Ruben Guevara’s Memoir of a Chicano Culture Sculptor

Ruben Guevara’s Memoir of a Chicano Culture Sculptor

by Lew Rosenbaum

Ruben Funkahuatl Guevara ends his memoir, Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer, with a lyrical hymn to Los Angeles. By naming names and places, he evokes visceral memories for me. All he has to do is mention Grand Central Market, and a long

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Inside Grand Central Market, L.A.

hidden experience of musical sound, visions of stall after stall of fresh produce with its overpowering aroma, and taste from taco vendors’ offerings — all of this explodes out of my memory. Here is how he describes the downtown Union (train) Station, in a West Coast Whitmanesque/Sandburgian voice: “I know Union Station, that grand cathedral of trapped ghosts of ripped hearts and laughter, where the pinche Manifest Destiny Railroad connected east and west on the blistered, busted backs of human beasts of burden.” In that one sentence, Guevara captures the context of what his book is “about.”

RG book cover

Ruben Guevara’s new memoir

How can you write about what a book is “about,” when the author has spent 300 pages describing that very process? The best you can hope to do is express what the book means to you; and so I want to touch on three themes, all of which have to do with the dual aspect of life under capitalism. The musician, only a few steps away (and a million miles) from stardom. The Southern Californian negotiating the Chicano/Mexicano historical process. The radical Chicano who stretches his cultural tendrils to reach throughout the Los Angeles communities among different nationalities. All of this within the time that spans from when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to L.A., the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Watts rebellions of 1965 and 1992, and the Chicano moratorium of 1970 to the bubble and crash of 2008. From the provincial Los Angeles Times that represented the post-war industrial boom to the Los Angeles Times of globalization.

For me, Union Station becomes a metaphor of that duality under capitalism. Who has not

RG Union_Station

Union Station, L.A.

traveled by train and not sat with lost souls, hoping to be on their way to a better place (often winding up in worse), or who are just sitting or sleeping to get some respite from being on the streets? The grand cathedral that captures the dreams as well as the nightmares of travelers. Not to mention the explicit dreams and nightmares of those who built the building and laid the tracks to the building and all the social chaos and construction that accompanied the railroad as it conquered the land in the name of industry.

Ruben Guevara is not only the musician of “Ruben and the Jets,” the confidant of Frank Zappa, the  vocalist who performed with Bo Diddley and Tina Turner,  and band leader.

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Ruben Guevara: Boyle Heights

He’s the creator of Chicano musical theater-pieces which he’s taken from UCLA to Lyon and Rennes in France. And he’s the performer who, practically the very next day, and often in his career, found himself homeless and living in his car.  Often not knowing where his next dollar would come from. In 1965, his mother arranged an audition on the nationally televised hit show, “Shindig,” where he shared a dressing room with his hero Bo Diddley and was hired for a regular gig. Dreams of a Hollywood mansion (never mind a regular paycheck) crashed when the show was moved to a different time slot, failed to connect with its new audience, and was canceled, and he wound up delivering Chicken Delight on the Sunset Strip. In these instances he brushed so close to fame’s cheek, only to be thrown back to struggle. Nevertheless, throughout he built an extraordinary output of creative work that this memoir describes.

He writes about a pilgrimage to his ancestral land, to Guadalajara in 1974, and his surprise and shock to find the disrespect that Mexicans had for the Chicano culture. Asking, in broken Spanish, directions of someone he met on the streets, he finds that pochos are considered no better than mongrels. Much of what he shows us celebrates that very cultural production, from the muralists to the musicians to the theater and RG Ruben-Guevara-short-story-2nd-placebeyond. In this context he begins to draw the distinction of “Chicano” as a political reality rather than an ethnic or racial one. Cheech Marin tapped Guevara to work on the classic film, Born in East L.A. Guevara traveled to Monterrey on one leg of a journey to promote the film, and asked Marin if he could say a few words about Chicano culture while there. In his remarks, he pointed out that, while the term Chicano had originated as “a pejorative term used by the Mexican upper classes to describe los de abajo” (the lower classes), the word had undergone a transmutation in the actions of the fight for civil rights of the 1960s. “. . .it is a political term. Chicanos are Mexican Americans who commit to enrich their culture and community through politics, education, science, and the arts. Chicanos are made, not born. It’s a choice.”

