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.”

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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

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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.

 

 

 

Chris Mahin writes: The First Labor Day Parade: “Let Labor Unite”

[In the following essay, written for a union newspaper a few years ago, Chris Mahin points out that the labor movement has always championed immigrants’ rights and has been led by immigrants.  Some among the labor movement have even challenged the wage-labor system itself]

 

SEPTEMBER 5, 1882
The First Labor Day parade: “Let Labor Unite”
By Chris Mahin |

The huge procession began with 400 members of Bricklayers Union No. 6, all dressed in white aprons. They were followed by a band and then the members of the Manufacturing Jewelers union. The jewelers marched four abreast, wearing derby hats and dark suits with buttonhole bouquets. They all carried canes resting on their shoulders (similar to the way infantry officers carry swords when on parade.)

Labor_Day_Parade_New_York_1909_Float_Womens_Auxilliary_Typographical_Union-1EXLG

1909 Labor Day Parade

As the day went on, the parade included contingents from the Manufacturing Shoemakers Union No. 1 (wearing blue badges), and an especially well-received contingent from the Big 6 – Typographical Union No. 6 – whose 700-strong delegation marched with military precision (they had practiced beforehand.) The Friendly Society of Operative Masons marched with their band. They were followed by 250 members of the Clothing Cutters Benevolent and Protective Union, the Dress and Cloak Makers Union, the Decorative Masons, and the Bureau of United Carpenters (who marched with a decorated wagon).
The parade was filled with banners: “Labor Built the Republic – Labor Shall Rule It”; “To the Workers Should Belong the Wealth”; “Down with the Competitive System”; “Down with Convict Contract Labor”; “Down with the Railroad Monopoly”; and “Children in School and Not in Factories,” among others. The members of the Socialist Singing Society carried a red flag with a yellow lyre in its center. The banner which perhaps summed up the entire procession best was carried by members of the American Machinists, Engineers, and Blacksmiths Union (who wore heavy leather aprons and working clothes). It read simply: “Let Labor Unite.”

 

first-labor-day-parade-union-square-nyc-1882

First Labor Day Parade 1882

It was the first Labor Day parade – and it took place on a Tuesday.
Labor Day became official in this country when the U.S. Congress passed a law in 1894 making the first Monday in September a legal holiday. But this holiday was not simply given to the workers of the United States by the government as some act of charity. The tradition of publicly honoring labor’s contribution to society is a custom established by the workers themselves.
The first Labor Day parade in the United States was held in New York City on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882. More than 10,000 workers marched. It was organized by the Central Labor Union, a body representing 60 unions and over 80,000 people. The CLU was a secret lodge of the Knights of Labor, the major national union of the time.
To really appreciate the September 1882 labor parade, it’s important to keep in mind the profound changes that this country had gone through in the 17 years before it took place. After the Civil War ended in 1865, the capitalists of the North emerged triumphant. They went on the offensive, bitterly opposing labor’s demands. By the time the depression of 1873 took place, any lingering unity between the different forces which had united in opposition to slavery had been torn apart.
On Saturday, July 21, 1877, 17 workers involved in a nationwide railroad strike were shot dead in Pittsburgh. The next day, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a New York Protestant minister who had been one of the most eloquent orators against slavery, preached these words:

“God had intended the great to be great and the little to be little…The trade unions, originated under the European system, destroy liberty…I do not say that a dollar a day is enough to support a man and five children if he insists on smoking and drinking beer…[b]ut the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live.”

The 1882 labor parade was the culmination of more than ten years of agitating and organizing by dedicated labor activists in New York. These activists were deeply committed to the fight for the eight-hour day and against the repressive tactics of the employers. They also worked closely with the leaders of what were at that time New York’s largest immigrant communities to assist the fight for justice in three countries: Ireland, France and Germany.
The 1882 parade took place in a city which had seen militiamen open fire on Irish-American Catholic demonstrators in 1871; where thousands demonstrated for the eight-hour day in 1872; and where three demonstrations had already taken place in 1882 to demand justice for Ireland in its fight against British rule. (All three demonstrations had been jointly sponsored by labor organizations and organizations fighting for Irish freedom.)
Because the 1882 labor parade was held on a work day, most of the participants had to give up a day’s pay in order to march. (The CLU even levied a fine on non-participants.) In all, the workers involved forfeited about $75,000 in lost wages.
The parade was scheduled to coincide with a national conference of the Knights of Labor being held in New York. This explains why almost the entire national leadership of the Knights of Labor was present on the parade’s reviewing stand in Union Square.

