Thursday, December 29, 2011

I do: In Sickness and In Health

I have always dreaded social etiquettes, particularly small talk stuff. More specifically, I dread how to respond to the simple query "How are you?" For a moment, I am torn between responding with the old cliche' expression "fine, how are you? And then diverting the focus away from me with anything, like "nice day, huh?" Or "How you doing?"

But for some 15 years now, since my wife became increasing ill, I have dreaded the question even more. "How's your wife?" From close friends or family who know of her illness, this scares me even more.

Should I just lie and say "fine", "she's better"? Or should I tell them the truth and launch into details on medications, side-effects, failed surgeries and treatments, incompetent doctors, and how hard it is to see her writing in pain 18 hours a day, and be unable to do anything about it?

With certain people, even after repeated updates on her condidition, I am shocked by by their response, "Oh, I didn't know she was ill?" "What did you say was wrong with her?" Don't they pay attention? I've told them a half dozen times over the past two years. Don't they know it hurts to be asked the same question again and again and have to repeat the same answer to the same person?

I know people mean well. They shake their heads appropriately. "Hope she gets better", "Tell her I'm praying for her", is little help. "Thanks, I'll make sure to tell her." I lie. But in truth, I almost wish they didn't ask. They innocently expect I'll say "Oh, she's better." But I can't. I wonder if they think I am making it up to gain sympathy?

I am so tired of the well-intentioned advice. "Oh, I was in a lot of pain a couple of years ago. I know what she if going through." No you don't. "I drank this tea, rubbed on this ointment, saw this doctor, and it went away." There is little we haven't tried already. The pain is worse, damn it. Name the med, we've tried it. Name the tea, she drank that, too.

Not long ago she got a phone call from a distant friend, who told her in a scolding tone: "You are still in pain? You need to get a hold on yourself. Get up, get out of bed. Do things. You are making yourself sick." My wife cried hopelessly for some time afterwards. If only it was so easy.

Obviously, this friend does not have to help me pick my wife up from the floor when she has dizzy spells and falls, or hear her moans of pain as she tries to walk across the room, or get in and out of bed. I know her friend meant well, but it did little to cheer up my wife, or to give her hope.

Ironically, some friends greet me and don't even ask about her anymore. Did they forget? Are they being discreet? Are they being insensitive? I guess they know what I will say already.

Chronic pain is unrelenting. It is mean, cruel. It is unfair. "Your wife is chosen by God", says one dear friend, "Her suffering will save many souls." But this can't be God's will. "All things happen for a reason". Oh yeah? I have heard them all. "Don't forget God performs miracles", they say in an attempt to comfort us. But there is no parting of the sea here. Instead, the sea deepens.

"How much worse can it get?" She moans in frustration. "Don't you dare ask that question", I scold her. It can get worse, much worse. I don't pray for miracles any more. God must already know we need one. I pray for courage to be her crutch, her support, but I am running out of what to say that will give her hope to live on. "Think about your kids. Think about your grandchildren. Think about the new baby grandson coming in April."

"I know, I know." She nods in tears.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ode To The Caveman: My Friend, Jesus Cuevas

As I was driving my wife to a pain clinic in Modesto this morning, we drove down Briggsmore Avenue, just blocks from where my late good friend, Jesus (Jessie) Cuevas used to live. He died in 2002 from complications with Diabetes.

I called him "The Caveman", his surname "Cuevas", meaning "cave" in English. But more than that he did tend to be loud, brash and a shade crude on occasions, a Chicano caveman, a Chicano Aborigine if you will.

We vaguely knew one another as kids, since my dad, then estranged from my mom, and his family lived at "La Sesion", as it was called in our Barrio, Spanglish for "section" as in "section house", since it belonged to the Southern Pacific Railroad, providing housing for its workers.

It was one large rectangular yellow, wooden building with a series of small, two-room apartments. My dad and his dad, both worked on the railroad. When I visited my dad, I would see Jesse and we would talk. After my dad died, I lost all touch with Jess but would see him around from time to time. It would not be until years later, after I married that I would meet him again, this time to become close friends.

Living in Modesto with my new Mexican wife, we made it a point to shop for groceries as frugally as possible, and since I was only making a minimum wage as a florist at the time, that drove us to South Modesto, and Crows Landing Road, leading straight into the heart of "Oakie Town", as we called back then. We could get eggs, meats and vegetables much more cheaply than we could in downtown Modesto, especially at one Supermarket just past Hatch Road.

And it was precisely there one day that I again met up with The Caveman, who was working in the vegetable department. We shook hands and I introduced him to my new wife. He too was married at the time, and had two young children, a boy and a girl and as we left, we promised we would call him and invite him and his family over for dinner sometime. The year was approximately 1967.

And we did.

This began a renewed friendship that would flourish until 2002 when he died. We discovered so much in common between us. I was doing art work, drawing, painting, and found object sculptures and he was vastly impressed by my work, and the fact that though I was a meager florist at this time, I held a Master's Degree in Art. We also discovered that we liked to eat, drink beer and wine, and smoke a little "yerba" too!

We would listen to music, get a little high, and philosophize (bullshit) on life and art. We also shared our "Mexican-ess" and the ideology of the rising Chicano Movement, of Chicano Art with one another, and though his wife was White, she "understood" Mexicans.

In time, I began to challenge Jesse about developing his obvious interest in art. "Go to college. Take some art classes and get a degree", I urged him. The Caveman was about 30 at the time. "It's never too late, dude", I repeated. Apparently, it worked and in just a few years, Jesse had graduated from college with a Bachelor's Degree, and soon after, earned a Master's Degree in Art!

He went on to be hired at Stanislaus State University in Turlock, CA. as a recruitment officer and continued working as an artist, mostly painting.

Oddly, there was one painting which he worked on for years and never really finished, one inspired by an actual photograph of the famous revolutionary leader from the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), Emiliano Zapata, holding a rifle.

I am not sure why he never finished this painting. While it was part of his Master's project, he continued to repaint it, over and over, and each time he showed it to me, it displayed new strokes, new colors. We never really talked of why he could never just let it be, though that bothered, even upset me.

We also never talked of what that image of Zapata symbolized to The Caveman. Did he see himself and his own restless, revolutionary spirit in Zapata? Did it remind of his past, his buried cultural roots?

On his death bed in the hospital, I last saw him, a disheveled replica of the loud and boisterous Caveman he once was. He lay motionless, mumbling incoherently one moment, as if in restful sleep, a faint smile on his face, then he would erupt in a thunderous laugh and totally coherent dialogue. 

He died a young man, leaving his painting of Zapata unfinished. But though The Caveman might have lived to 90, I suspect he would have repainted his canvas again and again. But then, is anything ever really finished?

Monday, December 12, 2011

And Do You Think I Am On A Bed Of Roses?

The Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City houses some of the finest murals by "Los Tres Grandes" (The Three Great ones), Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, my favorite.

The massive murals 8' to 10' high and 20' wide, depict in powerful images and color, Mexico's turbulent history, its rich Precolumbian past, the Spanish Conquest, War of Independence, the Mexican Revolution, Mexico's role in world history and the cosmos.

One of Siqueiros' best murals depicts the torture of the last Emperor of the Mexica (Aztecs) Cuahtemoc, by the Spanish Conquistadores. Here, Cuahtemoc is pictured being tortured by the Spanish, clad entirely in armor, with no trace of humanity visible. The flames sear his feet and those of a friend, in fervent prayer. Cuahtemos's face is taut, filled with contempt, as he conjures his last ounce of courage.

His eyes appear teary. Every muscle taught. The red flames flicker off the face and bared canines of a snarling dog, and the metal armor of the soldiers holding steel lances. An Indian woman, behind him raises her arms begging for mercy.

When the roomfuls of gold that the Spanish believed the Aztecs possessed fail to materialize, accounts tell that Hernan Cortez, captures Cuahtemoc and with a cohort, bounds and lays them on a slab, lighting a fire to their feet, in an attempt to force them to confess the location of the "hidden gold".

When Cuahtemoc refuses, his partner supposedly begins to weep and cry out in pain, at which point Cuahtemoc turns and stoically says to him, "Do you think I am on a bed of Roses?"

Despite his short reign, after the death of Moctezuma II, (1520-1521) that ended with the conquest of Mexico in May of 1521, his story is told and retold in Mexican history with a sense of pride, symbolizing Mexico's refusal to bow down to foreign domination.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Reason For The Season: Baby Jesus

How we went from the beautiful story and celebration of the birth of a heavenly baby who came to save mankind from sin, to a fat, bearded White Man posing for pictures in a mall and  the death of this baby on a cross 33 years later to an Easter bunny bearing cooked colored eggs is tragic.

How can we be so afraid of offending others with our beliefs? In the watering down of religion, any religion, we lose its original meaning, intent.The clerks who are told not to wish clients a "Merry Christmas" and replace it with "Happy Holidays", the teachers who are warned not to decorate their classrooms with "religious symbols", to the debate of whether we should "ban" the nativity scene from the White House lawn is debilitating.

Have we gone overboard on separating Church and State? "In God We Trust", is still emblazoned on our national currency and "one nation under God" still uttered in the Pledge of Allegiance, which some Americans are now refusing to take.

Whether we believe in Jesus or not, in God or not, this is part of our American "culture" and we need not fear it. Doesn't Freedom of Religion guarantee that too? Religious freedom is not about the absence or banning of religious beliefs but about the right to believe what we choose, or not believe at all.

At the very least, shouldn't we preserve Christmas and Easter for example, just as they are, with all of their religious associations, as a cultural tradition, as we would any other cultural tradition, native arts, language or history?

In a society that includes so many distinct cultures as does our own, this seems to me especially vital, especially valuable.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The other day my younger son, and his wife came by with photos and a CD of a recent sonogram of their baby to be born in April 2012. They were, without saying, ecstatic about showing it to my wife and I, so we slipped it into the Blu-Ray disc player, and pushed "play".

Then, we all oooed and aaawed for about 10 minutes watching this mini-human, a boy, kick and squirm, roll and punch inside the womb. "Look, there's the head!" "Look, look, the penis! All in High Definition.

We marveled at the little hands and counted the tiny toes. Yup, there's five, one-two-three.... There was the little face, eyes closed, the heart beating like tiny drum, the umbilical chord. As he tumbled and kicked I said "He's gonna be a Futbol player!" And they all cracked up.

As we watched, I marveled at our new technology and how in the old days we never knew the gender of our babies until they slid out on the delivery table!

In fact, when my wife was pregnant with our youngest (we have two boys), our oldest son was already three years old and my wife, who had mysteriously forgotten about all the problems she had with that labor, crooned "Oh let's have another baby, a little sister so he can have somebody to play with??" She talked me into it. In fact, I had to be talked into the first one too!

It just so happened at the time I was reading a book about the power of the mind concerning how if you concentrated on the preferred gender of a fetus, you could kind of "will" it to be a boy or a girl. It had to be a constant and willed power of thought, each hour of every day, speaking to it, singing to it, and even calling it by his/her name, so we named our unborn baby "Christina", painted her room pink, and my wife knitted little sweaters, caps and blankets, all in pink, of course.

Well, it didn't work! And a bouncing baby BOY was born! We were shattered! We didn't even have a name for him! So much for the power of positive thought.

And now, as we watched the 42" flat screen in our bedroom, we all "knew". It will be a boy. No surprises. No amazement. No wondering. No mystery. No waiting. There was no mistake; there was the penis.

But as we watched I could stop myself from wondering about how we would feel if we saw the baby had no hands, no feet, or only two fingers on one hand? After all, we had asked to "see"?. We had asked to "know"?. Could this be why we all count the toes?

I those ten minutes I also could not stop from thinking about abortion, and about the debate concerning when "life" begins and at what point is a fetus in actually human. As long as we don't see the baby moving inside the womb, the heart beating, and count the five fingers on a tiny hand already, we can justify abortion.

But the sonogram should put all that to rest: We rest our case. There, in plain view is the penis.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Be Careful What You Ask For Because You Just Might Get It.

With all the OCCUPY THIS AND THAT stuff going on in the U.S. today, the obstinate refusal of participants to specify exactly who or what is being protested other than big government, banks and Wall St. is a little frightening.

Why are we so disenchanted with the so called 1%? What has happened to us is simply of product of our incestuous love with CAPITIALISM. We love it. We cherish it. We teach it. We worship it to the condemnation of every other system, especially Socialism.

Ironically, one the best example of successful Socialism might have been the early CHRISTIANS, who according to the Acts of The Apostles were prompted to put all of their possessions into a pile, to then be levied out according to those most in need. Whether it worked or lasted might well have depended on the morality and fairness of those deciding who the most needy were. One for you, 19 for me?

Seems to me that any system on its face, is amoral and can only become moral, if its proponents are moral. Any moral system can be corrupted by immoral servants of that system. Conversely, do you suppose an inherently immoral system might actually become moral if moral individuals administer it?

So, if we succeed in bringing it all down, Wall St., the Banks, the giant corporations with nothing carefully thought out to replace it with, were are traveling headlong into ANARCHY, a most frightening and disastrous prospect.

I would caution the well-intentioned and those who just like the idea of protesting as adventurous, to occupy their mind with looking up the word ANARCHY, and study a little about those societies and nations of the past who succeeded in bringing it upon themselves.

And even Anarchy could work, but it would depend on moral and responsible adherents, which at present Americans seem to be woefully short on, especially the younger generation.

Dios Mio, we just might get what we ask for.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Pearls Before Swine: On The Importance of Being a Good Audience

A heard a story years back about the Irish writer, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) that supposedly occurred one night during the opening of his play "The Importance of Being Earnest" (1895). A little old lady sauntered backstage and addressed Oscar saying "Mr. Wilde, I sure hope your play is a success." Without hesitating, the playwright quipped "Mam, what I hope is that the audience is a success!"

My life as a visual artist, took a strange detour during the 1980's into the world of drama. I guess it all began in High School when I wrote and performed a little 10 minute farce I called "Bad Day at Black Rock", a spoof on bad Hollywood westerns of the 50's, during the school's annual crazy week, called The Insanities.

I had never been on stage before and was terrified of standing before a live audience. Nonetheless, with my buddy, David Hitt, we pulled it off, complete with laughs and a healthy applause. Our audience of peers had been forgiving!

Sometime during the 1980's, I began directing the Chicano Teatro (Theater) class at our local community college, part of our Chicano Studies curriculum. I took it over from two earlier instructors. Though I had no real knowledge of drama or theater, other than working with them on the wings for a coupe of years, I winged it for the first years by relying on short one-act plays of Chicano playwright, Luis Valdez, and El Teatro Campesino. In time, I would write and  produce many original one-act plays, skits and  2-3 full-length plays as I became a more competent director. I loved playing cameo roles in many.

I concentrated on a mobile, street theater style, like that of the Teatro Campesino who started by perfoming in the orchards on the beds of pickups, often using the workers themselves as actors, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, who I had seen perform at our college. In order, were basic and simple props, homemade costumes, with quick scene changes with meager sets. For theme and subject matter I chose family, culture, the Barrio, the farm worker, education.

Much of my spiel to the student-actors, (the majority had never been on stage before) had to do with the "audience" and how it was our job to entertain them, to make them laugh, to make them cry and that if we if we failed, the fault was ours.

There were good and bad audiences as we took theater to their turf: Jails, prisons, schools, churches. We had to work extra hard to demand attention from a cafeteria full of 7th or 8th graders! Try it sometime. "Now, students. Students! Students!! Students!!! STUDENTS!!!! If you don't quiet down we are all going back to the classroom!" The principals would cry. "I have never seen our students pay attention to any program like they did today", was the ultimate compliment.

The students hated rehearsals where I drilled them on their lines, movement, facial expression, diction, enunciation, delivery and concentration. But their biggest obstacle was being on time. "I can't do it Mr. Rios. I just can't do it!" They whimpered and complained after being told over and over: "One more time, but this time I want you to mean what you say."

Perhaps the most disheartening and scary of all was to play for half empty houses, whether for a roomful of 50 or 100. Empty chairs hurt. I counted each one. On the other hand, a full-house, noisy and anxious just before the opening lines, primed us. Backstage, I divided my attention between casting a critical eye on my actors and watching the faces of our audience. Did they cry, laugh when they were supposed to? Did they laugh in the middle of a serious moment?

I heard that audiences of Greek Tragedies in ancient Greece were not adverse to watching the same plays over and over. Thus, they knew the story, the plot, the climax and in the middle of some especially dramatic scene with the villain sneaking up behind the hero with a dagger, might shout out to the protagonist onstage "Look out! He is standing right behind you!!" My mother, watching her soap operas on TV, would become so engaged in the story that she constantly booed the villains and cheered on the heroes.

"Andale, malidito!, Aprovechado! Te lo merecias!!" She might cry out to a villian getting his just dues. "Pobrecita", she would woo to the poor undeserving heroine whose life was being torn apart by opportunistic men. This is what audience is about! Gut laughter. Tears. Anger. Sympathy. Empathy. Catharsis.

Suspension of Disbelief, it is called. When the audience allows itself to be transported by the story to a place far removed from reality, their own daily stuggles and problems and become engaged in the imaginary world of Literature. It was beautiful to see, especially in a non-traditional audience of people who never went to plays, who had never seen live actors on a stage, especially children.

The clapping and whistling at the end of a show, even during the show (sometimes), a standing ovation even from half the audience, these two minutes of appreciation made the hours, days and months of preparation worth it. What a joy it was to see the look of satisfaction, pride, self-worth on the student-actors' faces, as they bathed in the glory of this fleeting moment in time.

But no matter how good we were on stage, a bad audience was a nightmare. People bored. Talking. Jeering. Not laughing. Not reacting. A 15 minute skit turned into a tedious and seemingly endless chore and all you prayed for was for it to end so that you could get off that stage! We never got tomatoes thrown at us but an unappreciative audiences were just as bad.

