Tag Archives: seventies

Nelson Mandela

6 Dec

“In a way I had never quite comprehended before, I realized the role I could play in court and the possibilities before me as a defendant. I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonoured those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even in the fortress of the enemy.”
Nelson Mandela, 1994


Like so many of us, I am greatly saddened by the death of Nelson Mandela. I suppose that he was “ready” to die, but when it actually happens, the sharp feeling of loss seizes me.

I just read a great tribute to Mandela at http://www.laprogressive.com/author/john-peeler/.  I hope you get a chance to read it.

I admire Mandela for his persistence in struggle, for his commitment to non-violence and reconciliation with his enemies, for his courage in telling the truth, for his incorruptibility, and for his uncompromising dedication to social justice. I hope we all can take this opportunity to learn from him, among other things about how to deal with one’s “enemies” with compassion, not hatred.

In keeping with the theme of this blog,  I learned with the help of Wikipedia about what Mandela experienced in the 60s and 70s. Almost those entire decades and more, he was imprisoned at Robben Island, 210px-Nelson_Mandela's_prison_cell,_Robben_Island,_South_Africaconvicted of four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. (Rather than getting the death sentence, he and his co-defendants received life in prison.)

He remained there for the next 18 years, imprisoned in a damp concrete cell measuring 8 by 7 feet, with a straw mat on which to sleep.Verbally and physically harassed by several white prison wardens, the  prisoners spent their days breaking rocks into gravel, until being reassigned in January 1965 to work in a lime quarry. 220px-RobbenIslandSteinbruchAMandela was initially forbidden to wear sunglasses, and the glare from the lime permanently damaged his eyesight.At night, he worked on his LLB degree, but newspapers were forbidden, and he was locked in solitary confinement on several occasions for possessing smuggled news clippings.Classified as the lowest grade of prisoner, Class D, he was permitted one visit and one letter every six months, although all mail was heavily censored.

The political prisoners took part in work and hunger strikes – the latter considered largely ineffective by Mandela – to improve prison conditions, viewing this as a microcosm of the anti-apartheid struggle. ANC prisoners elected him to their four-man “High Organ” along with Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba, while he also involved himself in a group representing all political prisoners on the island, Ulundi, through which he forged links with PAC and Yu Chi Chan Club members.Initiating the “University of Robben Island,” whereby prisoners lectured on their own areas of expertise, he debated topics such as homosexuality and politics with his comrades, getting into fierce arguments on the latter with Marxists like Mbeki and Harry Gwala.Though attending Christian Sunday services, Mandela studied Islam.He also studied Afrikaans, hoping to build a mutual respect with the warders and convert them to his cause.

His mother visited in 1968, dying shortly after, and his firstborn son Thembi died in a car accident the following year; Mandela was forbidden from attending either funeral.His wife was rarely able to visit, being regularly imprisoned for political activity, while his daughters first visited in December 1975; Winnie got out of prison in 1977 but was forcibly settled in Brandfort, still unable to visit him.

From 1967, prison conditions improved, with black prisoners given trousers rather than shorts, games being permitted, and food quality improving.


Some enlightening facts about and quotations from Nelson Mandela:

In 1986, former Vice President Dick Cheney, then a congressman, voted along with 179 other members of the House against a non-binding resolution to recognize the ANC and call on the South African government to release Mandela from prison. The measure finally passed, but not before a veto attempt by Reagan.

In 2000, Cheney maintained that he’d cast the correct vote.

In 2003, Mandela made several statements against the invasion of Iraq. “If you look at those matters, you will come to the conclusion that the attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world peace. Because what [America] is saying is that if you are afraid of a veto in the Security Council, you can go outside and take action and violate the sovereignty of other countries…..”

“…there is no doubt that the United States now feels that they are the only superpower in the world and they can do what they like.”

“If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care.”

Mandela wasn’t excised from a U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008, when  President George W. Bush signed a bill removing him. Mandela and other members of the African National Congress were on the list because of their fight against South Africa’s apartheid regime, which gave way to majority rule in 1994. 220px-ApartheidSignEnglishAfrikaans

When Mandela was asked about his future plans, he replied,

“I really wanted to retire and rest and spend more time with my children, my grandchildren and of course with my wife. But the problems [around the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003] are such that for anybody with a conscience who can use whatever influence he may have to try to bring about peace, it’s difficult to say no.”


“While there is a soul in prison ….”: Amnesty International, by Maria

19 Oct

Biography:  Maria is currently involved with the Alternatives to Violence Project, which works within State Prisons, and with Homeboy Industries, which encourages young people to transform their lives for a more purposeful and successful experience.


 “While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”  Eugene Debs, Socialist labor leader

In the early ‘70s, I was teaching high school in the Los Angeles area. I had the opportunity to meet both Ginetta Sagan1 and Joan Baez in Palo Alto at the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, which Joan had earlier established. Joan was a strong supporter of Amnesty International2, and she inspired me to become involved too. Together with other teachers, I established an Amnesty chapter at our school as a response to Amnesty’s campaign to increase its numbers here in the U.S.


Ginetta Sagan

Joan Baez

Joan Baez

Some of our foreign students were aware of government atrocities in their own homelands, so about 10 to 15 students wanted to get involved. We got together weekly to write letters to the prisoners to whom we were assigned. Knowing that we were the only persons in the world who were acting on these prisoners’ behalf, we took our responsibility seriously.