However, the affiliation of these leaders with the Knights of Labor was discreetly hidden from the press that day. (At the time, the Knights of Labor was still a semi-secret society.) For instance, the top leader of the Knights of Labor – “Grand Master Workman” Terence

225px-Terence_v_powderly1

Terence Powderly was Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor — but also Mayor of Scranton, PA

Powderly – was introduced only as the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania (which he was).
The vibrant character of the labor movement of that time can be seen by looking at three extraordinary people present on the reviewing stand at the 1882 parade:

Patrick Ford was the publisher and editor of the Irish World, a newspaper which strongly supported labor and the fight for Irish freedom. He had been brought to Boston from Ireland in 1842 at the age of seven. Ford had served his printing apprenticeship with newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, America’s leading opponent of slavery, before the Civil War. In 1870, Ford founded the Irish World, a newspaper which was regularly suppressed when it was shipped to Ireland.
John Swinton was the chief editorial writer of the New York Sun. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he had moved to New York in 1850 and worked as a printer and became an abolitionist. Swinton had been with John Brown when he made his famous raid on Osawatomie, Kansas in 1857. Swinton would go on to start his own pro-labor newspaper in 1883.
Carl Daniel Adolf Douai was the publisher and editor of the New Yorker Volkszeitung, a socialist German-language daily. Douai was a German immigrant who had been threatened with lynching when he spoke out against slavery while publishing in Texas. In 1860, he moved to New York where he became active in socialist, abolitionist, and Republican Party activities.

The presence of these three men on the reviewing stand – and the presence of Irish, French, and German flags (in addition to the U.S. flag) at the picnic which closed the day – illustrates the wide scope of labor’s concerns at that time. These leaders’ involvement with the parade (and the militant banners carried by the marchers) show that from its very beginning, the U.S. labor movement has been about more than just getting its members a few cents more an hour in wages. From its inception, the labor movement in this country has included both native and foreign-born leaders and immigrant workers have always played an important role in the labor movement. From the very beginning, the U.S. labor movement has included elements who have not been afraid to challenge the legitimacy of the wages system itself.
That’s definitely worth remembering this Labor Day.

Jingoism — by Lew Rosenbaum

Jingoismo — Jingoism   by Lew Rosenbaum

[This article appears in the current issue of Contratiempo in Spanish.  Many thanks to Miguel Marzana for asking me to contribute to this important political discussion.  A link to the magazine can be found here; the Spanish translation of the article is on page 21).  

201111 CoverAfter the 2016 elections, it seems that we are in a totally new period of time; and yet there are many elements that are painfully familiar. We have just been through a wrenching election in which many questions were raised about the times we are in, and about the direction we need to go, from going back to making big changes going forward.

Some characterize the election as the “revolt of the middle class,” while others describe it as the victory of the economic nationalists over the globalists. An accurate description of the changes taking place must recognize that an economic revolution is taking place that has three forms. First, since the late 1970s, with the advent of the widespread use of the microchip, electronic technology has reduced worker participation in production of both manufactures and services. Second, since the end of the WWII, capital has expanded world wide, leaving no corner of the world untouched. Electronics has facilitated this globalization and now characterizes production against which all labor must compete. Third, the effective formation of monopolies by corporate mergers has also globalized with supranational corporate mergers and mergers of corporations with national states. This latter, the merger of the corporations with the state, represents the economic face of fascism, a 21st century form of fascism, that is based in the new economy.

