Israel Haros Lopez
I’m writing this just days before Donald Trump becomes president of the United States. I, like many people in the United States, have hit some walls of depression. Sometimes I experience great inspiration, great anger, frustration, and some great reminders that we are in a place of needing a lot of healing and change on both a community level and on a national level.
For folks of color like myself, this notion is nothing new. But, the day when it looked like he was going to be elected I, like a lot of people, was feeling the panic, sorrow and pain of such a possibility. I also felt a tremendous sigh of relief. Finally, I don’t have to explain this any more. Finally, this reality that we have been speaking to about the who is in what positions, from the reality of artists in art school, artists of all kinds, writers, painters, community social artivists, teachers, musicians, video makers, entrepenuers, political positions, positions in non-profits, all social aspects of this nation, etc. having both the financial opportunities or just plain opportunities in the United States. Now more than ever there are mirrors for this whole nation to stare at.
For so long, people would come up to me and tell me how easy it was for me as a person of color to get a job because of Affirmative Action. This type of story was coming from older white females and males and I was really struck by this perspective that they had. In my profession as a writer, teacher, painter, muralist, I was really, really confused because of the grim statistics that I knew of. For example, looking at the field of children’s publishing where Latinos make up two percent of books published in the last couple of years. Or when over 90% of tenure positions in universities are going to white males. Or the guerrilla girls who had put out dismal numbers of women artists and people of color in galleries and museums in the United States – numbers they had put out twenty plus years ago – and these numbers are staring us in the face. This was a new reality. In this day and age those numbers had not improved.
Yet, despite these numbers, there are very clear and straightforward people still under the impression that things were different. But for many of us these statistical realities along with so many other statistical realities, in publishing, in gallery opportunities, in jobs, in grants available etc. point back to a very racist, sexist, classist and every other -ism reality that we have been facing for decades. We are passed a civil rights era that tried to rectify these things for many Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, every type of American that was not white American.
White liberals were in shock that this man was about to become President. They were sad, angry, ashamed, full of guilt, full of so many things, including denials of what we had been saying over and over and over and over. Things haven’t changed in a lot of ways. Now we are stuck with a mirror of a nation, a mirror of shadows, a mirror of fears and most importantly a mirror of opportunities. The reality of Mr. T is that he is the 44th white male President, not the first. And the reality of the people that he’s affiliated with, that are affiliated with KKK, or so-called alt-right groups, white supremacy groups, big money interest groups, oil groups, is a reality that has been going on for a long, long, long, long time. Some might argue that this has been going on for 500 years on Turtle Island. Some might argue that it’s the last 100 years. Some might say the last 20. But any way this pie is cut, its pretty clear who has been devouring this American pie.
The day that he was elected into office, I woke up early to check up on immigrant students at the high school I work with. I wanted to make sure they were safe and understood that no matter what this man was saying about America, and who belonged and who didn’t belong, I wanted to show support and try to create a safety net for our students. Of course, that morning some of the students I work with were already facing threats by other students. Some students were putting Trump brochures on other student’s desks telling them “get ready to go back to Mexico”. The days that followed the nation saw some different forms of hate crimes, like swastikas on walls and statements like “hail Trump.” Middle school students made a physical wall with their bodies not allowing other students of color to go into the school as they chanted “Build that wall! Build that wall.”
This is the place I call home right now. I’m devastated, appalled, hurt, angry, depressed and inspired.
I was born in East Los Angeles. My father is Mexican. My mother is Mexican.
Their fathers and their mothers were Mexican and indigenous. Growing up, some days we had more money than others. Sometimes there was enough food. Sometimes there was a tortilla that you could put butter on. Sometimes there was cereal. We prayed that the rats or cockroaches hadn’t gotten to the food because that meant they got to eat and we didn’t. From after the age of seven we lived with other families because my mother couldn’t afford to pay rent on her own. My father had left since before I could remember. He would visit about once a month staggering drunk. I don’t remember when the American dream swallowed my father into that sickness. He was, and still is, a fast food cook hustling to work and has been getting paid way below his worth like the bulk of immigrant workers. As was the reality with my mother as well. She was a seamstress for a large bulk of her life working in all American sweat shops with immigrant workers. The United States is littered with them despite wanting to vilify other nations on their labor practices. We managed to bounce around a lot of places in barrios in Los Angeles. Despite all that, still somehow we managed to have enough room for other family members who were crossing the border. There was a time there when we lived with my aunt in a studio apartment that was about 20×20 feet or so. In that room there was my aunt, my two cousins, my mom, myself and my uncle sometimes slept in the kitchen. Yet, we still made room for others and created space for a cousin to sleep as they tried to put together their American dream.
