Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Vilma WINS! a Salvadoran-Born Domestic worker gets the ball moving for Worker's Justice! SF!

Video: Josué Rojas, Written Piece: Laura Goode for NEW AMERICA MEDIA

SAN FRANCISCO -- Vilma Serralta, a 71-year-old U.S. citizen born in El Salvador, recently settled a lawsuit against her employers for labor abuses, strengthening a growing movement of domestic workers.

During her four years of employment, Serralta alleges that her employers, Sakhawat and Roomy Khan of Atherton, paid her between $3 and $4 an hour to work 14-hour days, six days a week, without breaks, overtime pay or vacation time. Serralta also routinely endured verbal abuse and other indignities that made for a hostile work environment.

“My job was very hard,” Serralta said. “It was a really big house, I would do all the housework and they would really exploit me… one time they called me stupid, and they would yell at me.”

When Serralta was fired by the Khans in 2006, she contacted Social Services to see if there were resources available to her to take legal action. She was referred to La Raza Centro Legal of San Francisco, where co-counsel Hillary Ronen took on Serralta’s case and joined forces with senior staff attorney Christopher Ho of the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center (LAS-ELC).

“I began to speak in public about this abuse because they would pay me monthly, but they never paid me overtime, nor holidays,” Serralta said. “Employers should not exploit us, the domestic workers.”

As Serralta’s lawyers began to build her case against the Khans, the Khans’ defense worked to call into question Serralta’s honesty and work ethic. However, Serralta’s team received a boon shortly before the case would have gone to trial, when her lawyers demonstrated that the Khans had fabricated critical evidence in their defense case. As a result, the Khans were forced to settle.

Lawyers declined to disclose the amount of the settlement, but the lawsuit sought unpaid minimum and overtime wages, penalties and damages.

Serralta’s case represents a watershed moment in organizing domestic workers to unite against labor abuse.

“We were very pleased about the outcome, because typically these cases aren’t brought at all, and because Vilma was brave enough to come forward,” Ho said. “She could well have been blacklisted by being in the press and having her name associated with a movement like the domestic worker movement as someone who’d be too uppity for a lot of people who’d want to hire, but she came forward despite that, and I think that it is to her credit that this case has been able to accomplish what it has.”

Serralta’s case was also unique partially because of her U.S. citizenship. Though undocumented workers also have rights under U.S. law, the attorneys note, it is more difficult for them to press charges. ICE can be an intimidating force, Ho explained.

“It’s obviously much harder to bring cases such as this on behalf of people whose immigration status is tenuous,” he said. “There is more to be afraid of.”

Ho continued, “Although the workplace laws both at the federal and state level almost without exception are exactly the same for undocumented workers as they are for documented workers, the fact is that undocumented workers are much more vulnerable to deportation, to threats against themselves and their families.”

According to Ho, even when undocumented workers are brave enough to raise civil prosecution against their employers, employers often initiate deportation proceedings in retaliation. ICE runs independently of the court system, so workers’ ability to remain in America to press their case is curtailed.

Domestic workers can be a difficult community to mobilize. They are often isolated in the homes in which they work, they are often undocumented immigrants, and they often don’t know that they have legal rights regardless of their immigration status.

Another obstacle to more domestic workers reporting abuse can be many employers’ use of the attachments household workers form with the children they look after as tools of emotional manipulation, Ho explained. Serralta was overcome with emotion when she remembered her relationship with the Khans’ daughter.

“You know I always cry, right? When people ask me about the girl,” Serralta said, choking back tears. “I loved her, that girl, I still love her. She is always in my thoughts, the girl. She was so beautiful. I would take care of her, I did everything for her. They [the Khans] didn’t know if she got dressed, what she ate, nothing. I was always taking care of her…I was like a mother.”

Despite the emotional complexities of leaving the Khan home, Serralta’s fight has inspired other domestic workers and organizers to follow her example.

“For us, Vilma Serralta’s case is very important, because this creates a great precedent at the international and state levels and across movements,” said Guillermina Catellanos, an organizer at the Women’s Collective of La Raza Centro Legal, and a member of the National Domestic Worker Alliance (NDWA), a driving force in the labor movement behind domestic workers. “That is what we want employers to know—that domestic work is dignified and should be recognized like any other job.”

The economic crisis has intensified the need for domestic workers to organize in order to protect themselves, Catellanos said.

“In these times of crisis, abuse in these types of work just increases…There are many Vilmas locked up in houses suffering what Vilma went through, and we want to tell the entire world—don’t let this happen to you. Just like Vilma made this change, they can do it too.”

Serralta intends to continue speaking out on the issue. Next month, she’ll be a featured speaker during a convening of domestic workers, organized by NDWA. Though the fight continues, Serralta’s satisfaction with the results thus far is apparent.

“We won,” Serralta said, with quiet pride before the press conference, raising a fist in the air. “We won, and we came out victorious.”

Monday, September 21, 2009

On Salvadoran Gangs and the death of Filmmaker Christian Poveda

Josué Rojas, a San Franciscan Salvadoran-American, examines the circumstances surrounding the recent death of filmmaker and photographer Christian Poveda, who died documenting the migration of American gang culture to the youth of El Salvador.  Surveying the history of this migration, Rojas echos Poveda's mission in seeking to understand and document, rather than sensationalize,the rise of gang culture among Salvadoran youth.  

