Thursday, December 25, 2008
We each have much to be grateful for. Despite the struggles we endure in the vicissitudes of life we continue to persevere and make the best of each moment. We do not allow life to consume us with the weight of its difficulties.
This is a time to think about the birth of Jesus and the lessons he shared with the world. It is a time for healing and growth, and an opportunity to foster understanding and find common ground within the community. In so doing we can eradicate the energies that can erode the human spirit.
The question, "What would Jesus do?" is one question we should frequently ask ourselves as we make decisions in life. If we profess to be followers of Jesus we have a responsibility to pattern our lives after righteous principles.
Adhering to the wisdom of Jesus is not a matter of convenience or personal preference; it is an obligation we must fulfill if we have chosen to be faithful to God.
We are reminded throughout the scripture that withholding forgiveness and promoting divisiveness contravenes the will of God and the lessons taught by Jesus. We only hurt ourselves and deprive ourselves of blessings when we choose to rival the laws designed to keep us perpetually evolving.
We cannot succumb to destructive thoughts or immerse ourselves in a cesspool of negativity. There is no place in our lives for hatred and evil. They are the antithesis of life and can only serve to accelerate the demise of humanity.
It is my belief that healing can occur in the community I departed from 20 years ago and in the lives of those who have been deeply affected by the tragic death and loss of one of the community's finest members, Rick Tetzlaff.
I ask that everyone keep Rick's family and my family in your prayers. Ask God to bless us all with healing and ask Him to help our families seek reconciliation. Our families have suffered far too long and I am calling on rational minds to help us all begin the healing process.
As long as we remain polarized others will continue to inject their personal agendas into our lives and seek to keep us divided. Prosecutors and police involved in my case seeking to promote and protect their careers and reputations have no role in how our families move forward with our lives.
They have not suffered the anguish we have and they espouse callous views, reject the notion of redemption, and condemn forgiveness. These are not principles that any civilized and God-fearing society should celebrate.
My continued imprisonment will not erase anyone's pain, nor will it allow our families to heal. It will only exacerbate the pain and serve as a constant reminder that I am imprisoned while people all over the globe are working vigorously to restore my freedom. I no more wish for my family and supporters to endure this process as I do for Rick's family to be constantly reminded about our efforts.
At my public hearing Rick's widow, Tina, expressed anger that she had to be at the hearing. I was saddened she and other members of their family had to be there as well. I was disappointed their family had to endure nine hours of reliving the painful experience of 20 years all over again because the Asst. Attorney General sought to drag the process out.
It is my hope we do not have to endure another such experience. If I am not blessed with my release, however, the campaign to restore my freedom will only intensify exponentially and compel us all to continue subjecting ourselves to this ongoing process.
I may never convince Rick's family about all the actual facts in my case, but I will never admit to doing something I did not do. I have paid dearly with my life for my refusal to admit guilt to the crime I was falsely accused of. I have spent year after year in prison since the age of 15. I am now 35-years-old and will soon become age 36 in just a few months.
If I were guilty I would have sought to negotiate a guilty plea or reduced sentence long ago like the guilty parties did. I would have also never protected the criminals who have admitted their roles in the crime.
Michael Sepic, the Berrien County Chief Asst. Prosecutor, attempted to diminish their guilt and characterize their actions as "minimal roles." He also continues to offer them cover. Sepic's views on this insult our sensibilities.
If the stories of the youths who pleaded guilty to charges related to this crime were true my silence about their involvement would have shielded them from life imprisonment. Any 15-year-old who is arrested and facing their entire life in prison would have implicated everyone involved.
This would have certainly occurred if the other individuals were placing all the blame on a 15-year-old so they could go free or receive reduced sentences. I had absolutely no reason to protect my criminal accusers from blame then, and I have no reason to protect them now.
My family and I want the healing to begin and for representatives of the religious community to help us facilitate the process. I extend this invitation on behalf of my family and self and pray that this overture is received in the spirit it is offered.
I ask everyone, "What would Jesus do?" Would he want our families to go on enduring a painful life year or after, or would he want healing and reconciliation? I do not believe he would want our families to continue enduring the pain or divisiveness that abounds. He would want better.
And, together, we can do better by ushering in a new year and the dawn of a new era of healing.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
The Michigan Citizen
Justice has seldom found a welcome in Berrien County. No more so than with the case of Efren Paredes.
Arrested at age 15, sentenced to three life sentences at 16 and still in prison at 35, Paredes has declared his innocence from the beginning, struggled to clear his name in a case with no direct evidence and no eyewitnesses.
With the help of countless supporters he is seeking clemency from the governor, a process that began before the parole board at a hearing Dec. 4 in Jackson. It was an historic hearing, drawing the largest number of supporters ever, over 200, and ran an unprecedented nine hours.
“This case screams wrongful conviction,” Paul Ciolino said in his testimony before the parole board. “The system is broken when it comes to this case.”
Ciolino, a private investigator hired by the Paredes family and supporters, is a co-founder of the Northwestern Innocence Project in Chicago and part of a legal and investigative team that has helped release over 200 innocent prisoners across the country, with direct involvement in five cases of proving wrongful conviction.
In Paredes’ case, Richard Tetzlaff, manager of Roger’s Vineland Grocery, was found shot to death execution-style in the store’s back room in 1989. On the night he was murdered and the store was robbed, Tetzlaff had earlier driven employee Paredes home from work.
Police and prosecutors who showed up in force for last week’s hearing had accused Paredes almost immediately of the crime despite the youth’s stellar record in school and out.
While three other Lakeshore High School youth admitted involvement in the store robbery, ranging from owning the gun used, to the car that was driven, only Paredes maintained innocence and denied participation. The others testified against him in exchange for reduced sentences.
Ciolino said that as in most cases of wrongful conviction the police and prosecutor focused on a single suspect early on and ignored other evidence and leads.
Paredes was the main suspect eight hours after the thing happened, Ciolino told the parole board, when there were five or six suspects.
Ciolino listed for the board the contradictory evidence, tainted evidence, missing evidence and bungling by the police.
At the hearing, police and prosecutors, attempting to rekindle much of the sensationalism of the 1989 trial, testified why in their mind Paredes was guilty and should not be returned to society.
Berrien County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Mike Sepic, who tried Paredes’ case, told the parole board that lyrics from the NWA rap song “Eight Ball Posse,” served as motivation for the police focus. Finding every word of the rap written out in Paredes’ high school locker led law enforcement to believe they knew Paredes “state of mind”— for the police, Paredes was a gang leader.
Prosecuting Attorney Arthur J. Cotter read into the record every word of the song, expletives and “n”-words.
Ciolino reminded the board that Paredes had never been involved with a gang, as a student, or even as a young prisoner. He also took issue with the police effort to say the rap song was a “window into his mind.”
A person’s conduct and personal history is the best indicator of behavior, Ciolino told the board.