Inside of this poverty, my father became an intense alcoholic and I didn’t see him much. My mother became and alcoholic but because she compared it to my fathers alcoholism, she figured he was the drunk and she wasn’t. Playing basketball in high school became my healthy addiction to escape the poverty. I graduated high school with a 1.59 G.P.A. I think I only graduated because of basketball. And I only went to college because there was the possibility of playing basketball. I was a five foot nothing Mexican who could jump and loved to hustle on the court and I was good enough to get a seat on the bench of the San Francisco University team. This was a reasonable goal for me. But the reality of playing basketball during college ended abruptly when I become very sick during try-outs and they wanted to put a pacemaker in me. Nineteen years old and the possibility of a pacemaker was definitely a life changing moment. In the heartbreak of this reality I realized if I couldn’t play basketball and doctors didn’t know what was wrong with my heart, what did I want for my life? What did I want to do?
I turned to writing and art.
Here is a list of moments that led to my survival as a human being.
Writing and drawing and drawing and writing and eventually painting. A list of moments that were a part of me dealing with an awakening consciousness about what the layered realities of systemic poverty are. Systems that are very much still in place despite so many contrary stories that would argue differently. Systems that made it so that I survived a predominately Chicano, Mexican American, Central American, and immigrant population with a high school graduation rate of 50%. I saw the documentary “Waiting for Superman” that listed my high school, Roosevelt High School, as a key example in this country of a ‘Drop Out Factory’. This was a school that was not educating its students sufficiently to survive after they graduated. I went from there to UC Berkeley with a degree in Chicano Studies and English. English after failing almost every English class in high school. I went on to go to get my M.F.A. from California College of the Arts.
I received a phone call right when I was accepted from the college discouraging from attending because I could not afford the school. They asked me, “How do you expect to pay for this school when your finances are one third below Oakland’s poverty level?” To which I responded, “I am one third below Oakland’s poverty level. How come you are not giving me more financial aid?” They explained to me that it was about “merit.” I asked them what this word meant to them. “Merit” to them was directly related to G.P.A. and academic success. For me “merit” was about how it was that I got from East Los Angeles, with a poor high school G.P.A. to U.C. Berkeley with my mom’s income of $6,000 a year. Each semester at U.C. Berkeley my financial aid check was always delayed because I had to provide extra income proof that we were that poor.
If you are too (so-called) poor, people don’t believe you. Merit to me was after I graduated U.C. Berkeley and returned to East Los Angeles ready to teach at my old high school. I was not able to find a job and ended up in the projects in government housing. I heard the same drive-by shooting sounds that I had heard all my life growing up and managing to fight that depression of ending up in a worse income situation than before I left high school. And, I pushed through all that and got into a graduate program. Inside of all that, I managed plenty of college debt that, surprisingly to me, over the last ten years has surmounted with back interested to about $100,000. Yet, despite that, I’ve have not been caught up in that overwhelming debt stress that has led some students to leaving the country and for some a myriad of extremes including suicide. Instead, I returned to community work and created opportunities for others to further themselves artistically, socially, academically, and poetically. Merit to me was despite all that, always creating ways to help my community, to inspire them to go to college, to further their education, to further their artistic sensibilities by any means necessary.
I most recently decided to make 1,000 creations at $100 each to embark on repaying massive loan debt. But the project is more about personal true freedom than it is about a tremendous amount of loans. I don’t really see it as an obstacle anymore, just another fun game to play in this lifetime – to go past the illusion of poverty and into the reality of abundance.
We are writers, artists, teachers, creators and inspirers who live inside a racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, fear of anything non-white and Christian system. We are social justice artists, poets, muralists. We are weapons of mass creation. We love to laugh despite the craziness handed to us. We are muse makers. I was finally seen and it came at an important turn in my life by Kindle Project.