San Salvador––Filmmaker and photographer Christian Poveda, 54, was found dead with four gunshots in the face on Wednesday, September 1st, on a road near La Campanera, a district in Soyapango near San Salvador. Poveda was familiar with the impoverished canton (shanty), as he had spent more than a year documenting gang life there. A filmmaker and community artist myself, I’ve worked in the area and have covered the topic. Though I’ve lost many colleagues and contacts, hearing this news gave me chills.

Poveda was embedded, following young members of the Mara 18 gang for a year and a half in order to make the film La Vida Loca, or the Crazy Life. As a result, Poveda achieved what other films on Salvadoran “maras” failed to include: an intimate portrayal. This is no easy task, not to mention hazardous.

The veteran journalist was no stranger to close encounters with violence. Since the late 1970s he documented wars across the Middle East and across Latin America. He covered the Salvadoran civil war for TIME magazine early in the 80s. In the 90s Poveda returned to El Salvador to cover one of the outcomes of that country's civil war: gangs––a problem that has reached disproportionate levels in the country and region. Gangs are also highly misunderstood and sensationalized. His images on gangs are some of the first and best on the subject. 

"Gangs, for me, are an extension of the work I did in the 80's during the war. El Salvador is the country I was most involved in," Poveda told Elfaro.net in 2007.

It’s a complicated story, accompanied by an image both fascinating and disturbing: young people deported from the US to El Salvador, who brought the seed of Los Angeles gang culture to fertile ground. 

During the 90s, post-war El Salvador was in shambles with a weak physical and economic infrastructure ––and an unemployment rate that was through the roof. The country’s social fabric suffered due to the loss of life of nearly 80,000 Salvadorans. Under these conditions, many young people were left without any support–––war left children orphaned by the thousands, and according to experts, the dire economic conditions compounded a cultural violence that was experienced by the population at large and even more by child soldiers. 

The emerging generation attempted to heal from the trauma of growing up knowing nothing but war. Gangs, an incarnation of the disintegration of the Salvadoran family, proved appealing to young people abandoned, either by war or their parents' migration. These kids were alone in the world––I could not imagine a more fertile ground for gangs. 

By 2003, gangs ran rampant, the population was terrorized, and authorities developed Mano Dura tactics–– heavy-handed, zero-tolerance repressive measures that, in time, would prove to agitate the problem rather than help it. National Security budgets have more than tripled; an industry has been built around the gangs. Media has had a field day demonizing them. Governments found an ideal enemy and scapegoat. To put it simply, what terrorism occupies in the American psyche is what gangs occupy in the Central American mind.

Not disregarding tendencies towards violence and extortion, gang members live in fear, and are often exploited themselves. They are targets of death squads (vigilante groups used for fear and social cleansing during the war). Extrajudicial killings of gang members are the norm, and according to a report recently released by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), "gang members in particular are victims of these killings." The WOLA report also states, "Sensationalist media coverage of the gangs contributes to a climate of fear in which the threat of gangs, though serious, is over-emphasized." To make a film on this overexposed, highly debated subject is to dance on a redundant, if not dangerous, fence.

Poveda hoped his film would shed new light on the situation, possibly humanizing young people caught up in the gang life: "The gang problem will not be resolved by policies that repress young people," he told CNN en Español earlier this year. He told elfaro.net that, as he saw it, gangs were “a direct consequence of the war, and of the conditions that led to it.” Poveda’s intentions were to, as he put it, “denounce” the socioeconomic realities he witnessed–– his film was a close-up portrait of young and violent lives. It had the potential to generate sympathy, but also disgust and fear. 

Film screenings at festivals in Europe, Guadalajara, San Sebastian and Morelia were successful in bringing the project both acclaim and money, and the Mara 18 (18th Street Gang) knew this. According to some gang members, there were some among them who expressed feeling duped. Though the film was achieving notoriety, gang members were seeing no signs of its benefits.

In one sense, Poveda was a victim of his film's success. Not long after being completed, the film was pirated. Bootleg copies could be bought in outdoor markets and DVD stands for one US dollar. Copies quickly spread across El Salvador. The Mara 18 took notice and a tax was imposed. Edgar Romero, a fellow photojournalist, told ElPais.com that " it was sold for one dollar per copy and the Mara 18 added the tax of an additional 3 dollars," bringing the price up to 4 US dollars. 

"The rumor ran that Poveda was benefiting from the film," stated Romero. Authorities aren’t sure who killed Poveda. They’ve arrested a handful of alleged gang members and even a police officer.

In March of this year, I was in El Salvador doing research on gangs for the upcoming play “Las Heridas del Izote” or “The wounds of the yucca flower”–––a play based on the stories of gang members, through a project led by the playwright and poet Paul Flores in collaboration with the San Francisco Arts Commission. 

Allegedly, Poveda was in La Campanera on Wednesday to set things straight with the gang, “to mediate”, according to Romero.  "He went to see them to deny it, also to defend what was his. He was very cautious of copyright laws. He also went to set up a photo shoot with a French photographer to shoot the girls of the gang for ELLE magazine," Romero commented, "He told me that the situation was hot, but above all were his ethics and his intent to save future generations of Salvadorans."