One of our assignments was a doctor in Chile, who had been arrested for his involvement with the medical clinics set up by Salvador Allende3.We were given the name of this doctor, and address of the location of his prison, as well as the information needed to communicate with General Pinochet directly. We were given specific guidelines to use in our letters so as not to offend Pinochet but rather to enlist him in the cause of freedom and justice for all citizens. The Chilean people couldn’t do this work, of course, because it was too dangerous. So our work was paramount to the release of the prisoners we were assigned.

Of course, we never received a response from either Pinochet or our prisoner. It was important though that we kept on writing these letters, as, we were told, there reaches a point where the mail coming to Pinochet becomes overwhelming, and he fears that these letters demonstrate that many people are aware of his atrocities. Eventually he will have no alternative but to release the prisoner in order to deter the world community from calling for his own demise.

I don’t recall just how long we continued this weekly letter-writing, but after a year or so we were able to get him released. We were informed by Amnesty International that the guards simply came to his cell one day and announced that he was now a free man. And I recall that he did come to America following his release  and somehow he communicated to us his gratitude for our help. It’s a bit hazy now though after over 40 years.


1. Ginetta Sagan helped found Amnesty International here in the U.S. She was a political prisoner in Italy during the 1940s while working with the northern Italian resistance movement. She was covertly taken from a movie theater one night and tortured relentlessly for her humanitarian views.

While imprisoned and scheduled for execution the next day, a prison guard threw her a loaf of bread. As she broke it open, she discovered a match clip in which was inscribed “coraggio,”  the Italian word for “courage.” The next day she was freed by several prison guard defectors.

In the 1950s she came to America and in the early ‘70s to the West Coast. Her intention was to spread the Amnesty International movement here, with the help of folksinger Joan Baez. During the next few years, as Joan spoke passionately about the work of Amnesty International on her concert tours, they were instrumental in increasing the number of chapters in the U.S. to 75,  with over 70,000 members. [Source: Maria]

2.Amnesty International is a humanitarian movement which works for the release of “Prisoners of Conscience” throughout the world. The way Amnesty International works is that a chapter is given the names of three prisoners each in different areas of the world. These activists have taken actions against their government, and as such have been determined to be “criminals” by the State.

A specific chapter of Amnesty International is the only one working on these prisoners’ behalf. The goal is to get them released. This is done largely through letter-writing campaigns targeted at the governments and prison officials in the affected countries. Letters are sent to the prisoner as well, to show that he has support. These letters are written weekly, and in the language of the country, if possible.

Letters received from America are seen as having the greatest impact in foreign countries. [Source: Maria]

3. It was the assassination of Salvador Allende, the social democratic leader of Chile, which led to the rule of General Augusto Pinochet. Many of the citizenry who had supported Allende were imprisoned and tortured. [Source: Maria]


My Path towards Feminism, by Leslie Gersicoff

23 Sep

Leslie Gersicoff is involved in the movement for single payer health care for all Californians. She is Executive Director at the Jewish Labor Committee Western Region, which works with labor and the community on issues affecting workers, including human trafficking. Her home is in Los Angeles.

Leslie GersicoffIn the early ‘60s I was still in high school in Rochester, N.Y. and was very “repressed.” What I mean by that is that I didn’t speak out about anything. My brother and I lived with my grandfather. He emigrated around 1914 from Minsk [Note: formerly part of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and now the capital of the independent Republic of Belarus]. A tailor and dry cleaner by trade, he was also a Democrat, interested in electoral politics, and a faithful reader of the Rochester Times Union and the Democrat and Chronicle. I remember that his heart broke over JFK’s assassination.

After my grandmother died, when I was ten, our house continued to be a “gendered” one. I was expected to do all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. I was lousy at housework. I burned the meat and frozen French fries and broke the washer by stuffing it with 17 sheets at once. After that, because I could drive, I used the Laundromat. There I encountered many creepy guys “on the make.” I had no feminist awareness but at 16 years of age I felt that creepiness to my bones.

I had finally learned to drive and I got my license because my grandfather needed help to get around. This delighted me because for the first time I acquired a measure of freedom and independence beyond my capacity to walk and take public transportation. The first car I drove was a light blue Plymouth Valiant with a push-button transmission. It was one of the first compacts. (Cars were still configured to male dimensions in the sixties.)

In 1965 I attended Alfred University, a small private school 80 miles south of Rochester inLeslie.Alfred.New York
the middle of nowhere, hills and fields all around, and no street signals. (I had wanted to attend Santa Cruz, but my grandfather said reluctantly that he would never see me, it was so far away.) Alfred was popular for its ceramic design school. The town of Alfred was filled with Seventh Day Adventists. Women weren’t allowed to be seen on the streets in hair rollers. In the dorms there was a curfew (something I had never known) for the women.

Alfred is where I gradually began to get the idea of “social sexism.” The Sexual Revolution was just starting. Men were starting to look better with longer, fuller hair and tighter jeans. In my junior year, while looking for a doctor who would perform an abortion, a woman in my dorm found a country doctor who was willing to write prescriptions for birth control pills called Enovid E.  At that time, it was socially unacceptable for unmarried (and even married) women to use birth control, so when mLeslie.EnovidEy friends and I visited his office, we wore rings turned around to appear like plain wedding bands. I had the impression that this doctor was a kindly man who was onto our tricks but wanted to help us anyway. He’d probably seen young women die from complications of illegal abortions and suffer from the social stigma surrounding their pregnancies. The pills were high-estrogen, but I was relieved to have them and would never admit they were the cause of leg cramps or weight gain.