This new economy is not simply a new stage of capitalism. It is the end stage of an economy that is reaching toward a social structure no longer dependent on buying and selling of wage labor. This economy expresses itself as the polarity between wealth and poverty, and the proliferation of that most heinous example of a social organism that cannot provide for its people, homelessness in the midst of massive numbers of empty homes.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Republicans and Democrats, need to be evaluated in the context of the economic transformation they must protect.  Trump took advantage of the fact that the electronic revolution has left behind the vast majority of the American people of all nationalities, genders, and ethnicities. Elections are not coups. They actually require people to vote, and thus they require people to be convinced (in this case: about the” other” the bad hombre).

Pointing a finger of accusation at the “electronic revolution” would have led Trump into the predicament of having to tell supporters that “middle class jobs” were never coming back. Instead, he activated his base by taking the divide and conquer path well known in our history. While automation is the major cause of job loss in our country and the world, he chose to aim his fire at undocumented workers (especially from Mexico) and trade alliances (especially NAFTA). His campaign centered on the jingoism of national security, borders and islamophobia. Although he lost the popular vote by some three million votes, his victory in rural areas and especially the Midwestern rust belt gave him the electoral college majority. In other words, he won in the area where he was able to use racism to stoke the fears of a working class left behind. He raised the specter of the “other” eating at the heart of American working class unity and history.

Every day brings new confirmation of how the current administration, regardless of campaign promises or ideological conviction, is bound to long term policies of the government that reflect the direction of the economic revolution. The election campaign did, however, accomplish one important phenomenon: the appeal to racism consolidated a mass base for fascism that allows the new administration to move more quickly. For example, Trump has promised to send the military into Chicago to end violence, while Mayor Emanuel and Police Chief Johnson have genuflected toward Washington, asking instead for more FBI, ATF, and police funding, while ICE swung into action. The previous administration had already swamped municipal police throughout the country with military grade weapons and vehicles. The election has accelerated this direction.

We are in for some difficult times. The fact that the government of both major parties has neglected the people and cannot fulfill its promises only means the discontent will deepen. In the battle between hunger and ideology, the fight for basic survival needs wins.  Still, there is no guarantee that the starving will not turn against their neighbors who are also starving. Those of us involved in struggles for social justice must take every opportunity to bring together the people who now find themselves suffering under an equality of poverty, across all historical divisions. This section of the people holds the promise of reorganizing society for the benefit of all.

 

Isn’t This A Time?

Isn’t This A Time?

by Lew Rosenbaum

This is a time for Big Poems, / roaring up out of sleaze, /

gbrooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

poems from ice, from vomit, and from tainted blood. /

This is the time for stiff or viscous poems. / Big, and big. 

                                                                                        from “Winnie,” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Sure is a lot of sleaze to go around.

Don’t have to look far to see the vomit on the ground.

Not hard to dip your pen in quarts of tainted blood

So easy to pull metaphors from the vocal flood-

Waters pouring from vicious mouths’ roaring sound

Sure is a pile of sleaze to go around.

“Isn’t this a time? A time to try the soul of man?

Isn’t this a terrible time?!”

Dreams are supposed to make the sleaze go away,

Supposed to give you a boat to ride the flood

But I’m tired of praying for a bus bench on the corner,

Some thread to mend the hole that lets the rain in my tent,

Commodity cheese for dinner tonight.

Tired of begging for a library

Where my kids go to school.

Those dreams are small;

Dreams of what used to be.

Microscopic.

This is the time for stiff, viscous visions,

Visions looking forward

For a home for everyone

Food on everyone’s plate

Cops with wooden legs

Schools where children learn what they need

And how they can

Where we the people

End the carmagnole of corporate vampires

And open the hiphop doorway to abundance for all.

I sing no band-aid, dreamy verses.

“Isn’t this a time? A time to free the soul of man?

Isn’t this a wonderful time!”

Good morning revolution.

Yours is a visionary poem big, and big!th-4

The quotations are from a song,

“Wasn’t Tha
t A Time,”

composed and sung by The Weavers

and popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary