislators introduced a bill to make CHS mandatory in the public schools. Sadly they did not fight for it and withdrew the bill.
Attendance at the Long Beach conference could be historic. History tells us that our advances in the 70s and access to higher education were a product of the Chicana/o Movement and the drive for CHS. Perhaps these programs would reverse the trend toward the politics of the selfies and give us a sense of place and pride. So try to go but leave your cellphones at home.
– by Dr. R. Acuña
I cannot write about this book without also writing about myself. I realize that’s may seem odd for a book review but what is left after reading a book if you cannot compare it to your own life experience?
I will preface this by saying that I have never been incarcerated, though I’ve come close a few times and certainly known people and grew up around family and friends who have. That said, part of my mind has always been behind bars. Such is life in AmeriKKKa.
For most of my life, the thought of incarceration has always been there. You can read about in my books. Sometimes it’s been an overwhelming feeling of fear and loathing and other times just a fleeting thought but it’s never not been there.
It’s the tiny rock in my shoe that never goes away, except in this case, the shoe is my brain and the rock is the panicky thought that somehow, someway, I’ll end up in prison. And not just end up there but that I belong there.
We live in an age where (if you’re Brown) you can get pulled over for a simple traffic infraction and end up dead. My gut still sinks every time I spot a police cruiser in the rearview mirror. This is called conditioning and I have countless examples of why fear sets in every time Sgt. Pavlov rings his police bell.
That’s what AmeriKKKan society does to your head when you’re Brown. And if you don’t believe me just go read the headlines on any news site, anywhere in Police State, USA. Incarceration in AmeriKKKa is epidemic and as traditional apple pie, so much so that we now have prisons that make money solely based on their population numbers; the more inmates you lock up the more money your stockholders make. Ka-ching! Hello Wall St!
I can remember telling my little brother when we were growing up, “Stay out of trouble; I don’t wanna go to jail.” And I meant it. I’ll tell the same thing to my kids. Prison…always on my mind here in these not-so-united-states-of-incarceration.
I am a son of the Chicano Movement and also a child of the 80s and 90s so I’ve had my brain zapped with plenty of “prison flicks” and conditioning from crooked cops, warped teachers, racist textbooks, subliminal magazines, and the corporate media over the years. The stereotypes put out by “the machine” run deep and are perfectly accepted by most of mainstream society as fact. It’s both hilarious and pathetic.
As a Chicano you come to half-accept these things as a loose caricature of a culture that you either are privy to, part of or expect to be at some point. Why? Because we’re bombarded with these images at every turn; preschool to prison pipeline, baby! ‘Merica!
Everyone I know who is down and Brown has jokes about films like “Blood In, Blood Out” and “American Me.” It goes with the territory and it’s even celebrated in certain online communities, which is bizarre to say the least. People actually sell shirts with images from made up films portraying Chicano prison life…cue Rod Serling.
But I’ve had that rock in my brain for as far back as I can remember and when I read John’s book, it was like talking with an old friend about a favorite subject.
Let me rewind a bit.
I’ve read lots of books about prison, from the weirdo serial killer letter ones to what prison tattoos mean to stuffy textbooks, but John Espinosa Nelson’s book: “Where Excuses go to Die” was recommended to me by my friend Art Meza. Art knows my own work and so I take his recommendations on literature seriously. So I knew that on some level, I would enjoy this book.
“You’ll dig this book,” he told me. He was right.
I didn’t read anyone else’s reviews for this book before I read it. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to read other people’s interpretations or their expressions of awe and or horror of what John went through. I did this because mostly I figured that the majority people who haveread and enjoyed John’s book would be removed from his world by a few stratospheres. In other words, I figured they were squares.
And not to say that I’m not a square but I’m not that kinda square. Book club of the month kinda guy I am not.
Being obsessed with prison culture for most of my life (and by largely no choice of my own), being torn between two cultures in everyday life and being a Xicano in the year 2014, where Black and Brown people are incarcerated en masse, I was intrigued with the book to say the least.
Sure, you can read “The New Jim Crow” and be entranced with statistics and liberal horror stories about “the system,” but Johns book IS the experience of the system itself. Big difference.
Being a stranger in a strange land, as well as a nonconformist with my middle fingers flipped up at the establishment – any establishment – well, this book spoke to me on several levels.
The book is really interesting in the Chicano aesthetic. John may or may not know just how Chicano his book really is and this really made me dig the book. It’s like a Chicano Trojan Horse book. You may not think you’re getting a Chicano studies book but BAM! There it is. Take that Arizona!
