Eloy Rodriguez & Helena Maria Viramontes
Husband and Wife Team Heal the Spirit
Government got you down? Frustrated with immoral, hypocritical politicians who preach family values? Tired of the inanities of hate radio? You're not alone.
Enter Eloy Rodriguez and Helena Maria Viramontes, professors at Cornell University. They are medicine people--healers of the body and the soul--and they consider themselves warriors for their "community called the universe." They are a husband-wife team who are endowed with intelligence, moral conviction and most of all, vision.
Rodriguez is one of the nation's premier scientists and Viramontes is a rising new star in the world of literature.
Rodriguez comes from an extended family in which 64 of 67 cousins in Hidalgo County, South Texas, obtained college degrees; Viramontes, from East L.A., comes from a family of farmworkers.
They travel extensively and sometimes speak to audiences jointly about their work. Though they live in the virtually opposite worlds of science and literature, they feel that, through their work, they contribute greatly to the well-being of not only the Chicano/Latino community, but to the rest of the world.
Viramontes, the author of "The Moths and other Stories," and "Under the Feet of Jesus," recently won the prestigious Dos Pasos Award--a prize for authors who write political literature.
She views herself as a working-class writer who tells stories about farmworkers and urban life in America. She writes about "the voices that no one else hears" and speaks of an indigenous spirit among Chicanos/Latinos that has not been killed in the more than 500 years since the European conquest of the Americas.
Viramontes' work--which stresses compassion--has roots in her own childhood. Growing up in a large family teaches you patience, how to share and to be compassionate, she says. Currently she is working on a novel, "Their Dogs Came With Them," about the brutality of the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
For Viramontes, her literature is an extension of her politics. Both she an Rodriguez are from the generation of Mexican Americans who were an integral part of the Chicano political movement--who rebelled against their "assigned subservient status in society. They think in terms of community rather than in terms of self. "I didn't pull myself up by the bootstraps," Rodriguez says. "I had a lot of help from my family."
"True family values" as they define them--of people supporting each other--is what has sustained them since they moved from Southern California to Ithaca, N.Y., and they stay in touch with their extended families. Viramontes learned the meaning of family from her mother and four aunts who live on the same half block in East L.A. "It is they who taught me the critical importance of a family and children," she says.
Rodriguez, who specializes in environmental biology, is one of the few living scientists in the world to have created an entire new scientific discipline: Zoopharmacognosy--the study of self-medication by animals. He developed it while doing work on his larger research interest: why "yerbas," or medicinal herbs, work.
Rodriguez notes that there are plants in the American Southwestern desert that contain at least 1,000 potential drugs, which he calls "plants of the gods." "Yerbas do work," he says, adding that there are new discoveries on the horizon, he says. "It's like being at the opening of the cosmos."
Rodriguez's work often takes him to the Amazon--where he coincidentally work with a tribe whose members call themselves "Chicanos." There, he is working to save from extinction the medicinal knowledge of the people of the jungle.
By extension, because many cannot afford synthetic drugs, he is also working to save the people from cultural and physical extinction. He is doing this by encouraging them to plant agro-medicinal plants in their gardens so they can treat themselves. He also wants to help them market their own natural medicines.
His work also takes him to Uganda--a nation with the highest rate of AIDS in the world--in search of plants that are used by the local medicine people in the treatment of the immune disorder.
And he continues to work with Kids Investigating and Discovering Science, which he helped found at the University of California at Irvine. In this program, elementary school students--many of whom come from impoverished homes--are fitted with white laboratory coats and sent out to conduct fieldwork.
"The students believe they're scientists," Rodriguez, says. And as they engage in inquiry, and critical thinking, they are participating in the scientific process. Given the right support from teachers, children will gain the confidence to believe that they can do anything they want, he says.
As a senior professor at Cornell, Rodriguez has set out to recruit Chicano/Latino graduate students--whom he takes with him abroad--and produce top-notch scientists.
Viramontes and Rodriguez recently participated in a sacred Native American ceremony for several children, including their own, Pilar and Eloy, in preparation for their first day of school. They say it is an experience they will not soon forget. While they seek to heal the world--each in their own way--they feel their children are their most important contribution to humanity:
"We consider our work an offering to our children," says Viramontes.
Puerto Rican Young Lords Now Older and Wiser
Robert McNamara fessed up about his actual views on the Vietnam War after a generation of silence. Recently, we have heard charges that our government was complicit in the drug trade. In a similar vein, perhaps we can expect revelations in the near future about law enforcement's efforts to destroy our nation's civil rights movement.
We bring this up because next week, on Oct. 18, PBS will air a special presentation of "Palante Siempre Palante! (Forward, Always Forward) The Young Lords," a documentary about the rise and fall of the New York branch of the Puerto Rican civil rights organization, from 1970-76. "P'alante" is taken from the name of the group's bilingual newspaper.
Unlike the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords were not decimated by governmental violence; instead, law enforcement agencies destabilized the organization by exploiting pre-existing rivalries and fomenting factionalism within it.
Filmmaker Iris Morales herself was the minister of information for the Young Lords. She says young Puerto Rican activists in New York first became aware of the Chicago-based group from reading one of the Black Panthers Party's publications. After journeying to Chicago and meeting with members of the Young Lords, the New York activists returned home inspired and created a local branch.
In their heyday, the Young Lords were militant, but not violent nor extremist. (For that matter, and generally, neither were the Black Panthers For the most part, it was law enforcement agencies who unleashed violence against the Panthers.) The Young Lords concentrated on meeting the daily needs of residents of New York's barrios. They fought for education rights, created breakfast programs and forced the city to deal with the drug and health problems of barrio residents, insisting, for example, on a ban agains lead-based paints in city apartments.
In fighting for their demands, the Young Lords often resorted to dramatic action, such as commandeering a city medical truck to perform neighborhood tuberculosis tests, or putting trash in the middle of the street when the sanitation department refused to collect it. For several weeks, they also took over a church to a create a day care center and took over Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx to dramatize the community's health needs, creating a drug detox program there.
Richie Perez, currently the national coordinator of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, was also a Young Lord. He says that one of the roles of the organization was to document complaints by barrio residents, which were primarily about police brutality.
Morales had trouble securing funding for the documentary because she was told by various people that it would not be objective. That, however, was never her goal. "We weren't interested in making an objective documentary," she says. "We wanted to tell a story from the point of view of the participants of that history."
Today, Morales is an educator and lawyer and director of education at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. Other former Young Lords who have gone on to other roles include Juan Gonzalez, a newspaper columnist for the New York Daily News, television reporter Pablo Guzman and union organizer Minerva Sola.
Morales notes that factionalism crippled the organization and finally led to its demise. In its last year, the party changed its name and shortly thereafter, the organization closed its offices in New York and opened up a new headquarters in Puerto Rico, where it was not widely accepted.
Perez says that by the time the organization moved to Puerto Rico, it had become dogmatic, isolated from the community, and irrelevant. As a result of heavy destabilization efforts by police agencies, the organization turned on itself. Perez went into hiding after being kidnapped by some of his trusted comrades. The Young Lords were targeted, says Perez, because they were identified as part of Puerto Rico's independence movement.
Despite this, Perez, Morales and other former Young Lords remain active, minus the berets, in the struggles for human rights. They are currently fighting against the proposal to bring the U.S. Border Patrol in to New York's barrios.
Today, Perez is recognized as one of the nation's leading activists against police brutality, which in the 1970s, was a common means by which to politically subjugate people, he says. Now, because of the de-industrialization and loss of jobs in the Northeast, "the labor of people of color is less necessary to the economy than ever before." As a result, people who are not an integral part of the economy form an unwanted class--a class of people who are treated as disposable and in effect, less than human says Perez.
As an example, he points to the recent acquittal of officer Francis Livoti in the death of Anthony Baez, who died at the hands of a number of officers after the football Baez was playing with struck a NYPD squad car. Reflecting over the lessons he learned as a Young Lord, Perez says, "we were disconnected from the generation before us."
Instead of learning from the past, each new generation ends up reinventing their struggle, making basic mistakes repeatedly, says Perez. If the Young Lords had been connected to the Puerto Rican independence fighters of the 1950s and 1960s, he says, they wouldn't have had to start organizing their campaigns from scratch--they probably would have survived and not been prone to internal warfare.
"Someone should have been giving us lessons from the past."
March on Washington: A Prayer In Motion
WASHINGTON, D.C.--At sunrise on the 12th of October, the beat of the sacred drum in front of the statue of Benito Juarez sounded a new and historic day, a day in which the people of the Americas walked together historically in their first ever civil and human rights march and rally to the nation's capital.
While it was billed as a Latino and immigrant event, it was more than that; it was a prayer and pilgrimage of relatives from all directions. It was a day which celebrated the fruits and labor of those men and women who pick the crops, place food on our tables, clean the offices, tend to other people's children and who literally help sustain our nation's infrastructure and economy.