He goes on to list some of the people who have contributed to the renaissance of Chicano culture and ends with a signature, defiant comment that punctuates many of his performances: “Con Safos!” This phrase is both a consistent Guevara theater piece ending and an album he made and a band he put together after Ruben and the Jets; but, more importantly, Con Safos is a statement that if you don’t like it, well, you know where you can put it. While he describes in detail the evolution and execution of some of the performance pieces, words can only convey so much. I would love to be able to see and hear some of these pieces as he writes about them. Here you can listen to the doo-wop “classic” versions of “America The Beautiful” and the “Star Spangled Banner”;

Still Con Safos is a central feature of self-consciousness that sets the ground for how to build bonds with others – through doo-wop music, Japanese theater, Japanese-American activists, Frank Zappa (and the connection Guevara and Zappa had to the music of Stravinsky and Bartok), to the family heritage that goes back to indigenous Mexican people and to Spain, and also to indigenous people from British Columbia. The Japanese-American activists Guevara mentions were seasoned community organizers when he encountered them, people who had coalesced decades earlier around the Amerasia Bookstore (1971-1992: http://articles.latimes.com/1992-02-04/news/vw-1197_1_recession) and Gidra, the monthly magazine that UCLA students began in 1969 (http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2012/1/12/gidra/), This theme reminds me so much of one of Guevara’s collaborators, the performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena, whose Warrior for Gringostroika also straddles a border and, in the final analysis, provides a ground for class connection defying division and demanding unity.

RG P1010538The reader of this memoir will also find in its pages the haunting reminiscences of a man who confesses his sexual impulses often drive him where he would be wise not to go. He is a man of many failed relationships, often, as he admits, of his own making. But while a memoir is by genre a personal book, and it can be read solely as a personal history, I think it would be a mistake if the reader left it a chronicle of personal exploits. The book is a document of the time. It provokes one to think about what “radical” means as much as what “Chicano” means; how a boy who played first trumpet in his high school orchestra found doo-wop music and became the leader of a band; what does the search for identity mean for all of us.

I like to remember the first time I met Ruben Guevara. Sue Ying Peery had organized a poetry reading at the Midnight Special Bookstore in support of the struggle of homeless residents of Los Angeles. The featured poet was Jack Hirschman, in L.A. on a reading tour. Sue Ying had asked Guevara to read, and he did (the book, by the way, is sprinkled liberally with examples of his poetry). Afterward, I walked over to where Ruben was standing and told him how much I appreciated his reading for this event and how much I liked his poetry. He told me that it was important to support such events, but that he didn’t consider himself a poet. “People like Pablo Neruda are poets,” he said. I think time has proven that, in his own right, Guevara is a poet, or, as he has styled himself, a “Chicano Culture Sculptor.” Con Safos!

Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer, Ruben Funkahuatl Guevara, University of California Press, 2018

 

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The Birthday Gift

[May 10 is Greta’s (my sister) birthday.  She would be 90 years old this year, but she died almost 10 years ago.  For a time I continued to write her letters.  I had to do this to make peace with myself.  There was so much I still wanted to talk to her about, even if I didn’t get an answer.  There is still so much I want to talk with her about, and I know that will not happen.  I have this picture on my computer desktop.  It gazes out at me and I’m not sure that it comforts me with her permanent presence; or hurts me with the reminder of her absence.  I know I don’t want it to go away.  Maybe sometimes, as I sit at the computer not sure where to begin with what I need to do, I find encouragement in the smile on her face.  Maybe after I hear something new in music, like some of the songs composed and played by Adam and OneLove, I talk to her photo.  And on this May 10, on her 90th birthday, I revisited what I wrote as I was about to have my mitral valve surgery in what I called my Memento 5,  and also what I wrote (along with Diana) about this visit to Schneider Haus and the quilt competition that Diana took part in, to commemorate Greta (you can click the links to find those pieces). Maybe instead of letters, I’ll write poetry now.  LR]

The Birthday Gift 

by Lew Rosenbaum

The photograph gazes at me

from ten years agolew-greta-diana-schneider-haus-kitchener-may-2008

your birthday, Greta,

three of us standing to the side of lilacs

your eyebrows arched slightly, Greta,

eyes glimmer – are they brown?

they must be brown, all our family

has brown eyes – but my memory fails

and what I see could be gray or even

green, but I do catch the interest

as, alert, you look at the camera, not at me

standing by your side, but gaze at the

Josef Schneider Haus docent

she holds the camera and we pose

frozen in time and yet as I look at you

now alive, lips turning up in a sly smile

you betray the disease that robs you

of your humor, your laugh, the glint that

sparkled from those brown/gray/green eyes

the creases in your face melt away

I can hear you chuckle from that photo

you had just turned 80 and you could not

remember the road we had driven

many times before – we got lost on the way

to the Schneider Haus, that frightened you,

but for an instant,

standing next to the lilacs,

Diana laughs and revels in the company

in the symmetry of our mouths

a river of amusement washes over us

the three of us bathe in the pleasure

of the moment, of being alive together

 