This is one of the reasons I didn’t care about other people’s interpretations of it because I’m sure, like 99% of other books, the Chicano stuff went over their heads.
Nelson mentions several times that his father is white and his mother Mexican. So I realized right away that he grew up as a guero. If you’ve seen “Blood In, Blood Out,” think: Milkweed or Miklo but minus the gang bullshit and with a serious penchant for reform, humor, humility and literature.
And for all I know, Nelson might identify as White in his daily life but his struggle is one that is familiar to Chicanos everywhere. I’ve known half-White Chicanos who thought they were the next coming of Corky Gonzales and sellout Chicanos browner than dirt with Ronald Reagan bumper stickers. Nopal en la frente, ese…It’s all about how you see yourself.
Prison is a world of racial politics and for a person who is torn between two worlds, this offers an interesting dilemma: which side to choose…or which side chooses you? And what if you don’t want to choose any side?
Were this a Hollywood film, John would be expected to “shank” someone on his first day or face gang rape and then he would rise to prison infamy like his Hollywood guero counterparts. But this is real life and real life often tells Hollywood to go fuck itself.
To be honest, without knowing him personally, and with “Espinosa” in his name, I expected John to side with the Chicanos immediately and I was surprised, no, floored, when he ended up identifying more with the peckerwoods instead. Or I should say that, they identified with him.
If you watch the book trailer, a Chicano inmate that knew john says, “Yeah I remember Nelson. Half-Caucasian, Half-Raza…no Español.” And he says it with a little animosity in his tone.
Right away you sense the tension that exists in that world and it’s clear from page one that this is no ordinary book about Prison. This is not the gang memoirs of the ultimate badass from cellblock D but rather, “How I Survived the California Penal System Being Half-White and Half-Mexican Without Succumbing to 1,001 Clichés.”
John might not have had Spanish on his side but he did have his wits and sharp humor in a world lacking both and that saved his ass more than once. Despite him claiming to be half-Mexican, John was never truly accepted by either side of his own torn culture war but he gathered enough from both worlds to get by. I believe that he could have chosen sides if he really wanted to but he was defiant in wanting to be his own man and do his own time and I dig that.
He was identified as “white enough” to suffice for prison politics but never truly embraced as a ‘wood. He was also not completely shunned by the Chicanos. He was a stranger in a strange land, as I like to say, and that’s a place familiar to all Chicanos struggling to merely exist in a world that does not want them to and one that is always trying to define them…or erase them.
So, I really got a kick out of the racial politics and chess that John played in the book. He was good at it. He definitely made some moves and was able to survive without having to clique up and lose himself in the process. That’s true strength, in my opinion, and I greatly admire that. I also related to wanting to do things on your own terms and bucking the system.
While I read this book I felt a kinship to John because of that defiance. That really spoke to me. The book is a personal memoir and it’s written masterfully. The way John writes, I felt like I was doing time with him and that’s a strange sensation. Every time I picked up the book I would be in there with him and thinking to myself what I would do in the same situations…and when the hell do we get out?!
I also related to feeling like you are “better” than the situation you are in and to also the sensation of being institutionalized and crawling the walls – hello High School. There are many kinds of “prisons” we encounter in life but we each choose how we do our time in them.
The book has many surprises and turns and I hate reviews that spoil those things so I will not do that here other than to say that this book is both hilarious and moving. I think John’s sense of humor saved his ass as much as a burning desire to get over on “the man” did. Whatever keeps you going.
Probably more than anything else in the entire book, I think I related to the Elvis head story the most. Not only could I see myself doing something similar but even my friend said the same thing. That’s funny. Great minds and all.
So, what can I tell you to get you to read this book? It will surprise you, from the beginning to the end. The jokes, the raw honesty, and the brutal reality of prison life…and not in the way you would expect either. John’s book is devoid of clichés and full of what people often miss when it comes to portrayals of prison: humanity and humility.
In the end, Nelson lucked out, if you can call it that. Through the aid of friends and family, he caught the system slipping and turned that on them. The next thing he knew, he was free. If you’re religious, they say the Lord helps those that help themselves. If you’re not ( like myself) you believe that when you’re up against it, you have to believe in yourself. Sometimes that’s all you’ve got.
It reminded me of the film, “Midnight Express.” The only ways out of there were paying crooked lawyers or self-determination. Nelson chose self-determination, which again, is a very Chicano thing to do. But of course, I’m biased.