Poveda and his film would go on to become part of the ongoing saga, the story of the Maras of El Salvador and Central America. An advocate of non-violent, non-repressive prevention, he would fall victim not far from the place where his film was set. As Emilio Maillé, co-producer of La Vida Loca put it, the “crazy” part of it was that he ended up “the same way a character in one of his films would.” 

Poveda was esteemed as a veteran photojournalist, filmmaker and teacher of photography. He was leading workshops to teach young photographers his craft.

I have no doubt that Poveda’s timely, intimate and jarring account of gang life in El Salvador will go on record to become one of the subject’s most important contributions, and similarly, I hope it will be utilized, as the author hoped, to help understand rather than condemn the young people it depicts. As I write this, I’m fully conscious of my optimism in the face of the noise that surrounds the subject. 

As a proud American, and a proud Salvadoran, as a community-based artist and a media-maker, I hope, I work, I pray for a day when opportunities will be given for these kids to participate in something more productive than gangs. For funds to be used to attack the conditions they’re in. To feed in them the need to create, to be recognized for something, to tell their own stories –––and for people to quietly listen.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Mateo Y Cientina Comic #19: How the "Day" works

Just a  fun project: 
The Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley commissioned this comic series.
Glad it came together.

Check more out at Mateo Y Cientina's site

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Deporting the American Dream

This is me, attempting to marry my two disciplines: 
Painting and Journalism.

NEW! Exclusive! Los Disappeared Complete

Editor’s Note: Recent reports have shown that in some states, the number of police referrals to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) has nearly doubled in the past year. A report by TRAC shows that ICE has the highest number of referrals for federal criminal prosecution of all law enforcement agencies. In El Salvador, these deportees are affecting the culture of the nation with their Americanized ways, working at call centers and struggling to survive. Josue Rojas is an artist and writer from San Francisco’s Mission District.

Salvadoran deportees, or DPs, have a few things in common: they think in English, they’re young and they’re influential. They’re importers of the culture they carry inside — the niche, regional culture of the American city they grew up in. Be it New York talk, L.A. talk, N’awlins or D.C talk… they speak it. Culturally, they’re intimately in the know of something else that is arguably the coolest thing in the hemisphere: Americana.

In a country celebrated in Central America as one of the region’s greatest friends to the United States (and often paraded as a flagship for development) the DPs' influence spreads. They are simultaneously embraced and rejected. They’re the cool kids that society hates to love — Central America’s most beloved, betrayed bad-asses.

The seven deportees I spoke to were not all members of the internationally infamous MS-13 gang. Instead they were rappers and artists; they worked to remove tattoos and manned phone lines at call centers. They’re marginalized in a marginalized country –– foreign bodies among the harsh antibodies of a prejudiced, hyper-conservative society still dealing with the duality of right-wing conservative culture and a stubborn attempt at a socialist revolution. Coming in by the tens of thousands each year, El Salvador is sweating from the fever of their infection. They’re the ones who couldn’t make it on the other side, yet they’re successful here.

Once you’re deported, you don’t fall into a black hole. Your life continues, and with it your dreams. Disappeared from North America and rejected by the mainstream in El Salvador, DPs emerge with a hybrid culture of their own. They haven’t lost the "American dream" –- they’ve just been deported along with it.


Frank “Fugitivo” Ochoa, 24, was deported from the Bronx in 2006. These days he divides his time between his work as a call-center operator and a local celebrity.

His day job –- a product of American outsourcing -– is working for the San Salvador-based SYKES, Inc., where he answers calls and arranges flight and hotel reservations so U.S. travelers can see the world.

Although grateful to be working in a “U.S. environment” (and to be well-paid by Salvadoran standards), Frank feels that outsourcing exploits his situation. “But what can you do? You’re deported, you got tattoos, you ain’t got no diploma that says you went to school over here…don’t nobody wanna talk to you.”

At night, Frank becomes “Fugitivo: The talk of El Salvador” – a hip hop MC and local reggaeton sensation. His music is featured daily on radio waves across the country.

Fugitivo has arguably every reason to be happy: He’s put on the celebrity pedestal, he has no lack of female fans, he’s got a steady income, owns a home and has a new son. Yet, he struggles inside.

“I haven’t been happy since I’ve been here. People think I’m happy,” he says, his otherwise silly demeanor becoming pensive. “But on the inside, I wanna change everything but I can’t.”

Fugitivo feels his influence is part of his contribution. “I want the kids to see that I made my dreams come true, no matter how I did it…. I did it.” When asked what dream he’s living, Fugitivo replies: “I’m living Martin Luther King’s dream. I’m living Fidel Castro’s dream… I’m living what you’re dreaming.”


Though many DPs are depressed by their new lives, Alex Cornejo, 33, has chosen to make the best of it. He was deported after having spent the majority of his life in Los Angeles, where he grew up in the foster care system and was adopted by a Mexican family. He did not know he was Salvadoran until he was 17 years old. Alex served 14 years in prisons throughout California.

He sees his deportation as a new start. “Too many people focus their energies on trying to make it back. If they focused their energies on making it here, it wouldn’t be so bad.” Indeed, life in a foreign country is better than life behind bars.

As part of the Salvadoran government’s repressive measures against gang activities, tattoos (whatever the imagery) have been used to identify gang members. Even bearers of non-gang tattoos are subjected to profiling. The popular view is if you have a tattoo it means, “You’re a bad man,” says Alex. Nevertheless, he’s made a business out of what’s considered taboo and celebrates his success. Recently, he was voted among the top three tattoo artists in the country and most of his clientele are well-to-do. His business is twofold: It’s a booming tattoo shop as well as a tattoo equipment store.

Appropriately called “Taboo Tattoo,” his business is located in one of San Salvador’s most upscale neighborhoods. He points at a display filled with tattoo equipment and defiantly declares, “This is my pride and joy, because with this, I’m changing Salvadoran culture.”

A new father and family man, it seems Alex has a refreshing take on his DP status, “For what I’ve got here, I’m loving life. It wasn’t easy either… I fought for this. When you fight for something, when it costs you, you appreciate it.”


At 28, Glenda Urías is a mother of five, and having a difficult time adjusting to her recent deportee status -– she’s only been here for one and a half months.
For Glenda, the hardest part about being in El Salvador is “being away from my family. The truth is that I don’t wanna be here… I see other kids and I miss my kids.”

But she is also struggling to find work. “I have so many skills and I can’t use them out here because, maybe my background of deportation or maybe because I don’t know the right people. So I can’t get a job. So I’m sitting here doing nothing, wasting my life away. And what good is that?”

Glenda also has trouble with the culture in El Salvador in regards to the treatment toward women. She’s used to “coming and going as I please.” When asked how people react to her American brand of feminine freedom, she responds, “Well, they have no choice but to react positively to it, ‘cause they know; that’s just how I came and I won’t change for nobody.”

She’s frequently on the phone with her kids and on MySpace chatting with friends.

When asked if during her conversations with her family, she tells them of her true feelings regarding what she’s going through, she responds, “No. I keep that to myself…I can’t tell them the truth, it’s too hard for them.”


Smokey, 26, was born in Chalchuapa, near the Mayan ruins at Tazumál. He has never set foot on U.S. soil, yet has absorbed U.S. gang subculture, as have many other youth who never left El Salvador.

Through influence and interaction with gang-affiliated deportees, L.A. gang culture has traveled and flourished here. “We want to make it known that this thing comes from far away,” Smokey tells me as he deciphers symbolism in artwork he’s done on a mural in his living room. Like the traveling gang culture, the Central American version of these symbols have evolved into a style distinctively it’s own.

Holding pencils in his hands, Smokey says of his work: “The things you see are all things we’ve been inspired to do. We know that, whether we like it or not, we’re in this culture –- gang culture -- and for us, it is a culture. Daily, we live situations, experiences between the homegirls and homeboys or “cholos” as they are called up north… We assimilate these things… we’re a part of it. And right now, that’s what we’re living.”

Of life as a gangster in a country where extra-judicial killings of suspected gang members by police and paramilitary is commonplace, Smokey says, “A lot of times our lives are more trouble that fun. Because of the gang laws and our rival (gangs), but the reality of the situation is far worse that what I’ve just described to you.” His demeanor is meek, mellow. He speaks softly in a Salvadoran country accent despite his hardcore appearance.

Due to his gang affiliation and the tattoos on his face, it’s pretty much impossible for Smokey to walk the streets without being an overt target of rival gangs as well as police and paramilitary, much less secure a job. Smokey has a four-year-old son.

He makes a living painting cartoon figures on wood block cut-outs, using a jigsaw and paints as do many of the homeboys. Their wives and children sell them to tourists at the ruins.

Immigrants Don’t Feel Safe in ‘Sanctuary City’

From New America Media:

New America Media, News Report, , By Elena Shore // Video: Josue Rojas, Posted: Apr 17, 2009

Editor’s Note: Once a beacon for immigrants, San Francisco is no longer seen as a safe place to live for some families. Last summer, Mayor Gavin Newsom allowed undocumented youth to be turned over to immigration authorities. And in the last year, stepped up ICE raids have some families on edge. Residents who spoke at a recent city hearing say they are under siege.

San Francisco’s history as a sanctuary city for immigrants and pioneer in civil rights is being seriously undermined by recent policy changes by the mayor that are hurting a growing number of families. That was the core message at a hearing jointly held by the city’s immigrant rights and human rights commissions at City Hall on April 13 to examine the impacts of federal immigration enforcement on San Francisco communities.

S.F. Immigrants Testify on ICE Raids from New America Media on Vimeo.

“The city of San Francisco has led the nation,” said Jamal Dajani, chair of the Immigrant Rights Commission. The question now, he said, is whether it will continue to be a leader on immigrant rights.

City Supervisor David Campos noted that San Francisco had led the fight for equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. “The chair where you’re sitting is where Harvey Milk used to sit,” Campos said to one commissioner, referring to the slain city supervisor and gay rights activist. “We have a history of taking a stand. We are proud that we have been and continue to be a city of refuge.”

In 1989, San Francisco passed the "City of Refuge" Ordinance, which prohibits city employees from assisting federal agents in making immigration arrests unless required by federal or state law or a warrant. It’s been known as a sanctuary city ever since.