Scott Elliott, a longtime prison reform activist, who has spent over a decade trying to clear Paredes and who testified at the historic hearing, told the Michigan Citizen later that the show of force by county law enforcement was an indication of the weakness of their case.
“If reciting that rap lyric was the best that Cotter could come up with, it seems pretty pathetic. From the beginning they fabricated their case against Efren almost totally out of whole cloth. That was apparent at the hearing.”
Parole Board members questioned Paredes about his trial and prison record. His answers were straightforward and persuasive.
Assistant Attorney General Charles Schettler was openly belligerent with Paredes, who kept his composure throughout the grilling as he detailed the flaws in the case against him.
Chair of the Parole Board, Barbara Sampson, warned Paredes at the beginning that in the view of the board he “was legally guilty” that he had been found so by a jury and a number of appeals had sustained the jury verdict.
Supporter after supporter testified to Paredes accomplishments. He has become a Braille translator and if released will establish his own business doing that work. Both the president of the Michigan Braille Association and his immediate supervisor testified to his superior work record, vision, knowledge and contributions.
Paredes would live in Battle Creek and not return to Berrien County, if released.
The members of the parole board who heard testimony Thursday will make a recommendation to the entire board which will then make a recommendation to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who has the ultimate decision.
Sampson repeatedly emphasized that the parole board would make its recommendation on Paredes commutation to the governor based solely on his preparedness for release.
Monday, December 1, 2008
More than 300 youths have been sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) in Michigan and are serving these sentences in adult facilities. Michigan ranks third in the number of youth sentenced to LWOP and is second only to Louisiana in the rate of juveniles age 14-18 serving sentences of LWOP.
To determine public opinion on the issue, questions related to the topic were included in an annual statewide survey of those 18 years or older. The survey, administered by a public university, was conducted during the spring and summer of 2005.
We found that only 5 percent of residents supported Michigan’s current law regarding juveniles serving life without parole in adult facilities. The majority believed “blended” sentences that included both juvenile and adult sanctions were more acceptable. Moreover, Michigan citizens were strongly opposed to juveniles 16 and younger being housed with adults in correctional facilities and believed that juveniles were strong candidates for rehabilitation.
Michigan residents are unequivocal in their belief that youths should be held accountable for their violent crimes, but that it should be in a manner that recognizes the physiologic, psychological and emotional capabilities of the youths, understanding that these capabilities differ from that of adults. These findings support alternative sentencing arrangements and changes to Michigan’s current policies and legislation.
The above abstract is from the study conducted by Wayne State University School of Social Work. Click here to view the entire study and press release.
Friday, November 14, 2008
The subjects covered will include, but not be limited to, the following:
• Control of thought and behavior;
• Taking ownership for our actions;
• Overcoming insecurities and fears:
• Changing our perceptions;
• Creating mutual respect between the sexes;
• Empowering ourselves;
• Value of expression and communication;
• Developing positive self-image;
• Perils of reactionary behavior;
• Anatomy of conflict resolution;
• Forging alliances and collaborative efforts;
• Emphasizing culture, history and identity; and
• Need to pursue higher education.
Efrén will share two decades of intimate personal experience and research about these subjects. He has mentored hundreds of people and worked closely with them to equip them with the knowledge and necessary skills to thrive in a rapidly changing society.
An honest, articulate and motivational speaker, Efrén will teach people how to gain control over their lives and discuss the perils of refusing to do so. He will also provide a critical in-depth cost-benefit analysis of the group's dialogue every step of the way.
The work Efrén has done to combat social injustice and empower Xicano/Latino youth has been endorsed by Dr. Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez, Dr. Carlos Muñoz, Jr., and other highly respected members of the Xicano/Latino community.
We endeavor to generate widespread interest in the workshop and use this blueprint for personal growth and development to reach students at the college level and later at the high school and middle school level.
Ultimately we not only want to correct distorted thinking patterns, we want to prevent them from being engendered to begin with.
To learn more information about the workshop you can contact the event lead organizer, Xavier Gonzalaz via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at 956-739-5264.
* The term "Xicano/Latino" is in no any way intended to exclude Xicanas or Latinas. We want it to be clear that Xicanas and Latinas are included in our usage of the term.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
The Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children Submission to the American Bar Association's Juvenile Justice Committee's Town Hall Meeting
The Coalition includes a list of all the following organizations that are calling on Congress and President-Elect Barack Obama to abolish juvenile life without parole sentences in the USA:
Children’s Advocacy Clinic, Children in Prison Project, Florida State University College of Law
Children’s Law Center, Massachusetts
Citizens for Juvenile Justice, Massachusetts
Columbia Legal Services, on behalf of clients, Seattle, Washington
DLA Piper, LLP
Bernardine Dohrn, Director, Children & Family Justice Center, Northwestern University School of Law
Family and Friends of Inmates, Omaha, Nebraska
Shaena Fazal, Director, Long‐Term Prisoner Policy Project, John Howard Association of Illinois
Brian J. Foley, Visiting Associate Professor of Law, Boston University School of Law
Human Rights Advocates, California
Human Rights Watch, New York
Individual parents, relatives, or friends of youth serving JLWOP sentences throughout the United States
Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana
Juvenile Law Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Michelle Leighton, Director Human Rights Programs, University of San Francisco School of Law
NAACP, Legal Defense Fund, New York
National Center for Youth Law, Oakland, California
National Juvenile Justice Network, Washington, D.C.
Penal Reform International, Washington, D.C.
Pendulum Foundation, Colorado
The Sentencing Project, Washington, D.C.
Jeffrey Shook, Assistant Professor of Social Work and Law, University of Pittsburgh
Randolph N. Stone, Clinical Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School
Rev. Bonnie Young, Kings Crossing Foundation, Colorado
Youth Advocacy Project, Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services
Youth Justice Coalition, Los Angeles
Monday, October 13, 2008
"Talk is cheap. It's the way we organize and use our lives every day that tells what we believe in." —Cesar E. Chavez
Dear Friends in the Struggle for Human Rights,
I am inviting you to join the Fast for Our Future that will begin on October 15, 2008 in Los Angeles, three weeks before the November 4th presidential election. Many people will be fasting in an effort to mobilize our community to vote for immigrant rights.
According to The Rise Movement:
"On October 15th, over 100 people will begin one of the largest hunger strikes in American history to call on Latinos, immigrants, and people of conscience — the Immigrant Rights Movement—to rise out of our fear and vote for change."Fasters will give up all food and juice liquids. We will only drink water. The Fast will be based at an encampment at La Placita Olvera, the historic heart of Los Angeles. The encampment will be a visual representation of the size of the hunger strike. Fasters will sleep in tents and live at the encampment for the duration of the hunger strike. The Fast will continue until at least one million people have signed the Pledge to vote and take action for immigrant rights." (Source: http://tinyurl.com/4ykcgg
The Fast for our Future will be based in a permanent encampment at La Placita Olvera, the historic heart of Los Angeles, and will continue until at least 1 million people have signed this Pledge [or the fast will end on November 4 — after 21 days — whichever occurs sooner]. Through our shared sacrifice and commitment we will renew our movement and inspire an historic mobilization of Latino, immigrant, and pro-immigrant rights voters.