Our society calls them immigrants. Yet, the sea of mostly brown, indigenous faces came bearing flags of all of the Americas--including the flag of the United States.
In the sacred pipe ceremony, Nathan Phillips, warrior of the Omaha nation, sent a message in four directions--to California Gov. Pete Wilson and fellow anti-immigrationist, Pat Buchanan, as well as to Bob Dole and to Bill Clinton--that despite what the current political rhetoric would have us believe, the people of the Americas are native, not immigrants. They are living in their ancestral lands, and they are not the ones who created our nation's borders.
It is appropriate that a Native American spoke those words. He spoke of the irony that it is the people of European extraction who question the loudest the right of those who are clearly of this continent to remain in these lands.
Phillips' message and the symbolism of the drum were not mentioned in the national media. Instead, the media simply reported the surface-level story of the immigration debate. Yet the beat of the drum was heard loudly and clearly, resonating among the marchers and throughout the Americas. Deep down, every U.S. citizen who truly understands history knows that Latinos are not foreigners. Most can trace their ancestry on this continent back for thousands of years.
That was the message of the thousands of feet that walked through the street of the nation's capital--streets that Latinos have rarely ever claimed as their own. In this way, the march was like many indigenous marches in Mexico, Central and South America in which communities send their envoys and elders. With their feet they march for many.
But the media didn't see that. It did not report on the thousands of people who lent their support; so it didn't see the amazing efforts by mostly small organizations, unions or families and communities who chipped in to send representatives. It did not report the stories of high school and college students who organized buses and plane trips of thousands of miles. It also did not speak of the exiles from the war-torn countries of Central America who joined the march and who now call this land their home.
On this day, people voted with their feet. At its peak, the march was estimated to have snaked for three miles, over two hills. As the marchers walked through Washington's Latino and Central American barrio, you could see the surge in pride in the eyes of its residents. No longer would Latinos, locally or nationally, remain silent, and no longer would they see the capital as foreign soil.
The speakers, as expected, delivered denunciations of anti-immigrant legislation and the war against Latinos. Yet the real message did not come from the stage or those with the microphone. The message came from the marchers.
As the late farm labor leader Cesar Chavez used to say, a march is a prayer in motion, one in which families can participate. He believed that a people in march can appeal to the conscience of the nation.
Without question, people were defiant, yet, they were dignified. If anything, the mood was jubilant, the crowd teeming with youthful energy. In the eyes and faces of the younger marchers, you could see the sweat and blood of their parents--of the sacrifices they made to come to this country. But we also saw something else; this generation of youths is not content with doing the jobs nobody else wants and they will not allow anyone, particularly President Clinton or Bob Dole, to ride the road to the White House on the backs or hunger of immigrant children. For many of the younger people, this was their day of liberation.
Yet nothing captured the sentiment of the march more than the words of Father Ribero, who delivered the invocation at Georgetown's East Coast Chicano Student Forum conference the following day. He lauded the students for "having the courage to speak the truth--in love."
At the end of the day, as a Georgetown student, Itzel Salazar, remarked: "It was a march of solidarity and reaffirmation. It was spiritual and it touched people's hearts."
Documenting the Oct 12 March
It's been said that you don't ever want to see how chorizo or legislation are made. Perhaps we can add marches to that list.
We've been documenting the march since its inception and as most people probably know, some things went wrong, some things happened that shouldn't have happened along the way... but in the end, a historic process unfolded.
The Coordinadora '96 is taking suggestions and critique. Ourselves, as journalists/columnists, we continue to document the historic event. Anyone who has a thought on the march -- whether you attended or not -- please feel welcome to send us your thoughts (electronically or by regular mail). In fact, send us articles, columns or anything that will help us document the march. Photos are also welcome.
Hopefully, you have contacted your local media to write something about the march. Also, consider sending memorabilia to a Raza archivist.
Congratulations to all who participated and supported the efforts of people to reach the nation's capital. Incidentally, what has not been reported was that a sizeable percentage, if not the majority of marchers, were students/youth. That bodes well for the future.
Roberto Rodriguez & Patrisia Gonzales
PO BOX 7905
Albuquerque, NM 87194-7905
by Patrisia Gonzales & Roberto Rodriguez
web site: Bios, Speaking, Aztlanahuac Project, Books & Columns
These Articles are Reproduced with Permission from the Authors.