But even in this so-called sanctuary city, immigrants say they are living in fear.

A year ago, in what immigrant rights groups saw as a step backward, Mayor Gavin Newsom changed the city’s policy toward undocumented youth. In July 2008, he began allowing undocumented minors with criminal records to be turned over to immigration authorities.

Claiming that the sanctuary city policy was not meant to protect criminals, Newsom acted after a widely publicized shooting, in which an undocumented immigrant shot and killed a father and his two sons. The incident set off a debate over the city’s sanctuary law that protects undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Since then, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has stepped up raids on private homes.

“We’ve all read about ICE raids, but they are worse than what you’ve read,” said UC Davis law professor Bill Ong Hing, at the hearing. “The fabric of the community is ruined, in many of these communities, because everyone is afraid.”

ICE’s fugitive operations program, which conducts raids on private homes in San Francisco, can now more easily go after immigrants with no criminal convictions, according to Aarti Kohli, director of immigration policy at UC Berkeley’s Warren Institute.

Fugitive operations teams were created in 2003 to remove fugitive aliens who posed a threat to the community. Instead, they have focused on arresting undocumented immigrants without criminal convictions, according to a report released by the Migration Policy Institute. The program’s budget went from an initial $9 million to $218 million last year.

In 2006, the annual quota for each seven-person fugitive operations team increased from 125 arrests to 1,000. And ICE removed the requirement that at least 75 percent of those arrested be criminals. As a result, 73 percent of those captured nationally between 2003 and February 2008 had no criminal conviction.

In this sanctuary city, there have been at least eight raids since May 2, 2008, affecting 54 people, not including their families, according to Francisco Ugarte, staff attorney with the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network. “I say ‘at least’,” he said, “because they are conducted in secret.”

San Francisco is now filled with stories of families that have been broken by ICE raids, and some were told at the hearing. Ivan Carreño recounted how his father, Refugio, was arrested at his home on Jan. 27 and deported to Mexico. His mother, Guadalupe Carreño Castro, will be deported in five months, leaving Ivan and two other children, all citizens, on their own.

“Please bring my dad back and don’t take my mom because I really love my parents and stuff,” Carreño said. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do without my dad.”

Ana Ruth Quintanilla says she has fallen into a deep depression since immigration authorities entered her home on Sept. 11, 2008. Quintanilla was one of six people arrested that day; three were deported, and Quintanilla and two others were released with electronic monitoring devices on their ankles. But Quintanilla isn’t sure if she is one of the lucky ones.

“Whenever I go to the grocery store,” Quintanilla said, “I’m afraid ICE is going to come deport me.”

Amos Lim, a community organizer with Out4Immigration who emigrated from Singapore in 1999, was unable to get legal status through his marriage. “I’m an immigrant and this is my husband,” he said, noting that he and his husband Mickey are one of 48,000 same-sex couples registered as domestic partners in California. But because the federal government doesn’t recognize their marriage, his husband did not have the right to sponsor him for a green card.

Things have gotten worse for immigrants in San Francisco in the last decade, says Supervisor David Chu, who practiced immigration law 10 years ago. He attributed it to a shift in the national climate.

“It is not popular to protect immigrants,” said Campos. But, supervisors noted, San Francisco’s history has been one of standing up for the rights of minorities, even when it wasn’t popular.

The Immigrant Rights Commission, which advises Mayor Gavin Newsom on issues affecting immigrants, plans to use the hearing to push for changes to enforcement practices. “We want to hear from impacted communities in order to recommend more humane federal policies,” said commission chair Dajani, “rather than waste limited resources to create division and a climate of fear.”

Monday, April 20, 2009

"I.C.E. Took my Father" ... The Carreño Case

Of all the cases I get to see, this is perhaps one of the most poignant. It's imperative we stop ICE from committing crimes against families, and against humanity.

Thank you Lupe, for your bravery and love. You inspire us all.

I.C.E. Took My Father from New America Media on Vimeo.

Daring to Change: An Exclusive Interview with Mauricio Funes

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mateo Y Cientina on FOCOSLOCOS.COM

Mateo y Cientina is a project I've been working on for a few years now.

It's a collaborative project with the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley.
The comic is designed to teach children Science and Math concepts, activities & experiments through a bilingual comic.

Check it out at : http://focoslocos.com/

Just completed the 30th Installment of this comic.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Balmy Alley Mural: Josué Rojas

Video by Walter Lopez & Chris Vargas for YO!TV

Inspired by the book Enrique's Journey, about a young Honduran boy's quest to reunite with his mother, Josue Rojas is working on a mural in San Francisco's famed Balmy Alley. YO! caught up with him to discuss his inspirations and what it means to be a part of the Mission Dictrict's public art scene. Walter Lopez is a contributer for YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia.

It's been a grueling process...truly, though this is a labor of love, so I'm taking my time.

I've been reading a great book, Enrique's Journey. It's all about the travels of a child in search of his mother. It chronicles his journey–– not unlike may youngster's journey across the length of Mexico on the tops of freight trains.

It's probably one of the most moving pieces of literature I've ever touched–––and it speaks on something close to my heart, the reality of Central American Immigrants. It's one thing to be an immigrant to the US from Mexico, and another entirely to be a Salvadoran, Honduran, Nicaraguan or Guatemalan going through a foreign land, filled with bandits, gangsters and crooked police to reach another foreign land filled with, border patrol, minute men and racism.