I was banned from a school for stating the fact that immigrant students were not being informed about their college opportunities. After this I was deemed a rebel-rouser, trouble maker, not really fitting in with the system in place. My words were dismissed, while an older white male’s truths was accepted as the truth in the matter. This took place at a school that I had been working at for over four years, working with predominantly Chicano, Mexican American, immigrant youth and families on the side of town considered the poorer side. Even after several teachers and administrators spoke on my behalf, even after I had offered a pamphlet that I had made with a lawyer explaining the complexity of immigration status and what was and wasn’t available to immigrant youth going to college. Even after I came back to try to find resolution and brought different admin into the conversation, it didn’t matter. This is the world we’ve been living in, but I think now the rest of society is baring witness to this type of behavior, as one man’s truth with twittering thumbs is silencing all other truths that surround him. But, I’ve learned inside all these walls.
This also comes after I was called into several non-profit organizations who had asked me to make art projects for them despite the fact that they were not going to pay me, even though initially they told me there was plenty of resources for me to use. Those roadblocks and frustration took me back to some basic principals that I’ve always known about the abundance that surrounds us.
There is always enough. There is always more than enough. There is always abundance despite what perceptions we might have in our immediate vicinity. I began to do mural projects with predominately my own money and time and eventually saw resources and donations come my way. I began to do workshops and poetry readings again without any “backing.” It’s because we have other movements behind us, other types of backings that are always surrounding us whether we see them or not. It’s part of the sacred motion of life. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. It’s a part of becoming part of the universal wave of positivity, creativity, healing and change that is in constant flux.
These particular times are really exciting despite the horrors we are facing. Deep seeded horrors that we are already barring witness to. Hate crimes and other forms of systematic reinforcement of already problematic systems: budget cuts, continued wars waged on our mother through the pillaging of her waters and her resources, continued war against indigenous nations of the Americas, continued onslaught on our young and old women, continued onslaught and hatred towards Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ, the poor, etc. etc. etc. So, now more than ever.
There are all these manmade border politics that play out in all kinds of –isms. Poetics, art, music and video-making provide the political satire, the crucial gaze, the creativity to go around, inside, outside, in-between, reimagining, revisioning, repurposing, using the every type of tool found in the barrio to create, dismantle, recreate our surroundings. Because, this is not about survival. This, for me, is about moving beyond survival and into thriving spiritually, mentally and physically. It’s about seeing the abundance the despite systems in place. We are the first mirror. Before anything else. We are the movement. Without art there is no movement. It’s the signs – the beauty giving through the arts that lifts the people. That breaks the people open to revisit what has been not seen. That has been ignored. That has been dismissed. It’s the politica that awakens all of our senses and sensibilities.
I try sometimes these days to create things in 1,000 series, like when I created 1,000 nonsensical poems in a month, or currently working on a 1,000 page codex, some of which I’ve self published as a coloring books, 1,000 mural walls, 1,000 hip hop, punk, cumbia songs, 1,000 comic book page sketches, 1,000 little canvases painted. All of which are seed songs. All of which are prayers. All of which are sparks of inspiration. All of which are abundance. All of which usually require me beginning with limited resources and expanding, like the books that I am self publishing—many are made with just a sharpie and regular blank computer paper. I want to remind people that as my ancestors said, “En Lah Ketch, Eres Mi Otro Yo,” You are my other me.
So now more than ever I feel urgency. Despite the parts of me that want to say, “Stop, this machine, this system is so big.” I’m reminded that we are bigger. That our spirits are louder, clearer, bigger in mass, fierce, gentle, compassionate, loving, inspiring. So now more than ever I feel the need to say brown, Chicano, artista, artivist, community bridge, politico, spiritual, loving, abundant, at service para la gente, for the people. And we know that our ability to create, envision, do without ‘so-called’ resources is needed. We need the street arte, street theatre, barrio visions, barrio murals, hip hop, song, laughter, tears, rebel rousing, tenacity, clown logic, sacred geometry. These are all the weapons of mass creation we can muster, with a pencil, a pen, no paper, no pen, no wall, off the cuff, off the dome, improvised community creations embodying the future we want manifested. We have to become big mirrors, like the warriors that came before us. Like the grandmothers and grandfathers that sacrificed despite all the historical genocide, historical tyrannies.
So what kind of mirror are you going to hold up? Now more than ever. I keep imagining that our Mayan ancestors were giving us a four-year head start with 2012, not an end of worlds, but a beginning of a new one. And the infinite possibilities of what we can create when we decide to honor all the layered histories and herstories of all our ancestors, all of them. So this story of 1,000, is the story not about me but the story of us, the story of all our thriving despite everything. All the ways in which we have thrived not just simply survived.