At that time the first steps toward my becoming an independent woman were a driver’s license, birth control, and an education. Most women I met at the time were not going to college to become independent but were pursuing an education to get a degree so they could either find a professional man to marry and take care of them financially or teach until they met “Mr. Right.” Settling for security broke up many potentially better matches. Perhaps that contributed to women not being taken seriously in any field in higher education. Or perhaps that was why we were not taking our own abilities seriously enough.

I transferred to the State University of New York in Buffalo and lived with my boyfriend in a large politically radicalized building called the Fenton Arms. Our railroad-flat style apartment, a fourth-floor walk-up, had three parlors, gas fixtures, and tin ceilings.  Many students and hippies lived in the building, as well as a pair of brother and sister tenants who didn’t want to move out of their apartment because the sister believed their deceased Mother wouldn’t know where to find them. While she worked at the university, he listened to religious radio programs most of the day.  (As a point of interest, Paul Krehbiel, contributor of a previous blog here, knew many of the same people I did, and we met again 43 years later through Labor United for Universal Healthcare, which advocates for single-payer healthcare in California.) Downstairs were storefronts (the original mixed-use buildings), one of which was occupied by a draft resisters’ organization. My boyfriend hung out there. Off of Main Street a half block up from us at West Ferry St. was a bar. The American Nazi Party had held meetings in the back room there during World War II.  The air smelled raunchy with cigarette smoke. I suspect that ghosts goosed the evil ones in the neighborhood.

The Fenton Arms was in police district number 6 or 8, I can’t remember which. It was notorious as a tough, brutal station. One night the police beat up the guys in the draft-resisters’ office. They had been verbally taunting the cops, who then attacked them viciously. My boyfriend was in the hospital for several days. On his buttocks was a boot heel mark where a policeman had kicked him.  Many of us later held a demonstration outside that police station, led by a woman named Judy Goldsmith, who later served as President of NOW from 1982 to 1985. We were not arrested, although we were prepared to be beaten. My stomach was churning but we went on with the demonstration without being hurt. We heard later that the attorney for the police warned them he was through defending them for brutality so they should behave better. They may have—that is until political unrest broke out on campus. Then batons and tear gas replaced classes and student union beers.

One demonstration that took place against the war in Vietnam occurred on campus. As we were marching around in a large circle, someone introduced a chant that went something like Death to the Vietcong or to the USA or somebody. I was horrified. I didn’t want anybody to be killed. I couldn’t chant. I stayed silent, but I kept marching. Something definitive shifted in me that day. I started to pay closer attention to what people were saying and to what I was thinking.

All of these events helped politicize me, although slowly. Even more slowly, I moved to embrace feminism. It seems women were still fighting for men’s causes. I wasn’t only a little aware of women’s issues at that time. (I was not yet hearing the term “feminist.”) I was first aware that abortion rights were legalized in New York State in 1973. Leslie.Abortions'Some women in my building tried to organize me to go to a meeting on women’s rights. We became more aware of the grunt work that women were expected to do at meetings – typing, copying, coffee-making, hand-holding. I think that one reason Vietnam vets had a harder time than prior vets is that they no longer had women waiting at home for them who were willing to take care of them and do this traditional women’s work.  We had started taking care of ourselves instead.

In 1970 I moved to Coconut Grove, a beautiful “cityburb” in Miami, Florida. I lived in Florida for two years with no awareness except personal awareness – getting that experiential knowledge. For a while I worked in the Child and Family Services Department of the state welfare system, which was listed as 47th to the bottom of all states in providing social services benefits. Most of the young people I met were involved heavily with drugs. I myself was an overeater. It was the time of heavy drug culture, beyond smoke and hallucinogens, for white youth. Women were becoming more involved in drugs. I think this tipped the balance of power that had previously been dominated by males in many bizarre ways. There was dependence and there was independence.  Women could sell as well as buy their own drugs. There was a monetary avenue that was risky, dangerous. For some, satisfying; for others, deadly. Mother’s Little Helpers were causing many women to become addicts. There was a breakdown in the roles males and females were supposed to be playing. If a woman was stoned, she didn’t really care as much about cooking dinner as she may have prior to the cocktail hour. And girdles were definitely dead!

With my new job, I had opportunities to go into the field to visit families, mostly African-American mothers. I saw the projects in Northwest Miami. They were like cells, with few windows and with dark, ominous outdoor walkways. I remember one interview with a woman who told me, I’ll never remarry because I have daughters and their stepfather might molest them. I was shocked. It was a moment I can’t forget. My naiveté had kept me from realizing that such things went on.  Her comment illuminated a huge need to investigate the world of human behavior and find out why I was so ignorant. And that light shed an eerie glow over tears shed for others I considered so less fortunate for the knowledge they already had suffered.

Yet another experience in stupidity, or to be kind, naiveté, involved my innocently quitting the welfare department to take a job as a waitress in a bar called (I’m not kidding!) The Trojan. The waitresses’ uniforms were leopard-skin mini-skirts. I found out too late that we were supposed to climb up onto the bar and dance, with all these slobbery old men looking up at part of us. I was outraged by that demand. I couldn’t figure out why another waitress looked as if she enjoyed dancing up there. I refused and got fired. While searching for these plum jobs, the manager of another bar assessed me accurately. He said, You don’t know what you’re getting into. You don’t want this job. From his tone, I concluded he was a basically decent man in an indecent business.  I don’t know what his real business was. I think this was an intersection in my life where my fate was mysteriously protected and I was able to get on down the road.

In 1972 I went back to school in Buffalo. The Women’s Center had opened. I got involved in women’s communities. We had lots of democratic discussions—quite different from the top-down process in male-dominated groups Women working together—we experienced ownership of a project, and we could take credit for it. Women’s issues were artistically, culturally, and politically related. Attending meetings there was an amazing experience.

Another step toward my feminist consciousness was that one day, after returning to school in Buffalo, I was walking behind a couple on the sidewalk. The man said to the woman, Good idea! You keep having the ideas. I’ll make it happen. I was shocked and disheartened that it was so automatic for men to expect women to be passive while the men actively made changes founded on women’s thoughts.  Hearing that suggestion that women were not able to bring their ideas to productivity pissed me off a lot and brought a lot of anger to the surface.

At the Women’s Center there were, of course, personality conflicts. We had moved from a larger site to a much smaller one. At one point there was a territorial fight in which the majority of us were forced to move into the store-front basement because a more aggressive woman wanted to take over the bigger space and teach martial arts. I learned how damaging it could be to exploit each other. Those wounds cut deep. I’ve worked hard to keep such divisions out of feminism. I had to develop astuteness.

At one of our marches for women’s rights, some men joined us, to be supportive, I believe. The press was there, and my close friend and mentor Roberta said, Don’t talk to the press about the men here because it’ll be all about them. But someone did talk, and sure enough, the press interviewed the men only and ignored the women. I am so thankful for changing times and for Wendy Davis.

By the time I graduated in 1973, some working and student nurses had started a Feminist Health Collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves had just been published. Leslie.Our Bodies Ourselves I will never forget one of the activities in the book that about 20 of us participated in at the Women’s Center. The “teacher” explained to us that everyone’s sexual organs were unique. The idea was to explore the part near our cervixes called the os and to see others’ os to realize how different and beautiful they were and how they looked during different phases of the menstrual cycle.  We all used plastic speculums (which we had to fight a pharmacy supply house to purchase) and mirrors and lay on the floor in a circle. We observed our own os, and then got to go around and view others’. It was amazing. Never before had I felt such pride in being a woman—it was a combination of realization, choice, and healthcare. We were also seeing our own mysterious beauty, part of that “miracle of life” that then defined us socially as women. Nobody else had shown interest in revealing this to us. Seeing really was believing. I can picture us all in that circle even today, 40 years later. That belief system grew beyond the Land of Os.

[Ed. note: The os. The part of the cervix that can be seen from inside the vagina during a gynecologic examination is known as the ectocervix. An opening in the center of the ectocervix, known as the external os, opens to allow passage between the uterus and vagina. The endocervix, or endocervical canal, is a tunnel through the cervix, from the external os into the uterus. Source: http://women.webmd.com/picture-of-the-cervix%5D 

There was also a feminist therapy group. I recall one woman saying, I wish I’d been born a man. I felt stabbed through the heart. It seemed to me that no matter what we did, it wasn’t good enough: we were the weaker sex and as we all know, survival of the fittest is the way things work.

In 1974 I worked with a program called Bridge that matched citizen sponsors to prisoners who had impending paroles. There I met ex-Attica prisoners. One of them Dewitt Lee, Jr., became the director of the organization. He’d served 17 years for driving the get-away car in an armed robbery in which a man had been killed. The two men who had committed the robbery and murder were the last two prisoners to be executed before a moratorium was put into place on executions in New York State.  DeWitt told us stories about life inside prisons that made us laugh hysterically and cry for the sadness and misery which no one can escape, especially in prison. This was my introduction into social justice.  Social justice and feminism cannot be separated.

Today I like to believe I’m much more aware. Over the years I had a number of unhealthy relationships and pursued therapy for a long time. I needed to deal with my anger. I realized how personal experiences affect social/political behavior more than political experiences affect personal behavior. I became very comfortable with being a feminist who is finally free to pursue fairness and justice for all because I don’t put up with any crap anymore. Thank you, Sisters.  And thank you, too, to those good men who truly have embraced feminism.

But mostly, thank you, Sisters.

Inside Chino Men’s Prison in the ‘60s and ‘70s, by J. S.

29 Aug

J. S. was an educator for many years and now actively supports children’s and young adult literature and literacy. Cooking is a passion of hers.

In the late 1960s to early 1970s I was a frequent visitor to Chino Prison – the California Institution for Men. The husband of a good friend of mine was the recreation director there, and the first time I went there it was to see the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Yep!…you read it right – the LA Phil – directed by a very young Zubin Mehta. Joe (my friend’s husband) had been a jazz musician in his earlier years, and he had a lot of connections in the music industry. So in his position as recreation director for the prison, he was able to bring incredible entertainment to “his guys,” and when someone notable was scheduled to perform, Joe and his wife would invite me to join them for the show. Over a couple of years I had the great pleasure of seeing the Count Basie Band; B.B. King; Blood, Sweat & Tears; and several lesser-known local musical groups. And I got to meet the players also – what a deal! I still have an autographed black and white photo of B.B. King from when I met him after his appearance at Chino.


[Note:  California Institution for Men (CIM) is a male-only state prison located in the city of Chino, San Bernardino County, California. It is often colloquially referenced as “Chino.” Source: Wikipedia]

The first time I went to Chino, probably in 1969 or ‘70, I was amazed at the whole “vibe” of the place. Aside from the very tall chain-link fence topped with razor wire that surrounded it, and aside from the need to show ID and open your purse to the guards at the reception area (this was during the pre-electronic scanning era), you felt more like you were on a college campus than at a prison.

The shows were held in the gym, and it was amazing to me to see so many young (and a few older), well-groomed, handsome men of all races milling around, chatting and joking with each other. I couldn’t help but wonder what they done to put them in this situation. Everything was very friendly and relaxed. Other than the fact that they all wore the prison uniform of jeans and blue work shirts and that there were always guards in uniform walking around, you almost forgot that you were actually in a prison.

The California Institution for Men at Chino opened in 1941, the third state prison to be built after San Quentin and Folsom. It had been designed as the first minimum security institution – a “prison without walls” – for the least serious and seemingly nonviolent offenders. Most of the inmates there had been convicted of things like possession of marijuana, embezzlement, being accessories in serious crimes, or (according to them) they had been “framed.” They lived in different “units,” which were actually dormitories – not cells – and they basically had free access to all parts of the “campus” (which is what it was called then) during the day as they moved from different jobs to group or individual counseling sessions to meals to the gym or the library or the TV room or the basketball or baseball courts. The basic premise seemed to be rehabilitation – giving the inmates skills and positive feelings that would better enable them to return to normal life upon their release and hopefully to never become incarcerated again. There was a bed check each night, and they’d better be there at that moment – or else! They pretty much always were.

On one of my visits for a show, Joe introduced me to one of his inmate assistants – a young guy named Ernie – tall, handsome, soft-spoken, with a great smile. We spent a lot of time together talking and listening to the music, and when the show was over Ernie asked if he could write to me. I agreed, and so began some sort of a “relationship,” which started through letters and occasional phone calls and which developed into regular visits that continued for a couple of years.

I began visiting Ernie at Chino regularly on Saturdays or Sundays, and sometimes both. The 40-mile drive from my house in L.A. didn’t seem like that big of a deal because a) I was younger (!); and b) the freeways were waaaaaayyyyy less crowded than they are now!

After parking the car I had to go through the reception area, where I presented my ID, had my purse and all containers checked, was given a visitor’s badge and then sent to the visiting area. The visiting area was a vast lawn surrounded by buildings and trees, which contained many picnic tables, a playground for kids with swings, slides, etc., and some fast-food vending machines along one side. At first we would just get chips and sodas from the machines, but that was not making me very happy, so I decided to bring a picnic meal each time I came. (I have always loved to cook and prepare food!) These would consist of different sandwiches, salads, homemade chili or beef stew in a thermos when the weather was cooler (in those days there was an actual winter when it was cool), maybe homemade cookies or delicacies from my local bakery. Needless to say, Ernie got very spoiled food-wise!

We would sit at the table and eat and chat about many things: our lives, our families, music, TV shows, sports, and occasionally politics or the news – which weren’t his favorite subjects. There was minimal opportunity for any kind of physical contact – a quick hug when I came and left and maybe a bit of hand-holding. The guards were always there, and often we saw them approaching couples who were getting a bit “carried away,” and saying, “OK – break it up!”

Ernie would point out different guys to me and tell me what they had done to end up there. These included several well-known jazz musicians and a couple of famous TV actors who were there because of drugs, some major “Mafia” kingpins, and several older guys who had been convicted for various “white collar crimes.” He would occasionally introduce me to some of these folks; everyone was friendly.

There were families – moms with kids of all ages – enjoying picnic time or playground time with their dads. That was heartbreaking for me. On one hand I was glad the moms and kids could spend time with the dads, but on the other hand it was just so sad that it had to be there, even though the surroundings were seemingly quite pleasant. I wondered what effect it had on the kids and how things would play out for them in the future.

There wasn’t a huge gang presence like there is in today’s prisons. Everything was racially integrated, and everyone got along. There were some “bad eggs,” of course, but they were given the opportunity to straighten up or else they were sent to Quentin or Folsom where things were a lot tighter. There didn’t seem to be a feeling of tension at all.

When I read or hear about what is going on in California prisons today, I am appalled. The idea of rehabilitation seems to have been thrown out the window, and the recidivism rate is ridiculous. And the three-strikes law has placed a lot of men in prison for the rest of their lives, adding to the overcrowding problems.  I’m not sure what the answer is, but my memories of Chino in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s make me believe that they had the right idea then, and that today something is terribly wrong.

Surfer Dudes, Teeny-boppers, and TJs. By Maria

16 Aug

Maria is currently involved with the Alternatives to Violence Project, which works within State Prisons, and Homeboy Industries, which encourages young people to transform their lives for a more purposeful and successful experience.