We must remember the I.C.E. raids, those detained and deported, the families torn apart, the dreams deferred. We must remember the marches, the walkouts, the boycotts, and the promise we made: Hoy marchamos, mañana votamos. Yesterday we marched for our rights, today we vote."
Please sign the Pledge and invite everyone else you know to do so by visiting http://tinyurl.com/4385qn The sooner we can register one million people to sign the Pledge the sooner the fast will end. However, we are fully prepared to fast the entire 21 days, if necessary.
I fully endorse this campaign on behalf of the Demand an End to the ICE Raids and the Inhumane Assaults on Immigrants, a Facebook group with over 3,200 members.
Even if you do not live in Los Angeles I am asking you to join the fasters in solidarity and support this historic effort. I will be personally participating in the fast and am hopeful that many others across the nation will join as well so we are united in spirit for this very important cause.
The lives and futures of millions of Latinos and other immigrants are at stake. Please answer this very important call to action and share this message with as many people as you can.
Efrén Paredes, Jr.
Demand an End to the ICE Raids and the
Inhumane Assaults on Immigrants!
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Saturday, October 4, 2008 Efrén participated in the first Making Strides Against Breast Cancer (hereafter "Making Strides) 5K walk held inside a Michigan prison. He also made a monetary donation to the cause. Making Strides representatives visited the prison and participated in the walk alongside Efrén and other prisoners who participated.
According to their web site, Making Strides is "more than just the name of an event." It goes on to say:
Making Strides Against Breast Cancer refers to the vital progress the American Cancer Society has made through research, education, advocacy, and patient services. It is the premier event to raise awareness and dollars to fight breast cancer.Source: http://tinyurl.com/4otdal
Efrén was instrumental in helping raise over $674 for the event from the prisoner population. He reminded prisoners to make donations and also announced the event at the September 2008 monthly Latin American Spanish-Speaking Organization (LASSO) meeting he chairs.
According to the Jackson Citizen Patriot, the prisoners, "raised $674, which will be matched by the Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund." Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund is the corporation Efrén and other prisoners who participated in the walk is employed with.
At the conclusion of the walk Efrén and other participants were awarded certificates for their contributions to this very worthy cause. Efrén also encouraged other prisoners to participate in any future events sponsored by Making Strides.
After speaking with the Making Strides representatives that visited the prison about ways they could help increase prisoner participation and awareness about future events, Efrén is confident that will occur.
One thing Efrén never lacks is progressive ideas.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
I read with interest the response of the Berrien County Prosecutor to the proposed commutation hearing for Efren Paredes, Jr. I would start by saying that the halls of justice are littered with the bodies of the wrongfully convicted, the wrongfully accused and of course the thousands of family members that stood by and got swept away in the national disgrace of prosecutorial and police misconduct. There are over 1,000 cases of this type that have occurred in the United States in the last twenty years. Is Berrien County immune from this phenomenon? I hardly think so.
The conviction of Paredes is classic. Take a hot button issue like the cold blooded murder of a well liked and respected local white businessman and mix with racial undertones, motivated informants, sloppy investigation and super aggressive prosecutors and police investigators and you get a wrongfully convicted person.
The classic fall back position is that we play the victim card. Trot out the widow, friends and neighbors of the victim and play to the sympathy and outrage of the community. The prosecutors want you to look at the widow and not the evidence.
The evidence would suggest that Paredes is innocent. The victim and the victims' family members are often sold this bill of goods and of course they adopt the prosecutor's position. Lost in all this is the ruined life of Efren and his family. Where is the outrage of the treatment of this family?
In the very near future there will be a public hearing that will allow people to speak on behalf Efren Paredes, Jr. The state has had its way for almost two decades in this matter. The fairy tale that has been promoted to the victim's family and the courts is going to be exposed.
All that Efren has ever asked for is an even playing field. That day is rapidly approaching.
Paul J. Ciolino
Paul J. Ciolino & Associates
Web Site: http://pjcinvestigations.com/paul-j-ciolino.htm
Monday, August 25, 2008
"Our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Thinking about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. It's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you'll play in writing the next great chapter in America's story." —Barack Obama, Wesleyan University Commencement Address—
by Efrén Paredes, Jr.
This is an exciting time in American politics. After an arduous race for the Democratic presidential nomination the stage is now set for the presidential general election to soon begin.
Many new people have been registered to vote in the past several months across the country. It is a historic time that is reinvigorating the spirit of the electoral process in every demographic. While the nation has at times seemed polarized about the presumed presidential nominees, the citizens remain united about one issue — the desire to see change.
There are many lessons to be learned from this presidential race, particularly from Barack Obama.
A year ago Obama was not viewed as an electable presidential candidate by the majority of Americans. He was unknown to many people and his message and image were eclipsed by what many felt was Hillary Clinton's entitlement to become the Democratic presidential nominee.
All that has changed though. And, in many polls Obama now leads John McCain in the battle for the Oval Office.
Besides being attracted to Obama's message of positive change for the country, I am also impressed with his persistence and courage to not acquiesce to the enormous pressure he faced to not pursue the presidency.
Obama's willingness to use his life in the interest of public service is admirable. He could have chosen to use his knowledge and skills to create a flourishing corporation purely for self-gain. Instead, he has spent much of his life giving a voice to those who could not speak for themselves and brought to attention to deserving causes.
Throughout his life Obama has also worked to create change at the grassroots level. He understood early on that real and lasting change begins from the bottom up.
As citizens we have an obligation to steadfastly work to improve the quality of life for others around the USA. Failure to take an active role only serves to further erode the social fabric of our country and it fosters degeneracy.
A mark of a true leader is the refusal to allow people from robbing them of hope and vision even when all the odds are stacked against them. It takes a remarkable person to continue swimming against the current intended to drown them and still flourish.
Obama has proven people can be successful even by remaining true to themselves and others. He has sought to stave off disingenuous tactics in his campaign and instead replace it with integrity. It was a decision he made that many early on thought would lead to his political demise.
Becoming the first presidential candidate of color of a major political party is a major victory in our country's history. It was just 40 years ago that African-Americans were allowed to vote in the USA. The nation has evolved though, and so has the collective consciousness of its citizenry.
With the USA becoming an increasingly multiracial society the Obama story has even more relevance. It gives little boys and girls of color another strong reference point to relate to that reflects their innate potential. It also helps them develop positive self-image and confidence when they see leaders in their image.
If I were free I would cast the very first vote of my entire life in this November's historic presidential election. Having been imprisoned since age 15 I have never been afforded the opportunity to yet cast a vote.
Many people have taken their voting rights for granted. I know what it feels like to want to utilize that vote and not be allowed to. You can rest assured that when I do receive the opportunity one day I will not throw it away. Voting is a precious liberty I will take seriously.
It is Obama's model of change beginning at the grassroots level that has resulted in the kind of success that The Injustice Must End (TIME) Committee enjoys through the labor and energies we have, and continue to expend. Ordinary hardworking citizens dissatisfied with injustice have accomplished extraordinary things.
This wonderful group of people has been determined to end the inhumane treatment of an innocent person deprived of his freedom. In so doing they continue to decry the false notion that people are powerless to social injustice or that their voice can be stifled by inequity.
I have spent much of my time in captivity working in the service of others. I know from experience what a difference helping others can make when we care enough to try. The results endure and we leave a noble mark on the world for others to emulate. In short, through our actions we become the agents and catalyst for change all around us.
Monday, August 18, 2008
Address to the Fall 2008 University of Southern California (USC) Student Body
¡Bienvenidos! (Welcome), as you commence a new year of matriculation at one of the nation's most respected institutions of higher learning. I am grateful to send you this message from across the country and proud to stand by you in solidarity as you sojourn through an exciting year replete with a myriad of opportunities.
This message is being delivered from another institution of notoriety in this nation. Unlike your institution that nourishes life and creativity, the one I am in seeks to destroy them. We exist at opposite ends of the spectrum of life and opportunity.
As a consequence of biased policies which target youth of color, many Chicana/o and Latina/o youth end up in prison cells. It is an unconscionable reality we are compelled to confront. Census Bureau statistics reflect that there are 2.7 Latinos living in prison cells compared to every one Latino living in a college dorm.
We have higher dropout rates, lower test scores, and fewer college graduates, which all leads to less involvement in community affairs. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 37% of Latinos do not finish high school, compared to the national average of 15%.
The ACLU Racial Justice Program is currently tackling a disturbing national trend in which children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. They characterize this phenomenon as the "school to prison pipeline."
I know firsthand the devastating effects these statistics can have on our community. I have been incarcerated since age 15 for a crime I did not commit and had no role in. I was sentenced to die in prison and I still remain captive after nearly 20 years of wrongful imprisonment.
I am in the battle for my very life. Without the strong support of people of conscience who are committed to defending justice and human rights, I will die in prison.
It is human rights abuses like these that cry out for us to answer the call to service for the betterment of humanity. If we shirk from our responsibility we will be complicit in fostering more injustice and leaving ourselves vulnerable to further abuse and victimization.
I know what it takes to transcend dehumanizing conditions. If not for my independent pursuit of higher learning I would have been defeated long ago by the crushing weight of this experience. Education is vital to our survival and building bridges that enable us to connect the past with the future.
I urge you to not take your education and opportunities for granted. Demonstrate that you are among the worthy who were entrusted with this opportunity that many others have been denied or taken for granted.
You each represent beacons of light to a generation of scholarship that will follow you. The task before you can not be underscored enough as you valiantly carry the torch of victory in the struggle for self-determination, respect and quality education.
Know that you stand on the towering shoulders of a long illustrious line of strong Chicana/o and Latina/o leaders who sacrificed so you could enjoy the fruits of their toils and struggles. We are the descendants of the women who gave birth to one of the greatest civilizations on Earth, the architects who built the colossal Mayan and Aztec temples, as well20as great scientists and educators.
You are now the custodians of their legacy and your actions will determine the preservation of their memory. Leave your footprints as signposts along the path as you fulfill your hopes and dreams. In so doing you can help change the world a little at a time and liberate our gente (people) from the stranglehold of dependence and ignorance.
Once you are gone your stewardship will be celebrated by the bright eyes, brilliant minds, and beautiful faces of young Chicana/o and Latina/o children anxiously awaiting to take the baton. Like you, they will be pillars of hope and inspiration to others.
We will not be defeated. As individuals we are strong, but together we are unconquerable!
Efrén Paredes, Jr.
Friday, August 8, 2008
Friday, August 8, 2008, people all over the world planned weddings to celebrate their sacred unions on this day marked with dual circles comprising the number "8", i.e., 8/8/08. Some people simply held parties and gatherings to bring attention to the numbers of the day.
The Beijing Olympic Games also began with an extravagant opening ceremony. According to m
Across the world 6,500 miles from the Olympic Games in Jackson, Michigan a small, quiet group of people convened for a different purpose. The number "8" was not considered when this gathering was planned. It just happened to be the only day everyone could mutually arrange to be together.
That day I received a visit from my wife, my grandfather, aunt Angie, and cousin Arielle. It was the first time I had seen Arielle since she was just a toddler in 1990. She was the last child I held during the entire length of my nearly 20 years of wrongful imprisonment.
Arielle was disallowed from visiting since then until she turned 18 earlier this year. Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) policy precludes anyone under the age of 18 from visiting a prisoner unless they are siblings. The policy went into effect a short time after Arielle last visited me.
Seeing Arielle again after all these years conjured a lot of memories of my early imprisonment. It was a salient reminder that I had been incarcerated the entire life of someone who is now a legal adult. In this instance I began my imprisonment months before Arielle was even born.
Previous to this visit, besides talking on the phone, seeing each other in pictures, and hearing about each other through other family members, Arielle and I had not seen each other since she was a baby. She also has two younger brothers, Alesandro and20Andreas, whom I have never met.
The visit went very well and we all discussed family memories. As we reminisced each time a person told a story they recalled it evoked another narrative by someone else. It seemed like we talked about the entire family before the visit ended. This wasn't so difficult having the elder of our family present to guide us along. It was like we were all putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle of our family's history.
I learned about more recent events as well. For instance, I discovered that my grandparents celebrated their 60th year anniversary that week. I also learned that Arielle would be leaving for college on Tuesday, August 12, 2008 — only a few days away.
Arielle told me she is attending Indiana State University (ISU) to pursue studies in music and pre-law. She also made the ISU Sparkettes dance team and plans on competing in national championships which are scheduled in the coming weeks.
I had already been imprisoned three years at the age of 18!
As we talked I thought to myself, "Here is this young person who is about to embark on an exciting life of opportunities I never had." Like me, Arielle was an honor student throughout school and sought to excel at every level of education. She had worked hard for this opportunity and deserved to enjoy every moment of it.
Being raised primarily by Angie, her single mother, makes Arielle's achievements all the more exceptional. More often than not children raised in single-parent homes struggle with their education and many of them drop out of school.
While other children chased the fast life or the streets, Arielle chose to chase stars. This is a testament to the upbringing she received from a loving mother who sacrificed in order to provide for her three children and see them thrive.
Rather than dwell on the unfortunate reality of having to wait so many years to finally see Arielle again I was grateful the day finally arrived. I did not want to detract from the visit by wasting time reflecting on the painful past of being separated from members of my family.
I was happy I was able to spend time with Arielle and offer her words of encouragement before she left for college to begin what may be the most important stage of her life. I last saw her before she could even take her first steps in life. Now I was about to see her take her first steps of independence and pursue her cherished dreams.
As the visit ended I kept that thought in mind. I wasn't watching Arielle leave. I was watching her begin a new life.
(Photos: Upper right (Angie, Arielle, and Efren in 1990); Center left (Angie and Efren on 8/8/08); and Lower right (Arielle and Efren on 8/8/08).
Monday, August 4, 2008
On Saturday morning, August 2, 2008, I was on the prison yard when unexpectedly an announcement came over the facility loud speaker which said, "Attention on the yard. All yards are closed. Report to your housing units. All yards are closed."
It was around 10:15 AM and yard typically does not close until 10:45 AM. As I returned to my housing unit I noticed there was an ambulance parked at the health care building. I deduced there was a possible nexus between the ambulance and the early yard closing.
At the time I was speaking to Helen on a telephone located on the prison yard. She, too, suspected that something was wrong and immediately asked me if everything was alright. She knew it was abnormal for the yard to close early so abruptly.
Having heard the urgent tone of the loud speaker announcement also added to her concern.
Later that morning I learned, according to staff accounts, that a prisoner had stabbed another prisoner while in the shower, puncturing his heart and killing.0 The victim and perpetrator were both Black.
Unfortunately my instinct about the ambulance I had seen earlier was correct. I will admit, however, I suspected it may have signaled someone needing medical attention. I did not think it was a homicide victim.
The incident was a reminder that prison is not a safe place. While prisons may be absent of guns or sophisticated other legal weapons, it is not devoid of improvised objects that prisoners use to create weapons for whatever reason. It is a reality that exists in every prison.
News of the prisoner's murder quickly swept across the prison and evoked a host of discussions. Disturbingly, what I did not hear was colloquy about the issue of the need to curtail the cycle of violence or ignorance that results in this type of destructive behavior.
At a time when the absence of males of color in society has reached catastrophic proportions, this issue is all the more important. Our communities are being devastated by the absence of males. Consequently women, children and families are suffering and struggling for survival. Some more poorly than others.
The murder of the young man on Saturday represented so much more than the death of a prisoner. It was an attack on the heath of the community. Man is a symbol of the seed that is germinated in the sacred wombs of women. Without it civilization can not endure.
Educating people about the value we each contribute to the pr
eservation and perpetuation of humanity is vital to helping end the violence gripping our communities. It is only when people do not acknowledge and respect their own self-worth, and that of others, that they can rob another human being of the precious gift of life.
Transforming each situation into a learning opportunity helps us change the world in some small way. It can help us alter the trajectory of destructiveness and help us embark on a path of restoration and healing. We simply have to be the catalyst that initiates the process.
There are no guarantees that a prisoner will return home to his/her family physically unscathed, or even alive. What we can guarantee, however, is that through striving to make a difference we can work to prevent future recurrences of senseless homicides and help shape a new consciousness. We can also help release the mental shackles that are fostering ignorance and self-hatred.
In so doing, we will promote the sanctity of life.
The Struggle Continues,
Friday, July 18, 2008
Friday, June 27, 2008
"The educators and leaders of Academia Semillas del Pueblo
Xinaxcalmecac continue to be the heart of our organization,
the dream weavers, and those who dare to teach when all
else tells us to forget. Our xinaxtin, our students, deserve no less."
—Marcos Aguilar, Executive Director, Semillas Sociedad Civil,
Academia Semillas del Pueblo Charter Elementary School—
Two months ago our friend and committee member, Mario Rocha, contacted me and invited me to join him in garnering support for Anahuacalmecac, International University Preparatory High School of North America ("Anahuacalmecac"). The school needed charter approval from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board of Directors to open its doors to students this Fall. Many of you may recall I wrote members of The Injustice Must End (TIME) Committee about this.
Anahuacalmecac is the upper division complement to the current International Baccalaureate (IB) Early and Middle Years programs at Academia Semillas del Pueblo (“Academia”) in El Sereno, located in Los Angeles. This high school phase rounds out the vision of a richly multi-cultural, multi-lingual and humanistic educational continuum that children everywhere deserve.
In the message that Mario shared with me he stated:
"In 2002, founders of Academia had a vision of offering students a high quality international education rooted in cultural practices. The vision developed in response to the cultural void in public schools that insisted on teaching Indigenous Peoples that "History" commenced when Christopher Columbus set foot on this continent and, therefore, our history did not matter. They also wanted to combat the exorbitant dropout rate and failure of the current education system to adequately prepare students for the university.
Under the plan envisioned by Academia, students would leave high school with a diploma in their hands and a uniquely global understanding that would afford them academic confidence in any higher education setting – in the continent or abroad. It would also provide students the wherewithal to maintain their positive sense of identity while respecting other cultures."
I eagerly accepted Mario's invite and joined the group of noble citizens who were working together to make Anahuacalmecac a reality.
I first learned about this historic endeavor shortly before my birthday, April 4, 2008. Upon learning about it I immediately began contacting family members about my interest in contributing to this campaign. I asked them to create a Facebook group for Anahuacalmecac, an online petition, and I even devoted a page on my web site to spreading awareness about the need for the school. I asked people to create these things as a birthday gift to me and they graciously did it.
For two months we launched a strong public relations campaign to generate support for Anahuacalmecac. Sending e-mails, messages through Facebook, posting information on friends' Facebook walls, shared it on MySpace, etc. School administrators, parents who wanted their children to attend Anahuacalmecac, and other members of the community also toiled hard during this time as well.
And, it all paid off. Wednesday I learned that by unanimous vote from the LAUSD Board of Directors voted to approve the charter petition for Anahuacalmecac on June 24, 2008.
I was very pleased to receive this news and to have been a contributor to the success of the charter approval. It isn't every day that we can be a part of opening an institutional of learning, particularly one that had to vigorously struggle for its existence. This was also particularly special to me because of the world class education and model for success that Anahuacalmecac provides its children.
I was willing to engage in a protracted struggle to help the children, parents, and Anahuacalmecac faculty realize their dream. I sacrificed time, energy and resources from my own struggle for justice and freedom to contribute to this effort. And, I did so without reservation. I would do it again too.
I remind people all the time that our struggle is a shared struggle. And while we share our struggles we also share our victories. I am honored to share this victory and I invite my supporters across the globe to celebrate it along with me as well.
The success of the charter approval is a testament to the reality that together we can achieve great things. Our collective energies are powerful beyond measure and the strength of our voice continues to crumble the walls of oppression and injustice.
Never the doubt the power of our unity as we continue adding more rungs to the ladder of opportunity for our children.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Latino youth are being vilified in the media and depicted negatively daily in an attempt to erase their true identity, as well as their rich cultural and historical legacy.
The social milieu of our youth has been contaminated with destructive notions and behaviors that are ravishing our communities. They are destroying the moral and social fabric that has held us together as a cohesive unit.