The is no art without an audience who knows how to appreciate it. The artist who says "I just create my work for myself", is lying. If all I do in create art for myself, what point is there in creating it? I don't know about you but I never turn down a compliment, especially when it is genuine.

A woman once told me after I read one of my poems, "Oh, Mr. Rios I loved your poem so much, it almost made me cry!" "Almost? I guess I must have failed then, because I cried when I read it." I told her.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dia de Muertos 2011

This is a simple altar I created for Day of The Dead, 2011 in our home. It honors my mother-in-law, Maria Luevano (top), and father-in-law Jose Anguiano from Mexico (far left), my mother and grandmother (lower center).

The artificial fruits represent the various foods they enyoyed in life, the "molcajete" (grinding stone) in the center was actually used by my mother to make salsa in.

This was one strong, hard-working generation who survived poverty, the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), and in the case of my mother, survived transplantion into a new country and alien culture when she emigrated as a young girl into the U.S. in the early 1920's.

My mother's story alone, deserves a book. Married at 15, had her first child at 16. Endured an abusive marraiage until she declared her emancipation and took on the raising of 6 of us as a single mother working in the cannery.

May they all be granted eternal rest, well deserved.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Grandfather Die, Father Die, Son Die

One of my mother's most fervent prayers was that God grant her the privilege of dying before any of her seven children. "I'm am not sure I could withstand the agony over the death of one of my children", she would shake her head and say.

And she was granted her wish.

It reminds me of a story I read about a man in Japan who wanted a well known and respected priest to compose a special prayer for him. "I will pay you well", he promised. "It would be my honor and privilege", replied the priest.

However, months passed and there was no word from the priest. "I wonder what could be taking him so long?" Wondered the man. More time passed and nothing.

One day the man confronted the priest at the local market place. "Where is the prayer I have commissioned you with?" "Oh yes, the prayer. I am working on it. It will be ready soon."

When again the months passed and nothing was heard from the priest, the man decided he would travel to the monastery to demand his prayer. "I have waited long enough", he said rudely to the priest. The priest smiled and said, "I have your prayer ready!"

"Grandfather die, father die, son die." The priest uttered with a look of achievement on his face.

"What!?" "What kind of perverse prayer is this?" He demanded. "I will not pay you for such a morbid prayer! Are you mocking me?"

"This is the natural order. If the son dies first, the father, and Grandfather will grieve inconsolably. If the father, dies first, then the son and grandfather will be inconsolable. But if the grandfather dies first, it will be expected since he is the oldest. If the father dies next, that too will be expected. That the son dies last, is only natural."

At that moment, the man was enlightened and gladly paid the priest for his beautiful prayer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

La Muerte, La Calaca, La Pelona: Jose Guadalupe Posada and Day of The Dead

One of my favorite artists, is Mexican illustrator and cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). His drawings (engravings), reminiscent of Francisco Goya's work, are masterful satires of all classes of society, from the "Los Jodidos" (The "screwed" or poor) to "Los Ricos", the Rich, portray death is the ultimate Equal Opportunity

The pet names Mexicans have ascibed for Death speak volumes: La Calaca (Bag of Bones), La Pelona (Old Baldy), and La Chingada (The Screwed One).

Posada's death figures are not "monstrous" or "scary" but laughable, a thing not to be feared but laughed at and mocked, and they are not to be confused with the skulls and skeletons of our own Halloween. 

The beauty of Posada's work for me lies in how evenly his satire is distributed across society, and his piercing, unflinching eye for the whole laughable burden of human folly and suffering. No one is exempt; no one escapes.

His "Calaveras", the skeleton figures mocking life's brevity, and death as a grinning and fitting end for us all, have become the iconic image for Dia de Muertos, celebrated each November 2nd, in Mexico.

The annual celebration is a fusion of ancient Precolumbian Indian beliefs about death and the afterlife, and European Catholic ones. After the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, the Catholic church, in its quest to assimilate the local peoples, was quick to encourage "similarities" between European beliefs, and native ones, so All Saints Day, already celebrated on November 2, was combined with indigenous celebrations to honor the dead at that time of year, to become Dia de Muertos (Day of The Dead). 

Native peoples believe that for one day, the spirits of the dead visit with the living, so home and public altars or "ofrendas" are prepared to welcome and honor the wandering spirits.

These are laden with candles, candy, food, liquor, religious prints and statues and mementos, and decorated  with brightly colored "papel picado", cut tissue paper created especially for the occasion. It is believed the tired, and hungry souls will partake of the offerings.

Weeks before, the martket places are filled with candy, sugar skulls, "Pan de Muerto" (sweet bread in shapes of skulls), and a myriad of death figurines, to be used on the altars.

Unfortunately, the holiday also falls near Halloween, so people are quick to conclude that Dia De Muertos is a Mexican Halloween. It is not. And if anything, it is much more like our own celebration of Memorial Day where we take flowers and mementos to the cemetery to remember our dead.

Days before, the grave sites are cleaned and decorated with wreathes made of Cempasuchil (Merigolds), the ancient Flower of The Dead, and also laden with candles and food for the ancestors. The entire night of November 2nd is spent at the cemetery with family members sitting together on the grave sites, praying and singing, and serenaded by roaming Mariachi bands. The holiday is most popular on the island of Janitizio, Michoacan and in the city of Oaxaca, in the state of Oaxaca, and attracts visitors from all over the world.

At dawn, the souls return to their eternal dwelling in the afterlife, and the living clean up the cemetery, and tear down the ofrendas until the next year.

Not surprisingly, the holiday jumped the border (legally) sometime during the Chicano Movement of the 1970's when things Mexican became precious to us Chicanos in the U.S., and Chicano artists across the Southwest introduced Americans to this unique tradition, but with a touch of the North. Altars now became works of art, to be appreciated in gallery or museum settings and were sometimes dedicated to groups of individuals, musicians, artists, actors or to a social or political idea, AIDS, war, discrimination, immigration, instead of only family members.

Tragically, the holiday has been associated with "hocus-pocus", Black Magic, or Satanism, by certain ignorant do-gooders, or religious conservatives and incidents of parents trying to "sue" school districts because their son or daughter was forced to participate in this barbaric or heathenish ritual in the classroom of some liberal educator, are not uncommon.

If you want paricipate in this tradition on November 2nd, you can create a simple altar of your own on a table, dedicated to one or more of your own beloved deceased, decorated with candles, flowers, photos, food and mementos. It's easy and simple, and special.  (Avoid Halloween decorations).

And while you're at it, why not take a moment to have a beer or a shot of tequila with an ancestor for old times sake?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Life As Seen Through The Third Eye

Ever since I read about the Eastern concept of the Third Eye I fell in love it. And after a lifetime of argument, debate, reasoning, and synthesis it is the view that makes most sense to me.

Why man gravitates to a dualistic world view is maddening. Things are either right or wrong, good or bad, love and hate, Heaven or Hell, up or down, left or right. But wait, there is a Limbo, a place between Heaven and Hell, according to us Catholics, though not much is ever said about it these days.

Yet, so much of human experience is a blend or combination of the two extremes. The view that all experience is amoral, and that it is we humans who declare its morality is also tempting.

"No hay mal, que por bien no venga" (There is nothing bad, that in the end, does not turn out for good) my mother-in-law was fond of saying.

Yeah, ok but how long does one have to wait for the good to show up? Like Eternity, maybe? But yeah, some nasty things that happened to us in the past, did turn out for the best (sometimes) and things we thought were "good" turned out being our demise.

You just can't win.

So right turns out to have a smattering of wrong in it, and wrong, we discover in the end, had a teaspoon of good in it, sometimes discovered too late! There's been a rise in the dip of home sales, did you hear? And a rise in decrease of murders? What goes up must come down.

The Third Eye helps us to see this. It is nothing more than Siddhartha's epiphany that a string that is tuned to tightly, or too loosely never plays the right note. But one perfectly stretched, not too tight, or too loose, gives birth to melody.

Jesus said it perfectly when speaking of giving,"Let not your right hand know what your left hand is doing."

Monday, September 19, 2011

An Asian Dream Transplanted: God Bless America

On Saturday, I went to a birthday party to celebrate our grandson's 11th birthday at one of our local parks. My oldest son, Miguel had elaborately orchestrated a typical park party, a piñata full of candy, chips, salsa, guacamole, chile beans while my eldest, Fernando fried up some diced beef and chicken for some tasty tacos.

We found ourselves in the middle of a park surrounded by Asians, Cambodians and Vietnamese families who had spread themselves along a walkway, sitting on rugs, carpets and blankets. Barbecue grills were smoking madly and the men were doing up all kinds of goodies from stuffed sausages, kabobs, to who knows what.

At first glance, one would think these were just families out for a weekend get together at the park, but on closer inspection each group was selling food and fresh vegetables! I recognized a few, bitter melons and ginger but the rest remained a mystery to me. You simply wandered up to the group, surveyed what they were cooking up, pointed, and asked "how much?"

While we were there, several Asians, individuals and small groups, approached our table to eye what we had to eat! They probably assumed we were "selling" too! "No, no", I would stammer and smile, "This a Birthday Party."  It was a bit embarrasing, since there seemed to be no real way to know if any gathering was private or public.  "Ok", I shouted over to my son doing the cooking, "tell the next people who come by tacos are 2 for $5.00!" We all laughed. "Do you think they had a meeting to organize this gathering, or did it just happen?" I asked Miguel.

The women, the matriarchs who ran each concession, sat on the ground, mostly barefoot. They spoke little English, but had memorized "one dahlah", "two dahlah" quite well. My eldest had tried excitedly to describe the scene to me earlier in week but I could not imagine it. He lives nearby and says this goes on all week long! It was like embarking on a trip back to an Asian marketplace in some village in Viet Nam or Cambodia, but transported here to the middle of a park in my home town!

Families laughed and enjoyed each others' company, their kids running around and playing in the playground. One man made delicious snow cones with incredible and mysterious flavors and toppings. I found a red Lima Bean in mine. Now, who would think of putting Lima Beans in a snow cone? Amazing combination and it worked. He had brought a video projector, and a large poster board leaning up against an empty bucket of soy sauce turned upside down, and played musical videos. The music was soothing. As the day wore one, the music changed to Cambodian and Vietnamese Rap!

In jest, my son Miguel said "Let's ask the guy if he has any Vicente Fernandez, Cornelio Reyna or Tigeres del Norte." We laughed.

At one point, I noticed two things: We were the only Mexicans in the park and two, we were the only ones drinking alcohol.  As I sipped on my Tecate, I scanned the park and saw people drinking only water and sodas! Had the families been those of Anglos or Mexicans, someone would probably be drunk by now and raising hell. Here, there was only comaraderie, peace and harmony. I felt as if they had let me into their world.

I thought of racism, the racial hatred and suspicion of foreigners so pervasive in our country and I wanted only to go out to welcome them to America and thank them for bringing a glimpse of their ancient cultures to us.

I kept looking to the street, expecting to see a cop car, or maybe a code enforcement vehicle rushing up at any minute, with guns in hand, to demand seller's permits or some damned thing like that and closing them down.

So please, please do me a favor and don't tell a soul about this. Let them be?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Castles Made of Sand: A Spider's Story

I was watching in awe a reddish garden spider, perched cunningly in the middle of his web on the front porch of my house this morning, presumably waiting for his breakfast, when "whoosh" both he and his web were gone! A bird got him.

I am reminded of Life's brevity. Here one moment, gone the next. Doesn't seem fair. You go to all the trouble to build up a life of security around you and it is obliterated in seconds.

My grand daughter called this morning to tell me of the horrible beating of a man in the apartment below hers. She woke up to a scuffle and shouts and went outside to find a man pale, and standing in his doorway covered in blood; he had apparently been beaten with a hammer. A crowd of people gathered to stare. No one did anything. Finally, she applied a towel to his head to stop the bleeding. Though the man had been rude, even mean to her and her roommate, she saw no reason not to help.

She is shaken. Her false sense of security has been stolen from her.

There is little relief in the thought that we are all in it together, insects, animals and humans, in the locked jaws of fleeting Life. A breath away from our own death. I have often wondered how and when I will die and whether it is ultimately a blessing that we don't know the answer. All we know is this moment.

I want to go (since I must) in my sleep of natural causes. Maybe in the middle of a pleasant dream. Recently, my wife spent a week in the hospital as a result of Pancreatic pain. Next to us was an Asian patient, a mother, with a big family. Often 6 or more visitors at a time crowded inside the room. They often stayed beyond normal visiting hours and were noisy. They irritated my wife, who was in intense pain, and I.

One night about 2 AM when they were particularly noisy and crowded all the way into the hallway, I stepped outside to ask them to please be quiet. They quieted down for a short while, then the noise resumed. When the night nurse came in to check my wife's vitals some time later, I complained to her. "I know", she said sympathetically, "but the mother just died." I felt embarrassed.

The next day, I stood outside the room and looked at the empty bed. She was gone, just like that.

A couple of nights later about 3 AM, as the night nurse attended to my wife, she accidentally set off the Code Blue alarm which is initiated when a patient is dead or dying, and the alert sounded up and down the halls on loudspeakers: "Code Blue, Room 1425", "Code Blue Room 1425" over and over. Medics and doctors came running into my wife's room! "I'm sorry, I'm sorry", the nurse pleaded with the entourage, "I set off the alarm accidentally."

So this is what the end feels like? The moral of the story I guess is: don't lavish too much time building up your web.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Prognosis: Hope Your Cardiologist Didn't Cheat on HisTest

Face it, we are a cheating culture, a culture of cheaters and we condone it, explicitly or implicitly, despite our virtuous sermonizing against it when we do our taxes, get more change back than we should have and say nothing about it, or were not charged for an item we bought at the store and keep walking towards the door.

I read with horror yesterday about how teachers in the Atlanta School District were caught and confessed to helping their students cheat on achievement tests in order to preserve their jobs and not lose government funding denied to poor achieving schools. In some cases teachers met in a cafeteria and with the blessing of their administrators, erased wrong answers and bubbled in the correct ones.

As a former teacher I can sympathize with wanting your kids to succeed and the pain of seeing them fail. Many a time I lamented having to give failing grades to a student who tried hard or who I particularly liked. It was so easy to just give them a passing grade and no one would be the wiser. The student would certainly have not complained. Statistics show that most students cheat at one time or another on tests and that most do not see it as wrong "because everybody does it".

In fact, I remember at times looking at the answers of the kid in front of me or to my side in class and copying. In high school, I survived Biology by sitting next to one of the brightest  girls in class. She would do all my written work, and I would do all the anatomical drawings of insects, frogs and amoebas for her. We both got A's!

In my college English classes I often caught students cheating by copying essays directly from a book or magazine, or copying each others papers. I read every single paper and I could tell each one of my students after returning their papers what topic they had written about, so it was not that difficult to find duplicates. Easier to spot were those papers copied from professional sources; the vocabulary, diction and sentence structures gave them away.

In one case, I allowed three young men into my class who were on the school's basketball team who simply "had to pass their English requirement to play for the team", according to the coach who personally called me on the phone asking that I let them into my already full class.

On one assignment two of them turned in an identical essay, word for word! It was a no-brainer. At the very least, they could have tried to change a few words or sentences around, but no they were identical! They must have thought I was stupid. Naturally, I asked to speak to them after class, and told them cheating was unacceptable in college. I also took the opportunity to call their coach "personally" to tell him about the incident. Did they learn their lesson? Who knows.

But teachers helping their students cheat, now that's a new one for me. For the most part though, besides writing some prompts with a ball point pen on my wrist or palm once or twice in order to pass a test, I was mostly an honest guy and didn't cheat on tests, especially in my latter years in college (now, on taxes that's another matter), becoming my own anti-cheating patrolman.

Thus, I began each semester with a lecture on the virtues of not cheating the gist of which was the moral: When we cheat, we advocate and condone cheating and make it acceptable for every other person to cheat us, and ended it with this admonition:
 "For those of you who see nothing wrong with cheating on tests, I hope your Cardiologist or heart surgeon did not get his medical degree by cheating on his tests. Good luck."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Berkeleylandia: A Valley Transplant

Fresh out of high school from a small Central Valley California cow town, Modesto, California, I walked straight into the heart of Bohemia, U.S.A. and streets filled with bare feet, reefer smoke, the smell of wine and coffee, tie-died hippies, anti-war protestors, artists, musicians, self-made poets dropouts and losers.

It was the late 50-s, early 60's when I first set foot in Berkeley California and loved it; I was an art student just down the road, at the other end of College Avenue in Oakland, and spent much of my off time lurking and hanging around Telegraph Avenue.

It was the perfect excuse for an artist with a little black sketchbook to gawk at an sketch an incredible assortment of rogue characters, sipping wine or coffee in some cramped joint smothering in the smell of cigarettes, pot, and incense.

Small cafes offered venues of poetry and live music, folk and sometimes jazz combos. Stands lining the streets pawned tie-dyed t-shirts, homemade jewelry and incense. Young people with long hair, torn pants, and scrawny beards lined the streets and I was frustratingly straight, dieing to fit in somehow.

An shady dingy foreign film cinema with two screens and no soda and popcorn concession, was a hangout for audiences hungry for dark and austere foreign films with tedious English subtitles, films by Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Eisenstein, Satyajit Ray, Luis Buñuel, Cocteau, Di Sica, and Kurosawa. Speechless, I pretended to enjoy the films just to be hip and in the process broadened my world beyond imagination far beyond the Hollywood epics and musicals I had grown up with.