I recall the days in the early ‘60s when the high school in the San Gabriel Valley [near Los Angeles] where I taught was filled with young white surfer dudes—long, blond hair, sun-tanned football physiques—and  teeny-bopper girls who swarmed around them.

Then came the influx of “TJ”s (degrading slang for Mexican immigrants) with their plaid shirts, striped pants and “broken English”—or  “Spanglish,” as they called it.

The surfers would stand sullenly against the wall at the foot of the main staircase during “passing period,” watching the “TJs” pass by on their way to classes, their eyes downcast, trembling a bit as they avoided the intimidating glares of the much larger Anglos.

A few of us staff grew increasingly concerned for their safety and established a meeting place in the neighborhood which became known as “Bienvenidos Community Center.” There issues pertaining to the Spanish-speaking community were discussed and ways of integrating them into the local high school environment were launched. Among these ways was the creation of a new staff position—home/school coordinator—and a school club called TOHMAS (To Help Mexican-American Students).

Later a mural was painted on the wall of the school at the point of greatest tension, depicting the value of the Mexican culture and providing a sense of pride to these “new arrivals” who struggled so in this middle-class white school. A  school club called UMAS (United Mexican-American Students) was formed to offer a venue for students (both white and Latino) to come together to gain a better understanding of the positive attributes of each culture.Maria.UMAS

Meanwhile, in the neighborhoods surrounding the school, gangs began to appear, and tensions at school ramped up. One day a popular young Mexican-American boy was shot and killed, and the Bienvenidos Center was re-named in his memory.

Cultural conflicts also arose between white school authorities and Mexican-American students. For example, whites looked up when spoken to while Mexican-Americans looked down out of respect. Teachers took this as a sign of disrespect. Whites took pride in wearing their shirts neatly tucked in, while the style preferred by Mexican-Americans was to have their shirts highly starched and hung outside their pants. Teachers were told to enforce the dress code: “shirts tucked in.” They would send students outside the classroom to tuck in their shirts. To Mexican-American students, this was an affront to their choice of dress, and a personal embarrassment.

Moreover, Mexican-American students were counseled against enrolling in college prep classes. Boys were instructed to take shop classes; girls were encouraged to learn secretarial and homemaking skills. Later these students would attend East Los Angeles Community College rather than UCLA, largely due to their lack of the requisite preparation in higher math, science, and critical thinking.

As the school population turned increasingly Latin, a demand for the hiring of Latino staff emerged. Along with this came a more balanced and equitable attention to both cultural groups. With decreasing white enrollment and increasing Latino enrollment, the tables were turned a little. Football became less significant. Our school suddenly jumped to prominence in soccer. Stellar soccer players materialized.

Our school mascot  had always been the Aztecs. The student chosen to represent the Aztecs at the time (he actually had familial Aztec roots) was not permitted by the administration to  perform authentic dances in “full Aztec regalia.”  Apparently it projected an inappropriate image of the school.

The highlight of my tenure at this school came in the early ‘70s. At a school assembly one day, César Chavez walked out onto the stage, accompanied by leaping, screaming, and arm-flailing of the Latino students. Tears of joy ran down some of our faces–both students and staff–as we finally hailed with grateful pride  our multicultural, neighborhood school.

Cesar Chavez

Brownies and Legionnaires, by Alyson Ross

10 Aug

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When Alyson Ross was in her 20s and 30s, she wrote short stories for confession magazines and others of that ilk. For a 10,000-word story, she would receive three cents a word ($300). She jokes that as a Catholic she had to go to confession so she thought she should write confession stories. Alyson taught English and ESL for 27 years at East Los Angeles Community College. She has been retired over 20 years and is still writing, including working on a long, fictionalized family saga. She has traveled to 35 countries so far.


Of the dozen or so Civil Rights marches in the San Gabriel Valley [Los Angeles metro area] that I went on, the most memorable was the first. In the early 60s, many suburban cities had unwritten covenants preventing people of color from buying or renting a house or an apartment. We were marching to persuade people to end this practice.

A week before one of the demonstrations, the local American Legion post presented my daughter’s newly formed Brownie troop, of which I was a parent leader, with an American flag. As the legionnaire marched up the aisle, I noticed that he was so tipsy that he almost dropped the flag. After presenting the flag and leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance, he spoke a few words, some of them slightly slurred, about how proud we should be as Americans.

On the morning of the Civil Rights march, the leader told us to avoid eye contact with people who would heckle us and under no circumstances to shout anything back at them. As the march proceeded, several bystanders joined us. And as we were warned, so did the hecklers, running along beside us and repeatedly shouting things like ”Are you walking with them or sleeping with them?” After hearing this taunt dozens of times, I could no longer restrain myself. I turned to the heckler next to me and shouted “Both!” To my amazement I found myself looking straight into the eyes of the legionnaire who a week earlier had presented my daughter’s Brownie troop with the American flag.

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                                                    Alyson (right) and her writing group

When we lived in Douglas, Arizona in first grade, there were only two non-Mexican students, a girl named Donna and myself, who were white. The other school kids lived in poor houses. Since my name was French—Balliot—the teacher thought I was a minority too, so she would talk louder to me. I was able to observe the cruelty of the teachers towards the students.