The prevalence of youth violence is turning neighborhoods into dangerous war zones and resulting in the loss of lives of innocent men, women and children caught in this vicious crossfire of ignorance and self-destruction.
Our youth desperately need our support and to know that we have not abandoned them. They need to be taught that they represent the future of Latino people and they wield the power to create positive change.
As socially conscious adults the onus is on us to reach these youth. They are dependent on us to provide intervention and foster the emergence of a new consciousness that will liberate them from the destructive ideologies holding their minds and bodies captive.
There exists a major disconnect between our leadership and youth. Many of our leaders have grown fearful of our youth and avoid contact with them. This vacuum forges self-destructive attitudes and a reliance on adverse guidance, consequently leaving them ill-equipped to lead productive lives. A proven nexus between the neglect of youth and their adoption of dysfunctional characteristics is well-established.
We reject the notion that our youth are incorrigible or indispensable and advocate that this philosophy should be immediately jettisoned. Instead, we emphasize the reality that all children have the potential for change, redemption, and healing.
If provided the essential elements for their proper growth and development a change in their life trajectory can manifest.
Through this group we hope to provide the contours for a framework to increase awareness about issues afflicting Latino youth and formulate progressive concepts that are cognitively intelligible. Among our objectives to help Latino youth will be:
• develop new programs aimed at rescuing our youth which youth will be instrumental in creating;
• share studies and successful program models in this field;
• build alliances within the community;
• teach the value of respect amongst peers, respecting elders in the community, and the appreciation of life;
• emphasize the value of teaching, learning and preserving our culture and history;
• invite the various institutions to participate in our endeavors and become proponents of our objectives;
• devise ways to produce constructive paradigm shifts; and
• teach the process of cognitive development and the control of thought and behavior.
This list will continue to evolve with input from group members and youth who will benefit from our mission.
By joining this group you express your support to end Latino youth violence, your concern for Latino youth, and a desire to protect our future. Help send a strong message to Latino youth that they have our love, support, and that they can depend on us to help guide them during the tribulations they encounter in their daily lives.
("The respect of the rights of others is the meaning of peace.")
Friday, May 2, 2008
by Efrén Paredes, Jr.
Thursday, April 17, 2008 Dr. Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez arrived in Michigan for the first of a three day visit. It was her first visit to Michigan State University (MSU).
Betita was brought to Michigan by Dr. Sheila Contreras, Associate Professor at Michigan State University (MSU), where she teaches American Studies and Chicano/Latino Studies. Dr. Contreras is also author of the forthcoming book, Blood Lines: Myth, Indigenism and Chicana/o Literature. She brought Betita to Michigan on behalf of the MSU Chicano/Latino Studies Department, with the help of MEXA de MSU.
While in the state Betita spoke to various community and university groups. She delivered her message of solidarity and empowerment across the state during her presentations and captivated her audience members. She attracted people of all ages and races as she conveyed invaluable lessons and experience from years of progressive activism.
Betita returned to do a book signing at the MSU Chicano/Latino Studies Department on Saturday, April 19, 2008 to promote 500 Years of Chicana Women's History/500 Años de la Mujer Chicana.
According to Rutger's University Press, "The history of Mexican Americans spans more than five centuries and varies from region to region across the United States. Yet most of our history books devote at most a chapter to Chicano history, with even less attention to the story of Chicanas. 500 Years of Chicana Women's History offers a powerful antidote to this omission with a vivid, pictorial account of struggle and survival, resilience and achievement, discrimination and identity."
A Chicana activist, author, and educator, Betita has published six books and many articles on social movement in the Americas. Her best-known work is 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, a bilingual history that subsequently became the basis for an educational video she co-directed titled ¡Viva la Causa! 500 Years of Chicano History. Other books she has authored include De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century, Letters from Mississippi and The Youngest Revolution: A Personal Report on Cuba.
Betita has traveled extensively across the United States speaking on college campuses and in classrooms about race, class, gender issues and organizing. She has received many awards from student, community, and academic organizations, including Scholar of the Year 2000 by the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies.
I first learned about Betita's work in 1999 when I read an article she wrote in the newspaper about Mumia Abu Jamal's wrongful conviction. After conducting research about Betita, and learning about her long history in the struggle for social justice, I contacted her.
I shared the story of my wrongful incarceration with Betita and invited her to help me increase awareness about the issues of wrongful convictions, the imposition of life without parole sentences on children, and other examples of injustices against members of the Chicano/Latino community. She responded to my letter, agreed to assist my campaign, and we have remained in contact ever since.
Thursday evening I had the opportunity to speak with Betita on the phone while she was having dinner at Troppos in Lansing with Dr. Contreras and seven other women. Among the group were professors and students in the MSU Chicano/Latino Studies PhD program, a visiting lecturer, a member of the TIME Committee, and respected community organizers.
Betita and I spoke for approximately 30 minutes. We were both delighted to speak to one another. During our conversation we exchanged stories and experiences in our lives. Among the things I shared with Betita were my campaign for justice, the work I do to increase social consciousness, and stories of historical relevance.
Among Betita's stories were the work she is currently doing teaching youth to build greater understanding, respect, and solidarity between people of color. She also talked about her experience in Cuba only a few months after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the profound impact it had on her life.
Betita mentioned Yanga and the need for people to understand the historic role of this Mexican national hero. She said she would like to see a good book written about Yanga during her lifetime. Yanga was a member of the royal family of Gabon, Africa before being kidnaped and placed in the Middle Passage to the new world. He became the head of a group of revolting slaves near Veracruz, Mexico around 1570. Later he and his people built a small free colony and officially established the town of Yanga in 1630.
We talked about the importance of unifying the masses and ending the Black/Brown conflict which has been fueled by the media and those intent on deepening the existing racial and cultural fissures. This is an area that Betita and I have both been working to increase awareness about. I have learned many lessons about this work through reading Betita's books and essays on the subjects.
Betita discussed 500 Years of Chicana Women's History with me and shared her excitement with me about the nearly 800 photographs contained in the book. She told me there were photos of many people and events in our history, and jokingly told me, "The only reason you aren't in it is because you aren't a Chicana [woman]."
I was happy to learn that earlier in the day while Betita spoke at NorthStar Center in Lansing, Michigan, she discussed my wrongful conviction with people and The Injustice Must End (TIME) Committee's global campaign to free me and get justice in my case.
She told me my campaign is a strong example of how to generate global support for a seemingly obscure issue at the grassroots level and transform it into an international movement for justice and human rights. She said the success of my campaign is a model for others to emulate.
During our conversation Betita said I am a symbol of human rights abuse against children of color in this country and the need for serious prison reform. She emphasized the need to abolish laws that sentence our children to die in prisons across the USA that are disproportionately targeting youth of color with impunity.