I stayed away from the protests over one thing or another, war, politics, freedom of speech, religious and artistic freedom. Mainly  I was afraid to take a stand on anything. I was a looker, an observer, a watcher. And Telegraph Avenue, that leads straight into the University of California was abuzz with colonies of anti-establishment beings, all at home with weirdness. I loved it. A weird Chicano boy from the valley.

So I was happy just pretending to be a citizen of Berkeley, never giving away my true origins. The underground station KPFA was airing strong then showcasing the best in subterranean folk and rock. On Friday nights they held a live open mike hootenanny allowing local musicians to play. I would accompany my old friend, artist and folk singer Barry Squires who often took a turn playing. I was amazed by the talent the show attracted: mandolin, guitar, sitar, banjo and harmonica players and crooners.

I  loved hanging out at the record and bookstores and spent hours scouring beautiful books full of exquisite reproductions of the masters, architectue and ancient art, books I could never afford. I even liked their smell ever since I was a kid in the public library in Modesto.

My favorite restaurant on one corner of the avenue, served decent Mexican food reminding me of my roots, and my favorite dish was Chicken Flautas, topped with guacamole and served with a side dish of hot salsa to dip into. I never ordered anything else. Once, after telling the owner I was an artist, he asked me if I could design him some new menus. I did, and instead of the fee, I asked if he could trade me free meals and he agreed. I was to eat there free for a long time afterwards.

To this day, I still get a kick out of visiting Telegraph Avenue, which to me and many others is Berkeley and never cease to be amazed how it still is a haven for misfits, drifters and dreamers just like me.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

JFK: The Day I Saw The President

John Kennedy was easily my favorite president. He was the favorite of most Mexicans because he spoke to poor people and he was Catholic. My mother kept a picture of him and Jacqueline on her altar, right alongside the Sacred Heart, and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

It was 1962, and I was working as a florist in a small flower shop on Telegraph and Ashby Ave. in Berkeley not far from the University with the manager, Doug. It was mainly a "bucket shop" but we did do flowers for funerals, weddings besides selling flowers in bunches.

I had heard that JFK was going to visit the University, but I had no plans to see him since I was working that day. We had the radio on listening to music as we normally did when the announcer cut in and began to give a street-by-street rundown of the President's entourage.

"The President is now on Shattuck Avenue heading towards the university", said the announcer with a voice of anticipation. Shattuck was only about four blocks west of Telegraph Avenue. That meant they would be crossing Ashby Avenue in minutes!

"Doug, I gotta go see the President, is it alright? I'll be right back?" "Sure, say hello for me", he joked. I tore off my apron, rushed out the front door and started running. "What if I miss him?" I thought to myself. "What if he has already passed when I get there!"

I arrived at Shattuck Avenue to find that crowds had already lined both sides of the street. I pushed my way through the crowd until I found a space where I could see the cars. He had not arrived yet, but I could tell by the screams and claps that he was near!

Several black limousines sped by. But which one was he in?! Then, I saw his face through the backseat window. He was waving at the people. He looked right at me and waved. I furiously waved back.

I felt a thrill, a rush. I had just seen the President of The United States!! "Just wait till I tell my mom", I thought to myself. The trip back to the flower shop was uneventful. I went back to stripping thorns from roses and leaves from carnation stems, and consolidating flowers into buckets, but with a renewed sense of vigor.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Acronyms: America's Secret Love Affair

Have you ever noticed how we Americans just love our acronyms, especially the three letter kind? Following is a list of 93 popular ones I have compiled. See how many you can identify and then go to the scoring guide below to rate yourself. Feel free to add to my list.


Scoring Guide:
80-93 = True Blue American
60-79 = Bright Blue American
40-59 = Faded Blue American
20-39 = Grayish American
0-19 = Foreigner

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What Happens When We Die and Go To Heaven?


Father Sarducci just has to be one of my all time favorite comedians. The outfit, the phony Italian(?) accent and his wit and satire still cracks me up. He is devilishly irreverent. 

In this riotous clip, Sarducci posits that life is a job, "Vita est Lavorum", and that God pays us $14.50 a day. But when we get to heaven, and he begins to settle our account, He deducts a certain amount of  cash for every sin, depending on the gravity of the offense!

I knew we had to pay for our sins, but this won't leave us much left in the end, speaking for myself.

Monday, May 23, 2011

LOL: The End of the World, Again

Being Catholic, before the 1950's we didn't hear much End of the World  stuff coming from the pulpit and it wasn't until I started dating a  protestant girl in high school and attending her church that I encountered the imagery and metaphor from the Book of Revelation, wars and rumors of wars, The Antichrist, Armageddon, the Seven Seals, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, earthquakes, fire and brimstone, and The Rapture.

My mother told me I was going to hell for attending another church but I decided to risk it for love. "Te vas ir al diablo", she would warn. But secretly I was enthralled with all this stuff I had never learned in mass. I even bought two Bibles, one the King James translation and the other, the Catholic Douay version and compared key passages in the New Testament!

One day, as I was telling her of the signs before the end time, war, earthquakes, famine, things I was reading about for the first time despite the Catholic Church's warning not to read the Bible for ourselves. "Se va acabar el mundo", I told her. I'll never forget her answer immersed in sarcasm, "Yes, the world es going to end alright, when you die!" And she laughed. It seemed a little sacrilegious to me because that is not what I meant. She seemed to derive pleasure from her ability scoff at things I was learning from the Devil's church.

"Beware of false prophets" the scriptures warned and of all the soothsayers who will arise in the end times, predicating the day and time regardless of Christ's admonition: "Of that day and time no one knows except the Father in heaven."  I looked for Antichrists, Hitler? The Pope? My neighbor? I trembled at the thought of the Heavens parting, and Jesus descending on the clouds, the dead rising from their tombs, and His parting the masses in two, the chosen whose names are written and the Book of Life, and the cursed damned to eternal damnation in a fiery hell!

I was puzzled by Christ's words "Behold, these things will come to pass before this generation ends." But many generations have passed and the end still looms, despite countless predictions like the latest one by Rev. Harold Camping who predicted our demise would occur at 6 PM (Eastern or Pacific Time?) on May 21, 2011. If he had been correct I wouldn't be writing this (or maybe I would if I had not been one of the chosen selected for the Rapture). But as far as I know all my buddies, family and neighbors are still here, except my compadre who I haven't seen since that day! Odd, because he doesn't go to church at all.

The whole thing must be embarrassing for believers since the fiasco served as a perfect opportunity for skeptics, atheists and non-believers to mock the faithful. Twitter and Facebook subscribers went nuts. Said one local believer "Something went wrong. God didn't give us the understanding correctly." That's right, blame it on God! He must have erred in communicating the details. I would say that Mr. Camping is the one who didn't "get the understanding right". Yet, I feel even sorrier for all the pitiable souls who sold their houses and belonging to follow this misguided fellow.

Yet, I'm going to confess something to my reader here. Though I too scoffed the whole idea, I didn't snicker too loudly in case the dude was right. I mean, he could have been right and had the last laugh. Reminds me of a religious billboard I once saw on Highway 99 which usually touted scripures. But this day it said: "I would rather believe in Hell and be wrong, than not believe in Hell and be wrong". In the former, if were wrong we have nothing to lose, except to perhaps have been a bit better person in life?

So I think I will continue to chuckle at these recurring prophets, but I will avoid laughing too loud just in case one of them gets it right! If enough people keep predicting the end of the world, one of them is bound to get it right. So I'll give it a shot, next Sunday at 9:AM. Pack your bags.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

How Not To Conduct A Meeting

I drove from Stockton to Sacramento for the big summit, a gathering of Chicano intellectuals, bohemians and artists, mostly guys. The meeting was held in a dimly lit, abandoned store front and present were my old college buddies Jose Montoya and Esteban Villa.

We had gravitated towards each other, being part of a  handful of Chicano art students attending a prestigious art school in Oakland in the late 1950's. Having embarked on their careers teaching, the two were already accomplished in their art and they were busy fostering a new generation of Chicano artists, the RCAF, Royal (Rebel Chicano Artists Front), one they later dubbed Royal Chicano Air Force, working to define and validate a new art movement, Chicano Art.

We were tired of mainstream art, the kind of stuff that hung in European and American galleries and museums. We wanted an art that reflected us, our people, the barrio. We wanted to paint pyramids, Aztec and Maya symbols, farm workers, zoot-suiters, eagles and rising suns in bold reds, blacks and yellows and if the mainstream galleries were going to turn their noses at us, so what? We would simply create our own galleries, our own barrio centers.

I must admit it took me a while to buy into the concept of a "Chicano Art". At that point, to me art was just art and I was still into imitating the stylized and abstract painting of the 60's, with little inclination to change what my Europeanized art education had taught me.

I knew some of the other artists at the meeting having met them briefly before, Ricardo Favela, and Louie The Foot and I had grown to respect this new cadre of Chicano artists. I secretly longed to be a part of them but being in Stockton, some 45 miles away, it was not convenient. Besides, I was never invited.