In fourth grade history class in Los Angeles we read that slaves were well-treated, spent their time singing and dancing, etc. I told the teacher that wasn’t true but she replied, “The textbook says so.”


One afternoon our neighbor, Mrs. Jones, came crying to our house. She had seen a black woman with two daughters on the streetcar and told the woman that her girls were the cutest pickaninnies she’d ever seen.  The woman had then said “something very cruel” to Mrs. Jones, causing her tears. My mother sympathized with Mrs. Jones. They both wondered why the black woman had been offended.

Even as a nine-year-old, I knew that word was an insult.


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Alyson’s 80th birthday party                      Birthday present for Alyson


When I taught vocabulary-building at East Los Angeles College in the ’70s, my students and I marched and rallied against the administration. We were teaching in old, decrepit World War II bungalows while the administration had suites. Every Tuesday at noon there was a vigil at the administration building protesting the war.


My daughter, who was attending Pomona College, got sick on the day of a peace march and couldn’t participate. She gave her sandals to a friend to wear so she could say her sandals had “walked the course.”


Chile: The First 9-11, Part 2, by Isabel Rojas-Williams

6 Aug

My Life in the US

In the United States I lived in Los Angeles at 4901 S. Figueroa, in Highland Park. I worked as a clerk for the York PumpIsabel Rojas-Williams Maintenance, Inc., which took care of maintaining gas stations. Its office was exactly where the Avenue 50 Studio is located today. It was owned by a Chilean, who paid me half the minimum wage. I will be forever grateful to this man who gave me the opportunity to have my first job in the U.S., which allowed me to continue helping my family educate my younger siblings. I hardly spoke a word of English but became immersed in this new world, into which the Anglo workers at the shop integrated me. I worked from 8 to 5, and then attended ESL evening classes at Franklin High School.

By this time my future husband had moved to Los Angeles; he knew my boss. He and I decided to move in together. We lived in a studio apartment at the old building on Figueroa & Avenue 50. I could walk to the post office to send letters to Mom and to my siblings. (Phone calls to Chile were $50 a minute at that time so everyone wrote instead.) The Highland Park Library was also within walking distance so I could check out books written in Spanish; there weren’t many so I read them all over and over. I was lonesome for my family, my language, and my culture.

During the 1970s many Chileans arrived in San Francisco; political activists created groups of resistance formed of the refugees arriving from abroad to oppose Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship. Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center was founded by Chileans in 1978 in response to the 1973 overthrow of President Allende. “Song of Unity,” the mural on the façade of La Peña (on Shattuck Ave & Prince Street), was created as homage to Pablo Neruda, Violeta Parra, and Victor Jara, among others.

In Los Angeles I did not find or know of a group of Chileans doing as much political work as those in the Bay area. I felt isolated and I felt I was not doing my part to help the country I left behind. I was, as all immigrants, trying to survive. But I was also searching for something to identify with politically. It was at this time, when I became aware of two art studios I would see on my walk to the market, the post office, or the Highland Park Library. Highland Park was home to two Chicano artist collectives: Mechicano Art Center (Figueroa and Avenue 54) and Centro de Arte Público (Figueroa and Avenue 56), which included some of the most important Chicano artists of their time: Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero, Judithe Hernandez, Gilbert Magú Lujan, Leo Limón, Barbara Carrasco, and John Valadez. These artists were greatly influenced by the messages the great Mexican masters depicted in their murals.

As a young woman, I was highly inspired by lovers and philosophers Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, the intellectual-power couple of the 20th century. They were my political and intellectual inspiration and I wanted to be like them. So, like De Beauvoir and Sartre, I didn’t want to get married. Eventually I did, however, in order to give birth to my son and to appease my mother. My husband and I had brought jewelry (inherited from our grandparents) with us when we left Chile. (That’s about all we brought with us.) At that time, many businesses in East Los Angeles were owned by Jewish families. As the Chicano Civil Rights movement began to grow in the ‘60s and ‘70s, those families felt uneasy and began to liquidate their stores and move elsewhere. We sold some jewelry we had brought from Chile and put a down payment on a franchise that sold Singer sewing machines in the heart of East Los Angeles (Whittier and Fetterly).

Here it was that everything began to shift for me. East Los Angeles in the 1970s was home to radical strains of politics and a feeder for the Vietnam War, to which disproportionate numbers of Latinos were consigned. Murals were appearing, and it was here where, for the first time, I saw the conceptual art collective ASCO (Willie Herrón III, Harry Gamboa, Jr., Gronk, and Patssi Valdez), who often staged the equivalent of living murals in East Los Angeles and in downtown streets. I soon noticed how murals were appearing in East Los Angeles.

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1973. “Moratorium: The Black and White Mural” by Willie Herrón IIIrts, Boyle Heights. Photo from The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles’ website by Robin Dunitz

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1972 ASCO’s “Walking Mural.” East LA. Harry Gamboa photograph (1972)

“Somos dueños de nuestro propio destino” (“We own our own destiny”), 1971-72: http://us.fotolog.com/muralespoliticos/46296516/. http://us.fotolog.com/muralespoliticos/46296516/

Murals. Song of Unity

1978 “Song of Unity” (“La canción de la unidad”) at La Peña, Berkeley. Photo @ Pablo Cristi

I finally found what it was that I could identify with in Los Angeles. I realized that Chicano issues were the same as mine, as the Chilean ones. The issues depicted on the Chicano murals spoke about the very struggles the muralists from Ramona Parra Brigade (BRP) spoke about when defending Allende’s government in Chile in the 1970s. The BRP began to mass-produce murals throughout Chile to defend Allende’s government. When Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government, persecuting and eliminating anyone who opposed him, muralists with their brushes and paint began to oppose the military regime that established the bloody 17 years of Pinochet’s dictatorship. I fell in love with the murals and I realized that my sociopolitical work had just begun.