My eyes stray from the joy I take

looking at your face to notice your gray hair

short cut, blown in the cool May breeze,

it’s not carefully combed or straight

as you are accustomed to wear it

and your red plaid shirt, the heavy one

you are wearing because it is a cool May day,

it hangs open and to the side, not the

impeccable way you would have worn

this or any other shirt, it’s that disease,

we’ve seen it before, both of us, Greta,

when you showed me how our mother,

our Chana, our Anna, would not, perhaps

could not, keep that neat appearance that

had been her hallmark, and how you

made me see the vacancy where the sentience

had inhabited her dark brown eyes, see the

hairs dangling disheveled from the corona

of braids she still wore when she could.

 

There: a smile threatens to break out on your face,

see the dimple forming in that left cheek

as the lips turn upward ever so slightly?

this is how I used to be, you tell me from the photo

remember me this way, I won’t be able to

hold this attitude much longer, you may not

see me like this again, hold me, hold onto this

moment, my brother, this, my birthday gift to you

 

Let’s Break Out The Booze!

Let’s Break Out the Booze!

Lew Rosenbaum

[The first version of this was a response to a facebook post about the large number of young people who will never have a job, by a person recalling all the jobs he had over the years and partly what he had learned from them — LR]

The first job I remember was selling Good Humor ice cream in high school — my senior year at Hillhouse High — New Haven, CT. Since I was the new kid on the scene, the

vending-1

Stuck on a lonely corner, I ate more than I sold. No way to make a living.

company gave me a route out to a deserted highway corner, where I pedaled my tricycle style vehicle. Then I sat on the vehicle seat, ringing the handlebar bells, hoping to get cars whizzing past on the way to the beach to stop. They mostly didn’t. I ate more ice-cream than I sold, and gave up after two days.

Off to college, I worked in the University’s employment office 20 hours per week, in exchange for receiving a tuition scholarship, which transmuted to a 40 hour a week summer job. This was Los Angeles, where the pay was $1 an hour at minimum wage (but better than my friend at the University of Arizona, who earned 85 cents an hour). I learned a lot about the demographics of the job market in the LA basin — the significance of the weapons and aircraft industries for example; not so much about the movie industry. And that nobody would hire a typist who could only type 20 words per minute; a typist could get by at 40, was good at 60, and fabulous at 120 words per minute (I hadn’t yet seen an electric typewriter). Mary, the one non-managerial full time permanent employee had a degree in counseling. She survived childhood polio and walked with the assistance of metal crutches. She’d wrap up a day’s work, straightening her desk and heaving herself into walking position, saying, “Another day, another dollar, and that’s about the size of it.” It seemed the music school placed a lot of its students at the employment office for part time jobs like mine — including Bob, a student maybe twice my age, whose bass-baritone voiced often boomed through the office his favorite work-time lyric: “una furtiva lagrima.” I later saw him perform at the Carmel Bach Festival.
While in medical school, I help start an organization called Student Health Organization. One of its goals/projects was to provide health care students with summer “jobs” learning about the delivery of health care to poor people and, in our minds, expecting to change some of those demographics in the long term. We didn’t change demographics, but we set up some significant opportunities in the San Joaquin Valley, San Francisco area, Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. I had jobs all over California in those four summers, learned more than I can say. Five of us, students from LA, Vallejo and Chicago, lived outside Merced for one summer, in Planada, a small town at the foot of Yosemite. Three of us wanted the experience of working in the tomato fields, and were hired on for one day. The field workers were incredibly kind to us: Rather than just making fun of our incompetence, their courtesy and kindness got us through the day, while they tried desperately to figure out why we wanted to subject ourselves to farm labor. We observed at the once a week clinic at the Planada Community Center, where a doctor and nurse

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Workers gathered outside the community center waiting to see the clinic doctor

from the public health department would see farmworker families until there were no more to be seen — sometimes as late as one or two in the morning. There I met Jimmy, in his late 30s or early 40s, a migrant worker from Texas, and his wife Rosa. Jimmy with terrible high blood pressure; the two of them with 13 children; Rosa wanting something to prevent further pregnancy, but some way to do it without letting her husband find out.