About an hour past the announced time of the meeting, "Chicano Time", the artists finally sat down in some rickety old folding chairs and the meeting was called to order. By that time we had already consumed some red wine and a couple of beers. As the purpose of the meeting was announced, a fresh 6-pak was passed around the circle of members."This is my kind of meeting", I thought to myself.

"All of us in this room are accomplished artists and we have to value our work to reflect this. Our drawings and paintings deserve higher selling prices and too many of us are giving them away for next to nothing." Jose continued to argue that we had to set a higher standard, and that if people wanted to own our art they had to pay for it and that doing otherwise, was opening the door for exploitation of our work. He gave examples of how people could buy one of our pieces for $150 and turn around and sell it for $500.

A discussion ensued, interrupted only by the pop of another beer can being opened up by someone. Soon disagreements and tempers began to flare up. Some artists felt we should make art affordable to our people. They were not Anglos used to paying hundreds, even thousands for a piece of art! A wine bottle was passed around as the debate heated up. Funny, the thought had never occured to me, and like some in the room, I would have been content if someone had paid me $150  for one of my pieces!

 "Hey, that's a lot of bullshit, man. Sit down. Let this other guy speak!"
"It ain't bullshit man. It's the truth. What the fuck do you know, anyway?!"
"Sit down, pendejo!" "Who you calling a pendejo, guey?!"

I'm not sure what it is, maybe it's in our blood but when you get a bunch of Mexicans or Chicanos in a room and try to get them to agree on something, a fight is usually going to break out. Someone opened up another can of beer.

At one point I began to fear someone was going to start throwing punches. Everybody was pointing fingers and several debates ensued to the point of chaos. Then, a little old man who had been sitting to the back of the room began to raise his hand. He wanted to speak but no one was paying any attention to him being in the heat of battle. He kept waving his hand until I quieted the group. "Hey, this man wants to speak. Let's listen to what he has to say!" The group quieted down.

He wore a pair of old khakis and red and black checkered flannel shirt. I had noticed him when I arrived and assumed he was just somebody's father. "I am not a learned man like some of you in this room", he said "but I do have some advice to give you. When you gather like this to conduct business, never include alcohol."

I don't know about the others in the room but I felt small, embarrassed. I can't remember exactly how the summit ended but the old man's truth had cut through our bullshit like a sharp paring knife. It had taken the gentle wisdom of this little old man to put us all in our small, intellectual places.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Noche Bohemia: Poet Abuse

Last nite I participated in the 2nd of a new series of Thursday night events featuring poetry, prose and live music, "Noche Bohemia" (Bohemian Night), hosted by Chilean poet Eduardo Radrigan at Nena's Mexican Restuarant on Stockton's waterfront.

It is a fine rustic building with high wooden cielings, a spacious bar, and a patio overlooking Stockton's channel. In my heart, I love performing at these venues despite the often sparse crowds and noisy backdrops.

Last week, aside from the noise of customers, the rattling of plates and dishes, ringing telephones that nobody answered, blenders crushing ice for Margaritas and the electronic beeps of cash registers, two 42" TV's blared opposing sports events, the NBA Playoffs on one side of the bar, and of course, the Mexican favorite, a Futbol (soccer) contest on the other. The fans at the bar were not shy in cheering when their respective teams scored a point.

But you get used to it as the performer, competing with distractions, used to poets and musicians who often perform only for themselves, their girlfriends, family, and kids. However, this small crowd paid rigorous attention. They listened. They responded. And they clapped boisterously after each poem or song.

My friend Rudy Garcia, also a poet, joined me and the program rotated between poets and musicians. I even brought my guitar and sang a couple of songs. While most of the pieces or songs were done in Spanish, I chose to do poems using both English and Spanish.

But audience is the trick. It all lies with audience, a good one, even if it's just another performer. I often retold this story to my students about how during a premiere of one of Oscar Wilde's plays he was confronted by a woman who said" "Oh, Mr. Wilde, I sure hope your play will be a success!" "Mam", he answered "It's not a question of whether my play will be a success but whether the audience will be one." Yes! That's it! That's the ticket, a good audience, after all  one should never "throw pearls before swine?"

I once had a student who submitted a poem for one of my assignments in class. I was so impressed by it that I spoke to him after class. "Miguel, this is an outstanding poem. Do you write poetry?" "Yes, but I keep it to myself." "But poetry is meant to be shared", I pleaded. "Why don't you start sharing it?" "Because I don't want anybody stealing my ideas", he responded.

Poems and songs are to be shared, to be read, to be heard by others. Another student once told me after hearing one of my poems, "I almost cried when you read that poem." "I guess I must have failed", I joked. "Because I cried when I read it."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

On The Labors of Reading

For those of you driven by fate, chance or bad luck who wind up at this blog I hope you are not being scared off by the length of my posts. When I first started this blog a couple of years ago I mostly wrote short stuff but lately I've been getting carried away and they have gotten longer and longer. My apologies!

I remember when I used to assign my students a new book or reading, the first thing they would do is flip the pages to get a feel for how long it was. Sound familiar? I am guilty of that too.

One of my college professors was fond of saying that all good literature was necessarily difficult to read, but that the reward was always greater than the work you expended reading it.

So, don't be put off. Read some of my entries and some ought to be worth your time!

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Liberal Education: A Degree or Knowledge?

 A liberal education can best be described as one which offers a "generous" (liberal) offering of study from many different fields or disciplines, art, history, science, mathematics and sociology, with a specialization in one, the one you "major" in.

When I went off to college as a dreamy, ideal teen I had no idea what I was getting into. My High School experience had been rocky, though I loved school and had excelled in it up until my Junior High School years.

Before this, I was an model student, an avid reader, one praised by all my teachers. What hit me in the 7th grade was girls, and a rebellious spirit whose need for attention became my downfall. Once, I arranged for every member of class to drop his/her book on the floor at a prescribed moment during class. They loved me for it.

It only got worse in High School, where I began running with some shady characters, being disruptive in class and ditching school until one day we got caught shoplifting some stuff from a smoke shop in downtown Modesto and were escorted by the police back to school.

I was sent to see the Dean. He was a gruff old man, and everybody was afraid of him. Mr. Rhodes shook his head. "I just don't understand, Richard, how you being such a good kid is running around with this kind of rift-raft". His words touched me. At the same time I was awarded first prize in an annual AAA Safety Poster Contest which inadvertently brought me all of the attention I was seeking. This time for the right reasons.

When a couple of my art teachers began to talk to me of college, the thought had never once entered my mind. To me college was for the White Kids, the smart ones, the rich ones. We were poor. We lived in the barrio on the south side of town. I did not know a single Mexican who went to college.

For this reason, my mom actually tried to talk me out of it. "College? What a dreamer! You actually believe what your teachers are telling you? How will you pay for it? How will you support yourself? In this society Mexicans are always on the bottom. Take it from me, I know."

But thanks to my rebellious spirit I defied her and left for college assured that I would make it somehow. But what "it" was I did not really know. Loaded with an armful of scholarships I embarked on the most amazing journey of my life... getting an education... and I loved it.

I ate it up, every class and devoured the books. My teachers were masters in their own right, some moonlighting at our small private college from the prestigious University of California, Berkeley and I loved them and the knowledge they represented.

While it was an art school, we were immersed in liberal studies and many students resented it. "We are artists by God, so why do we have to take all these stupid courses that have nothing to do with art? In my Junior year on a lark, I ran for Student Body President and won! I was frightened to death at the duties this small town boy was getting ready to assume in this office, but I excelled despite my fears of public speaking.

As fate would have it, that very semester, a student rebellion began to brew, prompting several spontaneous protests on campus, their anger directed at the administration for making liberal studies a requirement. One day the president of the college called me into his office. I was paralyzed at the thought of having to face the college president! "Richard, I am calling a student assembly to respond to the issue of Liberal Studies requirements and I want you to speak in support of the requirement."

"Wait a minute, me? Speak?" The thought paralyzed me. "OK", I stuttered and stumbled out of his office. While I thought the protests were uncalled for because I had always been taught to respect authority, I felt a shaky loyalty to the students and they wanted me to speak out in favor of their demands! I was torn and uncertain of exactly what my position was. I had simply accepted the institutional notion that liberal studies was good for us. It was good for everybody. But on the other hand, if we were just going to be artists, what good would it possibly do us?

As the day of the dreaded assembly drew near, the student unrest grew and there was even talk of walkouts, and my fear escalated to terror. What would I say? Who would I back? I knew what the students wanted me to say but I knew the college president expected me to support the college. The auditorium was packed and noisy, rowdy even.

I was introduced by the president to speak. I wanted to disappear, to run, to hide. But there was no hiding. I dragged myself to the podium. The crowd became silent. I swear to you now, that even at that moment I did not know what I was going to say! Would I throw down the gauntlet, defy authority and stand chest to chest with my compatriots or would I turn coat and throw my support to the enemy!?