Murals. Dreams of Flight

Photo © Isabel Rojas-Williams. “Dreams of Flight” (1973-1978) by David Botello

Isabel. Son Pablo Cristi

My son Pablo Cristi and his wife Natsumi Iimura (2013)

I remember walking around in the August heat very pregnant. My son, Pablo Cristi, (named after Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso, and Pablo Casals) was born in the heat of the summer. I brought him with me every day to the sewing machine business in East Los Angeles. My son would ask me who my Chilean role models were, because for Mexicans there were so many, such as Cesar Chavez, Siqueiros, La Adelita, Hidalgo, and all the heroes of the Mexican Revolution, whom he learned about from his young Mexican American friends. By now I was divorced and as my son grew older, I was exposed to more and more murals in L.A. Many years before I decided to study art history, I learned about and met through my son, who is now a visual artist himself, many artists long before I saw their artwork in books. My son would invite me to Self-Help Graphics to see exhibitions of emerging young artists that have been writing the history of our city in our “open-air galleries” all over Los Angeles.

Little did I know that driving my young teenage son to make “pieces” or to watch murals being made by the L.A. River or under the bridges on Santa Fe Yards would spark my passion for this art. Although neither of us realized it, my son was educating me about Los Angeles culture through his own and other artists’ street art.

Epilogue: My Life After the ‘70s

Then the story came full circle. I became even more fascinated by muralism while completing my higher education at Cal State L.A. I was one of fifteen graduate students in Dr. Aguilar’s Master Seminar, the Seminar that evolved into the remarkable “Walls of Passion: The Murals of Los Angeles” photo-documentary at the school. By this time I was immersed in the history of Los Angeles murals and reading about “Los Tres Grandes” (“The Three Greats”): Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros, and their inspirational influence on the Los Angeles muralists in the younger artists’ search for identity, racial and political activism, and connectedness to their roots. I learned how the “Three Greats” inspired generations of muralists in the city of Los Angeles and in the world.

As my son grew, so did my knowledge of street art and my awareness of how these muralists and graffiti artists march behind a common banner, fighting with their brushes and their spray-cans against war, inequality, and other socio-economic issues. I learned how murals create a direct connection between artist and viewer. I learned that muralists’ quest for communication, empowerment, and education compel these artists to create ideological works for the community and to confront those observers with the social issues that affect the lives of the artists and the marginalized communities alike in richly diverse Los Angeles.

Since my son was able to discuss art with me, we lived and breathed murals to the point that each of these murals we discussed became, in a way, ours. Once out in the streets and the parks (in areas that in many cases I had never before visited), we began to understand that the murals of Los Angeles could not exist without the communities in which they sit just as we have also begun to realize that Los Angeles would be greatly diminished without those murals.

In 2009 my son and I both received our master degrees, an MFA and an MA. The open-air galleries of Los Angeles bridged the generational gap between us, giving us both the opportunity to engage in the experience of artworks that transform the city walls into beautiful creations that should be preserved as our city’s artistic, cultural, and historic legacy. I became the executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles in 2011. My son is a visual artist who has exhibited throughout the US; he has also painted a mural for peace in North Derry, Ireland and in West Oakland, California. Pablo is currently the co-chair of the Visual Art Department of Oakland School for the Arts.

Isabel. Husband Stephen Williams

Isabel Rojas-Williams and her husband Stephen Williams

2013 will mark the 30th year since I met Stephen, my husband. While I was going through a painful divorce, I met a man who spoke to my heart and my intellect. For the first time in life I met a man who would read Shakespeare to me during rainy nights, recite poems by e. e. cummings when happy, and read Pablo Neruda’s poems in Spanish to remind me of my country and my family. He also shared with me his love of jazz, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Grateful dead, and the Rolling Stones. He helped me raise Pablo as one of the most understanding stepfathers ever!  Together we blurred the lines of two different cultures that melted into one. Strangely enough, Stephen’s ancestors departed from Scotland into two Americas: Chile in South America and to the United States in North America. It took five generations for Stephen and I to find each other. Stephen is currently a college counselor at Eagle Rock High School and an adjunct professor at both Los Angeles City College and East L.A. City College.

About My Mother

Chile. IsabelCanalesEspinoza.Mother.12-13My mother is turning 83 this year. She gardens, cleans, and cooks everyday (“because she wants to”). She spends the cold Chilean winters knitting scarves, socks, and gloves for the needy. She goes to church on Sundays. If the weather allows it, she has tea with her “Golden Years” friends on Wednesdays. She is known for raising money or gathering groceries for the families of the imprisoned, and at Christmas time, she helps an orphanage with little gifts for 80 kids. In this latter project she involves everyone around her and that includes her six children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren. She is one inspirational woman and she is my mother!