After dropping out of med school, after Los Angeles public schools told me I was unfit to be a high school teacher in Watts (because I had long hair and a beard), I became a social worker for two years. I was among a group of rogue workers — we called ourselves the Social Welfare Workers Movement, a caucus in the welfare workers union allied with welfare rights organizations. In my office, we gave out too much money (as far as the County was concerned). With a target on my back, assigned from one office to another to separate me from other activists, and then placed under the thumb of a particularly punitive office manager, I finally quit that job having learned a bunch about the way the welfare system works to undermine welfare. One of my coworkers was Dorothy Durem, the widow of the poet Ray Durem, with whom I enjoyed many a lunch hour conversation and who taught me about jicama, chili powder and lime juice. I remember the day she shared this poem with me, perhaps warning me and knowing how well I would relate to it:

Award by Ray Durem (1915-1963)

A Gold Watch to the FBI Man who has followed me for 25 years.

th-2

Ray Durem

Well, old spy
looks like I
led you down some pretty blind alleys,
took you on several trips to Mexico,
fishing in the high Sierras,
jazz at the Philharmonic.
You’ve watched me all your life,
I’ve clothed your wife,
put your two sons through college.
what good has it done?
the sun keeps rising every morning.
ever see me buy an Assistant President?
or close a school?
or lend money to Trujillo?
ever catch me rigging airplane prices?
I bought some after-hours whiskey in L.A.
but the Chief got his pay.
I ain’t killed no Koreans
or fourteen-year-old boys in Mississippi.
neither did I bomb Guatemala,
or lend guns to shoot Algerians.
I admit I took a Negro child
to a white rest room in Texas,
but she was my daughter, only three,
who had to pee.

From there I went to work on a Packard Bell stereo and TV equipment factory assembly line, working on the cabinets, until I sprained my ankle playing basketball and wound up in a cast for over a month. From there to a garment factory as a cutter, making sample books for salesmen. I cut sheer curtain fabric, material for men’s suits, and heavy upholstery fabric into squares; where I started at $1.65 an hour but was soon boosted to $1.85, while the women sewing the sample squares into books, who’d been working for more than a dozen years, were still making $1.80. And then, cutting heavy, “Herculon” upholstery fabric, I sliced the tip off my finger off one morning. The longshore union was organizing warehouse workers, and at their suggestion I found work in a small garment warehouse. There weren’t enough workers to organize in this place; just me, picking uniform shirts and pants to fill orders and bringing the garments to the shipping area, where Roscoe the shipper was probably singing “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” at the top of his voice. He styled himself meaner than a junkyard dog too. A friend got me hired from there into a small print shop, so that I could learn some of that craft, ultimately to help out with some printing operations we had going. My official title was “stripper,” which meant in the printing trade making negatives of art work for offset printing. The negs would then be “stripped” into specified places on a paper or plastic mask, and checked to make sure the opaque blacks were totally opaque. Where dust specks and other white spots marred the negatives, I would apply opaquing fluid. And then, using a carbon arc, expose the plate. At the New Years Eve party for the staff, where alcohol was flowing freely, the boss laid me off. I drank a few more to get thoroughly soused on his dime and then drove home. Safely.

From then on its been bookstores (Midnight Special in Venice and then Santa Monica; Guild in Chicago; and Barnes & Noble in Evanston and Skokie) and two years teaching

Renny Golden with singers in a Latin American, Nueva Trova group I knew in Los Angeles (Erica on left) at Guild Books ca 1988-9

With Renny Golden flanked by performers from the Nueva Trova music group, Sabia, at Guild Books

high school history. A checkered career. After all that, after years of believing that life would finally begin when I could retire, and now eking by on social security, I understand fully when young people wonder about work: “Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, well, let’s keep dancing, break out the booze.” In the voice of Peggy Lee.

Why in an era of abundance, when robotics more and more is creating what we need, should people need to have a j.o.b. When I first quit being a social worker, I could find a job the next day. But that’s not an option for today’s teens or college grads. So its more than an attitude of I don’t want to work; it’s also I can’t find work of any kind, never mind something with a promise of a future. The kind of learning that my jobs have given me is part of socialization — they haven’t been job skills as much as building relationships. Kids are still getting those, although differently than I did. And if they are learning that jobs are not necessary, then they’ve learned a lesson I wish I’d learned much earlier on in life. Maybe they are taking the first step toward finding out that the tyranny of corporate private property, that system that used to dangle the carrot of jobs before our anxious eyes, is not all there is. I’m ready to break out the booze and drink to that!

Happy Birthday Karl — 200 on May 5, 2018!