I stood there like an idiot, my moth dry, my palms sweaty, my knees trembling. And then the words slurped out of my mouth, like a spoonful of hot soup that has just burned your tongue: "My fellow students... we must stop all this nonsense. The administration is right...." I could not even finish the sentence before the booing and jeering began. I was humiliated as I saw many of my friends, those who had loyally supported me, shaking their heads in disgust. My mind shut down. I had just betrayed my own people, abandoned them in their hour of need. I was a disgrace as their president.

I don't remember how that assembly ended or what ensued in the subsequent weeks but in time the unrest dissolved into the mundane comings and goings of college life and I was shunned by many of my classmates. But truth be told, now that I look back at it decades later, I had been simply too damned scared to speak out against authority. If only I had meant what I said. But things that are done, cannot be undone.

When I was finally hired as a Chicano Studies teacher some 10 years later, and I walked into that first classroom, it wasn't art that allowed me to survive and thrive as an educator, it was the Liberal Studies that gave me a broader view of every single topic I discussed in my courses and I thanked the powers that be for that beautiful, incredible generous helping of knowledge they gave to me. It cannot be measured, it cannot be quantified, as it is beyond value, priceless.

And now, I wish for one thing. That with what I know now, I could relive that moment, that raucous student assembly and I could say "Look, you jerks. Whatever it is you want to be or become with your college education, an artist, lawyer, cook, teacher, doctor, you will be better at it with a liberal education! Go back to your classes,and shut up, listen up, pay attention and enjoy the act of learning, enjoy knowledge for its own sake without regard to what good it will ever do you in the future. Knowledge is its own kind of power, a keepsake, a pearl of great value that can never be taken from you."

Oh well, maybe next time.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Que Viva Zapata!: Hollywood Style

Marlon Brando and Jean Peters
I just watched (again) one of my all time favorite films, Elia Kazan's "Viva Zapata", a fictionalized biographical account of Emiliano Zapata, one of the great rebel leaders of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), based on the screenplay by John Steinbeck, nontheless.

The film stars Marlon Brando as Emiliano, Jean Peters as his wife Josefa, and Anthony Quinn as Emiliano's brother, Eufemio.

I remember seeing it as a kid when it was first released and feeling a surge of pride in being Mexican and the child of parents who actually lived in Mexico during these tumultuous times. It was a far cry from the canned films of the 50's and a daring departure from Hollywood's stereotyped depictions of Mexicans as drunkards, brawlers, womanizers, servants and Latin-lovers in so many movies.

My mom was from Torreon, Coahuila, the home of one of Pancho Villa's most celebrated victories(1914), in the North against the more strongly armed and disciplined Mexican troups, Los Federales.

Villa, and Zapata who led rebel forces in the South of Mexico (Morelos), were god-like heroes to the poor masses of Mexico. Dozens of corridos (ballads) extolling their heroic and tragic lives live on today. My mom used to tell me stories that Villa would ride into town, shoot up the wealthy Hacendados and rich merchants, sometimes killing them, and how she and her mother would wander through the streets of Torreon, the empty stores and search dead bodies, rummaging for anything of value.

Moreover, even then,  the 50's, we entertained the unspoken and restless unease about Hollywood's insistence on casting White actors as Mexicans. It angered us. It embarrassed us. But being simple people, we had no words for it. When I found out they had glued Marlon Brando's eyelids to give him a "indian" look in this film, I felt cheated. Why wasn't Anthony Quinn, who played Zapata's brother Eufemio, cast as Emiliano? Was it their fear that a Mexican cast in a leading role would not be a draw at the box office?

Still, Brando being Brando, pulls off a powerful portrayal of a simple, intense, charismatic and humble man willingly giving his life for the rights of the poor people of Mexico with no glory or reward for himself. Quinn is masterful in the film, at his usual best playing a passionate volcano of bravado, and a womanizing Macho, like he did in "Zorba The Greek." The beautiful Jean Peters was cast as Josefa, Emilian's loving and faithful wife, despite their differences in social class. In black and white she looks almost Mexican in parts.

All of this is forgiven though in light of the great cinematography, many shots reminding us of actual photos from the Mexican Revolution. Kazan in fact studied actual photos to help him recreate scenes for the film.

The faces of Mexico, the old men and women especially and the beautiful light and dark hues, the shadows created by black and white film are compelling.

Forgiven too is the occasional staccato of abrupt fade-ins and fade-outs, the melodramatic music and overacted scenes remnants of the silent film era. Realistic accents were generally non-existent with the exception of Quinn's, of course, another bothersome detail.

Perhaps the film's most memorable sequence is that of Zapata's betrayal and assassination at the end of the film. As he rides into a trap he himself suspects, he cannot resist the lure of the tons of machine guns, rifles and ammunition that has been promised him, just for the taking. Cautiously entering into the courtyard of the military garrison, he is welcomed with a kiss on the cheek (reminiscent of Christ's betrayal by Judas), by a General Guajardo,and further enticed by the sight of his favorite white stallion. Dismounting, he embraces his long lost friend but the horse is restless and begins to neigh foreshadowing the impending terror to come.

Guajardo raises his sword giving the order to fire, and dozens of uniformed soldiers appear on the rooftops of the garrison and begin firing. The camera shots of Zapata's body, cringing on his knees, shielding his head, and the in the fury of hundreds of rounds tearing his body apart is unforgettable, reminding this viewer of the the closing scenes of "Bonnie and Clyde",  or "Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid", when the protagonists are mercilessly gunned down.

The ending is predicatable as Zapata's white horse "escapes" to fuel the myth to follow that Zapata is still alive, that he can never be killed, that as long as injustice rears its head, he will be there to lead the people against it.

Regardless of these minor glitches, this period-piece remains on of my favorite films.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

To Whom It May Concern

As a teacher it often fell to me to write letters of recommendation for my students, be it for jobs, scholarships or college applications. And I usually did it with enthusiasm.

When I knew the student well from his/her work in class it was easy to say positive things about them. When I didn't know them well, well I had to stretch it a little.

One day years ago Jose came into my office to tell me he was applying for a job and needed a letter of recommendation. "I would really appreciate it if you could write one for me, Mr. Rios", he said. "When do you need it?" "Maybe this Friday?" It was Monday. "I'll have it ready for you, Jose", I told him; we shook hands and he left.

Later that evening as I thought about Jose's request, I looked over my grade book. There I saw that Jose had already missed class 5 times, and it was only mid-semester. He had failed to turn in two essays, and of the two he had turned in, one was a C- and the other a D. I recalled that he often arrived to class late, and  without his book, too. "How could Jose even have the guts to ask me for a letter?" I asked myself.

The next couple of days, I wrestled with what I should say in the letter. Should I stretch it, and say Jose was a good student and doing acceptable work in my course? Or I could tell him, "Look Jose, I simply cannot write this letter in good conscience because I really don't think I can say something good about you", I pondered to myself.

By Thursday, I had still made no decision! That night, the angel on my left shoulder (or was it the one on the right?) spoke to me: "Write the letter, Rios and just tell the truth. You wouldn't want to be responsible for some poor slob of a boss hiring this jerk, would you? If you were the employer, wouldn't you want to know the truth before hiring this lackluster specimen for an employee?"

I picked up a nice, clean sheet of the college's letterhead typing paper, slid it into the typewriter and wrote:

To Whom It May Concern:

This letter is written on behalf of Jose Benavides, who is currently a student in my English 35, Chicano Literature course. While Jose is a amiable and outgoing person, his course work in unacceptable. He comes to class habitually late, unprepared, and has excessive unexcused absences.

Therefore, I would not recommend him for employment.

Your Truly,
Richard Rios, Instructor

I sealed the letter in an envelope and the next morning, right on schedule, Jose came for it in my office. "Here, is your letter Jose", I chimed, handing it to him. He looked at it, then at me with a big smile. Taking it, he said "You don't know how much I appreciate this Mr. Rios", as he shook my hand vigorously.

I felt joyously sinister, almost evil inside.

Whether or not Jose ever got that job I would never know. He never returned to class, and I never saw him again.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Letter From Imprisoned Minds

During my 33 years of teaching, many moments in the classroom stand out but one incident is near the top of the list. It happened in a section of my English 1A course when I assigned my students to read and discuss Martin Luther King's brilliant essay, "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

The letter was written in 1963 after King was arrested during a sit-in at a Birmingham diner in response to an article posted by eight of King's "fellow clergyman" in essence withdrawing their support of him because his actions though peaceful and "non-violent" precipitate viloence. The piece, scribbled on the backs of napkins would go on to be reprinted in hundreds of anthologies.

 While not an easy piece, I would have settled with my students grasping 50% of it, though getting them to read in general was a formidable challenge. I had set aside 3 periods for a what I hoped would be a detailed analysis of the central premises in the letter.

I had envisioned a lively discussion with strong divisions among the students. What I got was something I had not prepared for, nor could have prepared for in any teacher training program.

I usually began the discussions by asking for general reactions to the reading. Good, bad, like, dislike. When no hands showed, I usually moved on to specific sections of each reading, quoting assertions by the writer then asking for specific responses to each. The essays in all the readers had enumerated paragraphs, making analysis of specific points easier to address.

"Class in paragraphs 25-26, the writer claims such and such is so. Do you agree? Disagree? After long intense silences, with students staring at the floor or the ceiling, at their books, or at one another waiting for some brave soul to raise a hand, they panicked when they began to fear I might call on one of them! This day, I was spared the indignity when one older White lady raised her hand.

Unlike most of the 18-21 year olds in my classes, she was about 60 I guessed. I looked forward to the contributions of her wisdom and experience to our discussion of King's letter.

"I think this essay is a bunch of crap", she asserted defiantly. I was stunned. The students were stunned. I looked around the room hoping someone would challenge or even agree with her. Nothing. Caught off guard I had to think on my feet. "What do I say now?" I froze. My reputation as a teacher was on the line! Finally, it came to me.

"Exactly what part of King's essay is crap?" I asked with surgical skill. "All of it", she countered. "Everyone knows King hates White People and says what he says only for the love of his Negro race." Then, I saw it. My opening. And I prepared my masterful assault. "Could you discuss one specific point in the essay where King says something you disagree with?" "Well", she hesitated "all of it!" "No, no that's not what I'm asking. I am asking you to point to one specific paragraph number, one specific point he makes in one specific paragraph which is as you say crap?"

I had her. She hemmed, she hawed, she shifted her weight from one side of the desk to the other like a fish who had just been pulled on to dry land, hooked and floundering on the ground. I stood defiantly in front of her desk, eyes glued on hers. She looked away. The silence in the room was stifling.  And then it came.

"Uh, I didn't read it." I looked at the others, and they squirmed like unearthed earthworms. I knew it. None of them had read the essay except me, their teacher! As the period mercifully ended, I put the topping on the cake. I was offended. I was angry. Not at the lady necessarily but at each and every student in that room who had let me, their teacher, and that poor lady languish alone on the hot pavement of that confrontation.

"Today's, real lesson class is that I am absolutely apalled ed by the silence of each and every one of you. Not one single student in this class had the balls to say, 'Yeah, she's absolutely right, this essay is a bunch of crap' or to challenge her and stand up for even one of King's arguments", I said to them like a matador, thrusting the Sabre to the hilt. 

We all, students and teacher, left the room with our heads bowed.

In paragraph 26, Dr. King writes "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the the good people." Do you agree or disagree?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Mediocrity: The New Excellence?

A student of mine once told me this story. Her teen daughter, a student in Middle School, was handed a note by her teacher from the principal's office announcing that she had been selected as one of the school's outstanding students. An award would be presented at an upcoming assembly.

When the word  of her achievment spread among her peers, instead of congratulatory responses, she was made fun of. "Look at Myra, she thinks she's so smart." "She's a smarty pants!" She thinks she's better than the rest of us!"

Things turned even uglier, a couple of days later, when was approached by a couple of Cholas (tough girls), who threatened "If you show up to the assembly, we are going to kick your butt, homegirl." Myra shuddered but did not respond. She went home, shut herself up in her room, and didn't utter a word of it to her mom.

On the day of the assembly, Myra was late getting out of bed. "Come on mija", prodded her mom, "you're late for school!" "I don't feel well today, mama, I think I'm getting the flu", Myra shouted through the closed door. "Ok mija", stay in bed and take care of yourself; I'm late for work. I'll see you tonight."  Sometime later, the school contacted Myra's mother about her daughter's unexplained absence on the day of the assembly. The award arrived in the mail the next day, inside an envelope.

The story shook, but did not surprise me. Peer pressure to fail, to be stupid, to be mediocre, to be a pendejo is rampant among our kids today. "All I want from life is a C", is the debilitating mentality. The student who studies, the one who gets good grades, who succeeds in school is often bullied and ridiculed by his peers. There are few things worse than being labeled "teacher's pet."

Students gather in groups when they receive their graded assignments. "You got an F? Me too!! They cheer each other on, excitedly. The few with the A or B papers, even dread telling it to others, fearing the response, "An A?? What did you do, kiss the teacher's butt!?"

The greater tragedy is that their parents, sometimes their teachers, even the greater society, languishes in this kind of mediocrity. The term derives from the Latin "mediocris: to be in "a middle state." We don't want to stand out, to be seen as different from others. Tragically, to be smarter-or more intelligent-to be educated-often becomes a life sentence to separateness.

We need only to look at the long history of great people, thinkers, philosophers, artists to witness the tragic and lonely lives they lived. There is a price tag for success.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A Tough Love Teacher

Throughout my years as a student and later, when I became a teacher, writing had always been important to me. In fact, my love for writing would eventually lead me to become a English teacher in college.

Once I began teaching, I was shocked at the poor writing and reading skills of at least half of my students, and wondered how they had even gotten into college in the first place.

Nonetheless, I was convinced I could  make a difference; I would be the one to teach them to love what they had grown to hate: writing an essay! I was a dreamer.

But what I grew to fear and hate the most about teaching was having to grade my student's work. Even more dreadful was the day I returned their papers. Students fidgeted, their faces full of anxiety as I handed them the graded essays, the one or two A and B papers, the many C, and the few D and F ones . I had resolved early on not to mark them up with "red ink" so I used blue ink, hoping it wouldn't hurt as much.

"Class, if I didn't love you, I wouldn't even bother to write comments on your papers. I would just hand them back and let you figure out why you got the grade you did. I could just write a single word or phrase 'good job', 'you can do better' on each one. I know it hurts but take time to read my comments and you will see that many are just suggestions and not errors you have committed. I try to suggest to you how you could have made yours a stronger, better essay."

Regardless, I could see the grief in their faces. "But I worked hard on this paper", "I thought I did good", "I have never gotten a C- on any paper before!?" Were their labored responses. Sometimes, it took 10 minutes just to quiet them down afterward so I could begin the day's lesson, so I started handing the essays back at the end of the period. I always ended that period by inviting them to see me during my office hours so I could go over the comments with them individually. Few ever took up my offer.

In each batch of 25-30 students there were always 4-5 who didn't even bother to turn in a paper. I would let them slide on the first essay, but once they failed to turn in a second one, I would ask to see them after class or in my office to inquire about why. I offered them the opportunity of turning in one of the two as a "late" paper. After the third failure, I would advise them they were failing the class, and to consider "dropping" it rather than risk a failing grade.Some made a serious turn around after these interventions and began turning in their work.

Elena was one of these students. After her failure to turn in the second paper I approached her one Monday. I told her that the way she was going, she would fail the class. I would give her one more chance to turn in essay number two late, and that if she failed to do so I might consider dropping her from the course. I got the usual "I've been so busy. There's lots of stuff going on in my house. I promise I will have it on Friday."

She complied. On Friday she turned in her paper. When I read it, I was shocked to see about a 6th grade level of writing. Her spelling, the grammar, and format was atrocious. "No wonder she has not been turning in her work", I thought. After much thought, I called her to my office. "Elena, you are so far behind in your writing that honestly I can't see how you will be able to pass this course. My advice to you is to drop it, and take a lower level writing class for at least one semester and then take the course again. You can take it from me, or another instructor if you feel more comfortable."

The student was devastated. Tears welled in her eyes. "Do I have to? I promise I will work harder if you give me a chance." "Yes, but I cannot even promise you C grade in this class. This course is transferable, and If you fail it, you will have to take it again anyway?"

After a long silence she asked "Do I have to drop now? I am learning so much in your course." I hesitated and said "No, you can wait until the drop deadline", which was still over a month away, "and drop then if you want. That way you can get the most out of this course and your time will not be completely wasted." We agreed.

She stayed until the deadline and dropped the course. I felt badly. Why had I been so mean to Elena? Why was I so strict? I had passed many with a C grade, though in my heart I knew they didn't deserve it. Why not her? Of those I failed, I never most them again, but when I did, and they saw me coming on campus and pretended they didn't know me, or quickly turned in another direction. I got no joy out of failing any one of my students, with the exception of one or two. That felt good, I must admit.

I did not see Elena on campus for a couple of semesters and one day on my way to my office I heard a young girl's voice "Mr. Rios! Mr. Rios!" She smiled and we shook hands. It was Elena. "I did what you told me, Mr. Rios! I took two remedial writing classes and this semester I am taking English 1A and doing B work!" She said excitedly. "I just want to thank you. Of all the teachers I ever had, not one ever told me I had any problems with my writing. They all just passed me along giving me the impression I was doing fine. You are the only one, Mr. Rios and I want to thank you for that."

Elena had just confirmed what in my heart I knew to be true but which was a burden to admit, that too many of our students are just "passed along", products of grade inflation, by teachers who do not want to take the time, are afraid, or simply don't care enough to be honest with them. How, in good conscience were they ever allowed to pass high school, and get into college, without ensuring they had the necessary skills to survive it?

I went to my next class and collecting another pile of essays, noticed that Juan had not turned his in. "Ah, I'll talk to him next week", I assured myself and went to the teacher's lounge for a cup of coffee. It was cold outside and the fog was beginning to roll in, again.