It was through writing to Betita nearly a decade ago that I came into contact with other seminal scholars and leaders in the Chicano/Latino community who have come to support my campaign as well. She was the first prominent figure in the Chicano/Latino community to write me a support letter.
While at NorthStar Center Betita, Dr. Contreras, and others took photographs with my support banner. Betita also made a video expressing her support of my release and her thoughts about our phone calls. The videos are available on YouTube. She also signed a copy of 500 Years of Chicana Women's History and left it with a TIME Committee member for me to read one day.
I was grateful for the opportunity to even speak with Betita considering the busy schedule she was going to have during her visit here. I later learned that she would have arranged to visit me if she had more advanced notice that it was an option.
Betita expressed her gratitude to me for reaching out to the world from prison and giving a voice to not only my own injustice, but to other social injustices that plague our community. She said that despite my incarceration, and fighting for my freedom, I have continued helping others with their struggles and that meant a lot to her.
Helping others has helped me cope with the pain and difficulty I have endured for 19 years separated from family, friends, and society. When there have been times that I wasn't seeing progress in my own struggle I have found solace in knowing my contributions were helping advance the struggles of others. It has been a way for me to continually feel and evoke the presence of life.
Understanding coexistence has taught me that by helping others I am also helping myself. It also helps me learn valuable lessons from other struggles and build on my strengths. Through the continued application of knowledge I attain I am able to refine the efficacy and utility of my work.
Dr. Contreras was very happy that it worked out for Betita to visit the state and share her life and work with us. She added that bringing Betita to Michigan is one of the most important personal accomplishments in her life and career. I could hear how genuinely elated she was that it all worked out.
I also spoke with one of the students in the MSU Chicano/Latino Studies PhD program and told her how proud I am of her and the other students in the program. I reminded her that they are paving the way for the next generation of Chicano/Latino scholars and students to come.
The value of the Chicano/Latino Studies PhD program can not be underscored enough. It is becoming even more important with the rising Chicano/Latino population. While the course work is certainly very arduous, the success of the students who are privileged to be in the historical program will immensely benefit all those in the Chicano/Latino diaspora.
The professors and students in the Chicano/Latino Studies PhD program are an inspiration to young Chicano/Latino youth. They are beacons of light and hope, and reminders that if we don't relent and remain persistent to pursue our dreams, we can achieve them. The students are symbols of dreams waiting to be manifested.
They understand, "We must do more than merely dismantle the ideological, behavioral and physical structures of domination. We must repair that which has been in ruins. We must knit ourselves back together again. We must be whole." (Baffour Amankwatia II/Asa G. Hilliard III)
While in Detroit on Friday, April 18, 2008, Betita spoke at Mexican Town Center. She was joined by Rosa Morales, MSU Professor of Journalism; Diana Rivera, MSU Chicano Studies/Ethnic Studies Bibliographer; Elena Herrada, Centro Obrero director; Gloria House (Aneb Kgositsile), University of Michigan-Dearborn, Director of the African and African American Studies Program; Dr. Contreras, and others.
And, like at the Lansing gatherings the previous day, Betita attracted people from all races and walks of life. There were professors, students, poets, activists, visual artists and various others eager to absorb the wisdom conveyed to them by one of the preeminent leaders of the Chicano/Latino social justice struggle.
According to Elena Herrada, "Betita was in fine form. People enjoyed wonderful conversations with her and being in her company. There were lots of people from the community who came in and enjoyed the talk. I saw people that I had not seen in years. It was so rich."
Betita's determination to preserve the legacy of Chicano/Latino history is admirable. It is evidence that our story can be memorialized, and that our resilient spirit is impervious to domination. It also teaches us that we don't have to lie dormant in the periphery waiting for our story to be told by others. We have a powerful voice that can crumble any barrier designed to silence us and render us impotent.
During Betita's life she has often taught at universities. She also always dedicated a lot of time organizing and shaping the social consciousness of ordinary people that didn't attend institutions of higher learning. She took the university to the community and never lost sight of her roots.
Betita has used her knowledge and skills to reach those who have needed them the most. She has strived to make education accessible and never given it the semblance of being elitist. She has long understood that ideas are the substance of behavior and a key to transforming the human experience.
Neglecting the needs of our people compels them to seek solutions to existing problems by looking to others to rescue them, i.e., making them dependent. This exacerbates the existing confusion and further disempowers members of our community.
What we also witness occurring as a consequence of this unnatural dependence on others is people experiencing despair. It leads to the deterioration of the human spirit and causes people to adopt the feeling that they can not escape what they come to accept is an inextricable condition.
They begin "denying our communality and epitomizing our individuality." (Wade W. Nobles) In a number of instances throughout history people enduring these conditions — feeling abandoned and hopeless — have begun deifying their rescuers and dehumanizing members of their own community. This is what desperation can lead to in some people who feel they are impotent to create change.
Betita also understands that to produce competent leadership it is necessary to be and live the model you are seeking to create in others. Without this students have a poor example to pattern their own lives after. The result is often a perpetuity of ineffective leadership and a disconnection between members of the community and those in academe.
This occurs due to members of their community feeling abandoned or their views rendered insignificant. If the masses know nothing else they know that power lies in galvanizing the people, not in creating dichotomies or stratifications.
We are beings of perpetual veneration. Our ability to influence the world through our commitment to producing eminently sound pedagogy is without measure. We simply have to seek to attain our goals. The only thing preventing us from achieving our potential is our unwillingness to do so.
We will continue illuminating the world by shining our light into the darkness. We will dispel falsities with truth, and ignorance with knowledge. Betita's life is a testament to this. Her youthful exuberance is more vibrant than ever and her fervor to maintain a symbiosis with others is unyielding.
The flame from our torch will never be extinguished. Our collective spirit fuels that flame and sustains its life. And, our spirits are, eternal. Keep the flame burning Betita, and keep working to increase the sentience of our beloved gente.■
To learn more about Efrén Paredes, Jr. you can visit www.4Efren.com. To watch two videos that Betita created in support of Efrén you are invited to watch the videos which appear below.
Dr. Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez Support Video 1
Dr. Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez Support Video 2
Saturday, April 12, 2008
"The voice of the individual artist may seem perhaps of no more consequence than the whirring of a cricket in the grass, but the arts do live continuously ... they outlive governments and creeds and societies, even the very civilizations that produced them." (Author Unknown)Monday, April 7, 2008, I met Favianna Rodriguez, internationally renowned muralist, graphic artist, printmaker, and political activist. Favianna attended our Latin American Spanish-Speaking Organization (LASSO) monthly general membership meeting as a guest speaker.
As an activist, Favianna was one of the founders of the EastSide Arts Alliance, an organization that supports Oakland neighborhoods through art programs. She has also helped to make available performance, studio space, and affordable housing units. She is a co-owner of TUMIS, an East Oakland-based design firm that provides design, technology, and communication strategy services for social justice and nonprofit organizations.