Needless to say, the imagery of this journey has captured my imagination, so when the opportunity came to make a mural, it wasn't hard to pick a topic.

Here are images from the process:The truth is, I'm in love with my friends and family. So they're my models.
Isaiah, my nephew is seen here, he's my main character. 

The lovely Maria Elena, my good friend since Jr. High School (Potrero Hill, what!?) is the beautiful angel looking out for him---the symbol of God's protection.

There's meant to be a depiction of a mother with open arms, waiting for the arrival of her son. The model will be my Mom, I haven't gotten to that part yet.

When I originally envisioned it, I though of a child who's going through all these crazy circumstances, yet through all he faces, he has two things going for him: His faith and his imagination.

His faith is illustrated by the angel who follows him (whom he can't see, but the viewer can).
His imagination is illustrated by his stance: He's pretending he can fly (an ability all kids still have, but somehow grown-ups have forgotten). This ability is granted by innocence.

Truly, that's at the heart of the matter in this mural; innocence and how that is either retained or lost by what the children who make this journey see and experience.

Another thing I should add, is this is based on another painting, I'm not sure what it's called,but it depicts children crossing a broken bridge and a large, angel protecting them as they go.

I know this piece hangs over many immigrant families' dinner tables and living rooms,  it hung over my bed for years. Just to look at it... I can't tell you how safe I felt before I fell asleep every night. Obviously, the painting wasn't protecting me, but it reminded me that God was always with me.

What a comforting thought.

Hope that comes across...

This is a work in progress.

Publick: "Iraqi ass comment"

Publick: FOOD

This is a throw-back Publick Gritty Urban Surrealism.
Publick is a the birth-child of myself on visuals, and writer Russell Morse.

It's urban, surreal satire. Publick first showed up in late '02 on the back cover of YO! magazine.
We did somewhere in the vicinity of twenty five cartoons.

There's so much I can say about the Publick concept; what it meant to represent, One blog entry isn't enough.

Enjoy Publick (thanks Rosco!)

I'll post them all slowly, here's a memorable one in the meantime. The concept: food.

click image to enlarge

Borderland Trailer: The Border Tribe and the Subcomandante

This is a trailer for the Movie I've been working on with Russell Morse & Ryan Furtado. Editing props to CLiff Parker for this one!

Hope we can one day finish this, in any event, here's the trailer.

Marcos on the Border:
The Tohono O'odham tribe has always had it rough. The territory of their reservation is literally cut in half by the imaginary we call the American/Mexican border.

Since the militarization of the border, use of force against immigrants has surged. The injustices the immigrants face are also the problem of the Tohono O'odham tribe (who've been here since two thousand B.C.).
Juxtapozed between three nations They speak three languages (English, Spanish, and O'odham). Their features, unmistakably American.

In the fall of '07, the O'odham hosted delegations from Indigenous Nations from Canada to Colombia.
Also in the midst of the group was the EZLN, and their leader, Subcomandante Marcos.

In this trailer, listen to the Sub's assessment of the problem and what people can do to help.

Marcos and the Border
BY: Russell Morse

It’s a crisp night in the Sonoran desert of northern Mexico and Subcomandante Marcos is onstage, twisting a piece of paper in his hands and calmly addressing a crowd of eager attendees. The 200 or so people gathered to hear him speak are hanging on his words, looking for some encouragement, some inspiration. His eyes--the only part of him that is visible from behind his iconic mask--are animated as he talks. At one point, he lifts his head and tells the crowd, “Our war is against being forgotten”.
He then unrolls the paper in his hand and reveals a map of the territories in northern Sonora and southern Arizona—the border region. The map is dotted with several hundred small red points, which he explains are markers for the bodies of dead migrants who have been discovered in this region. He lifts his head again to speak.

“This is what these governments have done: changed our lands into places of death. This struggle is a struggle between land and death. When we say we are fighting for land, we are fighting for life.”
There is silence. Off in the distance, a train rumbles past. A dog barks. The people gathered here tonight know all too well what he is talking about.

It’s a the final night of a three day meeting between Native American groups of the central border region and the leaders of the New Zapatista movement in Mexico. The meeting was in large part, the last ditch effort of members of the Tohono Oodham tribe of southern Arizona and northern Mexico against encroachment of their sovereignty by drug smugglers, human traffickers and the US Border Patrol.

The spike in drug and human traffic in their territory has brought with it aggression and intimidation by those who profit from these illegal enterprises. Oodham people have been threatened, intimidated and fired upon by drug traffickers.
What is most tragic and traumatic for the oodham people is the death of migrants on their land. Oodham territory is harsh, sparse desert and every year, tribal members find dozens of dead migrants on their sacred land.
In addition, the increased presence of Border Patrol has led to a number of civil rights violations, wherein native people are accused of being undocumented immigrants and subjected to an assortment of abuses.
As a result of these challenges, Oodham elders looked for support to combat the encroachment of their land and the violation of their sovereignty. Most recently, tribal members reached out to the EZLN, or new Zapatista movement in Mexico, headed by Subcomandate Marcos.