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”  So wrote Karl Marx in his Theses On Feuerbach, and it remains one of his 185953258most often quoted statements. In fact, Jason Barker quoted it in his “Happy Birthday Karl Marx — You Were Right!” in the April 30, 2018, New York Times. Barker says — appreciates — that Marx seems to be achieving a new level of popularity since the millennium. One illustration of this is a new edition of the Communist Manifesto, issued in April, to commemorate his 200th birthday on May 5, 2018.  Yanis Varoufakis’ introduction to the volume was modified to appear in The Guardian. Varoufakis gets the poetry and the drama right in his introduction.  What he and Barker both get — something that is becoming painfully obvious even to the most recalcitrant believer in “job creation” — is the parallel between the industrial and the microchip revolution, and an inkling about the significance of the latter.  Marshall Berman wrote a review in 1998 of the Verso edition of the Communist Manifesto, published on the 150th anniversary of its first publication, which he concluded by saying:  “At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were workers who were ready to die with the Communist Manifesto. At the dawn of the twenty-first, there may be even more who are ready to live with it.”

Barker’s view is clear:  Marx has had “an impact arguably greater and wider than any other philosopher’s before or after him.”  That he calls Marx a philosopher rather than an economist or a sociologist is significant, and not only because Barker himself is a

Karl_Marx_and_his_daughter_Jenny

Marx and his daughter Jenny

professor of philosophy.  You can look at Marx in three different ways, and each of them leads down a different path:  the Marx who elaborated theory;  the Marx who developed doctrine; and the Marx who established a philosophical world view.  It is easy to confuse them, because all aspects of Marx are embedded in all his writings. But there is a reason for looking at these distinct elements of Marx’s work. Both theory and doctrine apply most readily to distinct periods of history.  The historical scientist and the physical scientist have something in common:  their theoretical projections are limited to a context.  Often the context only becomes clear when the boundaries of that milieu have been superseded. In both, problems arise when theories that explain behavior within a certain field of operations are used to explain  behavior on another field.

Philosophy, or world view, has a broader palette.  Philosophy is a method.  Marx, the philosopher, sees the world around us as primary.  (The German philosophers of his era, products of religious narcissism that placed humans at the center of the universe, also placed human thought before the material world). The philosopher investigates the process of change itself.  This outlook is now referred to as “dialectical materialism.”

The important thing here is that Marx did not give succeeding generations a formula, as Barker points out, unless you try to apply the doctrine of, for example, the period of the First International to today. That effort is as useless as the Procrustean bed was — and at least as painful.  Why Marx is ever more relevant is because of the method, the scientific analysis, the tools for assessment and reassessment of the real material world.

Anyone who reads Marx’s masterwork, Capital, as an economic text can draw some important conclusions, but will miss some of the most significant observations and characteristics of the work.  The structure of the books are themselves an exercise in thinking dialectically, interconnected. They are also steeped in the extraordinary literary influence that Marx brings to his subjects. Francis Wheen, in a wonderful little book simply titled Marx’s Das Kapital – A Biography, quotes Marx in a letter to Engels in 1865:  “‘Now, regarding my work, I will tell you the plain truth about it. Whatever shortcomings they may have, the advantage of my writings is that they are an artistic whole.’ It was to poets and novelists, far more than to philosophers and political essayists, that he looked for insights into people’s material motives . . .” The Guardian excerpted part of the book under the title “Poet of Dialectics.”

Metaphor plays such an important part of Marx’s description of economic life — just the concept of “fetishism of commodities” is a perfect example.  But also this whole passage, from the end of Chapter 6, the transition from circulation to production:

This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

Here is the source of the contradiction facing the modern worker, the appearance of equality masking the essence of inequality.

But what of a period of history in which whole groups — increasing numbers — of workers have been eliminated from the process of even receiving a hiding! If we simply dsc_0091take this description and try to apply it to today, it’s inadequate.  It’s not Marx the dialectician that we are working with, when we look to the “point of production” as the essence of the modern human condition.  Marx, the materialist, strides forth and proclaims that the historical development of the realm of circulation of commodities, of the buying and selling of labor power, is undergoing a profound change because of a change in production.  Go back, he tells us, and look at where value comes from, what makes a commodity valuable.  Labor power itself is no longer valuable.  To have value in exchange, a commodity must have a use (even if it is a whimsical use).  When labor power has no use, it is also without exchange value.

Marx the philosopher — the dialectical and historical materialist — is vitally important today: The method, the rigorous science of society, far more than the ability to quote doctrine. Marx was born May 5, 1818,  200 years ago. He wrote in a period of massive upheavals, the victory of the industrial revolution was all around him disrupting society. We are at an even more disruptive period of history, where again “all that is solid melts into air.”  Marx’s method, his science, his philosophy gives us tools to understand the world and to make the leap into a new world where abundance is available to all and where we can make whole our relationship to the earth. You can’t fight in the present new period with the tactics of the past.  The point, after all, is not just to understand the world and watch it go to hell in a hand basket;  the point is to change it.

 

 

 

This Is My Last Shuttered House — Lew Rosenbaum

[My mother, Anna, died at 87 in 1983.  She spent the last few years declining in a nursing home;  the last weeks hardly cognizant of her surroundings.  That image haunted me, still haunts me, trying to imagine what was in her mind when we thought she was not comprehending. This poem took a couple of decades to write, reaching this version in my chapbook To Pay The Piper. She loved to tell young people about the time the soldiers came, like cossacks; it was so central to her growing up, to her fear of the Russian oligarchy and her willingness to embrace the radical.  Of course one of the things that I think about now at this time of my own life is that others will have to fight and to remember;  and in remembering and fighting, do something the world of her comrades was unable to do. They will build a whole new world which will not know cossacks of any kind and which will treat the elders with compassion.  LR.]

This Is My Last Shuttered House

Lew Rosenbaum

 

The first time — I was only seven —

Grandma shuttered all the windows

1922: Anna

Anna Rosenbaum in about 1920

She took us up the stairs

She hid us under beds

While the soldiers thundered by.

 

But this is my last shuttered house.

This withered body contains the last of my suffering.

What hurts me most?

I would tell you,

The look you give me

When you can’t see within.

Oh yes, you see a crazy woman.

Flailing about, her tongue

Wraps itself around each gurgling

Sound I cannot make you understand.

 

You sit here now

Son and daughter; you

Have each other to talk to

And, thinking you know how

Senseless I am,

Exchange glances

Sharing your distress and pity.

 

Now I can lie here

Pretend to sleep.

Although your pity repulses me;

Still, glad you are here.

 

I know you are upset.

I’ll give you less grief

If I lie here

In my last shuttered house.

 

Peering from the outside

You can’t see

Ghost or web or

Whatever is alive within.

 

I remember the first time.

I’ve told you many times.

I was only seven

Oshmyany was our town

And the soldiers came like cossacks

They rode horses with clattering hooves

Down the narrow cobbled streets

And they banged on all the doors

They demanded young men for the army

They demanded young women to serve them.

And we shuttered all the windows

Grandmother shuttered all the windows

She took us up the stairs

We hid under the beds

We hid in the closets

Grandmother pulled the shutters

And the house was dark for days.

* * * * *

this-83-yr-young-woman

Anna Rosenbaum in June, 1979, at 83 years old.  She hung out with me on my shift at the Midnight Special Bookstore one day a week.   The bookstore hosted a birthday party for her and a fundraiser for the Texas Farmworkers Union. She died four years later, August 1987.

Now I hurt most from those

Your uncomprehending stares

Even more than sores that eat through to the bone

Even more than feeding tubes they thrust down my nose

And more:

Because my stare cannot always comprehend you.

(Moments clear like this one

May never come again).

 

One July evening you laid your hands on my

Sweat-drenched brow and murmured permission.

“Don’t stay in this pain for me” you said.

“Not on my behalf. The toll’s too great.”

 

I grip this too fragile thread

Only to recognize your faces

When I can . . .

I will let go when meaning

Slips away completely.

There is nothing after this.

 

When this house, my last house,

Is shuttered tight

Others will have to fight

Others will have to remember

 

Even about that first time

When I was only seven

And the soldiers came like cossacks

Riding horses with clattering hooves.

Chris Mahin Writes: April 4, 1968 Dr. King Is Killed

[I’m glad to be able to reprint Chris Mahin’s essay, written for a labor union periodical some years ago, on this the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  For one thing, it celebrates the struggles for which he gave his life as a struggle of a class for its emancipation.  For another, how can we see the demand of the Black sanitation workers (“I Am A Man”) and not think of the contemporary “Black Lives Matter.” — LR]

50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King

April 4, 1968: Dr. King is killed defending labor’s rights

 BY CHRIS MAHIN

April 4 is one of the saddest days of the year. On that day in 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. While many events are held each year to honor Dr. King’s memory, too often people forget – or have never learned — why he was in Memphis that spring. Dr. King went to Memphis to help striking sanitation workers – and paid for his stand with his life. That makes April 4 an important anniversary not only in African American history (and in U.S. history in general), but in the history of the labor movement as well.