As an independent author myself and indie publisher, I greatly admire that this book is an independent success. That’s rare. I highly recommend it and would like to see it picked up for study in universities. If he’s not already, I can see Nelson talking about his book and experience to high school kids, colleges and also at prisons. I can also see his story as a film.
Lastly, I will say that I was immediately jealous that Henry Rollins endorsed the book on the back cover. I can see why Rollins dug it so much – It’s gritty, funny AND real! I tried to get Rollins to check out my own work for years until I finally just decided to copy his business model. He was a huge inspiration to what I do. I still have his rejection letter pinned to my wall by my desk.
Do yourself a favor and go out and get a copy of “Where Excuses Go To Die” by John Espinosa Nelson. Read it and do a little time with John. You’ll be glad that you did.
Special Musical Performances by
Las Cafeteras • Raul y Mexia
Metralleta de Oro • The Stone Soul Echoes
¡Aparato • Magaly La Voz de Oro and more…
at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School
1200 Plaza Del Sol, Boyle Heights, CA 90033
(directly across from Self Help Graphics & Art)
Use the Goldline Metro (Pico/Aliso Stop) – Limited Paid Parking On Site!
Traditional Ceremonial Blessing * Food and Craft Vendors
Face Painting * Children’s Workshops
FEATURED LOCAL FOOD, ARTS & CRAFTS VENDORS:
2ndWnd, Lalo Alcaraz, Butterflies and Hummingbirds, Casa Belen LLC, Celsa’s Tacos, Chano’s Elotes, La Candelaria Candles, Cihuatl Poxteca, Colibri Boutique, Crafty Frida, Diversity Graphics, De La Luna Designs, Estefania’s Tamales, Fiesta Mexicana, Ana Guajardo, Javier Orozco, JDN73, Kalli Arte, Relics Loft, Araceli Silva, Social Machine Productions, White Wall Wear Inc., Urban Xic, Xochipilli Wear
With Master Altar Maker Ofelia Esparza and the Esparza Family
Saturday, October 25, 2014 | 7PM – 9PM
200 North Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012 (map)
Noche de Ofrenda will expand its reach to include families and individuals from all over Los Angeles County at Grand Park’s beautiful and easily accessible space located in Downtown Los Angeles. In celebration of our loved ones, 50 Altares by local partners, community based organizations, and artists will be installed at Grand Park. The program for the evening will include an opening prayer and closing with danza along with theatrical (Casa 0101’s teen theatre group), poetry and musical performances by El-Haru Kuroi.
Additional Sites Along 1st Street (between Cummings & St. Louis)
Corazon del Pueblo • Hardware Studio • Casa 0101
Enjoy a special October evening viewing art that honors our past loved ones. Self Help Graphics & Art is partnering with LURN, Corazon del Pueblo, Hardware Studio and Casa 0101 to install specially curated exhibitions at each community space for the purpose of highlighting the community driven work and art each organization/space provides to the community of Boyle Heights.
Art Exhibition Curated by Miyo Hernandez & Usen Gandara
October 23, 2014 – November 30, 2014
We celebrate Day of the Dead through the perspective of the living world, and don’t often think about Day of the Dead through the experiences of those from the other side. How do the Muertos prepare to walk amongst the living to rejoice the love, tears, and laughter that at one point gave life to their souls? Una Cita con La Vida is a representation of how the dead prepare for dia de los muertos through the side of the underworld. En este Día de los Muertos, l@s Almas se preparan para una cita con la vida. – Luis-Genaro Garcia
Artists: Rosanna Ahrens, Rafael Cardenas, Martha Carrillo, John Carlos de Luna, Ofelia Esparza, Fishe, Erica Friend, Miyo Hernandez, Usen Gandara, Luis-Genaro Garcia, Jose Lozano, Joshua “Kenzo” Martinez, Wayne Perry, Andrea “Xoch” Ramirez, Vyal Reyes, Jacqueline “JaxieJax” Sanders, Francesco X Siqueiros, Dewey Tafoya, Ernesto Yerena, among others…
Friday, October 31, 2014 – 1:30pm to 3:00pm
CSRC Library – 144 Haines Hall
The UCLA Department of Sociology Race & Ethnicity Working Group and the CSRC are pleased to welcome Phillip B. (Felipe) Gonzales, professor and associate chair, Department of Sociology, University of New Mexico, to present the talk “POLÍTICA: The Forced Annexation and Political Incorporation of the Nuevomexicanos, 1821-1871.”
The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended a two-year war with Mexico, empowered the United States to annex the Mexican Department of New Mexico. Overnight, the 60-100,000 Spanish-speaking citizens of New Mexico were subordinated to the rule of a foreign nation. As scholars have recently stressed, the Nuevomexicanos were thrown into a condition of colonialism once their homeland was annexed, particularly as New Mexico would remain a federal territory for several decades to come. However, compared to classic internal colonialism around the world, in which the conquered were universally subordinated to a strict ethno-racial segregation, the unique New Mexico case involved what one scholar has called a relation of “power-sharing” as between the dominant Euro-Americans and the native Nuevomexicanos.
The substantial integration of the Nuevomexicanos into the American political system, seen for example in the elected position of delegate to Congress, operated as the major component of their power-sharing system at this time. The ideological force of Enlightenment Liberalism and the mechanism of the Western political party do the most to explain the substantial political integration of the Nuevomexicanos in nineteenth century New Mexico. The process of placing the modern versions of American liberalism and political party on a traditional Mexican territory involved some contradictions telling for the experience of power-sharing, but it also enabled the Nuevomexicanos to activate a civic resistance to their social subordination in the internal colony of American New Mexico.
A reception will take place following the talk.
Co-sponsored by the Cesar E. Chavez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, Dept. of Sociology Contentious Politics and Organizations Working Group, and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.
This event is FREE.
Friday, October 24, 2014 – 7:00pm to 8:00pm
UCLA Library, Powell Library Rotunda
Your heart beats at the speed of the spoken word pulsing with the rhythm of California Interstates 5, 15, 405 and Route 78. You’re on the road with Taco Shop Poets Adolfo Guzmán-López, Adrián Arancibia, and Tomás Riley as they rhyme and rap from San Diego and L.A. to San Francisco’s Mission District, and then back south through the San Joaquin Valley to la linea/the border. Willie Herrón and Jesus Velo, members of Los Illegals, the legendary East L.A. punk rock band, will provide the music for the trip.
Book and CD signing to follow the performance.
Co-sponsored by the UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies, UCLA Department of English, UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures, UCLA Division of the Humanities, UCLA Division of Social Sciences, MEChA de UCLA, and UCLA Library.
The ninth annual Latina/o Education Summit brings together legal scholars, social scientists, advocates, and administrators in order to assess the impact and implications of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and the 2011 DREAM Act on Latina/o students. According to keynote speaker Michael A. Olivas, there are roughly 1.7 million immigrants currently in the U.S. who might meet the requirements for DACA. This year’s summit is presented in cooperation with the UCLA School of Law and the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
Rachel Moran, Dean and Michael J. Connell Distinguished Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law
Michael A. Olivas, William B. Bates Distinguished Chair of Law and Director, Institute of Higher Education Law & Governance, University of Houston Law Center
Featured Panelists and Moderators
Leisy Abrego, Assistant Professor, UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies
Angela Chen, Coordinator, Undocumented Student Program at the UCLA Bruin Resource Center
Nancy Guarneros, Ph.D. Candidate, Claremont Graduate University School of Educational Studies
Alfred Herrera, Assistant Vice Provost, UCLA Academic Partnerships and Director, Center for Community College Partnerships
Lindsay Pérez Huber, Assistant Professor, CSULB College of Education
Marissa K. López, Interim Director, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center and Associate Professor of English and Chicana and Chicano Studies
Grecia Mondragon, Current Co-chair, UCLA Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success (IDEAS)
Seth Ronquillo, Past Co-chair, UCLA Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success (IDEAS)
Daniel Solorzano, Professor, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and Director, All Campus Consortium on Research and Diversity (UC/ACCORD)
Carola Suárez-Orozco and Robert Teranishi, Co-directors, UCLA Institute for Immigration, Globalization and Education and Professors, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies
Brenda Pulido Villanueva, M.A. Candidate, CSULB College of Education
Past education summits have looked at gaps in the education pipeline, school funding issues, and legislation pertaining to Latina/o student access, such as the 2013 summit, Fisher v. Texas: Implications for Latina/o Diversity. Each summit includes CSRC publications and online resources.
To register, go to Eventbrite here. Conference registration is available through Eventbrite ONLY.
Conference sign-in at 10:30 a.m.; program at 11:00 a.m. Lunch and afternoon refreshments will be served.