Favianna co-founded Visual Element in 2001, a graffiti arts program that trains young artists in the traditions of muralism and graffiti for social change. She coordinated recruitment, instruction, and retention of young graffiti artists of color, ages 17-20. She has developed a street-based arts curriculum and fundraised over $75,000 annually from city grants, foundations, and private mural commissions.
While in Michigan, Favianna was doing a residency with Michigan State University Department of Arts and Humanities. She met our Latin American Spanish-Speaking Organization (LASSO) sponsor who invited Favianna to attend our monthly LASSO meeting and present about the activism and social justice work she does through art and printmaking.
Before Favianna presented, I spoke to the group about the importance of art, particularly as it relates to the struggle for social justice. I told those in attendance that art is a powerful expression of who we are and our views of the world. It is a culmination of experience, history, and culture — it is a vivid expression of life itself.
Through art we convey our vision, dreams and hope. We preserve the memory of our people for generations to follow. We are also able to shape the consciousness of the global community. Each piece of art is a tentacle with boundless measure.
As Suzanne Lacey, Executive Director at Museum Without Walls, puts it, "Artists as reporters represent their world. Artists as experiencers give tangible form to their feelings about the world. Artists as analysts look beyond the immediate to reveal hidden universal truths. And artists as activists help us see the world in new ways."
During her presentation Favianna covered a broad range of issues. I couldn't help but quickly recognize that she is totally committed to social justice and the elimination of every form of discrimination. It was also clear that she is passionate about the causes she supports and is unapologetic about her positions. Favianna says her work "reflects a growing national consciousness that speaks to the contemporary urban barrios, rebelling against racism, homophobia, sexism and corporate irresponsibility."
During her presentation Favianna shared several colored copies of artwork she has done. Everyone in attendance received a copy. She also shared art she is making available for free to be used for noncommercial activist purposes. They will be available online and in a new book Favianna co-edited titled "Reproduce & Revolt: Radical Images for the 21st Century."
She told us the story behind each piece of artwork she graciously shared with us, and explained the various processes she uses to create them. Her presentation was very interesting and captivated those who were in attendance. What began with Favianna saying, "I'm going to tell you a little about myself," concluded as a 45-minute political art discourse.
The range of topics that Favianna included in her presentation was vast. Sometimes it included subjects about femicide, day laborers, and genetically engineered food, other times she talked about politics, the Olympic Games protests, and upcoming events she would be a part of.
Favianna spoke to us on the day that members of The Ruckus Society climbed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to support Tibetan independence. Members of Ruckus hung two large banners that read, "One World, One Dream: Free Tibet." San Francisco is the only city hosting the Olympic torch in the United States. Favianna is friends with members of Ruckus and has collaborated with them on projects in the past.
Listening to Favianna speak about the social activism she does was a great experience. I felt proud to be in the company of a person truly motivated to do all she can for the advancement of people worldwide. She is acutely aware of the many facets to social activism and the need to maintain an all-encompassing approach to avert any possible exclusion.
Favianna recently wrote in her blog how proud she was to see the unity between Black and Brown prisoners who were in attendance at LASSO the evening she presented. What she didn't know is that not only is there a strong unity of Black and Brown prisoners in the group, there are also White prisoners who regularly attend the meetings and help foster the cohesion that is created.
This is one of the things about LASSO that I have worked so hard to accomplish as the group's president. Having a vast background in social movements, Black history, and Chicano/Latino history, has equipped me with the necessary tools to help develop mutual respect and harmony between every race of people who attends LASSO.
Few people have been able to accomplish this because they lacked the knowledge about various cultures, history, and religions to create a human tapestry that is all inclusive. One must understand the commonalities that people share before they can truly bring them together and create harmonious relationships.
My ability to do this is a much needed skill that can be utilized in society as well. The model that I have created in prison to unify people and teach them how to respect one another and work together will significantly benefit the global community when I am one day released.
It was great hearing Favianna talk about various people she has worked with in Black and Brown communities. I was able to relate to everything she said because vicariously I have shared her experiences. I have always maintained an all-inclusive mentality when teaching people because I recognize the value that this has over employing a narrow approach.
Teaching about various cultures and history helps us better understand each other and appreciate the struggles we share. It helps us realize more and more how similar we are and, rather than be afraid of each other due to our ignorance, we grow closer as a unified body. Segregation breeds evils and is destructive to the human spirit.
I was also grateful that Favianna shared her thoughts with us about gender and women's liberation. They are issues eschewed by many males but need to be discussed. I have always been a strong proponent of the need for women to express themselves and compel others to respect their status in the world.
The mentality that relegates women as second-class citizens or tries to make their roles as footnotes in history is nothing short of disrespectful and oppressive. Having a strong accomplished Latina speak about her strengths and the need to respect and appreciate women in front of a room full of men, particularly in a prison, took courage.
During a conversation with Favianna I learned that she knew one of my supporters and a person I admire, Dr. Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez. Favianna worked closely with Betita for several years on the book "500 Years of Chicana Women's History/Años de Historia de las Chicanas."
According to Rutgers University Press, "500 Years of Chicana Women’s History offers ... a vivid, pictorial account of struggle and survival, resilience and achievement, discrimination and identity. The bilingual text, along with hundreds of photos and other images, ranges from female-centered stories of pre-Columbian Mexico to profiles of contemporary social justice activists, labor leaders, youth organizers, artists, and environmentalists, among others."
Betita is a prominent and highly respected figure in the Chicano/Latino community. She has a long history as a leader in the struggle for social justice. I was able to learn about her experience working with Favianna on the book and about how their historical project materialized.
I made a donation to the Immigrant Rights Poster Project that Favianna is spearheading. An immigrant rights conference is being held May 12-17 in Mexico City. The event is being convened by TIGRA (Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action), SEDEREC (Ministry of Rural Development and Community Equity for the City of Mexico), and CENCOS (National Center for Social Communication).
The event will bring together more than 300 migrant leaders from the USA, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Favianna is collaborating with other artists to create five posters for the conference. She will have 5,000 posters printed of each design to be distributed free of charge to groups supporting immigrant rights all over the world. I chose to use some of the money I received for my birthday to help with this project.
Now when the conference is held I can truly say I helped make it a success. And, whenever I am eventually released, I can begin attending global immigrant rights conferences — and other social justice conferences — as well and be an active participant. It's just one of the many things I look forward to doing one day.
It was an honor having Favianna visit us and be the first group of prisoners she ever presented to inside a prison. We were privileged to have her as our guest and show her that the misconceptions and generalizations often made about prisoners aren't always true. We represented the full inversion of the lies presented in the media.
Who knows, maybe Favianna will even do an art project to memorialize the event one day.
To learn more about Favianna Rodriguez and her amazing work you are invited to visit her web site at www.favianna.com. While you're at it please read her writing, "Please Help Fund This Immigrant Rights Poster Project," and make a contribution if you are able to.■