On February 12, 1968, hundreds of Memphis sanitation workers went on strike. At the time, they were making less than $1 an hour and were eligible for welfare. They decided that they had had enough of poor wages, terrible working conditions, and a viciously anti-union mayor.

The workers were members of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The strike was the culmination of years of mistreatment. The workers worked 12 hours a day carrying garbage with busted, leaking pails. Some of the pails were infested with flies and maggots, and the workers had no place to wash up in the yard when they had to leave the trucks. Some of the workers had no running water when they returned home after work. The workers had no real benefits of any kind.

This dire situation came to a crisis point on Feb. 1, 1968, when the accidental activation of a packer blade in the back of a garbage truck fatally crushed workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker.

Almost 1,400 sanitation workers joined the strike. They shut the city down.

The workers and their supporters marched daily to pressure the mayor and the city Soldiers at Civil Rights Protestcouncil to recognize the sanitation unit under AFSCME Local 1733. The men wore signs which read “I AM a Man,” a slogan that was eventually recognized around the world.

Tension grew in the city as Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb called the strike illegal and threatened to hire new workers unless the strikers returned to work. On February 14, the mayor issued a back-to-work ultimatum for 7 a.m. on Feb. 15. The police escorted the few garbage trucks in operation. Negotiations broke off. The newspapers began to report that more than 10,000 tons of garbage was piling up.

It was in that tense environment that AFSCME organizers appealed to Dr. King to come to Memphis to speak to the workers. Initially, King was reluctant. He was immersed in work preparing for the Poor People’s Campaign. This was a huge undertaking, an effort to bring poor people of all ethnicities to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1968 to protest poverty. But when AFSCME organizer Jesse Epps pointed out that the fight of the sanitation workers in Memphis was part of the same struggle as the Poor People’s Campaign, King agreed.

Once in Memphis, King immediately grasped the importance of what was unfolding there. On his first visit to the city, March 18, he spoke to a crowd of 17,000 people, and called for a citywide march.

On Thursday, March 28, King led a march from the Clayborn Temple, the strike’s 1522808459_maxresdefaultheadquarters. The march was interrupted by window breaking at the back of the demonstration. The police moved into the crowd, using nightsticks, Mace, tear gas – and guns. A 16-year-old, Larry Payne, was shot dead. The police arrested 280 people, and reported about 60 injuries. The state legislature authorized a 7 p.m. curfew and 4,000 National Guardsmen moved in.

On Friday, March 29, some 300 sanitation workers and ministers marched peacefully and silently from Clayborn Temple to City Hall – escorted by five armored personnel carriers, five jeeps, three huge military trucks, and dozens of National Guardsmen with their bayonets fixed.

In the last days of March, King cancelled a planned trip to Africa and made preparations to lead a peaceful march in Memphis. Organizers working on preparations for the Poor People’s Campaign in other cities were directed to leave those cities and come to Memphis, for it was clear that the Poor People’s Campaign could not be won without winning the fight in Memphis.

On April 3, 1968, Dr. King returned to Memphis. That evening, he gave an extraordinary speech to hundreds of people at Mason Temple. The speech has gone down in history as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Anyone who reads it today will notice that it is an eloquent statement of support for the sanitation workers. (That night, King called ows_15228096861200them “thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering.”) But it is also a farewell speech, the oration of a man who knew he might not have long to live, and who was searching his soul to make sense of his life, and his place in history.

In the speech, King emphatically rejected the calls not to march again because of an injunction:

“[S]omewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right!”

At the end of his remarks he referred indirectly to the underhanded attempts by racists, the FBI, and other forces to sabotage his leadership and destroy the movement, declaring:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like everybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

martin-luther-king-jr.-moment-of-assassination-e1522619185956

The assassination at the Lorraine Motel balcony, April 4 1968

Less than 24 hours after uttering those words, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead while standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Urban rebellions broke out in more than 60 cities. In response to pressure from all over the country, the federal government sent Labor Department officials to Memphis to mediate a settlement to the strike.

 

On Tuesday, April 16, AFSCME leaders announced that an agreement had been reached.  The agreement included union recognition, better pay, and benefits. The strikers voted to accept the agreement.

It was a bittersweet end to a long battle. The strike ended in victory, but at a terrible cost, the death of one of the foremost symbols of the fight for justice in that (or any) era. AFSCME’s victory in Memphis inspired other workers in Memphis to join unions, and other employees throughout the South to join AFSCME. The Poor People’s Campaign which Dr. King had been working on when he went to Memphis did take place later in the tumultuous year 1968. As King had hoped, it brought together poor people of all ethnicities to demonstrate in Washington, D.C. – African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and whites.