The meeting place they chose is an eco-tourism site called Rancho del Penasco outside of the Sonoran city of Magdalena. It is easy to miss off of the highway, but on the days of the meeting, there is a group of cars crowding the gate and some more parked in a ravine across the way. These are the unassuming vehicles of the Mexican Federales, who do not pass the gate, but want the EZLN to know that they’re there, watching.

Just inside the gate, there is a security checkpoint, where tribal members make sure they keep out any one who might not be welcome. One man on security detail walks up to a car, eating a stick of salami with a huge knife and tells the occupants of the vehicle, ““the feds don’t mess around down here. They’ll shoot you. They could rush this place in the middle of the night.”
Inside the compound, the energy is decidedly more pleasant. Women are cooking large pots of rice and beans in an outdoor kitchen and people are gathered to eat, talking and laughing. The site is nestled in a gorgeous desert valley, with hawks circling overhead and a horizon dotted with cacti.

As soon as lunch is over, various tribal and community leaders take the stage and offer welcoming remarks. Later in the afternoon after much anticipation, Marcos gets onstage and offers his opening words. Among them, an amusing and apt phrase “Our mission is simple: Save the world.”

As he walks offstage, he is quickly surrounded by admirers. Some are women crying, reaching their hands to touch his hand. Others are men who want to ask him for some advice. It takes Marcos nearly half an hour to walk 100 feet, as he graciously shakes hands, poses for pictures and signs personal mementos that people have brought.
Over the next two days, people gather in a tin-roofed barn outfitted with microphones to share the issues of their respective communities. Their grievances are many and dire: No health care, no hospitals, harassment by police, unfair imprisonment, mistreatment of land (pollution), no government representation or recognition, land taken away. Overwhelmingly, though, a theme emerges: the border is destroying their communities. The days of testimonials are long and, at times, difficult to sit through. Men and women cry on the microphone, people hang their heads while nodding.
During this time, Marcos himself does not appear. He is in a safe house, guarded by his comrades, meeting individually with representatives of thse communities to hear their stories.

While Marcos is meeting with people, we have a chance to speak with him and ask him what he and the EZLN can offer to the indigenous people of the sonoran region. He is very deliberate in his answer. “Nosotros lo que queremos es que se den a conocer. No queremos que se repita las historia que tuvimos que recorrer nosotroes, que tuvimos que tomar armas apara hacernos ver y para hacernos ecuchar.
Que es necesario construir los puentes y los canales para que nos vean, para que conozcan nuestros dolores, para que conozcan las injusticias que padezemos, y como estamos tratando de levenatarnos como pueblos indios.”
He saves some words specifically for the crisis of the border region as well. “Nosotros--- el EZLN con los lideres de los pueblos---lo que queremos es que los mismos pueblos indios que estan en la linea fronteriza, puedan espressar esto y que la gente de todo el mundo pueda conocer delante de las propias victimas por su voz lo que esta ocuriendo para que esto se detenga.”

Outside in the barn, the daily testimonies are drenched in misery, pain, failures and frustration. But on the final night, all of that is forgotten for a moment and the dancing starts. All the community members gather under an enormous silk parachute for singing, dancing and drumming, working themselves into an almost euphoric frenzy.

At this time, Marcos has come back out to watch the performances and offer some final words. He swats moths from around his head and pauses before he speaks. He shows the map illustrating the deaths of migrants. He tells the people what he’s learned from his individual meetings. And he closes by saying, “We were here, looking for something that unites us and we discovered that what unites us is pain. We will soon discover that what unites us also is life.”

Meet Jean Green

Working on a package of stories of Elders for New America. 
Jean Green is an awesome person, a senior who's confronting America's economic crisis with heart, soul & sweat. She's truly one of the sweetest, determined and dignified people I think I've ever met in my life.

This should inspire some of the younger folks who feel the weight of the grind. 

Here's a link to the Nam Story: Text by Leslie Casimir.


Reminds me of  Nas' lyrics in the song Heaven (off the God's Son Album)
"...We all in a grind, but look at the beautiful Sh* around you it's a beautiful life... I'm talkin' 'bout heaven in your own heart, in your own world, in your own existence."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

C.E.I.B.A Americas Project in HONDURAS: Mural VS. Massacre

San Pedro Sula, Honduras :
Youth reclaim public space

At the height of the "MANO DURA" trend in Central America, youths were being killed by police extrajudicially under suspicion of gang affiliation---- this video explores creative avenues for young people as an alternative for repression.

This project took place in the fall of '07. I returned in the fall of '08 to find these youths and other youngsters I hadn't even met had taken the art "ball' and ran with it far further than I ever imagined!

Narration: Mural Master, Estria Miyashiru of Hawaii/Oakland.

Here's the Story from the New America Media Feature posted in August of '08

Editor's Note: Bay Area artists Estria Miyashiru & Josué Rojas helped townspeople paint a mural at the site of one of the most gruesome massacres in the recent history of Honduras. In this piece Josué wonders if California can export more than its gang culture to Central America; perhaps it can export its artistic culture too.

San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Fall 2007 –– A mural is in progress. Outbursts of laughter and the rattle of spray cans resound against a wall. The sun reaches its highest point, beaming on the young artists below. Once again, we're painting –– the usual suspects: Estria, a group of kids and me.

I know this scene well, except in a very different context. Instead of being created at the exterior of a public school or rec center in Northern California, this mural is being created at the site of a massacre –– in a remote rind of San Pedro's Chamelecón –– at the very spot where three years earlier nearly 30 people lost their lives; infamous in Honduras and the rest of Central America as a place of death.

On the night of Dec. 23, 2004, in the place where we stood, 28 innocent men, women and children were gunned down as they rode the bus 35 home from Christmas shopping. The killing was attributed to "Maras" or gang members. A note was left behind at the site, in which responsibility was taken by local gangs though all the evidence (ballistic and otherwise) points towards paramilitary action.

This event was the catalyst; soon after, nothing in policy or public perception toward youth would be the same. Partly due to this event, in Central America public opinion has been irreconcilably swayed against anything remotely resembling gangs –– and consequently, the baby thrown out with the bathwater is any brand of misunderstood youth culture.

So you can see why I'm both happy and weirded-out by the sight of it –– graffiti as art in the place where one of the most gruesome massacres in recent Latin American history happened.

Sadly, whether in the public sector, clandestinely, or in jails, executions and extrajudicial killings are not uncommon. In Central America people are dying –– delinquents right alongside innocent young people. Estimates have placed the daily death toll in countries like El Salvador as high as it was during that country's long civil war.

In the Bay Area, we're familiar with violence and rising death counts. But not on this level. Not with this intensity or frequency.

As I see the kids' faces light up as they rattle the spray cans (many for the first time), my mind swims in irony as I remember a line in a book by Kurt Vonnegut I read: There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead.

Oakland, California, March 2008
In a warehouse on the border of Oakland and San Leandro used as a headquarters for businesses started by graffiti artists, Estria Miyashiro, master muralist and entrepreneur, takes a moment to give me some words. He stands in the corner of the warehouse in front of Oakland graffiti writer Vogue's aersosol rendition of Mike "Dream" Francisco (a local slain graffiti legend) as we speak.

Estria summed up his experience in Honduras. We discussed what it must be like to be young and marginalized there.

Art was my gang prevention: my non-violence. It was fairly easy to present the concept of conscious community art (aerosol or otherwise) to kids in Honduras largely because they're already into "all the things that the displaced gang members (deported from the United States) have brought there. They're into the aesthetic. But they don't really understand why."

Since the massacre, the crackdown on gangs has escalated and Mano Dura, or "Iron Fist," laws (the upgrade of which was welcomed by the public due to outrage at the Chamelecón massacre) "gave all of Central America carte-blanc to start killing off all the gang kids," Estria noted.

Judging by their counter-productivity the question rises whether these laws were really intended to solve crime or to criminalize the poor. It truly is a violent legacy.

"There's no tolerance," Estria said. "It's basically a low-level genocide where they've been killing hundreds of kids a year in each (Central American) country." Thousands in the region.

Estria explained that on the mural he worked with some youth who were all participants in San Pedro's Jha-ja (Jovenes Hondureños Activos –– Juntos Avancemos, or "Active Honduran Youth––Moving ahead together"; colloquially pronounced: "Haw-haw") one of the few non-profits geared towards gang and violence prevention. As Estria put it, it is "a program that tries to get youth out of gangs. Basically save their lives, find them a direction in life."

Estria and I set to work with them on the Chamelecón wall. We wanted to honor the people who lost their lives there. "Our concept was 'arte es la vida' ('Art is Life')," Estria stated.

We just wanted people to reclaim the space, and have it be known as a place of beauty, not death.

People really flipped. They didn't care whether or not it was a spray paint mural, or that it resembled graffiti. The mural's message came across and the people ate it up. The community and the kids who participated in its creation owned it. "For this mural to be that widely received, as a community muralist, as a community artist, it's as good as it could get."

"If I could do projects like that for the rest of my life, I would have the most successful life," Estria told me. "'Cause it's not really about money… it's about your work counting for something."

And so it goes.

San Francisco, California, July 2008
I'm loitering at a news office, mooching off the wireless, checking my email.
A little envelope icon at the top of my screen. A line from Honduras: the local papers have had a field day. Apparently, the kids of the Chamelecón haven't stopped. They've been steadily creating this whole time. Mural after mural –– they're constantly making art –– and it's all conscious themes.

I'm ecstatic. The clip reads: "Murals show the two sides of the city." I nearly choke on my bagel.

"These figures represent the violence that threatens our communities…" David Cruz, Jha-ja's mural coordinator told La Prensa. David worked with us on the Chamelecón wall.

"We are representing the face and the cross that is this place. We see the beauty of our city as well as the suffering by the residents of the marginalized neighborhoods."

If California gang culture can be deported and thrive in places like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, I wonder if likewise, could it be that creative California progressive community culture can be exported?

I don't know. But it's worth exploring.

"… Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a masscare, and it always is. Except for the birds." -- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Oscar Grant's Case

In this piece for NEW AMERICA MEDIA, I team up with Paul Billingsley and JR Valrey to hook up and speak to Oscar Grant's Family, Attorney John Burris & Eyewitness Karina Vargas to get the story of what went don on the early hours of January 1st, 2009 at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland.

Rest in power, Oscar Grant.