Given Dr. King’s role in the Memphis sanitation strike and the tremendous community support that the strikers received, perhaps the month of April ought to be a time to remember that not all labor leaders have an official position with a union — and that labor comes in all colors, and includes both employed and unemployed people. If we hold on to those lessons, we will honor what was won with such great sacrifice in Memphis in April 1968.

 

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Chris Mahin writes: The Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the origins of International Women’s Day  

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the origins of International Women’s Day  

BY CHRIS MAHIN

 There were no fire extinguishers. Flammable materials were stored throughout the factory. The building was illuminated by open gas lighting. The ninth floor of the 10-story building had only two doors leading out. By the time the seamstresses there realized the building was on fire, one stairwell was already filling with smoke and flames. The other door had been locked, supposedly to prevent workers from stealing materials or taking breaks. The single fire escape collapsed under the weight of the many desperate people trying to use it. The elevator stopped working.

 Realizing that there was no other way to escape, some of the women broke out windows and jumped to the ground nine stories below.  Others pried open the elevator doors and tumbled down the elevator shaft. (Few survived.) The rest waited until smoke and fire defeated their desperate efforts to save themselves.

 The fire department arrived quickly, but the firefighters were unable to stop the flames. (There were no ladders available that could extend beyond the sixth floor.) The tragedy claimed 146 lives; 91 people died in the fire itself, and 54 died in the falls.

 Most of the dead were young. The average age of the victims was 21. Workers as young as 14 perished that day. Most of the victims were Jewish and Italian immigrant women.

 Every executive of the company got out alive.

 The deaths at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City on the afternoon of March 25, 1911 stunned people across the United States. The fire played an important role in changing the public’s perception of union workers and union organizers. The Women’s Trade Union League and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union led many of the protests against this tragedy, including the silent funeral march which brought together over 100,000 people.

 The tragedy also intensified the effort – which had begun before the fire – to observe March 8 each year as International Women’s Day.

 For decades before the Triangle fire, rallies, marches, and protests by women workers had taken place in early spring, often in March.

 6963695829_b33ed9e0cc_bOn March 8, 1857, the New York City police attacked and dispersed a demonstration of women garment workers protesting terrible working conditions and low wages. Two years later, again in March, those women garment workers formed their first trade union to protect themselves on the job.

 On March 8, 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City to demand shorter hours, better pay, an end to child labor – and the right to vote for women.

 In 1910, an international conference of socialist organizations was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. There, Clara Zetkin, a distinguished member of the German Socialist Party, proposed that an International Women’s Day be recognized by all the organizations present at that conference as a way to mark the strike of the garment workers in the United States. Zetkin’s proposal was greeted with unanimous approval by the conference of more than 100 women from 17 countries (including the first three women elected to the parliament of Finland.)

 The decision of the Socialist International’s meeting had an effect. One year later — in 1911 – International Women’s Day was commemorated for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. Over a million women and men took part in rallies. These events took place on March 19, 1911. Less than a week later, the flames poured out of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York.

 The Triangle fire spurred on those who were determined to expose the conditions facing535443654-newrose1 women workers, and gave tremendous impetus to International Women’s Day events. In speeches, newspaper articles, books, and publicity material promoting International Women’s Day events, the terrible conditions which led to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire would be cited again and again as vivid examples of the horrors women workers have to endure in an unjust economic order.

 After many decades in which people around the world commemorated March 8 as International Women’s Day, in 1978, school officials in northern California began an effort to observe Women’s History Week. This caught on. By 1987, the governors of 14 states in the United States had declared March to be Women’s History Month. That same year, the federal government also declared March to be National Women’s History Month.

 This year’s commemorations of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month are especially important because the issues which the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire brought into public view – such as the existence of sweatshops and the exploitation of immigrant workers – still exist. In fact, globalization under the control of a few billionaires has made these problems even worse for the majority of the world’s workers than they were for the workers of New York City in 1911.

 There is much we can learn from the attitude conveyed by Rose Schneiderman, a  prominent socialist and union activist, who spoke to a memorial meeting for the Triangle fire’s victims, held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911. Here are her words, directed to an audience made up largely of well-to-do members of the Women’s Trade Union League, an organization that had provided moral and financial support for some of the first protests at the Triangle factory:

schneiderman_rally “I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.

 “This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.

 “We have tried you, citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers, and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.

 “Public officials have only words of warning to us – warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

 “I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

 Indeed, too much blood has been spilt. Today, as in 1911, it is up to our class to save itself.